Category Archives: About Books

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764What started out as a disappointing retelling of a Beauty and the Beast legend morphed into something richer and more complicated.

I’ll admit, when I started reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, I was saddened that Agnieszka, like so many heroines in young adult fiction, was becoming romantically involved with a domineering man. In this case, it’s the “Dragon,” Sarkan, who demands a tribute of a young woman from Agnieszka’s region every 10 years. Obviously, this is the year that Agnieszka is chosen to serve- a surprise to everyone, as she is not accomplished, tidy, or talented, unlike her best friend Kasia.

The Dragon is a wizard tasked with protecting the region from the Wood, whose ability to corrupt those who enter is terrifying and horrible. Agnieszka bumbles around Sarkan’s tower, trying to learn her (subordinate) place, when she realizes that she is gifted with magic, and Sarkan is her teacher.

Stockholm syndrome notwithstanding, the relationship betweeen Agnieszka and Sarkan becomes more than just teacher and student. Yes, there is some romance and passion, but more importantly, collaboration and commitment to a common purpose: defeating the Wood and cleaning the corruption from the people who have been taken by the wood.

Novik draws on Polish fairy tales and the legends of Baba Yaga to flavor this novel in a way unlike the typical, magicky fantasy. There is a richness of place and tradition in Agnieszka’s village, with bottles of vodka passed at celebrations, farmers and cattlemen, cakes cooked slowly on spindles. The details Novik uses from this heritage lift this novel well above the typical pseudo-middle ages atmosphere that seems to be the norm in fantasy.

Novik also populates her novel with some amazing characters who have complicated relationships that develop and change. Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia start as childhood besties, sharing confidences and playing, all the while realizing that Kasia – due to her refinement, talents, and beauty, will be taken away by the Dragon. When that expectation falls through, Kasia is lost and Agnieszka feels guilty – and special. When Kasia is taken by the Wood, Agnieszka risks everything to clear her of its corruption. Clearing Kasia changes her, and again, the relationship between the two young women changes. I loved the development of this relationship.

Minor characters are treated with the same level of detail and story. The magicians Alosha, Solya, and Father Ballo all have histories that shape them. And the baddest of the bad in this story – the Queen of the Wood – also has moments where the reader can sympathize and understand her journey to corruption and hate.

Novik treats magic in an interesting way that can be a bit frustrating for a reader. In the world of Uprooted, there is a magical language that seems to be only for special magic people. I’m not totally clear how it works. I did like that Agnieszka and Sarkan can use the same magical language to different effects. Agnieszka has difficulty with Sarkan’s regimented methods and uses her singing way to use magic.

I would recommend Uprooted to any young person who enjoyed the Twilight series but felt cheated by them. In Uprooted, they will find a tale of magic and power, rich with detail and character.

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

12401556I heard an interview with Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles and was immediately intrigued. The premise of her novel sounded fantastic – the earth’s rotation starts to slow, making the days and nights progressively longer. What would happen? How would people react?

Walker tells her story through Julia, an eleven-going-on-twelve middle school girl who finds herself lost and lonely at the start of the “Slowing.” Julia loses her best friend – ultimately caused by the slowing – and struggles to cope with changes at school and at home.

I wanted to be swept away, and I wanted to care about Julia. But I found myself distracted by Walker’s language and word choice. Peculiar metaphors did nothing to elucidate the character’s feelings. There were endless repetitions of “I remember” and “that was the last time I saw or did x.” Then there were the carefully crafted phrases that made me think Walker was hoping to make the next edition of Bartlett’s.

When I wasn’t distracted by the text, I realized that this was a fairly traditional coming of age tale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need to hear these stories. The journey of growing up is a journey we all take, and hearing a fictional tale about growing up can help us process our own experience. Through the lens of Walker’s imaginative setting, Julia’s life journey unfolds.

I felt that Walker’s catastrophe “The slowing” was fascinating in its ramifications. The death of all plant life, the erosion of the earth’s magnetic field, the birds dying en masse and people suffering from “gravity sickness” are all part of the slowing. But frankly, any sort of disaster could have been the catastrophe that compels Julia to tell her story.

I was also disappointed in Julia’s development. She’s a lonely girl at the start of the book, and seems to be a lonely woman at the end. While she shares a special friendship with Seth Moreno, at the conclusion of the story, I don’t think Julia was changed by this friendship. In fact, I don’t think Julia changes much at all, which is a shame. The melancholy girl without confidence or hope has become a woman without much hope whose mother says that she dwells too much on the past.

While I was not wowed by this book, I do enjoy a genre bending novel that stretches your genre muscles. Science fiction, dystopia, family drama, and middle school angst – this novel defies classification.

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Book Selfie #4

Photo on 3-20-14 at 10.44 PM #3


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03/20/2014 · 10:57 pm

Homage? or Parody?

The QuincunxMay I introduce you to the book that took me three weeks to read?

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is a hefty doorstop of a book, weighing in at 787 pages in the 1989 edition. It’s big book, almost 3 pounds of paper.

It’s not just big in a physical sense. It’s an ambitious work that was a first novel for Palliser, a bestseller and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (source: Wikipedia). The plot is intricate, the settings are naturalistic, and the characters entertaining. This novel is frequently compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and it’s easy to see why.

The main character, who tells most of the story, is John Huffam, a plucky boy who is the hidden heir to a rich estate in the English countryside. A complicated estate entail, a missing will, and a strange codicil to this will have led John’s mother to hide him away in the countryside, living under an assumed name. One day, their home is burgled, disrupting this quiet anonymous life, and setting into motion a series of events that change their lives forever.

John and his mother escape to London after their small fortune is swindled away by their enemies, and they spiral into a life of poverty and ruin in the London slums. After John’s mother passes away, tragically, John must fend for himself. John is frequently an unwitting pawn of his enemies, but sometimes the instigator of plots and plans himself.

The missing will is a central plot point, and John goes undercover at the home of the current estate holder, the Mompessons, working as a scullery boy in order to discover the will’s hiding place. John solves a puzzle – in the shape of a quincunx –  and recovers the will. Which is then lost again, through deception.

Another key plot piece is the murder of John’s grandfather. Who actually killed the old man? Was there a plot, or was it just madness?

The novel is wonderfully complex, and can be difficult to follow. About halfway through the novel, I realized that my complete understanding of the plot and what John believes about the plot were not necessary to enjoy the novel. After all, every time I (or John) had the family relationships figured out, or realized who it was that wanted John dead, new information was revealed that made my understanding false. After this happened a few times, I set aside my strong “need to know” and just enjoyed the plot turnings.

Palliser divided this novel into five parts (like a quincunx), each named for a different branch of the intertwined families. With each section, there is a genealogical chart. As the novel progresses, the chart becomes more detailed in each section. It’s a wonderful piece of detail that I really enjoyed, and used to help my developing understanding of the relationships. The maps of London, also included at the beginning of each section, were also interesting and a great reference while reading.

Like Dickens’ novels, The Quincunx features a plucky orphan finding his way, shady London villains, and many happy – or unfortunate – coincidences. And like Dickens’ novel Bleak House, The Quincunx features a will destined for Chancery Court. In my opinion, Palliser has out-Dickens old Boz in this novel. The plot is complicated to the point of absurdity. The villain Barney Digweed makes Bill Sykes look tame, and the put upon and ruined Miss Quilliam, is more desperately used than any Nancy.

So while Palliser has taken these elements so familiar to the novels of Dickens – the orphan, the inheritance, the villains – and taken them to the next level, I don’t think he is fully parodying Dickens. Palliser’s tone is always sincere, even in the pompous omnisciently narrated sections of the novel. Palliser has created a gentle parody, that is more of an homage to Dickens than any kind of satire.

Reading a novel like The Quincunx was a commitment. I am the kind of reader that usually has a few books going at the same time, but to fully appreciate this book I had to suspend that practice for a while and just focus on this novel. I would recommend this very highly to fans of Dickens – and recommend it less so if you are not a fan.




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Book Selfie #2

Snow day book –
Photo on 1-21-14 at 8.18 PM

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BookMooch, How I Want to Love You


Oh, I want to love BookMooch so much. What a fabulous concept, people sharing books across the country! I will nobly give a home to your orphan books, and you take in my unwanted books. Sadly, it hasn’t worked into the feel-good thing I thought it would be.

Here’s how BookMooch works: You create an account, where you list the books you want to give away (or find homes for, if you’re feeling sentimental). You also list the books you are looking for. BookMooch uses Amazon’s database, and you can search by ISBN as well as title and author.

Other BookMooch users can browse your listings, and request books they want to mooch. BookMooch assigns each transaction a point value – send a book, get a point; mooch a book, spend a point. You can see other moochers’ point  balance, and see very quickly if they are more of a giver than a taker. But a moocher does have to give away a book before mooching their first book.

When my sixth mooch request came in, and I’d already been to the post office 3 times, mailed 5 packages, and spent over $12.00, that I started to question this BookMooch thing. And then one of the moochers wanted to know what condition my book was in. I thought, “What? Don’t you want to just read it?” But I suspect that moocher was a reseller, taking my book that may have been worth more than free, and making a profit.

So I have soured on BookMooch, and that’s a sad thing. But when giving my books away is costing me money, I had to stop and think. If my object is to have others READ the books I give away, I would do much better by donating them to my library, who operates a sale table as a fundraiser. Or I could just do what I’ve been doing all along.

Hey, have you read this book? No? Take it, read it, pass it on!

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