Posts tagged ‘death’

Counting By 7s

Counting by 7sTitle: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Narrator: Robin Miles
ISBN: 978162406902 (audiobook)
Pages: 380 pages
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2013. (audiobook)
Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2013. (print book)

I’ve got some toddler memories, but my first sequence recall is kindergarten; no matter how hard I’ve tried to forget the experience. [...]
I can still hear Mrs. King, spin straight and shrill voice booming:
“How does this book make you feel?”
She then made a few exaggerated yawns.
I recall looking around at my fellow inmates, thinking: Would someone, anyone, just shout out the word tired? [...]
So when the teacher specifically said:
“Willow, how does this book make you feel?”
I had to tell the truth:
“It makes me feel really bad. The moon can’t hear someone say good night; it is two hundred thirty-five thousand miles away. And bunnies don’t life in houses. Also, I don’t think that the artwork is very interesting.” [...]
That afternoon, I learned the word weirdo because that’s what I was called by the other kids.
When my mom came to pick me up, she found me crying behind the Dumpster. (16-18)

Willow Chance, adopted into a loving family, has an obsession with the number seven, medical conditions (particularly skin disorders), and plants. She is analytic, reserved, and highly gifted and lacks social skills, which makes it difficult to make friends but easy to memorize complex languages and scientific concepts. She finds an ally in older student Mai, who visits with her brother Quang Ha the same slacker school counselor that Willow is forced to see after being falsely accused of cheating on a test. These three unlikely companions, along with Mai’s mother and brother, are thrust together upon the sudden death of Willow’s parents. Forming a bond from secrets, everyone’s lives begin to change as they struggle to help Willow. What will come of quiet girl who has now lost her family for a second time?

Full disclosure: I have not yet read Wonder R.J. Palacio, which everyone I’ve talked to keeps comparing this book too. I will soon, I promise. I found myself comparing it to Rules by Cynthia Lord or Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. In any case, Willow is an instantly intriguing character. Narrated by Robin Miles, Willow’s voice is given the subtle nuances that it deserves. She is self-assured when dealing with numbers, details and scientific facts, but quiet and reserved when faced with making decisions affecting her own life and social interactions. Miles distinguishes between the characters well, even realistically portraying the counselor Dell Duke’s stutter, but it’s Willow who readers are understandably drawn to, as she tries to make sense of things.

Mai’s brother Quang Ha is understandably upset by the new living situation, as the family has few resources to begin with and they are essentially taking care of a stranger. There’s little explanation behind Mai and her mother’s immediate acceptance of Willow’s circumstances and instant claim to her, and I find Dell Duke’s passiveness and eventual involvement in the lies hard to reconcile, but the whole situation changes everyone for the better. This is a story of a whole community coming together to aid in a girl’s recovery, and becoming a very nontraditional family in the process. I don’t think this would be the outcome in real life, but if readers are willing to suspend belief they will be richly rewarded with this engrossing tale.

Revolver

I listened to this audiobook way back in February of 2011. How this review got buried so far down that it hasn’t seen the light of day before now the world may never know. I have been recommending this to patrons ever since to rave reviews, and I hope you take the time to enjoy it too.

Title: Revolver
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
ISBN: 9781596435926
Pages: 204 pages
Discs: 3 CDs, 3 hours 35 minutes
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press (Brilliance Audio), c2009.

Even the dead tell stories.
Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead. Einar Anderson lay on the table, his arms half raised above his head, his legs slightly bent at the knee, frozen in the position in which they’d found him; out on the lake, lying on the ice, with the dogs waiting patiently in harness. (1)

Fourteen-year-old Sig Anderson is waiting for his sister and step-mother to return from traveling across the frozen ice to the neighboring town. The same ice had, just a few hours earlier, killed his father when he fell through and froze to death in the Alaskan cold. While waiting for help to arrive, Sig gets a visitor of a different sort; a giant, gun-wielding man named Wolff, claiming that he has some unfinished business with Sig’s father. Sig hopes that help will arrive before the man makes good on his promise to harm Sig and his family. But when help does arrive, it’s Sig’s sister Anna, and she’s alone. How will these two survive?

First off, excellent narration on the audiobook by Peter Berkrot. He gives the book a Clint Eastwood, old-western “You feeling lucky, punk?” quality and his nitty-gritty tone and inflection sets the whole mood. I’ll admit that it a little slowly paced in the beginning, but that’s okay. Nothing is moving fast in this story, and it’s the palatable tension that readers will revel in.

Berkrot had great material to work with, as Marcus Sedgwick’s terse prose is as gripping as the performance. Wolff, the man who invades Sig’s little cabin in the snow, is a man of few words, and when he does say something, his tone makes them count. “The words hung in the air, drifted around the room. They seemed to paint themselves on the walls in letters two feet high. They seemed to be painted in blood.” (70) Shiver. Shortly after, this description got stuck in my brain the whole time I was finishing the book:
“Wolff dropped the words onto the floor like little spiders, which scuttled over to Sig and crawled up his legs, his back, his neck. He stopped grinding the coffee briefly but then determined that he would not let the man rile him.” (80) Now that is masterfully crafted writing, if I ever heard/saw it. You know exactly how Sig is feeling with Wolff being in the house. And there are other scenes that convey the same familiarity with the characters and their emotions.

The details are also there, and in an author’s note at the end Sedgwick explains how he did his research, traveling to the “sub-zero temperatures in Northern Sweden that I got a sense of the cold and the landscape and walked on frozen lakes.” (203) He also discussed revolvers with “Peter Smithurst of the Royal Armouries, the UK’s leading expert on Colts. He carefully explained his history and workings of the Colt, took a 44-40 to pieces for me to show how it works, and did it all with great enthusiasm. (203-204). I’m sure that interaction with an expert is where we get the description of how the gun works in chapter 18, which although I don’t have any experience with guns, I still found fascinating. A riveting read about choices.

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons WhyTitle: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Narrator: Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman
ISBN: 9780739356500 (book on CD)
Pages: 288 pages
Discs/CDs: 5 CDs, 6 hours, 25 minutes
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2007.
Awards: Named to the Best Books for Young Adults, Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults lists by YALSA 2008

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo.
I don’t believe it.
No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests.
No. I can’t believe it. Hannah Baker killed herself.
I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically; why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.
What? No!
I’m not saying which tape brings you into the story. But fear not, if you received this lovely box, your name will pop up . . . I promise. (7)

Clay Jensen returns from school to find a box addressed to him. Inside are seven tapes and a map of town. When he plays the tape labelled “1” with bright nail polish, he hears the voice of his secret crush Hannah Baker, who had killed herself just two weeks prior. She starts the tapes with a word of caution that each of the people listening to the tapes are one of the reasons she killed herself. Clay, studious and sweet, can’t imagine what he did that might have contributed to Hannah’s death. But he spends the rest of the night following the voice of Hannah as she directs him through town and through her last moments of life.

Wow. Just … WOW. If you haven’t listened to this audiobook, you need to. There’s a reason it’s included in YALSA’s 2008 list of Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults. The connections and experience of listening to a book that is primarily narrated by a set of audiotapes is so different from either reading the words or listening to an audiobook that is narrated the more traditional way. The production team was fantastic in timing a lot of the ends of a tape in the story to coincide with the end of the CD that you’re listening to, so you’re going through the motions of changing out the tape at the same time the narrator is doing the same action you are. It’s a level of involvement that you don’t traditionally experience, and it gave me goosebumps on occasion. Fabulously done.

Bravo also to narrators Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman, and again kudos to the production team for recognizing and respecting the fact that they needed two narrators, one female and one male, to do the book justice. I can’t pick a favorite because their skills were equally admirable. At times gut wrenching and dejected, snarky and sarcastic, hopeful and hopeless, the emotions run the gamut and readers/listeners are dragged along whether they want to be or not. But I found myself appreciating the manhandling because it makes you think and consider life in a whole new way, especially when considering the reasons that she has for killing herself, since some of them might seem minimal until taken into context as a whole.

Jay Asher’s story is haunting. It’s like a train wreck, where we know what’s going to happen and we recognize the upcoming disaster, but we’re captivated by the realistic dialogue, the pain and heartbreak, and the inability to change the outcome. While you might not remember every detail of every story as well as Hannah does, you’ll remember the emotions that the story evokes. It’s a cautionary and eye-opening tale of what little jabs and snide remarks can accumulate and escalate into becoming so much more to a person. I’m reminded of a story that I read, I think in a Reader’s Digest magazine or Chicken Soup for the Soul book. A student sees a loner walking home from school weighed down with books, and invites that person to a party. At graduation, that book-burdened student, no longer a loner, reveals to the whole class that he/she was planning on committing suicide that weekend. The backpack was so overloaded so that the parents wouldn’t have to clean out the student’s locker after the funeral, but that invitation changed everything. We see that missed opportunity in the story, where just one action, on the part of so many people, would have changed Hannah’s mind. She was unable to ask for help outright, but as we see in the tapes the warning signs were there, if only anyone had seen them. I readily look forward to reading whatever Jay Asher writes next. Along with Hate List by Jennifer Brown, I feel like this should be required reading for high school or college freshmen.

A must read, or better yet a must listen to, story for everyone.

Liesl and Po

Liesl and PoTitle: Liesl and Po
Author: Lauren Oliver
Illustrator: Kei Acedera
Narrator: Jim Dale
ISBN: 9780449015025 (audiobook), 9780062014511 (hardcover)
Pages: 307 pages
Discs/CDs:  5 CDs, 5 hours and 55 minutes
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2011.

“I must take his ashes to the willow tree,” Liesl whispered suddenly, with certainty. “I must bury my father next to my mother. Then his soul will move Beyond.” She looked directly at the place where Po’s eyes should have been, if Po were not a ghost, and again Po felt the very core of its Essence shiver in response.
“And you must help me,” Liesl finished.
Po was unprepared for this. “Me?” it said unhappily. “Why me?” (92)

When a ghost appears in Liesl’s attic prison, Liesl asks for help in sending a message to her recently deceased father. The message Po brings back is anything but cheery, as Liesl father insists that he must go home to the willow tree, and that Liesl should be the one to take him there. Liesl steals the container of ashes from the mantle and rushes off to her old house, leaving her wicked stepmother behind. Little does Liesl know that the box she carries does not contain her father’s ashes, but a powerful magic that accidentally got delivered to the wrong address. Soon joined by the “useless” delivery boy called William who is fleeing his angry alchemist master, the three of them are thrust into events that they don’t quite understand, but nevertheless are intent on preventing in their efforts to improve their lives (or in Po’s case it’s death) for the better.

I thought I’d get behind this newest book about a girl and her ghost by Lauren Oliver. It’s narrated by Jim Dale for heaven’s sake, the one who did all those cool voices for The Emerald Atlas and Peter and the Starcatchers not to mention Harry Potter. But for the first time, I wasn’t feeling it with Dale. His attempts at the female voices fell flat to my ears, which I did not anticipate at all, and I didn’t pick up the suspense or excitement that I think this reading could have had.

But maybe he was tempering his voice to match the gray and bleak environment of the story’s setting. Maybe it was the material, because the story itself fell flat for me. Maybe I’m just not cut out for Lauren Oliver. For plenty of other people the story has really resonated with them. After reading the author’s note in the back, I truly wanted the book to resonate with me too. Oliver reveals that she wrote this story “during a concentrated two-month period.”

At the time, I was dealing with the sudden death of my best friend. The lasting impact of this loss reverberated through the months, and it made my world gray and murky, much like the world Liesl inhabits at the start of the story. [...] And so my fantasies were transformed into the figure of a little girl who embarks on a journey not just to restore the ashes of a loved one to a peaceful place but to restore color and life to a world that has turned dim and gray.” (309-310)

If she had succeeded in doing this, I would have claimed her attempt a success, and that synopsis of the book makes it sound wonderful, but I didn’t really pick-up on that meaning and depth upon listening to the book. But upon reading the author’s note, I feel like I should have gotten A Monster Calls and instead got Casper.

It’s also meant to be a story of coincidences and mix-ups, but it just seemed like Oliver threw a whole bunch of bumbling characters together and loosely tied their stories to each other in a comedy of errors. Yes, mix-ups and coincidences are sometimes the basis for every story, but do there have to be so many of them in one story? For instance, if Liesl’s step-mother was such an evil woman, why did she bother locking Liesl up in the attic in the first place, an attic window that Will noticed but no one else? The Lady Premiere, the evil lady who ordered up this powerful magic in the first place, feels like a minor general “bad character” with almost no motivation for her actions presented to readers. Why in the world would so many people who have no connection to the events at hand continue to chase after the children? It reminded me towards the end of those old-fashioned black and white movies where the whole town is chasing a dog for no other reason than the dog stole and by this point has eaten a sausage.

Kei Acedera’s black and white drawings are appropriately dark and murky, and I thought Po was very well rendered considering the description of a non-gendered, cookie-cutter child-shaped ghost. In fact, all of the characters were instantly recognizable, and while the facial expressions seemed relatively uniform, the postures told the emotions of the characters very well. For fans of Casper, this mad-cap tale of a ghost and it’s girl will find readers, but while it was an interesting story, it just didn’t do it for me.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Title: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
ISBN: 9781419328794
Pages: 326 pages
Discs/Cds: 10 CDs,11 hours
Publisher/Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2005.

Sometimes I think it would be weird if there were a skyscraper that moved up and down while its elevator stayed in place. So if you wanted to go to the ninety-fifth floor, you’d just press the 95 button and the ninety-fifth floor would come to you. Also, that could be extremely useful, because if you’re on the ninety-fifth floor, and a plane hits below you, the building could take you to the ground, and everyone could be safe [...] (3)

Nine-year-old Oscar lost his dad in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th. When he came home that day, he found several messages from his father that he has since hidden from everyone, including his mother. He’s also hiding from his mother a key that he found hidden in the apartment. The only clue as to what lock the key opens is the word “Black” scribbled on the envelope, which prompts Oscar to start visiting every person named Black in New York City. Along the way, Oscar is forced to confront his fears about life, death, and love.

I’m not quite sure what the critical acclaim is for this book. While there were some notable and quotable lines and some thought-provoking discussion about death, loneliness, and guilt, the story dragged. Oscar’s search for the key seemed highly unrealistic, and his mother’s reaction to it even more unrealistic, even with the weak explanation at the end of the book. The breaks in narration and expositions from an older woman and man were also jarring, as you don’t know who they are until later in the novel. The man spends most of his adult life communicating through writing, primarily with tattoos of yes and no on his hands (hence the cover of the book), after he becomes a mute with no real explanation of the cause.

The open-ended conclusion strikes me as intentional, since there really isn’t any life altering event at the end of the book. The change in their existence happened when Oscar’s father died, and we are merely observers of the aftermath. It seems almost voyeuristic in listening to the audiobook, as we observe Oscar visiting one Black residence after another. After looking at the print version of the book, I think I would have been just as … unimpressed as listening to the audiobook, as the formatting of the vignettes from the older woman and man are intentionally formatted in a way that I think would drive most English teachers nuts. The whole story just seemed pointless to me, and maybe that was Foer’s point was to express the pointlessness of life, or maybe the pointlessness of life that you feel after losing someone you care about, like Oscar does without his father. But I would have enjoyed a little more explanation and action instead of the stagnant nature of the novel.

The Probability of Miracles

Title: The Probability of Miracles
Author: Wendy Wunder
ISBN: 9781595143686
Pages: 357 pages
Publisher/Date: Published by Penguin Young Readers Group, Produced by Alloy Entertainment, c2011

In the past month Cam had been to an acupuncturist, a Reiki practitioner, a reflexologist, an herbalist, a hypnotist, a taulasea– a Samoan medicine woman who made her drink breast mile–and had had a phone call with a “distance healer” from New Zealand named Audrey. They had paid eighty-five dollars Australian, plus the cost of a phone call to New Zealand, to hear Audrey hum into the phone for a while and then send Cam an e-mail with the “results” of the healing, which included bar graphs measuring the strength of her aura.
At least they got a good laugh out of it.
Cam had vowed that that was it, though. She was done trying stupid New Agey crap. In fact, if she heard another note of Yanni or Enya or anything on the harp, she was going to lose it. (36-37)

Self-proclaimed hope-resistant Cam has suffered from cancer for years, and they’ve finally received the diagnosis that there is nothing else to be done or tried. Cam’s mother refuses to give up, and packs Cam and her younger sister Perry from her Disney World Florida home to Promise, Maine for the summer. Promise is known for the unexpected, such as flamingos in the Atlantic, purple dandelions, and sunsets that last for hours. Showing no optimism and sulking over a fight with her only friend, Cam keeps receiving help from local boy Asher, who literally keeps popping up when she least expects it. Trying to make the most of her time and with nothing better to do, she starts crossing things off her own version of the bucket list that she’d made years earlier. When surrounded by people who see miracles in the everyday, Cam struggles to maintain her outlook on life and her belief that miracles are coincidences. Will Cam come to believe in miracles so that she can receive one of her own?

I’ll admit that this book has been sitting in my to be read stack for way too long. Personally, I really think it needs a new cover. But by the time you finish the book, you forget how glaring the cover is. The characters are all multi-faceted and developed. Cam’s mother is trying so hard to hold the family together. Although I think she could have been portrayed as a little more of a realist and hands-on, especially regarding her daughter’s illness, I can see she’s struggling with what the “right” thing to do is in this unique situation. Cam’s mood swings are evident, oscillating from “What’s the point” to “Let’s do what I can” to maybe even a little bit of restrained hope. Perry expresses what I think every sibling of a cancer patient must feel, but isn’t supposed to say:

“I make a lot of sacrifices for you.” Perry’s voice quavered. “Like being here. Do you think I want to spend my entire summer away from my friends? No one ever has time to think of what I want or what I need because your needs are so tremendous. You have tremendous needs. And that’s fine. Really, I’m used to being an afterthought. But the least you can do is let us believe that this might work. I do a lot for you, Cam,” said Perry, and one tear finally broke loose and slid down her face. (183)

The only person I wasn’t a huge fan of was Asher. Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked the knight in shining armor allusions and that he was always there for Cam, and the fact that he was afraid of flying added some humanity to his character. But the little we find out about his previous… “relationship” just irritates me. Yes, I guess to each his own, but still. Eh.

However, I loved the ending. I think I need to say again that I loved the ending. I can’t say anything else about the ending, because that would give everything away, but wow. The last 50 pages, and especially that last chapter, packs an emotional punch. I loved how Cam handled events, and although Asher’s actions seemed a little overly climatic, it sort of fit somehow. Cam really redeemed herself in my eyes when she puts other people’s needs ahead of her own for once.

A Monster Calls

Title: A Monster Calls
Author: Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd
Illustrator: Jim Kay
Narrator: Jason Isaacs
ISBN: 9780763655594
Pages: 205 pages
CD/Discs: 4 CDs, 4 hours 1 minute plus a bonus disc of illustrations from the book.
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2011.

I have come to get you, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, pushing against the house, shaking the pictures off Conor’s wall, sending books and electronic gadgets and an old stuffed toy rhino tumbling to the floor. [...]
“So come and get me then,” he said. [...]
The monster paused for a moment, and then with a roar it pounded two fists against the house. Conor’s ceiling buckled under the blows, and huge cracks appeared in the walls. Wind filled the room, the air thundering with the monster’s angry bellows.
“Shout all you want,” Conor shrugged, barely raising his voice. “I’ve seen worse.” [...]
You really aren’t afraid, are you?
“No,” Conor said. “Not of you, anyway.”
The monster narrowed its eyes.
You will be, it said. Before the end.
And the last thing Conor remembered was the monster’s mouth roaring open to eat him alive. (8-9)

Conor O’Malley has been struggling with a nightmare ever since his mother started cancer treatments. So when a real and ancient monster appears demanding the truth from Conor, Conor is still more terrified of the monsters in his dreams. Telling this monster his darkest fears isn’t high on his priority list, especially since everyone except the bully is avoiding him at school, his father has finally escaped his new family in America to visit, and Conor has been forced to live with his grandmother while his mom is in the hospital again. But maybe Conor is right. Maybe the monster outside his room isn’t the thing he’s supposed to fear the most.

There are those books that come into your life at a time when you need them the most, and because of that fact they affect you more than they normally would. This is one of those books. A week after finishing the audiobook, my grandmother passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Just like Conor is watching his mother struggle, I’d been trying to come to grips with my grandmother’s own struggle, and this book in a strange way brought me comfort at the thought that she knew how much we all cared about her.

Jason Isaacs is someone who could give Jim Dale a run for his money. In the interview following the audiobook version, Isaacs reveals that Ness asked him to be unsentimental, with Ness stressing that there is a difference behind sentiment and emotion and he wanted the emotion to work without added sentiment. (You can hear the interview and a portion of the audiobook here.) Isaacs didn’t have to add emotion. He lets the text speak for itself and instead focuses on the inflection and tone and the power of the words that he’s given. It’s an amazing experience to listen to this man bring Conor’s story to life. The gravely monster roars and expresses outrage, and Conor’s every emotion is palatable, from disdain towards the monster’s stories to rage against the bully and fear of the nightmare disturbing his sleep. It’s the fear that Isaacs conveys the best in my opinion, through cracking voice and tenuous gasps of breath which stay with you even after the last disc has come to an end.

The artwork is equally impressive, with Jim Kay providing striking black, gray and white illustrations to accompany the text. They look to be made with those black etching boards that they hand out in middle school art classes, where students scratch off the black to reveal the white underneath. It’s appropriately dark and stark and the noticeably hashes present throughout the drawings lends a stormy, almost ghostly quality. Some of the drawings are so minimalist that you wonder how he could leave them that way, when compared to the imposing double page spreads. But then you realize that the drawings in the margins bracket those double page spreads, leaving the impression that they (and the accompanying subject matter, which is Conor’s nightmare and the monster) were just too big for two pages and had to bleed over to the accompanying areas.

The irony of the plot of the story is not lost on me. The novel was written by Patrick Ness because Siobhan Dowd succumbed to an early death from cancer and could not finish the work herself. Connor’s mother is also fighting a loosing battle with cancer. Maybe meant as a parting gift to those she left behind, Ness and Dowd are well paired, even though Ness says in the author’s note that they never met each other. I don’t envy his task of bringing someone else’s world to life, but I think Dowd would be pleased.

Although it didn’t win the Printz or Odyssey award, I think it must have been a strong contender for both and deserves a place in all libraries. I’ll definitely be adding both Dowd’s and Ness’s other works to my to-be-read list.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 86 other followers

%d bloggers like this: