Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Songs Without Words

SONGS WITHOUT WORDS: Ann Packer: Knopf: 2007: Fiction: 321 pages

Ann Packer’s newest novel takes a deep look into the souls of women and the choices they must make in life.

Packer takes us on a journey into the lifelong friendship of Sarabeth and Liz who are pushed to the breaking point when Liz’s teenage daughter attempts suicide. Liz who has always been more of a mother figure to Sarabeth since her own mother killed herself when Sarabeth was sixteen, has little patience for Sarabeth’s neediness when she should be comforting Liz over her daughter’s troubles. This is a sad but engrossing novel that asks us to examine the role of friendship in women’s lives.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Luxe

THE LUXE: Anna Godbersen: HarperCollins: Young Adult: 433 pages

Two young women are in love with Henry Schoonmaker and neither of them is his fiancĂ©, perfect society girl Elizabeth Holland. Despite her high society upbringing, proper manners, and engagement to Henry, Elizabeth is in love with someone else, but her involvement with both men creates a tangled web of deceit, jealousy, and misunderstandings. When Elizabeth’s carriage overturns, her death appears to be accidental, but with so many enemies, it could be suicide or even murder.

With its intrigue, romance, and talented writing, The Luxe is perfectly set to be the next big thing in teen literature. A sequel is in progress, and readers will be clamoring for it after their first taste of this addictive new series.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A LONG WAY GONE: MEMOIRS OF A BOY SOLDIER:Ishmael Beah: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2007: 226 pages: Nonfiction

Ishmael Beah currently works for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Advisory Committee but he was once a child soldier in Sierra Leone. As a child of 13, after running for nearly a year from the violence that separated him from his family, he was pressed into the army and taught to use an AK47. Food, drugs and a feeling of security after months of running turned him into a killing machine loyal to his unit. He experienced unthinkable violence over a period of three years before he was released to a UN rehabilitation camp. His story is gripping and frightening. It is remarkable that a person can find not only health and sanity after such terrible experiences but also dedicate himself as an adult to help other children in the world who are affected by war.

This book is very well written. After coming to the United States, Ishmael obviously has used the opportunities given him to transform himself and contribute to the welfare of others like him. This is a painful book to read. If you found that you learned from They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky you will also be moved by this book. An interview with Mr. Beah can be seen on You Tube.


Friday, January 25, 2008

People of the Book

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK; Geraldine Brooks; New York: Viking, 2008; 372pp. Fiction

The people of Ms. Brooks' book are Muslims, Christians, and Jews, as one might have guessed, but the book (besides The Book) is the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated version of the seder prayer dating from the 15th century. Hanna Heath, a book conservator from Australia, is called in by the United Nations to prepare the Haggadah for display after it has been saved from the bombing of Sarajevo by a resourceful museum curator. What she finds in the book--a butterfly's wing, a stain of mingled wine and blood, a saltwater stain, a single white hair--leads the reader into the true stories of the book. Layer by layer Ms. Brooks tells the stories of the creation and travels of the Haggadah, from the two Muslims who risked all to save it from the Nazis, to the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, to the unlikely creator of the pictures in Spain. People of the Book is rich in culture, ceremony, history, art, personality, and love, a must-read.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Beginner's Greek: A Novel

BEGINNER’S GREEK: James Collins: Little, Brown, and Co.: Fiction: 441 pages

Peter Russell is a romantic, and when Holly sits next to him on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, he knows that it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, Peter loses Holly’s phone number and the two don’t meet again until Holly is reintroduced to Peter as his best friend Jonathan’s girlfriend. In the meantime, Peter’s boss is attempting to destroy him, Peter’s engaged to a dull but “proper” Francophile, Jonathan’s conducting multiple love affairs, and Peter still pines for Holly. Collins examines love and relationships in a story that twists and turns and entwines the lives of his characters around and through one another right up to the end, when everybody gets what’s coming to them.


The Wednesday Wars

THE WEDNESDAY WARS: Gary D. Schmidt: Clarion Books: Young Adult: 264 pages

Holling Hoodhood lives in the Perfect House with his ambitious father, his hippie (or at least she’d like to be) sister, and his ineffective mother. Because Holling does not attend Catechism or Hebrew School, he spends his Wednesday afternoons reading Shakespeare with his 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, finding parallels between his own life in 1967 and Shakespeare’s universal themes.

This delightful novel has a very similar feel to the classic Peter Billingsley film, A Christmas Story. Holling’s struggles with classmates who threaten to pound him if he doesn’t produce cream puffs for the entire class, his humiliation at wearing bright yellow, feathered tights to play Ariel in a local Shakespeare production, and the overall tone and voice of the work are reminiscent of the movie, but Schmidt (who won Printz and Newbery honors for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy) also addresses social, political, and family issues that give The Wednesday Wars a great deal of depth and meaning.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY: Jay Asher: Razorbill: Young Adult: 288 pages

When Clay Jenson plays the casette tapes he received in a mysterious package, he's surprised to hear the voice of dead classmate Hannah Baker. He's one of 13 people who receive Hannah's story, which details the circumstances that led to her suicide. Clay spends the rest of the day and long into the night listening to Hannah's voice and going to the locations she wants him to visit. The text alternates, sometimes quickly, between Hannah's voice (italicized) and Clay's thoughts as he listens to her words, which illuminate betrayals and secrets that demonstrate the consequences of even small actions. Hannah, herself, is not free from guilt, her own inaction having played a part in an accidental auto death and a rape. The message about how we treat one another, although sometimes heavy, makes for compelling reading.

This was a captivating, thought provoking novel. It deals with some very serious issues: suicide, rape, depression…and really makes you think about how your actions affect the people around you. Although this is an “edgier” book, I think that it would make an incredible book discussion book. I would recommend it to older teens and adults.


Ian Pollock's Illustrated King Lear

IAN POLLOCK’S ILLUSTRATED KING LEAR: William Shakespeare & Ian Pollock: Workman: Nonfiction: 139 pages

Ian Pollock’s illustrated rendition of William Shakespeare’s classic play, King Lear, was first published in the 1980s. With the popular rise of graphic novels, Pollock's work was reprinted in 2006 and marketed (appropriately) as a graphic novel. The text is the complete, unabridged play, but the illustrated edition provides the dialogue in speech bubbles attached to each character in typical graphic novel or comic book fashion.

I often struggle with graphic novel formats, but I actually enjoyed the graphic novel version of the play more than the plain text version. Since plays were written with the intention of being visually represented rather than being read straight through like novels, the illustrations and speech bubbles clarify and enhance the story. Pollock’s drawings are eerie and surreal, adding a fantastic depth and mood to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.


Monday, January 14, 2008

The Senator's Wife

THE SENATOR'S WIFE: Sue Miller: Alfred A. Knopf: Fiction: 305 pgs.
Miller's latest examination of relationships introduces readers to neighbors sharing a common wall in a two-family townhouse tucked away in a cozy New England college town. Meri, young and unsure of herself, is newly married to Nathan, a distracted college professor. Genteel, elderly Delia lives alone, apart from her philandering husband, former senator Tom Naughton. Each experiences major life changes in the summer of 1994. New mother Meri looks to Delia unsuccessfully for nurturing. Delia takes in Tom after he suffers a stroke, and the women begin relying on one another for caregiver relief. But the unexpected transpires one steamy July afternoon.

Written like a journal, the book alternates between Meri and Delia. Pleasurable, engaging and an easy read, the final chapter brings us to the present and catches up on the intervening years since the pivotal summer.


Stalin's Ghost

STALIN'S GHOST; Martin Cruz Smith; New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 332pgs.

Arkady Renko is back in another bleak but darkly humorous police procedural in post-Soviet Russia. When Arkady's partner Victor picks up a ringing phone on a fellow officer's desk, he
gets in on an arrangement for a hit. As Arkady and Victor play along in order to bring their colleagues to justice, a vision of Josef Stalin appears at the Chistye Prude Metro station. Renko is pulled off the first case to chase Stalin's ghost, only to find the two cases linked by a paper candidate's run for office in an attempt to siphon votes from the legitimate opposition. There is much mayhem and thuggery here, as Renko single-mindedly pursues the truth and justice--also some language and sex--but this is a very rich narrative about how it has become convenient in the new, apparently never to truly be free, Russia to ignore and even glorify the past.
Highly recommended.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Persepolis II: The Story of a Return

PERSEPOLIS II: The Story of a Return: Marjane Satrapi: Graphic Novel, 2004, Pantheon Books: 187 pages

In this follow up to "Persepolis I: A Childhood" we follow Marjane through her adolescence and into adulthood. After experimenting with drugs, hippies, sexuality, intellectualism and ultimately homelessness in Austria, Marjane returns to her native, now post-war, Iran.

I was a little disappointed that this book was largely about generic young adult debauchery, but there was still an underlying theme of Marjane’s mutating Iranian Identity - if a bit faint through the middle.

Mister Pip

MISTER PIP; Lloyd Jones; New York: Dial, 2007; 271 pgs. Fiction

Mr. Watts becomes Mr. Pip in this story of a territorial war over a copper-rich island
in the South Seas. Mr. Watts, the only remaining white man on the island after Australian miners are driven off by "redskins" from the mainland, offers to teach school. Although the children cannot physically escape the terrors of their island, Mr. Watts offers them a way out
in a daily reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Victorian London becomes their haven, and Matilda, the young female protagonist, finds herself trapped between her love of Mr. Pip's story and her mother's envy of Mr. Watts' hold over her daughter. The tension between mother and teacher, between art and life, between the redskins and the rebel rambos, between the villagers and the soldiers on both sides, suddenly erupts into horrible brutality, which Matilda's eventual escape is hard put to overcome. Mister Pip is an odd little book, with some memorable good scenes, and the striking final unity of Mr. Watts and Matilda's mother on a very elevated piece of moral ground, but for some reason its ultimate effect on the reader is a feeling of uneasiness. (In my case, anyway.)


Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Rest of Her Life

THE REST OF HER LIFE: Laura Moriarty: Hyperion: Fiction: 303 pages

Now a junior high school English teacher married to a college professor, Leigh has spent much of her adult life trying to distance herself from her dysfunctional childhood. Raising their two children in a small, safe Kansas town not far from where Leigh and her troubled sister, Pam, were raised by their single mother, Leigh finds her good fortune still somewhat empty.

Daughter Kara, 18 and a high school senior, is distant; sensitive younger son Justin is unpopular; Leigh can't seem to reach either—Kara in particular sees Leigh (rightly) as self-absorbed. When Kara accidentally hits and kills another high school girl with the family's car, Leigh is forced to confront her troubled relationship with her daughter, her resentment toward her husband (who understands Kara better) and her long-buried angst about her own neglectful mother.

Laura Moriarty’s writing is similar to Jodi Picoult, who I also enjoy. This was an interesting novel about mother-daughter relationships. I liked the story, but felt like the ending sort of died out. I would recommend this to those that like Jodi Picoult’s novels.


Mom's Cancer

MOM’S CANCER: Brian Fies: Abrams Image: Nonfiction: 117 pages

In a suave comic-strip style, Fies traces the events of his mother's illness primarily from the perspective of her three children, including "nurse sis" and "kid sis" (adult but the youngest) as well as himself. After a "mini stroke," his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain. A vital and positive woman who had been a model with hopes of Hollywood, she opted to fight the disease whole hog. Fies and his sisters pitched in to help her during the ensuing debilitation, seeing her through to tentative remission and an -eleventh-hour (as it happened) move to Hollywood with kid sis. Depicting a family dependably if warily dealing, not without anger and feelings of inadequacy, with each crisis and change that cancer brings, Fies' book may be one of the most well balanced contributions to the literature of coping with cancer.

This was an interesting medium for discussing cancer. I enjoyed this graphic novel because it dealt with a serious issue in a very respectful manner.