Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reading Roundup, Part Three

I just finished reading Dragon Heir by Cindy Williams Chima. Most of you probably know that it's the third book in the Heir trilogy. What you're hoping to hear is that it was worth waiting for. I'm happy to say that it is. I confess it took me a little while to get back up to speed, since my recollection of all the people and events in Wizard Heir was slightly fuzzy. But Chima gives enough background on past events that I was eventually reminded of all the important bits. Still, you'll want to start reading this series at the beginning, with Warrior Heir, rather than jumping in at the end. While I was never in much doubt about the identity of the dragon heir, that never affected my enjoyment of the book. I'm probably in the minority in choosing it, but my favorite moment in this book occurs at the end, when a minor character does something immensely satisfying, both for me and, I'm sure, for her. I basically did a fist pump, grinned, and said, "Take that, you (ummm...fiend will have to do here)!" Though some readers may start to get antsy waiting for Jack and Ellen to do their stuff, I think they'll be satisfied when it happens. There's also a revelation at the end that I didn't expect. I think I'd find it quite interesting to read the books again with that knowledge. In terms of rating, I'm leaning on the plus side of 4, so 5Q 5P, Audience of M/J/S.

I also recently finished Beastly by Alix Flinn. It's an updated retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I liked this one, but I didn't love it. I prefer Flinn's grittier stuff. Kyle Kingsbury is the very handsome, very rich son of a very handsome, very rich, very inattentive (at best) father who has taught him that it's more important to be good looking and successful than it is to be kind or thoughtful. Consequently, Kyle is beastly to anyone he perceives as being inferior (and that's a lot of people). When he invites an unattractive girl to a school dance with the sole intention of standing her up and making her look foolish, she transforms him into the beast he's always been on the inside. He has two years to get someone to fall in love with him and break the spell. In the meantime, his father virtually abandons him, buying him his own building far away in Brooklyn and putting him in the care of an old servant and a blind tutor. Kyle occupies his time by building a greenhouse and growing roses. In a strange way, it is the greenhouse and roses that ultimately provide Kyle with his potential Beauty.

What worked for me:
  • the chat room conversations, where Kyle (as BeastNYC) shares his problems with similarly challenged teens, such as Silent Maid (a mermaid who has fallen in love with a human) and Froggie, who used to be a prince, all led by counselor Chris Anderson (but, DUH! I missed the significance of that name at first)
  • Kyle before transformation - thoroughly nasty and quite memorable
  • Kyle's interactions with his tutor
  • Kyle's manipulations of his father, post-transformation
  • Parts of the "Lindy needs me" section (great action and energy)

What didn't work for me as well:

  • Kyle's voice seemed less authentic to me after his transformation and acceptance of the reason for it. He's suddenly very mature and introspective, and I needed to see him grow into that more.
  • The deal with Lindy's father.
  • The rather heavy-handed way it got to the uh-oh, stroke of midnight point.
  • Parts of the "Lindy needs me" section (a little sappy, a little forced)
Overall, I think this will please fans of fairy tale retellings and romance novels. Rating: 3Q 3P; Audience: J

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Big Brother Is Watching You...What Are You Going to Do About It?

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
4Q 4P? Audience: J/S/Adult

This book won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for readers who are politically-minded and/or love technology and intrigue, it's ::ahem:: the bomb. It is certainly a book cause he won't give up his email passwords. Because he can't believe that the Constitution of the United States no longer protects him.

When Marcus is let out of prison a few days later, he leaves behind one good friend and most of his illusions. He barely recognizes the world he steps into. His laptop has been bugged. The government is tracking people through their debit cards and arphids encoded into transit system passes, so it knows exactly what people are buying and when and where they traveled. Closed circuit cameras are installed in classrooms, businesses, and on public streets. If more than three or four people gather together, the police force them to disperse. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has turned San Francisco into a police state.

Marcus isn't about to lose his civil liberties without a fight. What can one kid do? When you're as smart as Marcus, as technically proficient as Marcus, as scared as Marcus, and as determined as Marcus, you can do plenty. He creates Xnet, an underground computer society that the government can't monitor. Through Xnet, dozens of small acts of rebellion are launched, ranging from simple debates over government policies to disseminating instructions on how to disable arphids so the activities of innocent people can't be tracked. They plan peaceful protest gatherings. And they simply chat, game, and develop friendships and solidarity. When crisis time comes, Marcus is awed by just how powerful his movement has become. The government isn't awed. It's angry. In this battle, who has the stronger army, Marcus or Homeland Security?


As I read and after I finished the book, I wondered just how much of the technology that Doctorow describes really exists. That's surely a sign of hooking the reader's imagination and interest. My web surfing proved that I was not the only one to be intrigued, but these guys aren't just wondering. They actually hope to create the Paranoid Linux operating system. Talk about a book making an impact on a reader!(In the book, Paranoid Linux is described thusly:)

*Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.
~Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

Doctorow's writing is somewhat uneven. There are some gripping scenes. For instance, Marcus's terror is visceral when he begins to comprehend just how different a government interrogation is from being called to the principal's office. He can't bluff his way out of this, and brashness only makes things worse. Reading this section made me realize just how easily one can be reduced to feeling powerless and too afraid to fight back. However, he occasionally gets too technical, slowing down the narrative. He also repeats himself fairly frequently. I was caught up in the story enough that neither problem stopped me from wanting to read more, but less patient readers may not be able to overlook them as easily. Doctorow also stacks the deck by making almost every character on the side of Homeland Security one-dimensional cardboard villains. I can't help wondering if that's the mark of an overly confident author or one who isn't confident enough.

With questions to debate such as
  • Do we sometimes need to give up some freedoms for the sake of a larger goal?
  • At what point does civil disobedience become terrorism?
  • Is Doctorow too extreme?
  • Whether Andrew Huang's afterword on the virtues of computer hacking has merit
this book is an excellent choice for classrooms and book discussion groups.

If you like this book, you might also enjoy Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman. The setup: Can three accomplished hackers get a totally unqualified student accepted to Harvard? The stakes are high (higher than some of them know), but if they can pull this off, it'll be one of the greatest hacks in history. I recommend it to readers in high school and beyond.