To Kill a Mockingbird

Continuing the theme of Southern literature (apparently- see The Darkling and Southern Fried Child on this blog) I could not pass up the opportunity to review To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best books ever written. I could stop there, but I won’t.

Written by Harper Lee, the book was so controversial, that she spent most of her subsequent life reclusive from the rest of the world. An honest, heartfelt piece about civil rights, society, and the nature of people, it was not initially well-received. Since then, it has become a pinnacle novel, and the Harper Lee award is today one of the highest honors for writers, particularly in the South.

To Kill a Mockingbird follows a little girl named Scout as she experiences growing up in a very poor, rather rural Alabama town. He father Atticus is an attorney, little known sharp-shooter, and excellent role model. He is one of my personal heroes. Scout is observant and honest as only a child narrator can be, and as a reader, her genuineness is as captivating as the story. The portion of the story most people recall is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a woman from a “white trash” family. As profound as that sequence is, the novel contains so much more. We see how a town shuns people, how families function or completely fail to function.

In the novel, people are revealed exactly as they are with minimal judgment and pure honesty. This is what makes the novel so profound. Few authors have created a picture of the world as well as Harper Lee does in this novel; through Scout, we see the world as it is and fill in the conclusions ourselves. Scout’s observations are both sage and innocent, with a healthy dose of humor as only childhood thoughts can provide. Every read reveals something new. Rereading the book for this review, I was taken aback by the profound notions, beautiful writing, and elegant truth of this novel.

Themes: (There are too many to list all of them, but here are some. Many students read this for school already, and this is not the novel to shirk- yes, I see you. Not judging, but read this one. You will be glad you did.)

Right and Wrong: Atticus always strives to do what’s right, and insists his children do the same. He stands up for what he believes in, no matter how painful it can be- and it does get painful.

Innate Value of People: As hard as it is for Scout, people can be very different and even difficult to understand. All people deserve respect, and Atticus shows it no matter what the other person does. The harder people try to humiliate Atticus, the more heroic he becomes.

We Do Not Always Know the Truth: The infamous Boo Radley is the subject of childhood fantasies, all of them frightening, spurred by town gossip. In the end, well… I won’t ruin it.

Family Dynamics: From needing to be aristocratic to being abusive and frightening, the novel is honest and reveals the way families function both compassionately and honestly.

History: This novel covers race relations pre-1960, and it shows the history of the South from several points of view. This book is a journey into Southern culture as it used to be.

This novel is one of the most incredible on the required reading list for school. If you are not in school, but have not read it, go and read it. Immediately. Don’t waste time on anything else. You’re welcome.

Inklings Highly Recommended

Recommended for older children through adults; this book has many subtleties small children may miss and some parents may not be comfortable with all of the concepts for small children. However, considering that the narrator is in fact a child just starting school, the book is not really “inappropriate.”

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The Darkling

(Sorry! The images were not working. However, you can see it here.)

The Darkling by R. B. Chesterton is, in short, and excellent piece of fiction. Set in southern Alabama, this novel combines the allure of a graceful Southern Gothic with the page-turning drive of a suspense. Full of anticipation and suspense, this book is simply terrifying in a Hitchcock sort of way… if Hitchcock set his films under the moss-covered shade trees of the South.

When a family purchases a bed and breakfast and manor with a Golden Age tragic past, they don’t expect to be plagued by evil. It’s all up to the children’s live-in tutor to save them from the evil force destroying them all, one by one. Because of the plot-twists, this is all I am going to say for the summary.

This novel is not suitable for small children, but teenagers will thoroughly enjoy it. It’s a pleasure to read a dark, Gothic piece that is truly engrossing, romantic, and beautifully written. It will appeal to fans of the now popular darker novels, suspense, thriller, or horror readers, fans of good Southern literature, or anyone who likes a well-written book. R.B. Chesterton has a treasure in this novel. It hearkens to both Wuthering Heights and Cristobel.

This novel is scary all the way through, which is part of its hook and keeps the pages turning. That said, this may not be a bedtime book. I know I kept the lights on at least one night after reading it.

Themes: (I must be vague, because there is too much in the plot to make many descriptions. I will not add spoilers this time.)

Good vs. Evil: What are their nature? How far will they go? What is this universal conflict and how far does that go?

Loyalty: Loyalties come into question- loyalties to family, adopted family, and to self.

Free-will: How well can we protect those we love?

Duty and Responsibility

Existential: Can we change, or are we what we are? Are we a certain way or certain thing before we even know it? If that is the case, how much does that determine our lives without our knowledge?

Inklings: Highly Recommended

Ages: Restricted; not suitable for small children, but fine for many adolescents… and a great read for adults!

Beka Cooper: Mastiff… The Review

I had to re-title this one, since I mistitled my announcement. I was so excited about the book when I heard about the date, etc. This is obvious if you saw my post about it before it even came on the market. Imagine my dismay, then, when I report that I didn’t like the ending at all. That’s an understatement: the ending was crushing. I won’t give it away, because that would be mean. That said, I will comment on it, anyway.

The beginning of the book is great. The prince has been captured and Beka works for their Majesties themselves. How exciting! A big adventure ensues with mystery and mages.  We travel along and fight bravely, even bringing back the mighty Sabine. I enjoyed all of that immensely. Then, in the end a painful resolution. It felt as if someone else picked up that last little bit of the book to finish it, but had never read any of the other books. It was out of plot and out of character.

There is a lot that I learned from that as a writer, and I’m going to talk about that instead of themes, since I can’t resolve the book in this post.

Writing lesson #1: Set up your plot and the characters in it. It’s best to know where you’re going, or at least go back and set it up enough for your resolution to be plausible.

Writing lesson #2: If you make a sudden, drastic change in theme, tone, or character, your readers may not accept it. At all. And be a traumatized.

Writing lesson #3: Sometimes it’s necessary to traumatize the reader, typically in the process of traumatizing your character. That’s fine, but, as we say in therapy “be there to put them back together enough…” to close the book in the end.

Writing lesson #4: If you want to wreak havoc on rules #2 and 3, do something to set us up for it, thematically at least. Anything.

Writing lesson #5: Don’t break these rules until you are well-established. Will I stop reading Tamora Pierce? No. I won’t. I will overcome my anger and keep reading her books. I may even go to signings. If I do, I will have to ask about this ending. That’s the thing about having a canon- people will trust you and feel certain you had a reason for breaking rules, even if they don’t like them.

 

Inklings Less Recommended (but definitely read the first two!)

Ages: Definitely for ‘tweens and up. Some of the images are graphic, and the end is again, traumatic.

Thankful for the Life of a Dragon Lady

Anne McCaffrey

There won’t be many posts this month (as though I’m not always a sporadic poster, anyway). I’ve been losing desperately to the NaNoWriMo event this month. However, I had to come out of blog-hiding to pay tribute to the late but still wonderful Anne McCaffrey.

I received word (read: news report) via an email yesterday that announced that Ms. McCaffrey died of a stroke in her home. She was 85 years old.

The revered author of the Dragon Riders of Pern series, as well as creator of other wonderful characters, such as Acorna the Unicorn Girl will be greatly missed by literature, and especially by all who knew her. Every account I have had with anyone who had met her or spent any time with her at all quickly gave me a story of what a delight she was. She is survived by her son Todd McCaffrey who co-authored many Pern books over the years. He is also an excellent writer and a most charming person. Inklings extends it’s deepest condolences during this sad time and respectfully gives thanks for all of the gifts that she gave during her incredible life.

Weryworld:  Whelan

Known to her fans as “the Dragon Lady,” Anne McCaffrey lived in her home, aptly named “Dragon Hold” and was interested in equestrian sports as well as dragons, of course. Over the course of decades, she taught her readers about dragons and the honor of their riders. She inspired writers, convention tracks, and a discussed (and very long overdue) film. She was an excellent story-teller, world-builder, and an impeccably well-structured plotter. A small piece from a dragon rider novel found it’s way into my junior high literature textbook; this excerpt covered the parts of a plot as well as the types of conflict academically. Creatively, it influenced my own writing for years, and still does.

As fans mourn the death of a beloved writer, I again express sincerest sympathies to her family and friends who knew her well and loved her dearly. Wishing you swift flight and forever peace, Ms. McCaffrey.

YA Comes of Age

A great article, and definitely worth the read:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/48916-ya-comes-of-age.html

Dragonflight

Let’s change things around this post, but not too far. Staying in what is technically the fantasy genre, let’s look at Dragonflight. This is the first novel of the Dragonriders of Pern original series by Anne McCaffrey.

This novel follows Lessa, the last of the Ruathan bloodline. She lives in Ruatha hold as a servant girl, waiting for the day when she can take vengeance on the man who murdered her family. Then, the dragon riders come on Search; they need a girl to impress the new queen when she hatches. F’lar takes Lessa with him as a prospective. When she impresses the dragon, her life drastically changes. Now, she must use her well-honed cunning to save Pern from the Threads- horrible, parasitic things that fall from the sky and destroy all soil and crops for years. But the dragon riders cannot fight them all and have to transcend time and space for help.

Dragonflight is an excellent debut for the series that spans forwards and backwards and sideways creating a canon that took decades to produce. The series has grown and entertained several generations of readers, as well it should. It’s structure is a lesson in classic construction, it’s characters accessible and easy to understand.

Dragonflight is a captivating story that has some fun and interesting themes, some more subtle than others:

Feminism: Women have a place in Pern, and everyone has their social level. Lessa is a strong female character and is only one of many. Moreta is presented from the beginning as a legendary hero (her own novel appeared later); subsequently Brekke, I would argue is a social hero and very strong character. However, the view is realistic, as not all the queen riders are strong. Lessa’s predecessor is not a great care-taker or even respectable. Her nemesis/protege is annoying and femme fatal in a naive (or maybe just not so bright or too self concerned) sort of way in Dragonflight (we’ll see her become quite the conniving villain in the sequel). Lessa saves the day in a big way.

Honor: the dragon riders thrive or die on honor. During this particular novel, that’s all they have left. They have a strict honor code, and the fortune of being chosen as a rider is a high honor in itself. Not all the riders are as honorable as we might hope, and so is the way of the world.

Destiny: Lessa has a way of both altering destiny and having it chosen for her. Just read the book… it’s a bit of a pardox, but that just makes the book fun. Does Lessa alter fate or did fate alter Lessa? Discuss.

Social constructions: Pern has a modified feudal society that drives the behaviors of it’s inhabitants (please see “honor”) for better or for worse. The way the characters perceived social rights and rules says a lot about their character (usually a direct correlation- very efficient). Social rules and traditions both save Pern and harm it. When do we break the rules? What are the traditions for?

Connectedness: this is a major Pernian theme. Connections to dragons, connections between queen riders and bronze riders (you get to read the book for that one, too), politics dictating personal connections (read into that one, I spent some time wrestling with that one, but then, romantic love is a new concept…), connections between riders and their holds (yikes!), and connections between all of the riders. Add to all of those the connections with tradition, society, history, and their world and universe. Now look at all the disconnects. This is a serious novel about connection.

 

Dragonflight is an engaging novel. It’s recommended Accelerated Reader (for those of you familiar with the literacy encouragement program in many schools) is early to mid sixth grade. I would not likely recommend this book for children under that age, due to suggestive (though not exactly graphic; really, it’s rather impressively written) content.  It might make some adults uncomfortable to have younger children exposed to the (very limited) content (which is plot-crucial).  The characters are equally engaging and relatable. Inklings is fond of this novel and is a proponent of the series in general.

Inklings Recommended

Ages 11 and up; great book/series for adults as well! (Has a very strong adult fanship.)

Going Postal

Going Postal: A Novel of Discworld

Going Postal is one of Terry Pratchett’s works marketed to the teen/YA audience. He writes for each age, having a children’s book, some YA, and some “adult.”  However, the YA and adult are both appropriate for teens and YA readers.

Moist Von Lipwig is a conman. Unfortunately, he’s a caught conman. Instead of prison, the Patrician sends him to be Postmaster General- and it’s worse than prison. Moist encounters the completely insane system and staff of the post office. Undelivered mail threatens to end their lives. Moreover, the villain Reacher threatens to end post and change communication forever with his “Clacks” system, despite mysterious and disturbing deaths on the Clacks towers.

This novel is brilliant, as usual. It’s witty and full of delightful irony. The fact that it took my mind off of post-op pain gives it extra points. What impresses me even more is how this funny and entertaining novel could easily be used in the classroom. Let’s look at the themes for details, shall we?

Social and civil rights: Once again we meet the golems, creatures made of clay that serve a purpose. In Going Postal, we discuss their role in society, which is to be a living tool. Specifically we meet a centuries old golem who had worked as a pump, and maintains the name “Mr. Pump” despite working in the post office. One of the most open themes in the book is the nature of the golems’ enslavement. We have the activist who insists on freeing the golems. We have golems who don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t the tool as instructed. How does a social role impact an identity? How does this impact every civil rights movement in history? Golems are literally created for their work and have few needs… is such creation ethical if they don’t experience pain? Do they feel pain? How can individual relationships affect their senses of self (being respected vs. being regarded as an object)? Social sciences can have a field day here.

Change: Moist is a criminal by nature. Unlike the typical story of redemption, Moist “fails” to redeem himself, insisting even in the end that he is a criminal and could easily break the law if he wanted to… but he doesn’t feel like it. Did he fail to redeem himself or did he actually change? What exactly is a change of personality or nature? Is it possible? Is it necessary? Psychology and philosophy abound, and sociology and criminology could jump in, too. For you creative writers, did the protagonist fail or succeed? What was the goal? Did the Patrician succeed? Does the Patrician deserve the title of “major character”?

ameliatorode.typepad.com

Technology: Clacks are clearly a jab at the movement of technology (Terry Pratchett loves this debate. Note the “disorganizer” in Thud, for example.) What is the goal of technology and it’s role in progress.

Which brings us to…

Progress: When is progress good? Bad? Helpful? What is an appropriate cost of progress? Is progress altruistic or capitalistic? Does that matter? Will it alter the benefit to society? Is new always better? How do you determine “better”? Define “progress.”

cartoonstock.com

And finally

Adjustment: Do people change and adjust to an environment? Are behaviors simply the product of the environment or the personality (refer back to “did Moist actually change?”) of a person? As a teen, do you want to be different? The same as everyone else? In what respect? Do you want to try a new environment? Most importantly, how will you determine your own value?

Let's Get Students Reading!

Going Postal won prestige because it was well-deserved. It’s a fun read, so you should read it regardless. A great move would be for schools to add it to their curriculum; it has great themes for many classes, and the tone of the book is positive. We can use some fun and positivity these days, and we can certainly benefit from more books that encourage youth to read more- not less!

Going Postal film version

Some information on the film/ TV series created for Going Postal: http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/terry_pratchett_going_postal/characters/

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