I did read Penny From Heaven last weekend. What a great book about family and secrets and love. I had no idea that Italian-Americans were persecuted (though why that surprises me, I don't know) but that revelation is not the core of this fine book. Having had Italian in-laws myself, so much of the portrait of Penny's father's family rang true and familiar to me. The notions of the differences between families and cultures and the realization that love is really the bottom line carries a strong and resonant message here. I really enjoyed this novel.
I also read Each Little Bird That Sings. Wow. I was one of those who lauded Cures for Heartbreak for its handling of the topic of grief and recovery, but I must offer this one right up alongside it. What a quirky, heartfelt and redemptive book!!!! I sobbed when I finished reading - it just opened up bits of my heart and soul. Comfort Snowberger is a character to keep inside forever from this fabulous, fabulous novel. Ms. Wiles, thanks for taking a painful part of your life and creating from it such a tribute to living and believing.
Going along with the death and dying theme, I also read the non-fiction book, Exit Strategy, a short-chapters style offering that proffers non-traditional concepts for funerals. It really is astonishing what options are out there -- ecological, adventure, artistic, historical. I found a lot of these notions quite appealing: becoming part of a fireworks display, becoming a lab-made gemstone, feeding a new forest. I was a bit skittish about the mummification center chapter and pretty seriously creeped out by the cryogenics lab. (Though you have to give the director credit for stating that the process "will either work or it won't.") Definitely food for thought.
In a continuing CSI vein, I read The Christopher Killer. The 17-year-old daughter of a local coroner becomes his assistant at a series of gruesome crime scenes in this first of a series of "forensic mysteries." I did enjoy this outing with Cameryn, with its odd mix of gore, humor, teen romance, detective work and musings on death and the afterlife. There's a second book out now, and I may have to check it out....
I rectified an oversight in my reading history and picked up The Westing Game. I am somewhat afraid to say it, but I really did not care for it. The odd mix of characters, the easily figured out word clues, the red herring double ending.... just didn't do it for me. Plus, I found it unlikely that a middle-grade reader would enjoy it either. It seemed to be written in a more adult style. Call me crazy, but I really did not see the "classic read" here.
I love Grace Lin's picture book The Ugly Vegetables. Its warm and loving depiction of the beauty of sharing cultures makes it a wonderful choice for children. So, I was delighted to find the back story to its creation included in Lin's novel, The Year of the Dog. Like the picture book, this novel allows us a view of a year in Grace's life as the only Taiwanese girl in her class. Lin's deft hand creates a memorable character who grows into a fuller soul by the end of the Year of the Dog. Both a window on her multicultural experiences (good and bad) and a warm view of the traditions of different culture, this, too, is a perfect choice for young readers.
Since The Great Whale of Kansas, I have been unable to pass up a book by Richard Jennings. Though I seldom had any luck interesting any young readers to enjoy them with me, there's something about them that appeals to me. I read Stink City and again, enjoyed myself and I think it might lure some of those younger readers, too. Beginning with a family fortune made from the manufacture of the world's most foul-smelling but effective catfish bait, its idealistic youngest member, his olfactorily-challenged best gal pal and ending with an over-the-top villainess and the destruction of Midwest's biggest fishing tourney, this is a wild romp and a heck of a lot of fun.
Read another title that explores the topic of school shootings and peer pressure, Quad. I appreciated the fact that there are many more than the usual suspects fingered here - it is not just the black duster-coated outcasts who are portrayed as victims of pressures beyond bearing. As a reader, I found my guess as to who the shooter would turn out to be wavering as another likely candidate would be fleshed out. When the bullets finally begin to fly (there's no doubt that the book is heading that way - the cover's not too subtle tagline of "every action triggers a reaction" being the first clue) my guess was completely wrong. That is the reason this is a worthwhile look at high school life - not because I was fooled, but because the book refuses to lay blame stereotypically.
Rosemary Wells is really something. How can the mind who has delighted millions of children (and adults!) with the antics of Max & Ruby also create a hard-hitting Civil War novel like Red Moon at Sharpsburg? Most assuredly an anti-war message, this novel also presents notions of what it is to be humane, the value of education, the potential of women's intellectual pursuits, and the real roots of lasting love. The images presented here of the carnage and senseless cruelties of a nation fighting itself are not soon forgotten - this is not an easy or gentle look at the topics at hand. But India's courage, tenacity and loyalty are inspiring and memorable. Like a nation coming back from a nightmare of its own making, the closing moments of this novel do give hope for a better future. An incredible accomplishment.
I also read How To Steal A Dog. It's amazing that this slim novel is created from the idea of stealing a dog and returning it for the reward money. That's really the entire crux of the plot. But on that plot line, O'Connor hangs so much more: homelessness, the random hits life hands out without notice, the struggle to survive, the spirit of imagination, the fallacy of appearances, and a whole cast of wonderful characters. Georgina and her desperate planning to do something she knows is wrong in order to recover a portion of the life she has lost is portrayed honestly, touchingly and with humor. It would be a great read-aloud.
I was taken by the cover of Runaround. The juxtaposition of the young girl and the classic pulp romance cover art was intriguing and once I cracked the book open, it was Sassy's lovelorn voice that kept me reading. Motherless, absent-fatherful, wicked older-sisterful, Sassy has questions about what it feels like to be in love that no one can answer. Buoyed by the "advice" she gleans from her trashy romance magazines, she sets out to learn the answers by forging a relationship with cute bad-boy, Boon. The results of which reverberate like an earthquake through her entire family. Not without a bit of ish-factor (Sassy is only 11) and not without a lot of anti-feminism (which being set in the hills of 60's Kentucky mitigates to a degree) I do think it is likely to be a book without a country on the shelves -- too old for the children's room (where I found it) and too young a protagonist for the teen room....
I managed to get through Touching Snow, but only just barely. The story of Karina and her family, new immigrants from Haiti to New York state, this is a tale of family violence that is brutal to the point of making this reader physically queasy. One of those "how much more can one young person have to deal with" novels, it is impossible not to feel for Karina and to hope for a release from those burdens -- particularly from the continual beatings. That the release comes in such an unexpected and shocking way fits right in with the rest of this difficult and wrenching tale of family evil. Gird your loins before wading in to this one.The title of Nancy Pickard's mystery, The Virgin of Small Plains, caught my eye. Following the interwoven lives of a small Kansas town through the course of about 20 years, this novel opens with the horrifying discovery of the frozen naked body of a young woman in a snow-covered field. From that moment, lives are changed and secrets are sworn that will ripple out for years to come. Eventually the dead girl's grave site comes to be known as the sit of miracles, but two of the original players are determined to provide the "virgin" with the ultimate miracle - determining who she really was and how she died. Intricately plotted and full of surprises, this is a tight involving mystery.
Sometimes, a bit of fluff is just what the doctor ordered. The little snippets of small town life in Bill Geist's Way Off the Road seemed to fit that prescription, and they are quite enjoyable. Some are recognizable as the written form of some his humorous bits on CBS Sunday Morning, while others are brand new. Criss-crossing the country from small town to tinier town, Geist uncovers such delights as a parade that stands still while the crowd walks around it, a festival on the longest day of the year when the sun sets in the exact center of the railroad tracks, and a town that has banded together to preserve a frozen corpse on ice. As wacky as it all sounds, and as humorous as the writing is, the thing that makes this worth reading is Geist's obvious admiration for the subjects of his essays. The wonder and value of the moments he spends in these locations comes through clearly and makes this a warm blessing rather than a condescending condemnation.
Between library runs, and still not having unpacked all of our books from the move, I rummaged for something to read last week and pulled out Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos & Letters which I'd had since I originally watched The Aviator. I enjoy biographies, and this was no exception. Having only known the end-of-days stories of Hughes growing up, I was fascinated by the vital, inventive spirit DeCaprio portrayed in the film. I was amazed by the tale of the poor little rich boy who eventually (at 19!) makes a conscious decision to set three bold goals and achieve them at all cost. Socially twisted, personally driven, and doomed to a completely devastating death by the same things that made him such a unique visionary, Hughes was a fascinating person. While cringing at his callous use of very young women, I had to admire his ability to rally to fight for his empire even while in the grips of nervous collapse. By isolating himself and making privacy his most valued commodity, he sealed his own fate - and yet, I was haunted afterward by the sense of potential wasted, of a soul abandoned, a human being used by the very people employed to safeguard him. A fascinating life.
And now of course, there's the big question of how to prepare for the upcoming finale of the Boy Wizard Saga. Read all the previous six in order? Read the last two to get ready for the movie and the 7th book? Oy. Just can't decide. Started Book Six last night, but I felt like a slacker. We'll see what transpires in the next two weeks, I guess! One good thing about no longer living in Library Land - at least now I run a very slim chance of someone ruining the plot before I finish it -- I'm sure no on else in my current business will even know the publication date! :)