Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “idgiepug”

Idgiepug’s CBR#4 Review #58-62: The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

Having a 7-year-old and working in a high school, I don’t usually play the “kids today have it so easy” card.  Being a kid is HARD now.  However, modern kids do have one big advantage over those of us who grew up in the 80s, and that is the incredible range and scope of children’s literature.  When I was a kid, I had the Chronicles of Narnia, the Chronicles of Prydain, and a now-out-of-print series called the Seven Citadels, and that was about it for good fantasy series.  There was Tolkien, of course, but not a lot of little kids are ready for Tolkien.  Today’s kids have the Warriors, the Owls of Ga’Hoole, How to Train Your Dragon, Harry Potter (of course), and the list goes on and on.

I recently read the Underland Chronicles, which were very good, but I convinced the little pug to let me read the Chronicles of Prydain to him at bedtime, and I was reminded of how much I love these books.  Reading them again was like meeting up with old friends, and, somewhere around book three, I remembered that one of the outstanding features of these books is that they each contribute an integral piece to the story, unlike some more modern series in which some of the books feel a bit repetitive or, unfortunately, like filler.  For example, even though I really like the Underland stories, in each book, you have the same basic set-up: Gregor goes to the Underland and has to go on some terrible quest.  In the Harry Potter series, each book (except the last) centers on Harry’s return to Hogwarts and eventual showdown with evil.

In Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, however, each novel tells a distinct story that reveals a step in the maturation of Taran, the main character.  In book one, The Book of Three, young Taran is frustrated by his secluded life on a small homestead known as Caer Dallben where he has been raised by a farmer, Coll, and an enchanter, Dallben.  Because he has no title and doesn’t know his parents, Taran complains to Coll who gives him the title Assistant Pig-Keeper because of his work with the enchanter’s oracular pig Hen-Wen.  When Hen-When escapes, Taran takes his new title seriously and dashes off into the forest after her, launching himself on an adventure in which he meets one of Prydain’s greatest warriors; joins a band of companions that includes a hairy, half-man half-beast creature called Gurgi, a king named Fflewdur Flam who prefers barding to ruling, and a lovely and chatty young princess named Eilonwy; and confronts one of the evil henchman of Prydain’s worst bad guy, Arawn.  In the second novel, The Black Cauldron, Taran re-unites with his companions to join a raid on Arawn’s stronghold to re-capture a giant cauldron which Arawn uses to produce deathless warriors known as the cauldron-born.  In The Castle of Llyr, Taran escorts Eilonwy to the Isle of Mona so she can learn to be a lady and discovers his true feelings for her when she is kidnapped.  Taran Wanderer focuses on Taran’s quest to find his parents so that he can, hopefully, ask Eilonwy to marry him when she returns from Mona, but those plans are waylaid when, at the start of the fifth novel, The High King, Taran and his companions learn that the evil Arawn is making his move in an attempt to control Prydain completely.

The last novel in the series won the Newberry Award, and it is the most like a traditional heroic journey tale, which causes some people to unfairly (in my opinion) call the novels a rip-off of Tolkien’s work.  They’re working in the same tradition, but Alexander’s work is obviously geared toward children and is more of a coming-of-age story.  Even though Alexander had a young audience in mind, he’s never condescending.  As I hoped, the books introduced my son to classical fantasy.  He enjoyed them, and I hope, will eventually tackle longer, more elaborate series.

Idgiepug’s CBR#4 Reviews #53-57: The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins

I picked up the first book of Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles series to see if it would be good for my son.  My husband and I sometimes struggle to find him good, engaging books that are at his reading level but that don’t contain material or ideas that are too mature for him.  I read The Hunger Games trilogy a couple of years ago and loved it, but it’s too violent and dark for the little guy, so I thought I’d try this series.  I’ll admit upfront here that I fell for these novels completely and became almost obsessed with them, even sending my husband out to the library to pick up the next book in the series as I finished one of them.  I don’t like to judge books this way, but I think I liked this series even better than the The Hunger Games.

The main character of these books is Gregor, a regular kid who finds a secret underground city called Regalia where he is considered the “warrior” named in several prophecies by the founder of Regalia.  In each novel of the series, Gregor returns to Regalia to fulfill yet another prophecy.  Each adventure in the Underland leaves Gregor mentally scarred and grief-stricken for those friends and comrades he loses along the way.  He cares about the Regalians, especially Luna, the young queen, but he is also concerned about his mother who suffers terribly whenever he disappears into the Underland.  Of course, Gregor continues helping the Regalians, but the final book delves more deeply into the choices both he and other characters have to make and examines the consequences of their decisions in a much more serious way than the previous novels of the series.  In the end, Collins manages to bring the fantasy series to a believable and satisfying conclusion without falling into the trap of “happily ever after.”

I’d heard good reviews of this series, but I was still surprised by how quickly these novels drew me into Gregor’s world.  I felt as though I couldn’t put them down until I’d finished them all.  There are many similarities between these novels and Collins’ more famous trilogy, especially the themes of children being sacrificed by their elders and the horrors of war, but these books are geared for younger readers and therefore are not quite as dark.  My son, hearing that there were giant rats and cockroaches featured throughout the novels, was a bit hesitant to try them, but I think he will love them in a couple of years when he gets over his fear.  I would highly recommend them to young readers who are old enough not to have rat-filled nightmares and older people who want a quick and exciting adventure series to read


Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #52: Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

I made it!!!!  I knew I could read 52 books in a year (and probably do most years), but I wasn’t sure about the reviews.  I started off the year strong, refusing to allow myself to start a new book until I finished the review for my last novel.  As the year wore on, though, I began to fall behind, and I’ve stayed behind ever since.  I still have a bunch of books on my “to review” list, but I’m happy to have made it to 52.

Every You, Every Me re-affirmed my love for David Levithan after the slightly disappointing Are We There Yet?  The novel is quite different; it’s focused around a series of photographs, and Levithan claims that he wrote the story as the pictures came to him from photographer Jonathan Farmer.  Main character and narrator Evan begins finding photographs and realizes quickly that they are being left purposefully for him and that there is some connection between the pictures and his missing best friend, Ariel.  Evan tells the story, but he’s telling it to Ariel even though she’s not around anymore.  The novel presents two mysteries: what happened to Ariel and who is leaving the pictures.  Evan knows what happened to Ariel, and he alludes to it frequently, but the reader has to wait to find out.  Both the reader and Evan get caught up in the mystery of the pictures, and we begin to question Evan’s reliability as a narrator and his sanity at points.  When he writes to Ariel, he strikes out words and sentences as he composes his story, which could be annoying, but I found it to be an interesting look into Evan’s thought process.  I rushed through the book because I was so caught up in solving the mysteries, but I would have liked to have gone back and re-read it both with and without the crossed-out words to see how they changed the story.  When I finished the book, I recommended it to some of my co-workers as a possible book to read with our lower-level students because the book is easy to read but geared toward teens.  It’s been criticized a bit for being too angsty or “emo,” but I really liked it and I think most kids would too.

I was completely engrossed in this novel and had a hard time putting it down.  I deal with emotional teenagers all the time, so maybe my tolerance is higher than most, and I loved that the novel’s style felt new and interesting.  I plan to read it again soon to see what I missed in my first rushed reading.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #51: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull

My son picked up Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven, but I “stole” it from him so that I could it out just in case it was too scary for him.  The kid loves roller coasters, riding downhill backwards on his big-wheel, and leaping off of a swing, but scary books and stories tend to give him nightmares, so we have to be a bit selective.  I’d never heard of this series, but the first novel was quite good, and the little Pug is reading it now without any nightmares so far.

In the novel, Kendra and Seth have to go stay with their grandparents while their parents go on a cruise.  They’ve never stayed with this particular set of grandparents before, and they’re surprised at the grandeur of their country home called Fablehaven.  Their grandpa is quite nice, and they have a great attic bedroom, but life at Fablehaven has many rules.  Seth can’t quite resist the pull of the forbidden woods, and he, of course, breaks the rules and goes exploring.  Eventually, when it’s clear that Seth is going to get into trouble if he’s not stopped, their grandfather tells Seth and Kendra the truth about Fablehaven: it’s one of a series of estates established world-wide for the maintenance and protection of fantastic creatures.  Even after finding out the truth, Seth still manages to get the whole family in trouble, and quiet, rule-abiding Kendra finds that the fate of her grandparents, her brother, and the estate all rest on her ability to find a solution to the troubles caused by Seth.

The book was fun to read, and the magical creatures were interesting, but I was a bit frustrated with Seth’s continued foolishness.  I know that boys can be obstinate and can find trouble no matter what, but the seriousness of their situation should have been enough to stop him from continuing to break rules.  Kendra also seemed a little too perfect, and I wasn’t terribly fond of the good-girl/bad-boy stereotype here, but the book was a good fantasy story.  Hopefully, Seth will buck up in the other novels in the series.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #50: Paper Towns by John Green

John Green’s Paper Towns is about a boy’s quest to find his missing neighbor, the lovely Margo.  Quentin has had a crush on Margo for most of their lives, and when she disappears, he can’t seem to let her go.  His quest to find her takes him through nearby “paper towns,” housing divisions which were plotted but never fully developed.  Living in Florida, Quentin has quite a few paper towns to choose from.  Like all of Green’s novels, this one was well-written and interesting, but I found myself a bit frustrated by the characters.

Margo was probably the most frustrating.  She’s an angsty little thing who’s run off several times before, which explains why Quentin is the only one who seems really concerned about her disappearance.  He manages to get his best friends involved, but he’s really the driving force behind the search.  Really, she seems a bit selfish and manipulative, and I was torn between feeling sorry for Quentin and being upset with him for his obsession with her.  I ended up liking his friends much better than Quentin himself, especially Radar, whose parents own the world’s largest collection of black Santas.  The relationship between Quentin, Radar, and Ben was, for me, the highlight of the novel.  They seemed like real teenaged boys, and their sarcastic affection for each other was sweet.

There were a lot of fun moments in the novel, and, as I said, it was very well written.  I just wish I’d liked the characters more, but I guess their flaws made them seem more real.

Idgiepug’s CBR#4 Review #49: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Checking out the Newberry award winners’ shelf at the library while little Pug browsed the Garfield collection, I saw Jack Gantos’ Dead in Norvelt.  I picked it up for a quick read and enjoyed it a great deal.  It’s a clever coming-of-age-meets-mystery story that feels both familiar and unique.

The novel features a semi-fictional young Jack Gantos who finds himself grounded for the entire summer, primarily as a result of the tension between his parents.  His father has big dreams for himself and the family, including moving out of the dying small town of Norvelt and heading south to Florida, while his mother is practical, frugal, and devoted to Norvelt and its aging population.  Because he’s grounded, Jack actually looks forward to being released to help Mrs. Volker, one of the original Norvelters, as she writes the obituaries of the town’s other original residents.  Mrs. Volker is still bright and active, but arthritis has left her hands virtually useless, so she needs Jack to type up her obituaries.  Once a nurse, she also tries to help Jack with his chronic nosebleeds.  All seems normal at first in the aging town that Eleanor Roosevelt helped establish as a kind of egalitarian utopia, but then some of the deaths begin to seem suspicious, and Jack is pulled into a mystery.

The book features many themes that seem familiar, such as the head-in-the-clouds father and the hardworking, down-to-earth mother, which make the more bizarre moments (and the story does get quite bizarre by the end) more believable.  Kids will enjoy the twists and turns of the mystery, but there’s more going on under the surface.  The book says a lot about family dynamics and the values of small towns.  I could understand Jack’s mother love for Norvelt and felt for those characters who wanted to preserve their little Utopia, but I also felt sorry for Jack’s father and understood why he felt trapped there.  The book was gave me the good, quick read I wanted.

Idigepug’s #CBR4 Review #48: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret symbolizes an important moment in my life: it was the first book my son recommended to me.  He and my husband both listened to the audiobook, and my son was bubbling over with talk of automatons afterword.  I picked up the novel the next time we were at the library and was just as excited about the book as they were, but I felt badly for them that they had missed the fantastic illustrations.  As soon as I finished the novel, I passed it on to the kid who also loved the pictures.

The novel focuses on the life of young Hugo Cabret.  Hugo’s father died in a fire, and Hugo has been living with his uncle who fixes clocks in a Paris train station.  Hugo hides his uncle’s unexpected death from the station inspector and continues fixing the station’s clocks to maintain the illusion that his uncle is still alive.  He’s struggling, though, and is eventually caught stealing by Papa Georges, a man who sells clockwork animals in the station.  Hugo is stealing parts to fix an automaton that his father was working on at the museum, and his obsession with the automaton gets him tangled up in the lives of Papa Georges and his goddaughter Isabelle.  The story is really lovely and complicated and sweet all at once.  My kid has great taste in books.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #47: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

In one of my very favorite short stories, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie, the narrator tells us that one of the main character, Victor, “searched his mind for memories of his father, found the good ones, found a few bad ones, added it all up, and smiled.”  I love that succinct summary of the process of a son coming to terms with his relationship with his father.  This came to mind a lot as I read Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which seemed to be saying essentially the same thing about a daughter and her mother but took pages and pages and pages to do so.  I can see why the novel is so popular, and to be embarrassingly honest, I have to admit that I have been known to watch the movie on TV a few times even though I know it’s a bit of a schlocky mess.  I didn’t necessarily dislike the novel, but I felt it could have been cut down by about half and still gotten the job done.  I read it avidly for the first few chapters but began to lose interest fairly quickly.

The novel follows Sidda, a successful playwright who unwisely discloses her conflicted feelings about her mother to an interviewer.  When the interview is published, Sidda’s very southern and very feisty mother, Vivi, cuts Sidda out of her life.  At the same time, Sidda’s beginning to question her relationship with her fiancé, the apparently perfect Connor.  Sidda flees all of her troubles by borrowing a friend’s secluded island home in the Pacific Northwest.  While she’s there, her mother’s lifelong best friends, who call themselves the Ya-Yas, intrude into Sidda’s solitude and reveal to her some things about her past which begin to change her mind about her mother.  Despite a few changes of location, the movie follows the book pretty closely, but there were a few surprises.  I especially enjoyed the scene in which the Ya-Yas managed to sneak alcohol into their children’s cotillions, got caught, and were banned from the club.

I probably would have enjoyed this novel more if I hadn’t broken my rule about reading the book before watching the movie (a rule I only adhere to about 90% of the time).  I still think, though, that regardless of when I read the novel, I would have found it a bit long.  I love strong women, especially strong southern women, but there were a lot of them in this book and they just needed to talk to each other.  I don’t want to be too harsh; I just spent a great deal of this book wishing Sidda and Vivi would just forgive each other already.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #46: Are We There Yet? by David Levithan

Continuing my David Levithan mania, I picked up Are We There Yet?  Sadly, through no fault of the novel itself, I didn’t enjoy this story as well as the other Levithan novels I’ve read.  Really, it’s not the book’s fault; I just couldn’t relate to the characters as well.  I sympathized with their problems, but their experience is so different from my own that it was hard to really understand them.  Also, any book probably would have paled in comparison to Boy Meets Boy, so it was even more unfortunate that I read this one after that one.

Anyway, the novel is about two brothers, teenaged Elijah and grown-up Danny, whose parents “trick” them into taking a vacation in Italy together.  The brothers are very different from each other, and neither one really knows what to do with the other.  Uptight, hardworking Danny doesn’t understand his free-spirited little brother, and Elijah can’t figure out why Danny is so focused on work.  The relationship becomes even more strained with Elijah meets a young American woman who is also staying in Italy and begins spending all of his time with her.  Danny warns his brother to be cautious with his emotions, but Elijah falls hard for the girl.

Like Levithan’s other books, this novel is well-written and the characters were realistic and interesting.  As an only child, though, I had a hard time empathizing with the characters.  The main conflict is the one between the brothers, and I felt sorry for them but just couldn’t really understand the ups and downs of their relationship.  Like I said, though, this is my problem, not a problem with the novel itself.  I imagine most people would enjoy it more than I did.  I still love Levithan’s work, and the next one of his novels I read was fantastic.  Hopefully, I’ll get to that review before the end of year.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #45: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up begins with the thump of a box dropped on a porch.  The box contains the mementos of a relationship and a letter explaining the items and tracing the course of a failed relationship from its tentative beginning to its heart-breaking end.  Each chapter opens with a lovely picture, drawn by Maira Kalman, of a memento and a portion of Min’s letter to her ex-boyfriend, Ed.  Min, short for Minerva, works her way through the items chronologically, so her explanation of each item also helps us understand her relationship with Ed.  She starts with a bottle cap from the dark beer they drank at her friend’s “bitter birthday” party, a party at which popular, athletic Ed was an uninvited an unexpected guest.  Although they move in different circles in the rather strictly divided world of high-school society, Ed and Min strike up a conversation that ends with him asking for her number.  To her surprise, Ed calls and asks her out, and they share a magical first date at the independent movie theater where movie-obsessed Min spends a great deal of time.  After the film, they spot an old woman they suspect is the lead actress from the film they just watched, and they surreptitiously follow her around the city trying to determine whether or not she really is who they think she is.  After that first night, though, their differences begin to emerge as they struggle to balance their very different lives.  Min starts hanging out at basketball practice to watch Ed after school instead of going to the coffee shop with her best friend.  Ed tries to spend time with Min’s friends, but he clearly doesn’t fit in with them.  No one thinks they can make the relationship work, which makes Ed and Min all the more determined to find a way to stay together.  Of course, as we know from the title, it doesn’t work in the end, but despite the fact that the outcome is a foregone conclusion, I was completely engrossed in it.  Handler does a wonderful job of capturing what it’s like to be a girl in love, and Kalman’s illustrations add a lot to the story.  It’s a story that is unique and yet feels familiar because, regardless of the particulars, nearly all of us have felt the heartbreak of a first love gone wrong.  It’s so familiar that there’s now a website dedicated to the novel where you can write your own break-up story.  Handler’s more famous for the Lemony Snicket novels for kids, but here he proves he’s equally adept at young adult literature as well.

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