Monday, July 29, 2013

Warriors* by Erin Hunter, and a Note of Re-Readng Old Favorites

Warriors: Into the Wild
Fire Alone Can Save Our Clan...
For generations, four clans of wild cats have shared the forest according to the laws laid down by their warrior ancestors.But the Thunderclan cats are in grave danger, and the sinister Shadowclan grows stronger every day. Noble warriors are dying -- and some deaths are more mysterious than others. 
In the midst of this turmoil appears an ordinary house cat named Rusty... who may turn out to be the bravest warrior of them all.

~Print copy, 272 pages (Book 1 of the Warriors Saga)
Published: 2003 by HarperTrophy (An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

[I apologize for my couple-weeks hiatus. I had a nasty abscess in a *coughcough* nasty place. Couldn't walk without whimpering in pain. But it's mostly cleared up now! Yay and Thank Goodness!]

For those of you who read this blog, you may well know already that I LOVE the Warriors Saga. I've read this series several times -- both the original series, and the New Prophecy series that takes place after the original. I still remember the Christmas morning of fourth grade, nine years old, looking into my stocking and seeing the first two (rather decently small) paperbacks snuggled inside, Warriors boldly printed along the top.

Of course, it's been years since I read the series. High school, and the bright lure of many, many YA novels and series, got in the way of re-reading my old favorites. But this summer I promised myself that I would re-read all six of the original and all six of the New Prophecy series with fresh eyes.

To be honest, I was nervous -- I first read this series in elementary school. I was so much more forgiving and open-minded back then! Now I'm a faintly-cynical teenager with more experience in the realm of bad books!

But, as I've discovered, I have experience with good books, too, and can tell that line where "poor" writing becomes excusable for a good story.

Now I realize that your mind will automatically skip over some types of prose and just visualize it directly. So the old writing adage "show don't tell" doesn't always -- often it DOES, but not ALWAYS -- need to work. The Warriors saga, being the MG it is, does tell emotion a lot, instead of showing it through body language.* And yea, sometimes I wonder why the MC is getting so much respect and special treatment from the Thunderclan leader, but my mind will skip over and visualize the first, and the second has to do with that prophecy in bold up there in the summary.

Warriors: Into the Wild chronicles Rusty the House Cat's journey from human pet through his apprenticeship in ThunderClan, one of the four Great Clans of Cats in the forest outside his human's home. As a kid, I loved the characters most: Rusty, newly named Firepaw, who is dangerously curious and smart; his friend Graypaw, who's a joker but the most loyal of friends; the dignified, ancient leader, Bluestar; and the ambitious warrior Tigerclaw, that classic villain in cat form.

And I still love the characters. Very, very much, in that same way I obsess over Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Artemis Fowl. (Check the Random Fandom board on my Pinterest, up there in the right upper corner of this blog -- that is, if you have hours to spare looking through over 400 pins.)

But now, in high school, after 4 AP (college-level) classes and too much time watching history documentaries, the world itself strikes me. Have you ever noticed that most of the good books seem to have a choice in them -- Divergent, Harry Potter, etc.? In Warriors, there are four clans: Thunderclan, the brave; Riverclan, the cats who swim; Shadowclan the "sinister", whose hearts are hardened by the north winds; and Windclan, the fastest.**

And within the clans... It's all clean and efficient, from kit to apprentice to warrior, sometimes to queen if you're female, and then to elder, all following the warrior code -- a set of ethics laid down by Starclan, their warrior ancestors. I mean, ethics and a religion and a loyalty that binds the entire community of the Clan together! That's really impressive, especially since I tie this sort of worldbuilding to the fantasy genre, not a MG series about cats.    

It doesn't really strike me until now just how deep this world is. As Firepaw learns everything -- and we do -- it all enfolds: just how deviant Tigerclaw's ambition is, and how far this code of ethics extends; how Shadowclan's needs create a gray area in the warrior code, driving them to break it; and how much one small kitten can do in this society of cats, in order to do what's right and save his new home.

I never caught this the first few times I read it. I never noticed. And it makes me to smile to think that, and a phrase from an old country song pops into my mind*** (though, of course, I'm no drinker):

"There might be
a little dust on the bottle
but it's one of those things
that get sweeter with time..."

Sometimes, re-reading only strengthens the bond between you and a favorite book. It frees your mind to examine things in depth, things you paid little attention to the first, second, or fifth time you read it.

This book, obviously, gets five stars. I recommend it to everyone -- no matter if you're a starry-eyed fourth grader, a cynical teenager about to enter her senior year of high school, or an adult seemingly above MG.

 *How much body language could you show through cats, anyways? It's different, from the tail-twitching to the way they scent danger to the claws they unsheathe. And -- take it from a girl who's grown up around half a dozen cats -- a lot of them react the same when angry or territorial.

**Is it just me, or am I really picking up a Harry Potter theme to the Clans? I mean, four of them: one for the brave, one for the "sinister", one for the "smart" (who know how to swim), and one considered the "weakest", though they're still the fastest. (Windclan has been driven from their home in this first book.)

***Dust on the Bottle by David Lee Murphy, though if he's the original artist I don't know.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Adrift in the impersonal, iron-gray society of the superstate, the novel's main character, 15-year-old Alex, leads his gang of teenage rockers in all-night orgies of random violence and destruction.
Told in a slang as electric as the events described, this is Alex's story -- of rapes and stompings and rumbles with the police, of prison life and the frightful "Ludovico Technique" by which Alex is "reconditioned" into a model citizen, and of his subsequent adventures as a mindless pawn in the cynical hands of the authorities.

~Print copy, 169 pages
First Published: 1965 by Ballantine Books

 Well, doesn't that summary just make him sound like a victim?

Let me start this off saying that it wasn't the voice that drove me away; it was the character. The voice is quite unique; I had to peek in the glossary every two sentences, but once I got the gist of the slang, it became easier and a smoother read.

But the character I have no sympathy for. Alex does worse than "nothing to endear him to me" -- he, during the course of the novel, asks the reader to feel sorry for him, like some slimy character asking for forgiveness just to stab you in the back again. He ends up in jail for rape and murder; not because of the "cynical hands of the authorities" but of his own volition. He tries to force control over a gang of his "droogs", and one of them leaves him for the authorities to deal with.

And then, there's the Ludovico Technique. I reserve my own opinions about that -- this post will not end up a discussion of choice vs. crime -- but I will say this: I have learned from this book never to sign contracts without reading them.And, of course, that Alex is not any more endearing because he went through this technique -- *mock-sob* poorvictim -- because he's the idiot that signed over his own choice.

Not to say, though, it isn't interesting to note that not only is he conditioned against violence by making him sick, the background music of the violent films he watched also made him sick. (Note to self: Post later on classical conditioning?) Amazing how it's the details that catch us up, and sometimes come back to haunt us.

I give this book a three (which is, generally, my lowest rating). From a literary standpoint, this is an interesting novel -- a look into the mind of a criminal, unique voice, all that jazz -- but if you're just reading this for fun, I have the feeling you'll turn your nose up at the main character, too -- which makes it awful hard to like.


[I could go into a lot more detail, but I made this post pretty short. Have you read this supposed classic, and do you have an opinion? Feel free to elaborate or refute my opinions!]

Monday, July 8, 2013

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock*

*Being a Wholly Truthful Account of her Various Discoveries and Misadventures, Recounted to the Best of Her Recollection, in Four Parts
Benevolence is not your typical princess -- and Princess Ben is certainly not your typical fairy tale.
With her parents lost to assassins, Princess Ben ends up under the thumb of conniving Queen Sophia. Starved and miserable, locked in the highest tower, Ben stumbles upon a mysterious enchanted room. So begins her secret education in the magical arts: mastering an obstinate flying broomstick, furtively emptying the castle pantries, setting her hair on fire... But Ben's private adventures are soon overwhelmed by a mortal threat to her kingdom. Can Ben save the country and herself from foul tyranny?

~Print copy (library), 344 pages
Published: 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Company

[I'm back on my normal blogging schedule, for those who care to know. Because, well... I care to know!]

Is it just me who looks at that title and thinks this is going to be about a transgendered princess? Because I certainly think that would make for some awesome, dramatic-and-tense fantasy.

But, alas, it is not. Ben is short for Benevolence. Not to say that this book isn't awesome in its own right, for Ben, it should be said bluntly, is fat. Interesting factoid: in medieval times (you know, where monarchy, as you apply it to fantasy, actually existed?), being fat was a sign of how rich you were. Skinny meant you couldn't afford to be fat, and fat meant you could afford to eat rich food often enough to get fat.

This book sort of looks down on her gluttony, but I think it's pleasing to come across a book out there with fat princesses. Because, you know, that would've actually paralleled real life; princesses, with all that rich food at banquets every week, really would've been fat.

So, that was definitely a good start. So, too, was the parallels to fairy tales: locked in a tower, parents killed by assassins and now under the rule of an evil "stepmother" -- though, really, she's not too evil. She's more of a woman under duress, and a lot more believable a villain. Which leads to another good thing: antagonists who are less cut cardboard and more real-life.

And the writing... THIS is good writing. It sounds sophisticated. Queen-like, because this is sort of Queen Ben's memoir of her past as a princess. Which is really good format for this novel because it reads lovely, has an explanation for reading lovely, and tells the story in a coherent way.

In fact, the whole first two parts were really quite interesting. It's the second two parts that left me a bit troubled.

First off, because there wasn't a slightest hint of romance in the first half, I kind of assumed it would be that -- non-romantic. Actually, she mentions several times that she never wants to get married. My kind of heroine! It's only in the second half that it becomes relevant, and I really don't appreciate it sprung on me. (Here's my opinion on romance.)

While the last parts did amuse me, and leave me at the edge of my seat in places, that romance, truth be told, kind of spoiled it. I realize in my mind that queens do have to get married, as do all monarchs, in order to procure a hereditary heir to the throne. But I did not want to indulge in that voice of reason, because I wanted to indulge in that disbelief that you have while reading. I mean, she mentioned she didn't want to get married! I didn't think she would consent to being married! But, spoiler alert -- as in all fairy tales, he gets the princess. (I won't mention who.)

The tales of the dragon in the nearby mountain, the evil country bent on dominating their smaller but more fertile kingdom, the Queen-who's-more-of-a-general... I loved those parts. The romance was disappointing.

And there's the small matter of setting. With the magic and the tales of a dragon, I'd believed this to be a made-up land. In the second half, though, the author drops hints of France and such in the matter, and suddenly I can't tell where this novel is located. Are these made-up warring kingdoms? Made-up kingdoms set in real life? Or real-life kingdoms I've never heard of? I still don't know, though I sort of suspect option #2.

So, overall, I thought it was lovely in some parts -- the writing, the fairy tale parallels, finding an actual fat princess -- and in others, not so much (mainly, setting and romance). I'm not really sure what I give it -- a 3.25 stars, really. I'd recommend it to people who like fairy tales, but who aren't so quirky as to suspend the whole romantic notion of fairy tales, like I do.



Friday, July 5, 2013

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell

In prose poetry and alternating voices, award-winning author Marlene Carvell weaves a heartbreakingly beautiful story based on the real-life experiences of Native American children.

Mattie and Sarah are two Mohawk sisters sent to an off-reservation school after the death of their mother. Subject to intimidation and corporal punishment, with little hope of contact with their father, the girls are taught menial tasks to prepare them for life as domestics. How Mattie and Sarah protect their culture, memories of their family life, and their love for each other under this forced assimilation makes for a powerful, unforgettable historical novel.

~Print copy (library), 243 pages
Published: 2005 by Dutton Children's Books

This book... definitely worth a read.

At first, I thought this would be a bit plot-slow, that this would be a fast read. But the characters are rather engaging -- Mattie, the rebellious elder sister, looking after her little sister Sarah, who in turn wanted to keep her older sister out of trouble; Ruthie and Gracie, their friends who might be more fearful but try to be loyal nonetheless; and, of course, the evil villain, Mrs. Dwyer, who runs the school.

It's set in a special school during the early 1900s (late 1890s?), meant for Native Americans to learn English and "White People" culture. Of course, this was before things like making girls work in a boiling hot laundry room all day was frowned upon. Mrs. Dwyer, the headmistress (or whatever her title is; I'm not really an expert on school titles from over a century ago) has the girls march every place, makes sure Mattie and Sarah -- who've never been apart -- don't have beds next to each other's, and when they don't follow rules, has them skip supper. At one point, Mattie writes a beautiful short story about her mother's basket weaving, and when the English teacher tries to have it published in their school newspaper, Mrs. Dwyer has it crushed for being too "Native American".

There is, of course, a plot, though it drags a bit in the first half of the novel. It's written quite beautifully, though, between the two sisters. The plot really picks up about halfway through, when the abuse suffered at the hands of Mrs. Dwyer gets worse, due to her thinking that rebellious little Mattie stole a brooch of hers.

The verse format makes this an easy read, but not a "dumb" or "inferior" read. It's just as complicated and real as a real novel. It's written almost directly how the characters think, and not along traditional styles of worldbuilding and scene-setting. It's more sparse, like poetry that insinuates the scenery in fewer words.

I also like the incorporation of Native American words into the novel, words like "Father" and "Mother" that really makes the whole family theme stick out without pushing it in your face. And how Carvell adds details of home, of their culture, into the current scene; things like a basket taken from home, how they remember the river outside their home, short myth stories (or really, summaries of those stories). It really makes this book stand out as not some "boring historical" but as a deep, cross-cultural novel.

Overall, this novel was pretty heart-rending. I didn't like the ending, though I appreciated the inevitability of it -- not that I'll spoil it for you. But it has a genuine, beautiful feel to it, and I recommend that everyone read it. Four stars.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Letters to life: Independence Day

Dear world:

Today's the day America started her revolution. Through years of suffering, of a sort of Stockholm Syndrome: can you imagine the cries? "We can't go to war against Britain! They're so much more powerful. And anyways, it's where we CAME from. We can't fight our birth country!"

Assuming, of course, that it was a former Englishman speaking, since in that period of time, Englishmen were the most common. Of course there were PLENTY of other immigrants, but a lot of them (the majority?) came over from England, or their ancestors did.

What do I want to talk about? Fireworks? Some rant on how corrupt America has gotten since that glorious, morally audacious revolution some centuries ago? Perhaps even give you a "little" history lecture?

No. But I do want to mention something else: some days, when the world seems like a horrible place every day, you just need to celebrate even a seemingly small or distant thing like a war that happened centuries ago. That's sort of why we have holidays -- so we can focus on the good things, even when the world seems like a terrible, awful, nightmarish place.

Sure, I've got the number of stripes wrong and there are no stars...
But we don't need to focus on those wrong, trivial things!
I mean, I could goon about society's gender inequality... the obsessive consumerism... the financial burdens... But I don't need to, on a day like this. I can focus on how the Rev War must've seemed to a simple little Englishman who came over to be a farmer. (See improvised dialogue above.)

That is what we're about, right? As Americans, as human beings... we can focus on one little human's struggles and triumphs, than on a world of trouble. That's why we have story, right? In every corner of the globe. Because of days when we make distant, trivial things a thing close, personal, and worth celebrating.

So that little Englishman -- dead for three centuries, forgotten or maybe even purely hypothetical -- can Rest-In-Peace, because we created a day for people like him, where we can toss gunpowder at the sky and watch it explode as we imagine the cannon-fire to some battle we forgot the name of. AND where we can imagine impossible, highly-modernized people of that era being scared of their very lives.

Have a blessed day! (Even if, or maybe especially if, you are not American -- in which case, you can read this post like I'm from your country, and conveniently ignore trivial things like the flag picture and immigration patterns in the 1700s.)

JDM -- a decently proud American, a human being, and a lover of good stories.

P.S. I haven't actually been reading a Revolutionary War novel that would prompt such an unusual imagining. I'm just like that. Hypothetical Englishman is actually just another voice to my growing repertoire of character's voices (not that he'll be part of a historical novel anytime soon; though maybe a fantasy novel set vaguely in a Rev War-type setting).

Monday, July 1, 2013

Happy 1st of July!

I know, I know. When I read the title of this post, I thought I had written '4th of July', as well. I'm too American. But we can celebrate the beginning of July, too, right? July is a lovely month -- kind of purple-y, and really hot, and June's afternoon thunderstorms start to head off.

Of course, it signals the beginning of our annual drought here in VA, but it's not really so bad as droughts go -- it barely affects me, actually. And anyways, I generally consider July to be the bulk of summers, because half of June is spent in school and August is when you prepare for next school year. So, really, July is my summer vacation.


In case you couldn't tell, I am REALLY excited today, guys. I finished the second draft of my novel, Wretched Roads. (I almost feel comfortable with sharing my title. Almost.) I feel a lot more comfortable with the plot now, but I'm going to leave it be for the entirety of this month. In the meantime, I'll write the first draft of its sequel. (Because I really want this to be a quartet, even though I haven't done so much as edit it myself, let alone something like peer-reading or querying agents. Not yet at least.)

I'm almost too excited to write. But I'm going to calm myself down with some music. Well, "calm" is relative... I'm listening to Blackmore's Night, which is a medieval-y Renaissance music group. ("Under a Violet Moon" sounds perfect for Halloween, but it's pretty freakin' awesome in July, as well.) Celtic Woman and Blackmore's Night and Heather Dale help me get back into that fantasy mood.

I'm reading Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell -- a verse novel about Native American sisters. Definitely a good read so far. (It's amazing what you find in a library as compared to a bookstore -- this book is from 2005, and I've never really seen it elsewhere, but I picked it randomly off a library shelf and couldn't resist reading. Real lovely novel.)

Now I almost feel like doing my AP Lit summer assignment, but it feels like it's too early in the summer. But I know I should, because it's a lot of work, and a lot of reading, and it probably won't even be nearly so bad as I think. After all, I can choose my own book to answer questions about plot and theme and character and so forth. (I'm thinking Sherlock Holmes or Gulliver's Travels. Or maybe even the Picture of Dorian Gray.)

How about you? How's your summer going? Have a blessed Monday (if such a thing exists)!