Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

172. Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Publication: Scholastic Press (May 1, 2010), Hardcover, 400pp / ISBN 0545106052
Genre: Historical Fiction, Documentary Novel, MG
Rating:
Read: August 2010
Source: Library
Summary from Amazon:

It’s 1962, and it seems everyone is living in fear. Twelve-year-old Franny Chapman lives with her family in Washington, DC, during the days surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Amidst the pervasive threat of nuclear war, Franny must face the tension between herself and her younger brother, figure out where she fits in with her family, and look beyond outward appearances. For Franny, as for all Americans, it’s going to be a formative year.

Review

I found this on the new book shelf at the library where I work and was immediately attracted by a) the cover and b) the numerous photos and documents reproduced inside. You may be wondering what a “documentary novel” is– well, that’s a phrase the author coined herself, and basically it means a historical fiction novel with actual stuff from that historical time period mixed in for visuals.

So alongside a chapter about kids practicing ducking and covering, for instance, is images of the propaganda depicting just that. It’s very interesting stuff, and I think it actually makes the novel more effective. Reading about Franny’s experiences during the 60′s is one thing; she’s a fictional character, and that automatically puts a distance between the actual events and what’s being presented in the book. The addition of photos, movie stills, maps, etc. closes that distance and brings the whole thing more into the realm of reality.

Countdown is furthermore brought into reality by the fact that Deborah Wiles went through almost exactly what Franny went through in the book. She lived where Franny lived, she went to a version of the school Franny went to, and Franny’s friends were a version of Ms Wiles’ friends. The story is told with an authority that you tend to get with people writing autobiographical fiction books, and I really enjoyed that.

There’s lots of interesting details in Countdown. It essentially takes place in a middle class white person bubble, but there are hints to what’s going on in the rest of the world– protests, marches, etc– and I hope that’s explored more in the next book. There’s also big themes of friendship and family and just plain ol’ kid-growing-up, which was nice because it kept the book grounded in real life– I know I keep saying that– and made it about the PEOPLE who lived through the 60′s rather than just what was going on in the 60′s era.

So, Countdown: a really excellent book! And I’m looking forward to reading the next two in the series whenever they come out.

And

Watch the trailer:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2djqcv91GU]

Get your own copy @ Amazon or Powells and support Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog!

Other reviews: The Reading Zone | Semicolon | Reading and Rooibos | GalleySmith | The Happy Nappy Bookseller

If you like this book you might also like Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, a YA book set during WWII that deals with a lot of the same feelings and situations that Countdown deals with like friendships, being loyal to your country and what that means when individuals get involved, and the terror of living during an unsteady time. Or you might like Spying on Miss Muller by Eve Bunting, another WWII era YA book set in a girls’ boarding school that deals with friendship, peer pressure, acceptance and tolerance, and boys.

Also: I’m actually taking a class on the 1960′s in America this semester! It’s super interesting so far, and we’re reading really good books (and watching a few movies).

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Status of the blog

So classes started here on Monday, and I’m already feeling a) overwhelmed and b) extremely capable. “Overwhelmed” because there is a LOT to do in each class, a lot of writing and reading. “Capable” because I think I can handle it. Unfortunately I can only handle it if I cut out some time spent on hobbies. Hobbies like blogging and reading-for-fun.

I don’t plan on completely cutting out blogging (or fun reading), but I suspect I’ll be doing it a lot less than I was in previous semesters. So here’s what’ll change:

  • Reviews will be shorter and probably there’ll be more of them in one post. Like my mini-reviews posts are.
  • I’ll be cutting out memes, including my Thursday Tea meme and Sunday Salon (which were the only ones I was doing, anyway).
  • I’ll be absent for most blogging community things (including comments and events), though I’ll check in on the more important ones.

Now let’s see how well I’ll keep to my plan! I’ll be Tweeting when I can so you can keep up with me there if you want. Or you can email me, because I’ll always have time for emails! :D

Winner of A Desirable Residence!


The winner of A Desirable Residence is #20: Ruthie B.! Congratulations! Her favorite book she read this summer (a question I forced entrants to answer) was A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which I haven’t read but of course is very popular.

Thank you to everyone who entered! I’ll be doing more giveaways later on in September, so stay tuned if you wanna, y’know, get more free books.

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Review: Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

170. Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
Publication: Balzer + Bray (February 23, 2010), Hardback, 272pp / ISBN 0061791059
Genre: Historical Fiction, MG
Rating:
Read: August 2010
Source: Library
Summary from Amazon:

Found running wild in the forest of Ashton Place, the Incorrigibles are no ordinary children: Alexander, age ten or thereabouts, keeps his siblings in line with gentle nips; Cassiopeia, perhaps four or five, has a bark that is (usually) worse than her bite; and Beowulf, age somewhere-in-the-middle, is alarmingly adept at chasing squirrels.

Luckily, Miss Penelope Lumley is no ordinary governess. Only fifteen years old and a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, Penelope embraces the challenge of her new position. Though she is eager to instruct the children in Latin verbs and the proper use of globes, first she must help them overcome their canine tendencies.

But mysteries abound at Ashton Place: Who are these three wild creatures, and how did they come to live in the vast forests of the estate? Why does Old Timothy, the coachman, lurk around every corner? Will Penelope be able to teach the Incorrigibles table manners and socially useful phrases in time for Lady Constance’s holiday ball? And what on earth is a schottische?

Review

This is such an adorable book! And I’ve probably just turned off about half of you, but believe me when I say it’s also got some things in it that absolutely horrified me, some exciting scenes that kept me reading long beyond the time I should be asleep, and a strong female protagonist that anyone would love to read about.

Probably there will be spoilers from here on out.

Mostly the horrifying things came from the characters other than Penelope and the Incorrigible children, like the people who took in the children and all their friends. Everyone but Penelope seems to be under the impression that just because the children were living among wolves for a few years and act more like animals than humans, their humanity is negated and so it’s totally okay to go off hunting them with GUNS, oh my god it was seriously disturbing. And the worst thing is that people in the Victorian times thought exactly that! And I bet some people in today’s modern world would think the children were animals, too. (But would they try to hunt them?)

That’s one thing I liked about The Mysterious Howling, actually: it wasn’t afraid to talk about horrible things like grown men trying to hunt down children with guns, though it does it within a shell of innocence (Penelope’s, mainly) and MG-style writing. I appreciated that, because it could have very easily slipped into a melodrama/Gothic thing, and instead it’s a quirky, sweet, slightly-tinged-with-horror story.

For such a sweet story there was a surprising amount of character depth and development– although maybe not so much positive development in anyone other than Penelope, who became extremely responsible, and the children, who learned quickly to act more civilized– and I appreciated that even though the baddies were obviously unhinged, they weren’t just evil because they were evil. There were reasons for the bad things they did, and there was even hints that they could be reformed into goodies if Penelope stuck around them long enough. Sort of like how Mary Poppins fixed everyone in the Banks house (not that Penelope is up to M. Poppins’ standards of nanny-ing, yet). Penelope is very practical, a thing which tends to be appreciated in a person, and I’m sure she could win over anyone given enough time.

I do look forward to reading the next book in the series, because this one ends with a very big (and yet somewhat expected) revelation that should be fun to explore later. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be released until March 2010! Woe is me.

And

Watch the book trailer:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aatYYpQbCoU]

Get your own copy @ Amazon or Powell’s and support Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog!

Other reviews: Books By Their Cover | Confessions of a Bibliovore | Becky’s Book Reviews | A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy

The book has a cute website with some interesting extras, so be sure to check it out!

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Mini-Reviews: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Magic Moon, Trinity Blood #1

153. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
Publication: Pocket (June 1, 1991), Paperback, 306pp / ISBN 0671746723
Genre: Sci-fi, Fantasy, Humor
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Bought

Review

I had to read this for my summer class, and I’m glad I was forced to because I don’t think I would have made it past the first few pages if I didn’t expect for it to get better. Those were some boring first few pages. Ignore those pages. It does get better. It gets so much better I feel like slapping myself for having a copy of Dirk Gently for over a year and not reading it!

Honestly, I think I like it a little better than even the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. Possibly I just like Dirk Gently better than any other Douglas Adams character, but I also really like the themes in Dirk Gently. Think for yourself, don’t depend on someone else (or something else) to make decisions for you, and don’t make science into a religion? Those’re some good themes, and they’re cushioned in a humor so delicious I just want to cuddle the book close and never let it go. It’s wonderful.

If you haven’t already read a Douglas Adams book then this one might the book to start with. If you have read a Douglas Adams book before then you won’t be disappointed with Dirk Gently. Either way– totally worth reading!

154. Magic Moon by Wolfgang and Heike Hohlbein
Publication: TokyoPop (October 3, 2006), Paperback, 344pp / ISBN 159816452X
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, MG
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Bought

Review

Oh my GOD I hated this book. Now that it’s been a few weeks since I read it I can look back and understand why, exactly, I disliked it so much, but at the time all I could think about was that I wasted three hours reading it. So here’s why I didn’t like Magic Moon:

1. Either the writing or the translation is very plodding. It doesn’t have a flow, it’s very choppy, and in some parts it feels like half the meaning of the words was missing. In other parts it’s like half the STORY is missing, and it got really annoying.
2. The characters are pretty stereotypical. Actually, the entire story is stereotypical. Young boy hero saves a fantasy world? That plot only makes me happy when it’s got something different going on in the details or a plot twist somewhere, or something Magic Moon doesn’t have anything like that. It’s just a typical wannabe-epic fantasy with all the standard epic fantasy characters. None of them have any depth– and if they did have depth I completely missed it– none of them are likable, and by the end I hated all of them.
3. The dialogue is horrible. Again, it might be the translation, but it felt like the characters were reading from a script from a particularly bad B-movie. Seriously cheesy stuff.

So basically, it’s a typical fantasy story with half-baked characters, bad writing, and an infuriating ending. I won’t talk about the ending because, y’know, spoilers, but if it had been the exact opposite of what it was I would have felt much less irritated than I did. GOD.

155. Trinity Blood: Rage Against the Moons #1 by Sunao Yoshida
Publication: TokyoPop (April 3, 2007), Paperback, 232pp / ISBN 159816953X
Genre: Horror, Action
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Bought

Review

I read this immediately after finishing Magic Moon because I wanted something fluffy and almost totally different from what I just read. It could have been a disaster, because Trinity Blood is not the best written series– but it wasn’t! A disaster, I mean; it’s still not well written, but it is very enjoyable. It’s got vampires and a dystopian society with a weird version of the catholic church, lots of action scenes, a bit of sexuality, a killer android, a holographic nun, and a bit of steampunk thrown in for good measure. You know those silly TV shows that don’t have much depth to them but you enjoy watching them anyway, if you’re in the right mood and need something silly and relaxing to set your brain to? That’s what the Trinity Blood books are like. They won’t win any literature awards, but they’re a lot of fun to read!

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Mini-Reviews: Mimus, Malice, Scat

150. Mimus by Lilli Thal
Publication: Annick Press (September 3, 2005), Hardcover, 398pp / ISBN 1550379259
Genre: (Historical?) Fiction, YA
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Library

Review

I was really surprised by how much I liked this book, because a) it’s slow and b) there’s very little action. However, the utter richness of Mimus offsets everything else. The characters are complex, even the villains. Everyone has layers, and there’s loads of character development which you know I love. The story is slow, yeah, but the pacing is great and the story is powerful besides, more about the internal than the external. There’s lots of interesting things in it like what made a jester important and why they were still treated like crap.

Plus the ending! Oh, the ending. It wasn’t a good vs. evil battle of skill and honor and the baddies are defeated forever and are either dead or exiled. This isn’t a Grimm Bros. fairytale– it’s actually a pretty freakin’ historically accurate ending for a story set vaguely in the medieval times, and that’s all I’ll say about it. I want you to read the book for yourself and experience the ending alone (and then you can come back here and we’ll squee about it together.) If you like stories that go away from the more typical stories, stories that have a fantastic insight into how people tick, stories that punch you in the heart but still leave you hoping for happy endings, then you’ll like Mimus.

151. Malice by Chris Wooding
Publication: Scholastic Press (October 1, 2009), Hardcover, 384pp / ISBN 054516043X
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, MG
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Library

Review

On the hardcover version of Malice there are 3D elements which I thought was very cool, and that’s really the only reason I picked it up. I’ve read another of Chris Wooding’s books before but wasn’t overly wowed; I’m still not really wowed with Malice but I do appreciated how scary it actually was. It reminded me of a slightly more adult R.L. Stine book. The action sequences and the horror bits were very well-done, and I liked the comic book art mixed in with the text (although…it’s not the best art).

I do wish the characters had had more depth to them, and that whatever depth they did have had been shown rather than told to me. I also do want to read the sequel to Malice which is coming out in October. It ended on a cliffhanger– that always riles me into wanting to read the next book– but also I think it’d be fun to spend a Saturday evening reading it.

152. Scat by Carl Hiassen
Publication: Knopf Books for Young Readers (January 27, 2009), Hardcover, 384pp / ISBN 0375834869
Genre: Fiction, MG
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Library

Review

Okay, so I didn’t really like this book. It sort of reminded me of an E.L. Konigsburg book, how she’s always trying to get her readers to think more deeply about what makes up a person and how what we see on the outside isn’t always what someone’s like on the inside. Scat has that in spades, with a mean teacher and a bully and an environmentalist that looks like a thug. They’re actually all nice people, who want to help the wetlands and do good things (like make sure students actually take something away from a class); it’s just that they don’t exactly come off as good people right at the start.

But Scat falls short in extending that same not-what-they-seem line to the baddies in the book. The baddies are all stupid, greedy, and reckless, with an edge of malice to them that was surprising in a MG book. But there’s no more to them than that. They’re just baddies (with helicopters!), and that’s all there is.I suppose I was just disappointed that there wasn’t more to them. And anyway, it’s not as well-written as a Konigsburg book (usually) is, and by the end I was kinda bored.

Or maybe I was just annoyed it wasn’t an E.L. Konigsburg book. Possibly that’s it.

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Mini-Reviews: A Madness of Angels, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost

147. A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
Publication: Orbit (April 6, 2009), Hardback, 464pp / ISBN 0316041254
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Library

Review

I picked this up from the library based on this book trailer from way back. Well. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for– I think sometimes the writing was trying too hard to be lyrical and that irritated me– and there was such a large hurdle at the beginning of trying to sort out the I/we stuff that we didn’t start off on all that right a foot with each other. But I did enjoy it enough to want to read the next book in the series whenever it comes out.

I’m hoping that because of certain events in this book, which I won’t get into because of spoilers, book two will be somewhat easier to read (and understand). And I also hope that it has lots more nifty urban magic stuff in it, because that was my favorite part of the book! I loved how Ms Griffin weaved the worlds of magic and modern science together: some of it was amazing, and some of it was scary and I really enjoyed it. I liked Matthew Swift, the protagonist, too, though it took me a while because of the whole confusion thing to actually achieve that state.

If you like books like Neverwhere, the Stoneheart trilogy or the Dresden Files series, you’ll probably like A Madness of Angels, too.

148. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm
Publication: Three Rivers Press (April 22, 2008), Paperback, 288pp / ISBN 0307394654
Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Library

Review

If I thought Tony Wheeler was a douche bag, this guy was an even bigger one. The whole book is him whining about not being paid enough money to write his guide book, not having enough time to finish writing, getting drunk, getting high, and having sex. He also half-asses much of what he’s writing or just makes shit up. Near the end he’s completely out of money (because he blew it all on booze!!) and has to sell drugs to make enough to finish his assignment and get out of Brazil.

To be more fair, some of the writing was very good, and the story of how he got to be a travel writer was interesting. It almost made me like him! I also liked the behind the scenes stuff for travel writing, especially since he didn’t really pull any punches. But he ruined it at the end. Oh, how he ruined it.

I think Mr Kohnstamm was trying to get my sympathy by pulling out the travel-writers-don’t-get-paid-enough card, which is true, and it’s also true that they don’t have a lot of time to actually write about what they’re supposed to. It’s a tough job, and Mr Kohnstamm was trying to do a good job…at least in the beginning of his assignment. But I don’t enjoy reading about frat boy behavior and I DON’T have any sympathy for people who get wasted every night and then wonder where the hell their money went! DUH. Down your throat.

Read it if you want to know more about travel writing, but don’t expect to like the author or any of the people he writes about. I think he was going for a Hunter S. Thompson thing, but he’s nowhere near as interesting as Thompson, so.

149. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost by Rachel Manija Brown
Publication: Rodale Books (September 15, 2005), Hardcover, 352pp / ISBN 1594861390
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Rating:
Read: July 2010
Source: Library

Review

This book seriously made up for the crap in Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?! I loved it. I love it just as much as I loved Meeting Faith, except it reminds me more of Around the Bloc in that it’s less focused on personal spiritual growth and more on how an individual reacts to a culture almost entirely different from their own and how it affects their life. Hint: it was in a profound way. The twist is that the strange culture Ms Brown was introduced to was her own parents.

See, they belong(ed) to a cult that thinks this dude called Meher Baba was a manifestation of God. (You may know him as the guy who coined “don’t worry, be happy.”) Her parents moved to India in the 1980s, bringing Ms Brown along with them and setting up a new life in an ashram. It’s a radical change from the very Western upbringing Ms Brown had, and she does talk about that a lot. But she never dips into the “omg aren’t these people funny and weird” territory that some travel memoirs love to talk about. It’s more like “here’s what happened, and some of it’s horrible and some of it was good, and it’s all what made me the person I am today.”

It’s a funny book, make no doubt about that, but some of the things that happened to Ms Brown were Not Good. And then when she talks about the impact her experiences in India had on her life as an adult– it gets a little sad. But it’s a really enjoyable book, and I’ll totally read whatever else Ms Brown has to offer! All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is her first book, but I’m going to keep an eye out for any others.

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