Friday, November 18, 2011

Broken Axel, Dead Oxen...O the Oregon Trail

Who hasn't played Oregon Trail? Trying to get your wagon across the country to the great beyond while not getting typhoid, avoiding rattle snakes, and not letting your damn oxen die. The great migration west is a solely American event. Never before has something like this happened and it was such a climatic, engaging era. The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt was recommended to me by my Materials for Youth teacher as a good juvenile/YA historical fiction book. I love the pioneering point in our history, so I was excited for this book. 

Amos is the son of a dowser, a person who can find water with a stick. Jake, his father, rejected his gift of dowsing and instead pursued his love of trapping leaving his infant son with his brother and his sister-in-law. Amos grows up with these two and gets to see Jake once a year, but always dreads Jake might take him from his adopted mother. Tragedy strikes and eventually Jake comes for Amos, but with him he has a new wife, Blue Owl, a Shoshone woman. Amos and his little family move around a lot, but eventually decide to join one of Jake's friends to work on a wagon train going to Oregon City. The trail is an adventure with new experiences, new people, and tragedy. It is on this journey that Amos goes from being a boy to becoming a man.

This book begins before the birth of the main character, Amos. It is an epic of sorts, showing the growth and main events of Amos and other characters' lives. It is hard to give a brief summary of this book because so much happens and it's the story of family and a boy's life. I was surprised because I expected this to be mainly about the Oregon Trail journey, but it was about Amos and his growth. It was really well done. The story about the Oregon Trail was more about the everyday: what they did, how they found their way, and the people in the train. I don't feel I can do justice to the story.

Amos is a creative boy. He has gifts, he is kind, and even though he has seen hard times, he has prospered. He is a great main character and the other characters carry a lot of weight too. They are tangible and add to the tale. Every character is important and has a very defined personality from Jake, the gentle overly talkative mountain man to Blue Owl, a quiet, earthy, wise woman to Amos's Aunt and Uncle, two people who make a brilliantly happy pair, and all the characters met on the Trail.

The Oregon Trail part of the story did not begin until about half way through the book. I kept waiting for that part to start because this novel was marketed to me as an Oregon Trail book. I thought it was a great detailed and well put together story, but I was thrown off by the amount of non-Oregon writing. Still a book I would certainly recommend and that was a great story.

If you are into the Oregon Trail, this era, or pioneering then try the Laura Ingles Wilder Little House on the Prairie series. I loved these books as a child and they're a great source for what life was like at that time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I DO NOT Want to Read You!

In school, reading books that you don't want to is normal. You're forced to read the same stale classics that your parents read because they're "so relevant and important for our lives!" or at least that's what they tell us. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy most books were force fed to me in school, but recently I got an assignment I dreaded. Read Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

NOOOOOOOOO!!!!! I knew this was a book that was dark and depressing about the end of the world and cannibals. Sounds like a romp in the park, right? It sounded so difficult to read (from an emotional standpoint) that I avoided it like the plague, not even wanting to watch the movie trailer for the film adaptation.

Well I couldn't avoid it any longer. It was for an assignment and, as a soon to be librarian, I need a wide berth in the literary sphere. When I bought it from the book store, one of the workers looked at it and went "O that book. You're going to want something really cheery afterwards." Thanks. That made me feel better. But I picked it up and hesitantly began reading.

The Road is about a father and son traveling across the devastated United States. A catastrophic event occurred and the whole country, maybe the world, is dying. The book starts about five to eight years after the event and it's never explained what happened. The man and his son make their way across roads and highways that are covered in ash trying to survive and avoid the bad guys: cannibals. It is a fight to find food and the pair has to be cautious on the open road and avoid other people. They can't trust anybody. Not that there are many people left anyway. This is a story about a father and son surviving. The boy is young, I pictured him to be about seven. It's about a father doing the best for a son who is an alien in a world that no longer exists.

The writing is brilliant. Simple, yet surreal at points. When something happened, it just happened without drama before and whatever needed to be done was done. In this way it felt realistic. Just like in real life, there's not always a warning before something happens and you just have to deal with it.

There are no chapters, but the text is broken up into paragraphs, which were typically about half a page. It read quickly and was compelling. Although not much changes throughout the book, you're always on the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen. The tone is devastating and haunting.

I finished this book and threw it across my room. I felt anxious, frustrated, and depressed. I couldn't concentrate on anything and had to call a friend and talk out my problems before I felt able to move on with my life. When asked if I liked it, I didn't know what to say. It was difficult to read because of the depressing content, but it was so well written and I wanted to continue reading when I started. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how good it really was. If a book can elicit this kind of emotional reaction from me, then it's doing something right. Being able to draw out strong emotions from an audience through literary writing is not an easy task. For me to feel a cornucopia of emotions after reading is quite a feat and I tip my cap to Mr. McCarthy.

A coworker told me that forums he's read about this book usually have men praising it, while women have my reaction or just plain hate it. This is an interesting point and something to ponder about the difference between the man and woman mentality and the controversies surrounding this book.

Another great thing about the book is that there is so much the audience doesn't know. It leaves much to the imagination and it has given people things to talk about and argue over. What does the characters' road map look like? Where did they start and where are they heading? What happened to the world? What do you think the father did? McCarthy knows what he's doing by leaving out information.

My challenge to you is to read The Road. It is a book that sticks. Maybe you'll hate it, but it will stay with you and I promise you will react to this one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Runaway Princess

So I like princess stories. Sue me. Isn't fiction about living out your fantasies through a secondary resource?

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs is a juvenile/young adult title about...a princess that runs away. Meg hates embroidery and fancy dresses. She wishes for a life of adventure and swash buckling encounters. Her father, the King of Greeve, has another idea, however. He decides to take action against the dragon, witch, and bandits that call Greeve home and offer his daughter as a prize for the prince willing to defeat these villains. So Meg gets thrown up in a tower (for effect and tradition) and a heap of princes come from the surrounding lands to try their hand at winning the princess and half the kingdom. But Meg hates the idea of being a damsel in distress and decides to warn the "villains" about the princes. Who says their evil anyway? Stereotypes and looks can be deceiving as we soon find out. What follows is Meg's adventures trying to warn the victims of her father's plan and stop any princes from winning the contest and her hand in marriage. Her friends Dilly, a castle servant, and Cam, a royal gardener, aid and abet this royal delinquent throughout the novel.

This story has a lot of twists and turns. It's not a simple adventure where she has three tasks and completes them. Along the way lots of other problems arise. The story keeps you engaged and wanting to find out what new twist is around the corner. Meg is a tomboy ready to prove herself and help those who need it. The added plague of princes adds a fun competitive aspect to the story. The typical "evil doers" are flipped. Meg is a modern girl in a fairy tale world and she aims to prove that she does not need to be the typical princess to be happy. The secondary characters are also fun and, although I wouldn't say they have depth, they are still relevant and distinguishable. This is a great read for anyone who likes princess stories, fairy tales, or fairy tale twists.

Kate Coombs came out with a sequel to this book called The Runaway Dragon, so there are more adventures with Meg. Ella Enchanted is similar to Coombs' book as well within a fairy tale feel, odd creatures and princes, however, it also has a romantic aspect that The Runaway Princess does not.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In a Sunburned Country

I love travel. If I were able, I'd spend months at a time in a country getting to know the people, culture, going to local markets, and traveling around the country. I hate the idea of being a tourist, which is why everytime my mom wanted to go to some tourist trap, I'd become evil, moody me (do not ensnare this she-devil). But since I can't travel all over right now, I love to read other people's travel experiences. Travel non-fiction is one of my favorite genres. Well, I've finally gotten around to reading a noted author and traveler: Bill Bryson. I listened to Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, his novel about his travels through Australia.

Bryson starts the novel by confessing that he knows little about Australia. As a matter of fact most of the world outside of Australia knows nothing about what's going on there. Sure we've all heard of the outback, Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, but what are Australians like, what is most of the enviornment and animal life like, and what is its history. Bryson is a brilliant writer, being both humorous and enlightening. He presents facts and his experiences in a way that makes the reader want to continue reading. In this book Bryson talks about a couple of trips he made to Australia with the mission of seeing the whole country. As I learned, that's impossible. A large majority of Austrailia has never been surveyed or explored. It's ginormous and most of it is unliveable for humans. Even so, Bryson did what most outsiders or Australians rarely do, he traveled across the country. Through these travels the audience gets to see what the country looks like and feels like. He discusses tales of poisonous and deadly animals and the encounters that most Australians just shrug there shoulders at, but you and I would wet our pants over.

Bryson presents the laid back, sometimes too much so, personality of Australians, which is such a juxtaposition to the enviornment they live in. Perhaps because of the harsh conditions and jurassic animals that will not change, the best approach is a laid back one, instead of always being paranoid.

This is a great travel non-fiction book. Austrailia is so interesting and Bryson does his best to cover all sorts of aspects of the country, but one of the points taken out of this piece is that there's so much that is unknown about Austrailia. Bryson's voice makes this book, even in the sometimes dull parts, compelling and often entertaining. I'm excited to move to his other books, A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and many, many more.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Hollow Kingdom

Secret Confession time:
I cannot believe I'm about to admit this because it goes against all of my feminist sensibilities, but maybe that's the point. I love a story with a "captured bride". You know the ones where the "hero" kidnaps or tricks the girl into romance. That's terrible, I know, but it's the extreme version of sweeping a woman off her feet (and then running away with her kicking and screaming). Judge me, it's fine. I judge myself. I do feel better for getting that weight off my shoulders though.

While browsing a certain website for books based on fairy tales/myths, I found The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle under the heading Persephone and Hades. I was immediately intrigued. This is the root of the captured bride story. Poor Persephone was kidnapped by the Greek God Hades in order to be his bride and remain in the underworld for eternity save for Spring/Summer when she could visit her mother again. Although this book is not wholly based on the myth, you can definitely draw comparisons.

The Hollow Kingdom is the first book in a trilogy. Kate and Emily are sisters whose parents have died and they have come to live at the estate they will inherit once Kate turns eighteen, Hollow Hill. Their cousin currently occupies the main house and is none too pleased to have the girls there who are, he claims, not actually related because their grandmother was adopted. Instead, they stay with their two aunts in the cottage house. Kate loves the forest and stars and quickly finds refuge in the surrounding lands. Soon, however, she begins to feel uneasy. Something is watching her. Then one night, when the girls get lost and cannot seem to find the right path home, they meet a band of gypsies. One of them, Marak, says he'll take the girls home, but Kate is uneasy about this arrangement. While Emily gets along splendidly with the strange man, Kate is apprehensive about him and soon she finds out why.

Once home, he finally reveals himself as the Goblin King to Kate and she is shocked. What ensues is the story of how the King tries to capture Kate, to be his goblin bride, and she resists, how her cousin paints her as a lunatic, and the history of a family that goes deeper than the family ever imagined.

It was an entertaining and compelling read. You want to figure out more and see how or if Kate gets away from Marak. Kate is a well mannered girl, but she is no push over. She can protect herself and she uses her intelligence to do so. The characters are well developed and you get a good sense of place. The storyline is really what drew me in and kept me reading. Highly recommended for fairytale or romance lovers. A good romance is supposed to draw you in and make you feel the feelings that the character feels and this book certainly reached that goal.

If you were/are a fan of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, then you'll probably also like this one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Remember the Islamic Revolution? Yes? No? Ummmmm....

Well, whether you know what happened or just nod your head in public, but cannot seem to recall when, where, why or how this happened (the Middle East, right?), Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi provides some background and first hand perspective on what went down.

Marjane writes/draws her memoir of what happened to her and her family during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the late 1970s/early '80s. Her parents are revolutionaries, her father is a Marxist, and her mother demonstrates against the Shah, who is in power at the beginning of the novel. Marjane is a bright girl and she latches onto her parents beliefs, reading up on the movement, Marx, and all sorts of other social theory. The country goes from a somewhat publicly rigid place to a hugely rigid Islamic run country once the revolution is over. Suddenly, being a rebellious, free-thinking girl is dangerous. Head scarfs must be worn in public and women who wear modern-ish clothing are whores. Satrapi's parents must watch who they speak to and what they say about their beliefs because the wrong viewpoint can land them in jail as political prisoners or worse. At the end of this novel, Satrapi is fourteen and her parents decide it is best to get her out of the country, which is in turmoil, so they send her to school in Austria.

The novel is humorous, especially when Satrapi, as a young girl, claims to have unique perspective, but only repeats what she hears from her parents. This is a tactic used throughout the novel. Satrapi, as an adult author, is aware that she was heavily influenced by others, but so are all children when their young. Parents and family member's beliefs are iron clad to kids, and the reader is made aware of this fact in a clever way throughout the novel. At the same time this is a very serious graphic novel dealing with war, political beliefs, death, and imprisonment. Satrapi's voice rings clear through both the writing and the cartoons. The drawings are all in black and white, which you can interpret whichever way you please.

Although I usually see this book applied to the young adult audience, it is a perfect crossover book for adults as well. Graphic novels are a fantastic medium for some stories and this is a great example of that.