The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Jeanne BirdsallFollowing the gentle, nostalgic lead established in The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street escorts the titular family back from summer vacation and into another school year. The four sisters—Rosalind, age 12; Skye, 11; Jane, 10; and Batty, 4—are faced with life after a first crush; boring homework; sneaky chances to avoid said boring homework; a new game of Secret Agents with a new target; a new soccer season; and neighbors, both new and old. On top of all this, their Aunt Claire comes to visit, bringing scary news in the form of a letter from the girl’s mother, who died shortly after the youngest was born. Their mother, afraid her husband would get lonely, asked his sister to make sure he started dating again after a few years. Now, Aunt Claire says, it’s time. Faced with the specter of an Evil Stepmother, the girls put into place the Save-Daddy plan.

It’s a delightful little book. The issues are fairly mundane, but the family’s way of describing and dealing with their problems are creative and thoroughly entertaining. All the characters have strong, distinct personalities, and their responses to crises are tailored to their personalities. This does not, however, prevent the book from acknowledging some universal truths, like that macaroni and cheese makes people feel better. (If necessary, substitute the vegan/gluten free/lactose free comfort food of your choice into the sentence above.) This book, like its predecessor, is the literary equivalent of macaroni and cheese.
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The Penderwicks on Gardam Street ~ Jeanne Birdsall ~ Jeanne Birdsall’s Blog
My review of The Penderwicks

Bloodhound Tamora PierceBloodhound is Tamora Pierce’s second book about Beka Cooper, an ancestress of a character in her other books set in the world (referred to from here out as “Tortall books,” as Tortall is the central country). Beka has finished her Puppy year—a year of training to become a member of the Provost’s Guard, the police force well endowed with canine slang—and is starting her first year as a full Dog. What starts out as a bad fall in the Lower City due to a poor grain harvest becomes worse when counterfeits start showing up in the money system—lots of counterfeits. The investigation sends Beka into Port Caynn, a harbor city full of extra-corrupt Dogs and extra-bold Rats.

Tamora Pierce has been a source of comfort-reading for me since I was twelve or so. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read some of her older books, but… more times than I’ve read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A lot. None of her books are amazing and there is some variation in quality, but they are by and large good, enjoyable stories. They feature appealing, entirely non-wimpy characters, many of them women, and there’s a decent smattering of LGBT characters and characters of color. I freely admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for Tamora Pierce, so season this review with as many grains of salt as you feel necessary. (Mmmm. Tasty salt.)

The major flaw in the Beka Cooper books comes from the narrative style she chose: journal-style. Dogs are trained to have excellent memories, so after all her adventures Beka comes home and writes them out in her journal, in great detail. Mostly this works, and the level of detail seems appropriate to a police procedural. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, she feels it necessary to throw in gimmicks. Inkblots; paw-prints where her cat walks over the page; words misspelled, crossed-out, and rewritten when Beka is tired. They distract from the story far more than they enhance it.

Fortunately, the gimmicks are widely spread through a book that is otherwise one of her best. Beka’s an appealing character, forthright and prickly. The police work is appropriately gritty and the investigation accelerates in a compelling way as they get closer to the truth. The romance is believable and enjoyable but stays secondary to the main plot and is not viewed through rose-colored glasses.

It’s particularly interesting to look at the Beka Cooper books, especially this one, in comparison to her other Tortall books. It’s set several hundred years earlier, and the difference in gender dynamics is amazing. In the books set later, women are fighting to gain equal status and rights, and to be accepted as warriors. In these, women are just starting to lose equal status, rights, and acceptance as warriors. The pendulum swings. The books from the later time period are generally set in and around the palace and nobles; not every character is a noble, but many are, and the rest interact with nobles on a daily basis. These books are set in a thoroughly lower-class part of town, with nobles showing up only occasionally. Between the gender and class differences, the attitudes among the characters toward money, family, loyalty, noblesse oblige, sex, and marriage are simultaneously quite different from her other Tortall books and yet entirely consistent with them. It’s really cool! I love it when authors put thought and effort into their worlds.

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Bloodhound ~ Tamora Pierce

James Kennedy the Order of the Odd-Fish Book CoverIt’s not that Jo’s life was normal—she did, after all, live with a former movie star who once disappeared for 40 years and reappeared minus her memories; and Jo herself was found as an infant in the actress, Lily’s, washing machine with a note warning that she was a DANGEROUS baby—but it was fairly boring. Then a strange man showed up talking about his digestion, accompanied by a rather dapper—perhaps even dashing, possibly debonair, and certainly dandyishly dressed—cockroach, and before they know it, Jo and Lily are swallowed by a fish and spat out in Eldritch City. With their memories restored, Lily, the strange man, and the cockroach are readmitted, and Jo admitted, into the Order of Odd-Fish, a society of ditherers dedicated to collecting dubious data.¹ This is all well and good. Less well and good is that Lily et al were exiled, their memories removed, in relation to an incident thirteen years before in which a large portion of the city was destroyed due to the birth of a baby. A DANGEROUS baby. A DANGEROUS baby who, it is prophesied via TV show, will soon return as the Ichthala and finish destroying the city—nay, the world.

Eldritch City is a place of traditions, rituals, and festivals. Kennedy is at his most brilliantly inventive with the charters², gods³, projects4, and the like that characterize life in the city. Unfortunately, sometimes his creativity seems to run away with him:

‘[They] first have to give the girl some of the powers of the All-Devouring Mother. They do this by putting some of the All-Devouring Mother’s blood in her. . . . His…stinger,’ she said. ‘I know it doesn’t make sense, but the show says he grows a stinger, or beak, or some kind of second nose somewhere inside him.’ 5

Holy disturbing rape imagery in a children’s book, Batman! And then he makes it worse: “His gigantic purple nose was runny and engorged, a shapeless mass of skin and fat and veins.”6 Robin, what have I done to you?7

Deep breath. Moving on.

Jo’s isolation and anxiety are extremely well done. She has great friends and loves her life in Eldritch City, but she can never tell them who she really is. They, along with most everyone else in Eldritch City, declare themselves to hate the Ichtala and to want to destroy it. So Jo goes along for a while, happy and absorbing in her life with the Odd-Fish, until a random comment sends her into paroxysms of fear and loneliness; the fear and loneliness fade in the face of everyday life, only to rear up again a little stronger at the next comment or reminder. Unable to talk to anyone, she quietly panics while those around her discuss the evil she supposedly caused, will cause, and will experience.

The threatening stuff is mixed. On the one hand, the religion behind the Ichthala and those who actually want her to come destroy the world does make sense. Destructive and eschatological, yes, but logical and even beautiful (in the mathematical sense). On the other hand, the villains are not particularly interesting and are particularly annoying. They’re both trying too hard: one to be evil, the other to be funny. In their failures, they don’t produce schadenfreude; they produce embarrassment. And I really hate vicarious embarrassment.

The author is, i think, an Odd-Fish: “‘As an Odd-Fish, it is not my job to be right,’ said Sir Oort. ‘It is my job to be wrong in new and exciting ways.'”8. Mostly right, somewhat wrong, The Order of Odd-Fish is certainly new and exciting.

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¹ In case you were wondering, yes, the alliteration is necessary, and yes, it has precedent in the book.
² “‘”It is an appendix of dubious facts, rumors, and myths,”‘ recited Colonel Korsakov. ‘”A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.” That’s from our charter.'” pp. 85-86.
³ Quafmaf, the Pigeon of the Moon; Nixilpilfi, the Gerbil Who Does Not Know Mercy; Mizbiliados, the Bleeding Butterfly; Pzarnarfalasath, the Rhinoceros Whose Laughter Destroys Worlds; and 144,440 more. pp. 262, 261.
4 “‘As you know, my specialty is unusual musical instruments,’ announced Sir Alasdair. ‘And for all my life, I’ve dreamed of playing the most unusual instrument of all: a living animal!'” p. 175.
5 Pp. 243-244.
6 P. 246.
7 From an actual golden age comic.
8 P. 175.

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The Order of Odd-Fish ~ James Kennedy

Bones of FaeriePost-Apocalyptic fiction meets Faeries.

Twenty years after the cataclysmic war between the faeries and the humans, Liza’s sister is born with hair clear as glass and is left on the hillside to die, for clear hair is a sure sign of magic and magic isn’t to be trusted. Her mother, near-mad with grief, leaves shortly thereafter. When Liza starts seeing visions in anything reflective, she, too, leaves; though the trees and their shadows can kill, her abusive father would also kill her if he learned she showed any signs of magic.

It’s a short, simple book that really could have been longer and more complex. The post-faerie-apocalypse world is interesting and vivid, described naturally and in rich detail. Liza’s relationship with her father and actions toward others gently touch upon the psychology and patterns of abuse, but, like most of the minor characters, her father is generally two-dimensional. The pacing felt off to me; whenever minor characters are involved, it seems to rush to get Liza back on the road with maybe a companion or two. Which is doubly frustrating; not only does it feel rushed, these are often characters who lived through the war. They’re given just enough time that we can glimpse their lingering reactions to what they did and saw, but not enough to explore the complexities I could see lurking beyond the surface.

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Bones of Faerie ~ Janni Lee Simner ~ Desert Dispatches, Janni Lee Simner’s Blog
Invasive Species, a short story set in the world of Bones of Faerie

The Sorceress Book Cover Michael ScottI loved the first two books of this series, The Alchemyst and The Magician. The Sorceress is the third, and it is well written, continues to richly use myth and legend to excellent and at times surprising effect, and is enjoyable. And yet, it kinda fails.

The recap: All the myths and legends are real. Seriously: all. And there’s a prophesy about twins who could save or destroy the world. Nicholas Flamel, an immortal, believes Sophie and Josh Newman are those twins. He takes them under his wings, protects them from the bad guys who want to use them to destroy the world, gets their magic potential awakened and starts their training.

Of course, if Flamel hadn’t found them, they may not have been in any danger in the first place. And the process of awakening their auras, the source of their magic, could have killed them or driven them mad.

Which we’ve known since page 204 of the first book. Which Sophie and Josh have known since page 204 of the first book. Hell, they spend fifty pages dealing with it. And then they seemed to move one. So why, I ask you, do Sophie and Josh act like they never knew, and feel the need to spend a chunk of the third book freaking out about what could have happened? It was big, it was traumatic, and, for the characters, it was all of six days ago. And they… forgot? Weren’t really paying attention during the several arguments? In which they were participating? It’s one of a handful of blatant continuity errors, though it’s the one that bothered me the most.

In The Magician, the author asked us to believe something that made very little sense; in The Sorceress, he asks us to be surprised by something that I always assumed. Between this and the continuity errors, I’m starting to feel that he doesn’t respect either his readers or his characters. He could be writing amazing, rich, detailed, thoughtful books; we know, because he did it in the first book (and, basically, the second). Instead, the seeds of that amazing, rich, detailed third book are mired in sloppiness. And that’s unbelievably frustrating.

Available May 26, 2009

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The Sorceress ~ Michael Scott

I am the messengerAt nineteen, Ed Kennedy is a bit of a loser: he’s driving taxis for a living, his mother hates him, and his only socialization is several-times-a-week card games with Audrey, Ritchie, and Marv, none of whom are paragons of social virtue themselves. Then one day the mail comes and there’s a playing card, an ace, with three addresses written on it. At one house, there’s a teenager who needs the confidence to run in track meets like she runs alone every morning; at another, a lonely old woman who misses her husband, dead for thirty years; at the third, a woman is raped by her husband every night. And Ed has to make things better. And then there’s another card in the mail.

The writing is really excellent. It balanced the serious situations with the sweet ones, but manages to stay just about the sickly-sweet line. Just. I really enjoyed reading it, though at times I was disturbed by the unnecessary sadism of the person organizing all this, the person sending the cards. He sets Ed up to help other people, but he also sets Ed up to be hurt himself.

And then there was the end. When we finally find out who is behind all this.

When it gets painfully, painfully meta. I enjoyed the process of reading it, but the ending bugged me so much that I can’t quite look back on it fondly.

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I Am the Messenger ~ Markus Zusak
My review of The Book Thief

A major terrorist attack has hit San Francisco. Marcus and his friends, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are picked up by Homeland Security for a few grueling days. When they return home, they – and particularly Marcus – are horrified by the loss of privacy and civil rights perpetrated by Homeland Security in the name of safety. A computer nerd, Marcus starts to fight back, with computers, cryptography, and the idealistic youth of San Francisco as his weapons. As more and more people become involved in his clandestine XNet, his creation slips more and more out of his control.

The major problem with Little Brother is that it’s trying to serve two masters. People who are attracted to it are likely to be interested in computers and cryptography, and therefore to come to the novel with some preexisting knowledge of the subject. Of course, it cannot be safely assumed that all of its readers have such knowledge. So it has to do a fair bit of teaching. I believe it generally succeeds at imparting the necessary information, but it does not succeed in making the lessons interesting. The novel is narrated in the first person; Doctorow simply has the narrator offer straightforward descriptions of cryptography, binary, Linux, and the like.

This would be boring even if one has not already read Neil Stephenson, but for someone who has all of this material taught in Stepheson’s brilliantly creative narrative digressions, it’s rather interminable.¹ I’m not asking for Doctorow to try to be Stephenson² – few things are worse than a novelist who doesn’t trust his own voice – but I think it’s valid to ask that teaching in a novel be delivered via a more interesting medium than a visit from the Exposition Fairy.

This frequent mini-lectures also have the unfortunate effect of increasing
the didacticism of an already didactic book.

Little Brother is largely an expression of Doctorow’s dissatisfaction with the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, much as William Sleator used Test to express his dissatisfaction with No Child Left Behind. In both cases, I generally agree with both authors’ liberal biases, but I wish both had expressed their points of view with a touch more subtlety. Little Brother is a much better book than Test, but it is ultimately dissatisfying; while a major point of the book is “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25” – after 25, ways of thinking are too set and one is too invested in the status quo – it seems 37-year-old Doctorow doesn’t trust his teenage readers to see the flaws in the system without his help.

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¹ For instance, in The Diamond Age, he teaches binary using a clockwork castle.

² Or other authors who need to present a lot of facts in their narratives. Another example would be Junot Diaz’s use of humor footnotes to impart large chunks of Dominican Republic history in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

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Little Brother ~ Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com