Posts tagged ‘death’

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.

Lost for Words

Title: Lost for Words
Author: Alice Kuipers
ISBN: 9780061429224
Pages: 210 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2010.

Mum pushed open the door and asked if we could talk. I was surprised, but so awkward with her, I didn’t know what to say. “What?”
She said, “Are you all right, Sophie?”
“Why?” I said. If I even feel normal for a minute, she wants to ruin it. Anxiety bubbled up in my stomach like acid, so I had to take a slow breath.
She said, “You can talk to me.”
“I don’t want to talk. Not to you. Not to anyone. I’m fine. I’ve got loads of homework, so . . . “
She sighed heavily, ad after a long UNCOMFORTABLE pause she left. I lay on the bed for ages trying not to think about anything. I fell asleep in my school uniform. I peeled my clothes off in the middle of the night because I was in a cold sweat. Maybe I’ve got a virus. (78-79)

Sophie wants to forget everything that’s happened since that day where her whole life changed. She doesn’t want to talk about it, especially with her therapist. She avoids her mother at all costs, since her mother really can’t do anything and doesn’t know how to respond to Sophie’s withdrawl. She doesn’t fault her friend Abigail from distancing herself from Sophie, since Sophie doesn’t know what to do either. When new girl Rosa-Leigh enters into Sophie’s life, it might just return to normal, but her past continues to haunt her until she can find a way to express and come to terms with her grief.

I know this is going to sound cliche, but I’m lost for words about Lost for Words. I was never completely drawn into Sophie’s character and didn’t really care what happened to her at the end of the book. The intriguing part of the book was finding out what happened in the past, before the novel started, and maybe if that information had been presented in a different fashion, I would have been more engaged. The cause of Sophie’s withdrawl and grief is what I will remember from this book, because there were a lot of avenues that could have been more fully flushed out and never were. Because Sophie’s past is a mystery for half the book, I felt removed from her emotions, which were a big part of the story.

Personally, if you’re looking for a character who expresses her grief through writing, I would probably recommend The Sky is Everywhere instead. This book is a lackluster story that drags after the big reveal.

The Absolute Value of Mike

Title: The Absolute Value of Mike
Author: Kathryn Erskine
Pages: 256 pages
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. c2011
Reviewed from ARC furnished by author
Release Date: June 9, 2011

Since I realize ARCs (Advanced Reader Copy) are not the finalized book and can go through the editing process still, I figured I’d quote from rather than the ARC itself. The cover image was also taken from

Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.

Okay, be prepared for some family issues. Mike’s great-aunt is named Moo (as in the cow) and is as blind as a bat, but not ready to admit it. His great-uncle is named Poppy (like the flower), and is so overcome with grief by his grown-up son’s death that he stares at the blank television all day, every day. The town project involving adopting this Romanian boy gets put on the shoulders of Mike since no one else is really all that competent at putting things together. The colorful cast of characters in a small secluded town reminded me of Gilmore Girls. Moo especially came to life to me as the stereotypical grandmother. I heard Moo’s voice in my head.

I read a portion of it to a group of fifth graders, doing a grandmotherly voice for Moo, and I felt like a rock star being able to read from a book that hadn’t been published yet. When I told them I was going to raffle it off and give it to one lucky student, the class went crazy. I was a little concerned about some mild swearing. It’s not like it’s the f bomb or anything like that. But when I grew up, “crap” was considered a swear word. My cousins (ages ranging from 10-13) have assured me that no, “crap is not a swear word.” When that changed happened, I don’t know, but I haven’t been able to adapt my thinking to that attitude. So I will admit I was a little concerned.

But the story is a team-work tale, showing the power of working together. It doesn’t matter that Mike isn’t a great architect like his father, because he organizes the rag-tag group of towns people. And while the ending leaves readers wondering if they really will be able to accomplish their goal, I like where it leaves off because the other plot points become resolved. Something different than Mockingbird, but still satisfactory.


Title: Mockingbird
Author: Kathryn Erskine
ISBN: 9780399252648
Pages: 235 pages
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguing Group (USA) Inc. c2010.

Finally, I say, I feel like TiVo.
She leans across the table toward me. Not too close to my Personal Space because I’ll use my words to tell her to back off if she gets too close. Say again?
What do you mean?
I fast-forward through the bad parts and all of a sudden I’m watching something and I’m not sure how I got there.

She scratches the part in her hair with her forefinger. The rest of her fingers stick up in the air and move like they’re waving. Then she stops. I see, she says.
I look around the room. What do you see? I ask.
I think you’d like to forget about the painful events you’ve been through.
I want to tell her that I prefer TiVo on mute and I wish she’d cooperate. But if I do it’ll start a whole Let’s Talk About It discussion so I say nothing. (11-12)

Fifth-grader Caitlin has Asperger’s Syndrome, which forces her to see the world differently and quite literally. She doesn’t handle emotions well, from other people or from herself, and has difficulty relating to other people. When a local tragedy hits close to home, she is forced to face not only her own grief but that of her father. Her school counselor encourages Caitlin to find Closure, but Caitlin is frustrated because she doesn’t know what it is or where to find it. A younger student affected by the same tragedy enters her life, and Caitlin finally realizes that closure is something she can help others find, even while she’s still trying to discover it for herself.

Caitlin’s struggle pulled at my heart strings. I’ve read other stories about autism, but this one is really well suited for the upper elementary and early middle school because of Caitlin’s voice. She talks about how adults encourage her to Get It, Deal With It, and Talk About It, all phrases that I’m sure every pre-teen has heard at least once in their life. But Caitlin has obviously heard it more than once, and the repetition is getting on her nerves, even if she has difficulty vocalizing that idea. In a way, it kind of reminded me of Clementine, by Sarah Pennypacker, because she also hears the same phrases over and over and doesn’t understand.

Her school counselor is very understanding, even if the kids at school are not so forgiving for her behavior. It’s not that their specifically mean, it’s just that they don’t understand her and Caitlin doesn’t understand them. It’s like they’re speaking two different languages, so the kids try to avoid her. It also doesn’t help that the whole town knows what happened but doesn’t know how to comfort someone who is so emotionally detached from “normal” society. Readers really witness how childlike Caitlin is when she starts bonding with Michael, a boy in a younger grade. When another classmate named Josh starts bonding with Michael as well, it really upsets Caitlin, especially because she doesn’t see Josh in the same way. But by the end of the book, other classmates have shown some kindness towards Caitlin, which gives some hope for her future at the school.

That seems to be the main thread of this book, is hope for the future. Hope that things will turn out alright, even when things have changed so drastically. Hope that memories and momentos will serve to comfort the people most traumatized by tragedy.


Title: Revolution
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
ISBN: 9780385737630
Pages: 482 pages
Publisher/Date: Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, c2010.

I laugh out loud. “No, I’m not.”
“No arguments, Andi. You’re coming to Paris and you’re taking your laptop with you. We’ll be there for three weeks. Plenty of time for you to work up an outline for your thesis.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something? What about Mom? What do we do about her? Just leave her here by herself?”
“I’m checking your mother into a hospital,” he says.
I stare at him, too shocked to speak. (48)

Andi Alpers has been going crazy trying to deal with the death of her brother, her absentee father, and her emotionally distant mother, not to mention her quickly declining dismal performance at her private prep school. When Andi’s father receives word that she might end up getting expelled, he swoops in, ships her mother off to a mental institute, and basically forces Andi on a plane to go with him to Paris. Andi is able to negotiate with her father a compromise; finish an outline and introduction to her thesis, and she can go home early. Andi’s resolve to leave gets tested when she not only meets a guitarist who shares her passion, but also discovers a centuries old diary of Alexandrine Paradis, a girl her age who worked in the palace during the French Revolution. These two girls might have more in common then Andi realizes when their lives intersect in a startling manner.

Full disclosure: There is a small element of time travel, which I don’t feel too bad revealing and I hope no one else counts it against me, but this is how it was explained to me. The time travel element is by no means the core of the novel, but I thought the minor details that were scattered throughout the novel came together cleanly by the end. Those minor details are scattered about the gorgeous cover, including the key on the spin, which plays an important role in the book. That’s a great touch that I’m sure has caught the attention of more than one reader. I wouldn’t classify the story as science fiction even with the time travel element, but then again I wouldn’t classify it as historical fiction either, even though some might consider it due to the diary. This is a solid modern-day tale that has a timeless quality because of its connections to the past.

The characterization is extremely well-developed. Readers are drawn into both Andi and Alex’s personality, understanding their motivations and convictions. Andi’s passion for music is evident from the beginning, and the fact that her thesis involves proving how a late seventeenth century composer influenced modern-day music is not something that I would have picked. But the musical history, influences, and pieces are explained in a manner that makes sense.

The parallels that could be drawn between Alex and Andi are multi-faceted, and the romances that develop for both characters are refreshingly subtle. I think it’s fairly obvious to readers that Alex has more than a passing fascination with the prince, just as Andi has more than a passing fascination towards Virgil, a boy she meets in Paris. Virgil is perfect for Andi at this time, because he’s willing to take things at her pace, but he also recognizes her pain and is not so willing to let her self-destructive tendencies take over. He is the one good thing in her life that serves as her anchor. Their love of music draws them together, just as the revolution draws Alex to the prince, and both relationships taken together shows love in its many forms.

I have to comment that I’m thrilled that Alex’s diary entries read like a diary, without an excessive amount of direct quotes. The present tense and jumping around the timeline makes it a little difficult to follow at times, but we don’t relate stories linearly in real life, so I’m willing to assume it was an attempt in authenticity. Readers view not only Alex’s “present”, but she also flashbacks to previous events, all while being presented as old diary entries. Plus, the presentation allows us to get Andi’s reactions to what she’s reading instantaneously, instead of waiting for the next chapter.

The details pull readers in and really set the scene for the action. It’s quite obvious that Donnelly has done her research here, describing everything from the sights and sounds of Paris to the smells of the catacombs. The fact that the centerpiece of Andi’s father’s research actually exists is fascinating. I’m not a history person, and I found myself understanding the complications and causes of the French Revolution. I felt like I was actually there, following in both Alex’s and Andi’s footsteps. Although the size of the book presents a daunting facade (weighing in at over 400 pages) readers who stick with it will be well rewarded.

The Dead Boys

Title: The Dead Boys
Author: Royce Buckingham
ISBN: 9780399252228
Pages: 201 pages
Publisher/Date: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, c2010.

“Hours later, Teddy awoke to the rapping sound of tree branches clawing at the house. He blinked in the darkness and looked around, bleary-eyed. He almost reached out from under the covers for the bedside lamp, but then he noticed the open window. He could have sworn he’d closed it.
Could the wind have somehow blown it open? he wondered. But even half asleep in the middle of the night he knew that didn’t make any sense. [...]
It was then that he heard the scratching sound, like something with claws dragging itself across the new brown carpet. Teddy sucked in a breath–it was coming from under his bed.” (26-27)

Twelve-year-old Teddy Mathews has moved to the remote town of Richland, Washington so his mom can work as a chemist at the local nuclear plant. The same nuclear plant used to dump water into the nearby Columbia River, but Teddy’s mother swears they stopped doing that years ago. Looking for some new friends, Teddy runs across several twelve-year-old boys in the neighborhood, but each have something odd about them, and mysteriously disappear after his encounter. Doing some research on these boys that no one seems to know, Teddy stumbles across a town secret involving a large sycamore tree in the abandoned house next door. Could the tree be hiding more in its leafy shadow than anyone can predict?

This book is a good introduction to the horror genre for elementary school readers. Paying attention to the graphics at the top of each chapter, readers get a foreboding sense of what is going to happen with Teddy. The branches reach farther and farther out towards the figure of Teddy, who’s obviously fleeing from their grasp. There isn’t a lot of tension or build-up, because Buckingham tips his hat halfway through the book, letting readers know about the demonic tree, in case they hadn’t gleaned that information from the cover or the jacket. The second half of the story is Teddy trying to escape from the tree and save the previously captured boys in the process.

While the tension is there in the beginning, as an adult it’s the ending that has some loose ends that are solved fairly simplistically. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but the way adults suddenly come to terms with what happens is suspicious, and there’s no elaboration of how events are explained to others who are involved. Also, speaking as an adult I’m shocked that the pattern wasn’t discovered sooner, since a new comer with no investigative experience can solve a case that has baffled authorities for so many years. It begs a huge suspension of beliefs. The other boys are almost interchangeable, making it difficult to distinguish from one to another when you finally do encounter them all. The tree being the most memorable part of the book, it reminds me of Little Shop of Horrors or a scarier version of the children’s book The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks.

Librarians and teachers might want to hold off on giving it to younger readers who are prone to nightmares.


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