Monday, January 28, 2013

Monday Musings: On Literacy and Life

I posted this vlog on my YouTube channel "Ishta Mercurio" yesterday as part of my 52 Weeks of Vlogging project. I'll let it speak for itself. :-)

Happy Monday. Happy Reading.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Friday(-ish) Forward: UGLIES, by Scott Westerfeld

First things first: I've been getting a lot of comments from "Anonymous" with badly translated versions of gobbledygook accompanied by links to "Anonymous"' website. Just to be clear: ALL COMMENTS WITH LINKS IN THEM GO STRAIGHT TO SPAM. So go the fonk away, "Anonymous."

So, now that that little piece of ugly business is out of the way (see what I did there), this weekend I want to sing the praises of Scott Westerfeld's richly imagined UGLIES. Here's the blurb: Tally Youngblood is about to turn sixteen, and she can't wait for the operation that turns everyone from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to party. But new friend Shay would rather hoverboard to "the Smoke" and be free. Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world and it isn't very pretty. The "Special Circumstances" authority Dr Cable offers Tally the worst choice she can imagine: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. The choice Tally makes changes her world forever.

The more I talk about this book, the more I like it. Set in a future in which humans have nearly destroyed the world with their consumption habits and their wars, UGLIES is populated by people who have decided that the best way to end disagreements over differences is to eliminate the differences, and the best way to preserve resources is to take away the need to be responsible with them. Everything is used a few times and then recycled, a new whatever-it-is popping out of the wall on request. Teens and young adults have no responsibilities, except to have fun. Even skipping school and sneaking out and playing "tricks" get nothing more than a reprimand. To Tally, getting her surgery and moving to New Pretty Town sounds like heaven. To me, and to Shay, it sounds like anathema.

Even more intriguing than the premise is that the world is so well thought out that I feel as if we really could end up this way. Westerfeld includes futuristic elements that we are alreadyworking towards: the idea that we can build things one molecule at a time, use them, and then break them down into molecular building blocks to be rebuilt into something else is being experimented with in the field of 3-D printers; the idea that we should deal with bullying by giving children plastic surgery to make them "fit in" better is already prevalent enough that it has been covered on Good Morning America here and ABC News here; and the rapid consumption of the Earth's resources is a conversation that politicians have been having for decades now. UGLIES presents a rather ugly possible future for us (pun fully intended), and I think it raises very important questions about whether we're really on the right track in terms of where we are headed culturally, with most Western economies dependent upon rampant consumerism and our tendency to look for a "quick fix" for things like bullying.

My one complaint about the book is Tally. I found her so vapid and gullible and susceptible to brainwashing in the beginning that I just couldn't relate to her, and I actually wondered if this book was meant as a satire. She got more interesting in Part Two, though, and that's when I started flying through the pages, desperate to know what would happen next.

UGLIES is awesome. Read it. Find it at your local independent bookstore, or get it online at IndieBound here, Chapters Indigo (in Canada) here, or if you really have to, Amazon here.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Friday(-ish) Forward: Stones For My Father, by Trilby Kent

So, "tomorrow" turned into longer than the usual. I have no excuse other than that December is busy getting ready for Christmas, and the first part of January is busy putting everything away after Christmas and getting back into the swing of things.

But it's time for another Friday(-ish) Forward, and this week's forward is Trilby Kent's stunning and moving Middle Grade novel, Stones For My Father. Here's the blurb: Corlie Roux’s farm life in South Africa is not easy: the Transvaal is beautiful, but it is also a harsh place where the heat can be so intense that the very raindrops sizzle. When her beloved father dies, she is left with a mother who is as devoted to her sons as she is cruel to her daughter. Despite this, Corlie finds solace in her friend, Sipho, and in Africa itself and in the stories she conjures for her brothers.

But Corlie’s world is about to vanish: the British are invading and driving Boer families like hers from their farms. Some escape into the bush to fight the enemy. The unlucky ones are rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Will Corlie’s resilience and devotion to her country sustain her through the suffering and squalor she finds in the camp at Kroonstad? That may depend on a soldier from faraway Canada and on inner resources Corlie never dreamed she had…

This book was awarded the 2012 TD Children's Literature Award, so I was really looking forward to reading it. Set in South Africa during the Boer War, Stones For My Father introduces us to Corlie, a heroine with nerve, smarts, compassion, and an abundance of courage. There is a lot to recommend this book.

I found the portrayal of Corlie's relationship with her younger brother Gert, wavering between part jealous sibling and part loving caretaker, to be spot on. I also loved the description of the landscape: the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the Transvaal came alive in this book. The development of the relationship between Corlie and the Canadian soldier was expertly handled, especially in the final chapters of the story, and the details of life in Corlie's community, and then in the internment camp where her family is sent, are fascinating and horrifying.

I did feel let down a bit by the language - there are a lot of foreign terms used that never quite get explained, and even now I am not sure what they mean, which is unsettling and, for me as a reader, frustrating. I love it when novels employ words and phrases unique to a certain time or place, but not having them explained in the moment leaves me with an incomplete picture of the scene in my mind. Additionally, I would have liked the explanation for the hostility that Corlie's mother displays so openly towards her to come sooner than it did, and more subtly. 

However, this is still a very well written book. It takes a subject that is rarely discussed in detail, and brings it out into the open in a way that had me reaching for my history books. And that, in my mind, spells success.

STONES FOR MY FATHER is available in bookstores, or online at IndieBound here, Amazon here, and for my Canadian readers, ChaptersIndigo here.

Go forth and read! Happy Sunday!