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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Dragon's Path (The Dagger and the Coin #1) by Daniel Abraham

I'm on vacation in Mumbai, India and need some light reading. This satisfied the need with lots of action, entertaining characters, and a sound plot. This isn't a particularly complex novel and some of the plot is left hanging to tease the reader into the sequels. Some plot elements were a surprise and some were predictable. The multiple viewpoints reminded me of the Game of Thrones and the author was an assistant to G.R.R. Martin so it isn't surprising to see similarities. Probably the most unusual thing about this novel is how the author goes into great economic details of the fantasy world he has created. I thought this was the most interesting aspect of the book.

The Prologue is not completely played out in this novel and hints about magic, but for the most part the story does not involve magical elements. The focus is on political intrigue in the courts that is a bit simple plot wise and a girl, Cithrin, setting up a bank in a trading port. The chapters have alternating points of view. Cithrin's point of view involves commerce and the struggle to rise to the top. Marcus, as a character, protects her and finds some redemption in it. He doesn't change much inside except in fondness toward Cithrin. His character has no hope in the world and lost interest when his wife and daughter were murdered in front of him. Geder, the other character, is a pawn in court politics. His character got muddled for me at times. I thought he'd be more traumatized from his decision at the city of Vanai. 

There isn't a lot of fighting action. At least not like the ruthless action found in Game of Thrones. You won't get that in this novel. Cithrin's character outshines the other two and was more completely developed than Geder or Marcus. She's a banker and the plot twists were the most surprising in her story arc. The book ends on an exciting audit. That's right. Pretty creative writing when the author can make an audit interesting. An entertaining book while I travel, although I've read 2 adult books in a row and am ready to snarf some kids books.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1) by James S.A. Corey

If I read more science fiction and had a better grasp of the conventions, I probably would have not felt like I was floating in zero gravity as I tried to blast through this book. The technical parts rusted my brain. I don't know my units of energy well enough; hence, the gigatons and exajoules along with other lingo slowed my reading down. Perhaps a weak sci-fi knowledge base is the reason the story felt choppy in spots with unclear images of characters. I mostly jet through children's books that are very succinct. This novel I thought could have been tighter. It was too heavy on the world building and not enough on the character development which the exception of of Miller who seems to be suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome. The themes were interesting, although I wanted some of the ideas fleshed out more; seems the author leaves it up to the reader to make his or her own interpretation. Overall an interesting book with some dark overtones and a mix of science-fiction, mystery, and noir.

Humans have colonized the solar system. The next step is the stars. People live in three different societies: Earth, Mars and the Belt. The Belters work rigs and haul water resources from the Asteroid Belt for Mars and Earth. All are prejudiced in one way or another toward each other, but the Belters have the harshest life living in slums with their own unique language that people from Mars and Earth don't understand. James Holden, captain of an ice-hauling spaceship answers a distress call of a starship the Scorpuli. While he and a small crew investigate the Scorpuli, his spaceship is nuked out of the sky. Holden realizes a trap was set when he finds a distress signal that had a Mars-branded transmitter making it appear to be a deliberate attack. He broadcasts the information that causes a war to break out involving the Belt, Mars, and Earth.

Meanwhile on the Asteroid Ceres, the hard-drinking Detective Miller is assigned to find the Earth girl, Julie Mao, and bring her back to her parents. She becomes a symbol of redemption for him. Julie gives Miller hope and a goal to do something good and worthwhile before a traumatic event happens that seems to push him over the edge. He seems to be suffering from depression over his divorce before the event and post-traumatic stress after the trauma of finding Julie. He becomes emotionally numb suffering from enormous guilt and purposefully isolating himself from others. He's a depressing but interesting character who goes through the most internal turmoil.

The overarching theme gets lost at times. Holden is an idealist that believes the world should be given information regardless of the consequences because people will choose to do the right thing. Miller is a nihilist who believes facts need to be pursued and information should not be tossed willy-nilly to people because they will not make the right decision. Neither character is correct and most of the tension comes from their opposing viewpoints. While Miller seems to understand these philosophical differences, Holden slowly comes to realize this fact. The other theme of the unethical acts of large-holding corporations show how no one wins from the horrors of war.

The characters swear an awful lot and I thought the dialogue was jarring because of it. Of course, I read and work with kids all the time and teachers and the kids don't swear. At least not like these characters who grew up in the Belt. It's just a heads up. They are supposed to represent the people who grew up in the Belt that meant a rough upbringing. I get why the authors did that but I didn't think it always fit with the scene or dialogue. This book was entertaining and I know I will read more space opera in the future. There isn't much in children's books on the topic.

3.5 Smileys

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things (Alvin Ho #1) by Lenore Look, LeUyen Pham (Illustrator)

I work in Asia. I can offer girls, Katie Woo, Ruby Lu, Katie Kazoo, Clementine, Starring Jules, "Call me Oklahoma," Marty Mcguire, Judy Moody, Junie B. Jones... to name a few, but boys? They get about half or maybe a third of the girl offerings in Stink, Roscoe Riley, Julian, Horrible Harry, and "The Year of Billy Miller." Add Asian American, Alvin Ho, to that boy list. He's a second grader with a great imagination and great fears. When he goes to school he can't talk. When he's scared he can't talk. He has a personal disaster kit (PDK) that helps him get through the uncertainties of life and an older brother who doles out advice on how to make friends. He goes to a therapist for the selective mute issue. Like most young kids, Alvin can't quite sort through advice properly and he makes some innocent but costly mistakes trying to enact them.

This gives Alvin an authentic voice. He plays games like a second grader from being a superheroe to building volcanoes. He's having a hard time making friends at school and when he finally does from the advice of a brother, he isn't sure he likes being a part of "the gang." There is a nice message tucked in the action regarding following the crowd and when people are making decisions that actually hurt others. Alvin must decide whether to stand up to a bully or not. This is a subtle bully. He doesn't do super nasty things, he just manipulates people to serve his own interests not really caring about others. The older reader sees the bully's insecurities while Alvin just sees someone he doesn't want to be friends with.  Alvin realizes that his other friend, who is a girl with an eye patch and short leg, is actually a lot more fun to hang out with than "the gang."

The author goes inside Alvin's head and has him think thoughts that a second grader wouldn't be able to articulate but what comes out of his mouth is age-appropriate for the most part. I appreciate a book that tosses in humor for me, the adult; however even though the cursing in Shakespeare was unrealistic, I laughed hard. A second-grader wouldn't be able to pronounce half those words much less remember them. I might have been able to buy it if the author had use a few but the therapist episode had too many curses. In the end, I didn't care and I don't think kids will either. It's a terrific way to introduce one of the greatest English dramatists in a kid-friendly way. Maybe in high school a kid will quote Shakespeare's curses to his English teacher then blame it on Alvin Ho. Toss in the mix that Alvin knows how to use tears with adults when he's in trouble and loves it when his dad calls him "Son" making him feel important and you have a clear picture of a second-grader with all his insecurities, joys, and playfulness. This book has been popular with our grade 3-5 students and now I see why.

Fountas and Pinnell Service: Q
Reading level 3.8

4 Smileys


Saturday, January 18, 2014

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

The first time I tried reading this book the voice whooshed over my head. I didn't get it. I didn't like the second person narration. I wasn't sure who was talking and who was the character. In all fairness I had a hamster-like day teaching six classes, coaching after school, then wheeling off to the gym for a relaxing elliptical workout while reading this book. Some books are not meant to be read while multitasking, so I settled for a piston-pumping brainless workout deciding to give it another go in the morning. I'm glad I did. This Scheherazade-type tale warranted my neurons to be fully charged and alert for it is one clever piece. It is not a book for everyone. You might not like the point of view. You might not like the self-help literary style Mohsin Hamid cleverly imitates. But once I stopped moving and focused, I laughed pretty hard enjoying the smart passages, structure, and choice language that shows an author who is willing to take risks in order to create a completely different type of novel. I thought it was brilliant, but you might not. It is as much about the literary process as a narrative about a man who grows up in extreme poverty to becoming filthy rich.

*spoilers*
The second person point of view might be troublesome for some because it erects a barrier of superficiality that can keep the reader emotionally detached from the characters. The mocking and laconic voice of the narrator and protagonist are alienating. The protagonist's take on significant events in his life such as marriage, children, and divorce are more of a footnote in his pursuit of wealth. But this is the point of the book. The protagonist is rich in money but lonely in love and meaningful relationships. He does feel an obligation to his parents and takes care of them, but only in a monetary way. He does the same with his wife at one point expressing regret for not reciprocating her love. His son is the only person he seems genuinely attached to and "pretty girl" although he says that he doesn't spend much time with his son because he works all the time. Whenever the protagonist starts to question his actions, he stops himself and redirects his inward thoughts toward his sole purpose in life which is to make oodles of money.

Mohsin Hamid's choice of using the superficial structure of the self-help genre creates a powerful satire that reinforces the overarching theme that pursuing only riches in life leads to emptiness, rather than connecting with others or "going beyond oneself." Hamid intentionally withholds literary details commonly found in most novels such as not naming the setting or any characters. The main character has dedicated his life to becoming rich and the wry prose shifts from a narrator addressing the reader as a separate person to the character within the story. Hamid creates a narrative within a self-help framework because most books in this genre are written in second person point of view.  In an interview, Hamid explained that he wanted a real narrative within an unreal frame. He also said his second person choice was influenced by Sufi poetry.

The unique literary structure is apparent in the first chapter that has the narrator pointing out that a self-help book is an oxymoron because you wouldn't be reading a how-to get rich book if you knew how to get rich. This is followed by musings on the circuitous nature regarding the self-help, self-improvement, and religious genres and right in the middle of the paragraph the protagonist is introduced as being so sick he could die. The next sentence suddenly shifts to conjure images of Western goods found in most American households: chocolate, sneakers, remotes, scooters before switching to make clear that this a poor boy in Asia has hepatitis E, a deadly virus transmitted by "...fecal-oral. Yum."  The parents can't take him to the doctor and it is unclear if he will live. The narrator then shifts to the mother's thoughts and father's thoughts in humorous observations on life. The mother's boredom of doing the same job over and over captures a universal truth: "But done for hours and days and weeks and years its mild discomfort echoes in the mind like muffled screams from a subterranean torture chamber. It can be borne endlessly, provided it is never acknowledged." The ironic commentary of how your mother, the younger woman waits for grandma to die as the grandma waits for the younger woman to age really hooked me into the voice of the narrator. "The other women of the compound would be frightened of your mother were it not for the reassuring existence of the men. In an all-female society your mother would likely rise to be queen, a bloody staff in her hand and crushed skulls at her feet." The son admires his mother's spirit and is sad when illness robs her of it. The discombobulating shifts in voice took me a few pages to get used to, but once I did I really enjoyed the literary structure of the plot.

The boy who just about dies at the start of the story spends the next hundred pages going from pirating DVD's to building a successful water company that brings him much wealth but not happiness. His world is corrupt and he must work so hard to keep his wealth not realizing until the end that true joy is connecting with others through love. This is the same message in the subplot involving a character called, "pretty girl." The two have come from desperate beginnings in a rural village where most die young and making money in the city means the possibility of living a long life. But this comes at a cost. It isn't until they are old that they discover that love and working on relationships takes courage. Mixed in this narrative is the narrator (or author) who implies that literature and the act of writing also takes courage and that the reader and author are co-creators of the story that is meant to awaken some truth within the reader. The last chapter of the book brilliantly and humorously captures this notion. Titled "Have an Exit Strategy," it symbolizes the character's death or exiting from the world, as well as the reader exiting from the story. The narrator addresses the reader as creating the story with him and creating meaning from it.

Self-help books make people aware of the relationship between the reader and writer and this book reevaluates the concept many times: "It's in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it's approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm." The theme of this book made me think of a quote by C.S. Lewis, “In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth -- only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” The story ends with hope not despair. And while it does shows the social difficulties facing developing countries from corruption, poverty, and economic development (it reminded me in parts of "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers"), it also transcends any specific place allowing the reader to make his or her own world and determine his or her own truth in Hamid's nameless global city.  For me, I was reminded of not holding on tightly to a job, money, or place. How about you? What truth will you find?

5 Smileys

Monday, January 13, 2014

Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry

The van ride was abuzz with students flipping back and forth between a collage of languages: English, Chinese, French, Singlish. Speaking in multiple languages for these high schoolers is like breathing. For me it is a reminder that I am a monolingual foreigner living in a different culture. I feel like a child looking through a window pane at a lush candy display case. Chocolate candy, that is. Yum. I see the candy and people inside but don't hear them. Even immersed in Chinese culture it is difficult understanding customs. That is what makes this book so amazing. The author, who is an outsider to the Pacific Northwest Indians, creates a story that makes it seem she is Native American. She captures the traditions, economics, society, and religion and uses rich language to develop a character that speaks to any young girl no matter what her nationality. Not an easy feat in a book that is less than 200 pages.

Pearl Shaw was honored and highly regarded as the daughter of the best whaler and weaver in the Makah tribe during the 1920s until being orphaned recently. Her world is rapidly changing as Native American traditions and way of life are being threatened by foreigners overhunting whales and mill industries expelling pulp and paper pollution that is poisoning rivers and depleting salmon populations. The Makah have to find different ways to earn money and many are heading toward cities, factories, and dangerous timber jobs. Pearl is not sure what she wants to do with her life and muses, "I would have to learn something of value now that the power had gone out of my name." When a trickster tries to con her villagers out of their natural resources, Pearl realizes that she must be the storyteller or voice of her people preserving their traditions and rich past.

*spoiler alert*
The controversial messages in this book could take on a preachy tone, but the author avoids that trap with understatements that are more powerful than lectures. When the con man wants to celebrate with her family by drinking whiskey, Pearl reveals a repeated saying by her uncle, "Whiskey was invented for the purpose of stealing from Indians." That loaded sentence reveals a painful past full of the exploitation of Native Americans by foreigners. One of the few times there is a speech of some sort it is laden with wisdom and hope. Pearl's grandma spoke at the potlatch,"I believe the whales have seen the greed of the big whaling ships. They have gone deep, they have taken my son, our finest whaler, with them. They will wait in the deep for men to change their ways. And we will wait with them." She continues to exhort the listeners to honor the whales even when they are gone. "For I believe, I do believe our whales will come back to us one day." Adding strain to the community was a law banning the practice of the potlatch, a gift-giving feast where lavish gifts were given or destroyed and reciprocated. Pearl explains how another tribe was not able to reciprocate after her tribe gave them most of their goods, adding to their lack of food. By disrupting the potlatch, the government disrupted the Native Americans economic system. 

Some of the transitions between chapters were confusing and I lost my sense of place. I had to go back and reread some sections, such as when it looks like Pearl is going to take the canoe and follow the men after the potlatch and then doesn't. The Pitch Woman is mentioned as some scary person that kept Pearl from going off into the night but the story isn't revealed to the reader. The author says in the notes at the end that she didn't explain the Pitch Woman or the Timber Giant story out of respect for the Native Americans and feeling that they are not her stories to tell but theirs.The reader gets the gist that it is a Boogey-man type story but I was confused not realizing it was to scare Pearl into not going after the men. I can't ever recall an author purposefully weakening their story out of respect for a culture. This act shows tremendous empathy for the Makah people and their traditions. Perhaps she could have invented her own story to strengthen the chapter.

The characters are distinct from each other and easy to visualize. Pearl describes cousin Charlie as a "hunter of applause." He is a bit lazy, yet good at entertaining and assessing people. He sees that the white man doesn't understand that his grandpa wants him to observe him making a mask so he graciously offers his seat directing the adults in a way that makes everyone not be annoyed with each other. Henry, the oldest cousin, is kind and willing to bend traditions when changes mean the best option for the family. He's not afraid to publicly disagree with others, but isn't disagreeable in the process; hence, people listen to him. Pearl is less diplomatic and more blunt but she's so good at observing others that the epilogue suggests she learns how to be a leader herself and like her father, she finds strength in the stories of her heritage.

The author shows Pearl's grief over the death of her parents from anger to sadness. Pearl is angry at her Aunt Loula who has never lost any member of her family and who criticizes Pearl's lack of talent at basket-weaving. Pearl hangs onto a shell of her mothers and rubs it whenever she wonders what her mother would have done in a difficult situation. In a moving scene she releases the shell into the ocean so her father can find it in case he is alive underwater with the whales and needs a sign of sacrifice from her. She is moving toward the comfort of the memory of her parents found not in an object, but in her mind.

The prejudiced shown toward the Makahs is seen at the department store and theater. The girls at the counter paid no attention to Pearl and her cousin, Ida. At the theater a mom blatantly got up and moved when Pearl's family sat down in the aisle. Charlie poked fun by imitating a snobbish woman resulting in his family laughing off the shunning. Minority groups all have stories about being looked down upon. I have my own overseas stories. I, too, choose to laugh. But sometimes it is hard to overlook as Pearl describes at the theater: "We had paid the same cash price for a ticket, but their silent indifference said you don't belong here, as clear as shouting. Charlie Chaplin was as funny as ever, but this time I didn't laugh." Parry's story makes me think I should work harder at understanding the culture I am living in. If she can make sense of the Native Americans, then I can maybe make more sense of my surroundings in a Chinese culture. Whether I'm successful or not it doesn't matter. I just need to work harder to open that window pane and crawl into the cultural candy shop.

Reading Level 3.9 (a bit low)
4 Smileys

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Shadowhand Covenant (The Vengekeep Prophecies #2) by Brian Farrey

My older brother latched onto certain phrases growing up. "Cool," with drawled out "O's" lasted the longest, but a close second was, "numbnuts" - a phrase hurled at any warm being that he considered a dork. I've been overseas too long and dunno if kids still use that phrase, but it came to mind while reading the riot of made-up words that this author creates for his characters to use with each other. Jaxter Grimjinx's friends and family use phrases like "zoc," "tevrok," and "naff-nut," to name a few. The later reminded me of my irritating parrot-like brother prattling "numbnut" at me while growing up. Whatever your word of choice, you'll laugh your "naff-nuts" off in this sequel to the "Vengekeep Prophecies." Er... that sounds naughty. I'll leave the wordplay up to Brian Farrey. It's been a long day and my jet-lagged brain is still "naff-nutty"; side effects of a recent 14-hour-time-change-trip over the holidays. But seriously, I love this guy's writing. He's funny. He has good plot twists. The world building and magic are sound. The characters are engaging. The villains are complex. He's really quite talented and I can't wait for the next book to come out. If you liked this one, make sure you read book 1. It's terrific too.

The Shadowhands are master thieves that are so secretive no one knows who they are in the Five Provinces. The most complicated heists are attributed to them. Jaxter's family finds out that the Shadowhands have been disappearing and set out to solve the mystery. Meanwhile the High Laird has imprisoned the Sarosan people for no apparent reason causing turmoil in the Five Provinces. Jaxter gets mixed up in the politics as an apprentice to the Dowager who is the High Laird's sister. As clues reveal that the two issues are inexplicably linked, Jaxter works to solve the mystery that leads him on a quest involving monsters, magical-traps, friendships, and betrayals.

Jaxter's character arc involves him contemplating whether or not he wants to be an apprentice to the Dowager. He does not love the assignments that he's been doing with her as of late and wants to focus on botany. This message might capture for some readers the frustration of having to take courses or learn subjects they could care less about. For me this message made me think of the jobs I have had that I didn't particularly like or the ones that had no future. At the end when the Dowager talked about Jaxter's initial enthusiasm as an apprentice and how it got lost, I thought about how that can happen in a job or life in general. It is important to not grow stagnant, embrace the uncertainties of the future, and continue to grow and learn as a person. Jaxter realizes this at the end of the story and matures as a result.

Jaxter is a kindred spirit. He's a clod. I have fallen down steps, walked into trees, fallen out of trees, dangled from chain-linked fences and have such a history of clod-dom that my empathy and joy in finding a character with the same traits is easy to understand. Jaxter makes me laugh out loud and not feel so alone in the world. Add him to my small, but beloved "Kingdom of Clods" secret character list. Except Jaxter is wiz-bang smart. I'm not. I'm just good at doing flips. Intentional or not. Jaxter doesn't have to be a super-duper athletic, because he has magical plants that heal him. The plants have the power to overcome magical elements in the Five Provinces and do much more than just heal. Farrey cleverly works them into the plot creating a believable fantasy world. I find myself looking forward to one of Jaxter's new plant concoctions meant to defeat a monster or magician. Good fun.

Language is a joy for Farrey and it shows from his witty, made-up ancient par-Goblin language such as, "Aeris vul heshla noressa laneer" which means "scratch the gold to find the tarnish"; to his creation of the poetic young warrior bard, Holm, who uses poorly-worded couplets in dire circumstances; to Jaxter's parents ironic comments that are the opposite of what you would normally tell your kid such as, "Don't worry, Son. It's just the feeling of innocence. It'll pass." Put in some interesting plot twists and unique magic and you have a story that's a blast. Farrey leaves readers with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Purr. Toss in a teaser at the end and you'll be "naff-nuts" for the next book.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell (Illustrator)


Flora Belle Buckman would have been a great character in the comic strip "Peanuts" by Charles Schultz.  But rather than saying "Good Grief" all the time and failing at everything she did like Charlie Brown, she would have been the self-proclaimed cynic whose favorite line would be "Holy bagumba!" Flora loves words and shows a weariness resulting from her parents divorce. This odd dichotomy of cynicism and hopefulness reveals a sad yet warm girl struggling with loving the people around her. While this sounds somewhat heavy the story is laugh-out-loud funny with rapid-fire episodes that satisfied the imaginative, hyperactive kid in me. It's not for everyone. Be prepared for lots of silliness, a superhero squirrel, and nutty characters that try to figure out what is important in life.

Flora's mother, Phyllis, is a romance novelist who neglects her daughter and doesn't know how to tell her she loves her. She shows a doll-like lampshade more love than Flora who pretends it doesn't hurt her feelings because she is "a cynic" that doesn't feel anything. It's obvious she does though. When Flora observes her neighbor, Tootie Tickham, being pulled around the yard by her Ulys­ses Super-Suction, Multi-Terrain 2000X vacuum cleaner that she can't control, and that is about to suck up a squirrel, she screams to Tootie to stop. Sadly, Tootie doesn't hear Flora and the squirrel gets slurped into the machine only to get pulled out minus fur and enhanced with the superpowers of great strength and being able to think like a human.

Flora names the squirrel, Ulysses, who shows unconditional love, flies, and types poetry. Her nagging mother can't stand that Flora adores the squirrel. Phyllis also hates Flora's obsession with her favorite comic, “The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!” and its companion, “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!” Flora filters life and makes decisions based on the comic all the while chanting, “Do not hope; instead, observe” in an effort to squelch her hurt feelings over her parents painful divorce.

When Flora's dad, George, picks her up for his day to be with her, Phyllis, hands him a bag and shovel instructing him to kill the squirrel. Instead, the mild-mannered George takes Ulysses and Flora out for breakfast at the Giant Do-nut shop. Chaos ensues when the squirrels flies into the waitress's hair causing George to laugh for the first time since his divorce. "Holy bagumba," he cries and as the day goes on George finds so much joy in Ulysses, Flora has hope that maybe he'll be happy again.

When Flora returns home, her arch-nemesis mother still has murder on her mind and Flora teams up with Tootie Tickham's blind nephew, William Spiver, who sounds like a walking encyclopedia using big words and exhibits an unwillingness to see Ulysses superpowers. William Spiver is in the dark both literally and figuratively. His aunt Tootie insists that he is not blind, but he acts that way because he is grieving over the death of his dad and remarriage of his mom. His new dad wants to call him Billy and this makes him retaliate in a way that gets him banished to his aunts. Adults oftentimes don't respect kids wishes regarding names which can lead to all sorts of frustrations. When it looks like Flora will lose Ulysses to death just like he lost his dad, he is no longer blind but can see. It seems to symbolize him facing the changes in his life and moving forward.

The illustrations by K.G. Campbell are brilliantly interspersed in comic strip form that add humor to the text. The beginning pictures show the vacuum cleaner sucking the pants right off the legs of Tootie Tickman's husband before gulping down the cleaner's instruction manual and a cereal box. A pantless husband holds the door open to the yard telling Tootie the vacuum cleaner is multi-terrain while she is getting propelled sideways as if it is jet-powered. The text bubble reads, "And that's how it all began. With a vacuum cleaner. Really."  The madcap fun continues at a galloping pace as text and illustrations keep coming from the slippery horsehair couch, the headless Mary Ann lamp, the pyscho cat, Mr. Klaus, to the watery-eyed Dr. Meescham from Blundermeecen. As Flora would say, "Holy unanticipated occurences!"

Reading Level 4.3
Fountas and Pinnell: U 
5 Smileys

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Loveable prankster, swift-footed thief, and reformed delinquent were childhood skills honed by Louie Zamperini who eventually channeled his energy into pursuing a dream of running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was set to be one of the first runners to crack the four-minute mile, but World War II cancelled the 1940 Olympics and Louie became an Army Air Corps bombadier. Stationed in Oahu, he survived a combat mission that left 600 bullet holes in his plane. While on a rescue mission in 1943, his plane crashed killing all but three crew members and he spent 47 days surviving in a raft. His ability to find ways to catch fish and work on keeping his mind sharp showed his strong desire to live. His athletic skills also helped as he seemed to have more energy than the other two starving men in the raft.

When Louie and the pilot, Phil (the third man died), are fished out of their raft it is by a Japanese enemy ship who sends them as prisoners of war (POWs) to the notorious Omori and Naoetsu camps. There Louie is tortured by Mutsuhiro Watanabe who took sadistic pleasure in endlessly tormenting prisoners and who said in an interview that Louie was number one on his list. Louie's thieving and fighting skills he learned as a youth helped him survive the starvation and violence of the camps. When the war ended, Louie got married but suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and becoming obsessed with vengeance against Watanabe. Louie found peace with the help of his wife to live a full life filled with joy and courage. This inspirational story about one man's fight to overcome extreme suffering is one heckuva page-turner.

While in the raft adrift, Laura Hillenbrand cleverly shows the men discussing Louie killing an albatross like in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ballad, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," although the reader has to be familiar with the poem to understand the imagery. The poem is about a sailor who killed an albatross in bad faith and was cursed to wear it around his neck as a result of his actions. The mariner's crew died from his actions and his guilt takes a toll on him psychologically. He roams the earth telling others about what he has done as penance and becomes wiser from the ordeal. Some have compared it to a salvation story. When Louie kills the albatross on the raft for food it foreshadows his horrible experiences as a POW in Japan. It also shows his guilt of surviving the plane crash while the rest of the crew died. As a POW, Louie will be psychologically stripped of his humanity as well as physically abused. Eventually, he learns to find salvation or peace in religion and telling his story as a speaker after the war.

The author mixes nonfiction facts while creating characters' personalities. Louie is larger than life. His flaws are not the focus and even felt rushed at the end when the author talks about his drinking and marital problems. The focus is on Louie's strengths and fortitude so it makes sense that the author would gloss over this part to some extent. The overarching message is to inspire and show that anyone can overcome struggles and suffering in life no matter what the person is facing. Some might not like the interspersing of facts and want more emotion, but I found the facts fascinating and the data showing how much the odds were against Louie. He had one unbelievable incident after another. Statistically speaking, he should have died many times over but didn't. Whether that is due to God or luck it is up to the reader to decide.

The facts also helped me remove myself from the violence. The psychological toll of being abused at the POW camp was brutal and I sometimes resent books where I feel that my emotions are being manipulated. I have friends who love to read books and cry. They want that. I don't. Depending on your tastes, you might find the facts dry. I also admire Hillenbrand's verb choices. She's a terrific writer and good at description and details. She is also one who understands suffering. She has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Vertigo that is so severe that she once spent two years unable to leave her house because she was so sick. It is easy to see why she was drawn to Louie's story. Louie is 96 and still alive. He was still running at age 81. Truly an inspiration.

5 Smileys


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chains (Seeds of America #1) by Laurie Halse Anderson

I never paid much attention to epigraphs in books. I liked them as much as epitaphs. Just kidding. I always have to look up "epigraphs" because the definition of "epitaph" has been in my "brainpan" longer than "epigraph." Never mind. I'll leave the wordplay up to Laurie Halse Anderson who is much better at it than me. (Brainpan is one o her many fun words.) Her beautiful writing swims with in-depth characterizations and historical details that bring this story to life - not to mention that the epigraphs are nice foreshadowing and provide an alternative viewpoint on the British-American conflict in the 1700's. The first person point of view comes from the protagonist, thirteen-year-old Isabel, a black slave whose kind master of many years has died and freed her and her sister. The problem is that the lawyer left town leaving nothing about their freedom in writing. When the man who inherited the house arrives, he doesn't believe Isabel is free and sells her and her sister to abusive owners, the Locktons. The Lockton's are Loyalists sympathetic with the British and not the American Patriots as New York becomes a hotbed at the start of the Revolutionary War. Isabel doesn't care. She has one thing on her mind. Freedom. When she seeks out the British she learns that the freedom they are fighting for is not the same as the freedom she is fighting for.

The cruel Mrs. Lockton is bent on breaking Isabel through fear and physical abuse giving Isabel a war of her own with a new master. Mrs. Lockton is hit by her husband and at the start of one chapter is a poignant epigraph about the misery of an "ill-sotted" wife. It shows that she is "chained" - so to speak - to her husband who beats her. She must hide the fact from the world for divorce was not an option back then. And like so many people who are abused, she transfers her oppression and frustration on her slaves, Isabel and Ruth, who are powerless to strike back. Isabel realizes that Mrs. Lockton's fears have shriveled her soul making her a bully like Mr. Lockton. Mrs. Lockton's reaction to Ruth's epilepsy is unsurprisingly full of superstition and fear; although I wasn't sure how much was fear of the disorder or fear of what others might think of her if Ruth had a seizure in public.

The author's made-up words and spelling of words that sound more formalized add to the setting and character voice such as "killt," "conversating," "remembery," and "brainpan." Metaphors enrich the text too. Isabel describes her anger as buzzing bees throughout the story: "The thought of Madam putting Ruth up to auction was a constant torment, like bees darting in and out of my sight, daring me to swat at them." The symbol of chains and details such as Mrs. Lockton wearing real mouse fur to accent her eyebrows are fascinating and add to an authentic setting. The simple but powerful action and imagery of the old black man called, "Grandpa," kissing her branded cheek and telling her she will find freedom by seeking her own path and crossing the "River Jordan" suggests Isabel needs to find her own path in life and a baptism of suffering lies ahead for her and others born into slavery.

The pastor chose to not help Isabel and Ruth when the uncle sells the girls. He thought about interfering but doesn't. Mrs. Seymour does not help either. She tries but the laws don't protect slaves. The woman at the inn tried to help as well but didn't have enough money to buy the girls. The author does a good job showing how laws and no human rights gave African American's no protection. Mrs. Seymour does help Isabel forgive Curzon. When she suggests that the American prisoners should be treated well by the British so that the Americans will in turn treat the British prisoners well, she is suggesting that life should be valued along with dignity. Her concept is not the norm in war, but it does show that there are some people who have the capacity to be decent. Society can desensitize and cultivate unhealthy norms that are not questioned. At least Mrs. Seymour speaks up. It is a start in the right direction.

This story revolves around human dignity. Mrs. Lockton and the societal structure of slavery tried to take away a person's dignity. By dehumanizing African Americans and making them feel worthless, the oppressors were able to rob them of their dignity. They were not valued as a human being in society. POW's and Hitler's concentration camps did the same thing. People risked their lives so they could retain that dignity and not be passive captives. Silent rebellion was a way to gain control in a powerless situation. Isabel rebelled by doing her chores slowly or risked her life by talking back to her master. She fought tenaciously for her dignity and at great cost in physical abuse. I read one Goodreads reviewer who found this unbelievable, but I think there are many examples in history of oppressed people risking their lives to hold onto their internal dignity to validate their worth in society.

Isabel's owner taught her to read which makes her educated character more plausible along with her outspoken and rebellious ways. Just read any book on Frederick Douglass. He said learning to read exposed him to new ideas and knowledge that the institution of slavery was wrong. He rose up against it and fought for freedom his whole life. Even with the powerlessness of youth and being black, Isabel, too rose up against slavery and condemned it. I expected her to side with the British who condemned slaves, but the author does a terrific job showing how neither side cared about the slaves. In the end, their lives were not valued on the same level as the British and Americans. Isabel has no loyalty to either side. Her loyalty lies only with her sole remaining family, Ruth.

Isabel recognizes that she is debased by the British and the Americans or stripped of dignity. Neither side means freedom for Isabel. She knows this, "I was chained between two nations." The British promise freedom but they don't give it. She shows how each side looks out for his or her own interests. No one sticks themselves out for Isabel and her sister, except the woman who tried to buy her in the beginning and didn't have the money. In contrast, Isabel does risks her life to save Curzon. Hers is a generous spirit inspite of all the cruelty that has been done to her physically. She holds on to dignity with actions that show everyone has value and the right to ethical treatment. She realizes this is how she and Curzon are alike. He was the one who saw her as a person in the stocks being dehumanized. She sees the same thing happening to him in prison and helps him at great risk. Freedom for him was making his own choices or choosing his own path, rather than being at the mercy of his oppressors.

Some might find the historical facts and pacing slow in sections. Some parts of the plot do not have much action as the reader learns about the conflicts between the Loyalists and Patriots. This is necessary in the development of Isabel's character arc to understanding her definition of "freedom" and how it is different from a white person's definition. Even though I understood this, I felt that when most of the piston-pumping action finally does come, the story is over. Now, I understand why I had one person come up to me and say, "You have to get 'Forge' [book 2]." So even though the ending is wrapped up it felt abrupt because it stopped at an exciting part. I'll just have to suck it up and find that next book. A terrific look at slavery and a young girl's viewpoint of the Revolutionary War.

Reading Level 5.2
4 Smileys

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rose Under Fire (Code Name Verity) by Elizabeth Wein

"Code Name Verity" lovers will like this book that is similar with its Holocaust setting. I find that after years of reading books on the Holocaust, I find many blur together. But NOT the ones by this author. Elizabeth Wein writes great character-driven stories and this is a terrific story of survival during a brutal war. Rose Justice is a transport pilot from America who gets captured by the Germans and taken to the notorious Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. She hooks up with some Polish prisoners who were cruelly tortured by Germans in medical experiments. Rose is the only American in the camp and they protect her and even die for her because they want her to tell the rest of the world their story. They feel she has a chance to get out of the camp and the incredible bonding through horrible circumstances show how they were able to not give up on living.

Wein is an amazing writer. This book is written quite different than "Code Name Verity." It's an epistolary novel with Rose inking the pages of a notebook with the fear and trauma of surviving a concentration camp. The ending is one of hope and the belief in a better world while not forgetting the past. The plot is straightforward without the plot twists and unreliable narrator found in "Code Name Verity." Rose is a poet and the author shows her gift for poetry. My favorite was "The Subtle Briar." I'm sure you'll find your own. Wein cleverly weaves poetry as a means for Rose to stay sane. She claims it saved her life because she recited a poem while being whipped and caught the attention of the woman who oversaw the Polish prisoners that looked out for her at the camp.

My dad owned a Piper Twin engine plane when I was a kid and later a Cessna. He absolutely loves to talk planes. Planes from World War II. Planes from his days in the Air Force. Planes that he's flown. Today though, he was reminiscing about when he flew transportation for Angel Flight, a nonprofit organization that provides free plane transportation for people with medical problems who can't afford commercial flight. The character Rose reminded me so much of my dad because flying for her is like breathing. She absolutely loves it. The author must be a pilot. Her passion for planes comes through in details that are so right on I found myself thinking of my own father's love. This helped add to the authenticity of the character and plausibility of an escape.

The characters fortitude and creativity in maintaining their sanity and hope is one of the powerful elements in this story. Wein shows how everyone loses in war and makes it quite poignant in the German character, Anna Engel. I thought she was brave to try and explain her point of view and marveled at what a good job she does creating a woman who was complex and as much a victim as a victimizer. But then Wein did this in "Code Name Verity" with the villains so I wasn't surprised. The flashbacks were well done transitioning back and forth in a way that was easy to follow. She's a good study on how to write them. Like I said, she's an amazing writer.

4 Smileys