Monday, December 31, 2012

Dystopia- What is and Isn't

This week, we're reading Starters by Lissa Price, a definite dystopia.  So what really makes a book fall into the category of dystopia? 

This is one of those times I get to apply real life experiences to this blog.  Just over a year ago, I was working on a NaNo novel with zombies.  At the time, I worked with a bunch of engineers (they were all ridiculous smart and so I felt really dumb on a daily basis, despite my bachelors degree and being well read.) So I was telling some of the engineers about my novel and described it as a dystopia.  

To which the response was, "What's a dystopia?"  The fastest way to explain was, "The opposite of a Utopia."  That's the day I was Smarter Than an Engineer.

However, dystopia is so much MORE than that.  For instance, especially in literature, there's no such thing as a true utopia.  Usually, we see a utopia at first, but then we discover "at least one fatal flaw" as Wikipedia explains it.  The Giver is a great example of this.  We know that everyone is equal and everything is the same and there are no colors or really, anything exciting.  We soon learn that no one gets old because they're killed before they can get too old and no one has any choice.  Fatal Flaw.

Dystopias also can include governments that control everything.  They're governments that control every last aspect and make their subjects fear death on a daily basis, and that's how they keep control.  The most widely known example of this is 1984, and all where the reference "big brother is watching" comes from.

Sometimes, dystopias just involve a lot of bad luck, or some major event happening, putting a huge economic gap in the world.  Whether it be disease or nuclear holocausts.  Octavia Butler's Parables series has this set up.  The world has fallen into economic and natural ruin, and so they are constantly on the run, constantly worried about being attacked.

We have even see examples of dystopias in real life.  If you think about it, the Holocaust, in its most early years had many characteristics.  It seemed as if Germany was improving vastly economically and that Hitler was doing a lot of good for the country... until of course everyone found out that he was murdering Jews, African-Americans and the disabled, trying to create a "perfect" world.

This is part of what makes dystopian novels so very scary: we can easily see them coming true.  That was the entire premise of 1984; Orwell believed that just thirty years after it was published, the world would be controlled by the government, like it was in his novel.  In fact, the most prevalent discussion of the book is if our society has become the one Orwell painted in his novel.

Friday, December 28, 2012

ReviewMeTwice- The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson

This week we're doing something a little different and fun!  We're reviewing a picture book.  My mom read this book to me when I was little, always around Christmas time.  I remember lovingly looking at the pictures and listening to the story and just sitting in my bed as she read.

****Just so you know, I'm going to tell you the end of the book.  But I don't feel so bad about it because it's a picture book and you can go read it in about 2.5 seconds.******

Now that I read it as an adult, I can view it with a little more of a critical eye.  The story is still fabulous, don't get me wrong.  Hans Christian Anderson is a master of tales and story telling.  I love that the ending wasn't changed.  It's a heartwarming and tragic story, all at the same time.  It shows a little girls hopes and dreams, at the same time, showing us how awful her life really is, how hard life really is.  But even though she dies in the end, it's still very hopeful, that death somehow frees us all.

This version is my favorite, mainly because it was the one read to me as a kid.  But Rachel Isadora does an amazing job illustrating this book.  Throughout the book, the little match girl sees all these wonderful things as she's slowly freezing to death.  Isadora manages to use the illustrations to give us a clue as to what's going to happen.  If you look closely, in one of the pictures, The Little Match girl is completely blue and curled up into a corner, a prelude to her freezing to death.

I really love this book, and love the illustrations that go along with it.  They're beautiful and mesmerizing   I also like the story.  Hans Christian Anderson wasn't one to shy away from terrible topics, in fact, most of this fairly tales were incredibly depressing, but I think this one has just the right amount of heartbreak and hope.

To the surprise of many, I did not know the story of the little match girl before Cassy suggested this book for review. I do love it, though. I know old fairy tales (and stories of that ilk) tend to be darker, then they are shined and polished and made "family-friendly" (usually by Disney), so I really appreciate it when one survives intact, like this.

As Cassy told you, this story has a sad ending. (Although I see it as a happy ending. At any rate, your protagonist dies, and she's a little girl, so it's pretty sad no matter how you slice it.) That's not something you see a lot of in children's books... particularly picture books. I love when children are treated as thinking people, not as delicate little faberge eggs that can't be exposed to anything scarier than the sound of the washing machine.

On top of that, the illustrations by Rachel Isadora are beautiful. Just look at that cover up there at the top of the post! Lovely. As an aside, here is a small bio of Isadora from Harper Collins.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Brown Paper Packages, Tied Up With String...

Christmas may be over, but we're brimming with extra cheer, so we have a few extra days of holiday spirit left in us! Last week, Cassy told you about a few of her favorite things books. Now I'm going to do the same!

Sandman series (Neil Gaiman, various illustrators)
It should be pretty obvious to everyone by now that this series is my favorite book(s) of all time. They're beautiful, they're smart, they're fascinating... I could re-read these for the rest of my life. It's a long series, so I can't give a very short summary, but it mostly deals with the seven Endless, who are siblings that embody ideas: Dream (the titular Sandman), Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium (formerly Delight), Destruction, and Destiny. It's fantasy and a little science fiction with some horror, romance, and historical fiction elements at times.

The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
I discussed this book for our Favorite Comfort Books post, but it bears repeating: I love this book. It's a collection of short stories, told in chronological order, about how man and Mars collide (not literally). My favorite stories include "There Will Come Soft Rains" (which I mentioned in the aforementioned post), "The Earth Men" (wherein the Earth men from the rocket are treated as mental patients), and "Usher II" (which should be partially self-explanatory if you are familiar with the work of Edgar Allan Poe).

The Hunger Games trilogy, particularly Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Like Cassy, I love this trilogy. We went to the midnight premier of the first film together. My favorite book of the trilogy is Catching Fire (the second one). This is mostly because I love the arena. I hesitate to say any more than that, in case of spoilers, but I love a lot more about it, too. I cry at least a few times every time I read it, because I am THAT INVESTED in the characters.

Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling)
I'm not a Potter nut, but I do really love these books. I love the way Rowling words everything, I adore the world she created, and I can still really get sucked into the story, even though I know all the plot points now. I was exactly the right age for these as they came out (I was a few months from turning eleven when the first was released) so I grew up with Harry Potter and loved every second of it. I bought Goblet of Fire while on a vacation because the release date fell in the middle of it, and I bought Deathly Hallows on release day and read it straight through, despite the screaming, searing migraine I had. (It just made me identify better with Harry's pain in his scar.)

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "trilogy" (Douglas Adams)
This series is a five-book "trilogy" (a joke from the author himself). I'm a big fan of British humor and funny science fiction, and this is the quintessential combination of both. The movie was okay, the radio adaptation was interesting (and long), but I love the books. I also really liked Salmon of Doubt (a posthumous collection of Douglas Adams' writings) and Don't Panic! (a biography of Douglas Adams written by Neil Gaiman).

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett)
The Clive Barker quote on the covers says it all: "The apocalypse has never been funnier." Leave it to two Englishmen to write a comedy about the son of Satan's birth and the end times it brings about. Those are two separate covers (I own a copy of the one on the left) depicting the demon Crowley (left) and the angel Aziraphale (right). There is a lot to this book, and every time I read it, I find new things.

Night (Elie Wiesel)
I've mentioned before that I really enjoy Holocaust literature (fiction or non-fiction) and that this was a runner-up for my favorite school-assigned reading. I read it in eighth grade, and while some of the content was shocking and off-putting, I could handle it, and I enjoyed reading Wiesel's story. I got the trilogy (which includes two novels, Dawn and Day) but I didn't enjoy the novels nearly as much as I liked his memoir.

The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
I know, this was also on Cassy's list. But I really love it. I love dystopia unabashedly, and the writing in this is just amazing.

On Writing (Stephen King)
This is King's memoir about the writing process. I read it in college while experimenting with writing fiction, and it was immensely helpful. The part that sticks out in my mind the most is where he talks about subjects and verbs. Any subject can be paired with any verb, but they don't always make sense together. Example: "Mountains jump." It's funny but informative, which is the best kind of non-fiction, if you ask me.

Everythings Eventual.jpg

Everything's Eventual (Stephen King)
I used to be a huge Stephen King fan. That ended when I discovered Neil Gaiman's work (and simultaneously realized that the vast majority of King's novels are the same thing in the same setting over and over), but I still have a fondness for some of King's stuff. This is a collection of short stories that includes some of my favorites of all time. "Autopsy Room Number Four" is the first in the book and one of the best, telling a brief and terrifying story from the point of view of the man lying on the table in the autopsy room. "In the Deathroom" is a really intense story about a man in an interrogation chamber who wants to escape. "Everything's Eventual" is one of my favorite stories of all time, about a man with the ability to use written symbols to influence the world around him without knowing how it works. "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe" is about a meeting between a couple who is getting a divorce and their lawyers, which goes horribly, horribly wrong. (If you've read it: "Eeeeee.") "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French" is about deja vu. A lot of it. "1408" was turned into a mediocre movie about a man staying in a haunted hotel room.

Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman)
Speaking of short story collections, here's another that has a lot of my favorites. "October in the Chair" is about October (the month, anthropomorphized) taking his turn telling a story to all the other months, gathered around a campfire. "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is about a woman who disappeared after visiting an unusual circus. (I hear it has been turned into a graphic novel that I can't wait to get my hands on.) "Locks" is a rewrite of Goldilocks in the form of a poem. "Instructions" has since been turned into a children's book, and tells you how to thrive if you find yourself in a fairy tale. "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" falls into the one-of-my-favorites-of-all-time category of short stories, and is about a young man talking to some strange girls at a strange party. "The Day the Saucers Came" is a poem about... well, the day the saucers came. A lot of other things happened that day, too. And I think an excerpt of this will likely show up at my wedding. "Sunbird," while not one of my favorite pieces of writing, is something I enjoy more for knowing its origin (it was written as a birthday gift for his daughter).

Uglies series (Scott Westerfeld)
This is one of those instances where I like the setting and the ideas better than I like the characters and the plot. (There are actually a lot of those.) The dystopia disguised as a utopia that Westerfeld built for this story is just amazing. That's not to say I don't like the characters or plot (because I do) but I like the setting even more.

Feed (M. T. Anderson)
More dystopia! This one is set in a world where most people have the feed (kind of like the internet) implanted in their brains. Anderson is a genius at writing believable dialogue with made-up teen speak from the future, much like Westerfeld is. I find myself talking like these characters after I read a few chapters. It's so quotable, too: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck" and "I don't know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that, they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe." Tell me you don't want to hear more from that character.

Scary! Stories That Will Make You Scream! (Edited by Peter Haining)
I apparently really have a thing for horror in the short story format. I never realized that about myself. I had this list all finished, and I was satisfied with it. Then I was watching some old episodes of The Simpsons and came across season 3's "Treehouse of Horror" episode, which includes a segment called "Bart's Nightmare" which pulls heavily from a Twilight Zone episode called "It's a Good Life." I had intense deja vu while I was watching the episode, and I knew I had read it somewhere, so I took to the internet to figure it out, and discovered that Jerome Bixby wrote the story "It's a Good Life" that the episode was based on. That story is in, among other collections, this anthology. I read this book at least a hundred times between middle and high school, and probably more than that. It has stories from R. L. Stine, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, and others. (For the record, the stories never made me scream, but they did completely and utterly enthrall me, and affect the way I think about horror fiction to this day.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Favorite Picture Books

We are reviewing our first picture book this week! So today, we'll tell you about our favorite picture books.

Extinct Alphabet Book

Jerry Pallotta was my hero in elementary school. He visited my school (and he still does school visits, according to his website) and I thought he was just the coolest. He was really popular for his alphabet books at the time, and he showed us a bunch of them, including The Extinct Alphabet Book, which I fell in love with.

I was a big fan of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures when I was a little kid, so this book really appealed to me. I also liked it because Pallotta's books treat kids more intelligently than the typical alphabet book. The entries - as I recall - were well written and informative, telling you some of the characteristics of the animals, or how they went extinct.

I particularly liked "C." He gives the example of the coelacanth, which was believed to be extinct, but turned out not to be. (They're referred to as "living fossils.") So then he gives another example for "C" because the coelacanth doesn't belong there! So fun!

Another awesome thing about The Extinct Alphabet Book is that there are no dinosaurs in it. It would be really easy to find a dinosaur for every letter of the alphabet and call it good, but he did a lot of work to find unique, non-dinosaur extinct animals for each letter.

And finally, his illustrator, Ralph Masiello, is really fun, too. He hides all sorts of little jokes in the illustrations of these books. Some of them are really obvious (there is one, I think it was for the sabre-toothed tiger or something like it, that is standing on a rock that is the shape of Jerry Pallotta's head, and has his face on the side). Some of them are more subtle. But he told us about some of them in his talk at the school, and that made me want to look for more of them!

You can order any of his books from his website, and ask for them to be autographed for no extra cost! (I know I have an autographed copy of The Extinct Alphabet Book somewhere, but I haven't laid a hand on it in years...)

So my book really doesn't have any literary value.  It's called My Good Morning Book by Eloise Wilkin.  It's really directed towards very young kids (about 2-4 years old) and teaches them about how to get ready in the morning.  All it really does is go through a small boy's morning routine.

He gets up, brushes his teeth and hair and gets dressed, and he puts on his shoes.  It was one of the first books I remember reading with my mom.  I would sit on her lap and she would read the whole story to me and I would look at all the pictures.

On the very last page, there's a pictures of the little boy playing in the backyard.  I used to sit and look at this page forever, refusing to let my mom close the book because I wanted to look at every singe thing on the page.

And then I would make her read it all over again.

The words are simple, the story even simpler, but considering the age group, it's an appropriate book.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, or just Happy Holidays (if you're the non-denominational type.)

Here at ReviewMeTwice, we just want to tell you to have a wonderful day with your families.  Enjoy the holidays and make sure to eat lots of food.  And don't forget the presents. :)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen

It's Monday, Monday and today we're talking about Hans Christian Andersen.  He wrote The Little Match Girl (the book we're reviewing Friday) along with more than a few fairy tales.

This is Mr. Andersen.  And those spots are on the
picture, not your computer screen.

Andersen was born in 1805 to a relatively poor family.  However, his father was an elementary school teacher and taught Andersen how to read.  All through his younger years, Andersen actually got lucky in terms of his education.  He ran into benefactors that paid for his education.  It was not all good for him, however, as he was much abused by his schoolmaster as a child and greatly discouraged from writing, despite having a predisposition for it.

A lot of Andersen's early career actually had nothing to do with fairly tales.  He wrote a few short stories and a lot of poetry.  Poetry was actually what he was best at.  However, the book that really made him famous was actually his autobiography of all things.

When he finally started writing and publishing novels, they were very unpopular.  Some of them were just repeats of stories he had heard, but later in his career, they were original stories.  However, they were not the fairy tales we know today.  Most of Andersen's fairy tales have very dark themes.  For instance, The Little Mermaid was about a mermaid that went to shore because she loved a prince.  But she couldn't talk because her tongue was cut out and couldn't walk because, if she did, it felt as if she were walking on needles.  In the end, she doesn't even get her prince, he falls for another, and she dies.  The "happy" ending of the story is that she's turned into sea foam and is saved by the spirits of the sky, who sentence her to good deeds for 300 years, entirely dependent on good children. It's a lot like how the original Grimm tales were not the happy, Disney-fied versions we know and love today. They did the same thing with Anderson's work.

Despite the depressing nature of his tales, the third and fourth volumes were intended for children.  In fact, it was the volume for children that made him so widely known.

In his personal life, Andersen had a long series of unrequited love, whether that be for women or men.  Andersen did have many sexual feelings towards men, but his first love was a woman by the name of Riborg Voigt, whom there were letters to even at his death in 1875. (I vote that we get Riborg to be a more popular baby name than Bella in 2013. Who's with me?)

To this day, we read his works.  Stories such as The Emperor's New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea and The Ugly Duckling.  Today they are made into new stories, TV shows and, as in the case of The Little Mermaid, movies (though the Disney Version varies incredibly from the original to make it "kid friendly.")

Friday, December 21, 2012

ReviewMeTwice- The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

As we've mentioned once or twice this week, this book is largely a biography on Dickens.  It mostly focuses on A Christmas Carol, so a lot of the things that Standiford talks about has to do in reference to A Christmas Carol, but that still includes a lot of biographical information.

To be honest, this book was extremely hard to become interested in.  And, even when it did become a little more fascinating, it wasn't spectacular.  Standiford really isn't very good at story telling with non-fiction.  Some authors are great at making non-fiction seem like fiction.  They tell you a story and so it's interesting.  Standiford doesn't really have that talent, so you get a lot of information at once, not all of it interesting.

Probably the biggest flaw about this book is that Standiford tells you a lot of things you don't really care about.  There's a ton of people that are hard to keep track of, and frankly, pretty inconsequential.  He also, at one point, spends almost an entire chapter just quoting reviews of A Christmas Carol.  Considering almost all of them were positive, this gets ridiculously redundant, really quickly.

He also repeats himself a lot.  I mean, I understand that certain things let Dickens to his current situation, but there was so much repetitive material, I just didn't care when I reached something that was new information.

However, it wasn't all bad.  I really enjoyed knowing the effect other authors of the time had on Dickens' work and vice versa.  I also really like learning about, historically, where a lot of our Christmas traditions came from.  Not all of them came from Dickens' novel.  But it was interesting to see what traditions did correspond.

Overall, not the best biography.  At the end of the day, this post would probably be a better read.

My Bottom Line 2 out of 5

I agree with Cassy: this book was not interesting. We would have been better off reading the actual A Christmas Carol instead of this.

It was easy to be distracted from the "story" and I often was. It was easy to put down, and hard to pick back up again.

In writing the post for Monday, I realized that it really is difficult to sum up anything about Dickens' life, so I feel for Mr. Standiford; it's a really enormous undertaking to write a book about this man, his life, and his work. But I believe it could be - and probably has been - done better.

I also agree with Cassy that the parts about Christmas traditions were more interesting, but we have a book at our library that is essentially an encyclopedia of Christmas traditions that makes a more informative, more interesting read.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Film Adaptations of A Christmas Carol

Christmas movies. Am I right? I won't name them by name, but a lot of the new Christmas movies that - to their credit - attempt to tell an original story fall flat on their figurative faces. But there's always the old default: remake a familiar story. And A Christmas Carol has been retold dozens of times in film (and at least a hundred in television specials, to say nothing of the stage and radio adaptations). Here are some of the highlights of its history as a big-screen story.

Scrooge; or, Marley's Ghost (1901)
This is the earliest surviving screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It was a silent film, and very short, summing up an 80-page novel in the space of five minutes. It employed a number of the cinematographic tricks of its time, such as superimposing one film reel over another to give the impression of Marley's face appearing in the door. A popular practice at the time was to make film versions of old, familiar stories, which eliminated the need for too many intertitles (which are those frames with text in them to describe what's happening in silent films). Only a little under three and a half minutes of the entire film remains. You can watch it here on YouTube.

Still from Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost (1901)
Scrooge (1935)
This was the first film version of A Christmas Carol that had sound. It starred Seymour Hicks as Scrooge. He had played the same role in a silent black-and-white by the same title in 1913, which had also been released in America in 1926 as Old Scrooge. This film was never copyrighted, and therefore exists in the public domain. It wasn't popular in recent times because of the poor quality of what remained, but it has been remastered.

A Christmas Carol (1938)
MGM made this version of the story, and cut out many of the more gruesome aspects in order to market a "family friendly" adaptation. (Example: Upon Marley's ghost's arrival, there are supposed to be phantoms wailing outside the window and creating quite a ruckus, but they are absent fromt this version - and many others.) This was the most famous version of the film until the 1951 version arrived on the scene. A colorized version was made available on VHS for its 50th anniversary, and is now on DVD (released in 2005) in a box set.

Theater poster for the 1938 version
Scrooge (1951)
This version was a flop in America (it was turned down for a screening at Radio City Music Hall for being "too grim") but it was one of the best films of the year in Britain. In the 1970s, it began to get play on PBS-before-they-were-PBS stations around the holidays, and is now considered a classic.

Theater poster for the 1951 version
Scrooge (1970)
A musical version (starring Alec Guiness, who you may know better as Obi-Wan Kenobi) that was the only film adaptation - so far! - of this story to be nominated for any Oscars (it got four nods), this film features eleven songs. Due to complications, Columbia Records has never released the soundtrack on CD, but an album was released in 1970.

Theater poster for the 1970 musical version
A Christmas Carol (1971)
I've actually seen this one (which is more than I can say for everything since the first one). You may recognize it, too: it was made for television and broadcast on ABC. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Chuck Jones (who you know and love if you're a fan of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, or the television animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas) was an executive producer. It was such a huge hit, after it was broadcast as a TV special, it was released in theaters as well.

Still from the animated 1971 version
Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)
Another one I've seen. This was the first original Mickey Mouse theatrical release in over three decades. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, but lost to Sundae in New York. Scrooge McDuck was an existing Disney character (since "Christmas on Bear Mountain" in 1947) when this film was made (though he was, of course, named after the part he played in this adaptation).

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
By our old buddy Jim Henson's company, the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol starred Michael Caine as Scrooge. This was the first Muppet project after Henson's death, and was directed by his son, Brian. It didn't do as well in theaters as Disney had hoped, considering it was up against Home Alone 2 and Disney's own Aladdin.

A Christmas Carol (1997)
If you're familiar with this version, then you probably know it as "the animated one that stars Tim Curry as Scrooge and Whoopi Goldberg as the Ghost of Christmas Present." It, too, was a musical, with eight new songs.

From the DVD cover of the 1997 version
Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
This version is part animation, part live-action, and stars Nicolas Cage as Jacob Marley and Kate Winslet as Belle. (If you're thinking, "Who's Belle?" she's the fiancee that leaves Scrooge in the original story.) It was not well received.

A Christmas Carol (2006)
Anthropomorphic CGI animals take over all the roles in this adaptation that was extra-cleaned-up for young audiences. (Examples: Tiny Tim doesn't die in the future possibility Scrooge sees; he just becomes as miserly as Scrooge is.)

The 2006 animated animals version
A Christmas Carol (2009)
And here it is... the most recent film adaptation of the 1843 tale, this one starring Jim Carrey (or, his voice, anyway) and featuring motion-capture CGI animation.

So, there you have it, friends. More than 150 years after the story was originally written, and we're still retelling it (more or less faithfully to the original text) through a medium that didn't even exist when it was conceived of. Grab your favorite version, some hot chocolate, and enjoy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Favorite Christmas Stories

Christmas is coming! To soothe your harried minds and warm your snowed-in souls, we're discussing our favorite Christmas stories this week.

To be entirely honest, my favorite story about Christmas is A Christmas Carol, but since we're (sort of) talking about that on Friday, I'll skip that one. And my favorite story that makes me feel Christmassy is Little Women (and in the 1994 film you'll find my favorite carol, "Here We Come A-Wassailing" which you just don't hear enough these days). But it isn't really about Christmas. So to finally get to my point, I'll tell you about The Polar Express.

The Polar Express cover

When I was in second grade, I had an amazing teacher, Ms. Merrill. She was wacky and fun and got everybody excited about learning, cheesy though that sounds. In December, we read The Polar Express in class.

If you've never read the book (or seen the movie, which I haven't, but according to Wikipedia, it includes the part I want to discuss), I'll give you a brief summary. A little boy wakes up, hears a train, and finds that it's waiting for him, filled with sweets and other children in pajamas. It takes them to the North Pole, where Santa chooses our protagonist to be the first child to receive a gift for Christmas that year. He can choose absolutely anything in the world, and he asks for one of the bells off the reindeers' harnesses, which Santa gives him. When he shows his parents, they can't hear it, and deem it broken. The book ends with the book telling us that his friends used to be able to hear it, but little by little they stopped being able to hear it (although he can still hear it, and so can anyone who believes).

Cute, right? We loved it.

And before winter break that year, my teacher gave all of us a big silver jingle bell wrapped in a festive little piece of fabric, with a tag with a little message about how it rings for all who still believe. It is my most prized Christmas decoration. (And for the record, I can still hear it when it rings.)

So, I'm going to do something a little unprecedented for our blog... and pick the exact same book.  I LOVED The Polar Express when I was little.  I remember it was one of the few books that was always around the house and for everyone's consumption.  In fact, my parents STILL have the copy they bought years and years ago.  (I'm 26 and I don't remember a time we didn't have this book, so you can guess that book is at least 24 years old.  Probably older.)

When I was little, every year around Christmas, my dad or mom would read this book to me before bed.  I remember gazing at all the pictures, because they're really spectacular.

Look how beautiful that is!

As with Alex, my favorite part of the book is probably when they talk about the kids one by one, no longer hearing the bell.  Even his sister, who believed for a very long time, found a Christmas she couldn't hear it.  But he always could.

It almost looks real, doesn't it?  It's not; this is the
picture of the bell from the book.

I have a sister who is almost 13 years younger than me and I still remember the first Christmas that we read this to her.  She was maybe a year old, and she sat in my Dad's lap (just like I had when I was little) and he read her The Polar Express from the same exact book that he had read it to me.  It a wonderful Christmas story, a great family tradition to have and, even though it was fairly long for a picture book, a story I never minded sitting through.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Few of My Favorite Things

I thought, since we're so close to Christmas and it's the end of the year, I would give you a list of my all-time favorite books.  I've given everyone of these books either four or five stars and I think they would make great gifts! (if you still happen to be looking this late in the game.)  All pictures and descriptions from Goodreads.

I've even starred the best of the best.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1) by George R. R. Martin:
Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men. All will play the Game of Thrones

Summers span decades.Winter can last a lifetime.And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.It will stretch from the south where heat breeds plot,lusts and intrigues to the vast frozen north,where a 700-foot wall of ice protects the kingdom from the dark forces that lie beyond. The Game of Thrones. You win,or you die.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Charles Dickens

To put you solidly in the Christmas spirit, we will be reviewing a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford.

Charles Dickens is widely considered the best novelist of the Victorian period. In order to avoid encroaching on the content sure to be waiting for us on Friday, we will only discuss basics today.

Dickens lived from February 7, 1812 to June 9, 1870, in England. He looked like this:

Charles Dickens

Dickens grew up in a poor family (pretty common for every writer ever) and had to work jobs like bottling boot black to make enough money to release his parents and siblings from debtor's prison. This was not something that was widely known during his life (or, indeed, until John Forster published a Dickens biography six years after his death). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how obvious this is, given that the most common theme in all his works was poverty and the trials of working class life.  Also, by the length of his books.  Dickens was paid by the word.

He went on to be a journalist, and a good one, but found that brief written observations about who and what he saw on his travels were popular reading, so he published them as a series of short stories titled Sketches by Boz (1836). Boz was an old family nickname he used often as a pseudonym.

Many of his novels and collections were originally published as serials, meaning he wrote them a piece at a time, and they were published in a newspaper or journal. This was a popular tactic at the time for many reasons. First, an author could assess public opinion about a certain character or plot point, and adjust their writing accordingly, to keep the story popular. Also, it cut down on costs all around. Publishers didn't want to pay up front to publish a large run of an entire novel without knowing how well it would sell. The audience didn't want to spend money for an entire novel without knowing how good it would be. They would rather pay for their reading a shilling at a time, and if you didn't like that chapter, you've only wasted a shilling. Later, when novels and large books became more popular (thanks  in large part to improvements in printing press technology) the serials were published in single volumes like the ones we read for English classes today.

If you're anything like me, you haven't read the vast majority of Dickens' works.  I know I haven't. In fact, you probably can't even name more than three or four off the top of your head. Below the cut, we'll outline a few of the more important/popular titles in his catalog (in chronological order).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review Me Twice- Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

As we've been discussing all week, Boneshaker was our book of choice this week.  I suggested it, mainly because it's been floating around for awhile, a lot of people have been talking about it and, part of the point of this blog is to inform our readers about what's out there.  The Good, The Bad, The Popular and if The Popular is Good or Bad.

Boneshaker most certainly falls into the good category.  It's a great steam punk novel and really gives an interesting twist to history; the Civil war has been raging on for years with no end in sight, Seattle isn't actually part of the united states yet and the world has simultaneously progressed and stayed stagnant.  Briar is living on the outskirts of Seattle with her son, Zeke.  What could possibly be better than steam punk in messed up America in the mid-1800s?

Well, hasn't anyone ever told you to just add Zombies?  Apparently, someone told Priest, because she did, and it worked.  Now, maybe I'm biased, but I'm of the mind it's really hard to mess up a Zombie story (though... I've read two of them that were pretty terrible, so maybe I'm not that biased.)  Briar has been shunned by basically everyone because her husband caused the zombies (or rotters, as they refer to them in the book) and no one can stop the blight, a gas that is seeping up from the Earth and will turn any human that breathes it in too long.  Walls are the only thing separating the blight from the rest of human kind.

And Zeke goes right into the middle of Seattle, and the blight, looking for answers to his past.  About his father, his grandfather, even his mother.  

The best thing about this book (despite the fact that it had airship pirates and zombies and really, everything to make a great story, executed wonderfully) was that you cared about EVERY character.  You cared about both Zeke and Briar.  You cared about the men in the bar that Briar ran into.  You cared when character fell.  You even cared about the bad guy!  He was mean and nasty and you hated him but you cared about what happened to him because he's so awful.  You want to reach into the book and choke him.  There were characters that you barely met and still, you cared what happened to them.  It's a rare talent that makes you really get invested in characters so easily, and Priest has that talent.

The book has everything you could want, including an interesting ending (that you may or may not guess.)  I only have one complaint about the whole book.  And it's barely a complaint.  It's a little slow to start.  The first few chapters are a little uninteresting and you're not really sure why you care, but it doesn't last long, I promise.  It's just a little bit in the beginning and then you're hook; then you have to know what happens.

My bottom line 5 out of 5

I agree with Cassy that this book definitely falls into the category of "good" (if not "great" or at least "very good"). And, unlike Cassy, I am not a big fan of the zombie genre. (I prefer the infection genre, which is very close, but not quite the same thing.)

The one downfall I found to Boneshaker is that it is long, and therefore I had to read it very quickly in order to get through it so I could review it for you, dear friends. Had I not been working with a deadline, I could have taken my time reading, and spent more of that time lingering on the descriptions.

One of the most difficult things an author can do - from what I can tell - is to think up something that looks a specific way in their head, then try to describe it to the reader. No matter how specific and detailed a description the author gives, I believe it is entirely impossible to describe anything or anyone in such a way as to make the reader see exactly what the author had in mind. (If seeing exactly what the writer had in mind is important, perhaps a switch to the medium of film is in order.) I admire Priest's ability to describe things and people succinctly. She doesn't spend more than a sentence or two describing any one person (with reinforcing statements later reminding you of their stature or movements, perhaps) but I had a very clear picture in my mind the entire time I was reading.

This is a suspenseful book, with a clean cycle of rotating "omigosh they're in trouble" to "phew, they're all right" and back and forth and so on. What I think I'm saying is that it's paced like an adventure novel, so if you don't like that, this might bother you. But I'm not typically a fan of reading adventure (I prefer them in film, because they feel redundant in print) but I really enjoyed this.

I very highly recommend this book to a wide audience: anyone who likes adventure, action, zombie stories, steampunk, or wants something a little new and different to read. There are other books from the same universe (as Cassy was so kind to mention on Tuesday) and I am very interested in reading every last one of them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Steampunk Aesthetic

On Monday, we discussed what steampunk is. It's hard to describe in words (though Cassy did an excellent job); it's something that's easier to show than tell. And I'm happy to announce that I found the perfect demonstration...

I learned that Cherie Priest (as you should recall from Tuesday, she's the author of tomorrow's review book, Boneshaker) curated a Pinterest board full of steampunky goodness, and you can see it here. (The images below were taken from her board.)

Oh my - this is darling...
Ranging from simple...

Steampunk Gold. YOWZA. complex.

This might be my favorite from the board, though:

the Librarian by ~Kraken-Steelklaw on deviantART
From Kraken-Steelklaw on Deviant Art,
titled "The Librarian"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Favorite Steampunk

In honor of this week's steampunk theme, Cassy and I will tell you a little bit about our favorite steampunk books.

Mine could possibly be called not steampunk. But it has the right feel, it's set in the right time period, and it discusses automatons. And besides, it's the only one I'm really familiar with besides the one Cassy is writing about.

It's The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It won a Caldecott Award (along with several other awards) and has been a really big hit with kids (of all ages) since it was published in 2007.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret.jpg

Given that information and that photo, you should be confused. First, thick books like that tend to intimidate most kids. But the truth is, quite a large portion of that is illustrations. Which leads to the other reason you should be confused: Caldecott Awards are for picture books. This was the first novel to win one.

The story deals with a pre-teen orphan named (surprise, surprise) Hugo Cabret who lives in a train station and spends his time fixing automatons when he isn't bsuy keeping the station's clocks running. It also deals heavily with Georges Méliès but I'd rather make you read the book to find out more about that.

I read this in 2009 or 2010 for a youth materials and services class, and really enjoyed it. I don't remember there being anything groundbreaking in our class discussion about it, just a general approval and belief that it would be popular with many different types of patrons, including the entire range from young to old, and in particular, reluctant readers.

I had not seen the film (Hugo) until very recently. It was... okay. I was excited to learn - before seeing it - that Christopher Lee, Jude Law, and Sacha Baron Cohen were all in it. Then I realized who Chloe Grace Moretz is (you may remember her from here?) and was excited about her being in it, too. But... it sort of fell flat. It was pretty, not beautiful. It was a nice way to spend time, but I probably wouldn't watch it over and over. If you enjoyed the movie, give the book a chance... it'll probably take as much time as watching the movie again (or less) and you might like it even better.

My favorite steampunk novel is actually also a favorite of Alex's too.  I'm with Alex in that I haven't read a lot of steampunk (other than the book I'm going to tell you, I only have Hugo and Boneshaker on my list), but it's definitely something I would love to pick up more of.

Leviathan Series by Scott Westerfeld has to be my favorite steampunk novel. (Really, are you surprised?  You shouldn't be.)

Honestly, I think I love this series so much because Westerfeld takes such a unique approach to it (as is usually the case with him.)  It's set during WWI, and the Allied powers are Darwinists.  All of their flying machines and other technological advances are made of animals that have been genetically engineered to do things like fly.  So Deryn (our main character) actually works on an airship that's a huge whale.  They have hydrogen that is naturally produced and they even get things like food from their airship.  All these animals are called "beasties".

The Axis powers are the exact opposite and called Clankers.  All of their weaponry is machine based.  So they have huge machines, one of which is called a Stormwalker, that can roam the country side and shoot people.  It's great.

Westerfeld takes the story of two young kids (one a prince and a girl masquerading as a boy), and intertwines them in this amazing story of beasties and wars and stormwalkers.

The other amazing thing about this book?  The illustrations.  There are black and white illustrations all throughout the book that do nothing but enhance your reading experience.  Steampunk is highly visual and I think that Westerfeld really made the right choice in including illustrations in his novel.

This is a stormwalker.  Isn't it neat?            These are beasties.  Leviathan is on the right.

It's a great book with great characters and a great steampunk aesthetic.  Even better?  The series comes with The Manual of Aeronautics, which just has more fun pictures, details and crazy fun descriptions  like the details of the people's uniforms or the inside of the beasties.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cherie Priest

I thought that, since we covered steampunk on Monday, I'd take the time to talk about our author this week, Cherie Priest!

Cherie Priest was born in Tampa, FL and currently resides in Chattanooga, TN.  She has an M.A. in rhetoric and professional writing and did a few years of writing for a blog and now is a staff member of Subterranean Press.

Boneshaker was actually not her first novel, though it was her most famous to date.  It's what she's currently known for.  However, she had a novel, a series of them actually, before Boneshaker ever came about.

  • Four and Twenty Blackbirds,
    • Original edition, 2003 
    • Re-released in a revised, much expanded, edition, 2005
  • Wings to the Kingdom, October 2006
  • Not Flesh Nor Feathers, October, 2007

She won the LuLu Broker prize for this series.  It actually is heavy in the horror genre, much of what Priest wrote before she began to dabble in the steampunk genre.  Between her first book and Boneshaker, she actually wrote numerous amounts of short stories.

  • 'The Heavy', a short story. Published in Apex Digest Issue #12, March 2008.
  • 'The Target Audience', a short story. Published in Noctem Aeternus January, 2008.
  • 'Following Piper', a short story. Published in Subterranean Digest issue #6.
  • 'Little Wards', a short story. Published in The Edge of Propinquity . June 2006
  • 'The Immigrant', a short story, part of Mythic #2, October 2006 Mythic Delirium Books.
  • 'Bad Sushi', a short story. Published in Apex Digest, Issue #10.
  • 'Wishbones', a short story, part of Aegri Somnia. December 2006 Apex Digest. 
  • 'Tanglefoot', a short story, published online by Subterranean Press, 2009. First release of the Clockwork Century universe.
  • 'Hell’s Bells,' Grant’s Pass, Morrigan Books 2009
  • 'The Catastrophe Box', a short story Son of Retro Pulp Tales, Subterranean Press 2010
  • 'Reluctance', a short story, part of "The Mammoth Book of Steampunk", first published in the UK by Robinson, an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2012

In 2009, she came out with Boneshaker, the book that we're going to be reviewing this week.  Since 2009, she has written four other novels in the Boneshaker universe, though it was Boneshaker that really caused her writing to take off.

  • Boneshaker, October 2009
  • Clementine, July 2010
  • Dreadnought, September 2010
  • Ganymede, September 2011
  • The Inexplicables, November 2012

Priest actually keeps a very consistent blog.  From there, you can access her twitter account, her Livejournal, her Facebook, her Flickr stream, her Goodreads page, her Youtube channel, and her Google+ account.  She is probably one of the most well connected writers to her fan base, not to mention significantly busy keeping up all those venues.  Those are probably the best places to find out more about her, her writings and her tour dates.

Happy Reading!

Monday, December 10, 2012

What is Steampunk?

This week we're reviewing Boneshaker, which is a steampunk novel.  Steampunk has actually had a pretty recent uprising, though it's been around, technically, since the 80s.  It is a piece of work that takes place usually in the 19th and very early 20th century and is a mixture of history and industrialized west.  It's like a genre mashup (which, if you recall from this post, is becoming ever more popular). It can be either post-apocalyptic or just an alternate form of history.

The major steampunk influences are actually a little surprising: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelly are the forerunners of steampunk, the first authors to mix the industrialized west into their novels.  Technically, they aren't TRUE steampunk because, well, they were writing about their own time periods, not history, so it's a little different.

Literature is a HUGE medium of steampunk now.  Some big ones are Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan or Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials.  Both of these take history and combine it with machinery.

This is Westerfeld's Novel.  See all the neat gears?
Can't you just hear the clunking and whirring from there?
Steampunk has a lot of fun, anachronistic onomatopoetic opportunities.

So where did the term steampunk come from?  It was actually in response to this unknown sub-culture rising.  Cyberpunk was huge in the 80s and here comes this movement, based very much on the Victorian age with a dash of gears and machines thrown in.  K.W. Jeter (a sci-fi author) actually coined the term, in a very tongue in cheek letter that he wrote to Locus magazine:

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. 

Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like 'steam-punks', perhaps.

—K.W. Jeter
(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Now, we see steampunk everywhere.  Will Smith did the movie Wild Wild West, SyFy's mini-series Tin Man and of course, the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Steampunk is also a huge cosplay movement.  People dress up and get some really intricate costumes.

This is pretty typical steampunk outfits: browns and grays and gears.

Steampunk has really permeated pop culture.  It's in books, movies, even music.  People have steampunk weddings even. If you have several hours to kill and nothing better to do, you could get trapped under an avalanche of results by searching for steampunk on Etsy. It's become it's own culture and movement.  And are we surprised?  It lets us recreate history in a unique way and has a fascinating style to go along with it.