Posts tagged ‘250-299 pages’

Listen, Slowly

Listen SlowlyTitle: Listen, Slowly
Author: Thanhha Lai
ISBN: 9780062229182
Pages: 260 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

Dad is waiting for me to turn toward him. Yeah right. One little glance would encourage another diatribe about connecting with my roots. They’re his roots, not mine. I’m a Laguna Beach girl who can paddleboard one-legged and live on fish tacos and mango smoothies. My parents should be thanking the Buddha for a daughter like me: a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab who is team leader in track, science, and chess. I should at least be able to spend the summer resting my brain at the beach. Instead, I get shoved on this predawn flight.
My parents slapped me with the news just last night when I was floaty and happy because sixth grade was finally over. I was thinking summer vacation, sunsets, bonfires. But noooo, with buggy eyes and stretchy smiles, they cooed out the news that I “get to” escort Ba, Dad’s mom, back to Vietnam for six whole weeks. (1-2)

Twelve-year-old Mai (known as Mia at school) is being forced to fly halfway around the world to help her grandmother Ba come to terms with their grandfather’s disappearance during the Vietnam War. Never mind that it happened years ago, and that Mai had plans for this summer, that she doesn’t understand the language, and that her own father isn’t staying with them due to previously scheduled charity work. The detective is struggling for specifics, so in the meantime Mai meets her many, many cousins, including Anh Minh who learned English with a Texas accent at an American boarding school, and Ut, a reluctant tour guide who is more interested in caring for her frog than her newfound family member. The culture shock is incredible, resulting in a misunderstanding about thongs and powerful smelling herbal remedies for lice and stomach aches. But as time passes, Mai begins to see the beauty in this alternate way of life, discovering that it might be up to her to re-acquaint her grandmother with seeing the good things of today instead of focusing on the past.

The details in the book are incredible. You can feel the heat, you can smell the medicines, and you can experience a world that probably few readers would ever consider visiting before reading this book. Mai’s changing moods, spoiled nature and trepidations, but also her awe of this whole new environment, are convincingly displayed.

Away from the airport, it’s green and more green rice paddies. This doesn’t seem right. The documentary showed the airport was right in the middle of the city. Ba stirs, reaches inside her bag, and [… her] other hand twists a knob in the air. Dad agrees, of course. The air conditioner, which makes her even more carsick, goes off. Windows down. Invisible flames whip into the taxi. I feel like on of those desserts Mom blows a torch on. […]
I stick my head out. No it doesn’t feel any cooler. Then I can’t believe it–right on the roadside, not behind a fence or anything, stands a real live water buffalo. Chewing on grass, mud on its back, nostrils the size of golf balls, mega croissants for horns. […]
“Stop, Dad, tell him to stop. STOP!”[…]
“This is so cool!”(15-16)

I am slightly unsure about the portrayal of some of the older Vietnamese ignorance about modern-day conveniences, but it seems like it’s plausible based on details presented in the book, such as the lack of reliable and widespread Internet. It does however show that there are some benefits behind traditional ways, which I think balances out those portrayals. I learned quite a bit about Vietnamese language and history, as Mai and her cousins exchange vocabulary lessons. I’m not attempting to duplicate those symbols and lessons here because I wouldn’t know how. Conversations in Vietnamese are designated by italics, and translated into English with more frequency as the book progresses. While the contextual clues make it clear what is being said, I do wish a glossary and/or author’s note had been included for quick reference and further information.

The final reveal of the truth of Mai’s grandfather’s whereabouts and life during the war is something that will pull at people’s heart-strings. Mai’s turn around is convenient but appropriate after spending so much time among her Vietnamese family. This is a coming of age story for sure, but also a story of coming home and coming to terms with your past. Highly recommended.

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than EverTitle: Better Nate Than Ever
Author: Tim Federle
Narrator: Tim Federle
ISBN: 9781442374157
Discs/CDs: 5 CDs, 5 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Inc, c2013.
Awards: Odyssey Award Honor (2014), Stonewall Book Award Honor (2014)
Series: #1 (there is a sequel, titled Five, Six, Seven, Nate)

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has a dream of being on Broadway which is difficult to fulfill when you are one of two Broadway geeks in the entire town of Jankburg, Pennsylvania. His best friend Libby has taught him everything he knows (everything he thinks he needs to know anyways) and Nate is confident in his acting ability, even though he’s never had formal lessons. So confident that when his parents head out of town for the night and leave Nate’s brother in charge, Nate and Libby hatch a plan. Nate’s going to take the bus to New York, audition for the newly scripted E.T. The Musical, wow the producers, the directors, the choreographers, and whoever else he needs to, and prove once and for all that his true place in life is on Broadway. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Things definitely go wrong for Nate, including underestimating his budget and his time frame, not having directions before his arrival in NYC, and believing everything everyone says and that everyone is his friend. I found myself comparing him to Jack from the television show Will and Grace; over the top (he swears using the names of Broadway flops) and unable to take care of himself (he’s miraculously saved from both homelessness and an uncharged phone multiple times). His awkward “monologue” explanation for why he’s out alone is completely unrealistic, and the author forces him to “perform” not just once or twice but multiple times, getting more awkward each time. A lot of the plot seems to be on repeat, as Nate’s experiences are a push and pull of emotions as his hopes and reams are real, then dashed, then restored, then dashed, and readers are left with no resolution to the “Does he or doesn’t he” million dollar question. This roller coaster continues for much too long and I started to loose interest in the plot, which seems to place me in a minority among the multitudes of fans this book has garnered. My sympathies towards Nate were the only thing that grew because I felt his overly-enthusiastic antics were being used as entertainment for the mean-spirited adults who relished his peculiarities rather then  as an opportunity to teach the craft and profession.

This straight read through by author Federle was campy and over the top, just like his character Nate Foster, although it is difficult for me several weeks later to remember anything remarkable about the narration specifically. Nate is a laughably naive person, from his clothes choices to his interactions with children and adults. For someone who so desperately wants to be involved in a Broadway show, it’s unbelievable that he would know so little about how the industry works and how optimistic he is regarding his chances of making it big. In this way I guess one of the values of this book is that it teaches readers how the industry work, but at the expense of poor Nate. While his antics remind me of book characters geared towards younger readers, similar to maybe Ramona or Wimpy Kid, the content is skewed much older, with Nate not “choosing a sexuality” yet, drunkenness (both adult and teen drinking), and several homophobic slurs being repeatedly dropped. I’m usually pretty open-minded regarding book content (I was reading teen fiction alongside my Animorphs books in 5th grade), but if a library has a tween section it would make sense to put it there. The 13-year-old character is too young for most teens in young adult areas but the content limits it’s appropriateness to readers under 13 and I think adults may find more enjoyment from this book than children. Case in point: Our copy has been checked out only 6 times in two years

Older Faster Stronger

Older Faster StrongerTitle: Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer
Author: Margaret Webb
ISBN: 9781623361693
Pages: 296
Publisher/Date: Rodale, c2014.

My impulse was to say no. But how could I say no? My sister is 13 years older than I. And the beauty queen was honing in on my territory. Yet the thought of running a half-marathon–I didn’t even know how far one was at the time–seemed inconceivable, overwhelming, impossible. […]
My instinctive response to my sister’s challenge was to admit defeat before even trying to declare that I was well beyond my athletic prime and saw no chance of redemption. (3-4)

On that fateful day, author Margaret Webb, 42-years-old at the time, took up her sister’s challenge in honor of her elderly mother, who legs were affected by polio. That first run was all it took, and Webb continued to run, race, and train. Years later, when she was approaching 50, she wanted to use running as a spring-board to achieve her best health yet, like she saw other older runners, especially women, achieving. Working with physicians, nutritionists, other athletes, and her regular running crew, Webb sheds a light on the history and health benefits of women taking up physical activity later in life, spotlighting those who have paved the way, the differences between female and male athletes, and the science behind this athleticism.

The science behind this journey can be confusing. Webb attempts to break it down into less jargon and more layman’s terms, and sometimes succeeds. Starting with a checklist of things that aging contributes, such as more injuries, loss of lung capacity, dexterity, flexibility, bone density, balance, estrogen and muscle mass, and increase in fat. Where she lost me was discussing VO2, which she explains is the “maximum amount of oxygen my body can use to make fuel” (19) Those readers not scientifically inclined should be prepared to read these sections two or three times in order to fully grasp the information. For instance,

I’m hauling in air, but my heart and lungs are still unable to supply enough oxygen to my working muscles, tipping them into oxygen dept. Lactic acid floods my bloodstream as my body shifts to anaerobic metabolism, away from burning energy-rich fat-which requires oxygen– to burning a thinner (less productive and plentiful) energy source, carbohydrates, which are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. […] When all the glycogen in the muscles is used, the body will suck glucose from the blood, which will run out even faster.” (35)

Her chapter titled “Eating Smarter” is much easier to understand. It discusses specific snack options (like midmorning and midafternoon snacks of 1/4 cup of nuts) and stresses a nutritionist recommended diet of cutting out simple carbohydrates instead of carb-loading before a race. It works for her, and emphasizes the difference in men and women’s ability to process carbs and the ongoing habit of doctors and researchers to apply study results to everyone when studies splitting male and female participants have shown that those findings can not be universally applied. This was surprising to me, because I mistakenly believed that since women’s athletic abilities and health issues (like risks of heart issues or cancer) have always been compared to men, that studies concerning healthy living would follow-up to prove these assumptions. It’s also interesting to hear the history of women’s running, where women were banned from marathons, with Kathrine Switzer becoming the first female runner of the Boston Marathon in 1967 while facing down the race director who tried to throw her out.

The book is filled with statistics and studies that stress the importance of adapting an active life-style, so if you weren’t convinced before picking up this book, you just might be by the time you finish it. While we all wish that we could achieve the health and fitness levels of not only the author but of the other women she features throughout the book (including world record holders and trail blazing feminists), this book may not be best for casual runners. Webb revels that she spends 10 to 12 hours training each week and travels the world running Iron Mans and marathons. I wish she had spent more time on how she got started, and what her running habits were starting at square one. For the beginner, this might be something to aspire to, but not something they should attempt to duplicate immediately.

The Family Romanov

Family RomanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 9780375867828
Pages: 292 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.
Awards: Sibert Honor (2015), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Finalist (2015)

Now, learning from advisers that the palace guard had deserted, he finally grasped the situation. There was, he concluded, no other choice. He would have to give in and appoint a government acceptable to the people. He immediately telegraphed Rodzianko with his offer. Minutes later, Rodzianko answered: “His Majesty . . . [is] apparently . . . unable to realize what is happening in the capital. A terrible revolution has broken out. . . . The measures you propose are too late. The time for them is gone. There is no return.” (173-174)

There was no return for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. For years the Russian nobility had turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty overwhelming the populace. Instead of consulting with his advisers, he relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Empress Alexandra, a foreigner who married him under the dark mourning cloud of the former emperor’s death. She in turn was driven by “a deep belief in the miraculous and mystical” and consulted a questionable character named Rasputin, who was also looked upon with suspicion by everyone except the royal family (28). It didn’t help that the heirs were isolated, and the only son’s illness was kept a secret. Breeding suspicion and discontent among the famine, frustration, and fear of the first World War, those feelings soon followed the royal family into hiding, but the worst was yet to come.

Anyone who has seen the movie Anastasia is at least partly familiar with the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. I had the refrain of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” stuck in my brain through most of my reading. Most people probably never realized how inaccurate the plot of the movie was to history. As always, Fleming’s research is thorough, quoting extensively from the diaries and correspondence that have been miraculously saved for all these years. The details were surprising, including first hand accounts of what happened when the murders took place and a photograph of the room where the deed took place.

It’s an intentionally disheartening read, almost like when reading about the Titanic, because history tells you that this is not going to end well for the family. I found myself shaking my head in amazement that Tsar Nicholas II could be so out of touch and purposely naive regarding his responsibilities, to the point where he stopped opening telegrams from his advisers and took the word of his wife over his generals. Probably the best decision that Fleming made was to include the final chapter regarding life after the Tsar, the rumors of survival, and the final nail on the coffin so to speak when the bodies were revealed, 25 years after their initial discovery. A fascinating read, this one will intrigue and inform.

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

Nuts to You

Nuts to YouTitle: Nuts to You
Author/Illustrator: Lynne Rae Perkins
ISBN: 9780060092757
Pages: 259 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2014.

I was watching the carefree squirrels when, all at once, one of them jumped onto the end of the bench where I was sitting and looked with interest at me, and then, meaningfully, at my sandwich. Quite calmly, he stepped closer. That’s bold, I thought. A little too bold. I tore off a bit of my sandwich and was about to chuck it as far as I could, figuring he would take off after it, when he spoke.
“Please, don’t throw it,” he said. “would you mind just setting it on the bench? I’m not as spry as I once was.” (2-3)

Age isn’t the only thing that has changed the squirrel, as the human is about to find out. The squirrel’s story starts with Jed being picked up by a hawk and escaping it’s clutches. His whole family assumes his untimely end except TsTs, who sees him fall and is adamant that he is alive and needs her help to get home. With Chai following her across the buzzpaths, from huge frozen spiderweb to frozen spiderweb, they quickly realize they aren’t the only ones interested in the buzzpaths and spiderwebs. Humans are cutting trees down, and they are heading towards their home! Now it’s a race against time as Chai and TsTs not only fear for Jed’s survival but also the well-being of the families they left behind. Will they be able to alert them in time, and will they even listen to the unbelievable warnings?

The first thing I noticed about the narration is that Lynne Rae Perkins presents the squirrel’s world in squirrel language, and allows the pictures and contextual clues to let the reader know what is being described. For instance, the buzzpaths and frozen spiderwebs are utility lines and towers. The “great beak that sometimes sings but never opens” is a sailboat, and cars are really big beetles that humans crawl inside and come out of undigested but that move like boulders. She also recognizes regional and species differences, with some of the squirrels not recognizing pine cones and describing the trees as having different shaped leaves and smells. I admired her skill at doing all these things realistically, although she does implant a little magical realism since she’s having a squirrel share this story with a human. Her illustrations also aid in imagining the world from a squirrel’s perspective.

Jed, TsTs, and Chai seem to be more adventurous and smarter than the average squirrel in their group. They can figure things out and are willing to change their beliefs based on current events. Although their characters and personalities are almost indistinguishable from one another, their interactions move the story along at a steady pace. Quick comebacks, author asides, and silly puns leave readers smiling. A fun read overall, possibly a read-alike for Flora and Ulysses fans who are squirrely for more.

This Song Will Save Your Life

This Song Will Save Your LifeTitle: This Song Will Save Your Life
Author: Leila Sales
ISBN: 9780374351380
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, c2013.

You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs? Do you change your clothes, your hair, your face? Go on, then. Do it. Pierce your ears, trim your bangs, buy a new purse. They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still too smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still, always, wrong. Change all you want; you can’t change that.
I know because I tried. […]
I had worked so hard, wished so hard, for things to get better. But it hadn’t happened, and it wasn’t going to happen. I could buy new jeans, I could put on or take off a headband, but this was who I was. You think it’s so easy to change yourself, but it’s impossible.
So I decided on the next logical step: to kill myself. (3, 21)

Elise spent an entire summer hoping to change herself and become popular, and it failed miserably. Overwhelmed by the futility of it all, she attempted to kill herself, but then chickened out and called for help. Now back at school, she spends her nights roaming the streets, listening to her iPod and relishing the silence and the solitude. Until one night, she stumbles across an underground dance club and finds people who don’t know her past and notice her, especially the DJ Char. But sneaking out of the house does not go unnoticed, especially when classmates and parents suspect Elise is going to try to kill herself again. When pressures mount at school, at home, and at the club, will Elise be pushed to the breaking point and do what everyone expects of the lonely outsider? Or will she finally dance to music she’s been using to drown out everyone else?

First off, the supporting cast of characters is great. From Elise’s lunch table mates who are united with each other due to their outcast status, to Elise’s stepfather worrying about her influence on “his children”, they all are struggling just as much as Elise to figure out what to do. I can’t imagine the aftermath, and Sales saves herself from portraying that difficult time by beginning the story several months after Elise’s suicide attempt. I found myself unintentionally finishing the book in one day because I just couldn’t stop reading.

Elise is very different from me, since we don’t have the same taste in music, I have never been to an underground night club, and I have no idea how to DJ. Yet I found myself admiring her and relating to her, especially through her love of music and her use of music to escape. We all have a time in our life when we wonder what we could do differently or what we could have changed. After her suicide attempt, Elise recognizes that sometimes there is nothing you can change about the way other people feel about you.

I had always thought that if I just did something extraordinary enough, then people would like me. But that wasn’t true. You will drive away everyone by being extraordinary. [spoiler omitted] But you, you never learn your lesson. The world embraces ordinary. The world will never embrace you. […]
No one can mold me. I know because I’ve tried. (211)

You’ll notice that quote mimics and echoes the first paragraphs of the book, and that theme of acceptance of yourself runs through the entire book. But while in the beginning there is depression about this lack of conformity, by the end I think Elise has once more found the pride in being extraordinary. In the end I wanted to be Elise, who struggles with conformity and lack of friends and doesn’t want to change herself, but still recognizes her desires and a need to be who she is and do what she enjoys. This book leaves me wanting to find an underground night club, learn how to DJ, make a copy of the list of songs included in the back of the book and listen to every one of them. But I think more importantly, it also leaves me wanting to find my own soundtrack and make my own impressions on people. And that says a lot about a book when it is able to accomplish that and not feel didactic or overly sentimental.

Crow

CrowTitle: Crow
Author: Barbara Wright
Narrator: J. D. Jackson
ISBN: 9780804123952 (hardcover: 9780375969287)
Discs/CDs: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 6 CDs
Pages: 297 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, c2012. (audio: Listening Library, an imprint of Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2013.)

I crept along the stone wall and slipped down into one of the basement window wells. From there, no one could see me, but I had a clear view of the man standing at the top of the steps between two massive columns. He was thin and had shaggy eyebrows and a full silver beard that glinted in the sun. I recognized him but couldn’t remember his name. […] Today he wore a suit and tie and looked like a refined gentleman, but when he spoke, he looked crazier than Crazy Drake. Spit spewed from his mouth and his face turned red as he shouted, “You are Anglo-Saxons! You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. Be ready at a moment’s notice. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win this election, even if we have to do it with guns.” (183-184)

It’s 1898 and has been years since the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Moses’s father is a respected alderman and reporter in their Wilmington, North Carolina community, and after saving for a year they were able to buy Moses’s mother an organ. But grandmother Boo Nanny is fearful of the changes in the air and the crows circling house, sure that it’s a sign of bad times to come. White folks in the neighboring towns are getting restless and resentful of African Americans succeeding. Red Shirts can be seen throughout the neighborhoods, claiming to be protecting and policing but really working towards taking over the government and intimidating others. Moses’s father won’t tolerate such abuses, but will Moses and his family end up paying for his father’s beliefs? What will happen in a town where simply standing up for what is right is seen as wrong?

The book was a slow start, and J.D. Jackson’s slow drawl, while possibly accurate to the setting and time period, did not improve upon the pace of the book. Short vignettes made up the first part, and you didn’t have anything to pull you along except the superstitions of Boo Nanny until almost half way through the book. Then conflict erupts in a big way, and Moses’s city changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable the speed of which events and emotions escalate, and maybe that’s intentional as a sleepy story becomes a pressure cooker of confrontations and readers are faced with the improbability of events that are based on actual history. As Barbara Wright reveals in her historical note, “In the twentieth century, the story of what happened in 1898 was largely forgotten by the white community and barely mentioned in history books. That changed when the North Carolina General Assembly created the Wilmington Race Riot Commission to look into the incident. The commission’s 2006 report, which includes photographs, maps, and charts, can be found at http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/1898-wrrc.”; (296) This presentation gives a whole new perspective of racial tensions, and it reminded me of my reaction to the American Girl series featuring Marie-Grace and Cecile, when I learned of pre-Civil War affluent African Americans.

While it probably deserves a place in African American and Black History Month bibliographies, I keep coming back to the almost laborious pacing. Give this book to patient readers, and reassure them that action happens if only they stick with it.

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