Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Booked by Kwame Alexander

This book-in-verse (or is it verse-in-book? novel-in-verse? or a novel inverse? or inverse novel? I shouldn't be writing a book review last crazy week of school) about a boy who loves soccer and is dealing with the divorce of his parents. Kwame Alexander can pound out images and rhythms that will make you beat through the pages like a drummer. While "Crossover," the 2015 Newbery Winner was on basketball this one is on soccer. Except the sport takes back seat to the power of words as Nick Hall learns to use them against teachers, parents, wooing a girl, and friends at school. He says he hates words since his dad is a professor and "verbomaniac" who has written a dictionary he's making Nick memorize. But Nick likes words. If he didn't he wouldn't fling around words like "limerence," "codswallop," or "ragabash". This story might leave you with "onomatophobia", but it sure is a heck-of-alot of fun.

Twelve-year-old Nick Hall daydreams in class getting the teacher's unwanted attention. He uses words in a clever way to charm her on to Team Nick before using the same technique to get a girlfriend. Although shy and scared of girls, his words come through for him in the end. His mom and dad are splitting up and he goes through grief as his athletic mom leaves to train horses in Kentucky. When he expresses how upset he is he finds the power of words to bring his mom back and find some equilibrium in a rough time. Cody is his soccer friend who he joke-brags with they are on rival soccer teams and will play each other in a prestigious tournament. When things fall apart, the rapping librarian hooks Nick onto reading and a book club where he discovers books help him articulate what he's going through in his life at the moment (and win the girl of his dreams).

The end doesn't tell the reader what was in the mysterious dragonfly box. A dragonfly symbolizes change and self-realization which is Nick's character arc in the story. If I had time I'd look into rappers. I'm sure the author is doing more with the verses than I can tell but I'm on a break away - I have a parent waiting for this book at the circulation desk and I'm trying to write this as fast as I can. If I shoot this review over the goal or you think it is ragabash, that's why.  (Ah... I see on my labels/tags that I usually use novel-in-verse. Long day.)

5 Smileys

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Ozge Samanci

This graphic novel is well done, but I'll have to send it up to the middle school library as it is too young adult for elementary students. Ozge Samanci's minimalist illustrations and dry sense of humor make this an excellent look into what it was like growing up in Turkey. The heart of the story is about Ozge trying to figure out what she wants to do in life and the difficulty of trying to live up to her father's expectations and imitate her brilliant older sister. She recounts the political and cultural upheavals growing up and the dangerous culture she lived in. A near rape, prejudice from extreme ideologies at school, and fierce competition of trying to make it into prestigious schools make this a page turner. Ozge never takes herself too seriously though and the humor and lightness balance out the dark incidents. A terrific read.

Ozge grew up in a middle class family with two parents that were educators and nonreligious. They raised Ozge to be strong and wanted her to have a good job. Getting into the top high schools and universities was competitive and difficult. Ozge chronicles this difficult journey that show flaws in an educational system many will relate too. Her path of self-discovery follows first in her sister's footsteps and she fails, next she tries to follow her father's path and fails, and last she tries to follow her own heart and fails. She never gives up and finds, with the help of family and some loyal friends that help tutor her through her classes so she can pass, that she is able to discover her passion for drawing. It is the failures and resilience to learn from her mistakes that are a part of Ozge's journey of discovering what she wants to do with her life - something we all can relate to. She is one brave person that is easy to cheer on as she works through issues.

The author does a good job explaining the different leaders of the country and how they affected her country. A funny bird crops up on many of these pictures with some wisecrack comment. She shows the leaders saying one thing but doing the opposite in private while the bird hangs upside down on the president's speech bubble saying, "Liar." Later, she's trying to get the courage to tell her mom about her teacher's corporal punishment of all the students in the classroom and the bird is making light of the incident. Ozge is a strong-willed girl willing to stand-up for herself. She's a bit of a loose cannon as a young kid and her yellow hair that shoots out all over the place reflects her high spirits. There are pictures of her friends with rock star posters in their bedroom and Ozge has Jacques Cousteau because she's going to be a famous diver. Later, she humorously "talks" to Poster Jacques trying to sort out what she wants to be in life. The page where she is suspended for speaking her mind at school and criticizing the play chosen for the theater production is a hoot. The close-up photo of the suspension letter with her miniaturized and sliding down its folded edge off the page with the bird and its speech bubble saying, "Bye," is one of my favorites. I'm sure you'll find your favorites too.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Jon Klassen (Illustrations)

This story is bound to no particular time and place and reminds me of Aesop's fables with its moral at the end. A lack of setting is common in fables and allows readers to relate the moral to their own place or situation. Sara Pennypacker's book, "Pax," uses this technique. It is set in a place where humans are at war and the animals are victims as much as the people. When Aesop was in Greece he used the fable to voice his opinions that were leveled against those in power. Here the fable is leveled at adults in authoritative positions or that control children. Several characters reveal the choices they make in life; whether they choose right from wrong and recognize when to take a stand against a person or institution. While I found the start hard to get into, I did get engrossed once the character, Vola, was introduced and the book's style became clear. This is definitely original and Pennypacker has great sentence fluency. Her turn of phrase and word choice shows an author that knows her craft. The rich layers of meaning will lead to many discussions.

Twelve-year-old Peter is forced by his dad to abandon his pet fox when his dad enlists in the war. The two are on their way to grandpa's house who is going to care for Peter while his dad is gone. Once Peter arrives, he runs away determined to retrieve his fox whom he has had for five years just after his mother died. The three-hundred mile journey to retrieve the fox is full of obstacles. Peter gets help from a woman, Vola, who has abandoned the world after serving in a war twenty years earlier that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. The voices alternate between Peter and Pax, his fox.

The lack of setting and slow character build-up made me slog through the beginning. I didn't really figure out that I should be reading it as a fable until page 66 when the gray fox makes comments about humans being careless in war and destroying animals in the process. It is also a coming-of-age book as Peter loses his childhood innocence making decisions on his own and contemplating the effects of deceit internally and with Vola. They discover the difficulty of facing the truth about themselves. The author shows the adults as being "war-sick" and destructive toward animals and humans. Peter's dad abandons him just like Peter abandoned his fox.

Peter's loss of innocence is shown from the fox's point of view. He tells the female fox, Bristle, about how Peter has become false-acting. He tossed a toy deceptively getting Pax to think they were playing a game but then drove off in the car. However, Pax makes a point to tell Bristle that Peter is not war-sick like the adults. He is not full of hate or anger  and wants to destroy, but can show love. Peter knows it was wrong to let Pax go like that and while he recognizes that his dad didn't give him a choice he feels guilty for not standing up to him and insisting Pax stay. He is trying to make it right.

Peter's point of view shows him learning to live without the fox and face his grief and guilt over losing his mother. Peter blames himself for an accident he had with his baseball bat the last time he saw his mom. This parallels Vola's story of grief and loss as well. "He was becoming foxless, something he'd hadn't been since he was seven years old." Losing Pax was like losing his mother all over again. He and Vola both help each other deal with their losses. 

There are many symbols in the book from the Phoenix to the marionettes to the names given the characters or words spoken. The wooden bat was the most powerful one for me with its imagery of hitting, acting as a crutch, bringing him joy in a sport, and made of wood like the marionettes. He and Vola are like Geppetto and Pinnochio in their carving shop. Much of the storyline follows the destructive path of anger and how it can be productive if directed in a proper way. Vola tries to help Peter understand the difference as he feels that all anger is destructive and tries to hide from his own true feelings rather than face it. The story has great character development along with symbolism even if the setting confused me.

Fables convey an idea indirectly rather than specifically and this is evident in the moral that is stated at the beginning, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," and the end, "Sometimes the apple rolls very far from the tree." The idiom means that children are like their parents. The moral is children do not have to be like their parents, as well as, shows that all humans can make a choice in their attitude. The men in Peter's life choose to be angry and undemonstrative. They choose to hit rather than hug. Peter consciously chooses to love and knows what it means at the end when he gives his pet freedom. The desire for freedom is universal and has fueled many wars. While I struggled a bit getting through this, it was worth it in the end.

5 Smileys

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

The personal anguish of being uprooted and sent to a prison-like internment camp are captured in the character of a young Japanese girl in Lois Sepahban's debut novel. Manami is forced from her home in Bainbridge Island, Washington with other Japanese during World War II. She has no idea what is going on when they leave and sneaks her dog with her under her coat. When soldiers force her to abandon the dog and she arrives at the internment camp, she is traumatized by the event and becomes mute losing her dog, her voice, and her home.

The author targets young readers and simplifies the story focusing on Manami and her internal turmoil. The subplots regarding the forbidden romance between two teachers, the riot at the camp, and residents and not developed or elaborated much. Manami doesn't know why she is at the camp and seems oblivious to the war which didn't ring true. The author shows that Manami's parents don't tell her anything, but wouldn't she hear about it at school? As a 10-year-old she would at least know about the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese. She arrives at the camp as an incredibly clueless person. The short choppy sentences reflect a younger person and also one that is from a bilingual home, although this is never stated in the story. I found the story somewhat slow with little character development, but I think students will like the thrust of a girl's grief over losing her pet and home.

3 Smileys

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner

I made the mistake of reading this book thinking it was fiction, but it is historical nonfiction. Because it takes place in the 12th century there is not much dialogue. Sixty pages of footnotes including the dialogue the author show the difficulty of mixing fact with legend, but Turner handles it well. She adds her own humor making this adventure story hard to put down. I'll be surprised if she doesn't win some nonfiction award.

I got lost in the story once I stopped looking for a fiction narrative. The story begins during the time of Japanese history when the samurai took control of the government from the Emperor, making the royal family more of a figurehead than the controls. Two samurai clans, the Taira and Minamoto, fought for control with the Taira taking the emperor hostage and brutally chopping down rivals. They let the baby Yoshitsune survive who lived with the monks before running away as a teenager to become a samurai warrior. His legendary, reckless military tactics helped his brother overthrow the government in a civil war that lasted five years. Yoshitsune was a brilliant strategist and won some critical battles defeating the Taira clan, but he was arrogant, headstrong, and politically ignorant alienating top commanders. His brother,Yoritomo, felt threatened by his popularity and other commanders fed his suspicions.

The legend plays out like a tragedy with the brother, Yoritomo, gaining complete power and sending assassins to kill Yoshitsune who ironically was the reason he had so much power. Yoritomo's suspicious nature and fear of losing power led to him killing off almost all of his loyal followers throughout the years leaving his family and relatives unprotected after his death and easily killed by rivals. This reminds me of Stalin who killed off those closest to him and any who questioned his policies. Yoritomo was an excellent politician who gave into his fears once he became all-powerful.

Yoshitsune was critical to winning several battles as a hit-and-run commander. He'd lead small bands and cause chaos among the enemy. He was a skillful horsemen and had good fortune on the sea driven by confidence. However, his lack of naval experience later in life caused him to make a critical mistake at sea that cost him the chance to rise up against Yoritomo. Throughout his life, Yoshitsune's impulsive, arrogant attitude made him fearless in war but showed he did not have the political experience or foresight to determine possible moves by his enemies. He didn't seem take notice of who he angered or slighted as his superiors and in the end this cost him his life.

History shows different definitions of heroes in cultures. The Vikings hero was a loyal, courageous, aggressive, and scornful of death. They dominated in military strategy on the seas. The samurai were courageous, not afraid to die, and excellent swordsmen. However, the Taira clan was best at sea and the Minamoto clan was best on land with horses. Yoshitsune used this to his advantage in warfare. Samurai were not loyal and would switch sides easily. The society had stratified classes with the commoners at the mercy of those in authority over them. They did not have rights and the samurai, wealthy, and elite had no problem killing commoners in their way in their quests for power. Students will like this book with its focus on martial arts, warfare, heroes, and conquest.

5 Smileys

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

This is my first pick of a Newbery contender book for 2017. Kate DiCamillo's crafting of stories is brilliant and this one will not disappoint fans. Here is a tale where each reader will take away different meanings from themes, symbols, and motifs. This is more fairy tale than anything else with its terse chapters and familiar tropes, but it is also a mixture of historical fiction and adventure; a story that shows how the female characters (both young and old) suffer and are wounded from loss, poverty, abuse, and abandonment in everyday life. These characters need a Florence Nightingale in their life, founder of the nursing profession, and the book protagonist, Raymie Clarke, decides to read to old people in a nursing home. Florence Nightingale walked the battlefields with a lantern looking for the wounded during the Crimean war; the children in DiCamillo's story need a light in the darkness as well, to heal their wounds suffered from abandonment. Better yet, they have to find the light or reason for their existence within themselves. Raymie searches for it and finds that she is stronger than she thinks and that she can rescue others and herself, even if her prince (aka dad) isn't coming home in this fairy tale. The three young girls choose to bond with each other and find happiness in their new friendship. This story is full of hope, healing, and sadness.

Ten-year-old Raymie Nightingale has a plan. She is going to enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest because her dad has just run off with a dental hygienist. Her plan is to win and once her dad sees her picture in the paper, he will miss her and come home to her and her mother. He is such a "skunk," he even left without saying goodbye. Not that Raymie acknowledges this. Her inner monologue is innocent and shows a young person that doesn't quite have life's experiences nor the vocabulary to express how she feels. Her understanding is always just out of reach and with each adventure she has with her new friends she steps closer to self-understanding. To enter the contest, Raymie needs a talent as well as perform good deeds which leads her on some crazy adventures with her two friends, Louisiana and Beverly.

*Spoiler alert*
Raymie meets Louisiana and Beverly at baton-twirling lessons. All three are entering the contest and need a skill, except Beverly's mom made her enter the contest even though she didn't want to, which makes Beverly one angry swan, hissing and lashing out at everyone around her and determined to "sabotage" the contest.  Louisiana is malnourished from living in poverty and has "swampy lungs". She's afraid of ending up in a foster home as her Granny doesn't have an income. She's hungry all the time and faints before the first lesson even starts. Beverly slaps Louisiana because that is "what you do" with people who have fainted. The adults in Beverly's life use physical force to make her do what they want and she feels angry at their abuse. Later when Raymie learns her mom punched Beverly in the face for shoplifting, Beverly explains she is going to live on her own and take care of herself. The adults have failed her in her life. Her dad left and her mom is angry at working in a low level job and having to raise her daughter by herself. Beverly's lonely and tough, but she shows a compassionate side when she holds Alice Nebbly's hand in the nursing home when Raymie and Lousiana are afraid of the screaming old lady. Raymie admires Beverly's fearlessness. Beverly's strong personality shows her fighting for control in her life by stealing, sabotaging, and lashing at adult authority. She admires Bonnie and Clyde, probably the most romanticized outlaws in history, and wants to be a criminal like them.

While this is set in 1975, it is more of a fairy tale than historical fiction. The few historical facts create enough background such as Ida Nee's green shag rug, batons, a wood-paneled station wagon, and references to Looney Tunes , Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Gunsmoke, and the Flying Wallendas. I would argue the story is more like a fairy tale than a historical fiction novel. In Jack Zipes, The Original First Edition of the Brothers Grimm, he exposes common themes in fairy tales such as kings who often renege on their promises and exploit children, authoritative people who abuse their power over common people, or children who are brutally treated or abandoned, to name just a few. Fairy tales show the socioeconomic context of the common folk who have little or no control over those in more powerful positions. The fairy tale is a way to point out injustices by poor leaders and try to create change. The transformative power of the fairy tale has evolved over the years reflecting issues in society today. Kate DiCamillo reflects this with the focus on divorce and abandonment and the lack of voice children have with adults due to not being able to express themselves or as in Beverly's case unable to stop the abuse.

Fairy tale characters tend to be innocent or simple-minded, but are actually quite smart - similar to Raymie. They are aided by either magic from objects or people in their pursuit of justice and happiness. Mrs. Sylvester is like a fairy godmother as Raymie seeks her out when she needs protection and comfort. Her candy corn jar is like a magic wand, because in her own words, Mrs Sylvester likes to feed people and the swans by the lake. In the Brothers Grimm's, "The Six Swans," there are six brothers that are changed into swans by a wicked stepmother. They are rescued by their sister who can't speak and must knit them magical shirts to break the curse and return them to their human form. Raymie describes Mrs. Sylvester as standing in the middle of the swans with a "...big bag of swan food in her arms, she looked like something out of a fairy tale. Raymie wasn't sure which fairy tale. Maybe it was a fairy tale that hadn't been told yet." Kate DiCamillo is creating her own fantastic fairy tale with Mrs. Sylvester as someone who feeds the hungry and abandoned such as Raymie and her two friends. When Raymie asks her about her dad leaving with another woman, Mrs. Sylvester says that she believes "most things work out right in the end." She believes in fairy tale endings and suggests Raymie can choose her own happy ending.

Raymie can't go to her mom to discuss her dad leaving because her mom is depressed and can only focus on herself; hence, Raymie seeks out Mrs Sylvester. Raymie's mom is not presented as a villain, just a person completely derailed by her husband leaving her. Raymie has become invisible to her mom who is self-absorbed with her own suffering, just like the old people are presented as invisible in this story. Mrs. Sylvester is also compared to the cat, Sylvester, in the Looney Tunes cartoon but her voice sounds like the big yellow canary named, Tweety Bird. She's like a hybrid cartoon. The cat, Sylvester, in the cartoon tries to eat Tweety Bird, but obstacles always prevent him. Sylvester the cat is always on the losing side, just like Mrs Sylvester who still works for Raymie's dad. Like a good fairy godmother, Mrs. Sylvester not only comforts and feeds but it is she who suggests Raymie read to residents at a nursing home to fulfill the good deed requirement on the contest application.

Fairy tale references are scattered like dust throughout the story, not to mention the style with its short, terse chapters and lack of background detail. Fairy tales jump right into the story and that's exactly how this starts making the reader puzzle out the beginning. Louisiana refers to the contest money, "...There's one thousand nine hundred and seventy-five dollars to win. ...That's a king's ransom."And when she tells Raymie her secret about Archie she begins, "Once upon a time..." Raymie thinks Isabelle looks like a "fairy godmother" and describes Alice Nebbly's scream as sounding like a troll from the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Louisiana thinks Ida Nee looks like a sleeping princess in a fairy tale. She reads Florence Nightingale by slamming the book shut and opening it anywhere. She makes up her own stories. The girls can write their own ending. She calls the lantern a "magic globe" like a fairy tale. Raymie ponders wishes in fairy tales and how they don't turn out right. "Wishes were dangerous things" and she thinks Beverly is smart to not wish. Beverly doesn't want to get her hopes up only to be let down later.

Motifs from Hans Christian Andersen's, "The Nightingale," are throughout the story as well. The fairy tale is about a nightingale that sings in an amazing voice for an emperor but is replaced by an automaton. When the mechanical bird breaks the emperor becomes deathly ill. So ill, that Death stands in his room. The nightingale returns and sings of hope and trust driving Death away. All the girls are filled with joy when they hear the janitor's bird sing just like anyone that hears the nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. Louisiana is determined to free the janitor's bird because it is trapped in a cage and she wants it to be free. The symbolism of cages as a form of oppression whether they are self-made or imposed by an outside force is common in literature and here it adds depth to the characters predicament. Much of the story is about rescuing people. Just like Florence Nightingale rescued wounded soldiers, Louisiana rescues animals, Beverly rescues Alice, and Raymie rescues Louisiana, and their friendship saves all three.

Louisiana makes up words and stories. In Jack Zipes, "The Irresistible Fairy Tale," he explores the history of fairy tales and how they created an alternate world for the common people. A world where a person living in poverty could become a king through magic and wit. They would rule with justice and find happiness in life. Louisiana lives in an alternate world where she makes up stories as a way of dealing with her constant hunger. When she changes Raymie's last name to "Nightingale," she is implying that she can shine a light. Louisiana is always positive and adds humor to the story. The only time she loses it is when Beverly is being hit by Ida Nee with a baton and she can't rescue her cat who she feels she betrayed. Louisiana is like the nightingale bird. She has an incredible singing voice that stuns Beverly and Raymie when they first hear it. They tell her to skip the baton and sing in the contest. Not only does Louisiana sing of hope and trust like the Nightingale did to the emperor she wins the contest and has driven off Hunger or Death.

Ida Nee is described as a mermaid, mirroring the Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," who gives up her identity to be with a prince. But the prince rejects the mermaid and she is abandoned. Ida Nee doesn't seem to know her identity in the world as she keeps trophies with other people's names on them and is a nasty person. She wanted to be a champion baton-twirler, but lost out to Beverly's mom. She keeps trophie's in her house, she even has the championship one that Beverly's mom won. Ida Nee (reminds me of Ida Lee Nagger from the TV show, Hee-Haw) lives in the past and cares more about her baton than people.

Ida Nee supposedly teaches the girls three lessons, only she never teaches them. She walked away when Louisiana fainted calling it "nonsense", hit Beverly on the head with her baton for chewing gum, and slept through the last lesson. Again, in fairy tales the stories often have three lessons or trials that the character has to go through before justice is served or the curse broken. In this case, Beverly serves justice by breaking into Ida Nee's home and stealing her baton. She's getting back at Ida Nee for her abuse. The baton is accidentally left at Mrs. Sylvester's office and the end shows Ida Nee at the contest holding it and glaring at the girls. She obviously got it back and has not changed while Beverly seems to have put her mistreatment behind her in wake of her new friendship.

The theme and imagery of abandonment is well crafted. Louisiana tells Rayme about her guilt over getting rid of her cat. She uses the word, "betrayal" that Raymie ponders and repeats over and over in her head. She feels betrayed by her dad that abandoned her. Just like Raymie, the old people are presented as invisible and abandoned in the nursing home. Louisiana's grandma is so short Raymie thinks that she looks invisible. Isabelle in the nursing home is confined to a wheel chair and cannot move any more. She is angry and tells Raymie it is important to keep moving. She asks her to push her wheelchair faster and faster. Isabelle has no voice and can't get the music changed that the janitor plays at the nursing home - she has Raymie write a complaint letter, but nothing changes. She's invisible.

Abandonment is compared to hunger. The lake is described as hungry, angry, ominous, glittering, murky. A woman drown herself in the lake during the Civil War because she thought her husband had been killed or abandoned her by dying. He showed up the day after she killed herself and Raymie wonders how long does a person have to wait and when should he or she stop? She is dealing with her dad leaving and contemplating how long she should hope for him to come back. By the end it seems she's decided to move on, especially after the silent phone call.

Characters don't tell but show. When Raymie tells Beverly that her father left, Beverly violently beats her baton into the ground. Raymie doesn't know that the same thing happened to Beverly. Beverly's mother seems to live in the past and doesn't know how to discipline her daughter. She has a tug-of-war with her daughter over her baton, punches her when she steals, and wonders aloud why she has to do everything. She's still angry about her husband leaving her and discouraged by a dead end job. Abandonment can cripple the soul - another motif. Raymie discusses her feelings as "her soul" either expands in joy or disappears becoming invisible. Mrs. Borkowski tells Raymie that most people waste their souls and most of the adults in this story fit into that category. She tells Raymie about an evil seabird that suggests bad things happen to people. That's life. Deal with it. But she also tells her if she is in a deep dark hole and looks up at the sky she can see stars in the middle of the day. She's telling her to not lose hope.

The pain of abandonment on the characters is shown through divorce, death, or not saying "goodbye." Raymie makes a point of noticing that her swim teacher said goodbye but her dad didn't. She feels betrayed by him. As she repeats the word over and over she applies it to different people and situations. Beverly leaves baton-twirling lessons and says she'll never see Raymie again. Raymie thinks, "For some reason, these words felt like a punch to the stomach. They felt like someone sneaking down a hallway in the middle of the night carrying their shoes in their hand - leaving without saying good-bye." Raymie's dad left without saying goodbye. In contrast, Raymie's Lifesaving coach from the previous summer, Mr. Staphopolous, doesn't ask questions that have no answers but is a problem solver. He did say goodbye to her when he moved away. Raymie thinks of him throughout by "flexing her toes" and "making a plan." She's trying to solve this problem of feeling abandoned.

Raymie sees Mrs. Borkowski return the Louisiana's cat in a dream where the hallway looked like a "Bright and shining path" from the Florence Nightingale book. Or is it a dream? Instead the fairy tale element truly comes to fruition as Louisiana says she was lost and now found by her cat. Hope replaces abandonment through friendship and love. Beverly decides not to sabotage the contest showing how their friendship has changed her and Raymie. Up to this point all Beverly has wanted to do is "Get the heck out of Dodge," a phrase from the TV western, Gunsmoke. When Louisiana sings, "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," from the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid another romanticized tale about robbers and criminals that die in a shoot-out, the threesomes escapades as they flee authoritative figures and the confines of society, adds excitement. Granny drives a broken station wagon with a door that won't close as the group flees baton-twirling lessons like a bunch of gangsters on the lam. Louisiana and Granny turn it into a fairy tale when they are fleeing saying "Marsha Jean is the ghost of what's to come" driving fast and not stopping at any signs or lights. Later when Granny steals food from the funeral table the image of robbers from the wild west takes on a different meaning. Granny asks Raymie and Beverly to protect Louisiana. She knows that she is old and won't always be there. The three girls bond of friendship deepens with each adventure.

Ironically, Raymie gets her picture in the paper that makes her dad call the hospital. Neither of them talk and it shows the father's complete abandonment and how Raymie can't make him come home. Instead she must choose what she wants to do with her life. She wonders why does the world exist and as she is rescuing Louisiana, she seems to realize that she is strong and needs to make sense of her place in it regardless of whether or not her father is a part of it.

At the Very Friendly Animal Shelter, Louisiana rescues a dog that has been so abused the girls are not sure if it is a dog or cat. Yet it still wags its tail at the girls showing that even animals have hope to be loved and treated well. Louisiana names it Bunny because bunny's bring good luck. I used to carry around a rabbit's foot when I was growing up in the 70's. Another clever twist by the author. Louisiana  also wears bunny barrettes because she says they bring her luck. Raymie sees the barrettes when she dives into Swip Pond as Louisiana sinks and they are one reason her life is saved. The swans are by the pond as well, like in a fairy tale. Kate DeCamillo has created an original fairy tale that has so many layers and meanings that I can't write about it all. Although I seem to be trying. Don't miss this winner!

5 Smileys

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1) by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan's hilarious portrayal of the Greek gods has upstaged so many of his mortal characters in past series, that I was jumping with excitement over his latest book whose protagonist is the fallen god, Apollo. Apollo wakes up as a teenage mortal with no powers, a serious case (ee-gods!) acne, and a snarky attitude. Two thugs rob him and beat him to a pulp as he discovers he is mortal and reveals in some snappy dialogue his over-inflated ego and extreme narcissism. He's the opposite of your stereotypical hero except for the sarcasm and wit. Meg rescues him with some weird garbage wielding powers that reveal her demigod abilities. She binds him to her as his vassal forcing him to do what she wants.  She decides to head to Camp Half-Blood to explore and control her new-found powers and Apollo hopes for help from Chiron to get his powers back. Apollo slowly changes as he learns what it is like to be human. The gods have never cared about mortals - they are easily used and disposed of as a means to an end. Apollo finds meaning in what it is to have friends, courage, and kindness.  He not only atones for his past but makes peace with former enemies.

When Apollo and Meg get to Camp Half-Blood, they discover that campers are going missing in the woods. The Oracles are no longer prophesying and Olympus seems to have gone silent. With all communication down, Meg and Apollo slowly figure out what is happening to the camp becoming friends in the process. In an action-filled climax Apollo sees himself for all his conceit and decides to change. Percy, Nico, Will, Rachel Dare, and Leo make cameo appearances along with some great monsters and villains in the usual satisfying Riordan style. Apollo is a flawed character which I tend to like as there is more dynamic in character arcs.

The strong character development and distinct voices were welcome after recent books Riordan's written where characters have been sounding alike. Apollo is an ancient person dealing with being a teen. He is having an identity crisis and adults can laugh at the humor directed at them, while younger readers can relate to trying to fit-in with peers. Apollo has no conscience as a god and he takes responsibility for past mistakes with those he's cared about and lost in death. He mulls over his love life with men and women in a matter-of-fact way and ponders the terrible choices he's made; something he has been unwilling to do up to this point in his four thousand-year-old life. His bisexuality is not heavy for young adult readers. Riordan draws much of his humor on pop culture and anachronistic references. I wonder if it will date the book in the future or if some of the humor will be lost? Not that it matters. He uses other comedic techniques that keep me chuckling throughout the text.

The suspense and action are done well as always. While Meg's goddess mom is discovered, the reader never knows her dad's identity. The goofy geyser gods were funny along with Apollo's corny poem poking fun at "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by John Donne. If Riordan had written his poem in a villanelle like Dylan Thomas, I would have been really impressed. Just kidding. I had to write a villanelle for a college English poetry class and it took me forever to write a crummy one. The geyser criticizes Apollo's poem (who, by the way, is the god of poetry) and instead asks for a jingle like the Oscar Meyer Wiener song. That's more like Riordan than a villanelle. The end is a cliffhanger with lots of unanswered questions making me anxious to read the next book. Another hum-dinger!

5 Smileys

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Martian by Andy Weir

This is one of the few cases I liked the movie way better than the book. What a dull slog through scientific facts. The writing is clunky in spots and the character has no development. There is some humor, but even that couldn't sustain it for me. It is just one long survival story of astronaut, Mark Whatley, who has been accidentally stranded on Mars and survives by using science to solve problem-after-problem-after-problem. The writer sure doesn't dumb down the science and it is supposedly accurate, but it slowed the pacing and bored me because it didn't balance the technical with character development. Maybe I would have done better with the audio book.

The characters' voices started to sound alike and were not distinct, although Annie, who works for NASA, swears like a pirate or a parrot. Speaking of swearing Mark Whatley reacts to most mishaps with "I'm fucked." Not exactly beautiful writing and even that got boring. The flashback and letter transitions were not smooth at times. Most chapters with Whatley made me feel like I was reading a technical manual dense in its math and chemistry. For instance, "The regulator [atmospheric regulator] uses freeze-separation to sort out the gasses. When it decides there's too much oxygen, it starts collecting air in a tank and cooling it to 90 kelvin. That makes the oxygen turn to liquid, but leaves the nitrogen (condensation point: 77K0 still gaseous. Then it stores the O2." Once in awhile would have been fine but this is basically a book that's main character is the science itself. No thanks. This book has really high ratings in Goodreads and was recommended by someone that normally likes the same books as me, but I was just trying to survive reading it to the end.

3 Smileys

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Drawing parallels with the first chapter of this book on ancient migrations and my own personal life had me hooked from the get-go. My husband and I have migrated from the U.S. to Europe to Asia and will soon head to Africa to live and work. Our ten year odyssey is a microbe in history compared to Jared Diamond's look at migration patterns on continents 12,000 to 7 million years ago. The book is an analysis of what factors gave rise to complex human societies and the patterns that contributed to one society dominating another in history. Diamond tackles the racist response to dominance that the conquered society has inferior intellect. Touching on multiple disciplines in biology, geography, ecology, linguistics, archeology, and more, Diamond supports his hypothesis claiming society's environments and the availability of wild plants and animal species needed for domestication, as well as the shapes and orientations of the continents, are the most influencing factors on societal dominance instead of human intellect.

Guns, Germs and Steel refutes that Eurasian people conquered other societies because of their genes, but states that geography, germs, and biology had more to do with replacement or displacement of societies. Europe and the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East had significant advantages over other areas because it had the most domesticable animals and plants; an axis running east-west versus north-south allowing for crops, livestock, and tools for easy expansion; plenty of rainfall allowing for faster regrowth, and more. This laid the foundation for complex societies that replaced hunter-gatherer societies. When people in societies become sedentary and domesticate plants and animals for farming certain factors roll into motion. The extra food production creates a dense population with a sedentary lifestyle allowing for centralized political governments, metallurgy, military, religion, writing, and advanced technology. Most infectious diseases result from humans living in close proximity to animals; hence the Eurasian people had stronger immune systems having evolved over longer periods of time with animals. He then goes on to show how the isolation, lack of wild plants and domesticated animals left large societies such as the Native Americans, Incas and Aztecs at a disadvantage because their immune systems could not handle the diseases spread by Eurasians. Eighteen million Incas died from smallpox. This is just one of many examples he uses to support his hypothesis.

Jared Diamond's writing is academic and repetitive in parts; however, the text is teeming with amazing facts that blends biology and geography making it hard to put it down. I take that back. I actually had to put it down to absorb all the information. It took me two weeks to read and 12 pages of notes. Different sections will appeal to different readers. I was naturally drawn to the section regarding the Austronesian language that most likely originated with the Taiwanese Aborigines  in 3500 B.C. I live in Taiwan - it should interest me. The history of Africa and Cape Town with the invasion of Europeans in their colonization had personal interest as well since that is our next adventure. I was surprised that the botany section held my interest but this is an area of expertise for the author and his passion comes through the writing making it fascinating and a very compelling support for his argument. The section on infectious diseases and how they spread is equally fascinating along with the tales of the Spanish conquest of the Incas and Aztec nations. A terrific, complex book that I highly recommend.

Ironically, one of the criticisms leveled at Diamond's book by some anthropologists is that it shows, "geographic determinism" - a thorny issue within the scholarly community that doesn't make sense to me as an outsider. It would seem (from a quick Web search) that in the early 20th century, geographic scholars used environmental factors in racist and imperialist ways. Their reaction was to then not use environments as a way to explain human society. Diamond clearly refutes racism and examines geographic features and environments - plants, animals, climate, soil, topography, etc. and non-geographic features regarding culture and decision-making by individuals. He uses Hitler, North Korea versus South Korea and East and West Germany as examples to prove his point, but explains they don't affect the overall trends or patterns he is trying to prove in his hypothesis. These attacks seem silly and dismissive, but I'm not an expect in the field so take it for what it's worth. I think the book is excellent but dense. I would be very selective in recommending it to a high school student. I could see using chapters for essays but sticking with its dense text might be a struggle for most young adults.

5 Smileys