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Book Review–The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Title:  The Book Thief

Author:  Markus Zusak

Publisher:  Knopf

Length:  552 p.

Synopsis:  The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a child in World War II-era Germany, who, after being abandoned by her mother to a foster family, finally finds her place in her disintegrating world thanks to her loving Papa; her best friend/partner in crime/next door neighbor/would-be boyfriend, Rudy Steiner; a Jew named Max who hides in her family’s basement; and most importantly, her words.  The most interesting thing about this book, and the thing that makes it so unforgettable, is the fact that it is narrated by Death.  By the end of the novel, Death becomes almost an object of pity because he has come to sympathize so with the humans who are at his mercy because of the destruction of that madman, Hitler, and the war.

My Thoughts: This is a book that really stuck with me.  In fact, when I finally finished it late one night this past week, I commented to my husband, Steady Eddie, that I wished I had not finished it when I did because it stayed on my mind so much that I could not go to sleep for a while.  I am no stranger to World War II and Holocaust fiction, but something about this book made it extremely poignant and compelling.  Zusak does excellent job of creating characters that are realistic, but in the end, almost every one of them has become beloved by the reader.  That is no small feat, especially when a character like Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother, is considered.  She rails against Liesel, curses her (and anyone else within hearing distance) in both English and German, and even beats her with a wooden spoon.  In the end, though, this is what Death has to say about her:

Make no mistake, the woman had a heart.  She had a bigger one than people would think.  There was a lot in it, stored up, high in miles of hidden shelving [. . .] She was a Jew feeder without a question in the world on a man’s first night in Molching.  And she was an arm reacher, deep into a mattress, to deliver a sketchbook to a teenage girl. (532)

The story itself is fairly complex, but the humanity of it reaches deep.  This is a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist comes of age at one of the worst times and in one of the worst places in history.   It’s a story about the amazing power of words.  Something about Zusak’s style reminds of E.L. Konigsburg’s.  While I would not recommend this novel to just any teen (or adult, for that matter) due to the violence, profanity, and serious themes contained therein, I do think it’s a worthwhile read.  Zusak has written a unique book in The Book Thief,   one deserving of the 2007 Printz Honor it received.

Book Review–Reaching for Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Title:  Reaching for Sun

Author:  Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Publisher:  Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Pages: 181

ISBN:  9781599900377

Synopsis:  Josie Wyatt is a typical thirteen year old girl in many ways, none of which would be apparent to an observer.  She loves her grandmother and does not understand her mother; she endures school; she longs for a friend.  What would be apparent to an observer is that she is physically handicapped, having been born with cerebral palsy.  An observer might note, also, that she is one of many statistics, a teenage girl being raised by a single mother (mostly absent due to school and work commitments) and an elderly grandmother.  What an observer would not note, however, is the beautiful, succint, poetic voice Josie is gifted with.

My Thoughts:  In reality, of course, the one with the beautiful voice is the author, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.  This book is composed entirely of free-verse poems (which are “interlinked,” according to the fly leaf).  This is not a form I usually enjoy in a novel; however, it works beautifully here.  Zimmer captures the poignancy of being a misunderstood, handicapped, intelligent teenager in this novel.  The world of Josie is small:  just her, her mom, her Gran, and those whom she is forced to deal with at school.  However, when a new boy moves into the huge residential development close by her family’s farmhouse and finds in Josie a true friend, Josie’s world begins to open up.  The story is true-to-life, but it’s the voice that tells the story that is the real winner:

I bet a lot of kids

wish for the same thing

as I will this year

with my fourteen candles:

 

for things to be

just like they were.

Book Review–Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli

Smiles to Go

Title:  Smiles to Go

Author:  Jerry Spinelli

Publisher:  HarperCollins

Pages:  248

ISBN:  9780060281335

Synopsis:  Will Tuppence has life figured out:  he lives for Saturday evening Monopoly dates with his best friends, B.T. and Mi-Su; skateboarding on his Black Viper; praticing chess strategies with his dad; and stargazing.  However, on the day the first proton dies, Will begins to realize that life as he knows it is bound to change.  Nothing stays the same.  Couple this realization with his awakening feelings for his best gal-friend Mi-Su, and what we have is the makings of a novel chock full of teenage angst.  However, Will’s confusion over his messed up life suddenly becomes clear when his pesky younger sister is involved in a terrible accident.

My Thoughts:  This is classic Jerry Spinelli.  When I saw this book on the new shelf at the library, I knew I had to read it.  The protagonist, Will Tuppence, questions everything about his life in light of the fact that since scientists have recorded that even protons eventually decay, nothing about his life will last.  He even begins to reckon his own days from the date of the first proton death.  When he’s not thinking such grand metaphysical thoughts, he is wondering whether Mi-Su likes him or their best buddy, B.T., better.  B.T. is a very Maniac Magee-esque character who lives a very unconventional life with an unconventional family.  Will’s obsession with his relationship with Mi-Su comes to a screeching halt when his little sister, Tabby, is hurt in an accident, but of course, all’s well in the end.  As with most of Jerry Spinelli’s books I’ve read, some of the characters are a little unbelievable, but nevertheless, they make for very interesting reading. 

Book Review–The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

The White Darkness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Title:  The White Darkness

Author:  Geraldine McCaughrean

Publisher:  Harper Collins

Pages:  373

ISBN:  0060890355

Synopsis:  Symone Wates (Sym for short) is a fourteen year old English school girl whose life takes a turn for the decidedly more adventurous when her uncle (who’s actually not her uncle, just a former business associate of her deceased father) kidnaps her (‘though she doesn’t realize at the time that she is being kidnapped; it’s just Uncle Victor, for goodness’ sake!) and takes her on an expedition to Antarctica.  To say that Uncle Victor is eccentric is a definite understatement. He is a self-proclaimed genius who has trained Sym, unbeknownst to her, for this very point in her life.  Uncle Victor believes that he can find Symmes’ Hole, a theoretical hole in the earth’s crust which would lead to worlds-within-our-world, creatures never seen before by human eyes, and who knows what else.  Sym is herself quite the expert on Antarctica, and she has Titus Oates, famed explorer of the 1910 Scott expedition to the South Pole, as her own imaginary friend as a result of this obsession.  What follows the kidnapping is one scene outlandish scene following another and then another.  Murder, mayhem, and lots of near-misses ensue, but in the end, Sym finds out a few things about her father, Titus Oates, and most importantly, herself. 

My Thoughts:  This book might rightly be titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (oops, that one’s already taken) or “Fire and Ice” as a nod to the Robert Frost poem, but “The White Darkness” is almost as good a title because this book is all about darkness.  I did not pick this book up by chance; I read it as a part of Semicolon‘s Biblically Literate Book Club.  I guess that Semicolon picked it because it is the 2008 Printz Award winner.  Although I haven’t to my knowledge read any of the other contenders, I can say that this book is worthy of the prize.  Although it does have the obligatory references to s*x and some bad language, the story itself is shocking enough to meet the standard of an award-winnning YA book.  Sym Wates is a very unassuming and unlikely heroine; she of her shy manners, hearing aides, and absolute certainty that her father hated her until his dying day.  McCaughrean deftly paints word pictures throughout this story; one of my favorites happens early on, when Sym is attempting to convince Uncle Victor that taking a detour off of their planned vacation route isn’t such a good idea:

“Whereabouts, Uncle?  What about school?  We don’t have the right clothes for the sun.  There wouldn’t be swimming, would there?  I’ve got homework.  I’ll have to ask Mum.  Mum wouldn’t like. . . ”  My objections and misgivings soon lay piled on every flat surface in my tiny room.

But Victor just smiled and packed them nearly away again.  “Only real school is the School of Life, lass.  Think on.”  Hands on his thighs, knees tucked tightly together, bouncing slightly with excitement, he sat ont he broken bedroom stool, grinning at me in the dressing-table mirror.  “What say we don’t tell Lillian, eh?  Let’s keep it our little secret.” 

My initial unease about Uncle Victor’s intentions for Sym were a little off, but not by much.  As it turns out, Uncle Victor has this trip south planned down to the very last detail.  This story is fantastic in the truest sense of the word.  The fact that Sym has an inner dialogue with Titus Oates going on at almost all times makes the story even more compelling; Sym finds refuge in Titus during the hard times, and from this refuge comes the needed strength to survive against all odds.  This is truly one of those books that I find hard to review, but let me say that it is so suspenseful that I read it in only a few days, and in this SAHM’s life, that is almost unheard of.

Book Review–Rules by Cynthia Lord

Rules by Cynthia Lord

This review is based on the recorded book version of this novel. 

Title:  Rules

Author:  Cynthia Lord; Performed by Jessica Almasy

Length:  4 hours

Synopsis:  This is the story of Catherine, a twelve-year-old girl who loves art and longs for a friend.  Catherine is the sister and often-babysitter for her autistic brother, David, and she often has a hard time fitting in with her classmates because of David’s behaviors.  She works hard to help David be more “normal,” specifically by giving him rules to live by that most people take for granted.  Her best friend is away for the summer visiting her father, so Catherine is excited when she learns that the family moving in next door includes a girl her age.  She spends most of her summer days helping her mother with David, visiting the clinic where David receives occupational therapy, and hoping that Christy, her new neighbor, will not be scared off by David’s differences.  At the clinic, Catherine befriends a wheelchair-bound boy named Jason who “talks” through a communication book he keeps with him at all times.  The story somewhat predictably comes to a climax when Catherine must choose whether or not to invite Jason to a community dance when challenged to do so by Christy, who doesn’t know about David’s disability.  

My Thoughts:  I have been eager to get my hands on this book since I first read about it.  However, I have been unable to get it at the library.  A few weeks ago, I was at the library and just happened to look on the recorded books shelf and it caught my eye.  I used to listen to books on tape (or CD) frequently, but since having children, I have not done so as often.  I still prefer to read a book instead of listen to it; I enjoy the interaction with the page, and I like being able to go back and re-read parts that I miss or really enjoy.    This book was a little bit difficult to follow because of way the Jason communicates (by pointing to words in his communication book); I think I would have followed his and Catherine’s conversations better if I had read them.  Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed Jessica Almasy’s performance of this book.

As for the story itself, Cynthia Lord does a wonderful job of characterization.  David reminds me of some of the autistic children who were students at a school where I worked.  Catherine is the perfect blend of the twelve-year-old girl who just wants a “normal” life but loves and wants to protect her brother.  Lord deftly weaves Catherine’s rules for David into the fabric of the story so that the rules themselves become thematic springboards for Catherine’s problems.  Although I did find the story a little bit predictable, I appreciate the message that Cynthia Lord conveys and the revelation that “not everything that is valuable has to be useful” that this book delivers.    In my opinion, this book is worthy of its Newbery Honor distinction.

Book Review–Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky

Title:  Hattie Big Sky

Author:  Kirby Larson

Publisher:  Delacorte Press

Length:  289 pages

ISBN:  0385733135

Synopsis:  Hattie Inez Brooks, the sixteen year old protagonist of Hattie Big Sky, is an orphan who has never had a permanent family.  She has always been “Hattie Here-and-There,” a dependent on others’ charity.  However, her fate changes one day when she receives notice that her Uncle Chester, at his death, left her his claim out in Montana.  Hattie leaves her home in Iowa for Montana, where she meets with all sorts of challenges.  She has less than a year to “prove up” her claim, which means that she has less than a year to fence it and cultivate forty acres of it.  Hattie takes the whole business in stride, doing battle with the elements, animals (both wild and domestic), herself, and even one of her neighbors.  The story is laced with references to World War I and the anti-German sentiment that was rampant in the U.S. at the time.   Full of both triumph and heartache, this book is well deserving of its Newbery Honor distinction.

My Thoughts:  I love this book!  I’ve always enjoyed a pioneer story, so I was already set up to enjoy this novel, even before I began reading it.  However, Hattie’s voice completely drew me in.  Each chapter begins with a letter to her sweetheart, Charlie, who is fighting the Huns in Europe, or a letter to her Uncle Holt back in Iowa.  Later in the story, we get to read Hattie’s own “Honyocker Homilies,” articles describing her homesteading adventures she sends back to Iowa to be published in the local paper there.  Larson definitely has a way with words.  The reader gets to know Hattie and her colorful friends and neighbors through her excellent description.  This is Hattie on her own lack of family:

I’d been orphaned before I lost my baby teeth.  Pa’s story was a familiar one to any miner’s family:  the coal dust ate up his lungs.  I was just two or three when he passed.  Aunt Seah took me in when I was five, after Mama died.  The doctor said it was pneumonia that took her, but Aunt Seah claimed it was a broken heart.  The kindest of my many stops along the way, she gave me the gift of certainty that my parents had loved one another.  After Aunt Seah got too old to keep me, I was shuffled from one relative to another–some of them pretty far down on the shirttail.  I’d stay to help out with this person or that until I’d run out of folks who needed help and didn’t mind an extra mouth to feed to get it. 

This is Hattie’s appraisal of her new home on the prairie:

I looked in disbelief.  House was a Charlie term–kind and generous.  Aunt Ivy’s chickens had better accommodations.  The structure wasn’t much bigger than Uncle Holt’s tool shed and was put together with about as much care.  Gaps in siding revealed black tar paper, like decay between haphazard teeth.  Two wood-block steps led up to a rough-hewn door.  A small window–the only window, I was to find out–left of the door stared dully at me.  My own gaze in return was no doubt equally as dull.

Although Hattie finds her place and a family on the prairie, life is not easy for her at all.  In fact, she realizes that even after all her hard work, she will likely still lose her claim:

I sat, quiet and alone.  No tears.  No shaking my fist at God.  Nothing but a heavy stone in my chest that used to be a heart filled with dreams and possibilities.  There should be fireworks, at least, when a dream dies.  But no, this one had blown apart as easily as a dandelion gone to seed.

This is a beautifully written story that is certainly tinged with tragedy, but in the end, Hattie does indeed find her place under the Big Sky.  In addition to being a Newbery Honor book for 2007, this novel is also based on the author’s own family history; her great grandmother was the original Hattie who struck out on her own on the Montana prairie as a sixteen year old.  Knowing that such stories actually took place made this novel all the richer for me.  I am anxious now to read the Newbery winner for 2007 since it beat Hattie Big Sky.  It must be a truly outstanding book!

Book Review–Backwater by Joan Bauer

Backwater

TitleBackwater

Author:  Joan Bauer

Publisher:  Penguin

ISBN:  0142404349

Length:  185 pages

Synopsis:  Ivy Breedlove is well on her way to becoming the black sheep of the family.  Born into a family of lawyers, Ivy is passionate not about the law, but about history.  Because her family believes that their profession is hereditary, Ivy has a real fight on her hands just to be who she is, let alone to collect and record her family’s history before her great aunt’s eightieth birthday.  The test of Ivy’s determination to follow her passion comes in the form of finding the other black sheep who left the family fold years before to live on her own in the mountains.  Ivy braves hazardous winter conditions and tests of both physical and mental strength to reach her Aunt Josephine.  In Aunt Josephine, Ivy finds a trailblazer who has learned to skills necessary to forge her own path, just as Ivy desires to do.  In the end, the family is reunited, and Ivy has the tools to become who she wants to be. 

My Thoughts:  I love Joan Bauer’s humorous and sarcastic style.  This book, like all the others of hers I’ve read, has a strong female protagonist who does not quite fit into her world.  This book is very similar in plot and theme to most of Bauer’s other books–i.e. female protagonist must go on a journey to find the strength to be herself in a world that wants her to be someone or something else.  However, there are enough differences in this book to make it worthwhile.  I particularly like Aunt Josephine.  I appreciate her need for silence, and reading Bauer’s descriptions of her and her life of solitude almost makes me want to become a hermit in the Adirondacks.    The only real problem I found with this book is that it is poorly edited, with numerous glaring errors.  Other than that, I think this is a fun, easy book to enjoy. 

Book Review–Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian

forgotten fireforgotten fireforgotten fire

Title:  Forgotten Fire

Author:  Adam Bagdasarian

Publisher:  Dorling Kindersley

ISBN:  0789426277

Synopsis:   Vahan Kenderian, the son of a wealthy and influential Armenian, never expected his life to be anything less than it had been for his first twelve years:  one of privilege and happy times, with his father a stabilizing force; his mother, a doting parent who indulged him; and his many siblings, playmates who provided a never-ending amount of camaraderie and amusement.  However, due to the changing political climate in his homeland of Turkey during World War I, Vahan embarks on a journey that can only be described as a nightmare:  his father disappears, two of his brothers are shot in the presence of him and his remaining family, his grandmother is murdered by a Turkish soldier, one of his sisters commits suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Turks, and he and his next older brother are forced to abandon their mother and only living sister to avoid the fate of their father and brothers.  All of this happens within a two or three day span at the beginning of the novel.  What follows is a heart-wrenching account of one boy’s personal experience during the Aremenian holocaust.  Vahan is forced to beg, become the servant for a Turkish governor known for his brutality towards Armenians, and masquerade as a deaf mute boy and live among the Turks.  He finally finds love and contentment in the home of an Armenian doctor, only to have the promise of the future stripped away through the death of the girl he loves and the woman who became like a mother to him.  Through it all, Vahan survives and learns to have, as his father had always admonished him, “steel inside [him] that made it possible for [him] to get out of that bed and pretend [he] was [himself],” despite all he experienced and suffered. 

My Thoughts:  This is one of those books you don’t forget.  I actually read this book for the first time about five years ago when I was in graduate school working on a master’s degree in library science, and when I saw it on display at my public library, I knew I had to read it again.  However, I approached it with some apprehension, because this novel is not an easy read.  In this novel, Bagdasarian has written a bildungsroman like none I’ve ever read.  He writes with such precision and insight into the human heart that Vahan really becomes more than just the novel’s protagonist; he becomes a representative of anyone who has gone through such inexplicable tragedy and survived.  After Vahan has gone through what seems like more than one human heart could endure, he makes this telling comment: 

At the time [before the nightmare began], I had thought that there would always be servants for me, and horses to ride, and huge rooms to play in, and crystal glasses to drink from.  I had thought that servants were born servants and that they were different from me.  Now I knew that they were no different at all.

  This is a truly beautiful story that, despite its violence and the picture of utter depravity that it paints of the human heart, still manages to offer hope at the end.

My library has this book shelved in the juvenile fiction section.  However, despite the fact that it does have the requisite happy ending,  I feel that it belongs in the young adult section of library.  The atrocities of war are given names and faces in this novel, and I feel that this book is best suited for a teenage or adult audience.