Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review: The Song of an Innocent Bystander by Ian Bone

Book: The Song of an Innocent Bystander
Author: Ian Bone
Published: 2004
Source: Local Library

Years ago, a madman held thirteen people hostage in a hamburger restaurant for thirty-six hours. At the end, two men were dead and the rest walked away. One of the hostages, nine-year-old Freda Opperman, became the face of the event, the innocent victim, the brave survivor. Her mother keeps the legacy alive through the media and various good works done in Freda's name. But inside that restaurant, with the gunman, Freda knows she wasn't innocent or a victim or even particularly brave. It's all documented on a set of napkins written by the store's manager, one of the eventual dead men. She's never read them, but ever since being carried out of that restaurant, she's hidden them away like a treasure, or a secret.

When a reporter comes to write a ten-year retrospective of the siege, his questions are different from all the others--more penetrating, more accusing. As Freda weathers this attack from outside, she has to decide whether to bury her long-ago actions forever or to forgive herself--and she doesn't know which will be harder.

This is a story that you uncover gradually, chipping away at like a fossil or an onion. You're given the basic facts at the start, but the interpretation of them--who did what, who felt what, why, when, where, how--keeps shifting as pieces of the past are revealed.

Ian Bone does some interesting things with point of view and pronouns. He uses a first-person point of view for Freda's present-day reflections and experiences. Then the camera pulls away into a third-person omniscient for the siege itself, showing things that Freda wasn't witness to. Sprinkled throughout are the infamous napkins, documenting the manager's fear, despair, and changing view of the nine-year-old Freda.

Yet another version is the heroic victim that her mother and the media have created. Freda often refers to herself in the third person as the brave survivor, especially when she's reflecting on the role she plays for the cameras and the reporters.

She is never called by name in the flashbacks--she is only "the girl," which made me wonder if we were going to be treated to a switcheroo where Freda was not the girl taken under John Wayne O'Grady's wing. In fact, she is, but it's the Freda that O'Grady wanted. His soldier, his comrade.

All these facets of the same character show us how one person, and one event, can be viewed differently by every witness, even the one behind the eyes. Try this book for a thought-provoking look at the stories we create about ourselves and others.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It's the Best Time of the Year

Not the "most wonderful" . . . what do you think this is, a Christmas carol? I'm talking about the time of year that everyone starts putting out "best of" lists. I was going to gather them, but Chicken Spaghetti has already done that, and quite ably too. I'm told she keeps updating, so check back often.

I always reserve my judgement until my end-of-the-year roundup, but I'd like to hear from you: What's the best book you've read this year?

P.S. It doesn't need to be published in 2009 - just read by you this year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Series Questions

So I've been cogitating on series lately. The reason for this cogitation (which should only be attempted by a trained professional, with spotters) is that I'm reading the second-latest in a long-running series that I won't name because really the question is not about that series, it's about series qua series, and I've descended into pretentious Latin that I may not in fact be using correctly, oh god, help me.


Ahem. I promise, no more sentences like that.

So what kicked off all this babbling was that I started the book and went, "Oh, more of this stuff." And then I went, "Uhoh." Because the main character is genuinely a lot of fun and spunky to the max and all that, but I was like, "Really, kid? Again? Do you ever learn? Like, ever?"

I've noticed this with other series, too, especially the ones that get up to about four or five books with no end in sight. I'd argue (and some may argue with me) that the Harry Potter series actually escaped this. Yeah, there was a certain formula. Important elements always included Voldemort, DADA teacher, infirmary visits (god, that kid got banged up), Ron and Hermione, Dumbledore, and often Quidditch. It was a Harry Potter book, so you knew all this was going to happen. But Rowling kept raising the stakes and Harry kept encountering situations and choices that pushed him out of his comfort zone, and ours. Can you imagine first-year Harry doing what seventh-year Harry did? Not me.

It may be the Harry Potter thing, it may be the Will of the Almighty Dollar, but series seem to be longer-running than ever lately. And they're thick books. It's not just the Magic Treehouse model anymore, a whole row of 100-pagers that you can skip through. What this means is that, more than ever, I'm getting the Oh This Again feeling. I'm a completist, so it takes quite a bit to stop me reading the rest of the series, but I'm starting to re-think that.

At what point does a series lose the pull, that Oooh, What's S/He Going to Do Now and become More of the Same? What has an author done that has pulled it out for you?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Winter Blog Blast Tour

So, I'm a dingbat. You know this already, but today I'm a dingbat because we're halfway through the Annual Winter Blog Blast Tour and I'm just now realizing it. So far my favorite interview has been with Megan Whalen Turner at HipWriterMama,

MWT is one of my favorite fantasy authors, and one whom I routinely recommend to adult fantasy readers who go "Euww, teen books. Icky! It'll get all over my hands!" Then when they gush to me, I laugh evilly.

Here's my second-favorite exchange of the interview:
HWM: What is your writing routine?
Megan Whalen Turner: Routinely, I wish I had one.
Snork! But seriously, this was my favorite:
HWM: Will [A Conspiracy of Kings, out in March] be the final book in the series?
Megan Whalen Turner: Oh, no. There should be two more books after this one. I just have to go lie down first.
All the fangirls together now: squee!

There's more quality interviews in the Blog Blast Tour. Check out Chasing Ray's master schedule, updated daily with quotes and linkage.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reviewers, Amateur and Otherwise

A few weeks back, Betsy Bird posted a piece at Fuse #8 about the Amazon VINE program, which offers free books to members in return for reviews. She discussed certain things that unsettled her about the program, the titles were offered to participants, and the reviews generated. A lot of people who are part of the program stopped by and weighed in.

Now, Amazon VINE and similar programs are being discussed on other blogs. I'll leave that to them. Myself, I wanted to take note of a certain tone that seemed to run through the comments.

One of Betsy's initial concerns was about--well, let her say it.
You see, on the children's literature side of things, the people submitting reviews are often getting products for kids that require a subtle hand. And when they find that the book they're reading isn't Goodnight Moon Redux, they can get negative. Not critically constructive. Not helpful in their feedback about what does and does not work. Just mad.
This I agree with, and I took note of the response, which boiled down to: "We're (or they're) not professionals. You shouldn't hold us (them) to professional standards."

So what are professional standards? I'll guess that they mean reviews like you find in the New York Times, or Kirkus, or any other number of publications that compensate their reviewers. (Even at print journals, not all reviewers are paid in cold hard direct deposits, which was one of the things swirling around the FTC stuff last month.) You generally expect--nay, demand--that these reviews are fair and balanced. Sometimes they're analytical on a story level, sometimes they make considered recommendations of appropriate audience.

But in all cases, they step back from the book. Whether or not they're getting paid in money, books, or even the thrill of having their name in print, they're writing their review from a different position than somebody just reacting to the book.

This argument about professional standards gets at something that the kidlitosphere chews on every so often. We do this for the love of it, and we do this as ourselves. I'm not writing for Kirkus in exchange for $$, I'm writing for Confessions of a Bibliovore . . . just 'cuz. Do independence and volunteer basis give us carte blanche to write one-line reviews? Of course not. Because we do this for the love of it, and we know people read our blogs, we try to step back just as the professionals do, and produce thoughtful, balanced reviews that aren't knee-jerk first reactions. We all have our own style--I'll be the first to admit that my weird jokes wouldn't make it in Kirkus, for instance. But there's a wide spectrum of quality between review journals and "This book sucked, don't buy it. Love, me."

So much for bloggers. What about Viners, or LibraryThing Early Reviewers, or any of the other programs out there? As the name posits, they are early reviewers. They're the first ones to dole out the rating, and the ones who are most likely to influence what other people think. No, they're not getting paid, except in the chance to read a book for free before everybody else. But their position of being the first reviewers, and ones who are highlighted when others decide whether to read the book or not, should affect the review. Not positively or negatively, but the style. Why did you hate it? Why did you love it? Why did you want to whack that girl upside the head with the Clue Bat?

In the interest of transparency, I should note that I'm part of the LibraryThing Early Reviews program, through which I get about one book a month. I'm not the best at reviewing those and usually only post them at LT. Having written this post, I'm feeling kind of guilty about that and resolving to do better.

I want to add that I'm not trying to bash on Viners or LT Early Reviewers, or anything like that. It's difficult to write a review, even for a book you loved (or hated!) It's work. While I hear that Viners are experienced Amazon reviewers, it still takes a lot of time and thought to do a well-rounded review, and it's probably tempting to jot down the first thoughts in order to fulfill the requirements of the program. But I also think that people should be aware not only of their own opinions, but of the audience that will be reading their reviews and the context in which they will be read.

Finally I'd like to say that, no, nobody gets paid for blogging or early reviewing. At best we get free books, which are more of an experience than an object. But--cereal boxes and sporting gear endorsements aside--the only thing that Olympians get is a trip to a different country, and maybe a lump of metal on a ribbon.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Book Review: My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson

Book: My Life as a Rhombus
Author: Varian Johnson
Published: 2007

Rhonda Lee is the most serious, studious girl at her school. Her idea of a hot evening is math tutoring and Chinese takeout. She has a plan for herself: graduate with honors, go to Georgia Tech, become an engineer, and most of all, don't waste her time on the popular crowd. But she can't avoid Sarah Gamble, the queen of the populars, the daughter of an important Georgia Tech alumnus, and her newest student.

Rhonda and Sarah are becoming tentative friends when the other girl's symptoms become obvious--exhaustion, nausea, cravings. Rhonda knows exactly what's wrong, but can she face the buried memories in order to be there for another girl in trouble?

At the beginning of the novel, Rhonda has allowed what happened three years before to become her entire life. She is Rhonda, Abortion Girl. She's cut everything out of her life that led up to the event--friends, fun, love--because she feels vulnerable and also as a kind of punishment. Even her relationship with her father is limping along like a half-dead donkey, which she characterizes as punishment for her sins.

Sarah's situation forces Rhonda to examine the event again, and to see what she's done to herself in its wake. What I liked best about this book is that she never really decides that she was right or wrong to have had an abortion. It's just there, part of her life and always will be. The novel is about accepting something that happened to her and what she had to do about it, and not letting that infect her whole life. Yes, she's still battling her own sorrow and regret, as well as her conflicted feelings about basically being pressured into the procedure by her father. But she also has plans for her future that never could have come to pass if she'd had the baby.

By the end, Rhonda has found the courage to face down her own fears and forgive herself enough to start living her life again. I do wish we'd been able to get some closure between Rhonda and her father--after all, that was one of the most screwed-up, and therefore intriguing, relationships in the book. But overall, the end was pretty satisfying.

In this novel, Johnson takes a thought-provoking look at teen pregnancy, abortion, and all the effects of both.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Reading Roundup October 2009

By the Numbers
Teen: 23
Tween: 15
Children: 14
Something I've forgotten to note lately: because of books that fall into multiple categories, sum > total number of books read. Just in case you think I go without sleep or meals to read. I eat.

(New category! Just to give you and the FTC an idea of where I get my books)
Review Copies: 3
Swapped: 8
Purchased: 1
Library: 32

Teen: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Tween: Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko
Children: The Runaway Dragon by Kate Coombs

Because I Want To Awards
Most Entertaining Apocolypses: Death From the Skies! by Philip C. Plait
Loudest "Eek!" Produced When I Got It In My Hands: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
OMG, The Other Mother Freaked Me Out Again: Coraline: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
Most Difficult to Get a Handle On: The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo