Tuesday, December 31, 2013

From Norvelt to Nowhere (Norvelt #2) by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos is a terrific storyteller, entertainer, and teacher. He came to our school captivating students from ages 5-18 years old adjusting his lessons and zany stories for each age.  Some stories were doozers that left us with side stitches and tears of laughter such as dropping a cockroach into the sleeping mouth of his sister who got him back by locking him naked out of the house. Or skateboarding off a roof into a pool. Or maybe it was a toboggan. Or bike. After meeting Mr. Gantos it is easy to see the blending of character trait's in the fictional Gantos and the real Gantos. He's a hoot. And an amazing writer. I started to keep a writer's notebook after Gantos visited our school because he talked about the importance of writing everyday and basically inspired me to get back to writing. Six years later I have more notebooks full than I can count and I've rediscovered the fun of writing, something I lost after years of schooling. You need to read the first Norvelt book, "Dead End in Norvelt," in order to understand this story. Don't read beyond this paragraph because my review gives away an important plot twist from book one. 

This story picks up with Jack tactlessly dressing up as Spizz Jr. for Halloween. Bunny, his friend, talked him into it and Jack is pretty good at following people versus thinking on his own. Spizz was accused of murdering old women and the town is still recovering from the murders where he poisoned people with Girl Scout Cookies. Spizz has not been caught and it looks like he is back in town wanting to marry Miss Volker. Jack flees with Miss Volker to New York to write an obituary about Eleanor Roosevelt who just died and founded the town. Jack is Miss Volker's apprentice and typer because her hands are crippled from arthritis.  Once in New York, they discover Miss Volker's sister died and they have to go to Florida for her funeral. Mayhem and adventure happens on their trip south. Nothing is what it seems in this twisted mystery. 

The unreliable narrator, Jack, disappoints his mother in the first book and it continues in this sequel. Except she's disappointed in him reading comic books instead of classic novels. The author weaves this throughout the story with Miss Volker calling him an idiot for reading his comics and not learning the classic story in its entirety. This poking fun at a genre that has always gotten a bad wrap for not being "literary" is funny because it is obvious that Jack does get most of it and he acts more level-headed than Miss Volker who is acting crazy in this sequel. 

Miss Volker's over the top behavior is supposed to mirror the split personality of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the vengeance-driven Captain Ahab, except she calls herself Mrs. Captain Ahab. She's determined to kill Spizz at the cost of her human side and at times she scares Jack with her crazy talk. Jack thinks about how Jekyll and Hyde exist in all of us throughout the story; he determines that there is good and bad in everyone and it comes down to the choices made that are important and being true to oneself. He's a doofus though. He falls into a septic tank that he thinks is a bomb shelter. He gives his shoes to a person because they are dirty and runs around in his stockings, and on it goes. Jack is a great unreliable narrator who is missing a common sense gene, but who means well. He's endearing and real.
Gantos loves history and incorporates these aspects into his carefully crafted stories. He also inspires me to improve my writing, especially writing metaphors. I started copying them down, quickly realizing I'd be copying the whole book after the first few chapters. Miss Volker gives history lessons that tie in with famous people who changed their minds for the better and as a result changed the course of history. Lincoln changed his mind about slaves, but he enforced Indian reservations. Jack thinks of this as a Jekyll and Hyde trait in Lincoln. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when the black woman, Marion Anderson, was banned from singing at their headquarters. Eleanor arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial and more people heard her than if she had sung at the DAR convention. These two people worked for equality and made the United States a better place. They made themselves better people. Jack decides that this is what is important in life.

The reader sees Jack become a better person as he travels with Miss Volker. He worries about her obsession over solving the Norvelt murders and bloodthirsty ways. Jack changes in that he stops following and slowly speaks his mind and ironically shows a maturity in his thinking. He cares about Miss Volker and looks out for her. He still has his unquestioning moments like digging a grave when she asks him to. While he doesn't figure out much of the mystery, he does think about being a better person and he feels more responsible toward her. 

The author poignantly shows the Jack's parents as two people who obviously love each other but are very different. His mom is level-headed while his dad is a dreamer, pulling pranks with his plane or dropping roses from it for his mom. Jack's dad can't stay put in one place and the mom is sometimes irritated by it but for the most part understands that this is who he is and accepts his eccentricity. This book has bloody noses and death, just like the first book. Bring your tissue box. Enjoy.

4 Smileys

Monday, December 30, 2013

Steelheart (Reckoners #1) by Brandon Sanderson

I love movies such as Superman, Ironman, Thor, Transformers and their predictable formula of action and humor with a hero saving the world. Toss in the popcorn of special effects, explosions, car chases, futuristic cars, gadgets, and light romance and I am a happy muncher in the audience. Movies like this are my shot in the arm after a long work week.  I know what I am getting and am highly entertained. This book does that and more. Brandon Sanderson works with existing conventions but twists them into something fresh and original. He adds depth with unexpected themes and pokes fun at writing conventions revealing a writer who has worked hard at mastering his craft while showing the world his Epic skills. He had me quite fooled with the plot making for a great ending. And this is the first book in a series. I so like an author who writes a distinct beginning, middle, and end without chopping off the action at the end with no story wrap-up. You can dangle one or two plot elements, but I dislike being left dripping with questions. My recent rash of reading books with hatchet endings made me purr with satisfaction when I got to the end of this book. Ho-ho-ho, it's wrapped-up well.

When the red satellite, Calamity, appeared in the sky it triggered superpowers in a few humans labeled, Epics, by the rest of the unchanged population. The Epics used their powers as tyrants oppressing people and taking whatever they wanted to ensure total control of cities. None of these Epics had redeeming qualities, but David Charleston's dad believed that there had to be a good Epic somewhere in the world. When the Epic, Steelheart, appeared at the bank where David and his dad were trying to survive the killing spree of the evil Epic, Deathpoint, David's dad thought the time had come when a good Epic would rise. When it looked like Deathpoint was going to kill Steelheart, David's dad thought he saved Steelheart's life. But his dad exposed a weakness in Steelheart who in anger turned and killed him setting off David's ten year vengeance and plotting to take down Steelheart. (This is all in the Prologue so don't worry, I'm not spoiling the plot.) No one fights Steelheart except the Reckoners who go from city-to-city fighting lesser Epics. David devises a way to become a member and convince them to go after the powerful Epic, Steelheart.

Sanderson flips the superhero on its head so that they are the villains oppressing people who rise up in order to have a better life that entails freedom of choice. The Epics care only about power and do not value human life. None are good. Steelheart is unusual in that he has more power and infrastructure in his city than other ruling Epics creating a somewhat peaceable authoritarian government. Er... that's an oxymoron, tyrants aren't peaceable but if you could choose your poison then you'd probably live in David's city than another. David struggles with bringing Steelheart down because he knows that life will be bad for people in the aftermath and he doesn't know if another tyrant will take Steelheart's place. Some would choose no conflict or change over oppression and he wonders if he should he push his desires on them.

This overarching theme of doing what he believes is the right thing when it involves killing others and pursuing an uncertain future is one he struggles with throughout the story. He debates the good and bad of what he is doing and how his actions can be like a terrorist if he's not careful. When he sets out to bomb a place he questions that he's the "good guy" and explores the notion of extremists becoming just as bad as terrorists when they no longer value human life. He struggles with the violence in a post-apocalyptic world and decides to work for the idea of a future peaceful and free state. Luckily the Reckoners feel the same way as David and take precautions with their plans to avoid killing innocent people. Either way the path they took is violent and will most likely end in their deaths. David has to decide if it is worth dying for this ideal.

Sanderson works familiar fantasy conventions and tropes and makes them his own. This story basically uses the idea of a superhero who is a villain and has a weakness like Superman being immobilized by kryptonite. The theme of hiding one's weakness out of fear is not unfamiliar but I don't recall a story where all superheroes are villains. The Reckoners spend most of their time trying to figure out Steelheart's weakness when the norm in this genre is to focus on superpowers and their abilities. The message regarding Epics being consumed by power and thus losing their humanity, spoke to me as an individual. If I let myself be afraid because of a weakness then I usually make bad choices and start putting myself above others. When I make something more important in life whether that is power, money, pride, it distorts my ability to make unselfish choices. I also lose my joy.

The author is also brilliant at connecting his world building elements with the magic system and explaining them thoroughly. Some might find the details boring but I think it gives the story a solid, plausible structure. I am not left with many questions when I read Sanderson's books. This is a clue that he knows his craft well. For instance, he explains how jewelry is no longer valuable economically in David's world because there are Epics who can create gems; however, gold still has trade value because no Epic can reproduce it and the Reckoners decide to take that to fund their operations when they stumble upon a treasure hoard. I appreciate how he creates his world incorporating politics, religion, economics, and social structures. He goes into great depth which makes the actions of characters more believable.

Ever read a book where there's a lightness and silliness to it that makes it obvious the author is having a hey-ho time? David uses cliches and metaphors and jokes about it all the time. You know darn well the author can write metaphors and he's just messing with the reader making it funny. He describes some motorcycles like ninja alligators which sounds like something one of my elementary students would come up with. Abraham, a French Canadian, pokes fun at the others who don't appreciate the beauty of the French language which even though its a bit stereotypical it is funny and I have met people like that. He's not obnoxious. Abraham is actually the spiritual character who spews wisdom to the others in occasional speeches that portrays the religious inclinations of some in David's futuristic world. Some might find him preachy but I thought him necessary to Sanderson's exhaustive world building. Cody is a Scottish chameleon and side-kick to David. Cody's voice and character are quite distinct and some of the adult humor had me snorting.

The euphemisms of "sparks" and "slontze" place it in the YA/middle grade genre and made me think of Gantos "cheese-us-crust" (I'm reading his Norvelt book.) We used to make up euphemisms all the time as kids or we'd get our mouths washed out with soap by an offended adult who heard us.  The metaphors add humor and show the author playing with words. One awful metaphor David comes up with is describing a hand-blasting machine like an "unbalanced washing machine filled with a hundred epileptic monkeys." A few paragraphs later David uses a great metaphor to describe it but doesn't draw attention to the fact with the usually waving a white handkerchief and stating, "Hey... here's a metaphor I'm proud of!" He says "imagine holding a swarm of bees in your mouth, then spitting them out and trying to keep them pointed in a single direction by the sheer force of your breath and will." The author knows his metaphors. He's messing with the reader. The author also uses metaphors as a character trait in David that add humor. I'm not sure if kids will like this technique as well as I did. I enjoyed the author toying with his craft and reader.

The voice of David is funny and self-deprecating. It's also the voice of a young man who is trying to tell a girl he's interested in her and making an idiot out of himself in an endearing way. He's smart and nerdy defying the oftentimes good-looking, athletic stereotype. David was more authentic to me because of that and the comments he makes were laugh out loud at times. Not everyone is going to like this type of character. In one scene where he and Megan are going back and forth about weapons I laughed pretty hard. Megan is your stock female character however. She's gorgeous, aloof, athletic, and smart. She's his foil and it adds to the humor. Again, I felt like the author was having a hoot playing with stereotypes and then manipulating them in a terrific plot twist. This was an extremely entertaining book that makes a bunch of crazy eights with the plot. Grab your popcorn and settle in for a fun read.

5 Smileys

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Enchanter Heir (The Heir Chronicles #4) by Cinda Williams Chima

I hate cliffhanger endings. It feels like the author didn't have enough time to write an ending so he or she stopped in the middle of action. On the whole this book was lazy from the plot to the characters. It is mostly nonstop action which is why I finished it; otherwise I would have abandoned it. There is little character development and most of the factual information comes in the form of music and guitars. If you are into Stratocaster electric guitars, Dragonfly guitars, and music then you might like that aspect of the book. I was mildly interested in this focus of the plot and liked the creativity of a person having magic with building guitars. But let me back up and give a summary.

Emma Greenwood has to flee Memphis when she finds her grandfather, a famous musician, dead. He warns her to contact a person and get out of town because her life might be in danger. She takes his advice. On the other hand, Jonah Kinlock, lived through a massacre of his city as a kid where the water was poisoned with magic leaving him, his brother, and other children who survived with one-of-a-kind magical abilities. A safe haven school was established for them run by a magician who takes care of them and has Jonah hunting zombies who are attacking humans and wizards. Jonah is an assassin because of his magical talent to kill. He is trying to uncover the truth about the massacre that happened when he was a child and figure out why the zombies are working together to kill wizards. The magical guilds are pointing fingers at each other and students at Jonah's school are accused of being responsible for the killings.

Gabriel runs the school and wants Jonah to take over but he doesn't really respect his opinions. This was one irritating plot element that came up over and over and seemed contradictory. If Gabriel respected Jonah then why would he shut him down every time he tried to discuss the motivations behind the killings? Gabriel duplicitous actions contradict him making Jonah his predecessor. When Jonah gets mixed up in the killings at Emma's house, her reactions were odd at the end. You'd think she'd realize that Jonah saved her life. I didn't get why he wouldn't tell someone about the occurrence beforehand either. The plot was forced too much and seemed to lose its focus on the zombies switching too much on the romance. It stalled on the romance and didn't give any answers. When the author forgets the overarching message and leaves a messy plot in its wake I tend to forget the book quickly.

The characters didn't really develop in an interesting way. The romantic subplot had everyone calling Jonah either "pretty" or "beautiful" with an incredible body. He's the tortured hunk who can't touch anyone because his touch is lethal. I mean that literally. Not what you call an interesting character description. She did try to show his loneliness through music and that did work to some degree. It was corny that people who died from his touch had "dreamy smiles" on their face. No kidding. I laughed at that description. At least it takes a bit of the violence out of the fact that this 17-year-old kills people for a living. A more detailed explanation of an Enchanter would have been helpful. I haven't read this series in years (I did read the first 3 books) and I couldn't remember how Enchanters manipulate people. A disappointing ending, but loaded with action. I do like action ; )

2 Smileys

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Allegiant (Divergent #3) by Veronica Roth

Book 3 explains the world in which Tris lives and answers many of my questions from the previous two books, clearing up confusing parts. This story reminded me of Margaret Haddix plot for "Running Out of Time" with an unaware population being experimented on by an outside government and a significant shift from historical to realistic genre. Roth's book felt like the focus shifted from dystopia to romance, exploring the theme of sacrifice. While I liked that Tris and Tobias's relationship finally moved in a forward direction, many of the chapters end on them kissing versus some tense moment and the action slowed down. Loose ends were tied up, but I wasn't very satisfied with the ending with so many characters getting killed off and felt let down with the direction the novel took in this final installment. I understand why it went that way to flesh out the theme of love and sacrifice but I lost interest in it. The repetition of tyrants showing up in each ruling party just got old and lost its freshness. Roth does a nice job with internal character development which was enough to keep me flipping the pages. And there is action. Maybe not as much, but there's definitely fighting. I know many students will like the trilogy, but I don't think it rises too much above the average young adult books out there. Book one was my favorite and I kind of wish I had stopped there.

Tris, Tobias, Uriah, Christina, Tori, Peter, and Caleb follow Elizabeth Prior's advice and leave the city outside the fence. They discover the remains of the government and piece together information on why their city and factions were created after people destroyed each other throughout the world. While they have more freedom outside the fence, they soon discover that it really isn't much different than inside the fence. Tris decides to do something about it with her friends, but it is a dangerous and risky plan. 

Spoiler Alert*
Roth adds Tobias's point of view and uses first person narration. I really prefer third person point of view because there are so many "I's" with the first and the alternating voices can sound alike at times, especially in the scenes that involve Tris and Tobias's sexual attraction for each other. I understand that the structure of the novel needed Tobias's thoughts in the plot, especially for the ending, and I liked a different point of view. I did notice that Tris always seems right in these books and I prefer my characters flawed. She always knows when someone is lying or always makes the right decision. When she martyr's herself it should make me feel more sad that this wise and special person died, but I felt manipulated by the storyline more than empathetic with the character. It didn't make her as authentic as she could have been if she'd made some mistakes. I prefer the character that grows into a better person, not the character that seems perfect most of the time. I struggle daily with being a better person and find I connect more with those conflicted characters. This is my bias. 

The theme of labeling people and oppression is explored but again it felt like a rehashing of the faction oppressions and nothing new. People in power want to blame others for problems in society. One thing that was different was the exploration of how people not only blame others but accept the limits others place on them in society. This actually made me think of the Asian culture that doesn't really believe that you can't do something because you lack talent. Instead they believe that you are not working hard enough at the task at hand to improve. I was actually thinking of sports and how Westerners can say they have no "natural talent" at a sport and therefore are no good at it. They've placed limits on themselves without trying. I know I do that with learning a foreign language saying "I'm too old" or some other lame excuse when in reality I really have no interest learning it or putting the mega amount of time required to learn it. 

I think Caleb's point of view would have been interesting. Perhaps the sacrifice would have been explored more in depth rather than the romance. She does tie in love and limitations with Tris and Tobias having each of them believe more in the other. Tris believes more in Tobias's worth than he and Tobias believes more in her strength than she. The two bring out the best in each other and their love grows as a result. If you like tragic love stories and heroes who save the world, then you'll enjoy this series.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Insurgent (Divergent #2) by Veronica Roth

This picks up where book one left off but with more focus on Tobias and Tris romantically. They are lovey dovey in the beginning only to get into a fight because they keep secrets from one another. They reconcile, then go off and be secretive again. This happens a bit too much and became irritating at one point for me. I also prefer more action and less romance so it depends on you and your tastes. Tris struggles psychologically with killing people and it gives her character more authenticity. She's damaged by her violent actions to the point where she can't even shoot a gun anymore. Tobias realizes she's becoming self-destructive because of her reckless behavior and doesn't know how to deal with it except get so angry he leaves her. Ultimately Tris has to forgive herself and live with her actions embracing the good and bad.

Tobias, Tris, Caleb and a handful of Abnegation and Dauntless survivors flee to the peaceful Amity headquarters to see if they will help them fight the Euridites but discover they are unwilling to side with anyone. The group ends up under attack and runs to the Factionless and later Candor who are willing to fight the Euridites. The group mounts an attack while a subplot has Tris trying to find the truth that the Abnegation was hiding from everyone that is crucial to understanding Euridite's motives. She pursues Marcus in an effort to get it. I got tired of her behavior toward him. She seems to scream at him a lot. I know she's not supposed to be likable and tough but she seemed childish at the end yelling "I hate you." Actually she says that to him over and over throughout both books. Maybe its because I have heard too many little kids use that phrase. Seems like a 16-year-old would have more control over herself.

There's a few things Tris does that doesn't always make sense to me. I understand her not taking a gun when she sees Eric. She freezes with one in her hand, and grabs an alternate weapon. Later when she forgets the stun gun in the middle of a battle it was too unbelievable. The author had to have her unarmed in the final confrontation and she forced the plot to make it happen. The stun gun should have been lost in a more believable way such as fighting in the control rooms. Tris is in the middle of a war and no soldier would forget anything as important as their gun. This plot had a few too many incidents that out-of-character. There are some interesting twists that make it enjoyable but even those don't make always sense. What exactly is "outside the fence" or their factioned society isn't explained enough and the villain becomes one-dimensional at the end in that she only thirsts for power, knowledge, and control. I also thought something happened between Jeanine and Tris's dad that would explain her behavior but it doesn't. Peter gets an interesting part and I liked the twist on his character that shows more motivations as to why he is the way he is. A villain with motivations is more interesting to me than a stock villain. Perhaps Jeanine will be explained more in the final book.

This is full of action and tension but much of it comes from the romantic subplot that became repetitive by the end. Tobias and Tris keep hiding secrets from each other. It moves the plot forward but the actions are the same and out of character by the end when Tris goes off with a separate plan. They would have worked together at that point because the incident before had them trusting each other again. Plus, Tobias is reasonable and Divergent which means he's willing to see different approaches to problems. It didn't make sense that he would not listen to Tris and would blindly follow his mom, not to mention commit genocide in revenge. He was horrified over the annihilation of Abnegation and yet follows a plan that will kill Euridites. It goes against his character to kill innocent people.

The themes focus on conflicts in relationships and forgiveness tied with guilt. The end seemed somewhat of a simple explanation for the society developing into factions. Perhaps book 3 will elaborate more on the world Tris lives in. Tris spends most of the book dealing with grief, guilt, and forgiveness. Her attempts to work through it psychologically were well done for the most part. I did like the simulation where Tris has to fight herself. She'd been fighting with guilt internally through the entire book so when she physically fought herself it forced her to face her guilt and relive the moment that traumatized her. It helped her to see the incident differently and move forward a step in starting to forgive herself. An entertaining read.

3 Smileys

Monday, December 23, 2013

Divergent (Divergent #1) by Veronica Roth

A common fantasy writing convention is the child or teenager that goes through a ceremony of some sort before being absorbed by the community with a specific role. In "The Giver" it was the Ceremony of Twelve where eleven-year-olds left their parents and were given jobs in a tightly run community. In "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" there was the sorting hat that decided what dorm the students would be placed in. The dorms had names with certain character traits represented in the mascots and students. In "Hunger Games" a boy and girl are chosen in a lottery to fight in reality-like game show where they fight to the death. In Veronica Roth's novel, 16-year-olds have a Choosing Day where they take an aptitude test that determines which of the five factions they will live in. Once in the faction, they must go through an initiation and pass tests before the faction will accept them. If they don't pass the initiation they will be thrown outside the community to live like a homeless person.

The future city of Chicago is controlled by five factions that represent virtues in people: Abnegation is selflessness, Dauntless is courage, Amity is peace, Erudite is knowledge, and Candor is honesty. Beatrice is going through Choosing Day with her brother, Caleb. Teenagers take an aptitude text and learn their faction but some have multitude aptitudes and can choose more than one faction. Beatrice is rare in that she can choose between three factions. She chooses Dauntless and discovers that the pursuit of courage and bravery means winning at all costs even if it involves seriously hurting another person. Life is not precious for the Dauntless and deaths are not shocking nor sad. It is a brutal and cruel faction with members who protect the society. Beatrice likes the challenge and freedom from living a life of complete selflessness in Abnegation. She wants to have fun. Feel the adrenaline rush of jumping off a train. Take risks and be selfish. Ironically she discovers that she is most brave when she acts selflessly for another person. When war breaks out between two factions Beatrice learns that it is good to carry all the factions or virtues within oneself, rather than put more emphasis on one. 

The training that Beatrice goes through and the friends she makes reminds me of college and high school when we would do crazy things either because we were bored or hooked on the adrenaline high. Beatrice and her friends ride a zip line from the top of the Hancock building to the ground. Getting into the faction means jumping off a 7 story building into a net. Training to be Dauntless means learning to fight where the teenagers beat each other to a pulp. You'd think that was the hard part but the hardest is doing the simulations that force each member to face his or her fears. 

The author captures Beatrice's internal struggles with feeling like she can't fit in with her Abnegation family. She thinks that something is wrong with her because it is really hard for her to put others before herself. What is interesting is that she thinks selflessness should come naturally and that it isn't something that needs to be worked at. Her personality works against the faction that works so hard to be quiet, plain-looking, meek, and complacent. Children don't run around and play tag and people don't hurt each other's feelings. There is so much restraint it is easy to see why she doesn't like it.

Themes consist not only of Beatrice learning to be independent and finding her own way in life, but the ugly side to competitiveness. The other initiates in Beatrice's Dauntless faction are so brutally competitive that they go too far. One boy fights Beatrice and beats her insensible. Beatrice beats another girl insensibly out of rage. Another boy is so jealous of the boy that is number one that he stabs him in the eye with a butter knife. When Beatrice does well in the mental side of the competition several boys try to kill her. Teamwork and having each others backs don't exist in their faction. Beatrice is learning to be a killer. "Ender's Game" explores this idea of turning kids into military fighters and how they struggle psychologically with taking another life. This story doesn't go into the same depth as "Ender's Game" because of the page time given to Beatrice's budding romance and the war doesn't happen until the end when Dauntless are killing others, but it does explore the notion to a certain point. While Beatrice is not being taught bravery through selfless acts by one instructor she does learn it from another teacher. The initiation process is off kilter and it becomes apparent why by the end of the story. 

While I really loved the character development and details of the world building, the plot is not very original and follows typical conventions making it predictable in parts. The serum was easy to figure out, along with the romance, and the fact Beatrice would pick a different faction to name a few. This is the only reason I didn't give the story 5 stars. I highly recommend it and found it enjoyable with interesting themes. I also think it is a clever comment on how our society puts so much weight on testing. In this society test results determine your future and is pushed to an extreme. Our society has shifted toward more testing as well. The freedom to choose you own destiny and what it means to lose this choice in a rigid society makes for good discussion. Make sure you have plenty of time to read this book, because it is hard to put down. 

4 Smileys

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Resist (Breathe #2) by Sarah Crossan

I thought the first book had potential but lacked character development. This book stills lacks character development but the plot is absurd. Not enough is explained, the action doesn't flow well from one scene to the other, and some parts don't make sense. I had way too many questions at the end. The story starts where Breathe (book 1) left off with Quinn, Bea, and Alina being tossed out of the pod and looking for Sequoia, another oasis to get oxygen. Or is it? Jazz, Bea, and Quinn are fleeing when Jazz falls down a manhole breaking her leg so badly the bone goes through the skin. Quinn is forced to leave them and get help. Alina is with another group that is headed for Sequoia and they get there first finding out that things are not all that they seem.

Spoiler alert*
Ronan, a minor character in the first book, gets his own point of view in the chapters. He is just like Quinn. Rich boy who rejects his upbringing and never acts selfishly. He's willing to give up his wealth because he doesn't agree with the government's inequality. His motivation to change is because his father is cruel and he's traumatized from burning down the Grove and killing innocent people. The mom and sister love their lifestyle. Because the characters lack depth and are shown one-dimensionally, I am not convinced that Ronan would completely turn his back on his lifestyle. It seems more like the author is telling the reader how to act toward injustices in authoritarian governments rather than showing a complex personality in a character. Because of that, Ronan lacked authenticity for me. The point of views are all written in first person narration and if you don't read the book nonstop it can be confusing who is speaking when setting it down and picking it up in the middle of the chapter.

Vanya is just like Petra who is her sister, but more maniacal. She is not explained at all. We don't know why she gave up her kid or why she has started a breeding program or why she and her sister had such a severe falling out with each other. One of my favorite dystopia books, "The Handmaid's Tale," by Margaret Atwood explores the concept of women used for breeding. If you want to see this idea explored in a psychological, creepy way I highly recommend it. Alina is paired with the villain, Maks, and the way he is presented you would expect him to rape her, but he doesn't after the Pairing Ceremony. The women seem to be at the mercy of men physically. Bea has a rape scene too. It's supposed to show her being naive and then turning into someone with a reason to kill another human being, but if was more manipulative than in-depth character change. Many times it felt like the author was dropping in some big event and eventually so many got plunked into the plot it began to feel absurd. I realize that dystopia and fantasy push the boundaries of believability but this seemed like too much from pushing a bone back into place to escaping with a bunch of babies. When Alina dies at the end I didn't even feel sad.

I had so many questions at the ending that felt rushed. What happened to Jazz and Vanya? Why did she give up her daughter? Why did she experiment on people to breed kids who could survive on less air when she already had a process that worked with adults? Why didn't Vanya give the adults any freedom? Why would the adults agree to it? Why did Abel like Sequoia? Why didn't the author have Maude reuniting with Bea? What happened to Quinn's mom? What happened to Nimh? Don't bother with this book.

2 Smileys

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Breathe (Breathe #1) by Sarah Crossan

I've been struggling with bronchitis so you can see why I was lured to this title in my pile of to-read-for-christmas-break-books. This dystopia story has people paying for air. They showed on the news last year a man selling bottled air in Beijing. People would peel off the aluminum top, tip the can upside down and inhale deeply. That's the thing with dystopia novels, they push societal truths to an extreme in creative and thought-provoking ways. Societies all over the world are ruining the Earth's air. I have been to so many polluted cities. Even here in Taipei, Taiwan where they've "cleaned up the air" I find myself gagging on exhaust fumes daily that are trapped between the concrete buildings. Six million people are crammed between these mountains. How can the air not be polluted? Crossan explores this notion of destroying our earth's air in an action-packed thriller that sometimes suffers from character development but does not suffer in tense action scenes. Not only does she weave an environmental theme throughout the story but she explores the notion of extremist actions where even the "good guys" go too far in their zealousness and the "bad guys" are not one-dimensional.

Most of the population has died because oxygen levels have dropped too low. People now live in domes and must buy air and use portable air tanks to breath. Quinn's dad is a part of the establishment and helps protect society maintaining the status quo of humans purchasing manufactured air to live. Alina wants to be free to live outside the dome and help trees grow back on Earth to help bring oxygen levels up to a level that will sustain life free of air tanks. Bea is an Auxillary or person who must buy air and tries to survive day-to-day buying air that has many restrictions and drawbacks for the average person. The ruling elite take the best for themselves leaving a caste system that has the majority poor, unhappy, and short of air. When the three young adults cross paths, they uncover a plot that shows the ruling elite are not working to improve the environment but are working to maintain their own positions of power. The three unwittingly start a war and in the process learn the cost of being free.

The point of view switches between Bea, Quinn, and Alina. They are written in first person narration and I'm not sure why the author did this because it is awkward, not to mention I'd forget whose head I was in once I set the book down and came back to it hours later. The other flaw with this approach is the characters sound too much alike, especially by the end. Alina tries to be cold, hard and unfeeling so she is easier to distinguish at the beginning and Quinn is a guy so he was usually easy to figure out, but Alina and Bea sound alike by the end especially since Alina has allowed herself to feel emotions. I'm not sure why the author didn't use third person. Maude has a distinct voice but it is uneducated which doesn't make sense for an educated woman with a nursing degree who worked for the Ministry.

The characters change with Bea learning to stand up for herself, Quinn seeing his world and its manipulativeness, and Alina tapping into her humanity. They are too busy trying to stay alive for there to be much romance and depth. The plot sets up for a sequel and doesn't answer many of my questions. I'm hoping Abel will be explained in the next book. I wasn't sure if he was for or against the Resistance. I didn't really buy that Quinn would want to topple his government. He's such a part of the status quo, would he really go that far because he didn't think his parents loved him? His motivation seemed a bit weak to go to the extremes that he does on national TV. Usually in this type of story the character has nothing to lose. They are already on the bottom of the caste system and their life is meaningless. Quinn's is not, so it was harder to buy. The killing of certain people at the end also seemed manipulative of plot elements.  Or perhaps the ending was just too rushed. I'm not sure. Either way, it didn't sit quite right with me.

The theme of extreme behavior even when representing a good cause is shown with the Resistance. While they are justified in their actions, are they justified in treating others who follow the existing government to the point of killing them? Petra seems to represent someone who has lost the point of what the Resistance stands for because she is putting trees above human life. She has lost touch with her humanness to the point that she will kill people to protect her sanctuary. She's no better than the government who kills people who represents the Resistance. When it comes to radicalism, people justify killing and the subplot of Maude explores this theme even again among the three young people who find her. They have not lost touch with their human side and do not cross the line of taking another human life. This exploration of extremist behaviors is ripe for discussion in terms of authoritarian governments and more moderate behaviors of citizens.

Some of my favorite dytopia novels are: The Giver, Brave New World, Shipbreaker, and Hunger Games. In these stories you have a better balance between character development and action. While I enjoyed this novel and found it very entertaining, I think it falls short on character development. It is a quick read. Here's the article on the man who sold fresh air to Chinese people in Beijing. He sold 10 million cans for 80 cents each in 10 days. The truth is stranger than fiction.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Short Seller by Elissa Brent Weissman

Lindy gets mono and is stuck at home for a month. When her dad asks her to buy some stock for him online because the website is blocked at his work, Lindy becomes interested in how the stock market works. She's struggling with math and when a tutor comes to help her his background as a stockbroker makes her even more interested in the topic. When mono causes her parents to cancel her ice-skating lessons her dad gives her $100 dollars to invest in the stock market. As she makes money on her money the temptation to dip into her parents savings is too great. When the market goes down and she starts to lose money she hatches a plan to get it back. The only problem is the plan is illegal.

Lindy is dealing with changing friendships at school and back-stabbing by other girls. She moves on to other friends accepting the changes and the author captures the fickleness of middle school quite well. Lindy and her sister fight and are best friends. The two are loyal to each other when it counts and bicker over dumb things just like siblings do all the time. Already the story seems a bit outdated with the electronic equipment and TV show names. The librarian teaching the kids about what a mouse was on a computer was dumb. We haven't done that in years and the libraries have turned to mobile technology. That derogatory poke irked me but that's just because I'm a librarian.

I'm not a big fan of math or the stock market but the author did a nice job mixing the facts up with the drama of Lindy's friendships. When I started to glaze she usually shifted gears to a different topic. Enough information was given to understand what was illegal with short selling stocks without overwhelming the reader with stockbroker jargon. The courtroom drama was well-painted and a nice link between Lindy having to stand up for her friends and herself at the end of the story.

This book reminds me a little of "Cardturner" by Louis Sachar with its unique topic. While this isn't about bridge, I can't say I've ever read a book about the stock market. This doesn't go into great depth on stocks and for that I am grateful, but some might find the topic somewhat slow. I thought she mixed the facts and friendships enough to keep the pace moving along and I think I can find some of my math-loving students who would find it a fun read.

3 Smileys

Monday, December 16, 2013

Al Capone Does My Homework (Al Capone at Alcatraz #3) by Gennifer Choldenko

Alcatraz grips the imagination. An impregnable rock prison where the most notorious criminals are locked up and none have escaped. This last installment of the Alcatraz trilogy won't let readers down. The complex plot has thirteen-year-old Moose trying to figure out who and why someone set their apartment on fire. His dad has just been promoted to associate warden and others want his job. Anyone working as a guard at Alcatraz is a target by the criminals, but the Warden is the big one with the biggest bulls-eye on his back. If a prisoner takes down the Warden, he gains status with the other prisoners as someone important. Moose doesn't know if its the criminals or Natalie that started the fire. He's afraid Natalie has but he isn't sure because he fell asleep when babysitting her. When Natalie is accused of the crime, his guilt deepens and he works to try and help her overcome some issues with her autism. His adventures are nonstop as the clues are revealed. When Piper starts acting funny and money starts showing up in the laundry, Moose is at a loss as to what is going on with the prisoners.  He pieces it together but not until it is almost too late.

The depth of the characters in this 200 page novel is satisfying, particularly the subplot involving Moose trying to help his sister be more accepted by others. Her autism affects their whole family and he is frustrated that she cannot look others in the eye. This makes her look shifty and suspicious of the fire, something his friends reassure him they know she didn't do and that he feels she didn't do in his heart. He's just not sure and agonizes over it. The secondary characters are rounded out in a way that they do not come across as one-dimensional. Even Bea is explained as someone who just can't admit to mistakes. The humor and depth is balanced along with a terrific plot that is tied up at the end.

The historical aspects of Alcatraz hooked me in the story. In the "author's notes" she explains that prisoners actually did tie cigarettes to cockroaches and use breadcrumbs to lure them into their cells and hence "share" their smokes. There was also only one phone on the island and no fire escape on the apartment building.  The author says she has a sister with autism which explains why Natalie's disease and dealing with it is so authentic. When Moose wraps her in a blanket because he knows it helps her calm down, I recognized this as one of many tactics for dealing with autism. This subplot adds a rich layer to the mystery and historical aspects of the novel. I can see why it is on Newbery lists.

The plot is multilayered with many different people acting criminally. Al Capone has more of a part in this novel than he has in the others and I liked how he is worked into the plot. He even looks a bit like the good guy at the end. A coward, but still one who tried to do the right thing. This would make a good book club book and would open many avenues for discussion with the different aspects of criminal behavior. Moose's dad is a good foil to the prisoners and the contrast of bad versus good choices in life takes on meaning not only in the life of a criminal but how it can start at a young age and innocently like in Piper's case. A terrific read.

5 Smileys

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak

Lighthearted World War II stories are hard to come by. The fact that the story is true makes it even more memorable.  A group of Polish soldiers find a cub and raise it at a military camp where its shenanigans and childlike behavior make everyone fall in love with him. Voytek, as he is called, not only covers his eyes with his paws when in trouble but rocks back and forth. When someone is sad, Voytek comforts them. When soldiers need cheering up, he does handstands or drinks beer and eats lit cigarettes to the laughter of those around him. He is a ham and the resident monkey scares him to death. This big 500 pound baby is one that you will fall in love with as well.

The soldiers are a part of a transport unit and while they deliver supplies to the front lines they don't deal directly with the horrors of the battlefield. In one scene, the soldier witnesses the death of two men that leaves him traumatized but it is told after the fact and shows how Voytek helped comfort those around him. The soldiers could take care of him, pamper, and be entertained by his tricks. It took their minds off of the horrors of war and made them laugh at a time when laughter was elusive. Voytek unique skills involved capturing a spy by accident and taking long showers. He also guarded the company's equipment and helped carry munitions. He was raised by humans and acted like one.

Most of the story is Voytek's adventures at camp seeking out food and getting into trouble. There's a funny scene where he entertains a crowd of soldiers on a crane stopping work and being more daring as the men cheered him on. He could turn on showers and loved to drain the camp of all its water sitting in the shower for hours on end. He would snuggle in bed with one of the soldiers that he imprinted with when he was a cub. The thought of sleeping with a 500 pound bears is hard to fathom.

Some of the historical context might need explaining to young readers. There is one part where one of the soldiers is disrespectful toward a corporal. He's mad at him because he doesn't want the animals to come on the ship but the angry man is speaking in Polish and name-calling him the "cross-eyed" corporal because of a lazy eye. Later they make derogatory comments about the Germans and putting a dome over them and their country with their "sauerkraut." There is no attempt to put any of this in perspective and explain how the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles helped catapult Hitler to power. The Germans are the enemy and it is completely one-sided. There is also a lot of drinking and smoking which represents a different historical period when cigarettes were not looked at as a health hazard. There is plenty to talk about in this book. And laugh about.

Good for grade 5 and up.

4 Smileys

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell

Lin Rosenquist reminds me of Dorothy who gets transported to Oz, except Lin ends in the enchanted city of Sylveros, home to Petlings, animals who were once the favorite pet of a child. Dorothy's pet was the dog, Toto, whereas Lin's pet is a vole, Rufus, who is now the size of a human and can talk like one. The magic of Sylveros is fed by the wild joy that children feel when the first snowfall happens. Now imagine a Norwegian Dorothy. She's in a blue and white wool sweater with mittens, hat and metal hooks for buttons. That's Lin. At least after she gets out of her pajamas. There's nothing like being transported to another country in your pajamas only to get hypothermia from a wild sleigh ride down a mountain. Uff-dah.

Every now and then, a Twistrose, or child from the real world, is magicked to Sylveros to protect the inhabitants from destruction. Lin has been summoned and must aid the two Winterfyrsts who create snow. If they don't make snow the children's wild joy of the first snowfall won't happen and Sylveros will die out. One of the Winterfyrsts is missing and the other has gone to try and get his ice mask. The ice mask allows him to live with humans. The villain is trying to stop them from bringing on winter so he can take over Sylveros.

This story had too many waffles stuffed into the plot. I got confused as to who was doing what and why. The world building was creative and rich in details, but I did get befuddled by all the made-up words that sounded too much alike such as wandergates, scargates, silver fang, Frostfang, thorndrips, and brain tappers, to name a few. It was fun at first but then I started forgetting what each meant. The prophecy confused me too. Actually, I am not really a fan of prophecies. They have become a cliche in fantasy stories for me.

Lin is grieving the loss of her pet and moving from the country to the city away from her best friend. In Sylveros, Lin grows up and must decide whether or not she will say goodbye to Rufus at the end. This is the overarching theme for Lin but once in a while gets lost as the plot progresses. In addition, Lin's pretend games that she made up with her best friend come to life in Syveros. When she ends up being hunted by trolls it is her troll-hunting game come to life. The imaginative world of childhood play becomes real and forces Lin to look at reality or grow up as her character develops throughout the story.

The secondary characters didn't come to life for me and I wanted more character traits. Rufus is a faithful friend to Lin but never rises above that role in a memorable way. Nor does he change significantly. I suppose he gains confidence in himself and his abilities. It seemed that the theme of loss could have been explored more in his relationship with Lin. It is some, but the two jump to acceptance a bit too quickly for me. Isvan and the mother are not described enough for them to come alive. The cathedral of glass was detailed and I could envision that but the mother wasn't really described when Lin finds her. I did think the pacing was a bit slow at the start but a strong ending made me forget it for the most part.

I so enjoyed all the references to Norwegian folklore and culture. The secret codes and playfulness between Rufus and Lin will appeal to young readers. The light codes that Lin used with her friend and later by the sled in Sylveros reminded me of the secret codes me and my best friend would make up. We had whistling codes and light codes. Lin also makes mistakes that are very believable and that make her authentic as a character. There's no yellow brick road in this tale but their are plenty of icy paths. Enjoy a sleigh ride through these pages.

3 Smileys

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Ghost Prison by Joseph Delaney

My siblings and I would tent under my bed covers with a flashlight telling ghost stories, each one trying to outdo the other in telling the scariest tale. I was never particularly good at it and would have loved to have known this one to spin for them. There's even a part where the lights go out and I could have flicked the flashlight off. I'm not much of a horror genre gal but I do like Joseph Delaney. His writing tends to be succinct and full of tension and great monsters. This creepy ghost story with a twisted ending will surprise and satisfy many young readers or listeners. Perhaps it would work as a read aloud in grades 4 or 5 with the short illustrated chapters giving it a half-and-half text to picture ratio over the course of 100 pages. Depends on the class. You'll have to pull out your creep-o-meter to measure what they can tolerate.

The protagonist, Billy, is a fifteen-year-old orphan boy who gets a job as a guard at a castle. He works the night shift and learns that he was chosen because one of the castle ghosts asked for him. The castle is haunted and the guard-in-charge explains that Billy must never go through the entrance to the Witch Well for a monster lives at the bottom and no one that has gone down has ever come back up. When circumstances come about that force him to the door, Billy must decide if he will help out a guard or ignore orders. See if he survives... mwah-hah-hah! (It's so fun writing that word even if it's corny.)

The illustrations do a great job enhancing the text so that the monsters can be envisioned by a young reader working toward fluency. I particularly like the last illustration that adds a punch to the plot twist. The black and white pictures help set the scary mood and focus attention on Billy's terror. The sharp angles and splotches of black are unsettling and applied to the evil forces or nasty characters while Billy is usually rendered in black outline with the white background of the paper coming through. His face is portrayed as innocent and naive at first before looking terrorized and aged by the end.

The plot is predictable and there's no character change. Some twists were fun. It's short. The story is more of a study in writing good tension and creating gruesome monsters. This is the strength of Delaney's writing. He thinks up some of the creepiest blood-sucking monsters that I've ever read. He isn't so scary that I can't read his works and he's not so graphic that I can't stomach it. I guess in that regard it might not be such a good read aloud in a class if the kids scare easily. Like I said earlier, use your creep-o-meter to determine their temperature for horror.

I can't help myself. One more mwah-ha-ha. I have no clue how to write that word... mwahaha or mwah haha or do "h"s go in with the haha's.. no matter. Vincent Price was my favorite mwah-ha-ha'er.  Whatever it is pick up this book. It's mwah's favorite ghost story. Okay. I'll quit. Silly mwah.

This is less dense than Goosebumps or Mary Downing Hahn's ghost story books. It's closer to Rotten School but with more pictures.

3 Smileys

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Jewel of the Kalderash (The Kronos Chronicles #3) by Marie Rutkoski

Petra is trying to save her father after Prince Rodolfo transformed him into a monstrous Gray Man. The Gray Men make up Rodolfo's army and are superior to humans with their superpowers of speed, protective scales, and poisonous skin. A pinprick from a claw through human skin can kill a person instantly. The Gray Men have such a thirst for human blood they have lost their humanness and are killing machines. Petra's plan is to kidnap the scientist who created them and force her to create an antidote to turn her father back into a human. With the help of Neel, Tomik, new friends, and old friends, this entertaining read was hard to put down.

I didn't give this 4 or 5 stars because I thought the plot was more predictable and less original than the first two books. That is not to say there are no unpredictable parts. I didn't expect the martyrdom of one character. Nor did I expect the mind-link between two characters. However, Neel's assassin was easy to predict. And so was Neel's fate. What I missed the most was the world building. In the other books, Rutkoski ties in Renaissance history with historical legends like John Dee or mythical creatures like Ariel. That doesn't happen in this book as most of the fantasy world has been established in the first two books.

The book also follows conventions found in fantasy versus steampunk. I have read so much fantasy it makes the story easier for me to predict. Petra's storyline follows the reluctant hero who has turned into a killer of some sorts. Her fragile psyche is explored a bit and she is more cynical and reserved. The humorous side to her is seen less as she broods over all the traumatic events that have happened to her recently. I found this exploration of her being damaged from killing others interesting and one not usually found in plots. So often the character kills someone and doesn't think twice about it. Petra grieves about what she's done and it makes for an authentic character struggling with having to kill others. Prince Rodolfo is one dimensional and not interesting in this book. He's the Dark Lord ruthlessly bent on gaining power over land and people. The steampunk aspects include Tomik creating gadgets, Astrophil almost dying because the brassica oil needed to keep him running was destroyed, and a submarine housing a wacky scientist creating monsters.

There is plenty of action and internal changes with the characters. Neel is forced to grow up and become a leader and the author shows this transformation in him handling a land dispute with wisdom. As an orphan he does not side with factions and grows in his role. As mentioned above, Petra seems to be having some post-traumatic stress and is more withdrawn from those around her. Tomik continues to grow in his magical powers. A romantic subplot creates tension that the trio must overcome. It was fun to see some of the characters again such as Iris and Dee. Astrophil is still the mentor and my favorite character. New characters, Lucas and Zora, are spitfires in their own right and add a nice fresh touch.

The subplot of the romance didn't interest me. It seemed clear from the start who Petra preferred of the three so I never really found the situation tense as it should have been. I was more interested in the turn of events for Petra at the end and learning to be average. Seems like there's an open door to scoot through if the series doesn't want to end. The message of sacrificing oneself for the good of everyone versus one individual is explored and contrasted with other characters. Sadie is the foil to Petra's mission to free her father. While Sadie is thinking of preventing the extermination of her people, Petra is solely focused on her dad. She is forced to think of what it means to sacrifice for the group or not. Lucas and Zora are zealots who want change in the government from the oppressive Rodolfo, but their actions can be construed as duplicitous in light of Lucas's heritage. I like how Rutkoski mucks character traits and personalities to make them a complex bag of good and bad choices such as Dee and Lucas. The thread of choice and sacrifice is tightly linked until the climax where Petra has to make a "choice" with her magic. Make a choice to read this series. A satisfying conclusion to an intriguing series.

3 Smileys

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Don't expect a linear narrative that moves from one scene to the next in this story. Don't expect much dialogue. Instead, revel in a series of short episodes, intensely lyrical and metaphorical, that read like prose poetry more than a novel. Like a chain link fence, Esperanza's voice is what binds the vignettes as she searches for her identity describing how people in her community and family have effected her outlook on life. Her coming-of-age story is a quest for finding a home, a symbol of a place where she can write freely and pursue artistic creativity.

Esperanza describes her parents buying a house in a poor Chicago neighborhood when she is 8 years old. The story follows her growing into an adult before moving away. She's ashamed of the house and insists it will never be her home.  Not only does the house represent a poor neighborhood where society as a whole oppresses Latin Americans, but it is a place where women are oppressed by patriarchal Latino men. She is aware that others think her neighborhood is dangerous. She observes many women who are trapped in the home by men who fear them socializing with others. One women she calls Rapunzel because she tosses her and her friends dollar bills to go buy her drinks from the grocery store. Her husband has her locked in their apartment where she can't come and go of her own free will.

The women all have stories and most are not happy with their oppressive lives. They dream of more. Some think they can find happiness with a husband. Esperanza's friend, Sally, married as a 7th grader an older man who won't let her leave the house or talk on the phone. Sally is okay with it. Of course, her father used to beat her and her husband doesn't. Choose your poison. The traditional role of females in Esperanza's Latino neighborhood is examined over and over in the people around her and she finds it unsatisfying. Yet, the women are also tough and supportive of one another and Esperanza describes the closeness of community as well.

Esperanza observes the suppression of artistic creativity in other women. Her mom thinks she could have done more with her life if she had stayed in school.  She used to like to draw.She borrows opera records from the public library and "sings with velvety lungs powerful as morning glories." Her dreams are unfulfilled and she talks to Esperanza about it while making oatmeal. When Esperanza describes Minerva, a girl who is a few years older than her with two kids and a husband who beats her, she says that the two exchange poems, but that Minerva's life is hopeless. She is "always sad like a house on fire." Esperanza resolves to not have the same fate as women like Minerva and her mom and a home symbolizes this goal.

A sub theme of shame pervades Esperanza's observations. She notes that shame holds a person down. She says that she's ashamed when her family goes driving to look at houses that they wished they owned. She's tired of looking at things she can't have. A house would give her an identity. A house would rid her of her shame. A house would be a place to write. A house would mean freedom from a fate where self-expression is limited and men rule. A fascinating look at multiculturalism, feminism, violence, creativity, and self-identity.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

I was a bit miffed that this was on the Goodreads Newbery list - number 24. Here's the first line: "My mother's a prostitute." I was also miffed at myself for not looking more closely at the details while brainlessly ordering books for our school's elementary library. My loss, the high school library's gain. Grrrr..... to the person who put it on the list. Grrr... to my undetailed brain. Seventeen-year-old Josie has had more than her fair share of grrrr's... in life, fending for herself as her mom works as a prostitute and trying to take care of herself on her own. Neglected and homeless, Josie is helped by Charlie, a famous author in the community, who gives her food and a roof over her head. She works for him in his bookshop and cleans the brothel where her mom works to make a living. Rather than being tarnished and bitter by her upbringing she is surprisingly level-headed and morally upright. The brothel staff looks out for her and young and old men are interested in her for different reasons. While the story is well-written and the setting of the French Quarter in New Orleans vividly portrayed, I was bothered by the stereotypes and lack of authenticity regarding the plot's controversial topic of prostitution.

Josie wants to go to Smith College out east where no one will know that her mother is a whore and that Josie works for Madam Willie, owner of the biggest brothel in New Orleans. She's tired of being ostracized by classmates and pressured by male customers of the brothel who expect her to follow in her mother's footsteps.The bookstore gig is her second job where she manages the shop along with Charlie's son, Patrick, since Charlie has lost his mental capacity and can't take care of himself. They hide the fact from the world not wanting him to be put in a mental institution. One day at the bookstore a man comes in and inspires Josie to go after her out-of-state-college dream. When he winds up dead the next day a mystery unfolds that involves her mom and the mafia. Things don't go from bad to worse, they go into the gutter turning to sludge and pushing Josie into taking desperate measures to save those she cares about in her life.

The writing is terrific. The author knows how to write dialogue and use tension. The plot was unpredictable in many ways. I thought it was going to be a mystery. Then I thought a romance. Then I thought historical. It's more of a coming-of-age story than anything. Josie finds independence and strength within herself to strike out on her own. The mother is stereotyped as the dumb, insecure woman consumed by vanity and lacking in morals. Her mom is a thief, abusive, and a liar. Josie keeps wondering why she can't help loving her. The only reason is that she's her biological mother. The author doesn't show a side to the character that causes the reader to empathize with the mom. The book, "Turtle in Paradise," also has a mother who can't take care of herself much less a child. But I could see why the protagonist in that book loved her mother. She had some redeeming qualities that showed how broken and insecure she was as an adult causing an inability to take of herself and her daughter. That doesn't happen in this book and the mother comes across as one dimensional and stereotypical.

Charlie and Josie play a game where they guess the book genre a customer will ask for when they come into the shop. The literary references by the twosome add nice details to their relationship and shows that Josie is well read. This adds to the credibility that she will be able to get into a college. The subplot of two boys interested in her shows her as not being aware of herself as a physical attraction to the opposite sex. She seems strangely naive about the teenage boys interested in kissing her. In contrast, she can tell when men from the brothel are interested in paying her for sex and is outraged. This inconsistency didn't jive with the expected savviness of girl who'd grown up around prostitutes.

The woman presented as prostitutes come across as stereotypes like Josie's mom. Madam Willie is developed the most as a character who tries to protect Josie and give her the life she didn't have. The lawyer hints that Willie was abused as a child, but there isn't enough explanation to pull her out from the cliched smart, crotchety Madam. She never came alive for me. In a great scene where the two are blasting cans off a fence, I kept waiting to find out more about Willie's history, but it doesn't come. The prostitution is presented as horrible and Josie has a scarlet letter for associating with them. Older men treat her like a prostitute and actually want to be her customer, but book doesn't delve into economic factors or class structure that forced these women to choose their current careers. At least Josie's mom wanted to break out of it and go to Hollywood. However, she's presented as such a puppet she doesn't bring any depth to her character. I cringed at the stereotypical African American driver who loved the Madam's black Cadillac. He's a great character and looks out for Josie like no one else. I just wished it had been a different car type. .

Josie is a symbol of purity versus corruption that just doesn't quite work. Usually when innocence is contrasted with the uglier side of nature I find the topic infused with tension and the dynamic interesting. While Josie is presented well, the prostitution side was not and that's where the novel doesn't quite reach its potential or come together in a satisfying way for me. The ending with the money solving all Josie's problems watered down the message as well adding another brick to my dissatisfaction-over-certain-issues pile. I also would have liked Josie looking at other college options rather than solely focusing on an ivy-league school. People can break out of poverty without an ivy-league education. At least the resolution of her college pursuit is realistic. I think most young readers are not going to notice the stereotypes and will like the subplot that has a touch of romance. This is a page turner. Josie is tough and vulnerable and I was engaged with her character development. An entertaining read that made grrrr... at some story elements.

3 Smileys