Friday, April 30, 2010

A Great and Terrible Beauty

Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Delacorte Press, Random House
Copyright: 2003
Genre: YA Historical Fantasy

At the turn of the century, in 1895, Gemma Doyle, who has lived in India all her sixteen years, is sent to a boarding school in London after the strange death of her mother. But it is in the Spence Academy that things start getting really strange. Along with the visions that Gemma has, and is warned not to have by a mysterious character, Gemma has to cope with the normal issues of a new girl at a new school. But normal gets overturned when the most popular girls induct her into their circle, and they form a secret group called the Order, taking the name of a group connected to the "occult." Events spiral out of Gemma's control as she learns horrifying things about what happened in the past and the girls get pulled into something that is much stronger than they are.

Gemma is an obnoxious brat, especially at the beginning of the book, but I loved her. Although she lives in the nineteenth century, she has characteristics of any normal girl. (Actually, the author gave her and other characters personalities that probably fit more into today's world than back then, but it works because of the odd happenings of the story. Bray addresses this issue in the interview at the end of the book.) All the characters come alive, each with their own issues and problems. At the beginning of the book, when Gemma first gets to Spence Academy and tries to fit in, the interactions of the popular group with the rest of the school sound like they could be happening at any high school today. And though the specific issues each girl has are exclusive to the time period in which they live, the girls' feelings and the way they deal with them are timeless.

The plot of the story is intricately woven, littered with tantalizing clues and bits of information that lead you on and keep you breathless. Every piece makes sense, but is just confusing enough to make you read farther to find out what on earth is going on. The farther I got into the story, the more I suspected every character of being involved with the enemy. And though I had begun to suspect something of the truth, I was utterly shocked at the revelation when Gemma finds out the truth about what is going on.

The present tense used in the book adds to the immediacy of all that happens and makes you feel as if it's happening right then. The one problem I had with the book was that there was a little confusion at some points because of the tense, like when Gemma has to reflect on something that had already happened. But the present tense and first-person point of view drew me into the story and  almost made me feel like it was happening to me.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a really great ride, with twists and turns and complications and surprises. I'm definitely going to be reading the rest of this series! I can't wait to find out how Gemma deals with all this and how it all turns out.

Thanks to Misty of Misty's Book Mess for reviewing this book. Great review!

Top 100 Children's Books

 This seems to be a popular book-blog feature, so I figured I'll jump on the bandwagon. Here is a list of the top 100 children's books, with the ones I've read in bold. I think 57 out of 100 is a pretty good number, don't you? I found it interesting that the ones I've read are clustered at the bottom of this list, which is actually the top of the list. There's a reason those are the "top" books!

100. The Egypt Game - Snyder (1967)
99. The Indian in the Cupboard - Banks (1980)
98. Children of Green Knowe - Boston (1954)
97. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - DiCamillo (2006)
96. The Witches - Dahl (1983)
95. Pippi Longstocking - Lindgren (1950)
94. Swallows and Amazons - Ransome (1930)
93. Caddie Woodlawn - Brink (1935)
92. Ella Enchanted - Levine (1997)
91. Sideways Stories from Wayside School - Sachar (1978)

90. Sarah, Plain and Tall - MacLachlan (1985)

89. Ramona and Her Father - Cleary (1977)
88. The High King - Alexander (1968)
87. The View from Saturday - Konigsburg (1996)
86. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Rowling (1999)
85. On the Banks of Plum Creek - Wilder (1937)

84. The Little White Horse - Goudge (1946)
83. The Thief - Turner (1997)
82. The Book of Three - Alexander (1964)
81. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon - Lin (2009)

80. The Graveyard Book - Gaiman (2008)
79. All-of-a-Kind-Family - Taylor (1951)
78. Johnny Tremain - Forbes (1943)
77. The City of Ember - DuPrau (2003)

76. Out of the Dust - Hesse (1997)
75. Love That Dog - Creech (2001)
74. The Borrowers - Norton (1953)
73. My Side of the Mountain - George (1959)

72. My Father's Dragon - Gannett (1948)
71. The Bad Beginning - Snicket (1999)

70. Betsy-Tacy - Lovelace (1940)
69. The Mysterious Benedict Society - Stewart ( 2007)
68. Walk Two Moons - Creech (1994)
67. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher - Coville (1991)
66. Henry Huggins - Cleary (1950)
65. Ballet Shoes - Stratfeild (1936)

64. A Long Way from Chicago - Peck (1998)
63. Gone-Away Lake - Enright (1957)
62. The Secret of the Old Clock - Keene (1959)
61. Stargirl - Spinelli (2000)

60. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - Avi (1990)
59. Inkheart - Funke (2003)

58. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - Aiken (1962)
57. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 - Cleary (1981)
56. Number the Stars - Lowry (1989)

55. The Great Gilly Hopkins - Paterson (1978)
54. The BFG - Dahl (1982)
53. Wind in the Willows - Grahame (1908)
52. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007)
51. The Saturdays - Enright (1941)

50. Island of the Blue Dolphins - O'Dell (1960)
49. Frindle - Clements (1996)

48. The Penderwicks - Birdsall (2005)
47. Bud, Not Buddy - Curtis (1999)
46. Where the Red Fern Grows - Rawls (1961)

45. The Golden Compass - Pullman (1995)
44. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing - Blume (1972)
43. Ramona the Pest - Cleary (1968)
42. Little House on the Prairie - Wilder (1935)

41. The Witch of Blackbird Pond - Speare (1958)

40. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Baum (1900)
39. When You Reach Me - Stead (2009)
38. HP and the Order of the Phoenix - Rowling (2003)
37. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Taylor (1976)
36. Are You there, God? It's Me, Margaret - Blume (1970)
35. HP and the Goblet of Fire - Rowling (2000)

34. The Watson's Go to Birmingham - Curtis (1995)
33. James and the Giant Peach - Dahl (1961)
32. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - O'Brian (1971)
31. Half Magic - Eager (1954)

30. Winnie-the-Pooh - Milne (1926)
29. The Dark Is Rising - Cooper (1973)
28. A Little Princess - Burnett (1905)
27. Alice I and II - Carroll (1865/72)

26. Hatchet - Paulsen (1989)
25. Little Women - Alcott (1868/9)
24. HP and the Deathly Hallows - Rowling (2007)
23. Little House in the Big Woods - Wilder (1932)

22. The Tale of Despereaux - DiCamillo (2003)
21. The Lightening Thief - Riordan (2005)

20. Tuck Everlasting - Babbitt (1975)
19. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Dahl (1964)
18. Matilda - Dahl (1988)

17. Maniac Magee - Spinelli (1990)
16. Harriet the Spy - Fitzhugh (1964)
15. Because of Winn-Dixie - DiCamillo (2000)
14. HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Rowling (1999)
13. Bridge to Terabithia - Paterson (1977)
12. The Hobbit - Tolkien (1938)

11. The Westing Game - Raskin (1978)

10. The Phantom Tollbooth - Juster (1961)
9. Anne of Green Gables - Montgomery (1908)
8. The Secret Garden - Burnett (1911)
7. The Giver -Lowry (1993)

6. Holes - Sachar (1998)
5. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - Koningsburg (1967)
4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - Lewis (1950)
3. Harry Potter #1 - Rowling (1997)
2. A Wrinkle in Time - L'Engle (1962)

1. Charlotte's Web - White (1952)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dragon Book

Authors: Cecelia Holland, Naomi Novik, Jonathan Stroud, Kage Baker, Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple, Liz Williams, Peter S. Beagle, Diana Gabaldon, Samuel Skyes, Garth Nix, Sean Williams, Tad Williams, Harry Turtledove, Diana Wynne Jones, Gregory Maguire, Bruce Coville, Tanith Lee, Tamora Pierce, Mary Rosenblum, Andy Duncan
Editors: Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
Publisher: The Berkley Publishing Group, Penguin
Copyright: 2009
Genre: Fantasy, Short Stories

(I found this book from reviews on Misty's Book Mess and About Books.)

Nineteen stories, from twenty-one authors, all about dragons, makes for a really wide variety in so many ways. Some stories are funny, some are moving; some are serious, some are sarcastic; some are mythical, some are modern. It was great to read such a wide selection, especially because I hadn't heard of most of these authors before. Each story is preceded by a biography of the author and a list of some of the works he/she published. This gave me the opportunity to sample all these authors and get a broader picture of the fantasy world. And the differences of each story made for a fascinating read! The tones, settings, and ideas of dragon-ness are different from story to story, so it's an interesting mix. I liked that I was reading one story about dragons in fantasy worlds, and the next about dragons in the crosswalk of a modern-day city. Or one where dragons are your typical flying lizard-like creature who breathe fire, and the next where dragons are made of ice and breathe frost!

As H of About Books points out, some of the stories seem to have been written only for the sake of including a dragon: "they were clever in their use of dragons, but that seemed for some of them to be their only aim." However, I don't see that as a drawback. Certainly, in some stories, nothing much actually happens, but I think the point of this book was accomplished - the legend of dragons is explored from many angles, and some fresh ideas about dragons are introduced.

I can't review all the stories, but I'll comment on a few:

"The Tsar's Dragons" by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple is a retelling of the Russian Revolution to include dragons. I loved the humor in this rather long story, and the way dragons were integrated into the story so that it seemed like they were always a part of it. None of it seemed forced, and the dragons' presence was natural.

"The Dragon's Tale" by Tamora Pierce tells a story about Skysong, or Kit, from the Tortall Immortals series. This was a story that did have a clear plot and told an actual story. My one disappointment was the lengthy introduction. I think the story stands alone, even though Daine and Numair really belong to a longer series, and the explanations weren't really necessary to the story. That said, though, the story was a really great one to read.

My favorite story by far was "A Stark and Wormy Knight," by Tad Williams. As the title indicates, the point of this one was not so much the events but the playful romp with language. A dragon mom tells her baby dragon a bedtime story about his "great-grandpap" or "g-g" or "pap's grandpap" or "pap's pap's pap," in which the dragon tries to get out of fighting the knight who came to rescue the princess that the dragon took. As with the naming of the ancestor dragon, the entire story is really about language - many synonyms are introduced for the same object, words are made up (all easily recognizable for their intended meanings), cliches are mangled - as in "a stark and wormy knight" - so that they mean something else. I laughed my way through this and had to stop to read some passages aloud. A really fun read!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Evenings at the Argentine Club

Author: Julia Amante
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group
Copyright: 2009
Genre: Women's Fiction

Victoria Torres is the daughter of Argentine immigrants to America, and she has always followed the model of a good Argentine daughter, taking care of her parents and living at home, even at age 28! But when Eric Ortelli, the son of family friends, returns to the community after having abruptly left seven years earlier and making his own life for himself, Victoria starts to rethink her own life. She realizes that her view of herself as a "nothing," not helped by her body image, is only because she is doing nothing, and she takes charge of her future in a series of risks.She begins to see her own worth, helped along by Eric, and balances independence with family obligations.

The book starts off introducing Victoria and the "nothing" path of life she basically fell into, along with the customs and expectations of the Argentine community. When Victoria finally decides to make a bold move, I actually gave a little cheer! I realized that I had been eased into the world and culture, and introduced to the characters so that I didn't notice when it happened, but I gradually came to care a lot about what these characters did.

The novel's subtlety is great. There are a lot of shades and layers to each character and to every event, but everything is presented subtly, naturally interwoven into the story itself. The relationships, especially the relationship between Victoria and Eric, are developed really well and realistically. I was drawn into Victoria and Eric's relationship because it doesn't happen in a flash, and there are no cliches in it. It happens slowly and gradually, the way real relationships do. I enjoyed following the ups and downs of their relationship, especially since I was never sure what would happen next.

The realness of the story is also in the choices and decisions each character has to make, and the consequences of each one. Not only Victoria, but Eric, Victoria's parents, and others all face choices and sometimes don't know what the outcome will be. It's amazing to see how each decision affects every part of the characters' lives, whether their own or others', because that is how it is in real life. The author skillfully weaves all the threads of the various options together to create the tapestry of these characters' lives.

I love how the author uses multiple points of view to tell the whole story. If she had focused on only one character, or on Victoria and Eric alone, so much of the richness of the story would be lost. And while the story is told from many characters' points of view, there is never any confusion as to whose head you're seeing inside at any given point. Somehow, the author manages to make it very clear, without resorting to introducing each change.

About halfway through the story, I realized that I had started to "see" events unfolding on a screen, and I thought - wow, I'd love to see this as a movie! The story would make a great romantic drama, with all the nuances of feelings and expressions.

This was a great book to sink into, to experience the story together with the characters. The struggle of finding your own path while maintaining family ties and relationships is something many people can relate to, and it is presented with unique characters and in a touching manner. An all-around great read!

Thanks to Latoya Smith of Grand Central Publishing for providing this book.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Adam of the Road

Author: Elizabeth Janet Gray
Publisher: Scholastic
Copyright: 1942, renewed 1970
Genre: YA Historical Fiction

Adam of the Road is a really old book, and I've read it so many times I can practically quote from it by heart, but I wanted to share it with you. It's a great book, and one definitely worth finding and buying to keep and re-read again and again. (This image is not what my cover looks like. This is probably an earlier edition.)

Set in England in the thirteenth century, the book follows the travels of Adam Quartermayne all over Southern England. Adam starts out with his father, a minstrel, but soon gets separated from him and from his beloved dog through a series of incidents and misunderstandings. Adam travels to places he thinks his father may be, and along the way meets many interesting characters and has a few adventures.

Adam, though clearly flawed, is a really likable boy, and I ended up rooting for him and cheering him on throughout the book. He and the other characters, both good and bad, are believable and relatable, even though they live in times very different from ours. They face issues that we would never come across today, but their reactions make them real, and I felt a connection to these characters of long ago.

The author brings history to life as she shows what life was like back then, whether in school, on the manor, on the road, or at a fair. The story is rich with detail presented as part of the story, always there for a purpose and furthering the plot. I was always drawn into the picture of the medieval world as Gray presents it, and as I learned more about this time period in school, I began to appreciate how real and accurate this picture is.

I absolutely recommend this book. I just found that Elizabeth Janet Gray wrote a few other historical novels, and (if I ever have time - my to-be-read list is growing and growing!) I'd love to read more of her books.

Calling on Dragons

Author: Patricia C. Wrede
Publisher: Point Fantasy, Scholastic
Copyright: 1993
Genre: YA Fantasy

This is the third book in a series of four, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but I read it as a stand-alone book. It can be read and understood by itself, although reading it made me want to get the next book and find out what happens!

The book is about an adventure that Morwen (a witch), Telemain (a magician), Kazul (a dragon king), and assorted magical creatures take to recapture King Mendanbar's sword from the wizards. They have a long, hard trip, as befits a quest, and they encounter many difficulties and obstacles along the way.

I love how easily the author weaves explanations of magic into the story. Whenever I read a fantasy book, I want to understand how the imaginary world works, and Patricia C. Wrede definitely delivers in that area. Her explanations are natural and understandable, integrated into the story so that they don't feel like explanations.

The whole tone of the story is great, too. Instead of using a mythical tone, the author uses everyday language, and the characters speak in the vernacular of today's times. This, of course, adds to the hilarious quality of the story, as it is pretty funny to "hear" a blue, flying donkey called Killer talking like any person you'd meet on the street nowadays.

The characters, aside from sounding natural because of the common language, are all individual and unique. Each one has his/her/its own distinct personality, complete with idiosyncrasies and quirks. The author is consistent with these, and it doesn't sound like she forced these characteristics on them, but like she knows her characters inside and out, and it's only natural for them to say and do the things they do because of their personalities. That is something that I think every author aspires to - to have the characters come to life so that each thing they do is the only possible reaction for that character in that situation.

The book ends off with the immediate problem resolved but another one introduced, leading into the next book, Talking to Dragons. I definitely want to read that one, and I will probably get the first two books as well, not because I need them to understand the whole story, but because I love this author's style and want more of it!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Charm School

Author: Susan Wiggs
Publisher: MIRA Books
Copyright: 1999
Genre: Romance

Isadora Peabody is the "black sheep" of her very socially correct Boston family. When the opportunity presents itself, she manages to get aboard a ship bound for Rio de Janeiro. The voyage takes her on a journey to find herself and to find love with Ryan Calhoun, the captain of her ship.

I was pulled into the story right from the very first chapter! Susan Wiggs makes her characters come alive, each with their own distinctive personality and voice. She establishes Isadora as a character who deserves our pity for her status in her family and society, but at the same time makes us root for her to find success. Isadora is smart and strong, although she has to find her strength and acknowledge it, and she has a sharp wit and sense of humor. She isn't the typical romance heroine, because she isn't introduced as beautiful right away, and in fact has absolutely no friends at the beginning of the story, but she is so real that she jumps right off the page and captured my attention and sympathy from the start. I was emotionally involved in the story all the way through. At the end, when the requisite terrible thing happens, although I knew of course, this being a romance, it would end happily ever after, I actually felt like crying myself as Isadora went into despair.

The story of Isadora and Ryan is extremely real and believable. I liked that there is no "instant attraction" when they first meet, and that their feelings for each other develop over time. I think the development of their relationship, as well as the gradual change Isadora goes through, is shown clearly and credibly - gradually, so the reader can see the changes happening over time.

The side-plots, of the minor characters in the story, are also real and fully developed, no matter how small they are. That's something that I really appreciate. The story of Ryan's mother, her maid, Ryan's servant and his family - they all are complete, not fragments there simply to further the main plot.

I also noticed that the author's writing style adds a lot to the telling of the story. There's a lot of alliteration, repetition, and parallelism, which always strengthens the passages where they're used and creates just the right emotion at the right times.

I really loved this book! I loved the characters, the story, the style... I'm definitely going to be reading more of this author!

Thanks to Abby for recommending Susan Wiggs.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Lighthouse Land

Author: Adrian McKinty
Publisher: Amulet Books, Harry N. Abrams
Copyright: 2006
Genre: YA Science Fiction

This book is about Jamie, a boy with many problems, who moves to a small island off Ireland and discovers a contraption that sends him across galaxies to another planet, where he has to help the inhabitants survive an attack by their barbarian neighbors.

I liked how the initial concept of the transportation device is based on ancient Irish myths, and Irish history is incorporated into the backstory. But on the whole, I was quite disappointed with the book.

The most jarring part, which forced me to stop, take myself out of the story, and re-read passages time after time is the author's constant use of fragments. Now, I know that there's a rule about breaking rules, and that is that you need to know the rules before you are allowed to break them consciously. McKinty, though, uses fragments in ways and places that don't make much sense and leave the reader hanging, waiting for the completion of the thought.

The actual story itself is lacking a bit also. The first few chapters are simply backstory, which has no real impact on the "meat" of the story, the adventure on another planet. The science fiction part of it is marginalized, and the way the contraption works is explained very simply and quickly. In fact, most things that need explanation are explained quickly, usually by Ramsay, Jamie's new friend in Ireland. The inclusion of exposition as events unfold is not at all subtle and is just stated outright. The rule of "show, don't tell" is violated many times. The development of the relationship between Jamie and Wishaway, the alien girl, happens within one paragraph! That whole storyline is filled with cliches, and I found the whole thing awkward. I found that there are some contradictions in the telling and showing of the story as well. For example, the author states in the narrative that Jamie is the leader, the natural leader. But in fact, in the actual events, Ramsay is the one coming up with ideas, giving orders, and generally doing the leading!

The constant switch of points of view is also quite confusing. On one page, the point of view can switch between Jamie, Ramsay, Wishaway, and Callaway with no warning or indication of the change. Although of course it is possible to tell a story using multiple points of view, there has to be a reason to switch and the reader has to be notified when a change is coming, neither of which requirements this book fulfills.

On the whole, I got the feeling that this book is actually still in the manuscript stage and needs a couple more rewrites to improve it. This is the first book of a trilogy, and I'm not going to be reading the next two books.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Door in the Hedge

Author: Robin McKinley
Publisher: Greenwillow Books, William Morrow & Company
Copyright: 1981
Reissue: Firebird, Penguin Group, 2003
Genre: Fantasy (Short Stories)

Summary (Back Cover):
--Princess Linadel lives in a kingdom next to Faerieland - where princesses are stolen away on their seventeenth birthdays, never to be seen again. And Linadel's seventeenth birthday is tomorrow.
--Princess Korah's brother was bewitched by the magical Golden Hind, who he chased across the country until he was close to death. Now it is up to Korah to break the spell....
--There is only one being who can help Princess Rana save her kingdom from the evil Aliyander: a common frog. A talking frog.
--Twelve princesses, enspelled to dance through the soles of their shoes every night, have no one to rescue them from their fate...or do they?
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
These four stories really satisfy in so many ways. Robin McKinley has a way of writing a story so that the tone is a kind of storytelling. They sound magical, like fairy-tales, even disregarding all the magic that happens in each one. Besides for that, she describes the worlds of each story so well that you can conjure up an image of each one and you understand all the workings of each, how magic functions in each specific story. She does this so skillfully, though, that even though so much of the story is taken up in description and explanation, you don't feel like saying - get to the story already! She makes the descriptions and explanations a part of the stories. This is part of what contributes to the storytelling feel. You can almost hear someone saying, "Come, children, and I will tell you the story of..." before each story.

Of course, the language is another contribution to the fairy-tale quality of these stories. The author uses the ancient- and mystical-sounding language common to old fairy-tales, both in the narration and in characters' dialogue. The great thing about it is that she balances the archaic sound with contemporary speech patterns so that the reader is not slowed down by the different language, but just enough magical quality is injected in the language.

And of course, what drives all of Robin McKinley's books - the characters. In these four stories, as in most fairy-tales, the focus is on the story, the magic, not the characters. But even so, the characters are vivid and individual, not flat or stock characters as in many stories of this sort, and the reader can empathize with each character's story and dilemma.

My favorite of these four is "The Princess and the Frog." I found myself holding my breath in fear when Rana faces Aliyander, and that, I think, is the mark of a great story - making the reader feel along with characters so strongly.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hold Love Strong (3)

Author: Matthew Aaron Goodman
Publisher: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster
Copyright: 2009

(Final Post on this book!)

Because this book is really so amazing, I decided to start with the things I didn't like, to get them out of the way.

As I mentioned in Post #2, I found the pace after the first section to be a bit slow. Once I got going farther into the book, I got used to the pace. It didn't speed up, but it got better - more on that in the "positive" section. What I started noticing was that, although Abraham is the narrator and supposedly the center of the story, he himself didn't really take any action. At one point, he says something like "I'm an observer," and I thought - exactly! Up until page 125 or so, Abraham doesn't do anything, he's just passive and watching as things happen around him and to him. Even then, he doesn't start wanting anything until around page 160. I think the worst part is the misleading blurb on the back cover. It makes it sound like the whole book is about Abraham's struggle to make it through school and get to college, but in the book, it doesn't sound like he is focused on that so much, until the last few chapters. He seems to be just processing all the events around him and reacting to them. The last part of the book is when he "wakes up" and starts taking his life in his own hands, doing things and making decisions to get a better life for himself.

That said, the book really is a fantastic book. I think it should have been pitched (on the back cover) less as a single person's story and more as a sample slice of life in his neighborhood and community. Because Goodman does a great job of describing what life is like in Ever and making the reader feel like he is experiencing it from within.

Actually, I wasn't surprised to read, in the interview with the author in the back of the book, that Goodman was originally a poet who then tried his hand at writing a novel. The language is sharp and precise, with extremely vivid descriptions. Many passages in the book actually feel more like poetry than prose. The author has a way of introducing a scene, then slowing down the action to give a description or Abraham's thoughts, and then speeding up again to resume action. Sometimes it feels like he pressed pause, gave an aside, and then went back to the story. But it's done so naturally that I didn't feel it happening until I took the time to think about the style.

I also love the way Goodman uses questions and "appositives" throughout the book. It gives a sense of the confusion and desperation Abraham feels when his thoughts constantly turn to questioning rather than making statements. And the way he sometimes names a character in Abraham's thoughts, by giving every conceivable name for that person, makes that person alive, more than just one facet, it makes them multi-faceted and gives the reader the feeling that Abraham is crying out, saying - look at this person! Whatever misfortunes happen, she is a person, a real person, who is so much more than what her life ended up being.

So as stories go, this one isn't a great story, but as a book about African-American life in Queens, this is a beautiful, brilliant book.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Diamond in the Rough

Author: Esther Rapaport
Publisher: Israel Bookshop Publications
Copyright: 2009

This book has a great idea behind it: A bitter, divorced man living alone is thrown into a situation where he hosts two boys who have no home at the time. Both he and the boys gain from the relationship, and they all grow emotionally and heal some emotional wounds. This relationship is portrayed very nicely in the book. We get to see both Shlomo (the divorced man) and Alex (the older of the two boys) at first very set in their ways, and we see how they slowly influence each others' lives.

That is just about the only good point in this book.

As for the rest of it:

All the other characters are flat. Even these two characters and Mulik, the younger brother, although they are sort of developed, really only show one facet of their personalities and backgrounds. The main problem, I think, is that the author seems to identify the characters in her own mind as "the bossy one," "the critical one," etc., and each character sticks to one trait throughout the book. It gets annoying to read page after page of Shlomo's older brother saying the same nasty things, never saying anything other than a snide comment. Full characterization is definitely lacking.

Besides for that, the basic idea of these two lost individuals influencing each others' lives is great, but when you throw in the relationships between Shlomo's siblings and a botched terrorist attempt in Russia, the whole thing turns into a joke. The terrorist plot-line is extremely poorly researched. I don't know much about how terrorists go about making plans, but I know it doesn't happen within a week, and that the chances of them making all the mistakes they made are not very probable. This plot-line ties in with one about the boys' father, and the utter coincidence of these events strains credibility to the breaking point. And when the climax occurs, it's not like climbing to the top of a mountain and reaching the crest - it's like simply fitting the last puzzle piece into the big picture.

And - to top it all off - the story doesn't really end! Sure, Shlomo and Alex both move forward, but nothing actually happens! I don't believe that every story has to tie up all loose ends and everyone live happily ever after, but a little closure and some end would be nice.

Had the author not tried to make this a thrilling novel and just stuck with the main plot-line and developed that fully, I think this whole book would have been much more interesting and enjoyable.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Off Limits (2)

Author: Devorah Rosen
Translator: Sandy Bloom
Publisher: Sapir, Feldheim
Copyright: 2010

OK, so I finished the book a couple days ago, and I was thinking about it. It's a little hard to decide what to write, because of this: It's not a great book, and I could list all the things that bothered me about it, but at the same time, it's not a terrible book, either!

So for the negative parts: The characters are mainly flat, each one has a specific characteristic and sticks to that the entire book. The bad guy is very stereotypical - a gone-off-the-derech Jew must obviously be an evil person, right? Well, not necessarily, but in this book he ends up running all sorts of international illegal activities. Other characters also fall into stereotypes - the policeman, the poor-goy-turned-rich... We never get to really know the main character either, and though originally I thought the book would be character-driven, it turns out to be plot-driven, and we hardly get to know the characters at all.

One more point: The suspension of disbelief is stretched almost to the breaking point - not totally, but almost. Coincidences abound, like two poor runaway boys suddenly striking it rich, and the end of the story relies heavily on everything falling into place at the very last second. The various elements of the story pull together to create a whole, but it's a whole connected by crazy glue rather than woven together.

The story also feels lightly researched - just enough that the details seem plausible, but at the same time, it sounds like the author researched only the details necessary to the plot, because there are no details to flesh out the story.

On the other hand, I think this book is OK for young readers who just want a thrill, and don't care too much about the reality of the story. As I said, none of this is absolutely impossible, so it's not so terrible that some things stretch reality a bit.

I think it straddles the young-adult/adult label, but since there is no classification in Jewish books, the author wasn't forced to choose one or the other - and the book suffers for it.

Overall, not a book I would recommend, but not one I would warn you to stay away from either. How's that for a decisive opinion?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Off Limits (1)

Author: Devorah Rosen
Translator: Sandy Bloom
Sapir, Feldheim
Copyright: 2010

The back of this book sounded promising - a book translated from Hebrew that doesn't deal with crazy impossible trans-continental plots! It is international, set in France, Israel, and America, but it seems to be dealing with individual characters rather than vague characters driven by an incredible (and I mean non-believable) plot.

The book does follow the typical Israeli format of following multiple viewpoints, but that's because the three main characters are introduced at the beginning of the story, when they have no connection (or at least no obvious connection) to each other. Oh, sorry - actually, two of them are obviously brothers, and I'm assuming the third is the son of their sister, but they have no contact with each other yet, and their stories are developing separately so far. The multiple viewpoints is clear and easy to follow - only necessary names are given and they're different enough so you can keep track of them!

There is a lot of telling rather than showing, which I find is another point typical of Israeli books. It helps in that it moves the story along much more quickly, but of course, in America it's considered not very good writing. Still, the story is clear, so I think it's fine.

Not a great book, but so far solid and easy to read. A good relaxing-time book, with a clear plot and interesting characters.