Monthly Archives: July 2012

#24: Magician: Apprentice (The Riftwar Saga #1) by Raymond E. Feist

This is a well-known fantasy title that I was completely unaware of.  I picked up my husband’s copy and when I posted that I was reading it, a lot of my friends were excited and told me that I’d like it, so that was an awesome way to start.  It is a solid, classic fantasy book and I really enjoyed it.  I read “The Author’s Preferred Edition” if that gives me any bonus points.  I also just learned that the UK version contains both Apprentice and Master in one edition, which turned out to be a huge spoiler because when I went to look up a character name on Wikipedia I found out a bit about what happens after Apprentice ends.  Be warned, Americans! 

Review first, summary to follow.  There are sort of spoilers here, but I don’t think I’m giving away anything major.

If you’re looking for strong female characters, move along.  Princess Carline has a few moments of awesome, but this is a boy’s world. 

The pacing at the end of the book felt off.  The majority of the book follows Pug and then hops over to Tomas when the two of them split up.  Then Pug is captured and the book has nothing to do with him again.  I thought this was weird because it was his story, but at the same time I understood that there were major battles happening in Crydee that needed to be covered.  Still, it was clear that something major was going to happen with Pug.  I’m curious to see how it plays out in Master and if the story split makes sense.  I was frustrated that something was set up and then not returned to and I would have given up the major battles to stay with Pug’s POV.  I’m wondering if Master will go back in time so we see what was happening with him while we were getting the other parts of the story, or if it will pick up and say something like “For five years Pug had been blah blah blah” and go from there.

The fantasy structure stays true and follows the classic and familiar, but not in a clichéd way.  Sure, there are moments where you know what’s going to happen, but it’s a good thing.  Fantasy themes work for a reason and while there’s nothing groundbreaking here from other books I’ve read, it’s a great plot and I really like the characters.  I’m looking forward to seeing how everything is going to end up, and if there will be heartbreaking loss or if it’ll be sunshine and rainbows.

And here’s my plot summary with sort-of-spoilers again toward the end:

Pug is turning thirteen and anxiously waits for the Crydee ceremony where boys are chosen by masters to learn a craft and serve the court.  He is a bit nervous because he’s not sure where he will go, and there is always the threat that no one will choose him and he’ll have to leave the only home he’s ever known to seek his fortune elsewhere.

Pug is an orphan and was adopted by the castle cook and raised with his son, Tomas.  The two are the same age and have lived as brothers.  Tomas is picked to serve as a soldier and Pug hopes he will be called as well.

The choosing ceremony comes to a close and Pug stands alone in the courtyard.  He has not been chosen.

Luckily for him, the court magician, Kulgan, has taken an interest in the boy and offers to take him on as an apprentice, something that has not happened in a very long time.  Magic isn’t fully trusted or understood in Crydee, although people like Kulgan and appreciate his council to the Duke.  Pug is unsure what his role will be, but is relieved to be chosen and pleased to be apprenticed to Kulgan.  They form a very untraditional pairing with Kulgan ignoring the unspoken rules of master and apprentice, and Pug is left to himself to learn and discover what it means to do magic.

Moving to a higher position in the Duke’s court, he is given riding lessons and works with Father Tully, the court’s priest, to further his education.  While he is frustrated with his inability to perform even the simplest of magic, he is pleased with his placement within the court, even though his spot is the lowest.  He and Tomas still find time to spend together and both of them feel the beginnings of the transition into adulthood.

As part of Pug’s new life, he is often in contact with the Duke’s daughter, Princess Carline.  All the boys in Crydee are in love with her, and Pug too finds himself confused and flustered when she is nearby.  She inadvertently brings out a hint of his magical ability when the two of them are attacked by trolls.  Panicked, Pug somehow sees a spell in his mind and uses it to kill them.  In Pug’s world, magic works through scrolls, and Kulgan, Father Tully, and the Duke are astounded and confused that Pug was able to cast such a powerful spell on his own.  Saving the Princess’ life gives him another boost when the Duke promotes him to Squire and grants him land.  Not too bad for an orphan boy.

Still, Pug is unable to repeat the spell or perform any other magic.  He cannot remember how he defeated the trolls and he cannot mimic what Kulgan does.  He understands everything, but he can’t make it happen.  Kulgan continues to approach him with kindness and patience and he and Father Tully decide the best thing for Pug to do is abandon all plans and simply study.  Kulgan provides him with research materials and Pug happily drowns himself in books.

And then the Tsurani arrive.  Crydee has never seen beings like this before and Father Tully and Kulgan are puzzled as to who they are and what they want.  There has never been reports of them in all of Midkemia, and it soon becomes clear that they are from another world and mean to destroy this one.

The Duke gathers men to head to the King to warn him of the invasion and share their knowledge of the aliens.  The elves and dwarves of Midkemia also share information with the Duke and it becomes more and more clear that the world is in danger.

War begins and it is unlike anything anyone has ever seen.  The Duke is still at the King’s court, Pug and Tomas have been separated, forces are split and the Tsurani seems to have an endless supply of weapons and men.  Their magic is strong and no one can figure out how to close their portals.

The battles rage on, the King worries that everyone is plotting against him, the Duke stumbles into a different kind of struggle, Pug and Tomas are thrown into their own adventures, the original baddies of Midkemia are gathering on their own, and no one sees and end to any of this.. 

I need to get Master and find out how this mess is going to get cleaned up.

#20 – 23: The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld

It’s time for a YA series! 

It’s also time for a massive review to cover all four books and my response.  I read these months ago and am going to lump this all together.  There will be spoilers, although if you read the back of the books you’ll know who makes it from book to book to book.

The Uglies

All Tally Youngblood wants is to turn sixteen so she can become Pretty. 

The world as we know it is gone.  We’ve fought and blown ourselves up and wrecked the environment and Tally’s world is making up for our mistakes. 

They figured out quickly that one of the best ways to avoid problems to make everyone equal, and the best way to do that is to make sure everyone is Pretty.

It’s simple, really.  You turn sixteen and are made Pretty.  When Uglies see you, they are stunned and overwhelmed with desire to protect you, to make you laugh, to make you like them.  Not that Uglies get to see them that often.  After all, you wouldn’t want to upset a Pretty by forcing them to look at a natural, hideous face.

The science of Tally’s world is incredibly advanced.  You’re taken into a room where your entire body is changed to make you as beautiful as all the other Pretties.  If you’re too tall, your bones are ground down to the accepted Pretty height.  Scars are erased.  Well, your entire skin is erased, really.  It’s sanded down so that new, better skin can be applied.  Your eyes become bigger, your nose perfect, your lips full and soft.  Your teeth are replaced, your hair is new, your fingernails are flawless.  Everything about you is crafted so that no one will feel inadequate and therefore no one will have to fight to earn equality.  You’re even given a better immune system to help you from getting sick and to heal quickly if you’re hurt while doing fun, Pretty things.  Life is perfect.  And if a flaw is discovered later, hurry back to surgery to get fixed up.

Tally’s best friend has already turned sixteen and left her to live the Pretty life and she is bored, depressed, and nervous while waiting to join him.  What if he’s forgotten her?  What if she won’t be Pretty enough?  What if she’s still not perfect even after the surgery?

While waiting for her birthday, Tally meets Shay who is also about to turn sixteen.  Shay is wild and dangerous and she and Tally become fast friends.  Shay’s a little different from anyone else Tally has known.  She seems a bit quiet and distant at times, and she doesn’t seem too interested in becoming Pretty.  Tally shrugs it off, knowing as soon as it happens, she and Shay will be Pretty together and that will mean they are happy.

And then Shay disappears.  And then Tally, still Ugly, finds out what happens when you cross The People In Charge.  Is being Pretty the best thing to be?  Is there more?  Is it worth telling lies if you think everything will work out in the end?

Some of our main characters and places in the Uglies Series:

Tally – our conflicted protagonist.

Shay – our super angry, rebellious girl who is always looking for more and doesn’t deal well when things go wrong.

The Smoke – a whispered about area where people are living outside of Pretty control.  This is a secret world where people have fled after deciding not to become Pretty.  They have little access to the comforts of society and the government of Pretty Town is looking to bring them under control and get everyone into surgery to keep fights from happening.  Some members have lived there their entire lives, while others have joined them after escaping their cities. 

David – son of the founders of The Smoke.  He’s lived his entire life outside of the cities and is disgusted by the vapid, materialist life of the Pretties.

Maddy – David’s mom and one of the founders of The Smoke.  She knows a lot about the surgery to make people Pretty and has a special interest in Pretty brains.

Special Circumstances – a government agency in Pretty Town that is dangerous and secret.  People talk about it as a threat, but also think it might not be real.  It appears to be there to protect the Pretties and make sure things stay equal to avoid war and fighting, and it seems happy to use its power in any way to make sure things stay the way they are.

Dr. Cable – head of the Specials. She is terrifying and is able to decide Tally’s fate throughout the books.  She has a lot of power, both in Pretty Town and out.

Spoilers are coming, so if you’re interested in reading the whole pretty dystopia on your own, stop right here.

The Pretties

Things end badly at the end of The Uglies.  Tally’s mind opens when she meets David, she’s trying to figure out how to fix things with Shay, and she managed to destroy The Smoke by trying not to decide anything at all.

She’s also Pretty now.

The life she imagined for herself just a few months ago is now reality.  She and Shay are going to the best parties, enjoying the best of what Pretty Town has to offer, and enjoying their fame as criminals (Crims) for their reputation as runaways and Smoke Dwellers.

Life is perfect.

Except that Tally keeps having un-Pretty thoughts and memories and starts remembering things that don’t make sense.  Why should she still be thinking of David and The Smoke and being Ugly?  She has an amazing Pretty boyfriend named Zane and all she should be worrying about is what to wear at the next party and what new cosmetic surgery to get.

Zane starts asking questions about not being Pretty and Tally, Shay and the rest of their clique start looking for ways to have moments of clarity.  Zane and Tally especially start to realize that their minds don’t seem to work the way that they should.  Shay, once again, is left out of these discoveries and turns to a more violent method to find the clarity she craves.

Members of the New Smoke are hunting for Tally and she doesn’t know why.  Everything is confusing, and seeing David is horrifying.  She knew he was Ugly, but now that she’s Pretty, seeing him again is sickening.  She also feels confused and guilty because she’s in love with Zane but she knows she once had feelings for David.

Tally continues to bring destruction and chaos through indecision and non-action.  Her decisions again push Shay away, and when Tally is caught by Special Circumstances, it’s Shay that brings her in.  Shay is no longer just Pretty; she’s Special.  She’s a Cutter.

The Specials

Yet another surgery and a new version of Tally Youngblood.

Dr. Cable has worked with Shay to create an elite offshoot of Special Circumstances.  The Cutters have been given the best body modifications possible.  Tally has been redesigned to be a lethal hunter, and has technology to back up her flawless body.

Shay keeps Tally close as they hunt down Uglies who are working with the New Smoke to smuggle in the Pretty cure.  Dr. Cable has given the Cutters immense power to keep the city secure and make sure the Pretties are safe.

They need to find the New Smoke, and they need to destroy it.

Tally continues to exist with a muddled brain.  No matter what version she is, she is never able to fully commit.  As an Ugly, all she wanted was to be Pretty.  Then she met David, but she still wanted to be Pretty, but to take him with her.  When she became Pretty she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was supposed to be doing something else.  Now that she’s Special, she’s not sure if she can trust Shay, or even trust herself.

Things really fall apart when she finds Zane and sees how damaged he is.  He’s still Pretty, but his body is damaged and she is repulsed.  Perhaps another Special or Pretty would have ended it there and walked away without another thought, but Tally doesn’t want to lose her feelings for him.  She’s angry at herself for not being able to accept him, but everything in her Special mind and body is disgusted by his weakness.  It’s worse because he’s not some Ugly – he was Pretty and perfect and now he’s disgusting.  Like she wanted to do with Shay and David before, she figures she can fix everything by making Zane perfect again and things will go back to the way they should be.

Things move quickly in this one.  The Cutters find the New Smoke, a war starts that might become a World War if Dr. Cable has her way, Shay finds a new clarity and again turns on Tally, and Tally realizes she, once again, has started a chain of events that is ending in destruction.

The Extras

This was a nice addition.  I think Westerfield could have ended it after The Specials, although he did leave himself room to keep going.

We are now living in a new world with new characters.  The time of the Pretties has ended, and now it’s all about Science.

It’s been three years since Tally has ended the Pretty world, and she and David have gone into hiding.  They’ve left a strong message that if things start to go wrong anywhere in the world, they will be there to stop it.

Our new protagonist is fifteen year old Aya Fuse.  In her town, you gain status and money through fame.  The more people talking about you, the more power you have.  Everyone runs their own live stream video blog and works hard to get followers so they can move up on the reputation list.  Money comes from fame, and everyone wants to be number one.

Aya is desperate to earn in the reputation economy.  She becomes a “kicker” – amateur  journalists who earn fame by kicking new stories that capture everyone’s interest.  It’s a viral video economy where reputation comes and goes as quickly as new videos can be posted.  The top story this morning can be forgotten by noon and the reputation list is constantly changing, except for those way at the top.

Aya thinks she’s stumbled on the next amazing story, and when she kicks it, she knows she’ll be rushed up the face rank ladder.

She spies on a group known as the Sly Girls.  They meet in secret and seem to operate outside of rank, which Aya can’t understand.  If any of them were to broadcast their adventures, they would move up in rank, but they are determined to remain secret and are furious and distrustful when they catch Aya filming them.

Aya gets to know the members, and like Tally with the Smokies, finds herself becoming friends with them, but lies and says she won’t kick their story.  She’s torn between wanting to keep their secret and wanting to earn face rank.  She’s sick of being faceless and she knows she’s destined for more.

And then things get weird.

While out one night, Aya and the Sly Girls see strange, alien like creatures open some sort of door into the side of a mountain and start removing large cylinders.  They return later to find the room and stumble onto something huge and dangerous.

The Sly Girls disappear, giving Aya permission to kick their story, but she waits a little while to try to figure out the entire puzzle.  With help from her older brother Hiro and his friend Ren, they study the cylinders and being to piece everything together.  Horrified, they realize the alien creatures are building some sort of bomb that can be launched and will level cities easily.

Aya kicks the story, and just as she dreamed, her face rank streaks into fame.  She can suddenly afford the best place to live, which turns out to be good, because someone is coming to kill her.

Some old friends show up and Aya, Hiro, Ren and Aya’s new boyfriend Frizz are whisked away to safety.  Sort of.  Things get worse and no one knows what the truth is. 

Aya is frantic since kicking the story because she doesn’t know if she’s saved the world from war or is about to cause one.

Who are these aliens and what are they building?  And will she live long enough to enjoy her new face rank?

***
And now… my response.

First off, I love the world and language that Westerfield created for this book. The slang and Pretty Speak is a lot of fun.  The technology is also fantastic.  Everything has been created to make the Pretties and to keep them happy.  The advancements in science based around cosmetic surgery and entertainment are fascinating, especially when it’s used in conjunction with extremely powerful weaponry.

I liked the idea of using beauty as equality in dystopia.  No one has to worry about anything once they become Pretty, except for having fun.  There’s an idea that someone is in charge, but it’s vague.  The world has been created for young, beautiful people to do young, beautiful things.  There are mentions of what happens as people age and have surgery done again to ease them into an older pretty life, but none of that matters because now you’re young and Pretty and life is wonderful.

I liked the excess and wealth and vapid society of Pretty Town.  Everyone is happy and it is utopia, as long as you don’t think.  Most people would probably take the surgery and give up thought process, and I can see this appealing to a YA audience.  How much would you give up to be Pretty?

A minor problem I had with this is that the writing felt a bit fluffy at times.  I thought the plot and themes were solid and sophisticated, but the writing was sometimes too easy.  At the same time, this probably makes it more accessible for some readers.  I can take some simple sentence structure if it gets more people to read.

I was also not thrilled with the inaction that Tally and Aya often had.  Several times they couldn’t commit to a choice, so they let things keep happening to them until everything blew up, and then they felt guilty.  They tried not to hurt anyone’s feeling in the first place by not doing anything, but then everyone got mad in the end.  This felt like a total teenage girl stereotype to me and made me nuts.  I wanted them to make a decision and stick to it.  They had moments where they did, but they also felt guilty about it because even they could see it might be a shallow choice.  However, this was a big part of their personalities, so it sort of fit but I wished Tally would have grown out of it by the time her story arc ended.

This is a good series.  It’s not on the top of my Must Read YA list, but I can see the appeal for a lot of readers and the topics are interesting and thought provoking.

#19: Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

This was a book club pick and proved to be an interesting challenge because my prior knowledge of Burma was around zero, and I didn’t remember much from school about George Orwell. 

Emma Larkin is a pseudonym for a writer who has lived in Thailand and has crossed the border into Burma (now Myanmar) several times to write about the country and its human rights issues.  In this book, she traces the time George Orwell spent in Burma as a member of the British Imperial Police.  His experiences there influenced his later writings, and he is sometimes refered to as The Prophet because 1984 seems to predict what happened in the country after the British left.

When I started the book, I was hopping on and off Wikipedia to refresh my memory of Orwell.  I had a disastrous introduction to him with Animal Farm in the eighth grade and never got over it.  Who has an eighth grader read Animal Farm as an independent reading choice and gives no background information??!  I thought it was a book about talking animals and was horrified at the D on my book report.  To this day, I am bitter.  At some point I picked up 1984 and read it, but I remembered very little and had twisted it in with the plot of Fahrenheit 451.  I was not prepared for this book. 

Having a foggy memory of Orwell and almost no background on Burma or Myanmar, I struggled with this at first.  I tried to find connections to my own life or topics that interested me, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through.  Asian culture is something I do not identify with and the history of the country, the politics and the customs felt completely foreign.  I also had to take a detour into the expansion of the British Empire, which is not a quick trip.

However, knowing I had a book group to support me when I finished, I slogged through the first chunk and found myself getting more interested.  There’s an edge to the story because of the political unrest and I kept expecting Larkin or her friends or interviewees to be imprisoned.  She is often followed as she explores Orwell’s path but she knows how to work within the system and manages to stay safe. 

I didn’t google her until about halfway into the book, but I finally did because I couldn’t figure out how she managed to travel alone in the country without being arrested or deported.  “Emma Larkin” sounds like a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes to me (what does that say about my stereotyped expectations?) but learning this was a pseudonym, it made sense.  She needs to remain anonymous so she can publish her stories.  She also needs to gain the trust of Burma’s people and she carefully changes names and places and writes in code to protect them, and herself.

The political structure in Burma is incredibly depressing, especially because at one point in history it was seen as a flourishing nation.  Older generations remember this time.  Some of them are beaten down by the changes, while others are angry and quietly fight against their government.

As Larkin visits the places where Orwell was, she describes the parallels between what has happened in Burma and the stories Orwell wrote.  It is easy to see why he is called The Prophet.  Did he write 1984 knowing it would happen in Burma, or was it coincidence?  I think the book could be read against many countries’ practices now and would hold up as a prediction.

Having this as a book group choice was fantastic because when we met we realized there were a lot of depressing and scary parallels between what had happened and is happening in Burma/Myanmar and what is happening in America.  What started out as an alien book turned into a discussion of what our own government is doing.  We were mixed in our knowledge of Orwell and Burma, and it made for a great meeting as we pooled knowledge and made connections.

The end of the book is both depressing and hopeful.  When Larkin finishes writing, Aung San Suu Kyi has disappeared and was feared dead.  The government had kept her under house arrest for years and tried to isolate her from the people and the United Nations because she promotes democracy and many of the people support her.  However, after the book was published, she was again released and continues her work for free elections.  The country is still a disaster in terms of human rights, health care, political corruption and much more.  I wonder how much hope the people have, especially the younger generations that don’t remember anything before the current government.

Side note: Our next book club choice is 1984 and I look forward to rereading it knowing more about Orwell.  It will also be interesting to compare my reaction to reading it on my own in high school and my response to it today.

#18: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I adored this book.  It was romantic in all sorts of ways and it made me want to reread all of the Anne of Green Gables books.

It is written as a series of letters and telegrams sent by and to Juliet Ashton.  Juliet is writer living in London shortly after WWII.  During the war she wrote a lighthearted column under a pseudonym to try and keep spirits up while the bombs fell.  Her editor has sent her on a book tour for the collected columns.  Juliet is exhausted and depressed from representing the humorous Izzy Bickerstaff because people are trying to rebuild their lives and now that the threat of war is over, they find they have to deal with the aftermath which is somehow more depressing and stressful.  Juliet wants to get back to a serious topic that will reflect the hopelessness of the war but turn into a hopeful look at what comes next.  She has zero ideas.

She receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams who is from the island of Guernsey.  Dawsey found her name in a used book and writes to her in the hopes she can send them more books.  Juliet knows nothing about Guernsey, but as the book continues she learns that the Germans occupied the island during the war.  They stay there for five years, controlling the islanders’ lives, taking over property, requisitioning food and supplies and holding the people in a war hostage situation.

However, residents are able to find moments of hope and lightness and one way is through the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Members of the Society meet to discuss books and share whatever food they are able to scrape up, hence the potato peel pie.  It’s an odd mix of people, thrown together by circumstance, but the final members end up helping each other in many ways.  Dawsey in particular becomes more confident and comfortable because of this group.  One of the things I liked about the Society is that anyone can join and many of the members swear they don’t like reading.  However, everyone is able to find at least one book or author they like and even if they reread the same thing every month, they find they are enjoying the Society and the act of reading and discussing books.  This made me incredibly happy because no one was excluded and there was no thoughts that some books were better than others.

Their founding member is a woman named Elizabeth McKenna and no one knows where she is now.  During the war she was caught aiding a Todt slave worker and was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  The members of the Society have taken turns raising her daughter Kit and wait anxiously for her return.  Elizabeth fell in love with a German soldier, much to the disgust of many on the island, and Kit is born out of wedlock.  Her father is dead but Kit is well loved and cared for.  She is one of the few children left on the island because most were shipped to safety when the Germans came.  Many children were never reunited with their families.

As Juliet gets to know the members of the Society (almost all of them are soon writing to her) she finds herself even more eager to write a serious book, but still can’t figure out what the topic will be.

She’s also dealing with a confusing romance.  Mark Reynolds is a publisher from America and decides to marry Juliet soon after meeting her.  Sidney Stark, Juliet’s current publisher and very good friend, is convinced that Mark is simply trying to steal her away from him knowing that she is a very good writer and has the potential to publish wildly successful books.  Juliet does get swept up in Mark’s good looks, confidence and money, and yet she doesn’t seem to fall head over heels for him.

As letters continue to pass back and forth, Juliet finds herself more and more curious about Guernsey and the members of the Society.  She becomes quick friends with many of them, and when they invite her to the island she is eager to go.  When she arrives, everything changes.  She finds the topic of her book and with Sidney’s help, she finds the structure and form.  She learns more and more about the island and is disappointed in herself that she knows so little of what happened outside of London during the war.

She also surprises herself by questioning what she really wants from life and asking herself for the first time who she is now that the war is over.  Everything she assumed would happen isn’t happening and Guernsey, the Society, and little Kit force her to slow down, catch her breath and examine who she is and who she wants to be.

I was pleased with the sweet ending.  Many things happened that I was hoping for, but it didn’t feel syrupy and rainbows.  Maybe that’s because I so quickly realized this book is kin to Anne of Green Gables.  If you miss Anne, pick this book up.

The supporting characters are another delight.  Their personalities are often hilarious (especially the people who are serious) and the stories they tell are wonderful.  The sad parts hurt more because you learn so much about them, and this makes the hopeful moments even stronger.  You want these people to be real, much like I wanted Anne Shirley and her friends to be real.

I also enjoyed it as historical fiction because I didn’t know anything about Guernsey.  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows did a lot of research to bring fictional character to life in this non-fictional setting.  After reading the note at the end about why there are two authors, I loved this book a little bit more.

I’m curious to see how the movie adaptation will work since the entire book is told in letters, but I think it will be an easy adaptation.  I love Kate Winslet and look forward to seeing her as Juliet.