03 August 2010

SADDEST. ROADTRIP. EVER. or The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

This book. Oh, God, this book.

I wasn't sure I was ever going to be able to write about it, but then Dystopian August started over at Presenting Lenore, and I thought, "What dystopian books have I read recently that I can post about?" And this book (this book!) popped into my head, and I said, "No, because just thinking about it makes me cry." And then I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I was like, "I'll write the review, and then I can put it away again because I will cry if I think about it."

So. Brain, this one's for you.

As The Knife of Never Letting Go begins, Todd Hewitt lives with his guardians, Ben and Cillian, and he has grown up believing that his home, Prentisstown, is the only remaining town on a new planet that was settled and then decimated in a war between the colonizing humans and the native Spackles. This war, he knows, also led the Spackles to release a virus that killed all the women and made it so that all men can hear each others' thoughts, creating an ever-present Noise. Even animals' thoughts are a part of the Noise, and some animals can talk, like Todd's dog, Manchee.

But as Todd approaches his thirteenth birthday -- the age at which every boy in Prentisstown becomes a man -- he and Manchee discover a pocket of silence in the swamp near town, and Ben and Cillian, increasingly wary of Mayor Prentiss and his designs on Todd, force Todd and Manchee to flee Prentisstown and the terrible fate that awaits him there. Pursued by the Mayor and his growing militia, Todd discovers that the world is nothing like what he has been taught and that he must make difficult (and often heartbreaking) choices to avoid becoming a pawn of the Mayor's twisted plans.

Ness's writing style is amazing; the story is written from Todd's point of view, and it's very easy to get so caught up in the rhythms of Todd's narrative that time just bleeds away, and suddenly it's midnight and you've read two hundred pages. Todd's journey is full of suspense, but so, too, is his (and the reader's) gradual understanding of Prentisstown, its history, and its place in New World. Too, the story is gripping and terrifying; this is not a book that's easy to break away from or to forget about once it's done.

And I'm just going to say it: Manchee is the best dog character in the history of literature.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of the most powerful, most original, and most upsetting books I've read in a long time (and I powered through Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott in one afternoon at Barnes and Noble). I may have misled you from my intro above, but Knife is a damn good book. Maybe one of the best I've read this year. But it's difficult, too, because the world that Ness has built is a gritty, often misogynistic world that offers hope for redemption but at a terrible price.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy. The second book, The Ask and the Answer, was published in 2009. The third book, Monsters of Men, is scheduled for release in September 2010.

21 July 2010

Why can't we be friends (and talk to each other psychically?), or, Pegasus by Robin McKinley

I don't know that I've fully expressed my love of Robin McKinley yet on this blog, but she may in fact be my favorite living author -- a conclusion I came to this morning on my way to work, when I realized that I've read (or reread) a number of her books over the last six months and that they are all amazing. Original. Transcendent. Beautifully written.

(I have more adjectives, but I'll move on.)

I already wrote about Sunshine, McKinley's alterna-verse vampire novel (though honestly, calling it a "vampire novel" would be like calling In Cold Blood a "murder mystery"), one of my favorites of 2010, in a previous post, and I'm mentally composing a "Robin McKinley is Fabulous and Brilliant and You Should Read Her" post in which I'll cover, among others, her fairy tale retellings.

So. I finished Sunshine last month, and I thought, "Hm, I wonder if she's doing a sequel?" (because it has sequel possibilities, though a sequel isn't a need so much as a want, for me the reader). (Sidenote: she's not doing a sequel to Sunshine.) Anyway, when I went to ALA with Jess last month, there, on the very first publisher's table I walked past, was a stack of McKinley's newest novel, Pegasus.

I think I may have shoved past some people to grab a copy. (I was very excited.) I took Pegasus on vacay to Cozumel with me and really ended up savoring it as a result, because it's the kind of book you have to -- and want to -- savor.

McKinley is the queen of world-building, to start. Pegasus is high fantasy at its best, as it takes place in Balsinland, a country won from beasts such as nourindours, rocs, and taralians then settled by humans. The humans were aided in their settlement by the peaceful pegasi, and the two peoples came together to form an Alliance that has lasted over eight hundred years.

The main character is Sylvi, the fourth child (and only daughter) of the current king. She is shy and self-conscious, and she is unsure about her place in the kingdom -- about what she wants to be and do. This changes when she turns twelve and is bound to Ebon, the son of the pegasus king. The problem is that humans and pegasi can't communicate without the aid of magician Speakers -- but Sylvi and Ebon can communicate; they can read each other's thoughts, and this is an issue for the magicians (who have always believed themselves the vital link between humans and pegasi) and for many others who are concerned about what this means for the Alliance.

What I love about this book is how gentle it is. Sylvi is beautifully drawn, and we really have an opportunity to watch her grow up over the course of the story. Ebon, too, is wonderful; his snarkiness and boldness are a brilliant contrast to Sylvi, and their bond is simply lovely.

McKinley also tends to develop wonderful family relationships as well (she's not one of those seriously-messed-up-families-make-my-protagonist-stronger authors), and Pegasus is no different -- Sylvi's parents and brothers (especially Danacor) are supportive and loving, and the pegasi royal family parallels the human royal family nicely.

Pegasus isn't a thriller, nor is it full of action; rather, it's about court politics, certainly, but it's also about relationships that develop between individuals and between groups (especially dissimilar groups), it's about bridging gaps and finding true understanding, and it's about accepting that your understanding of the world can (and should) change -- in three weeks, three months, or a moment.

Pegasus is scheduled for release in November 2010.

19 July 2010

Settling an Age-Old Question, or, Zombies Versus Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

I am suffering from serious YA-sparkly-vampire-exhaustion, so when I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC of Zombies Versus Unicorns at ALA, I saved it for my mid-July Cozumel vacay, thinking it would be the perfect by-the-beach read. Happily, I was not in any way disappointed! The book, which is edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, is a collection of short stories, each of which is about zombies or unicorns (or both, in some cases), and while some of the stories are certainly stronger than others, all of them were original and compelling.

The standouts for me were
  • "Princess Prettypants" by Meg Cabot, in which a girl receives a unicorn for her seventeenth birthday and discovers that it's good for more than just looking pretty and farting rainbows;
  • "Purity Test," by Naomi Novik, in which the age-old question of whether a virgin girl is the only one who can see or assist unicorns is put to the test;
  • "Bougainvillea," by Carrie Ryan, which takes place during the early days of the Return in the Forest of Hands and Teeth universe and explores the consequences of dictatorship and the question of power in an unstable world;
  • "Prom Night," by Libba Bray, in which an isolated town of teenagers attempts to celebrate life in the midst of a zombie virus that has wiped out of the rest of the world as they knew it;
  • "Cold Hands," by Cassandra Clare, in which a town that lives peacefully with its resurrected dead is the center of an aristocratic murder mystery.
What I loved most about this collection is how the stories differ in tone; I laughed out loud while reading a number of them ("Princess Prettypants" and "Purity Test" were hysterical), and others ("Prom Night" and "The Third Virgin") were truly frightening. Overall, this was a fun (and sometimes haunting) read, and I highly recommend it.

Also? Team Zombie!

Zombies Versus Unicorns is scheduled for release on September 21, 2010.

10 June 2010

Top Books of 2010 (January to June): Part I

It's summer again! Which means that I am back at my summer job and already zzzzzzz-ing about alphabetizing evaluations. But! It also means that I can return to my poor, neglected blog and talk about some of the truly fantastic books I've read since I last posted (so long ago!).

(BTW, I am working my way toward reading one hundred books in a year, and as of Sunday night, I finished #68. I might actually make one hundred this year!)

Having read 68 books in six months, you'd think my best-of list would be longer, but (1) a number of my books were read for a grad class in Romantic and Victorian Children's Lit and (2) I've apparently gotten pickier about what I read and how much I like it. I also don't think my reading has been quite as eclectic as usual (in part because the aforementioned grad class combined with the numerous ARCs I've managed to pick up at NCTE in November and ALA in June have led to a glut of YA in my reading rotation). But! I'm saving a number of long-anticipated books for my upcoming vacay with BFF Jess (including but not limited to coveted ARCs of Pegasus by Robin McKinley and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld), so I imagine my July to December list will be longer.

Anyway... to part one of the best of!

This is my favorite book of the year so far -- one of my favorite books of all time, in fact. I read it as a paired text with The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling for Romantic and Victorian Children's Lit, and it was amazing. Gaiman deftly straddles the line between life and death, comedy and tragedy, beauty and horror. It's a lovely, bittersweet coming-of-age tale that brought me to tears.

Now this is how you do vampires. I think Sunshine was written before Twilight became less a series and more a craze, but either way, McKinley builds an intricate world in which the supernatural is everyday, though strictly regulated by the government. Rae is an incredible heroine -- funny, cynical, brave, and independent -- and I love how her imprisonment with (and ultimate rescue of) Con is only the beginning of her adventure into understanding herself and her world.

3. Z For Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien

My love for end-of-the-world stories is well-documented, and Z For Zachariah is a beautifully written addition to my collection. You have to suspend your disbelief a bit (fallout from nuclear war somehow manages to float over a particular valley?), but once you do, Anne's story is both frightening and moving. O'Brien writes from Anne's point-of-view in journal form, and I'm pretty impressed at how realistic and gripping the narrative is.

I read Westerfeld's Uglies series, and while I wasn't always thrilled with the plot, I loved his world-building. Leviathan marries that amazing world-building with a gripping and fascinating plot and characters (Deryn and Aleks) that I loved following through both their individual and intersecting plotlines. Like I mentioned above, I got my hands on an ARC of Behemoth, the sequel to Leviathan, at ALA, and I can't wait to read it!

I have more top books, but my work computer is crazy slow -- apparently it takes issue with performing any action in less than five minutes -- so I will continue praising lit another time!

06 January 2010

So If She's a Duchess, Is He a Dutch?

Today at the end of my last class, I'm running through a quick character intro before my freshmen start Romeo and Juliet. We've just started on the Montagues, and I say, "Okay, so Lord Montague is the head of the house of Montague. And if we call him Lord Montague, what do you think we would call his wife?"

A boy in the back raises his hand tentatively. "Lordess?" he asks.

Oh, my huggable freshmen.

05 January 2010

Best Books of 2009

So I know it's now 2010, but I've finally gotten around to reviewing my 2009 reads on Goodreads (all 85 of them -- not the 100 I was aiming for, but that's what the new year is for, right?), and I'm ready to post my best of 2009 book list for your reading pleasure!

(In a way, it's kind of sad, because the majority of my best of 2009 list comes from my best of 2009, January-July, that I posed earlier this year. Either I didn't read as many great books in the second half of '09, or I spent too much time re-reading old favorites, which are sadly ineligible for this list. Oh! But now I'm thinking I need a Best of Rereads list!)

Anyway, what follows are the 10 best books I read (for the first time) in 2009:

1. World War Z by Max Brooks

2. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (I got the ARC at an NCTE conference in November -- seriously, buy this book when it comes out, because it is amazing.)

3. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

4. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

5. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

6. Troy trilogy: Lord of the Silver Bow, Shield of Thunder, Fall of Kings by David Gemmell

7. Fade by Lisa McMann

8. Looking for Alaska by John Green

9. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

10. The Language of Bees by Laurie King

Oh, books! So wonderful!