Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Book Review Club - Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein

I have the very distinct impression I may be coming a little late to the Code Name Verity fan club, it's that good. Nonetheless, I can't not write about this story either. It's that riveting. It's historical fiction solidly based in history. It's storyline is so genuine, the reader is left wondering, "did it really happen"? Yet its characters are so relatable to today's young adults, there is no disconnect due to time period. Plus, the author put together an amazing author's note that explains what's real and what's not.

Basic plot line - two young British women, one a pilot, the other nobility, become friends while working in the British war effort. Queenie, the Scottish noble, becomes a spy whom Maddie, the pilot, flies her - as well as broken and repaired planes, other spies, soldiers, etc - around England and ultimately, over the Channel to France, where Queenie is caught and interrogated - first half of the book. The second half is about how Maddie, who had to crash land in France, tries to escape back to England.

The book is brimming over with fast-paced plotting and harrowing, edge of your seat, reading. 

The format is interesting in that it is essentially a journal novel written from Queenie's and Maddie's POV. By alternating POV, the reader gets a more well-rounded, yet intimate viewpoint of what is going on both behind enemy lines and allied ones.

One of the aspects of the writing that most appealed to me is that Wein made each character human. That is, each has wants and desires, both abominable and universal. It's an interesting aspect to this particular novel. It wasn't easy to hate anyone flat out, except one secondary, but high-ranking Nazi official. Wein did a great job of character development, and in so doing, in bringing to life the intricacies of war and how enemy and ally aren't as one-dimensional as the history books of my young adult years painted them. The effect is something akin to that of The Reader, remaining long after the story itself is finished and begging for further discussion.

For other great Fall diversions, stop by Barrie Summy's website!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Book Review Club - The Buddha in the Attice

The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka

There is a dark truth about writers. When we read good stuff, we get itchy fingers. Yep, we are word thieves, looting others work for nuggets of amazingness. My fingers weren't just itching by the time I got done with The Buddha in the Attic, they were all aflame.

Why, pray tell? Otsuka pulls off what few have pulled off well - the perfect first person plural POV story. Can you believe it? An entire story told in first person plural, as in - "On the boat, we were mostly virgins." Or - "That night our husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly."

At this point, I should probably sum up the plot - this book is about mail order brides from Japan in early 20th century U.S. - lest you get the impression this is the eastern version of Fifty Shades of Grey. It's not. It's that rare literary creature - high concept that is literary. Otsuka proves they are not mutually exclusive terms.

Otsuka also seems to know instinctively exactly where the plural first person POV can begin to wear and breaks it up with short, individualized experiences - "He's healthy, he doesn't drink, he doesn't gamble, that's all I needed to know." They give the story traction since much of it works like a Greek chorus chanting en masse. The effect is to make the experiences of the thousands of mail order brides represented in this story a conglomeration of infinite, unique facets that blend into one voice retelling history.

So, if you are looking for a meaty read, or your fingers are itching for a good steal, get The Buddha in the Attic. It won't disappoint.

For other great Fall harvests, skip over to Barrie Summy's website. The gourd of good reading is overflowing this season!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Book Review Club - Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back
John Corey Whaley

Where Things Come Back is the story of a seventeen year-old and how he and his community deal with the disappearance of his fifteen year-old brother. At the same time, a supposedly extinct woodpecker is sighted near the small Arkansas town of Lily where the story takes place, which essentially overshadows the disappearance of Cullen's brother, Gabriel. Concurrently, Whaley tells the seemingly unrelated story of misguided religious zealot/missionary, Benton Sage, his loss of faith and ultimate suicide and its domino effect on his college roommate, Cabot Searcy, which ultimately ties into Gabriel's disappearance.

The story is told from multiple POV - first person for Cullen, moments of second person when he dissociates himself from the pain of his brother's loss and explains what he feels as an observer that nonetheless pulls the reader in as the "you", as well as omniscient narrator for the sections about Benton, Cabot and ultimately Gabriel. They are masterfully woven together and well executed.

At the beginning of the story, I often found myself wondering why Cullen talked, contemplated, expressed very rarely how he felt about Gabriel's disappearance. He seemed more interested in girls. I suspect, however, this is one of those gender differences, i.e. for women, it's about our emotions. For men, it's not, not so overtly. Cullen's emotions come out in backhanded ways, e.g. the vignettes when he observes himself. Suddenly, the reader gets insight into his darkest feelings, the ones he keeps bottled up. As time passes and Gabriel is gone longer and longer, those dark emotions come to the fore more and more and invade Cullen's day-to-day life in first person. Thus, the argument could be made that, in fact, the character's emotional development is incredibly well done, just from a guy's point of view. Women take note!

While this is a complex interweaving of multiple stories, Whaley pulls it all together in the end. He ties all of the loose ends neatly together in one, intricate, interrelated knot. The ending itself is superb - a Lois Lowry's The Giver leaves-you-wondering sort of conclusion. It makes the reader stand back and think, ultimately questioning whether she is a glass half-empty or half-full sort of person? An idealist or a realist? The effect is heart-breakingly sublime. This is an ending worth reading to get to. Where Things Come Back is a book worth taking time to explore both as a story and as a writer. There are slights of craft all over the place worth unearthing and examining.

For more great reads cinco de mayo your way over to Barrie Summy's site!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Book Review Club - Jefferson's Sons

Jefferson's Sons - 
A Founding Father's Secret Children
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Grades 6 - 9

Brubaker Bradley brings to life the story of the four children - Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston - that researchers have, after much prodding, historical research and DNA analysis, acknowledged Thomas Jefferson had with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Brubaker Bradley's story begins through the eyes of Beverly Jefferson, the eldest of the four children who survived into adulthood, and follows the story through Madison Jefferson, the middle son, and finally, Peter Fossett, the son of the blacksmith, Joe Fossett, who was sold after Jefferson's death.

It is told from close third from just one character's POV at a time. When Beverly becomes a teenager, Brubaker makes an ingenious transition from his POV to Madison's. So much so, my ten year old exclaimed, "Mama, it's Maddy's story now!" It was like a magic trick that the audience sees but still marvels at. Brubaker Bradley is a pro. I learned a few new tricks.

The story revolves around family. In this particular case, a mother, Sally, who was a slave, yet became, for all intents and purposes, the second wife of Thomas Jefferson after his first wife died. And a father, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote all men were created equal yet kept his own children as slaves. And four children who were the slaves and children of one of the United States' most revered but, as we learn through walking in these children's shoes, hypocritical founding fathers.

Brubaker Bradley spent three years working on this book. It shows. She has taken so much material and blended it so seamlessly. The story is suffused with childhood, slavery, history, philosophy, politics, historical figures. They all come to life.

My youngest daughter and I listened to the audio of this book while in DC and Charlottesville for Spring Break. About halfway through the book, we went to Monticello, Jefferson's home. My daughter's been there before, but it hadn't stuck. This time, though, the home wasn't just one more historical building we walked through. My daughter looked for traces of Hemmings' family members, and Fossetts and Hearns. History wasn't boring. It was alive and had faces. It was so cool. We even listened to a part of the story while sitting on a bench on Mulberry Row, where the slave quarters were at Monticello. Afterwards, when we were listening to Jefferson's Sons again in the car, my daughter said over and over, "oh, yeah", as she remembered the places that were a part of the story. 

This is a book you don't want to miss. The writing is superb. The subject matter begs to be discussed. And the last scene is unforgettable. 

Read it.

There are so many excellent books that have come out for children that take historical facts and weave them into fiction that breathes with life. Another, for slightly younger readers, that embraces an African American wedding tradition, jumping the broom, that is inherently tied to slavery but may actually predate it is Ellen's Broom by Kelly Starling Lyons.

I've never been much of a history fan, until now. Through these two books, I feel as if I've discovered a treasure trove of history that isn't history. It's life. Life that readers can understand, embrace, ponder and cherish.

For more great reads, hop on over to Barrie Summy's site. It's blooming with books!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Book Review Club - Waiting to Forget

Waiting to Forget
Sheila Kelly Welch
middle grade

Because of the age of the protagonist, I've tagged this as middle grade, as did the publisher, namelos; however, it seems wise and fair to point out that this is the story of a current day child-survivor of abuse and neglect. This isn't a light read. It's tough. It's a great book for talking through and exploring emotions, but I wouldn't send a child off to read this alone.

Basic plot: T.J.'s little sister, Angela, fell from the second story balcony into the entryway of their new adopted parent's home. While T.J. waits at the hospital to find out if his sister will be all right, he tells their story in flashback. It's a heartrending account of a mother who neglects her children, has a string of boyfriends, some nice and some less than nice, that ultimately lead her to abandoning her kids to follow her man, who has abused the children. The children then cycle through various foster homes until they're adopted. The transition to a new home is difficult, wrought with feelings of guilt and distrust and the fear of loving anyone again.

The story alternates between present tense for the here and now and past for the story leading up to the hospital. For a young reader, changing tense can be confusing. Yet another aspect of the story that makes it well-suited for group reading and discussion.

As I was reading this book, I asked myself many times "what's the point" of a story of this nature. I'll readily admit, I'm sometimes a bit slow in getting it when it comes to gritty fiction about scarring abuse for a young audience. I faced a similar paradox with the aspect of double dead parents in my own middle grade, Dragon Wishes. For me, the theme felt too heavy as a stand alone. Thus I added a second story to the first, a fantasy, that broke up the heaviness of the main, present day story, while intertwining with it to push plot forward. That was my personal choice because the topic, death of both parents, just felt too heavy all by itself for a young audience. In Waiting to Forget, there is no break from reality. The distant past is painful, the recent past is jumbled and painful, and the present is scary painful. Angela may die.

Is this a story worth telling? Absolutely. However, it's probably one that's best read and shared together for the story to have its true effect, i.e. helping children either to cope with abuse in their lives or to understand abuse and its effects on their peers.

For other great reads, hop on over to Barrie Summy's site. They're in full bloom!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Book Review Club - The Apothecary

The Apothecary
Maile Meloy
Young Adult

Something Cold War-ish must be in my reading water. I seem to be choosing books with a Cold War themes fairly regularly -- David Almond's The Fire-Eaters, which centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cecil Castelucci's Rose Sees Red, which is set in the early 80s with the Cold War tension as a back drop to a friendship that develops between an American and a Russian immigrant, and now, The Apothecary. It's not the side effects of too much dystopian ya for dessert, I promise.

It was for dinner.

Nonetheless, if  you find yourself feasting on dystopian but are looking for a little diversity in your dark, The Apothecary serves it up fresh and fun. The story centers around Janie, a teen whose writer parents are marked as Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s and thus forced to leave LA for London where they get jobs writing for the BBC. At her new school, Janie meets a boy, Benjamin, who wants to be a spy, a Russian boy whose father is, and a chemist-apothecary-physicist triangle trying to contain the effects of a nuclear bomb.

There are so many twists, James Bond-like chase scenes, an unexpected apothecarian surprises, replete with a serum that turns humans into birds and another that can make them invisible, as well as the threat of a nuclear bomb that does go off. It's all there in spades.

The biggest leap of faith I found strained in the novel were the serums. The book is so solidly set in the Cold War, that to expect a character, let alone the reader to buy into the fact that chemical compounds can do what alchemists believed they could do hundreds of years ago is tough. The author acknowledges this by having her character say that it would have been hard to believe her friend could turn into a bird if she hadn't actually seen it happen herself. Still, for me, it disrupted the fictional dream. I believed that chemstry and physics could come together to undo the destruction of a bomb, but to tie that right into the magicalness of herbs was a stretch.

Then again, I spent my teens in the Cold War era. I'm bomb scare scarred. Today's young audience will likely have far less trouble taking that leap. If the reader does, the book continues on in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat ride to the very end.

One other interesting note. The book is told from the perspective of the main character, Janie, albeit as an adult. I haven't run across too many POVs from this angle of late, and Meloy plays it lightly, allowing the adult only to surface at the very beginning and the end to lend the story an air of continuing mystery. It's well-balanced and a great example of how to use the adult POV to a writer's advantage.

For more great reads and winter distractions, sled on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them up hot...and with marshmallows!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Book Review Club - The War Horse

The War Horse 
Michael Morpurgo
Middle grade

I'm coming a little late to the book review club this week. I fell into a small rip the time-space continuum descended and have been fighting my way back out ever since. Or, my kids started school on Tuesday and I have been a day behind the whole week. I like the first explanation a lot better. It's far more creative, which is the beauty of fiction, right? But because I gave you the fiction first, you'll always wonder which is really true.

The War Horse starts with the same ingenious switch up. Morpurgo blurs the lines between fiction and fact by beginning with an Author's Note (seeming reality) that reveals that the author came upon a painting in the old school now used for the village town hall of a horse. A few, very few remaining village inhabitants know the real story behind the painting of the enigmatic horse and they shared it with the author.

This sort of tool snares in a happy web of fictive reality that I seldom am ever able to truly escape. Same thing happened when I read Memoirs of a Geisha, which also begins with a prologue from the Geisha. It took me years to accept the fact that that was fiction, even though I knew the author was a man. I'd bet many other readers fall under the same spell. We want to take the leap of faith and fall headfirst into the fictive dream.

This one is well worth leaping into. The basic story line is of a boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey, and all Albert will do to be reunited with Joey when he is sold to the British military at the start of World War I. This is ultimately a book about love, but the setting is predominantly World War I. Morpurgo does an excellent job of introducing young readers to the horrors of the war without making it overwhelming. He doesn't linger on any one character for a particularly long time. The story is a collection of well-seamed vignettes of all the people who come into Joey's life during the war (spoiler alert!) and ultimately die after caring for him. Morpurgo also allows the main protagonist and the horse to live. Surrounded by so many deaths, the "love conquers all" quality of that relationship gives the book the upbeat ending necessary to balance out the morbid reality of the war setting.

If you're tempted to take young readers to see the movie version - which I did with my 10 and 12 year olds (both girls) - my only suggestion would be to read the book first. Not because the book is better - Spielberg/Curtis stay lovingly true to Morpurgo's storyline - but because the reader is bound by his/her imagination when she reads. In other words, the atrocities of World War I that happen in the story are only as scary as the reader's mind can make them. That's the wonderful safety valve of reading over film. Film relies on someone else's imagination. In this case, that of an adult's vs. a child's, which is inevitably able to go further and imagine more and more graphically than a child's. Nevertheless, Spielberg does an excellent job of walking the line between showing the horrors and showing so much it will scar a young audience. A lot of the really awful events happen off screen, behind a turning windmill (execution of two underage German soldiers who run off with Joey and another horse to escape certain death on the front), or just after a well-placed scene ending (effects of gas on Albert's friend). Nevertheless, my ten year old leaned over to me about halfway through and said, "Mom, this is film is Marley and Me a million times worse."

Still, this is a tale incredibly well-written that is worth reading and sharing. Because of the enduring love of the boy for his horse and vice versa, the reader can weather the setting and inadvertently learn something about it while falling deeply in love with Joey and Albert.

Other great New Year's reads are just a click away at Barrie Summy's website. Enjoy 2012 and all the adventures that await both real and imagined.