Posts from the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Seventh Most Important Thing

Seventh Most Important Thing.jpgTitle: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
ISBN: 9780553497281
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Arthur’s first week back at school was about as successful as his first day or probation had been. Going from juvie to school was like going from one extreme to the other. In juvie, you learned to avoid everyone else. If some convict kid wanted to cut in front of you in the food line or steal your banana pudding at supper, you let him, no questions asked.
When Arthur got back to school in December, everybody avoided him. He felt as if he were inside an invisible box. Nobody bumped into him in the hallway. Nobody spoke to him. When he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch, the other kids picked up their trays and left. The whole school knew what he’d done, of course. Nothing was a secret at Byrd Junior High. You couldn’t fart without somebody knowing. (57)

Arthur T. Owens had his reasons for throwing a brick at the Junk Man’s head, but the judge doesn’t want to hear them. The judge also doesn’t want to listen to the fact that the brick actually hit him in the arm, but he will listen to the Junk Man. That’s how Arthur finds himself working 120 hours of community service for the Junk Man, whose real name is James Hampton. Mr. Hampton gives Arthur a list of seven things to collect, including mirrors, lightbulbs, and cardboard, which Arthur has to dig through trash, quite frequently in the snow, in order to find. But as his hours start adding up, Arthur’s involvement with Hampton also increases, until eventually it’s his investment that is the only thing keeping the project alive.

This story is one of those stories that you don’t think could possibly have happened, and then you realize it’s inspired by actual events. There actually was a James Hampton, an eccentric artist who lived during that time period, although come to think of it the only mentions to a year are in the very first chapters and the lack of technological references mean it could have taken place in any time period. Pearsall’s author’s note separates fact from fiction and includes a couple pictures, although it becomes obvious she’s taken a few liberties with details and timelines. But this is ultimately Arthur’s story, and it makes sense that Arthur’s character was the most developed. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s not seen as a good kid either based almost exclusively on his family history, and so when one thing goes wrong, the whole world turns against him. His judge and parole officer are no nonsense type people, his principal assumes the worst of him and is convinced Arthur’s the instigator in trouble at school even when told otherwise, and even his younger sister keeps calling him a bad person, but he makes allowances for her because she doesn’t understand. Arthur swings from proving them all right to proving them all wrong as he works at making his own reputation, and I feel like those attitudes are fairly accurate to modern day beliefs as well. This novel could provoke discussion on a number of topics.

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon.jpgTitle: A Nearer Moon
Author: Melanie Crowder
ISBN: 9781481441483
Pages: 150 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

[…] It was one of Mama’s never-to-be-broken rules:
Don’t go past the bend in the river.
Don’t go below the dam.
Steer far away from the slick.
People said there was a creature that lived beneath the slick lying still as a gravestone on top of the water, a creature that cast a curse on the swamp and sickened anyone who drank it. But Luna didn’t believe in the creature, and she didn’t believe in curses. (10-11)

Luna and her little sister Willow love going out on the water on their pole boat, trying to catch fish in the dam that their village of stilted houses lives over. Only the oldest residents remember the days before the dam mysteriously appeared, stopping the river and turning the bright waters into the treacherous swamp. Luna doesn’t believe in curses until their boat mysteriously dips under the water line and Willow ends up with the swamp sickness. With only weeks until the wasting illness kills her sister and no cure in sight, Luna might have to start believing in magic and miracles.

Told in alternating perspectives, first from Luna’s and then from the view of a water sprite decades prior, it’s at first a little confusing. But very quickly readers will realize that they are similar stories of sisterly bonds and the lengths sisters will go to maintain them. Having just watched My Friend Totoro, the two stories are similar, with an independent pair of sisters who take advantage of the world around them, encounter a magical creature, and have to overcome an illness. Crowder’s writing style and word choice also remind me of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly, very lyrical and descriptive. Luna’s grandmother at one point “raised her eyes to the ceiling, searching the cobwebbed corners of her mind” which just sounds so poetic.

Luna is a likeable character, who feels guilt over her involvement in her sister’s illness and that it’s her sister and not herself who got sick. She adventures time and again out by herself, or with steady childhood friend Benny by her side, in efforts to cure this disease that everyone else has resigned to the fact that it’s incurable. “It was a supremely stupid thing she was doing. And if the brief history of her life was any indication, if she was set on doing a supremely stupid thing, it was best to have Benny along.” (33) I’m envious of her freedom of movement, as I don’t think my mother would have let me out of her sight after the first attempt, much less the second or third. Any other book would have made Benny and Luna a romantic pairing, but I’m so glad they are just friends here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sprite’s side of the story. It proves Crowder’s efficiency with words, that she’s able to so effortlessly squeeze two stories into only 150 pages. Perdita is an adventurous water sprite whose twin sister worries about her never-ending ramblings and roving. She and Luna are a lot alike in their independent and inquisitive natures. The stories start decades apart but they finally catch up to one another in the end. I loved the ending, as (if blog readers will allow me one final comparison) just like in Frozen there really isn’t a bad guy, but only broken hearts that once mended heal everything. A beautifully told story.

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun.jpgTitle: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Narrator: Katharine McEwan
ISBN: 9780307989925 (audiobook)
Pages: 366 pages
Discs/CDs: 12.5 hours, 10 CDs
Publisher/Date: Books on Tape, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2015. (Penguin Random House, LLC, c2015.)

I closed my eyes and tried to scream, but only released a puff of air. I felt Paddy’s mouth again and knew I had no chance at all. He would eat me here or drag me off to a glade or valley only he knew of, a place from which I’d never return. The last thought I remember having was This is how it feels, then. This is what it means to be eaten by a lion. […]
The doctor gave me laudanum, and then stitched me up with a hooked needle and thick black thread. […]
“He must have been ready to let you go. Or perhaps you weren’t ever meant for him.”
I felt the tug of the needle, a pushing and pulling, as if just that part of my body were caught in a small current. His words were another kind of current. “What am I meant for then?”
“How wonderful that question is, Beru.” He smiled mysteriously. “And as you did not die on this day, you have more time in which to answer it.” (39-41)

Ironically enough, she did spend the rest of her life trying to find her place in the world. A fictionalized account of a real woman I have never heard of, author Paula McLain elaborates on the details of Beryl Markham. Beryl is a modern woman living in the turn of the century, in an English colony in Africa. Her father moves the family to a farm, even though he’s not a farmer. Her mother leaves with her brother Dickie after only two years, and Beryl is left with her father. She thrives in the bush with a native Kipsigis tribe and a particular young boy Kibi who becomes a life-long companion. But as she grows, she realizes that her upbringing was anything but conventional, and she balks at becoming a cultured woman with nothing to do except tend the hearth and home. From horse training to eventually learning how to fly, Beryl charts her own course, looking all the while for a man whom she can trust with her heart and high hopes.

Provided with engaging story-telling, which sounds quite frequently like you are gathered around a campfire in the safari leaning in to hear the speaker’s words, Katharine McEwan’s narration complements McLain’s descriptive prose. It drops to a whisper when she’s sneaking outside as a child after dark, and has a sense of urgency when faced with dangers and decisions. Beryl’s dialogue is higher pitched and more attitudinal when she is younger, separating it from her older experiences and the “looking back” narration that the rest of the book takes. While I have no idea how accurately the foreign words are pronounced or the people are portrayed, having never visited the country much less the continent, her pronunciations are beautiful. Distinctions between the African residents and those from the English areas are clear. With a novel that spans decades and two continents, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

Readers should read the author’s note at the end, which is where McEwan provides insight on the inspiration for her novel. Drawing information from Beryl’s autobiography West with the Night, McEwan elaborates on this unknown aviator’s accomplishments. First soloing in 1931, she was one of the first women to receive a pilot’s license. She pioneered the practice of scouting ahead for animal herds for safari groups. In 1936, she flew across the Atlantic and made headlines in the United States, but garnered barely a mention in the English papers. Earnest Hemingway recognized her writing skills, which was ultimately what resulted in a reprint of the manuscript 50 years later when Beryl was 80 years old. It’s a book that other readers intrigued by this fictional account may want to search out for the original inspiration.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings

Enchanted Air.jpgTitle: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir
Author: Margarita Engle
ISBN: 9781481435222
Pages: 192 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

In one country, I hear the sweet words of another.
Dulce de leche means sweet of milk.
Guarapo is sugarcane juice.

At home in California, when I speak
boastful English, I can say that I fly,
but when I make the same claim in Spanish,
I have to say: voy por avion
I go by airplane

Two countries.
Two families.
Two sets of words.

Am I free to need both,
or will I always have to choose
only one way
of thinking? (13)

Margarita’s mother is from Cuba, and her father’s family is Ukraine. For a while they travel from Cuba to the United States and back, visiting family and a whole new culture and world in Cuba. But then conflicts between her two homes flare, and her family is unable to travel back to Cuba. In the beginning, her family is observed and questioned, but as the hostility continues Margarita can’t understand the animosity present, and how her fellow Americans are uneducated and unaffected, since she is privy to a wholly different perspective.

This is another book I have a hard time envisioning recommending to someone unless they had a special interest in autobiographies, prejudices, and the Cuban/American tensions. The word choices and verses are powerfully brief in nature, and fans of Brown Girl Dreaming may also enjoy this novel. But this is essentially a travelogue without any travel. Starting with some prettily portrayed trips, the second half details the prejudice and trials that the family faces. Instead, she waxes reflectively on idealized travels to Cuba in her childhood, where she rides horses with her cousins and juxtaposes them with the horrors of a closed Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion. It’s an eye-opening portrayal and certainly one that is relevant in the recent reopening of relations with Cuba by President Barack Obama, but not one that is discussed in-depth in schools, a disparity that is ironically addressed in the book itself and will impact and contribute to its obscurity. I can’t end this review without commenting that the cover is horrible, with a symbolic dove overlaid by half an illustrated face, and not at all appealing.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

 

Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger.jpgTitle: Goodbye Stranger
Author: Rebecca Stead
ISBN: 9780385743174
Pages: 289 pages
Publisher/Date: Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. C2015.

“How are you supposed to know what you want?” […]

“I think that when you don’t know, you should just wait until you do.” (234-235)

Three friends, Bridget, Tabitha, and Emily, are spending their eighth grade year trying to figure out exactly what they want. Emily has new curves and a new boyfriend, who wants some pictures of Emily. Tabitha has a new role model in a feminist teacher, and wants to save the world through any means necessary. Bridget wants to pass French and have things stop changing, but then meets Sherm and realizes that neither might be possible. And an unnamed girl wants to avoid the trouble she may have caused by betraying a friend’s confidence. All five teens might find themselves reevaluating their relationships.

A coworker of mine proclaimed this a problem novel because it deals with teenagers sending scantily clad pictures of themselves to each other. While I was slightly concerned when I heard this summary, as some people should be, these scantily clad photos involve underwear and no nudity and while that is one of the subplots, I don’t feel like that is the whole story. We never really view things from the perspective of either of the people involved in the picture sending scandal, focusing instead on the points of view of Sherm, Bridget, and the unnamed girl (who is finally identified in the end and is tangentially related to the other stories). But it is something that librarians, teachers, and parents might appreciate being aware of when handing this book to children. And it does provide an opportunity and ability to open discussion on the topic.

I felt the three friends were well-developed with their own attributes. Rather than it being a stereotypical story of three friends growing apart, they stick together even with their separate interests. They hate and love each other, although their “no fighting” rule should have been tested more, as forgiveness seemed too easily achieved when secrets are betrayed. Just like normal teenagers, they sometimes don’t know how or why they do things, only that it feels right at the time. I did feel it slightly unrealistic that someone is allowed to keep his phone after punishment is awarded, especially considering the crime. Observant readers will be able to put the pieces together and determine the identity of the unnamed girl, as there are little hints dropped throughout the story and the rest of the stories build up and catch up to her timeline. Bridget’s brother Jamie and his bet is the humorous subplot that relieves the tension and angst from everything else. Is it as mind-blowing as When You Reach Me? Sorry, no, there are too many times where you question if that would really happen, but still an engaging enough story.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.jpgTitle: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Illustrator: Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 9781582344164
Pages: 782 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Publishing, c2004.

“I have studied histories and biographies of the Aureates to discover how they began,” said Strange, “but it seems that in those days, as soon as any one found out he had some aptitude for magic, he immediately set off for the house of some other, older, more experienced magician and offered himself as a pupil.”
“Then you should apply to Mr. Norrell for assistance!” cried Mr. Honeyfoot, “Indeed you should. Oh! Yes, I know,” seeing that Mr. Segundus was about to make some objection, “Norrell is a little reserved, but what is that? Mr. Strange will know how to overcome his timidity I am sure. For all his faults of temper, Norrell is no fool and must see the very great advantages of having such an assistant!” (222)

Reclusive Mr. Norrell is intent on being the only magician in England, buying up every book on the subject, refusing to take students, even causing the society of magicians to be disbanded in a bet intended to dissuade any potential rivals. But after a more elaborate display of magic, Mr. Norrell finds himself moving to London and years later taking a self-taught pupil named Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell rationalizes that if he teaches Mr. Strange, his ideas will be the ones to be spread and there will be no dissenting opinions on the matter. If only it were that easy. As Mr. Strange’s involvement in military matters takes him farther and farther from Mr. Norrell’s influences, he becomes bolder in his practices and disagreements with Mr. Norrell. A feud is afoot, possibly encouraged by forces outside of either magician’s control, one that will impact the lives of others both living and dead.

Clocking in at over 700 pages, this hefty novel is unlike anything I have ever read. Spanning a decade in the lives of the two magicians, the episodic prose is dense, scientific, and old-fashioned in tone and spelling. This is the only novel in recent memory that I have read to include footnotes, especially footnotes that are sometimes so complete they require several pages to conclude. Understandably some parts are more entertaining than others, with huge sections requiring concentration in order to slog through detailed accounts of magical preparation, study, and history. It’s unquestionably one of the most exhaustive backstories of fantastical creation, and the magic invoked by the two main characters is almost incomparable, following the rules outlined in the world building. Some readers may appreciate the thoroughness of the details while others will want to (and most likely will) skip ahead and find the more narrative portions, where the plot progresses more rapidly. An ambitious debut novel certainly, which the back jacket reveals took almost a decade to write, but one that readers need to be in the mood to start and commit to reading, otherwise they may find themselves resenting their efforts to complete the endeavor.

Half a Man

Half a Man.jpgTitle: Half a Man
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Illustrator: Gemma O’Callaghan
ISBN: 9780763677473
Pages: 53 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, text copyright 2005, 2006. Illustrations copyright 2014.

I would wake up then, shaking in terror and knowing that my nightmare was not yet over. For my nightmare would always seem to happen just a day or two before Grandpa came to stay. It was a visit I always dreaded. (4)

Michael’s grandfather was in the navy in the war when his ship was torpedoed and sunk. His grandfather considers himself one of the lucky ones since he didn’t die, but the burns have permanently scarred and affected his body. Told not to stare at his grandfather, Michael has difficulty connecting with a grandfather who doesn’t smile, doesn’t laugh, and doesn’t look like anyone else he knows. Eventually, they find common ground over silently fishing and reading when Michael visits his grandfather at his Sicily island cottage, and Michael may be able to use that connection to reconnect the rest of his family.

This is a quiet book, and one that may be better suited for adults or as a graduation gift then for middle school students, in the same way that Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go” is often given as gifts to adults. The obvious message is that, regardless of how his grandfather describes himself, he is not a “monster man” or “half a man”. It could be used to encourage conversation about what makes a man, or exploring their own family history, especially with the recently passed Veteran’s Day so closely preceding Thanksgiving. Symbolically the illustrations by Gamma O’Callaghan never show the grandfather’s current face and we only see a glimpse of what was in an old photo towards the very end of the book. It’s left up to the imagination to see the grandfather. The pictures sparsely depict the settings and invoke a reflective and melancholy mood with the primarily blue and gray drawings, accented by a specific shade of brilliant yellow and orange. The variety, from small insets to full double-page spreads, force the reader to slow down and absorb the short story and aid tremendously with the pacing of the book.

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