Friday, May 11, 2012

Review--The Apothecary

    Maile Meloy's clever and magical novel, The Apothecary, is the author's first foray into the realm of children's literature, and what a charming read it is. Sophisticated, but not overly mature, as so many books for young people are these days, The Apothecary retained an innocence throughout, in spite of the very heavy subject matter... The Cold War and nuclear proliferation.
     Transplanted to London, Janie, the heroine, is a teenager from California, coming to terms, like the rest of the world, with the new post WWII reality. Now, the terms Nazi, the Axis, and the Allies, have been replaced by the Soviets, Communism, atomic bombs, and Oppenheimer. But, this story is not all dark and ominous, even with the serious topic, for there are potions and magic books to give the tale a fun twist.
    There is romance, too, do not fear, but it is not the sappy, slutty variety, but rather sweet and age appropriate. And, the magic... what fun! It is presented in a playful manner, with elixirs that provide all sorts of excitement.... truth serums, invisibility, and transformations.
    Still, even though the story is light-hearted, there is tension and violence, but there is also an overarching theme of anti-war and nuclear non-proliferation, which makes it a good read for the 21st Century.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review--The Seamstress

    If you are feint of heart or would rather turn a blind eye to the uglier parts of human history, then this book might not be for you. But, if, like me, you feel the best way to touch the past is through the chronicles of real experiences, then The Seamstress is a perfect choice... perfect, not because of the topic, which is anything but, but rather because only through facing the deepest and darkest corners of man's nature can we ever become enlightened.
    Having myself written--on behalf of my father--a World War II memoir, I was eager to read this one, though I knew that it would cause great sadness... as it should. Countless Holocaust books have been written, but then again, countless Holocaust tragedies were experienced.
    Seren Tuvel Bernstein's memoir is striking, like Elie Wiesel's classic, Night,  in that this particular survivor speaks in a clear voice, untainted by anger, bitterness, or enmity. Digging deeply into her painful memories, Ms. Bernstein recounts the joys of her pre-war life, and contrasts it with the downward spiral into war, and the horrors of the time she spent in Ravensbrück, one of Hitler's most notorious labor/death camps. Ravensbrück was unique in that it housed only women... tens of thousands of women... many of whom endured unspeakable experiments, and certainly terrifying and inhumane conditions.
    Ms. Bernstein chronicles the experience of surviving not only one camp, but two, the second being the infamous Dachau, which I have visited, and it is a place that will never leave me. Ms. Bernstein survived that camp's liberation weighing only 44 pounds; it is hard to imagine that life can be maintained at such a level, but man's resiliency is astounding, and Ms. Bernstein was lucky enough to be more hardy--both physically and emotionally--than many.
     Having been a part of my own father's revisiting of the war, I can relate very well to the experience Louise Loots Thorton and Marlene Bernstein Samuels, the "writers/interviewers" of Ms. Bernstein's memories, so I read this book with that in mind, remembering the difficulties I had getting my father to open up about particularly painful experiences.
    Some stories should be shared far and wide, the better to remind us of the scope of human suffering... and of the capacity for human compassion and love. The Seamstress is just such a book, a gift to us all, and it is with respect for all those who suffered, that I share it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review: Sabriel

           Sabriel, by Garth Nix is a unique fantasy led by a strong, capable young woman. Sabriel is set in an interesting world—a sort of mix between WW2 level technology and classic Tolkien swords and magic. The magic system is clever and well thought out. I loved that bells were an integral part of the magic of the Abhorsen… whose job it is to bind the dead.
The book follows an 18 year old woman named Sabriel, on a journey to bring back her father, the Abhorsen. But all is not well in the Old Kingdom… the dead are rising, and it is up to Sabriel to take her father’s place and put a stop to it. Along the way, she meets some memorable characters: the guard, Touchstone, and my personal favorite, Moggot, her guide. Sabriel herself is a wonderful character. She is strong and smart, but wholly human and vulnerable, too. It was a delight to follow her as she found her path. Touchstone is very likable, and Moggot is full of win—he is sarcastic and amusing but at the same time, incredibly intimidating. 
 I guess that the dead in this book could be considered zombies (well, yes, they are zombies in the simplest sense of the word) but they read very differently, though they are no less menacing. The underworld that Nix created is fantastic, and the influence from mythology is clear (and appreciated). 
The pace is extremely fast, never letting up for a second, which makes it hard to put down, and it’s a deliciously dark and scary romp. The constant state of danger and shadowy monsters lurking in every corner was enough to make me shiver. I will definitely be picking up the next book of the trilogy, Lireal. 
Sabriel is a perfect read for those looking for an excellent dark fantasy adventure—but not those afraid of the dark. 

Note: Here is an excellent rendition of Sabriel I found on DeviantArt... Check it out:


    Call it a guilty pleasure, but sometimes these teen paranormal romances, while certainly not high-brow literature, can fill a niche in one's library repertoire. Such was the case with Need, by Carrie Jones. I wasn't expecting much when I cracked this one open, and after I got over the scoffing and critiquing that inevitably goes along with the first few chapters, I was dragged, albeit slightly shamefacedly and kicking and screaming, into the story.
    Steeped in the usual teenage angst, high school drama, and dreamy romance, Need still managed to entertain, though ask me about it in a couple weeks and I probably will have forgotten its plot. What supernatural beings were revealed in this one, you ask? Well, some of the usual ones, of course, namely werewolves, but pixies dominate, and they are angry, violent beings, so there is a slight edginess present throughout the narrative.
    This is the first of what might be several, but at least two (2nd is Captivate) books, and I might attempt that one, as well... if in a few weeks I can remember this one and I have nothing better to read.

Next reviews up: Wake, The Geography of Bliss, and Death Sentence.