Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beautiful Creatures and Beautiful Darkness

Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

rating: 8.5 out of 10 "books"

This town owned us, that was the good and the bad of it. It knew every inch of us, every sin, every secret, every scab. Which was why most people never bothered to leave, and why the ones who did never came back. But while other folks were busy cutting back their rosebushes, Light and Dark Casters with unique and powerful gifts were locked in an eternal struggle—a supernatural civil war without any hope of a white flag waving. Lena’s Gatlin was home to Demons and danger and a curse that had marked her family for more than a hundred years. A few months ago, I believed nothing would ever change in this town. Now I knew better, and I only wished it was true” -- Beautiful Darkness pg.2 &3

For those of you sick of the Vampire craze but looking for something to fill the void as the Harry Potter franchise draws towards a dramatic close, I’d recommend the Beautiful Creatures series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Although the storyline is much different than that of “the boy who lived”, many of the aspects of Beautiful Creatures and its sequel, Beautiful Darkness, are similar.

Living in a small South Carolina town where everyone knows each other’s business and no one really ever leaves after High School, Ethan Wate was counting down the days until he could finally get out of the town of Gatlin. But then Ethan began having very real nightmares involving a girl, dreams he’d wake up from physically hurt and covered in mud. When Lena, the girl from these dreams, turns out to be real, Ethan finds his life changed in ways he could never imagine. Everything he thought he knew about Gatlin has changed; because as it turns out, Lena is a Caster, a sort of witch capable of some pretty heavy stuff and everyone he thought he knew; his own recently deceased mother, her best friend and town librarian, Marian, even his caretaker, Amma, are involved. Sort of like Harry Potter is to magic, except in different terminology, Lena can perform some serious magic; like controlling the weather and making things happen that no one else could even imagine.

Lena lives in her uncle’s mansion on the outskirts of town. The Ravenwood Mansion is the town ghost story, it being the only mansion to withstand the burning of the town during the Civil War. Like Muggles in J.K. Rowling’s world, the people of Gatlin, perhaps sensing the power surrounding it, stay away from the mansion and the supposed hermit who resides in its walls. Lena’s uncle, Macon (said hermit), is even comparable to Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. However, in the Caster world, there are much different creatures abound with much different powers. But whether it’s sirens, incubuses, seers, thaumaturgies, or palimpsests, each Caster must choose whether to be Light or Dark, much like the wizards and witches of Hogwarts.

The trouble in the first book comes into play when on her sixteenth moon, Lena will be claimed as a Dark or Light Caster. Cursed by the “Book of Moons,” the Ravenwood family has no choice as to whether they become Dark or Light like other Casters. Lena’s own cousin Ridley, practically her sister, turned Dark and was banished from the family. Lena’s situation is a little different however, because Lena is a special type of Caster and her claiming could mean the end of either the Dark Casters, or the Light, the outcome of which means losing some of the ones she loves either way. All the action of the story plays up to the moment of the sixteenth moon, with the balance of The Order of Things at stake, but in the meantime, Lena and Ethan must figure out the connection behind the dreams that they both share before it’s too late.

The first book ends on a sort of cliffhanger, but at the same time I was surprised when I discovered the sequel, Beautiful Darkness. I don’t want to give too much away as far as either book goes, for those who have not read Beautiful Creatures, but for those who were fans of the first story, you will not be disappointed by Beautiful Darkness. The stories are a little long, so they’re not for those looking for a super quick read, however, I found the books took me no time at all to finish just because they were so hard to put down!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary
David Sedaris

rating: 5.5 out of 10 "books"

From the author of “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” comes a collection of short stories chronicling the mishaps and ridiculous day-to-day happenings of animals. These stories, or more appropriately termed fables, are presented Aesop style with a normal enough beginning resulting in some sort of moral or insight type ending. The interesting part of these animal tales, is the fact that each animal personifies one person or another with whom we’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of interacting with at some point in our lives: the self-obsessed whiner who must be the center of attention at all times; the naïve acquaintance who will believe anything they are told, and oftentimes taken advantage of for it; or the group of guys who will poke fun (to the point of insinuating violence) at one section of the population and not even realize it, but make mention towards another and you’ve gone too far. Sedaris does an excellent job of pointing out many of the major and minor flaws that plague society.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a nice branching out in a new direction that departs from a lot of the autobiographical novels the author has written. The only downside to this story that I have found, is the fact that only a few of the stories on the audiobook are narrated by David Sedaris himself; Dylan Baker, Elaine Stritch, and Sian Phillips lend their vocals towards the other stories. Audiobook aside, each little story is a quick read, and the entire book could be read in one sitting if motivated.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Candor by Pam Bachorz

rating: 7.5 out of 10 "books"

Oscar Banks is the town of Candor's number one model citizen. He's got the perfect grades, the perfect girlfriend, and the perfect life. Every kid in school wants to be like him, and every girl in town is dying to be his girlfriend. But Oscar Banks has a secret: he's not who anyone thinks he is, including his own father. Living in a town his father created to turn the most delinquent of teens into model kids and help even the most far from fixing marriages, Oscar has figured out the underlying truth behind the perfection of Candor. Using what he calls "Messages" (ie. subliminal messages embedded deep in music), Oscar knows that his father is controlling and shaping the town's minds' into whatever each citizen pays big bucks for: resulting in a new and improved family. It's no wonder that the waiting list to get an extremely expensive yet basic plot of land is so long, when as a parent, you're guaranteed to have your brat of a child whipped into shape in a matter of a couple weeks. Oscar uses all this information to his advantage, promising to help newly arrived teens out of Candor before they change, in exchange for a large fee. He prepares everything for them, including cd's of his own Messages the escapees will need for the rest of their lives outside of Candor; because once you've been exposed to the Messages, you can't ever go without them or the consequences in most cases are death by personal injury. Making his own counter Messages is the only way Oscar's been able to make it as long as he has without turning into a Candor clone himself. As Oscar himself says “Other people don’t notice when a Message fills their head. But I’ve been here longer than anyone. And I’ve found ways to train myself. I know when my brain is feeding me Messages. I know how to fight them.”

Everything is going fine for Oscar until he meets the new addition to Candor: Nia. So unlike any of the girls he's initially met, and definitely different than any of the Candor clones, Oscar is torn between saving Nia from Candor, or keeping her for himself with his own concoction of Messages. His plan of keeping Nia in the dark as to the truth of Candor, while slowly feeding her Messages to prolong her genuine self, proves to be beneficial in the beginning. The only problem is, when Oscar's own meddling with the Messages sets off a chain reaction, Nia, and others in Candor, are no longer safe.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a little bit older, having come out in 2009 but it fits nicely into one of my favorite genres known as dystopian fiction; which according to Wikipedia, means, “Fiction set in a futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian.” If you’ve read the hugely popular Hunger Games series, another example of a dystopian society, it gives you an idea of the genre. I really liked that this story kind of ended with a twist, but not. I was surprised and upset by the end, but at the same time, could see the possible outcome from very early on in the book. I like stories that don’t necessarily end in a “happily ever after” sort of way, not to say there were not some elements of that present at the end. My advice: if you like “The Giver” by Lois Lowry or “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, try giving this story a read. And after reading Candor, if you haven’t read the other two novels I’ve mentioned, definitely give them a shot too.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ape House
Sara Gruen

rating: 7 out of 10 "books"

If there’s ever been an author who will go above and beyond to research for a novel, Sara Gruen ranks high on that list. The newest book from the author of Water for Elephants explores the link between human-primate communication abilities, but on a deeper level, delves into the emotional link between the two and the similarities that exist no matter man or ape.

Isabel Duncan works for a college research facility studying the language and communication behaviors of bonobo apes. The closest things to family, her bonobos are her life. A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, John Thigpen is assigned to report on the bonobo language facility. While Isabel and John are pretty much strangers to one another, leading two very different lives, when something major happens within the language lab, Isabel and John find themselves working side-by-side together.

Total romance novel-esque summary aside, Ape House is a very good read. Despite some bad reviews of the Water for Elephants follow-up, I think Gruen accomplishes a lot with this novel. I had no idea what this story was about besides apes, and even that gained tidbit from the title is not a fair presentation of the plot that follows. I really enjoyed the sort of split POV (point of view) that alternated between John and Isabel. The drama that occurs in each person’s life is a minor plotline that accentuates the overall theme of the story. John is constantly battling to keep his marriage afloat while economic, career, and mother-in-law troubles threaten to destroy his and his wife’s relationship. On top of that, his wife’s constant depression and yearning for a child leaves John anxious all the time. Isabel on the other hand, is dealing with her own personal demons; namely trust issues and an inability to fully open up to anybody, her fiancée included. Little is given to us as readers as far as Isabel’s family background, but it is enough information to discern that it has hugely affected Isabel’s current relationships.

Overall I’d say, if you liked Water for Elephants, try giving this novel a read. A lot of what happens in the story in relation to the bonobos are things that happened to Gruen herself when she was researching for the story at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. A word of warning however for adults: the subject matter does get a little mature in some places, so have caution before adding this to your school collection or teen’s reading list.