Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

At my library, The Book Thief is constantly checked out. Now I know why. This text is worth a reread someday. If you think you’ve read every version of WWII there is to be told, I ask: have you seen it from Death’s perspective? Have you seen from a German’s point of view? Zusak takes on the challenge to present Nazi Germany from within and to show the challenges for those opposed to the Fuhrer. The story is narrated by Death, who tells us about Liesel, a young German girl with a passion for books, her family and friends. As the story unfolds, Liesel understands the power of words and how the Third Reich uses them to break apart her family and everything she loves.

Zusak’s writing style is enjoyable. He gives Death a unique voice and personality. Death is constantly breaking the narrative with short facts and asides about characters, events or his personal observations. These interruptions are a fun part of the narrative and keep the story interesting. I enjoyed how many chapters begin with a teaser, a fact or future event yet to unfold, that Death uses to get us interested in how the story will play out. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. (Zusak 243)

What an interesting commentary on story-telling – from Death. Normally, I do not like narrators that directly address the reader. It is often tacky and takes me out of the story. But Zusak caries it off beautifully because, I think, Death has such a real presence in the plot and his voice is so real. And moments as the one quoted remind us that this story is already over and he is telling us this in retrospect, which allows him some authority to talk to us about it. Zusak uses nonstandard English, meaning incomplete sentences and “sporadic” punctuation. I don’t count myself among the “grammar police” (notice my many “mistakes”) but I think it is hard to pull nonstandard English off and make the book strong and the reading experience fluid (thinking of Cormac McCarthy who is brilliant at doing this). Zusak does a fine job but some incompletes did throw me off a couple times. Overall though, it worked, especially as Death’s voice. No one talks in complete sentences all the time and it made him seem real. I also enjoyed the spatial aspect of the text – how some lines stand alone and other pieces are centered. It made for an interesting reading experience.

This book is dehydrating. Literally. I cried practically nonstop through the last fifty pages. Prior to that, I didn’t cry at all. It just all happened so fast, the ending that is. I couldn’t put the book down. This is a thick novel, with plenty of time to develop the characters, yet it never became stagnate. The Book Thief is definitely one worth reading.
Publisher: Knopf, 2006     Recommended Age: 14 and up (the reading and content is pretty heavy for younger readers)
Rating: 5 Stars                   Pages: 552               Source: IC Public Library

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book Giveaway

Hosted by The Undercover Book Lover (not really) is a YA book giveaway called Pick Your Publisher Contest. You have a chance to win a box of three books! The  more followers she gets the more books she'll give away. Just sign up. It's that easy.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Apple Trees at Olema by Robert Hass

After reading 35 pages and skimming through several more I have made the executive decision to abandon The Apple Trees at Olema. Hass is a former Poet Laureate and recipient of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize – a lot of honors. But to be honest, the poetry didn’t do anything for me. It was like reading several sentences that sound like gibberish. In my opinion, poetry shouldn’t insert some mystic meaning into words (that only the poet is privy to) so that the general reader has no idea what he’s trying to say. I felt vibes of grief, frustration, pessimism and appreciation for life. Poetry is personal, I know that, and is highly subjective and open to personal interpretation. Well, my interpretation is that these poems are created out of sincere expression but are not easily accessible to the average (or random) reader.
Publisher: Ecco, of Harper Collins, 2010
Source: Free advance copy from the publisher via Goodreads
Pages: 352

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

To fulfill my reading quest for the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, I chose a substantial and more recent text. I was really excited to read about this dynamic president known as Old Hickory. I wanted to hear about his gallantry at New Orleans during the War of 1812 as well as his coercion and cruelties towards Native Americans. For some reason I thought the head title American Lion meant this text would delve into Jackson’s rough temperament. And it does touch on these subjects; however, the subtitle, in the White House, should have told me that this text focuses on the inner life at the White House during his presidency and not as much on pre or post White House events. In fact, much of the information was about Jackson’s family and how it played an important role in his moods and politics. I became bored with his niece, Emily, whose ideas on who was or was not respectable practically lead to the breakup of Jackson’s cabinet. His family life was important to politics but I felt the text lingered on these issues for far too long. I wanted more about the war hero and less about his family. I got hardly a paragraph on the War of 1812 and am disappointed by that. The text does deal fairly about Jackson’s managing of the Indians and I felt satisfied on that point even if it was sort of brief. Jackson’s issues with the U.S. Bank drag on forever as Jackson became consumed with crushing the institution. Jackson did face serious adversaries from within that threatened the Union which he carefully dealt with to avoid (or postpone) civil war. The text shows how Jackson singlehandedly increased the power of the Executive by the force of his will. So, he did exercise shrewdness in these respects.

I think the text would be more accurately called American Father: Jackson in the White House since Meacham constantly refers to him as a father and how Jackson referred to himself as a father to his supporters, extended family and even Native Americans. This bio hardly touched on the aspects that made Jackson a lion. We rarely see him on the attack during his time as president (save the bank issue) but more as a protective father figure. The prose has a tendency to wander. In one paragraph we hear about Emily and her parties and in the next, Clay and Calhoun’s plots to undermine the president. Subjects are not well weaved together. On the other hand, this text does give the reader a look at the intimate life of Jackson during his two terms. It tells us what it was like for family who lived with a president subject to swings of temperament and a need to control his surroundings. Ultimately, I wish I chose a bio that encompassed Jackson’s entire life to get a better view of his lion-like image. I may have to find a text with a chapter or two that focuses on pre-White House Jackson to get my Battle of New Orleans fix.
Publisher: Random House, 2008     Source: IC Public Library
Rating: 2.5 Stars                                          Pages: 361, 483 with acknowledgments, notes and index

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Book Blogger Hop - Friday's Only

Connect with other bloggers by participating in The Book Blogger Hop. You can post a link to your blog or peruse the list of over a hundred bloggers who blog about books!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring is in the Air...and My Blog

Time Out has a new look for the new season. There are other new features as well. Reviews by author are now found on their own page (not the home page). Look for new pages in the future. In the spirit of the season I will soon be reading The Apple Trees at Olema by Robert Hass which, amoung many things, explores the natural world. I received this text as an advance copy from Goodreads giveaway. It should be hitting bookstores very soon. Maybe it will be sunny enough to read it on the deck! Happy thought! How are you enjoying this fine season? 

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

For this text I will begin with the negative and move into the positive. That’s the simplest way, I think, to do a review for it.

This novel has been on my bookshelf for several months and, after a previous attempt to read it, I finally made a point to finish it. So, as you can imagine the text was not an attention grabber. Although I liked Ren, the twelve-year-old orphaned protagonist, I had a difficult time connecting with him and caring about what happened to him (or the rest of the characters). Tinti does a good job at capturing childhood in poverty. Ren is naive, likes to collect rocks and gets into fist fights with his friends – a pretty normal boy for the most part save his missing hand. The elements for character development are all there but maybe I’m too old (and perhaps being a girl doesn’t help me) to really connect with Ren. The story was a bit unbelievable but I could suspend my beliefs enough to enjoy the plot; however, the plot was predictable. When the answers behind Ren’s missing hand were revealed I felt disappointed. I don’t like being able to see every twist coming and I saw too many beforehand. And the ending is very happily ever after. Now, I do like happy endings, and not everything is perfect for Ren, but the ending seemed too good to be true (even with suspended beliefs). I did like Dolly, the good-hearted murderer (yes, the murderer was my favorite character). Otherwise the players in the plot didn’t do much to enhance the story for me. The real villains needed to be much darker and menacing. As to the prose, it is good in the sense that it is grammatically correct. But it stinks in the sense of enjoyable reading. Tinti can write very well but the prose was too standard and well, boring. I fell asleep reading more than once. There were some high moments when action started happening in which I became excited to read on. I kept thinking, ok, it’s going to get better now, but then those moments passed and it was a long time before another came along.

On to the positive. The Good Thief is a recipient of the Alex Award which, in a nut shell, is given to adult books which appeal to young adult readers (age 12-18). I can see this novel appealing to teachers who are tired of reading/teaching Oliver Twist. There are many similarities between the two novels: orphans, con-men, poverty. The depth of Dickens is hard to achieve and his work is definitely better. But I think many a ninth-grader would rather read Tinti than Dickens. I remember reading Oliver Twist as an adult and it was hard to get through. What I appreciate about YA in general (70% of the time, perhaps) and the Alex recipients (I’ve read two so far) is that the stories are fast passed, the foul language is toned down or non-existent and there are few if any “sex scenes.” These are not hard and fast guarantees but definitely factors that draw me to the genre. On top of these qualities, the Alex recipients I’ve read manage to retain an edginess – sometimes scary or unexpected moments – which I enjoy. I plan to read more in the future. I enjoyed the historical info on American dentistry and medicine during the 19th century which adds that edginess I mentioned (think cadavers). The story shows the resiliency of the human spirit and how one good deed can open the door to many positive outcomes. So, wrapping up, I liked this book for its potential to offer young adults different reading. But personally I wasn’t that into The Good Thief. I hope Tinti digs deeper into her writing well and comes back with something better.
Publisher: Dial Press Trade, 2008     Source: Barnes and Noble            Pages: 327
Rating: 3 Stars                                 Recommended Age: 14 and up

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

If I had to define this novel in one word it would be intrigue. There are layers of secrets that journalist Blomkvist is drawn into uncovering. Every truth he reveals leads him further down a dark tunnel in search of more answers. The novel is set in Sweden with two main threads – a family mystery and a corporate mystery – that bring Blomkvist and a young P.I. into an unlikely alliance.

I liked the character development and third person point of view in which the story is told. The narrative has several breaks within a chapter that visually signal a switch to another character. The narrator was at least semi-omniscient and could get inside the heads of characters, telling us what they thought and felt. It worked well and provided some irony. I feel mixed about Blomkvist’s characterization. Some of the women threw themselves at him and he gladly slept with them. It was a bit unrealistic. I really liked Salander, a.k.a. the girl with the dragon tattoo, and her quirky off-kilter personality. For the most part, the characters seemed like real individuals with personal problems like anybody else.

The writing was good and the book fun to read. One small annoyance was the foreign names. Usually, that sort of thing doesn’t bother me but these names were hard to keep straight because several characters go by more than one name/nickname. We call guys named William, Bill, which doesn’t make much sense. So, imagine such nicknames in a foreign language. For the first half of the novel I was trying to remember who people were and should have written their names down. There were a few spots that broke out of the normal narration, moments not exploring a character’s thoughts or actions, which felt like an unnecessary political spiel. It would have been enough to let the characters' thoughts about a situation stand on their own and left the narrator’s commentary out. But these out-of-character harangues were fairly brief and were not a big downer overall. It was nearly two hundred pages before I was hooked because, generally speaking, I am not that interested in financial scandals, with which the novel opens. But by page 200 I had to know the ending. There was a fairly intense scene that I didn’t see coming that kept me turning pages. After the cases were summed up I wanted to know more about the main characters. I am even interested in reading the sequel (not for awhile though. These are some big heavy books) so The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thumbs up for me.

THE MOVIE COMES OUT MARCH 19th IN SELECT THEATERS!! If you see the movie please let me know how it is. I live in a small town and will be lucky to see it on the big screen. Here's a link to the trailer:
Publisher: Knopf, 2008 (originally in Swedish in 2005)     Source: IC Public Library
Rating: 3.5 Stars                                                                Pages: 465

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls follows the lives of two sisters, Pearl and May, from glamorous 1930s Shanghai to post-WWII United States. There are a lot of downs and very few ups in this book. The sisters encounter one tragedy after another clear to the end which didn’t encourage me to keep turning pages. On the contrary, I had to force myself to sit down to read and finish the story. Honestly, I kept thinking I could be reading Amy Tan right now instead. Although historically accurate, the novel wasn’t very powerful, just depressing. I never felt attached to or invested in any of the characters. The sisters, especially May, seemed incredibly spoiled and I never really liked her and Pearl was self-defeating for the entire novel. In many ways the characters were static and boring.

As for the prose and narrative structure, they were annoying. See writes in first person with Pearl’s voice. At first, Pearl seemed like a normal narrator. Then the prose took on a dear-diary feel that I didn’t like. And a few times Pearl addresses the reader, saying things like, you might think that…, which felt like narrator/author intrusion and didn’t work well. This shifting in narrator style ruined the effectiveness of the first person voice for me. Often, Pearl knew too much and was obviously See telling us what to think about circumstances or other characters (author intrusion again). At other times, Pearl was completely blind which didn’t coincide with her supposedly being the smart sister. The novel is written in present tense with no flashbacks which could have broken up the monotonous flow of bad events. The writing is not terrible but is just not effective or enticing.
Publisher: Random House, 2009     Source: IC Public Library
Rating: 2 Stars                                   Pages: 309

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Unlike most fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland isn’t very dark. Sure, there’s the off-with-their-heads! Queen of Hearts but she wasn’t really that scary and no one was actually beheaded. The King wasn’t quite the push over as I remember him being in the cartoon movie. He was just ditzy like most of the characters and offered pardon to all whose heads the Queen demanded. I never felt anxious for Alice, like she was in real danger, because she wasn’t. She manages to bully her way out of most situations by eating mushrooms and becoming too large for people to trifle with. This is definitely an ok story for little ones but they will likely find the original hard to read and many of the puns may be lost on them. The Mock Turtle episode was boring, his story lasting way too long for me. The caterpillar and Mad Hatter scenes were a lot of fun with their riddles. Alice was a silly little girl, rather ditzy and not very clever except for the fact that she has a fantastic dream. I enjoyed the poems at the beginning. They were my favorite part of the story. It seems that many of the characters are stand ins for people Carroll knew and so many inside jokes are not readily evident (nor do they need to be to enjoy the story). I read the story from The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll: A Wonderland of Stories, Nonsense and Wit.
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1988     Source: IC Public Library
Rating: 2.5 Stars                             Pages: 106 (p. 15-120 in this edition)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Persepolis II: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi

In Persepolis II, Marjane’s parents send her to Vienna where she lives by herself and grows up quickly. It is an extremely difficult time for Marjane. After four years, she returns to Iran at age 18 with emotional baggage and conflicted feelings. In this poignant sequel, Marjane is a woman of two worlds, feeling western and Iranian but not fully accepted by either culture.

Persepolis II highlights the subjugation and chauvinism exuded by the state that makes it hard for free thinkers to live in Iran. Although the war with Iraq is over, fear is ever prevalent as Marjane and her friends dodge the “guardians of the Islamic revolution.” Marjane struggles to find companions with similar ideologies and often feels alone. This text shows how precious our freedom of speech is as we watch Marjane become paranoid about how she speaks, dresses and draws advertisements for work.

Book two is much more serious as Marjane deals with the burdens of adulthood. She turns to radical friends, smoking, drinking and relationships in an attempt to find a place and purpose for herself. It is her strong will that keeps her going, but even her will wavers when she experiences a severe depression leading to an attempted suicide. As she realizes the extent of the state’s control over her life, Marjane’s perception of and hope in her country changes. I found Marjane’s story to be captivating. She has lead a challenging life to say the least. Her memoir allows readers a peek into a very conservative and foreign culture and how many people there continue to hope for change and peace.
Publisher: Pantheon, 2004     Recommended Age: 15 and up
Source: IC Public Library       Pages: 187
Rating: 4 Stars

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi chronicles her life when growing up during the Islamic revolution. When the Shah is overthrown Marjane and her family are overjoyed but soon realize that their hopes for liberty are being thwarted by a new and powerful regime. While she and her family hold onto their freedom (with clandestine card parties and music bought from the black market) the war with Iraq breaks out, increasing tensions among Iranians as they fight over religion and food supplies. From the innocent and often naïve perspective of childhood, Satrapi presents a dissident voice during a troubling time.

Can one be patriotic and dissident at the same time? The Satrapi family loves their country so much they do not want to leave despite the increasing violence and subjugation. They love their culture, friends and family and feel their life in Iran is better than what it could be anywhere else, including the United States. They want to make their home a better place by staying rather than leaving. It is the people that define a nation and Marjane’s parents want to be a part of that definition. Despite the context she grows up in, Marjane is a typical teenager who wants to go to parties and listen to popular music. Marjane is resilient after all she sees and experiences during protests and war. Seeing Marjane as a typical kid should make it easier for U.S. kids to identify with her and put themselves in her shoes and to ask how they would have felt if they were Marjane’s maid, neighbor or if they were Marjane herself.

I read this book in one sitting and enjoyed it a lot. The text offered an inside perspective of a third-world country that I would likely have never seen otherwise. It shows us what it was/is like for women who are forced to wear the veil. Marjane’s spunky attitude kept me hooked. It was amazing that she never asked the reader for sympathy or pity but to simply listen to her story. She just wants her side of the story, the unheard part of the truth, to be told.
Publisher: Pantheon Books, 2004     Source: IC Public Library                  Pages: 160
Rating: 5 Stars                                  Recommended Age: 13 and up

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Evermore by Alyson Noel

Let me begin by saying I will not be reading the sequel. Even though I didn’t have high hopes when I began reading, Evermore was a big disappointment. The similarities to Twilight are appalling not just because Noel uses similar ideas (that’s okay in my book. There’s nothing new under the sun, right?) but because she took Stephanie Meyer’s originality and twisted it, making some stupid scenes in the process. For instance, Edward and Bella share Wuthering Heights as do Noel’s romantic couple but they don’t discuss it, it’s just there to make them interact. The story is written in first person from the unassuming and vulnerable girl’s perspective. It was just one knock-off after another. And it bugged me. The romance between Ever and Damen felt completely superficial partly because Ever knows virtually nothing about Damen but that he’s good looking. Supposedly they are destined for each other but I didn’t get that vibe at all. There was nothing intellectually and little emotionally shared between them, just physical attraction. It was, oh my gosh he’s totally hot and I can’t stop thinking about him for 300 pages. Damen is a terrible influence on Ever, getting her to ditch classes on multiple occasions so she will “live the good life” gambling at a race track (illegally since they’re both under aged). The text seems to assume via the characters that everyone will inevitably lose their virginity during high school (even though Ever does wait for now). And when Ever and Damen take a hiatus she decides getting into her Aunt’s vodka stash is a good way to deal, gets suspended for drinking, then continues to get wasted the entire week away from school. Ever sucks. And somehow she’s the protagonist we’re supposed to like.

Paranormal stories can take a myriad of forms, Evermore taking on the psychic mind-reading, ghost seeing realm. I couldn’t really get into the plot. I felt Noel didn’t create a very believable world for the immortals she creates. There were too many questions that were inadequately answered like, why are the immortal beautiful. The concepts were alright but their execution lacking. As to the prose, it was just so-so. Half way through the book swearing, mostly the “f” word, set in and it felt odd since in the first half none of the characters were into using such foul language. In my opinion, there are way too many good books to read to waste your time on this one.
Publisher: St. Martin’s, 2009     Source: IC Public Library
Rating: 1 star                            Pages: 306

Monday, March 1, 2010

John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini

After a two year break (mostly because of school), my quest to read biographies/autobiographies of each president in chronological order continues with Prez number 6.

This is the second biography from “The American Presidents” collection I’ve read. They are concise and compact bios with enough substance to be informative without getting into the nitty-gritty details. This makes the series nice for those with general interest who don’t want to commit to a detail oriented (and much thicker) bio. This text was exactly what I was looking for. Having read David McCullough’s excellent biography on John Adams, Sr. (all 752 pages), I felt I knew enough about JQA that I didn’t need minute details of his youth repeated to me. Considering JQA kept lengthy journals nearly all his life, I wish there had been even more quotes from him. Other than that, I’ve no complaints with Remini's text.

John Quincy was a genius in several areas, perhaps most notably language. His command at an early age of languages (including French, German and Latin) gave him a great advantage in foreign countries in which he represented the United States for many years. His skill as a foreign diplomat was a great asset to a country that desperately needed foreign recognition as a sovereign power. There’s much more to this man but I’ll let you read his bio for yourself. =)

As always, reading Presidential bios is a great way to learn about U.S. history, the creation of political parties, early journalism and different interpretations of the Constitution throughout time not to mention what early life in America was like. Bios make two-hundred-year-old history come to life by revealing how those lives were lived. How did Mrs. Adams like the White House? What was family life like for a Presidential dynasty? Did you know JQA swam in the Potomac on a regular basis? Presidents are unique people to say the least and John Quincy was no exception.
Publisher: Times Books/ Holt, 2002      Source: IC Public Library
Rating: 3.5 Stars                                   Pages: 155 (172 to the index)