Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Favorite Villains

We thought that, in honor of Halloween, discussing our favorite villains would be appropriate.

It's really hard for me to pick a favorite villain, because I so often find myself liking the villain more than I like the protagonist. I know why, though: Protagonists - especially in YA fiction - are supposed to be placeholders. You're supposed to be able to easily pull Harry Potter or Bella Swan or Eragon out of their books and drop yourself in and live the adventure through them. That's how those books work. This means that the authors have more leeway to create villains than they do with protagonists. Villains can have intricate backstory and strong personality traits and intense characteristics that the good guy isn't supposed to have, because it would make him less of an "everyman."

A lot of the villains I really like aren't true "villains" either. I like gray area. The best villains aren't pure evil, cackling maniacally and/or giving an overwrought speech about his evil deeds or plans while the "good guy" is hanging on for dear life. They make a bad decision that turns out worse than they expected, and they have to figure out how to deal with the consequences. Or they are former "bad guys" who are rehabilitated and have to contend with what that means for them. Or they are given a rare opportunity and do the less-than-noble thing, which most of us wouldn't want to admit to, but would probably do in the same situation.

With all that long-winded explanation, I can finally tell you... I really like Doctor Dee / Doctor Destiny / John Dee from Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. (Cue the groaning by everyone who knows that Neil Gaiman wrote that, and is sick of me talking about him and his work.)

Dee is pretty evil. You don't expect a nice person to say things like "I think I'll dismember the world and then I'll dance in the wreckage." (You also don't expect sane people to say things like that, and Dee was being held in Arkham Asylum, so you can take his dialogue with a grain of salt.)

I don't want to give anything away, because every panel (it's a graphic novel, remember) is a gem. But the best part of his story arc is when he holds hostages in a diner for 24 hours. It's great writing and great artistry and it's just wonderful in a terrible way.

He's a DC Comics villain, but I'm not familiar with anything he's done in any other comics, so I can't speak to those.


On the left: Doctor Destiny as you may know him from the Justice League. On the right: Dee as he appears in Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes.

My favorite villain is from Disney (cue the collective groans) but it's from back in the day when Disney knew how to do it right.  I love Maleficent.  I think she's great and conniving and excellent.  She's the classic example of a woman scorned.  She really has no scruples.  Think about how long she held a grudge.  She waited sixteen years for her revenge.  I mean, that takes some patience.  All because she didn't get invited to a christening.

And she did some intricate planning, too.  Briar Rose had to prick her finger on a spindle, where she fell asleep and her prince had to hack his way through a thorn filled rose patch to get to her and wake her with a kiss.  That is, after he fought Maleficent who turned into a large and fearsome dragon.   

Disney's Sleeping Beauty isn't the first place that Maleficent shows up.  We first see her as a wicked fairy godmother in Perrault's original Sleeping Beauty (which, if you get the chance, you should read.  It's very naughty and dirty and not at all fit for children.)  She then showed up again in Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty, but her name was Carabosse.  The story for all of these fairy tales is the same; Maleficent curses Briar Rose, the prince has to rescue her and Maleficent has to fight him.

Inevitably, she always loses, but she's one of the most powerful witches, one of the most alluring and one of the most vicious fairy tale characters.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

All Hallow's Read

A librarian friend of mine posted this on Facebook recently. Since Halloween is tomorrow, I thought I needed to share this with you, our dear readers.

If you can't watch the video because you're at work, or your smartphone is too slow, or you just don't want to, I'll take a shot at explaining it (but I promise, the video does a better job).

All Hallow's Read is the Halloween tradition that was just waiting to happen. Here's how you participate: Give someone a scary book. Seriously, that's it. You can still do what you normally do for Halloween: give out candy, dress up, drink heavily, ignore the whole holiday entirely... whatever. But give a friend, family member, coworker, stranger, or someone else a scary book.

For more information and/or book recommendations, check out

(No, we aren't affiliated with them in any way. I just thought this was a neat idea and wanted to share it with you, our dear readers.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

eBook VS Real Book


It is the age old battle of digital vs. physical, eBook vs. real book, New age vs. Old age.  Today, Alex and I are going to be discussing benefits and drawbacks of both eReaders and physical books.  And while there will be hard core facts about both, this will mostly be our opinions.

First and foremost, you should know that Alex and I both own an eReader (Kindles for both of us.)  When we talk about eReaders, we're mostly going to be referring to those because that's the eReader we have experience with, but at the end of the day, there's not a huge difference between you're basic eReaders.  Storage wise, performance wise, visually, they all really do the same thing for you if you're looking for your basic, black and white, no nonsense eReader.  When choosing an eReader, my suggestion to you is to pick it from the company you trust/use the most.  If you use Amazon a lot, earn a lot of credit there, buy a Kindle.  They're great, great customer service and they back they're products up very well.

However, if you frequent Barnes and Noble a lot, you have a B&N card, you get credit/discounts there, then by all means, go with the Nook.  I'm not going to sit here and tell you Kindle is OH SO BETTER, because it's not and honestly, the prices are pretty comparable. I would actually probably have a Nook if I had been buying myself an eReader, but I received my Kindle as a Christmas present, and I love it, so I didn't bother switching. The only big difference is, the original Nook and standard Kindle have B&W screens that are much better for your eyes, while Kindle Fire, Nook Color and iPad are all back lit and can be very hard on your eyes, not to mention difficult to read in the sun. 

However, I'm here to tell you things about eReaders.  Good things:  

  1. They're very light these days.  You can stick them in any purse or bag or whatever and weigh MUCH less than a book.  
  2. What's more, they hold literally HUNDREDS of books.  You can borrow eBooks from your library and you can usually do it from your eReader.  
  3. Read all the books on your eReader?  Who cares?  Pop online, buy a book, read it.  What's more, there are hundreds of books that are free and thousands more under $10. You can also download eBooks from most libraries for most eReaders. Different libraries use different eBook providers, and the details vary, but most of them are compatible with iPads, Kindles, Nooks, and Droid tablets. 
  4. You can read the eReader on the beach, in the sun and now, with the new Kindles with the lights built right into the eReaders, you can read in the dark with the screen that is easy on your eyes.


  1. Well, if you're not careful about your battery, you can take out the eReader one day and the battery is dead and you have nothing to read on that long train ride.  That will never be a problem with a book.  
  2. If you leave an eReader on a train, you're out $150.  If you lose a book, you're out $7 for a paperback, $20 for a hardback.  
  3. eReaders become outdated technology, eventually.  Every few years we have new Kindles and new Nooks.  The worst with a book is waiting for the paperback to come out so you don't have to spend $20.  
  4. And you don't get that book feel.  I get it.  There's nothing like feeling a book in your hand.  And the smell. Mmm, book smell. I LOVE BOOK SMELL. Did you know they've bottled it?  I did, actually, but I didn't have $100 to spend on it.  If someone wants to buy me eau de book for my wedding, I will not protest.
  5. Also, eReaders are a contributing factor to why our libraries are going out of business. Alex the librarian respectfully disagrees. We provide eBooks too (like I mentioned before) and they're usually a lot cheaper for us to get. They also don't require maintenance (as in rebinding or shelving or things like that... we do have to make sure the databases work, but that's about it). About half the librarians I know have eReaders, and we love them. A lot of libraries actually lend out eReaders, sometimes pre-loaded with content. I could go on, but I think you all get the point.  Ok, well, I'm wrong.  But still, if we eliminate the print book for the eReader, where does that leave libraries?  I'm not saying they're THE reason, I'm just saying, they're probably not helping.  But, clearly, Alex is probably more knowledgeable than I on the subject.

So that brings us to book, the paper, physical, real life thing book.  Pros: 

  1. Books are physical things.  You buy a book and it's yours and you never have to worry about it.  You paid $7 for that physical book and it's substantial, unlike an eBook which... is not.  And we all - well, some of us - remember when Amazon had their little freakout over 1984 and everyone who had downloaded it lost it suddenly one day.
  2. There's just something about holding a book in your hand: the feel, the smell, the ability to turn the pages.  And we don't recommend spraying your eReaders with this stuff.
  3. Buying books also gives you a library of your own (not to mention supports libraries themselves.)  There's just something about being able to walk into a room and seeing books line the shelves, books that have been your friends.


  1.  Books are heavy.  Whether you're toting a book from place to place or you're moving them from one house to another, they weigh a lot.  How many times have you gotten rid of books just because you didn't want to have to pack them up?  This is actually one of the reasons I'm such a big fan of the shift to eBooks for textbooks. No student wants to carry around half a ton of textbooks every day.
  2. Books also go through wear and tear.  You read a book a lot and it starts to fall apart, show its age until, finally, it has to be replaced.  One day, you will have to shell out another $7.  Same thing if it gets lost, stolen or borrow forever by a friend.  You're now buying that book you already bought (I have a book I've bought no less than three times because I've lost it through lending and moving.)  
  3. When you travel, you have to bring multiple books.  I know that I can blow through a book pretty quickly, so I have to bring no less than three books with me.  That's three books taking up precious suitcase space.

I actually like both.  Will an eBook ever replace the real thing for me?  No, never in a million years.  I still frequent my library, have books of my own and, when I'm at home, always have a physical book in my hand.  However, my eReader is great for work.  It's great for when I'm traveling or, if I'm early for something, I can just pull it out of my purse and read a book. And if you have one of the newer eReaders like the Kindle Fire (I have the older version with a keyboard at the bottom) you can do other things, like play Angry Birds or check your email, since they're really just tablets with the capacity for storing a bunch of books.  Alex, this is a book blog.  We're supposed to be encouraging reading. If I'm caught somewhere unexpectedly, I have a book on me and I don't need to add tons of weight to my purse to have a book.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review Me Twice- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I think I'm more excited to review this book than any book that I have so far.  It has evoked more emotion and thought and controversy than any book that I've reviewed so far on this blog and that's for a lot of different reasons.

Skloot wrote this book for one big reason: to give Henrietta the notoriety that she deserves.  I really respect that.  Henrietta Lacks has been HeLa for so long, that so many people have forgotten the woman behind the cells, this woman who made so much possible for science.  I can't hate on a woman who came along and said, "No, this woman changed the world, is STILL changing the world, and we need to remember she was a woman with a life and a family."

Yet, I still learned a TON from this book.  I'll be quite frank: I didn't even know what HeLa cells were before this book.  Here on Review Me Twice, we alternate weeks on who picks the books.  This week was Alex's week, so she suggested, I said fine and dove right in without even reading the synopsis.  Imagine my shock when I found out within a few chapters that this woman did more by one simple act of giving up cells (albeit, in a less than ethical way) than I have in the entire 26 years I've been alive.

This book will make you really think.  There are a lot of shady ethics going on in this book.  Henrietta's cells were stolen.  If her cells had been taken like they were, today, with as little information as she was given, there would be a lot more problems.  Today, it IS illegal to take someone's cells for specific research without their consent.  Henrietta's cells (along with MANY other woman) were taken for a specific research project.  They were trying to create the immortal cell.  No one asked her, told her and worse, they kept it from her family for years and years because they were afraid of the repercussions.  They were afraid the family was going to come looking for things.

Despite how much this bothers me, I don't even think this was the worst.  The worst is the refusal to answer the family's questions once they DID find out and then, the coup de gras, publishing Henrietta's medical records in a book without the consent of the family, medical records they had never even been privy to.

But what if this hadn't happened?  What if Henrietta's cells hadn't been "stolen"?  Well, we'd still have polio.  The drugs that we'd have for HIV would be abominable, if we even had any at all, not to mention we wouldn't have invitro fertilization, nor would we be able to freeze cells.  HeLa cells were key in developing ALL of these things, plus millions of more.  They've helped study the effects space travel on human cells and made it medically safe to essentially experiment on humans without actually experimenting on humans.

Skloot really makes us consider where we stand on the issue.  Where do we draw the line between science and the right to our own cells?  Was a grave injustice done to this family who doesn't even have health insurance?  Or do we just tell them that they were a victim of the times and they should be honored that their mother has done so much for modern medicine?  Whichever way you lean, pick up this book and I guarantee you'll have doubts about your position at the end of it.

My Bottom Line 5/5
What an incredible book. Like Cassy said, I chose this book, and when I did, I was fairly familiar with what HeLa cells were, what they had done for science and medicine, and that they were taken under less-than-ethical circumstances. I had also heard that everyone really loved this book, which I thought was fairly unusual for a non-fiction book that was mostly a biology lesson. It was in airport bookstores, the grocery store, featured on displays in the library I work at and the one I visit as a patron. I chalked it up to the biographical portion of the book, because I also knew that Henrietta Lacks had been anonymous for a long time, and the public just eats up biographies about mysterious people (when they aren't busy being infatuated with the latest supernatural romance fiction).

Before I started reading, I glanced at the back of my copy of the book, and it had several quotes from reviewers and prestigious authors, like usual. One said something about how Rebecca Skloot works with the narrative skills of a novelist, the expertise of a biologist, and the investigative ability of a journalist. I kept that in mind the entire time I was reading, and it rang true the whole way through.

She combines the science information with the biography information very well. It isn't a strict "one chapter on cells, one chapter on the woman" pattern, but each individual chapter is usually about one or the other. She covers the history (when Henrietta was alive) and the science (what the cells did and what was done about and to the cells) and the interviewing process (how she talked to the remaining Lacks family members and the journey to learn more about Henrietta). The first page of each chapter has a timeline that tells you which period that chapter is talking about (so that you aren't reading about 1951 and suddenly you're dropped in 2000 without realizing it).

I first learned about HeLa cells in elementary school (around 1994 or 1995) and, now that I know this whole story, I know that was around the time Rebecca Skloot was trying to get in touch with the Lacks family and get them to help her learn more about the woman behind HeLa. (To put her effort into perspective, she didn't get the book written until after I graduated from college.)

I would very highly recommend this book to just about anyone. Even if you aren't really into science, I think there's a fair chance you'll enjoy this. (If you won't, then you'll know early on, because the tone and level are about the same throughout.) It's a wonderful choice for anyone who wants to extend their reading into more non-fiction.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Non-Fiction in the Library

Not all non-fiction is as sit-down-and-read-able as a biography or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks but if you're interested in finding some non-fiction that appeals to you, I have a brief guide to non-fiction in libraries for you.

Now, without going into great detail about classification systems (I'll bore you with that another day when Cassy isn't looking), I need to point out that books (and other materials) are shelved differently depending on what type of library you're in. Public libraries usually use the Dewey Decimal System, and academic/college/university libraries usually use the Library of Congress system.

I've come up with some quick guides (one for each of those classification systems) for the non-fiction categorization, for anyone looking to browse the shelves for something that interests them. I put them after the jump in the interest of not taking up the entire page with them, because they are fairly long, even with all the generalizations and omissions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Favorite Non-Fiction

Cassy and I are both bigger fans of fiction than we are of non-fiction, but we both dabble in non-fiction from time to time. Today we'll tell you what kind of non-fiction we prefer on these dabbling adventures.

Ever since eighth grade, when we read The Diary of Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel, I have been very interested in reading about the Holocaust. I hesitate to tell people this, because I get weird looks ("You LIKE reading about death and torture and the worst event in human history?!?") but I think I like Holocaust literature because it varies so widely. Every survivor who wrote about their experience did so in a very different way, because every survivor had a very different experience, even if they met the same people or were kept in the same camp or were from the same neighborhood.

I also try to read more biographies, because you never know what you might learn about someone. Sure, you think you know a lot about a celebrity or president or inventor, but a good biography will teach you new things. And the kind of biography I like treats the subject's life like a narrative, so it still feels like I'm reading fiction... except it's true. (Like watching a movie "based on a true story," but... with more truth.) I haven't found many biographies that do this well, but my favorite is Don't Panic, a biography of Douglas Adams, my second favorite author, written by Neil Gaiman, my favorite author.

I am fascinated with Tudor England.  I mean, I just love the whole time period.  I love Henry VIII and his real ridiculous ways.  I mean, the man had six wives!  And no one stopped him when he started divorcing and beheading them!  But on the other hand, he also did great things for his country and things that had a great effect on the world.  King Henry VIII split from the Catholic church and became Protestant.  I know that doesn't sound like much, but the Catholic church basically ruled everything then.  It was HUGE that Henry said, no, actually, you're not going to rule me.  Because of that, the monarchs in the other countries tried to overthrow England.  Inevitably, Henry's split from Rome is really what started the downfall of the monarchies in Europe.

And then let's not forget Elizabeth I, his daughter, who should just be considered the most Bad Ass Ruler Ever, because she basically was.  She did so much for her country and, she was a woman in a man's world on top of that.  Seriously, pick up a biography on her sometime.  It'll be epic.

The other time period that I really like to read about is the Romanov family, which I guess is where I kind of fall in with Alex in the, "You like to read about something that depressing?"  It is depressing.  I like reading it though, because you get the story behind the tragedy.  For instance, everyone say Alexandra as this cold, distant, German Empress but, in fact, she loved her adopted country.  She just had a son who was in constant peril.  Nickolas also loved his country dearly.  He just really sucked at ruling it.  I mean, he was REALLY bad at it.  It really makes the tragedy that much, well, more tragic because they weren't terrible people.  They loved their country and really were trying to do what was best for it.  They just didn't really know how to.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Little Opinion Piece

Usually Tuesday/Thursday posts are reserved for either a post from me or a post from Alex.  However, this week, because our book this week presents a little bit of a hot topic, I have decided to express my opinion and invited Alex onto my day of the week to do the same.

In our book this week, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, there's a lot of controversy surrounding whether the Lacks family should have gotten a cut of the money, the rights they had in terms of their mother's cells and, inevitably, the rights one has to their own tissue and cells.  As of the time the book was published (2009), you didn't have rights to your own tissue once they left your body.  They're considered waste and can be used for anything.  What's more, you don't have to be told what they're being used for.  Your cells could be used to find better ways to abort a baby or build a bomb, and you would never know.  (Ok, I'm using extremes here, but you get the general idea.  To be fair, your cells could also be used to cure cancer or make people live forever, just so we have a balanced argument.)

Now, there are some conditions.  If the doctor is taking your cells for something specific, like he wants your cells to use in a specific cancer study, he has to tell you.  Or if the doctor knows that he's going to be using those cells to experiment on baby abortions or immortality, he is required, by law, to tell you.  If you say no, he's not allowed to use them.  But that's where your rights end as a human over your tissues (unless you happen to patent them... but that's a whole other can of worms that I'm not going to get into.)

So now that I've given you that background on your rights, how do I feel about it?  Honestly, it's a weird subject.  I mean, on the one hand I think everyone has that feeling of, "But they're MINE and you're using them without telling me."  But really, people have probably been using my cells in genetic testing for all of my 26 years and I've never known.  Every single baby in America (and probably many other countries) has blood taken for genetic testing on the day they're born.  It's done for their own good to see if they're going to develop any genetic disorders when they're older.  What do you think happens to that blood left over when they finish testing for genetic diseases?  That's right; it gets put in a general pool of "This can be used for whatever we want."  Every time you give blood, have a mole removed, hell, donate your hair to things like Locks of Love.  Your tissues get tested on.  I have the basic theory that it's been happening all this time, why stop now?  It hasn't done me any harm and it's done lots of people lots of good (or one could only assume.)

"But Cassy, what happens if they use your cells for BAD things?"  How do I know that they already haven't?  My blood is in a bank somewhere with a number on it (I've given blood three times in my life.  What do you think they do with the six little vials of blood that they take to begin with?)  No one really knows that it belongs to me.  I don't don't even know that it belongs to me.  So if it's used to test the effect nuclear bombs have on humans, I, nor the scientists who use that blood, will ever know it was mine.  What's more, I never really gave my consent to have it used.  I just donated my blood and for some reason, they couldn't use it in the blood bank (maybe my iron was too low that day.)  And if I stop them from using my blood from the bomb testing, I also have to stop them from the cancer research testing.

This is a really complicated issue, obviously. Cassy put everything really well, and I mostly agree with her opinions. I don't care what my blood, or cells, or tissues are used for (as long as I'm done using them, of course).

A lot of horrific things have been done in the name of science, technology, medicine, and progress throughout history. You've probably heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the many terrifying tests done on concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. These are just two notable examples, but things like this happened all the time before there were laws to prevent them.

But with Henrietta Lacks, we're talking about cells that were no longer attached to her, and therefore testing on them couldn't hurt her. Still, some people don't see their cells that way, and would object to any testing on those cells that they didn't know about or approve of beforehand.

Lucky for me, I don't mind if anyone tests my "abandoned" cells for things that might help humankind, so it's not a concern for me. But if it's a problem for you, you might want to have a very in-depth discussion with anyone who ever takes your blood or does any routine tests on you or extracts a tooth or cuts your hair (depending on how strongly you feel about it).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells

This week, we're going to be reviewing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, our first non-fiction book! But before we get to that point, I thought maybe we should tell you who Henrietta Lacks was, and why this book was written about her.  Excellent idea because I didn't know a single thing about here when I started reading about her.  

In 1951, an impoverished black woman from Virginia contracted cancer and went to Johns Hopkins for treatment. One of her doctors removed a slice of her cancerous tissue and sent it to a lab that was working on the problem of keeping human cells alive in petri dishes. We wanted to be able to do that, because there's only so much that animal testing can tell us, but most of the tests we needed to do would be unethical to perform on living humans.  Testing on humans is unethical?  Well, I guess that means that I have to stop cloning my little sister in my basement. ;) 

These cells were labeled "HeLa" because their naming convention was to use a few letters from the names of the people who "donated" them. (I say "donated" because Henrietta had no idea her cells had been taken.) They grew like crazy, and didn't die like every sample before them had.

These are HeLa cells dividing under an electron microscope. But you could tell that at first glance, right?  Totes.  Looks just like her.  That little spiky thing completely has her features.
HeLa cells are used today in nearly every lab in the world that needs live cells. They don't die in culture, they freeze and travel well, and they are used in research every single day. One of the first things they were used for was testing Jonas Salk's polio vaccine on a large scale (to verify its safety for use in children). They are also one of the reasons we understand chromosomes as well as we do today (which, in turn, led to understanding and being able to identify/diagnose genetic disorders).

Despite how important her cells were, though, Henrietta never knew any of this. Neither did her family, until many years later. This was partially due to Henrietta's doctors not releasing her name (half because of patient privacy, half because they had taken the cells without her knowledge or consent) and journalists choosing a name on their own: Helen Lane (or sometimes Helen Larson).

See the fun things you can learn from reading non-fiction?  Yes, that if you're not into science, this probably isn't going to be the book for you (but that you should continue to read our blog for the snarky commentary.)  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Review Me Twice- The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I'm not really sure what I was expecting out of this book.  I guess something that was more epic than the epic tale.  Something a little darker because, after all, it IS Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid's Tale is just all sorts of epic and wonderful (and you should read it if you haven't and maybe even one day we'll review it if we're so inclined, but not right now.)  However, the book just didn't do for me what I thought it would.

Now, that's not to say it wasn't well written.  Much as I expected, Miss Atwood delivered a wonderfully woven tale with the most elegantly crafted sentences and a vocabulary that titillates.  The story is paced well and those are all things that I like.

I also like that we see Penelope in the underworld.  I like that it's a post-humus thing and she is in the Elysium fields, talking to us about this tragic event in her life and everything that went along with it.  And, for a character, Penelope is pretty well fleshed out.  We can see her obvious jealousies (she practically turns green when she sees Helen of Troy) and we can see that she's telling this story to deflect doubt off of her.  She's trying to get us to believe that it's not her fault.

That's where my favorite part comes in.  We have the "Chorus" which is the 12 maids who, essentially, talk in unison.  But they tell us all the dirty little secrets that Penelope isn't telling us.  But is she not telling us, or are the maids just gossips?  Because, after all, she's cultivated them to be so.  But so much doesn't add up about Penelope's story.  She's constantly trying to make herself look like the good guy, and innocent and how she's SO sorry for what happened (this is about the time my YA literature professor would interject the term unreliable narrator.)  I really like that Atwood used the Maids to cast so much doubt on Penelope, this character who, through all of history has always been viewed as the faithful, reliable wife.

But the book didn't really click with me much past that and I think a big reason was because I just didn't find Penelope all that interesting.  She was kind of insipid and whiny and "God, Helen always gets all the attention and why can't anyone ever see just how terrible she is?"  It really got on my nerves and I feel like, when the person is narrating, that's the last thing that you want to have happen.

Bottom line: 3 out of 5.
What an interesting book. It's not like anything I've read before, except... it is. The format is similar to that of The Odyssey, complete with chorus sections interspersed (mostly done by the maids), which is a nice touch on Margaret Atwood's part. It's a rewrite of a myth I've heard several times before. And I've read things narrated by a protagonist I know to be speaking from the afterlife. But all of these things combined made for a new-ish reading experience that I really enjoyed.

The story is somehow compelling, even though Penelope basically tells you the whole thing right at the beginning, by recapping the myth we all know (or could learn quickly by reading the introduction). Even though I knew what would happen next, I kept finding myself propelled through the pages to find out... what would happen next.

Several of my English classes in undergrad discussed "unreliable narrators." We studied these characters in stories where, at the end, it turns out the narrator was hallucinating, or dreaming, or suffered from mental illness, or was trying to convince or persuade or lie the whole time. I get one of these feelings from Penelope, and I like it. I really like unreliable narrators. They keep things interesting. And in the end, it doesn't really matter if they're right or not, because they've told a story. (It's up to you, the audience, to decide how seriously you'll take their story.)

I would have very much enjoyed reading this when I read the original myth, because it offers such an interesting alternative perspective on the stories we all accept as the myth of Odysseus and everyone around him.

The only people I wouldn't recommend this to are those who really genuinely dislike the Odysseus stories (because that would taint the whole book for those readers). Otherwise, give it a shot.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Myths: Things Need Not Have Happened To Be True

"Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot."
(Neil Gaiman, The Sandman)

I say that quotation a lot. But it's so true. Look at myths, for example. It doesn't really matter if there was ever a man named Odysseus who married a woman named Penelope and fathered a son named Telemachus and sailed off to have grand adventures involving gods and goddesses and a Cyclops and sirens. The story is the important thing.

There are lessons to be learned, emotions to be experienced, and information to be remembered through stories and myths like these. The details of the facts are entirely secondary.

Let's use Odysseus as our example. At one point in his adventures, Odysseus and his men encountered the giant Cyclops, Polyphemus. They were poking around in his cave, trying to figure out who lived there, when he came back with his sheep and blocked them into the cave with a giant rock. Polyphemus then proceeds to eat two of Odysseus's men for each meal until Odysseus hatches a plan. He gets Polyphemus particularly drunk, tells him his name is "no one" and Polyphemus (in a display of terrible rudeness) says he will eat "no one" last. When Polyphemus passes out, Odysseus blinds his with a flaming stake. (Polyphemus cries out to his fellow cyclopes that "no one" has blinded him, and they think he's a drunk idiot.) Odysseus and his remaining men tie themselves to the undersides of Polyphemus's sheep, and escape when he lets them out to graze. (To his credit, Polyphemus did feel the sheeps' backs, to be sure the men weren't riding out on them.) Odysseus's mistake was, when they got safely to the ship, calling back and announcing that he was not "no one" and was, in fact, Odysseus, the King of Ithaca. This is how Poseidon (Polyphemus's father and god of the sea) knew who to punish, and Odysseus had a heck of a time getting home.

Penelope indirectly suggests, in The Penelopiad, that perhaps instead of a giant Cyclops, her husband had in fact brawled with and/or tricked a one-eyed innkeeper, and the story-tellers who sang his praises exaggerated the encounter in order to flatter Penelope and suggest that she is better by association with such a brave and clever man as Odysseus. The truth is unimportant; the implications are why the story is still being told two thousand years later.

But who really cares whether Odysseus tricked a cyclops or an innkeeper? The point is that the story is interesting, the solution was clever, and the moral is one that the wise will heed. (Something about modesty or keeping your mouth shut at the right times or something like that.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Favorite Myths

I’ve never been a big fan of Greek or Roman mythologies. They’re all pretty good, but after I get through a few of them, I just see marble statue after marble statue, and all the names blur together, and I get bored. Nothing against the Greeks or Romans… It’s just not my thing. So I’m drawn more to other mythologies, like Japanese, or Egyptian, or Norse.

While they’re important to know in order to understand an entire mythology, I typically don’t much care for creation myths; they’re usually all so similar. But I really like the Maori creation myth. It goes like this:

Ranginui (or Rangi) and Papatuanuku (or Papa) were the sky father and the earth mother. They were locked in a tight, loving embrace. They had several children, all male, who had to live in the dark space between them. These sons really wanted to see what it was like in the light. One of them suggested killing their parents, but another said it would be a better decision to push them apart; Rangi could go above them and live in the sky, and Papa could remain below them and nurture them. So all the sons tried to push their parents apart, but none succeeded until Tāne (god of forests & birds) lied on his back and pushed with his legs, instead of with his hands as his brothers had done.

There’s a war among the brothers after that, and much ado about creating things as we know them now, but the part I particularly like is that Rangi still weeps for Papa (rain).

There’s an additional myth that ties in here. Tāne made a woman out of red clay (Hine-ahuone) and they made a daughter, Hine-ata-uira (she has other names, too), and Tāne married her. When Hine-ata-uira got curious about who her father was, and discovered that he was her husband, she was ashamed, and ran away to the spirit-world. Tāne tried to follow her, but she told him to go back, because she was going to be the goddess of the underworld. Tāne would care for their children on earth until it was time for them to go to her.

I was actually always interested in Greek Mythology, but it was usually the minor myths that interested me.  I really didn't care that much about what Zeus and Hera were doing but I thought it was pretty neat that Narcissus was so full of himself that he fell in love with his reflection.  This was right after he rejected Echo's love for him.  It's all very TRAGIC, my dear.

However, my most favorite myth has to be the myth of Cassandra.  (Really, was there any surprise?)  Despite the fact that I share the name with dear Cassandra, she really brings back the age old "don't go disrepectin' dem gods."  Apollo gave her the gift of sight at an early age and nurtured that gift in her.  Then, when she got older, he wanted to sleep with her (as gods usually did when it came to humans.)

However, Cassandra stood her ground and told him no (which is what I respect about her.)  But gods didn't take kindly to mere mortals telling them no.  Especially when they had bestowed gifts upon these mortals.  So, Apollo told her that she would be able to foresee the future but no one would believe her predictions.

This happened frequently in her life.  She foretold the fall of Troy and, well, we all know what happened with that one.  She also saw Aeneid starting Athens but he didn't think he would do that either.

Inevitably, Agamemnon rapes her and takes her on as a consort and takes her home with him.  Unbeknownst to him (despite the fact that Cassandra told him), Agamemnon's wife was sleeping around and when he came back, she killed both Agamemnon and Cassandra.

The story is really awful and tragic but, at the same time, I like that Cassandra stands up for herself despite how terribly it ends up for her.  And, you know... she has my name.  She was also described as the second most beautiful woman in the world.  So you figure she was probably a pretty awesome lady despite the short straw she drew.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Myths in the Everyday

Mythology has become a little bit of an interesting thing over the years.  Someone mentions it and you immediately think Greek and Roman gods and the stories they are associated with.  But it doesn't really end there. That mythology, and even things like Norse and Egyptian mythology, has permeated our everyday lives in ways we don't even realize.

For instance, people often use the phrase, "that's a little narcissistic."  We know that it refers to a person's vanity.  But did you know that it comes from the myth of Narcissus, a man so proud and completely in love with his looks that he fell in love with his own reflections?

Or what about if I were to say that "gummy bears are my Achilles heel?"  Commonly we know that it refers to a weak spot in our personalities, but the phrase actually comes from Greek Mythology.  Achilles was a great warrior, completely unbeatable because he had been dipped in the river Styx by his goddess mother.  Except for his heel, the place where she had to hold him by.  So it was the only place on his body that he could be hurt.  Even now, the tendon just above the heel of your foot is referred to as you "Achilles Heel."

I could go on for days ("Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" refers to the Trojan horse, "A Herculean effort" goes back to Hercules and his labors) but I would probably bore you before I got through even half of them.

Now we find Norse mythology showing up in pop culture.  One of the biggest movies of the year is based around Norse mythology: The Avengers.  Good old Thor and his friends and family are all Norse gods.

(Ok, so maybe part of me just wanted Chris Hemsworth in my blog.  Really, who wouldn't?)

Believe it or not, Marvel didn't just pull Thor and Loki and all their companions out of thin air.  They're all actually based on myths that exist.  The original creators of Thor just took an age old idea and ran with it and now we, the general public, a reaping the wonderfully (and might I add, incredibly good looking) benefits.

Mulan included Chinese mythology.  The Mummy included Egyptian mythology.  Even the Power Rangers had some mythology in it.

Now, I'm not saying you should use all these things as academic sources for your papers.  Obviously there's been a lot of creative license taken for the story.  I'm just showing you that mythology is not something that is stuffy and old and never used.  It's constantly in our lives, culture and speech.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mythology Monday

So we're not actually changing the name to Mythology Monday, but we are giving a little bit of a mythology lesson this week. (And by "we," Cassy really means she, because for all the mythology I learned in 19 years of formal education, I remember very, very little of it. So I'm more on the learning side than the teaching side of things this week, which is fun!) We're going to be reviewing The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood at the end of the week.  The book is based off of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus.  Atwood actually has become quite fascinated with Penelope's version of the tale and has decided to tell her own version.

"But what's the tale of Penelope and Odysseus?" you might ask.  (As I did.) Well, I'm so glad you did!  Because I'm going to tell you.  Sure, we've all heard of Odysseus (went off to fight the Trojan war for ten years, pissed Poseidon off right at the end and so it took him yet another ten years to get home.  Talk about your bad luck.)

However, right before Odysseus left, he had a wife and a kid and then bam.  Left for twenty years (so his kid barely knew him and then was an adult when his father returned.)  While no one really bothered Penelope too much during the Trojan War (after all, it was a big deal and she was a fairly intelligent woman), when Odysseus didn't show up after it was over, everyone presumed him dead.  And then Penelope was bombarded by suitors.  They came into her home, ate her food and drank her wine.  As usual, no one thought a woman could rule, so clearly she had to be married.  

But Penelope never did marry.  In fact, she used every trick in the book to hold them off, including making a burial shroud everyday and then unraveling it at night.

"But why ever would she do that, Cassy?  It seems so counterproductive."

Well, yes, but that was the point.  She told her suitors that once it was finished, she would choose a suitor.  Ergo, if she never finished it, she would never have to choose a suitor.  This went on for three long years before one of her maids discovered her and ratted her out to those pesky suitors.

Odysseus finally came home and killed all the suitors (mind you, because of another trick from his wife) and they were happily reunited.  But not before he killed twelve of her maids.

Now, the idea is that the maids had either betrayed her (ok, that seems reasonable) or slept with the suitors (excuse me, what?).  Atwood has never really liked this explanation for the maids.  She's always felt that there was something more that went on with them.  And what did Penelope think of the whole situation?  Her husband was hardly faithful in all those years that he was missing, yet she was unendingly faithful to him, only to have him come home and kill her staff.

That's just a little back story on this week's book.  Stay tuned for our review of The Penelopiad on Friday!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Review Me Twice: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

I took a long time to getting around to writing this review. It isn't because I've been busy, or because I forgot... I just don't really know how I feel about this book.

I really liked the idea of it. Basically, a girl tries to decide whether to "stay" or "go" while she's comatose after a deadly car accident. It's a really interesting and unique idea, and it was well-written. I like the setting, the dialogue, how none of it seems too "explainy" (you are shown, not told, what is going on).

But this girl's family... my gosh. I don't think there's a single family in the world that is that perfect. I won't go into detail, but they're just... perfect. It's a little ridiculous. In fact, it's distracting. I understand, though. There was no need for them to have extra conflict... it would have made the book way longer, because there would have been a lot more back-and-forth and confusion and really, all we need to know is that she really liked being around her family and they were a very loving group. But they're so perfect.

Other than that, I don't really have anything negative to say about the book... yet I still don't love it. Which is okay; it happens. I would still recommend the book to people, because I do think it was good. It just didn't have the impact on me that I had hoped for.

This book was a lot different than I expected.  If you read the description on the flap, you get the feeling that she was going to have to make a decision between her family, boyfriend and her future.  But when I got only a short distance into the book, I realized that it was something very different than I expected.  It was Mia in a sort of limbo, knowledge of her family's death from an accident, choosing whether she wanted to continue on with her life or choose death.

Mia is really kind of a fly on the wall as she watches her family simultaneously grieve and hope and we're a little bit of a fly on the wall to her memories.  She sees her family hope against hope that she survives, largely because they lost her parents and her brother to the car accident.  She is essentially their salvation but Mia isn't sure that she wants that burden.  And it is a huge burden for her.  She would be facing a completely different life, lonely and dealing with an unimaginable amount of grief.

Part of the reason I loved this book, though, is because it shows you that family doesn't mean the people who are related to you.  Through my own life, my family haven't really been the people I could depend on.  They weren't really the people my friends went to.  At one point in the story, Kim, Mia's best friend, tells her that she still has family.  I think that's an amazing message to tell kids.  I think so much emphasis is put on family, which is good, and this book does affirm family values, but blood doesn't always mean family.  Family is the people who love you, who support you, who are there for you in the worst of times and a lot of times, they're the people who aren't related to you by blood.

I think that Kim was my favorite character in this book.  Mainly because she reminds me of Alex and I so much.  Kim and Mia were not good friends when they met.  In fact, they weren't friends at all.  They couldn't stand each other.  It wasn't until a fist fight that they finally became friends.  The first time I met Alex, I told her that I couldn't stand Stephen King and that I thought he was a terrible writer, despite the fact that her shelves were lined with his books.  We were really just peripheral friends for about three years until, our senior year of college, we spent a summer together discovering that neither of us thought the other person liked us when, in reality, we both thought the other person was great.

Kim also seems to know exactly what Mia needs.  She leaves and finds Adam (Mia's boyfriend) because she knows that it's going to be for the best.  Even though Adam and Kim have never been close, they bond as they try to break into the ICU so Adam can be close to her.  I like how no nonsense Kim is and how, as Mia remembers her time with Kim, the two of them are always there for each other.  They're family.  

Forman could have really made this book weird and gone into left field with it, but I think she handled it well.  I think the family relationship that Mia has with her family is just a little too near perfect (families are messier. They fight and argue and there were 12 years between my sister and I and we certainly didn't get along in the magical way that Teddy and Mia did.)  I understand that she wanted to focus on relationships with friends as opposed to relationships with families, but I think that she kind of missed the mark with Mia's family.

I can't hate on this book much more than that.  The themes hit too close to home for me, something that not a lot of authors touch on.  Family doesn't always mean blood and I really love how well Forman shows that. 

My Bottom Line: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Favorite authors

I set a lot of store in who someone's favorite author is. I think it says a lot about a person. Not necessarily good things or bad things, just... things. So we're going to tell you who our favorite authors are this week.

Mine is, hands-down, unequivocally, indisputably, Neil Gaiman. That man is a genius. He wrote my favorite books, the Sandman series of graphic novels. (But we'll talk about our all-time favorite books another time.) He also wrote StardustAmerican Gods and Anansi Boys (novels that are likely intended for adults, but are great for the more reading-inclined of adolescents) and he co-wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett (the author of the Discworld books). He has also written some other graphic novels, like Murder Mysteries (about the first death among angels) and Marvel 1602 (which is pretty much what it sounds like... Marvel heroes in the year 1602). He also has written several children's books, with The Day I Traded My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls which are both picture books, and the chapter books Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

I was first introduced to Neil Gaiman's work in my adolescent literature class in undergrad, when our professor showed us the movie Mirrormask, which is also a picturebook by Gaiman. It's a beautiful film, and if you liked Coraline, I'm positive that you'll like Mirrormask, because I think they're similar (but Mirrormask is better, in my humble opinion). That same professor mentioned that Gaiman was best known for his Sandman books, which I checked out all of at the public library the next time I went home on break.

He has said himself that he can't identify the genre for his books, because he didn't write them with a genre in mind. He just... wrote them. If pressed to categorize them, I would call them fantasy, for the most part. Gods and demons and other supernatural entities mingle with humans, other worlds exist right next to our own, and sometimes very out-of-the-ordinary things happen. Gaiman sees things in a beautifully different way and can find and arrange the words he needs to describe them that way.

My favorite author is actually identifies as a YA author, though he has written adult novels (and honestly, I wish he would write more because The Risen Empire books are some of my favorites by him.)  Scott Westerfeld is a man I love, respect and I think is doing a lot for the YA world.

I was first introduced to him in the same adolescent literature class that Alex took (I just took it a different semester than she did.  Thus, I read Coraline, not Mirrormask that semester.  But really, it was the professor in that class that made us fall in love with the books, I feel.)  We read Peeps, which is still my favorite book by him.  It's a vampire novel, technically, but it's done like no other vampire novel I've ever read.  He incorporates science with his lore in such a way that has you wondering why everyone else is even bothering with their stupid vampire novel.  I also like it because he's pushing the boundaries of YA literature.  The main character is 19 and living in NYC.  Technically, an adolescent but different than most because he's very independent compared to most protagonists in YA literature.

He most recently finished the Leviathan series, which combines science with steam punk and history.  He essentially takes World War I and shows us what it would be like if we had slightly different technologies at the time.  Again, Westerfeld pushes boundaries.  We have cross-dressing and two lost kids, from completely different backgrounds, just trying to do what they want to do with their lives, because they think they way things are isn't right.  We also have young kids engaged in battle and war, something that's generally frowned upon.  

Westerfeld keeps a blog and is very interactive with his fans, which I think is great.  So often these days we see a lot of entitled authors who think that they deserve their fans or they don't deserve to get harsh reviews.  That's completely untrue.  You are an author at the mercy of the public.  Westerfeld understands that and embraces that.  He also loves things like Fan Fiction and Fan Art.  In fact, on his blog, he has Fan Art Fridays, where he posts pictures fans have sent him.  They might have drawn his characters, or taken a picture of themselves cos-playing or one fan even did a mock-up of a computer program he mentions in his book.  I just love that kind of interaction and dedication to his fans.  He shows a good example to other YA authors, I feel, and I really love his work. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

What is YA?

YA stands for young adult, which is identified as the age group between twelve and eighteen years old, as far as book publishing and marketing is concerned (although the target audience for YA literature can be from ten to twenty-five, and actual readership extends well beyond that range).

If a book isn't explicitly identified as YA, you can tell pretty easily on your own. Usually, the protagonists are adolescents, instead of adults, to help teen readers identify with them. The themes tend to be relevant to an adolescent's life. These are typically divided into two groups: problem novels (anorexia, bulimia, running away, failing grades, self-injury, drug abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, divorcing parents) and coming-of-age novels (dealing with first loves, building independence or one's own identity, friends drifting apart, proving oneself as worthy of becoming an adult). They're usually pretty edgy, using some vulgar language - as teens in general tend to do - and covering topics teens don't normally discuss with, for example, their parents. This is why so many YA books wind up on the banned/challenged books list so often; parents sometimes don't approve.  Which drives me crazy.  Honestly, it's not like parents didn't go through these issues themselves.  However, I think that parents are from a generation that just didn't talk about these things and certainly didn't read about them.  Therefore, I think the reason a lot of the baby boomers generation (who are the bulk of parents with kids in school right now) don't approve of these books is because THEY were always taught not to talk/read/think about these topics.  I'd like to think that as their kids come of age and have their own kids, this mindset will start to change.  Especially now that we HAVE this genre.

The first time "young adults" were identified as a distinct group was in the early 1800s. Before that (and even for a while after that) it was expected that, at a certain age, a child would start to behave like a smaller, less learned version of an adult, until they were an actual adult. Adolescent culture didn't exist until much later. However, several books were published in the 1800s with the intent of drawing in younger readers (but not small children): Alice in Wonderland, Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Oliver Twist, to name a few.  If you're looking for a GREAT read about YA Culture and history, I suggest Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage.  He talks about YA culture from the 1890s, through the 2000s and shows you connections about youth that you wouldn't even dream about!  He explores how youth were used for propaganda (Hitler Youth, anyone, or even the Boy Scouts) and how youth have come to hold the power that they do today.  Really a fantastic book if you're looking for a great academic read about YA culture.

The 1950s began what we think of as YA literature, bringing us Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps one of the most notable, The Outsiders. Real research began in the 1960s to determine what adolescence really was. By the 1980s, books for adolescents were covering hard-hitting topics that real adolescents were dealing with: drugs, beauty ideals, sex and sexuality, and teen pregnancy. Other cultural phenomena like MTV contributed to this revolution of teenage-ness, unquestionably identifying adolescence as a distinct stage of life characterized by a different set of problems and ideals than childhood or adulthood.

You may have noticed (by sheer virtue of not living under a rock) that YA fiction has sort of bombarded pop culture lately.  All you have to do is walk into a bookstore and YA lit will probably be the first display you trip over.  Sadly, it will also probably be about vampires. Harry Potter is globally adored, read, and watched, and the same can be said (to a slightly lesser degree) for Twilight and Hunger Games. I have two explanations for this.

One explanation is that adolescence has been elongated. You hear all the time from the news that college graduates (typically in their early twenties) are staying at home longer, postponing moving out and living independently and finding full-time jobs (not by choice, but by necessity and which I want to point out is PERFECTLY OK). This means that older and older readers are clinging to the comfort of YA literature. (Hey, I'm 26 and I don't see myself dropping the habit anytime soon.  I like it because I have a younger sister and I can introduce her to some great stuff that's right on her level.  Plus, you know, it's awesome.)

Another is that it's really good literature. (Hold your Twilight jokes, please.  I tried, but the sparkling was so bright it blinded me and I dropped them.  But seriously, as bad as Twilight is, it's not the worst YA I've read.) Seriously; some of the best writing happening now is in YA literature. I could cite at least fifty examples off the top of my head of really excellent writing that is categorized as YA. It helps that YA is not restricted to a specific genre: it spans everything from romance to science-fiction to action/adventure to non-fiction.

So give it a try. Nobody has ever made fun of me for pulling books from the teen section for my leisure reading. If it helps, the books are usually shorter, too.  So instead of a book a month, you can read this many a month:

Friday, October 5, 2012

Review Me Twice- What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones

This is the first book we're reviewing here on Review Me Twice and that's largely because it fell on this year's list of banned or challenged books in the #8 slot.  It's not hard to see why What My Mother Doesn't Know falls on that list.  It talks about divorce (OMG!), kissing (scandalous!), even (GASP!) sex.  And what's more, it talks a lot about Sophie keeping these things from her mother.  Parents tend to want to keep books like these away from their kids because they don't want them to get the idea that they should be doing things like lying to their parents... or kissing boys for that matter.  And don't even get me started on the sex.  Parents often don't think their kids are mature enough.

Personally, I think that's a load of bull.  But each parent can think what they want.  My problem is when you start enforcing that opinion on other parents.  This book, you can tell, is really marketed towards early high school students.  I think that's more than an appropriate age to start talking about boys and your interactions with them.  

So, more about this book.  I, personally, liked Sones approach to mother/daughter relationships the most.  I hate reading about mother/daughter relationships that are picture perfect things.  I hate when they're oh so best friends and how life is just terrible when the mother/daughter duo have a fight about something absolutely stupid in a book.  Real life just isn't like that.  Mother and daughters are complicated.  They are the most complicated relationship in the entire world and even the most healthy of those relationships aren't as perfect as they're often portrayed in books.

Sones manages to pretty accurately capture the complexities of mothers and daughters.  Sophie never seems to want her mother to know anything.  She hides things, never tells her mother what's going on, gets indignant when her mother shows any sort of concern or interest in her boyfriend.  On the other hand, when her mother is indifferent, sunken into depression, as she often is, Sophia wishes that her mother took any sort of interest, cared at all, despite the fact that she's constantly telling herself she wants her privacy.

I like that Sones disguises this book about mother/daughter relationships in a romance.  Sophia keeps talking to us about boys, boys, boys (and in fact, there is not one moment when she is not in a relationship, talking about a potential relationship or about how she is going to tell her friends about the relationship that she's in.)  However, her relationships with boys reveal more about her relationship with her mother than anything else.

Really, the only thing in this book I didn't like was probably the poem free form format, which is really more of a personal preference than anything else.  The only author I've read who has done that style, and has made me like it, is Ellen Hopkins and I think I've already told you how much she is made of awesome this week.  I just don't think Sones writing style is strong enough to support writing in free verse.  To be honest, it came off to me more like she was writing that way because she wasn't sure she'd have enough to make it a full fledged novel.

My Bottom Line: 3 1/2 out of 5

My turn!

Maybe it's because I'm 26 years old, or maybe it's because I've always read edgy, racy things (my mom didn't stop me from reading her true crime books or Stephen King when I was in high school, and it never fazed me)... But this book is really innocuous.

I can understand why some parents might not want their child reading this: Sophia, our main character, is dating a boy who wants her to do more than make out (but she tells him no and sticks to it, and doesn't make a huge fuss over it). There are occasional bad words, where appropriate (meaning when she's upset). It's also listed for nudity, which I think is particularly funny, because I know exactly which scene they're referring to: Sophia and her friends go out in public wearing nothing but long raincoats, because it is daring and bold and funny. This scene is one page long, and completely incongruous with the rest of the story. It felt sort of like an intermission, actually.

This is a short book. My library's catalog record says it has 259 pages. So if you're trying to encourage a reluctant teen reader, it's a decent choice. There's just enough mention of sex and bad language to entice them into turning the page, and before they know it, they'll run out of pages.

I like the ending. It's a little cliche and obvious, but I like it. I'll leave it at that so I don't ruin it for you, if that's possible.

Also, the family dynamic is sad, but realistic. Each member of her family sort of does their own thing and they don't play much part in each other's lives. (This is typical in YA lit, because it makes it easy for the teen to have lots of leeway and freedom, without having to be an orphan. But more on this another time.) This is particularly resonant in Sophia's relationship with her mother, which is distant to say the least, which Sophia reinforces, but sometimes she wishes it were different. It's not the typical flat, blanket "ugh I hate my Mom" narrative that we usually get from bland YA books. There is tension and potential for resolution and it's not Disney-style resolution where suddenly someone apologizes and "sorry" is a magic word that rights all wrongs. It is clear that both parties will have to put in effort to fix their relationship if it is going to succeed.

I'm positive that none of the challenges to this book came from it being included in a school curriculum, because I don't think any teacher would assign it. It doesn't have much literary value. The only reason a teacher would likely mention it to a student is as an example of free verse style. But if I had a student who was advanced enough to be really studying free verse style in detail, I would recommend Ellen Hopkins (edgy though her books are... rife with drugs and sex and prostitution and abuse and all sorts of stuff that is really, really interesting to read about).

I enjoyed it, have no doubt, but I won't be picking it up again, because I've already gotten out of it all there is for me to get out of it. Which is fine... some books are like that for some people. I probably would have simply overlooked it if it weren't on the banned books list. So congratulations, whoever challenged What My Mother Doesn't Know! You gave Sones two extra readers by doing so.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Banning / Challenging Books

Most of the challenges counted for Banned Books Week come from one of two places: parents complaining about books in a school curriculum because they don't consider them age-appropriate, or people trying to remove the book from a library's shelves. In the latter situation, I am happy to announce that most of the time, the book stays put. See, librarians - despite our stereotype of stuffy old ladies shushing people and glaring at anyone who doesn't understand the classification system - are champions of freedom of information. Why else would we choose to spend all our time helping people find their way around an enormous repository of information and stories? But more on librarian stereotypes another day... back to the banned books.

Sometimes the complaint is that the book doesn't belong in the youth or teen section, so the book gets moved to the adult section. It stays in the library so that the people who want it can still access it, but the complainer is still satisfied. But requesting to pull a book off adult shelves is - in most areas and most libraries - a waste of time.

If you don't understand why it's not fair to try to pull a book of a library's shelves, think of it this way: John is allergic to peanuts and his mom wants the grocery store to stop selling peanut butter, even though it's your favorite food. Is that fair? I didn't think so.

This is why I (and the ALA) mostly refer to what we think of as banned books as "challenged books." It's more correct because, in America, we don't really ban books. A book might get banned from a curriculum or a school or sometimes a library, but mostly they're just challenged by people who don't understand that their views are not shared by everyone else, and the books remain accessible.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Our Favorite Banned Books

In honor of Banned Books Week, we would like to share our favorite banned/challenged books with you. Naturally, for bibliophiles such as ourselves, it is very difficult to pick favorite books, especially favorite banned books because we love so many of them, but we will make a valiant effort for the sake of you, the reader.

While some of my absolute favorite books of all-time are frequently challenged (the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games series, almost anything by Robert Cormier), when I think of my favorite banned book, I always come up with Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I can see why it would be challenged, especially in the context of a high school reading list. There are some big, scary, complex, controversial ideas in it, particularly for adolescent minds. I don't want to sound like I'm looking down on adolescents (I was just there, after all) but developing minds are easily influenced, and books like Brave New World can make a huge impact on them.

My favorite part of the book is the first part, where Huxley describes how society is, with their bottled fetus-growing and rampant unabashed sexuality and shunning of solitude. But I set more store in setting and characters than I do in plot, so this sort of thing appeals to me more.

The worst part is all the Shakespeare references. I took an entire semester on Shakespeare, including reading the entirety of two plays that I know Brave New World references, and I still know that I'm missing a lot whenever John speaks in this book. I pick up a little more each time, and if I made more of an effort to understand the references, I bet I would enjoy more of the second half of the book.

I think Brave New World is timeless. It was first published in 1931 and other than the occasional reference to technology that makes the modern reader scoff (none of which I can call to mind, and I just re-read this a few weeks ago, so they can't be too egregious) it feels like it could have been written any year.

While I am similar to Alex in loving me some banned book repeats like the HP series and Mr. Cormier, I have a completely different love of a very particular banned book and have for a very, very long time.

I have had an almost life long obsession with Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (which is interesting because there is another book by her which is on my all time least favorite books list.  Curiouser and Curiouser.)  It actually hasn't made the list since 2003, when it was on for two years.  However, it made the top ten list from 1990-2000.  

Little known fact: the book actually stemmed from an incident in Paterson's life.  The son of her best friend was struck by lightning and killed.

Usually, Bridge to Terabithia is targeted because it deals with language, death and, some claim, satanism.  I first read this book in the fifth grade and was never struck much by the language (Jesse says "Lord" a lot and I do believe the word "Damn" is said.)  The language is nothing harsher than what most kids at that age hear around them every day.

Also, I think fifth grade is just about the right age for kids to be old enough to deal with things like death and the emotions that come with it.  They're starting to get to the age when people in their life might die.  Grandparents or great-aunts and uncles might be passing away at this point in their lives.  If we expect them to deal with it in the real world, then why shouldn't we also trust that they can handle it in the books that they read?  In fact, isn't reading about grief in their books only going to better prepare them for grief in their everyday lives? I'd like to think so.

As for the satanism?  Well, ok, some might call it satanism.  But those of us who live in the world of books just like to call it imagination.  I think that parents who sit there and say that Paterson is preaching a world of anti-Christian values have forgotten what it's like to be a kid.  They've forgotten what it's like to fight off monsters with a wooden stick.  Thankfully, Paterson didn't.