Archive | September, 2010

Kill One, Save Thousands

30 Sep

Linda Smith’s The Broken Thread was published posthumously in 2008. It’s a quick read, but certainly interesting. It tells the story of Alina Sutter, who is selected to join the women of the Isle of Weaving, to help weave a huge tapestry telling the fate of the world. But when she accidentally causes thousands of threads to snap, signaling thousands of lives lost, she is sent across space and time to put things right. But is she willing to pay the cost asked of her?

When Alina instinctively binds together a broken thread in the great tapestry, she stops Ranjan, the crown prince of a distant land, from dying as a young child. Now he will grow up to be a cruel tyrant, and thousands of others will die instead. So Alina is sent to Ranjan’s land, to ensure the young boy dies. She ends up as his assigned companion, tasked with his safety and well-being, while simultaneously searching for a way to kill him. But as she grows to know him, she finds a ten year-old very similar to her own brother, who has been taught to trust no one in a palace of intrigue and lies. Can Alina bring herself to kill a little boy to save thousands of others?

Alina’s struggle is certainly unenviable, but her morals and instincts keep her from being inhuman. She bears the collective guilt of the multitude of snapped threads, but also of her plot to kill the prince while ostensibly tasked to save him. This bites deep, particularly as the prince grows to like and trust her, and she garners the respect of his personal guard. If Ranjan has killed no one yet, is her preventive strike warranted? The life of one for the life of thousands seems to make sense on paper, but Ranjan’s life is not easy and he has yet to become a monster.

This is a quest story where the heroine’s struggle is actually against her own quest, which is rare. She doesn’t dislike her task because she doesn’t want the responsibility or she just wants to go home, she dislikes it because she isn’t sure it’s right. For a while she debates letting one of the numerous assassination attempts made on the young prince succeed – thus killing him without actually having to do it herself – but that still rankles. Many other literary heroes have faced this choice, and every time the have killed one to save a thousand (see Terminator 2, Wanted, etc), but Alina honestly struggles with the brutal face of it every night she tucks Ranjan in to bed, and The Broken Thread is an interesting and honest take on an old quandary.

This book is a quick and relatively easy read, but entertaining on all levels, and I’d recommend it for younger, middle, and upper-grade readers.

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Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraimsdotter Longstocking, daughter of Captain Efraim Longstocking, formerly the Terror of the Sea, now a cannibal king

29 Sep

“Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking. She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone.”

Pippi Longstocking is one of the most famous girls in the literary canon. With her flaming red hair in two braids sticking straight out from her head, a nose covered in freckles, and two mismatched stockings in two overly-large boots, she’s also one of the most recognizable. The first book was originally published in Swedish in 1945, in English in 1950, and has gone on to sell 145 million+ copies in 65 languages. I was introduced to Pippi at a young age, and followed her adventures with neighbor children Tommy and Annika Settegren through several more books, movies, and tv shows.

Pippi moves into Villa Villekula (the house referenced in the earlier quote) after her sea captain father is washed overboard, to wait for him to return. She lives alone except for her dapperly-dressed monkey, Mr. Nilsson, and a large white horse. Much to Tommy and Annika’s delight, she is full of crazy adventures and never-ending good humor – not to mention she’s superhumanly strong, and sleeps with her feet on the pillow. In the first book alone, she plays tag with some policemen, entertains two burglars, goes to a coffee party, rescues children from a burning building, and wrestles a bull.

Pippi’s author, Astrid Lindgren, is also a person of extreme interest. She became pregnant with her boss’s child at 19, but refused his offer of marriage and moved to Stockholm. She had to give up her son to a foster family until she made enough money to support him, but remained defiantly unmarried for a number of years. Lindgren believed that common child-rearing practices were too stifling and didn’t give the kids enough credit for their intelligence. Her views are mirrored by Pippi’s happy, parentless existence, common sense, and intolerance for idiotic adults.

While Pippi’s stories are meant for younger audiences, they are still immensely enjoyable. I originally read them in second grade (which gave birth to that year’s Halloween costume), but re-reading them for the blog, I was struck by Pippi’s subversiveness. Numerous times, her subtle comments masked in bluster and laughter strike home rather more sharply than expected, and you can certainly get as much enjoyment reading them as an adult!

For example: during a coffee party thrown by Mrs. Settegren where the adult women gripe about the bad behavior of their maids, Pippi interjects wild tales of her grandmother’s maid, Malin. When one woman complains that she suspects her maid of stealing, Pippi tells how Malin would steal during the night, otherwise she couldn’t get to sleep, and once took grandmother’s piano and put it in her bureau drawer. Every story tops the whining women, until Pippi is thrown out, but as she wanders off, she hollers back that the worst was that “she never swept under the beds!”

She provides a great contrast to the blasé Settegren children who suffer from “those dull days when they couldn’t think of anything to play.” She’s able to find fun in a rusty tin can and an empty spool, and she never never never has a dull day. No TV, no Wii, no computer. And she doesn’t take crap from anyone – Tommy and Annika, policemen, bullies, teachers, burglars. Just because she’s young and alone doesn’t mean she doesn’t know what she’s doing! Even though her methods may be a bit unorthodox, she’s intelligent and happy and so she won’t let anyone tell her different.

I’ve been to the Astrid Lindgren museum in Stockholm, and urge you to check out this awesome woman, both her Pippi books (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi On Board, and Pippi in the South Seas, plus eight more) and her numerous other works, of which Ronia the Robber’s Daughter will be making a future appearance here on the Pickychick stage.

I couldn't find the cover of the book I have, but here's the next cutest one.

Go Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know

26 Sep

The iconic cover

Before Ellen Hopkins wrote Crank, or Melvin Burgess wrote Smack, there was an anonymous book published in 1971 that reported in frank detail the diary of a fifteen year-old drug user. Though it explicitly references drugs, sex, violence, and rape, Go Ask Alice is such an important book that it is still in print today and shelved in the Classics section at my local library. The diary follows several years in which the diarist (whose actual name is never given) falls into the world of hard drugs, and catalogues her euphoric highs, her painful lows, and her tragic struggle towards sobriety.

At the beginning, the diary centers around the normal struggles of a highschooler – boys, clothes, weight – but after unknowingly drinking LSD-laced coke at a party, the diarist begins experimenting with all sorts of drugs: tranquilizers, pot, heroin, cocaine, acid, sleeping pills. For a while she is convinced that she’s just experimenting, tells herself she can stop. But when she runs off to San Francisco with a friend and they are raped while high, the more serious consequences begin to become clear.

And so begins a yo-yo between heavy using, when she does whatever is necessary to maintain her high – pushing LSD to elementary-age kids, prostitution, begging on the streets – and periods of sobriety when she struggles to regain her normal life free of the beast of addiction. But that normal life has been irrevocably damaged, not only by her cravings, but also the relationships she’s ruined, the damage to her reputation, and her permanent record. Even when she is clean and sober, old acquaintances from when she was a user threaten her and her family, and the “squares” won’t accept her because of her past. She has nowhere to fit back into, which makes it all the more easy to slip up.

The most poignant part of the diary is that she isn’t the rebel bad girl, the dropout, or the crazy-type. This is just a normal girl who didn’t intend to get high that first time. But because her first experience was so pleasant, she decides that “all the things I’ve heard about LSD were obviously written by uninformed, ignorant people like my parents.” Anti-drug propaganda centers around the negative effects, and so she is honestly surprised when she enjoys the trip, which is an important point – there are not 119 million users because it’s no fun. Go Ask Alice is effective in its entirety – the initial enjoyment, the certainty of her ability to stop, the downward spiral, and her inability to ever get her life back to that way it was.

Even when she vows to change her ways, there is always the temptation, the chance of backsliding. At one point after being clean for a month, she smells pot smoke and breaks into tears. Sometimes she goes back voluntarily, once an enemy slips her acid and she suffers a horrific trip that ends with her in the hospital, then a mental institution. Towards the end she is confident that she no longer wants drugs, and maintains months of sobriety. Whether this is a true turn around or not, we are never sure as she ends her diary with her belief that she has turned her life around, but the epilogue states that she OD’d three weeks later. The most important point the diarist makes is that once you fall into that trap, you will never be truly free of it; the rest of your life will be a constant battle to stay sober – whether it’s two years or twenty.

It’s a tough book, and not exactly what I would call heart-warming, but it deals honestly with the issue of drugs and addiction, and I think it’s an important one for middle to upper-lever readers. And it’s still relevant 35 years later, which makes more of a case than I ever could.

The title comes from the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.

A Most Unusual Princess

25 Sep

You know it's a good book when Trina Schart Hyman does the cover illustration!

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede, was an eye-opening book for me. It centers around Cimorene, a princess in the small kingdom of Linderwall, where the only education princesses receive is more about how loudly to scream when being carried off by a giant, rather than anything helpful like arithmetic. Determined to avoid being married to some boring prince, Cimorene runs away and eventually volunteers to be a “captive” princess for the dragon Kazul.

Tall, dark-haired Cimorene doesn’t fit in to the typical mold of a beautiful princess, but then she’d rather be studying Latin or swordplay anyway. When she runs off to avoid her scripted fate, she ends up as Kazul’s princess and finds she quite likes the post – as many books as she likes, and all she has to do in return is make cherries jubilee and do some cleaning. Things get complicated when a stream of well-meaning knights come in an attempt to “rescue” her from Kazul, and when malevolent wizards start poking around the Caves of Fire and Night, Cimorene’s life might finally have become interesting!

Dealing With Dragons was the first book I’d read that openly mocks fairytale tropes: first off there are the “princess lessons” on how to be properly rescued dragons/giants/etc. But there is also Morwen the witch, who has nine cats (none of whom are black) and grows normal apples in her garden instead of poisonous herbs (though she may have a few of those too). The cherry on top might be the discovery of how to melt the evil wizards – soapy water with a little lemon juice. Wizard of Oz, anyone? Wrede imagines a world where fairytale storylines are the norm, but not the only option, and her heroes are those who would rather make their own way than follow the normal path.

Furthermore, Cimorene was the first heroine I’d met who was smart and sarcastic and more interested in doing what she wanted than finding her Prince Charming. She’s resourceful and not afraid of hard work. Plus when the time it takes her to convince her would-be rescuers that she doesn’t actually want to be rescued keeps her from getting anything done, instead of trying to explain, she hikes down the mountain a bit and just puts up a sign that says “road washed out.” Genius! This is a book that encourages you to look for a simple solution rather than some fancy magic trick, and proves that doing what you love is the only way to get a real “happily ever after.”

Wrede is a wry and funny author, and she crams plenty of action into the book, though it is definitely meant for a younger to middle-grade reader. There are also three more books in the Enchanted Forest Series: Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons. They are all great fun, and I highly recommend them!

Ah, Crivens! Tiffany Aching and The Wee Free Men

24 Sep

 

The Wee Free Men is the start of a series of books following nine year-old Tiffany Aching, by hilarious author Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame). Tiffany lives on a farm where she makes cheese and butter and looks after her constantly sticky baby brother. But when strange monsters begin appearing on Tiffany’s land and her brother is stolen, she sets out on a quest to challenge the Queen of the Fairies, in a riotous, cursing, side-splitting adventure.

While plot-wise this book may seem similar to the previously-reviewed Poison, it is about as different as you can get. Tiffany takes care of the invading beasties with a hefty frying pan and a good glare. Along the way she befriends the Nac Mac Feegle, a clan of tiny blue pictsies (ie. they speak with a thick Scottish brogue and wear kilts – pictsies not pixies), and their leader Rob Anybody. With help from the (drunk, thieving, head-butting) Feegle clan, plus a toad who was once a lawyer, a book of Diseases of the Sheep annotated by her grandmother (whose cures generally involve turpentine, cussin’, and a good kick), and a great deal of reasonability, Tiffany adventures into dreams and fairy stories to defend her land.

Tiffany is a new kind of hero, because even though it is established early on that she is a witch, all of her power is based on an ability to see clearly and think twice. As she remarks, “it’s still magic, even if you know how it’s done.” She doesn’t pull off any feats of supernatural ability or physical prowess – instead she thinks her way through the problems that face her. It’s nice to have a protagonist who actually thinks things through — a trait generally lacking in YA novels. Whether it’s finding a way around a marriage proposal from tiny Rob Anybody, or finding a disguised monster in her dreams, she can always depend on her rationality and quick wit to find a way out.

Interestingly, as a heroine, Tiffany isn’t even a particularly noble or impressive character – she goes off to save her brother not because she loves him, but because he’s her brother. She’s smart and doesn’t tend to get carried away with things – fear, boys, glory, whatever. It is her strong connection to the land that grounds her (no pun intended) and drives her in her adventures. While technically this is a Discworld novel, the Chalklands bear strong resemblance to Pratchett’s native Wiltshire, England and there are multiple references to Stonehenge and the Uffington White Horse (both in Wiltshire).

Pratchett is a fabulous writer (he was knighted in 2009 for “services to literature”) and a prolific one too. While some of the characters from other Discworld novels leak into Tiffany’s story, there are three more of her own novels: A Hat Full Of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight, which was published earlier this month. There is also a fabulously illustrated edition of Wee Free Men by Stephen Player – not only are the full-color (and often fold-out) illustrations wonderful, the text itself is sprinkled with mischievous Nac Mac Feegle, who push the letters around, and sometimes steal them. It’s great fun to read!

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

22 Sep

“I wish I’d never started this snogging business. I feel like I’ve been attacked by whelks.”

Enter Georgia Nicolson, a fourteen year-old in Brighton, England. Also, enter her mental cat, lots of exceedingly confusing boys, and a school year full of mishaps and laughs. Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging was written by Louise Rennison, who – if I hadn’t looked on the back flap – I would have thought was also a teenage girl. Not that the writing is bad, in fact it’s quite the opposite (it won the Printz Award). Rennison perfectly portrays the ins and outs of teenage drama with wit and plenty of humor!

Georgia has loads of problems facing her – a school uniform that includes abominable berets (which no one looks good in, not even the French), Robbie the Sex God is ignoring her and dating the loathsome Lindsay, and she’s just shaved off both her eyebrows. Through stuffed olive costumes, school pranks, her sister’s used nappies, and getting snogging lessons (like actual lessons), Georgia navigates the murky waters of adolescence, puberty, and the actual definition of “see you later,” with humor that will have you laughing out loud.

Writing a book about boy trouble is tough to do without slipping into the chick lit trap. But in Georgia, we find a narrator who daydreams about boys but still manages to keep her integrity. She is fearless, and though her first two boyfriends turn out to be duds, she doesn’t ever doubt herself. Mistakes are made aplenty, but this is more Bridget Jones than Bella Swan. She’s never deliberately malicious, and she’s never afraid to stand up for herself.

Georgia doesn’t have an epic destiny to fulfill, but instead she wonders about normal problems that come up when you’re that age: zits, school bullies, her mother, PE teachers. I think this is an important point because that’s honestly all I worried about as a teenager, and Georgia’s ruminations are both surprisingly mature and equally hysterical – I was literally laughing out loud reading on the bus. Even the most horrific embarrassments lack a sting, and boy problems carry as much weight as her own self-image and relationships with her friends.

Rennison has expanded Georgia’s story into a further nine books, which though I won’t list them all here, I’ll give you a teaser of the best titles: On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God; Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas; Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers. It was also made into a film in the UK which received largely positive reviews though I have yet to see it myself.

Behold! A decent werewolf book!

20 Sep

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause, was a book I worshipped in middle school. This book pretty much got me into my supernatural kick, which I have yet to escape from. It tells the story of Vivian Gandillon, a young werewolf who is both in love with her powerful wolf-form and disgusted by the traditions of her pack. She has trouble navigating the hierarchy and ancient customs of werewolf life but finds no more solace in her double life as a normal high school girl.

Vivian can’t feel completely at home with a pack that wants her to mate for life with the alpha male, nor can she manage to fit in as a human; she is too strong, too self-assured, too powerful. Her potential alpha mate turns out to be the commanding but intelligent lone wolf Gabriel, but she’s already fallen for innocent human Aiden. Torn between her dual lives, Vivian botches a change and ends up stuck in between wolf and human, unable to take either shape. But when brutal murders begin to spring up in the pack’s territory, her divided loyalties are put to the ultimate test.

My favorite part about Vivian is that while she loves her wolf form, she also finds value in normal human interaction and presents a pretty equal case for both sides. Plus, while she is valued as an attractive potential mate, she holds power within the pack as more than just a female. She isn’t a dominant woman, she’s just plain dominant. Faced with a choice that will make her unhappy either way, she struggles certainly but in the end she finds a way to accept all of herself: woman and wolf.

Another point in favor of this book is that for a supernatural/fantasy tale, it’s surprisingly realistic. All the characters have good and bad points, and there are no perfect white knights to be found. Furthermore, [SPOILER] when Vivian reveals her werewolf nature to Aiden, he freaks – even though he’s been obsessed with werewolf lore since he was young. I’m pretty sure that if your girlfriend turned into a wolf in front of you, your reaction would probably be just as horrified as poor Aiden’s, and I appreciate that while Vivian glories in the hunt and the kill as a wolf, not everyone would.

Blood and Chocolate is a pretty easy read with relatively tame subject material; at least for a book about werewolves. Recommended for intermediate readers, but don’t see the terrible movie. It is only loosely based on the novel, and its only saving grace is Hugh Dancy.

Ok, the movie poster was awesome, I'll admit