Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Austin series

This first book in the Austin series (soon to be rereleased as "The Austin Family Chronicles") is a sweet, episodic account of life in rural new England in the 1950s. Told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Vicki, the oldest girl in a family of four children, it relates her thoughts and feelings during a time of great change. A dear friend of the family has died in a plane crash and, as a result, 10-year-old Maggie comes to live with them.

Vicki knows she should feel sorry for Maggie, since she is an orphan and has nowhere else to go, but it's hard. Maggie is abrasive and spoiled, has no respect for anyone's feelings or property, and seems to feel entitled to whatever she wants, whenever she wants it. But, as Vicki's father points out, if the Austin family is so fragile it can't handle taking care of one little girl without falling to pieces, then something is seriously wrong. Vicki feels galvanized by the thought, but the path to peace and acceptance is still a bumpy one.

I love Madeleine L'Engle's books, both for children and adults, and the ones featuring Vicky have always been my favorites. The Austin family is by no means perfect, but their love for each other, as well as their willingness to ask and discuss difficult questions - things I was pondering at Vicki's age (and still am today, actually), bring the characters to life and never fail to draw me into their story.

I read this one aloud to my 7- and 9-year-old daughters, and while it took a few chapters for them to truly become involved, they ended up enjoying it and have been clamoring for more Austin stories. The beginning of the book was a bit difficult for them, I think, because it dealt with the night Vicki and her family hear about the death of their friend, and it made them live through a little bit of what it feels like to get that horrible news. But reading the rest of the book and watching Vicki and her family deal with it was clearly gripping to them, as was the story of Maggie coming to live with the Austins, and how that affected their lives. I think my girls also enjoyed the feeling of the book being set in the not-too-distant past, when things like phonographs were in regular use (and it was fun explaining about those things to them, although it made me feel a bit old!).

While this is not my favorite Vicki Austin book, it is a great introduction to her life and her family, and it is fun to watch her change and grow through the course of the series. My personal favorite is A Ring of Endless Light, but it will be a few years before my girls will be ready for that one. In the meantime, I will have to introduce them to some other favorite books by Madeleine L'Engle.

The Austin Family Chronicles:
1. Meet the Austins
2. The Moon by Night
3. The Young Unicorns
4. A Ring of Endless Light
5. Troubling a Star

Meet the Austins (#1 in the Austin Family Chronicles) by Madeleine L'Engle (Laurel Leaf, 1960)

Also reviewed at:
Books Your Kids Should Read
Endless Books

Friday, August 22, 2008

Punishment that fits the crime?

Moist von Lipwig is a con artist - a brilliant man with brilliant schemes that have made him very wealthy indeed. Except it's difficult to enjoy ill-gotten gains when there's about to be a noose placed around his neck. He has been caught, and this time, it seems, there's no way out.

Yet somehow - impossibly - he gains a reprieve, of a sort. From the wealthy, cunning, highhanded Lord Vetinari. Vetinari gives Moist a choice: he can return to the gallows, or he can become postmaster of Ank-Morpork's decrepit, defunct post office, a place with mound upon mound of undelivered letters and just two other employees (not including Mr. Tiddles, the cat). Moist thinks he can simply agree and then sneak off, but he soon finds that escape is not an option.

He knows there must be some way to reinvent himself and evade Vetinari, but in the meantime he begins to find himself caught up in the challenge of revitalizing the postal system in spite of himself, particularly when it becomes obvious that his own unique skill set makes him the perfect man for the job. Although, as he readily admits, he is far from perfect...

This is another highly enjoyable book by Terry Pratchett, and, read by Stephen Briggs, the audio version is a delight. There are, of course, plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, as well as biting social commentary, romance, the most wonderful golems ever, assassins, and many lovable (as well as wonderfully detestable) characters. The combination of Pratchett's prose and Briggs' reading is unbeatable.

I'm very much looking forward to listening to Briggs read the sequel, Making Money (it is the immediate sequel, although, according to Wikipedia, Going Postal is the 33rd Discworld novel). I have read many, but not all of the previous 32 books in the Discworld series - and I doubt that impeded my enjoyment of this one. Discworld has many "subseries" that can be read together, as well as standalone books. I hope that one day Stephen Briggs will manage to read them all to me!

Books in the
Discworld series:
1. The Color of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort
5. Sourcery
6. Wyrd Sisters
7. Pyramids
8. Guards, Guards
9. Eric
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
18. Maskerade
19. Feet of Clay
20. Hogfather
21. Jingo
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. The Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. Nightwatch
29. Monstrous Regiment
30. Going Postal
31. Thud
32. Making Money

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Stephen Briggs (HarperCollins Audio, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Bride of the Book God

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Compliments to the chef!

Najika is an orphan, but she has been raised with great affection at an orphanage. She loves to cook, not so much because she enjoys eating, but because she enjoys providing food to friends as an expression of her affection for them. She's incredibly talented and has very discerning taste that enables her to determine the ingredients in just about anything she eats.

Najika's love of food and cooking stems from an incident that happened years earlier, shortly after her parents' death, that involved food, a kind little boy, and a silver spoon with a particular crest on it. When she receives a scholarship to the Seika Academy - of the mysterious crest - Najika is over the moon. But when she gets there, nothing is as she expects, and she feels she'll never fit in with all the impossibly talented - and occasionally spiteful - students there.

While the storyline - so far - seems a bit predictable, and there are elements that are common in many other manga storylines (brothers with irreconcilable differences, for example, that the heroine is determined to bring together), Najika is a feisty, likable heroine. It will be fun to watch her further adventures unfold in future volumes of this series.

Kitchen Princess, Vol 1 by Natsumi Ando and Miyuki Kobayashi; translated by Satsuki Yamashita (Ballantine Books, 2007)

Friday, August 1, 2008

See you in a week!

We're off for a week's vacation - hiking, swimming, canoing, playing games and, of course, lots of fun reading. I'll miss you all while I'm gone (although I may be able to check in, depending on wireless access availability).

See you soon!