Saturday, September 16, 2006

Truesight by David Stahler Jr.

I guess I am on a minor science fiction kick right now.

Truesight is the story of a separatist movement by blind people. They have set up several colonies where only blind people live. Children are genetically engineered to be blind and the few infants who are mistakenly born with sight are deprived of the use of their eyes and become effectively blind. As with many separatist movements, it develops a rather cultist sense of its own value and rightness - becoming effectively a religion.

In this setting we encounter Jacob, who is turning 13 - the end to formal schooling and the time, soon after which he will be assigned to a job (echos of The Giver). But Jacob starts having vicious, though short lasting headaches and gradually develops the ability to see, which changes his entire perception of his world. The physical ability to see changes also the metaphorical ability to see, as he discovers people cheating on the system, cheating on each other, and breaking the rules of the society that they have so carefully constructed and so faithfully, at least in words, support.

Books that involve layers of ethical dilemmas appeal to me and this one did. It is true, that parts of this book are really clunky - Jacob's school report on the history of the colony is clearly an attempt to justify the reasoning behind the movement to the reader. It is, in certain respects, not even necessary. The reader has already been informed through other means (reciting group mantras) about the basics. There are other problems with the novel, as other reviewers have pointed out on Amazon.

The most serious awkwardness in my mind is the instant identification of colors and the rapid recognition of facial expressions once Jacob becomes sighted. He should not even have had names for colors. There should have been some other way of identifying the new sights, other than by color. Since he is a musician, perhaps a musical analogy would have been more fitting; or by identification with texture or common objects, e.g., "the tomato appeared to grab his eyes like the sound of the locator when it beeped" or "marimba-like pricks of light came from all over the tomato plant". He should also have learned about facial expressions by accidentally seeing his own face in something reflective and trying out the various expressions. How else could he recognize so quickly the meaning of a curled lip or a frown? Whereas the first part of the novel, giving background and setting things up, moved pretty slowly, the middle section of it seemed to go too fast for me.

Nevertheless, the last third of the novel was very interesting, posing many questions ripe for discussion. Is this just a coming of age story - with sight being the Biblical-analogy-like metaphor for knowledge of the real world or is it exploring deeper questions? Do all separatist societies need the religion-like devotion to societal norms? And even further afield: is there a sense that humans are lacking that, if we had it would illuminate our society as the addition of sight illuminates Jacob's?

Is this a book kids might like? I think so. There is enough action that the philosophical questions don't really bog it down. I will be interested in the sequels. Evidently this is planned to be the first of a trilogy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubenstein

While I was reading this book, I kept thinking to myself, "This is one weird book!" Now that I am finished with it, I am not so sure. First of all, it is science fiction. It takes place in the future, but not the extremely distant future. The technology necessary to support the plot line wouldn't have to be that much in advance of what is currently available. The weirdness stems in part from the very premise of the book: children who are talented in gymnastics or dance are "recruited" (i.e. kidnapped) and sent to a distant planet to be performing captives for the aliens who live there. The children who aren't good enough to be top quality performers are sometimes placed in cages and given to aliens who care for them as pets. The story revolves around the Lord of the Flies type atmosphere of the group of children who perform, and the main character, who becomes a pet.

Rather than give away the ending, I will simply say that there are many issues that are exposed as you read the book. Obviously there is the pet theme. We keep pets and they are essentially our prisoners. We care for them, keep them healthy, show appreciation for them. But is this ethical?

This book also touches on many other aspects of ethics: is it ethical to kidnap children who are starving on the streets of decaying cities and force them to perform, even if, in doing so, they receive better food, better shelter, better clothing, and more care than they might get on the streets. What if the children become used to it? What if they never protest? What if they do? What if it results, for some, in their deaths?

Then, there are all of the issues surrounding the reason for the captivity and the performances. Why must the children perform daring and dangerous tricks? Is it ethical to feed off of others' emotions? There are many more similar questions that I am not going to discuss explicitly because I can't do so without spoilers.

And a warning: there are deaths in the story - two children fall to their deaths doing dangerous gymnastics or dance stunts and the children all end up killing the man who kidnapped them and held them captive, even though he cared for them. These are not just "in the background" deaths either. They are pretty graphic and scary and should probably be accompanied by a thorough discussion.

In fact, this book is teeming with questions about society and possible future societies. It would make a very interesting book for discussion for groups of (probably gifted) students who enjoy science fiction. One problem, though, would be trying to make sure that, if students are like me and want to read ahead, that they don't allow that to influence the discussion. In fact, this is one of the few books that I would be tempted to tear apart and only hand out to the students one chapter at a time.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the patois that the children speak. There is a glossary in the front of the book, rather than at the end - and it is needed. This is probably one major reason why I would NOT recommend this book for most kids - it is simply too intimidating to read. It is also probably a major reason why I have never heard anyone talk about the book. It is challenging - in many ways.

I suppose, in the end, it is not really a great book - it isn't lyrical prose, the characters don't pull at your heartstrings across the ages. But it sure is an interesting one and one I am glad I have read. I would be very curious to know what a group of middle school or older gifted kids would make of it.

Friday, September 8, 2006

Gloria Whelan

I have been more interested in Africa lately, since my younger daughter spent 7+ weeks in Uganda on a student traineeship. Years ago, I had collected stamps from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Botswana, but that interest had kind of gone by the wayside. Still, for a long time, I have wanted to learn to speak an African language [I know several European languages - at least modestly - and I have wanted to see if knowing an unrelated African language would bring me new insights into how people in that part of the world think.]. And I have read children's books from Africa off and on for many years. But A.'s trip to Uganda and the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books have led to a revived interest in Africa.

So, when I was looking through my Amazon recommendations, I saw Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan. I have been trying to wean myself off of buying books that could possibly be at our library, but in this case our library didn't have it yet. It is "in the process of being acquired". But, while I was at the library, I decided to check out two other books by Gloria Whelan. I had read Angel on the Square a couple of years ago and, though I enjoyed it, it wasn't a particular favorite of mine. But two other books of hers caught my eye. These books I will review today.

Goodbye, Vietnam

This is the older book, written in 1990, according to the copyright date - and it is showing its age a bit. The story is still fine, but the epilogue is out of date - with many changes in that country since 1990. Nevertheless, this is a pretty faithful accounting of the hazards faced by the boat people who fled Vietnam during that era - and, even though it is probably toned down a bit for children, it is still a pretty grim tale. It is well crafted in that it really makes the reader feel with and understand the people. I like it when books give you a real sense of a culture's traditions, without necessarily lecturing to you and this book does that.

Chu Ju's House

I enjoyed this book, too. It is the story of the oldest girl in a rural Chinese family. Chinese people who farm were allowed to have two children and every family hoped that at least one of the children would be a boy, since boys were responsible for caring for the parents when they were older. But since the child that was born second was another girl, the family made arrangements to sell the infant, so that they might try one more time for a boy. To spare her young sister the ordeal of an orphanage, Chu Ju runs away and tries to make her own way in the world. It isn't an easy life - she lives for a while with a boat family, then in a silk-making factory with some orphans, and finally makes her way to a poor farming community and a very small two-person farm. There she is befriended and gradually finds comfort, both physically and emotionally. She finally goes back to visit her family (and now there is a third girl), but in the meantime, she is satisfied with the life she has made and returns to her farm.

This book is all about choices - how they are made and what their consequences are and that is something I am always quite interested in. The choices aren't easy. I do appreciate the fact that the author shows different people making entirely different choices and shows understanding of each of those choices. It is still a children's book, but some of the complexities of life are at least gently explored.

Another thing that is of interest is the method of educating the peasants - through pamphlets and local agricultural workers. Books are still suspicious - they contain dangerous ideas, but the pamphlets that help people learn better farming methods are gradually making learning new things more acceptable. Of the things that were taught in the local school, we hear only briefly about reading and writing. I guess literacy is important worldwide - even (or especially) under repressive regimes.


Both of these books were enjoyable they still lack that something that makes me love them. Maybe I am just getting jaded. They were both good, but they won't be carried with me to mull over many years later.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones; The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones

Much of this book is predictable - Mom dies, daughter gets sent to live with Dad, whom she doesn't remember. Daughter is angry at first and gradually finds her way. The big lure for kids is all of the name-dropping. Dad, a famous movie star, lives next to famous movie star. Dad hosts party for more famous movie stars. Kids at school are all related to famous movie stars. You get the idea. It isn't a bad book - just somewhat predictable.

The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm

The main premise of this book is that three kids who have been victims of bullying band together to try to get it to stop. They do so by using the in-house school computer network to tell their stories to all of the other kids in the school, and soon other kids are telling their stories, too. Talking about it seems to help and gradually the school seems to be getting less threatening, but the principal and one of the bullies tries to put a stop to it.

I have been in middle schools quite a bit and have been on the other side of the story - the teachers' side. While the teachers are portrayed as relatively uninvolved with the bullying, it is much more difficult than the book seems to portray it. I see too clearly exactly what frustrates the kids about the teachers - telling students that they can't do anything about the bullying unless they actually see examples of it. But, positive action to combat the bullying is much more difficult. Teachers cannot follow each middle schooler home. Teachers cannot see every note that is passed or hear every snide comment. Bullies are exceedingly clever at attacking when their behaviors will be least likely to be detected. I am not trying to excuse the principal in this story, who seems to be in denial and is too heavily influenced by the people in power in the community (the bully girl's lawyer father). But most teachers seem to be more like the English teacher - well meaning, but essentially clueless; or the computer teacher - hopeful and willing to help, but not sure whether it will, in fact, be more helpful or worse.

Bullying is a complex problem - more complex than this book seems to see it as. I think this book offers an interesting idea - that bringing all of the incidents of bullying to light will make people more understanding of the problems. I wish that that were all that was needed. But I am a bit pessimistic about it. Like a lot of other current day problems, though: I see the problem, but I just don't see a solution. Even the youngest school children start bullying - usually with name-calling and simple shoving other kids around. Teachers try to stop it; parents try to stop it. But somehow, our culture seems to glorify domination - clever putdowns are the stock in trade of many television programs. Physical aggression, bordering on harrassment, seems to be part and parcel of male behavior - and some would argue, is necessary for healthy growth into manhood. Verbal harrassment and shunning seem to be the preferred weapons of girls. Where does something essentially "harmless" and normal shade into something that is more sinister? When adults step in, what is the best way to do so?

I have participated in and have taught several character education programs and quite a few anti-bullying lessons, but they seem to me to be little more than mouthing platitudes. I have yet to see something that I think seems authentic and that works. I will give credit to the idea behind this book, though. It is worth trying - maybe it is one key element in turning the corner of a bad situation.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Miscellaneous YA Books

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

I picked this book up because I like science fiction and it was in the Alaska Battle of the Books section for high school. While there is way too much technical stuff for my interest, the actual story line completely drew me in. I like how Honor Harrington seems like a real person - a woman and a commander. The only complaint is the perennial one - a woman has to be absolutely outstanding to even be grudgingly accepted.

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce

This book took me a while to actually begin understanding. The beginning seemed rather garbled. But it turned out to be an OK read. It was enjoyable, but it is another one of those books that will be rather quickly forgotten. The only thing that is memorable for me is that it does have a rather unique plot - about an art "theft".

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman

While this isn't Cushman's best book, it still is interesting enough for a good read. It is also the first book for YAs that I have read that deals with the McCarthy era and the blacklisting of actors thought to be communist sympathizers. It is also interesting for the main character and her best friend. The MC reminds me a lot of myself at that age - easily persuaded to do the conventional thing and slow to stand up for what I really believed in. The main character's friend is what I would have liked to have been like - smart, well-informed and able to stand up for what I believed in, even if it got me in trouble. In the end, the quieter MC does gain a little bit of voice, but it almost comes too late in the book to make much of an impact.

I Am David by Anne Holm

I can't remember if I wrote about this one already. This is a moving story about a boy's escape from a concentration camp (not Nazi holocaust, but rather significantly later). While the chance meeting of someone who is able to point him to exactly where he needs to go is a weak part of the book, the rest of the story is plausible and gripping.

Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman

This was another Alaskan Battle of the Books book. I generally do not like Gordon Korman's books - although I will readily concede that kids do. They are too superficial for me. This one is no exception. I suppose it is funny to treat the MC's family's involvement with the Mafia as humorous - and the book works at doing that, but I can't help thinking that it is just a bit too facile, a bit too frivolous for a relatively serious problem.

Kat's Promise by Bonnie Shimko

This is a complicated book about family troubles - including several different kinds of abuse. One of the best features of it is that it doesn't end up with the "wicked step mother" reforming and turning into a really decent person once you get to know her side of the story.

And, an oldie:
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

This book reads very much like a romance novel, which I suppose it is. It is basically fluff and will not be close to me like Anne of Green Gables, but it was a good summer read.

More School Stories and Others

Enid Blyton's Malory Towers Books

Although I have only gotten the last 3 of a 6 book set, I read them anyway. The first ones, although on order, weren't available yet. I enjoyed them. The main character is a girl named Darrell (which is a surprising - to me - girl's name; I have only known boys to be named Darell). I am quite intrigued by the emphasis on learning about character. I had encountered the same type of thing in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, but I hadn't realized how widespread it was. There is a definite subtext in the books about learning to be a good person - acknowledging that it is as important as learning the subject matter. The most interesting thing about it is that the goal is voiced by the students. Sure, the head of the school gives them an occasional lecture, but the key thing is that the students subscribe to the idea. Nowadays that seems completely old-fashioned.

Example: Darrell evidently had quite a temper when she first came to the school and even in the upper forms, she still has to strive to control her temper. She lets it get out of control once when she was head of her form, and she was demoted for a while - a punishment she actually agrees with.

It is also interesting when the students are given the complete management of the end of term festival/play. They are told they can ask for adult help, but they proudly do nearly all of the work without help. I can't imagine such a thing nowadays. A caveat: I don't usually teach at the high school level, and the students who put this performance together are high school students. But my daughters went to high school not too long ago and, even though it was an unusually progressive high school, there was still a faculty member who was the official sponsor of every student performance and the major performances were organized and supervised by adults.

Another interesting thing is the term in which a major exam is taken. One girl, who is normally at the top of the class is, unbeknownst to herself, actually sick during the test and therefore fails the test. Two other girls who are poor students also do poorly on the test. But the test isn't the only deciding factor in whether the student goes to the next form. The top student is promoted and will study for and take the exam again in the next term that it is given. The student who failed is held back and the other, who barely passed, is allowed to go on. Promotion is not only not automatic, but it is also not seen as unusual for someone to be held back. The next year, there are two more girls in the class who have been in the form already a year. In fact, these two girls are given positions of authority, precisely because they already know the ropes, so to speak - an interesting concept. I can't imagine kids who failed a year in the United States being given positions of authority the following year.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

I have to admit I just skimmed most of these books. I read the first part of each one and found them too depressing to read in their enterity. I guess I have a weak stomach.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

While I am confessing to a weak stomach, I will also confess that I have not yet finished either one of the above books either. I plan to, but I have gotten to a place in each one where I know something bad is about to happen and I can't quite force myself to keep going through the bad part. What a chicken I am! I am actually listening to The Secret Life of Bees as an audiobook. I love the girl/woman who is reading it - Jenna Lamia.

The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer

This is another story in the British boarding school tradition, even though it is set in Austria. It is doubly interesting to me, because I spent a summer in Mayrhofen, Austria, at a Foreign Language League program, and the setting is nearby to there. The setting does effect the plot to some extent, as there is a much more international mix of students attending. Not only do we get the typical English girls, but we also get Austrians, French, and others. One of the main characters, though British, was actually raised in India. This is a likable book, very much akin to other girls books in this tradition.

Tamora Pierce

I have read some of Tamora Pierces' books before and enjoyed them. I have even met the author and was fascinated with the swarm of adolescent, gifted girls who clustered around her, effectively shielding her from adult contacts. At the time, I wasn't a huge fan, so had no real need to talk to her personally, but I did enjoy observing the kids surrounding her. Now, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I decided to try reading the Protector of the Small series, because I had heard that my nieces were so fascinated by all of her books. I have been really trying to be more balanced in my reading - including books that I think would appeal to boys, to kids of various backgrounds, etc. So I had been kind of thinking that this series was too girl-focused and that I should spend more time reading books that would appeal to a wider range of readers. But then I just decided to read these totally for enjoyment - without my critical mind attacking them for having such narrow appeal. And, lo and behold, I find myself rather hooked on them. I am going back and trying to get all of the Song of the Lioness series and the Immortals series, too. For now, I am sticking to the books about the Tortall kingdom, but who knows, maybe I will branch out later. The problem with that is that Tamora Pierce is very prolific and I like hard cover books. Even though I get used books, this really mounts up.

The two series I am reading now (Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small) follow girls who want to become knights through their training. This is a time, in the kingdom, when girls aren't seen as potential knights, so they have to work through all of the prejudice against girls - both their own inner worries and the prejudices of the world. Now, personally, I find the battle scenes rather boring, but I find it absolutely fascinating how the characters manage to deal with various human conflicts.

Some people find the way that Tamora Pierce deals with sex to be too promiscuous for their tastes. I have typically reacted rather negatively to books set in "modern" times where the MC seems to have sex in order to resolve the books main conflict. But I find the sex in these books to be rather lower key. It is there and it is not really hidden, but it is not the major focus of what is going on at any time. The focus remains on the personal goals and trials of the main characters. This is in itself rather refreshing. I remember hearing of a student who said that, although hormonal urges were important in adolescence, they still did think of other things, too.

Of the two series, I seem to like Protector of the Small better - probably because the focus is less on magic and more on strength and courage and making good decisions.

A Few Adult Books to Add

I am not sure if I will annotate all of the books I have read since the last post. This first post is a brief listing of some of the adult ones I have read recently.

Alexander McCall Smith's Books
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, and The Full Cupboard of Life

These books have been billed as mysteries, which I suppose, vaguely, they are. But they are much less mystery and much more looking into human nature - and that is probably why I have enjoyed them so much. I am not really interested in hair-raising thrillers, or murder intrigues, but I do find these books completely fascinating for the glimpses of culture in Africa, as well as the completely universal problems of human living. They aren't especially demanding books - I read two of them in one day - but they are enjoyable and feel worth the time. I have ordered the next two already.

My Best Friend's Girl by Dorothy Koomson

This book is another reason why I just can't seem to get into adult books. It isn't that it isn't a good book, but the problems that it explores just aren't ones that particularly interest me. I actually think it is MY problem, not the book's, so, if anyone is reading this, don't discount the book because of this review. Parts of the book I did enjoy - especially the parts where the little girl, Tegan, is the major focus.

Meg by Maurice Gee

I bought this book when I was looking for books about British boarding schools, so I kept waiting for it to relate to that interest. But, I think it was probably recommended by mistake. Perhaps the author wrote other school stories, but this one is NOT one. It is a family history saga - interesting, actually, in its own way, but again, an adult book with a focus different from my major interests. The one thing I do find curious about it is its voice. It is interesting to me how an author achieves that almost disinterested voice when relating a story that is obviously of core interest to the main character - as though it hurts too much to show how much the main character really feels - or how far beyond caring the MC has gotten in order to make it through the rest of her life.