12/29/2010

Ophelia by Lisa Klein

Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the eyes of the world’s most famous spurned lover. A young and blossoming girl, Ophelia catches the eye of the dark prince Hamlet, and the well-known story unfolds with just enough innovation to make it interesting.

We get a far more in-depth picture of Ophelia. The book spends a somewhat excessive amount of time describing her alabaster skin and lithe figure, but beyond that her thought-processes and intelligence are explored quite completely. She is no longer a pale, watery mystery, writhing blurrily in tragedy and madness. She is calculating, intelligent, and stifled. As she says in a bout of frustration, "The wild doe has become a gentle deer. I fear I have been forcibly tamed."

Ophelia is youthful, ripe, lovely and restlessly clever. The author did a great job of blending the ideal of a young girl as a blooming sexual object with the well-tested narrative of a girl who wants a life bigger than she is allowed. Ophelia won’t stand for becoming a lady. She wants out of the castle, out of her limited life. And she will achieve this in ways that --given Ophelia’s stigma-- may surprise the reader.

The first half of the book is fast-paced and compelling. It chronicles Ophelia’s childhood and whirlwind, frightening and magical love affair with Hamlet. They are intellectual equals, and while they once enjoy a relationship solely based on their love and their fantasies for the future they will have together, it becomes an affair spurred on by a spark of madness. They twist through a black maze of heat and passion and the constant possibility that the person in their arms will suddenly morph into a ghost-possessed demon.

What is madness? How does it spread? How does it infect? Is it always there, festering, waiting, or is it a malady foreign to the natural mind? Ophelia watches as her bright and brilliant Hamlet dances along the path of madness—assuring her he is merely playing, pretending and scheming to achieve his goals. He is above it all, he is in control. But it is a steep and slippery slope, and Ophelia watches as her love and equal becomes a creature unknown to her. And it is exciting and it is beautiful and it is breathtaking. But so, so frightening.

Is madness inborn? Can it be faked? Is there a line between true madness and the trickery of the mind? These questions are explored directly and indirectly throughout.

That was something the book does very well. Unfortunately, after the wonderful first half, the book loses much of its momentum. It meanders and drags, and I found myself having to force myself to read. Yes, there is a great little twist that skews the well-known story and completely changes where the latter part of the book goes—but the novel fails, after the initial idea, to follow through and make it interesting. It devolves into immoderate pockets of unnecessary description and repetitive pages that weren’t really interesting in the first place.

If you can make it through the duller second half, the beginning of the novel is definitely worth a read. It will be significantly more rewarding if you are familiar with Hamlet, however.

2 and a half evil daggers.



Yours in madness and sanity (whatever that is),

Briar

9/02/2010

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Louis Wu has seen it all. Jaded, bored with a world that has no more to offer him, he spends his two hundredth birthday reminiscing about his youth, the good old days when caprice ruled his actions and the world seemed endless in its capacity for excitement. The spark of adventure is still inside him, but Earth, shrunken and standardized by the advent of teleportation, is no longer a place of infinite variety and wonder.

Enter Nessus. A member of the “puppeteers,” an alien race famed for its cowardice, Nessus’s fellows condemn him as insane because of his bravery. Yet they find him useful as an explorer, visiting planets and stars no “sane” puppeteer would dare approach. For his current expedition, he requires companions. Louis immediately signs on to Nessus’s mission, with an excitement fueled by xenophilia and a youthful spirit. Along with two other individuals- Teela Brown, a young human woman, and Speaker-to-Animals, a fearsome alien feline- they set off to investigate the Ringworld, a massive alien artifact shrouded in mystery.

I don’t often use the phrase “thrill ride,” but there’s no other way to describe this book. The numerous plot twists and turns left me guessing every step of the way, and at several points I was left simply marveling at the author’s sheer cleverness. The characters and setting were just as richly detailed and complex as the plot, woven together into a compelling novel with a surprise ending no one could have predicted. Fantastical sci-fi concepts enrich the storyline and are made believable by the smart, polished writing. Creepy insights into what humanity’s future could look like are pure genius (and also really unsettling).

Okay, so this book isn’t exactly new, or YA, but the setting is futuristic and the book has as much action, adventure, and suspense as any novel written for teens. In short, it’s made of awesome. If this book has a downside, it’s that made-up words and new concepts are often introduced with no explanation, and the explanation comes later. A slight flaw, compared to the rest of the book. Five high-tech flashlight lasers- er, daggers.






Futuristically yours,

Tay

8/24/2010

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

In the fall of 1937, a young Chinese man named Stephen is stricken with tuberculosis. Despite the deteriorating political situation in eastern Asia due to Japan’s budding imperialism, Stephen is sent to a small Japanese village called Tarumi, where his family owns a summer house, to rest and recover from his illness. He is to be cared for by the family’s housekeeper, Matsu, a quiet and reserved man whom Stephen knows only as an acquaintance.

As the novel opens, Stephen has no reason to believe that his stay in Tarumi will be anything but relaxing, and he is looking forward to reading and painting, his two favorite hobbies. Soon after he arrives, though, it becomes clear to Stephen that there is more to Matsu than meets the eye. He becomes acquainted with two of Matsu’s old friends, named Kenzo and Sachi, and slowly begins to discover the secrets of their difficult past. As time passes, as he becomes immersed in Japanese life and culture, forges friendships with the enigmatic Sachi and Matsu, and participates in a romance, Stephen begins to feel more and more at home in Tarumi, a place that is at once turbulent and peaceful.

This book takes place against the backdrop of 1930’s Japan. At the time, Japan was fully industrialized and seeking dominance over its less modernized neighbors, especially China; this aggressive foreign policy was one of the contributing factors to Japan’s later involvement in World War II. The novel makes frequent reference to radio news reports- from both perspectives- of Japan’s victories over the Chinese army; it is interesting to see the contrast between the Chinese and Japanese reports of the same battles, underscoring the effect of bias in the media.

The people, food, dress, and customs of the vibrant Japanese culture were portrayed colorfully throughout the book, while the author’s sparse, clear prose beautifully evoked the clean, elegant style of Asian art and poetry. The plot was well-developed and reasonably interesting, incorporating an intricate storyline within a compact package. I was especially impressed by the complex characterization, which was well-executed and made the characters seem vivid and real.

Ironically, however, despite the fact that the novel is written in first person, the protagonist Stephen is remarkably underdeveloped compared to the other characters; his lack of any distinguishable traits is in sharp contrast to the richly layered personalities of the other main characters. The awkward, boring, and halfhearted romantic element of the story is unnecessary- I feel that the novel would be better off if the romantic subplot were replaced with actual development of Stephen as a character.

Despite its shortcomings, though, this book was a success. It was, a bit surprisingly, thought-provoking; the hardships described by the characters made me reflect on what I would have done in the same situations, and the descriptions of a beautiful culture immersed me. The writing style was unpretentious and refreshingly clean. Overall, it was a complex and detailed novel bound up into a deceptively small package. I award it four daggers.





Yours,
Tay

8/16/2010

Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont

Gossip of the Starlings, by Nina de Gramont, is a boarding school story with a twist. Catherine arrives at Esther Percy School for Girls, having been forced from her old (coed) school for boy-related reasons. The school seems rigid, constraining, lonely, until Sky Butterfield chooses Catherine as her friend. Beautiful, eloquent, daring, and brilliant, Skye, the Senator’s daughter, is brimming with life and vim. She transforms Catherine’s life into a whirl of hazy, weed-brightened nights and days of rosy adventures merely rimmed by classes.

Skye is passionate and vibrant, but her desperate thirst for dare and danger becomes concerning for Catherine. Skye has a tragic soul and seems to believe that she is indestructible—a belief she tests more and more frantically, engaging in increasingly dangerous adventures. Skye defies convention, takes what she wants, lives hungrily yet can never be satisfied. She is a tightrope walker, an enchanted seductress, an angel. She is a presence in both of the worlds she inhabits—the world of Esther Percy and the world of my mind. It is tough to say where she is more at home.

Gossip of the Starlings was fantastic. The writing was pure poetry: smooth, eloquent, daintily descriptive without ever being too thick. The characters were painted gloriously, the plot and the allusions drawn were constantly keeping me interested. The following is just a snippet from the long, intricate work of art Gramont has created.

“Now, when I see teenage girls laughing. When I see them loosed on a summer evening – their limbs tanned and gossamer, their imagined freedom radiating like nuclear light – I can’t help but fast forward two decades or more. I know the curve of their bones has already made an imperceptible bow to gravity. I see the decay in slow motion, even or especially through those stunning and immortal years.”

Complemented by such gems of observations, small moments make up much of the novel. They are painted to such rich perfection that after months I recall them still. The image of a blood promise in a night-dark dorm room stands in my mind bright and vivid—scarlet blood, moonlit curls, tender smiles and flushed cheeks as the girls teeter on the edge of destruction; the first in many daring adventures that take them inches from death, the only way, they believe, to truly experience life.

I loved Skye’s seduction, the way even the reader was drawn to her. I could picture her lush beauty, her tender flawless skin, the dare and the dreams in her eyes. The way she could dance logical circles around any opponent, dangle her ripe sexuality at a whim, manipulating the world into her dark and dizzy playground.

After finishing Gossip of the Starlings, I began to search for other hazy books about poetry and death and life and living on the cusp of womanhood. The only other one I found was the Virgin Suicides (by Jeffrey Eugenides), which was excellent but lacking the strong plot of Gossip of the Starlings. Any suggestions?

Anyway, as if you couldn’t guess—Gossip of the Starlings earns a glowing five daggers.

Off embracing my fleeting youth but always, unalterably yours,

Briar


The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

True to its title, the book teaches the fundamental principles of Taoism through Winnie-the-Pooh. Charmingly simple, yet strikingly profound, Hoff beautifully introduces his readers to Taoism.

Take a moment and consider the concept of this book: eastern philosophy explained using a children's storybook character. Cute? Yes. Borderline absurd? Perhaps. Yet, Hoff brilliantly executes the seemingly silly concept. Pooh is Taoism personified. The Winnie-the-Pooh stories Hoff references simplify Taoism's principles and teachings while his references to Chinese writers, Chinese terms, Chinese paintings, western philosophers, musicians, etc. add a delicate flavor to the novel. The Tao of Pooh merges simplicity and profundity into one delightful work of art.

My only complaint is the complaining. At times, Hoff's tone becomes whiny. The tone reminds me of a teenager vehemently defending his/her peculiar lifestyle choices to a large group of overly judgmental peers. However, he tends to have a good point. Knowledge for the sake of flaunting one's imagined superiority is rude and distasteful: definitely not a good way of living one's life. However, when Hoff bashed science, I felt he went too far. Granted, it was only a single sentence, but it struck a chord deep within my gut. He accused "Nearsighted Science" of asking questions it will never know the answer to and coming up with more questions instead. True, science raises more questions than it answers, but I would not go so far as to call it a waste of time. I see science as pushing the boundaries of human knowledge: a useful pursuit (I rather like running water, electricity, computers, indoor plumbing, fiber optics, vaccines, antibiotics, etc.).

Clearly, I am biased towards science. I simply felt some of Hoff's refutations of other pursuits of knowledge/wisdom were too harsh and confrontational. Negative criticism aside, the book does possess redeeming qualities. The stories of Pooh and his friends wonderfully illustrate the tenets of Taoism, which are elegant in their own right.

Therefore, I reward The Tao of Pooh four daggers out of five. Its honest simplicity and charming insight make it a worthy addition to any private library, despite its sporadic fault-finding.







Yours meditatively,
Gabriel Gethin

6/08/2010

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

In the Philpott Institute, several young postdocs research a possible cure for cancer. Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn run the lab. In the beginning of the novel, Glass and Mendelssohn tell Cliff Bannaker, one of the postdocs, to discontinue his work on the RSV-7 virus. They told him once before, but he adamantly believes his virus is going to change cancer cells into normal cells. Cliff refuses to listen and continues working on the virus. Glass and Mendelssohn are forced to consider firing Cliff, but the two of them disagree.

Unexpectedly, Cliff notices improvement in three of his lab mice. The injected RSV-7 virus has shrunk their tumors! Glass and Mendelssohn allow Cliff to continue his work, and the results are incredible. In over half of the mice injected with RSV-7, the tumors have shrunk and disappeared. The virus targeted cancerous cells, but left normal cells unharmed. Practically overnight, Cliff becomes the star of the lab. Everyone is put to work on replicating his experiment. Glass and Mendelssohn work towards publishing an article in Nature and using Cliff's discovery to elicit more funding.

All goes well until Robin, Cliff's girlfriend, gets jealous. She worked at Philpott longer and thinks his fortune is unfair. Since everyone must work on Cliff's project, she is forced to give up her bone marrow project. This begins a chain reaction, eventually bringing the validity of Cliff's results into question. Robin trusts her intuition that Cliff's results are too good to be true, and she goes to great lengths in search of the truth.

Although this is the longest plot summary I've ever given, the wealth of this novel is not in its plot, but in its characters. Not to imply the plot is boring, its not. The book is riveting, fascinating, and hard to put down. However, the character development is simply phenomenal! The book shifts from one character's mind to another, giving deep insights into the thoughts of each character. It often presents different perspectives on a character's actions. This blurs the line between good and evil. Each character's thoughts alters the reader's opinion of the other characters. It makes for a very thrilling read. Dramatic twists and eureka moments occur often.

Along similar lines, the driving force of the plot is the conflicts between characters, rather than the traditional sequence of events. Obviously, the characters feelings lead to actions, which in turn lead to reactions and the process repeats. However, the conflict seems to warp constantly, making the book more exciting. Ever heard a story where a hero must fight a villain throughout the story, ultimately triumphing? This story is the polar opposite. It is not a fight between two people, but a dynamic, ever-changing conflict, involving multiple characters. Elegantly written, the reading experience is simply wonderful. The only downside, if it can even qualify as a downside, there are lots of fancy words. Keep a dictionary handy.

I give Intuition by Allegra Goodman the coveted 5 out of 5 daggers.

Yours intuitively,
Gabriel Gethin

5/24/2010

Crossing by Andrew Xiz Fukuda

The book Crossing is the tale of Xing Xu, a young chinese immigrant who is one out of two asians attending an almost exclusively white high school in New York. With the onset of the school year, Xing again faces another period of prolonged social isolation with only his sole friend and fellow asian Naomi Lee for company. What Xing does not realize is that this autumn is going to be rather different than those of the past. Xing's high school is rocked with a series of bizarre disappearances and it is soon evident that a killer is on the loose. As police and the media swarm his hometown hunting for answers, Xing goes on a search of his own. While getting closer to discovering the murderer, an old ability from his past presents him with an opportunity. Xing's ability to sing catches the eye of the school's music teacher, who appoints him as the understudy for the lead role in the school musical. With the sudden disappearance of the lead, Xing is thrust into the limelight as his replacement. With his new position , Xing is given his opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his peers, and most importantly Naomi. As Xing prepares for the musical, the mystery of the killer remains unsolved, while police suspicion begins to fall on him.


When I first received this book, I thought this novel sounded interesting but feared it would be one of those cliché outcast saves the day kind of book however as soon as I started reading I realized I had picked up a truly unique novel and was quickly drawn into the story. The author did a wonderful job in creating Xing as a believe depiction of a disillusioned immigrant.Through Xing's thoughts, I received valuable insight on the plight of immigrants, as they must learn an entirely new language and customs as well as face alienation by the local populace. Being no stranger to isolation myself, I was quick to empathize with Xing and therefore found the outcome of the novel quite unsatisfactory. Overall, I found the book very enlightening and the storyline was superb except for that darned ending!



Four and a half daggers out of five,







Trooper Cordell

5/22/2010

I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Elli Friedmann

Elli was thirteen years old; clever, ambitious, funny, and terribly excited about her new bike. She had friends and a crush and a wonderful family—a pretty good life. Until the Nazis invaded her town. In one fell swoop, her life came out from under her. Her school was closed permanently, and all of her hard work and top-notch grades were forgotten, disregarded. Her shiny new bike was confiscated, and her bright teenage clothes were spoiled by ugly yellow stars that were fastened, one by one, to her lapels. All because she was a Jew. Yet in a few months time she would be wishing desperately for the days when she was simply discriminated against, when at least her family was united and her dignity remained.


I Have Lived a Thousand Years is haunting, stirring, terrifying, and most frighteningly of all, real. The book is survivor Livia Bitton-Jackson's autobiographical account of the Holocaust. Only thirteen when her family was carted off to different concentration camps, Elli endured a year of different camps and horrors, staying alive only by a series of lucky chances. She was first confined to a ghetto with her family, then sent to Auschwitz, Plaszow, Auschwitz again, Ausburg, Waldlager and was ultimately liberated in 1945. Elli saw and survived the very worst horrors of the Holocaust.


And she holds nothing back. With terrifying detail she tells us of the whispers about the smoke that rose over Auschwitz, the sickening and unbelievable reality that was the human bodies that made it. She tells us of her nerves the night before decimation, a process in which the entire camp is lined up and set to face a firing squad. Every tenth person is shot, yet one never knows where the count will begin or who will be the doomed tenth. She describes legs and limbs shot off live bodies, skeletal prisoners working torturous twelve hour days, and the constant, deep, gnawing presence of hunger. She describes the sun blisters that cracked and oozed upon her shaven head, the biting burns that pierced her skin, and the sharp lash of the whip as it made contact with her young flesh.


The book is sickening yet riveting. Like an accident you can’t look away from, I Have Lived a Thousand Years is impossible to read yet impossible to put down. It is an incredible, horrible, fascinating book. The author speaks about the surprising extent of human cruelty, the horrors of the pain and the torture and the death that were brought about by people, good people, people who got caught up in unity and superiority and were diminished to mindless, brainwashed, murderous monsters. And her faith in humanity was extinguished at just thirteen. At thirteen, should have been attending dances and doing homework and coming home each day to her mother and father. Instead, she was forced to live in a concentration camp, holding her breath with anxiety each day as she waited to be sent to the gas chambers.


I have read a lot of Holocaust books for young adults, and many of them were excellent. But nothing even approaches the rawness and the truth and the prose that this book is. 5 daggers.



Yours,
Briar

5/02/2010

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Set in the mid-19th century, when British imperialism was at its pinnacle and explorers were mapping the last uncharted corners of the globe, English Passengers spins a delicious yarn of intrigue, torment, and reckless lawbreaking on the high seas and within the plains and forests of Tasmania. It is crewed by a fascinatingly diverse cast of characters, including a likable yet eccentric rum-smuggling captain by the name of Illiam Quillian Kewley, a motley band of seafaring Manxmen, an unlikely trio of obnoxious Brits, and a tormented tribe of indigenous Tasmanians.

Captain Kewley and the crew of his smuggling ship Sincerity are expecting a brief, profitable maiden voyage. But after enduring one misfortune after another, due to “prying British Customs men,” they are forced to take on passengers for charter to Tasmania. Reverend Wilson, Dr. Potter, and Timothy Renshaw promptly proceed to make life extremely difficult for each other and for the ship’s crew, resulting in a brilliantly written comedy of errors populated by the most outrageous fools ever to set foot on a ship.

But awaiting the travelers in Tasmania is something utterly unexpected. Interspersed with the humorous antics of the travelers is the heartwrenching narrative of Peevay, the son of a Tasmanian native and a British sailor, who describes with fierce emotion the torments his people have endured from British colonizers. The book’s two main subplots gradually become intertwined, finally merging near the end and drawing the reader into the novel’s uniquely satisfying conclusion.

Though I normally don’t like historical fiction as much as other types of literature, I enjoyed and deeply appreciated this book. It made me laugh out loud with its sidesplittingly hilarious wit, it brought tears to my eyes with its raw descriptions of horrors inflicted by men, all while managing to deliver a time-honored message of tolerance and peace without being tired or clichéd. The writing successfully captures the unique personality and regional dialect of each character while still reflecting the author’s eloquent voice and creating a thoughtful, polished piece.

The remarkable thing about English Passengers is how it manages to be so many things at once. This novel is a window into a time long past, a thrillingly adventurous romp, a first-rate comedy and a tale of real-world strife, all rolled into one. I award it five daggers without hesitation.






Yours,
Tay

3/12/2010

Another Faust by Daniel and Dina Nayeri

One night, five children mysteriously disappear from their homes in Paris, Glasgow, Rome, and London. Five years later, the five teenagers and their governess, Madame Vileroy, arrive at an exclusive holiday party in New York. The Faust "family" has just enrolled in Marlowe, a school for elite students, in the middle of the year. They use their "gifts" given to them by Madame Vileroy to rise to suspicious heights at Marlowe. Driven by selfish obsession and making deals with the very devil, the Faust teens draw nearer their goals. That is, until two of them uncover a secret.

Another Faust is an exciting book. The plot draws you in more and more as you read on. During the last few chapters, the book becomes very difficult to put down. I commend the writers on such a well paced build up. Another exceptional aspect of the book's writing is the short "pre-chapters." At the beginning of every chapter, there are a few sentences/paragraphs of italicized writing. They usually do not relate to the story at the present, but over time, their meaning becomes clear. Either that, or they foreshadow a future plot development. The pre-chapters add suspense but also aid understanding. It is a creative, enriching touch.

As mentioned in the plot summary above, the children make deals with the very devil. The devil exploits their weaknesses and desires to coerce them into making deals. This a very interesting concept, although not original to this book (it is not called Another Faust for nothing). There a personal conflict between immediate gratification and redemption. It makes a meaningful story, but sometimes, this one character comes off as downright repulsive. The girl, Victoria, is obsessed with winning. She makes a deal so she can read minds to cheat. She is absolutely soulless. Everything about her revolves around being the best and winning. She can be really obnoxious, but the book would suffer without her presence. If you ever become disgusted with her while you are reading, just keep going. It will get better. Fortunately, not all the characters are as horrible as Victoria.

The fierce faults of Victoria might not upset you. I just felt a little threatened. I mean, honestly, this girl got to make a deal with the devil! And I call myself an evil cousin... I shall have to try harder.

I give Another Faust by Daniel and Dina Nayeri a Satanic 4 out of 5 daggers.







Devilishly yours,
Gabriel Gethin