Friday, February 16, 2007

A Small Reading Frenzy

Despite the untold hours at work this week, I have been on a small reading frenzy. Partly fueled by having renewed some of my Big Ol' Stack twice already and partly fueled by the week itself: too many hours at work makes it hard to sleep even when exhausted, and snow, ice and an outdoor temperature that has barely budged above the zero mark makes curling up in a warm bed and reading till the wee hours a pretty appealing proposition. As a result, 9 books made the "does it grab me enough after the first chapter to keep reading?" cut this week.....

This is a book to sit on the shelf next to Sold and Homeless Bird and The Breadwinner, though I'm not sure what feeling would linger at the end of reading such a foursome - abject horror at the plight of young women throughout the world or a rekindled belief in the resilience of the human spirit.
As a reader, few emotions are left untouched by Copper Sun. The carefree happiness of Amari in the familiar realm of community and family - as well as the giddy rush of young love - are clearly felt in the opening moments of the novel. The excitement, pride and openness revealed in the preparations for the arrival of the mysterious visitors is also palpable - even heightened -because, unlike the people of Amari's village, the reader knows all too well the identity of the approaching strangers. The thousand unspeakable images that unfold as Amari moves from carefree young woman to slave are brutal and heartstopping - yet Draper adds no graphic or salacious details - knowing that the plain facts are enough.
I appreciated the parallel storylines of Amari and Polly, the white indentured servant. It was intriguing to see the two of them come to a sort of friendship through their mutual lot in life. I also admired the mirror image pregnancies and the two mothers' reactions. I had never heard of Fort Mose - a safe haven for runaway slaves that existed in Florida - having labored under the false impression that safety only existed in the North.
With Copper Sun, Draper has created a moving book that can stimulate much thought and discussion about both slavery and self-determination.

I truly enjoyed Blood Red Horse, so was predisposed to enjoy the sequel, Green Jasper. Sadly, I did not. The tale became a standard knights and damsels in distress story this time around. The intrigues were based as much in girlish jealousies as in historical machinations. The blood red horse was not the book's mystic soul. I missed the sharp dichotomy between the crusading Englishmen and their Muslim counterparts and longed for the "seeing a great historical conflict from two points of view" character of the first novel. It was not a satisfying read. Perhaps this centerpiece of the trilogy is just the serviceable middle child - a sort of no-frills bridge to get to the more talented and complete younger sibling? I'll try to keep the faith until Blaze of Silver is published.....

Now this one, I did enjoy. Probably my favorite Wendy Maas book to date. Even the cover is fabulous - a great visual summation of the heart of the book and not a single "portion of a teen" photograph in sight. Yes!
Jeremy is given a mysterious wooden box for his 13th birthday - a gift from his father who has been dead for five years. On the lid, his father's inscription purports the contents to be "The Meaning of Life." Quite a birthday gift, but there's one small problem: in order to open it, a series of four locks must be undone, and the four matching keys have been lost. No amount of hammering or sawing can replace the set of keys - the box is designed to destroy its contents if opened by force.
And so the quest begins. Jeremy and his best friend Lizzie set out to scour New York City in search of the missing keys with a variety of results. From locksmiths to flea markets to science labs to the home of a mysterious elderly antiques dealer, the two seek the means to open Jeremy's box and discover the meaning of life.
As you might expect, a great deal of that meaning is uncovered in the course of the quest. But there is a payoff at the end of the novel and it is worth the wait. With this novel, Maas creates a memorable friendship, a clever mystery, a small love letter to NYC, and a heartwarming message of the love between a parent and a child that transcends both time and death.

Did I mention that it hovered all week around zero here? That certainly helped provide the proper ambiance for reading The White Darkness - set as it is in the cold and brutal climate of Antarctica.
Fourteen-year-old Sym's story is an odd one. She is not popular at school, has a hearing impairment, and has recently lost her father. Her one solace is the time spent poring over books about Polar exploration - a passion she once shared with her father. Her physical and emotional isolation and her obsessive study of the antarctic combine to create an "imaginary" companion for Sym - Titus Oates, a 90-years-dead member of Scott's polar expedition team. The conversations between Titus and Sym are at once comforting and unsettling.
The most frightening relationship in the novel is the one Sym has with her "Uncle" Victor. An old family friend, Victor has inserted himself in the household in the aftermath of Sym's father's death and rules over it with his overbearing, condescending and egomaniacal persona. He shares Sym's fascination with "The Ice", which draws her to him in spite of his many notions of life that are definitely on the lunatic fringe. When a promised family trip to Paris for the weekend turns into a trek for two to Antarctica, Sym is barely disquieted - even when faced with tangible proof that her mother's being left behind was no accident. This blind loyalty to Victor was very disturbing to me -- as was the notion that Sym's mother was so ineffectual.
But the tale doesn't truly begin until Sym and Victor hook up with an extreme travel club and arrive on The Ice. Here the harsh beauty of the environment is tempered by the harsh reality of the depth of Victor's insanity. Sym must call upon all of her knowledge and on her dear friend Titus Oates if she is to survive.
A gripping book, by turns enthralling and maddening, it stays inside your mind afterward like the frozen sliver in the heart of the Ice Queen....

Yellow Star is a loving tribute to the survival history of a family. Its spare free verse sums up the horrors and wrenching choices of the Holocaust in quiet simplicity, bringing alive the voice of the author's aunt for the reader. Many scenes were echoes of other novels set in those wretched times, while others - like Syvia and her father hiding in a hand-made grave in the cemetery - added new images of suffering. Like A Special Fate and Surviving Hitler, this personal tale helps new generations understand man's incomprehensible capacity for hate and infinite capacity for survival. A significant addition to Holocaust literature.

Ah, Jordan Sonnenblick. I loved Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie. Now I loved Notes From the Midnight Driver. I loved the catalyst of the story being Alex's attempt to avenge his mother by confronting his father - only to drunkenly take out a neighbor's garden gnome. Really. What a start. I loved the "will-they-or-won't-they-oh-please-say-they-will" relationship between Alex and his best gal pal Laurie. I loved the intergenerational bonding over music between Alex and Sol. In fact, I loved the book enough to forgive Jordan for naming the judge in Alex's drunk driving case Judge Judy. Like DG&DP, this one has heart and a sense of humor along with a couple of decent life messages worth ingesting. I'm waiting for Book Three, J. S. - hope you're writing fast.

Right off the bat, I have to say that I wish I had not read the jacket info before I started reading The Green Glass Sea. I would have been happier not knowing there is a sequel in the works. As it was, any sense of closure I had at the end was destroyed.
That having been said, there was much I did like about this novel, set in Los Alamos in the frenzied days prior to the end of World War Two. Dewey is a memorable character - a 10 year old fascinated by gadgets and how they work. Her favorite outing is a trip to the Los Alamos junkyard where a wagonful of cast-offs jumpstart her visions of new machines waiting to be invented. Unlike her peers, Dewey relates more easily to other scientifically and mechanically minded adults - so when her father is assigned to work on The Gadget project at Los Alamos, Dewey's life is split between the antagonism of the other kids and the opportunity to meet and talk to some of the brightest minds of a generation. On a side note, though, I do wish Dewey had been allowed to keep at least one parent in the book -- I thought the senseless death of her father was a bit over the top.
The description of Los Alamos reminded me of the description of Alcatraz in Al Capone Does My Shirts - a closed community, dedicated to a single, dangerous occupation, where the children are left to invent their own pastimes. The description of the base and its social strata is deftly crafted, and the overpowering sense of urgency to finish The Gadget in order to end the war permeates many of the scenes. As with other novels that illuminate a place in history, the eager optimism of those involved with The Gadget takes on a darker tone for the reader who knows what genie was unleashed from the nuclear bottle there. That hindsight view raised the hair on the back of my neck in the scene where the families go out en masse to watch the first blast as if going out to see 4th of July fireworks and in the eponymous scene where the kids walk out onto a section of the desert whose grains of sand have been instantly fused into glass by the heat of the nuclear explosion.
I appreciate books that open a window onto a chapter in history. Reading about the end of the war and the bombing of Japan in a history textbook is one thing. Seeing and feeling the atmosphere in which those events unfolded is another. The first adds facts and the second provides the human connection. I think providing the connection matters most.

Sarah Dessen has a way with creating contemporary family life on the page. Her dialogue rings true, her relationships feel right, her plotlines are believable. Her novel, Just Listen , is no exception - though I do have a couple of quibbles. First, Annabel's cross to bear is pretty darned similar to Melinda's in Speak. And second, I think the book may be a bit overstuffed and as a result, a bit too long. That being said, there is a lot I did like....
I believed the "one-second-can-change-a-life" scene where Clarke is replaced by Sophie. That sudden and seemingly heartless jettisoning of a childhood friend does happen and the way Dessen plays that plotline out rang true to me.
I appreciated the interplay of the three sisters and their relationships with each other and the family as a whole. It was interesting to see them shift their perceptions of themselves and then discover that also shifted their perceptions of one another. The subplots of body image/anorexia/modeling were all interesting, but would fall under my "overstuffed" quibbling.
And of course, I mainly liked the relationship that springs up between Annabel and Owen. It is unlikely and wrong on so many levels that it has to be be a perfect match in the long run. Owen is a memorable character and the interplay with him is the flint that finally sets a spark burning in Annabel to free herself to be herself at last.
And if you are reading a nearly 400 page Dessen book, it's good to have the guy and the girl end up together. Really, really good.

I know Iain Lawrence from his swashbuckling ship trilogy. This novel is quite a departure from those watery adventures, taking place on dry land but with an eye to the heavens....
The River family is a family gripped by desires that are unlikely to be satisfied within the tiny hamlet of Hog's Hollow: safety, transformation, untold adventure, constant companionship. The longing isolates each of them - as if they are suspended in time - always waiting for the future they seek. When tragedy strikes the family, several of those heartfelt desires intertwine and take the youngest River, Danny, on a seemingly impossible quest.
I connected strongly to the time period in which this book is set (the mid-60's) and to the space fever that gripped much of the world. Like the River's clan, my family would gather to watch each space launch and splashdown on our television - captivated by the notion of men orbiting the planet and walking on the Moon. Lawrence's choice to focus on Gus Grissom as the iconic astronaut in the novel is an interesting one -- a pariah for losing the Liberty Bell 7 capsule and later burned alive on the launch pad in the Apollo 1 -- he is shown here to be the best of the best.
While at a conference in Kansas City a few years ago, I happened upon a traveling exhibit chronicling the loss and recovery of the Liberty Bell 7. As I made my way through the various displays, I recognized my own experiences of the space program as I did in this novel. I was not aware that the actual Liberty Bell was a part of the exhibit until I passed into a darkened chamber and found myself face-to-face and alone with it. Imagining what it must have taken to willingly climb into that tiny capsule - far smaller than an old Honda Civic - and be blasted into the unknown and then thrust back into the gravity of Earth shook me to the core. I stood there in the darkness, and much like Danny and Rocket at the close of this novel, cried for the bravery a fallen hero who lit the heavens and our imaginations during that Gemini Summer....

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