Book Review: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Salva Dut is 11 years old in 1985 when the war in Sudan tears him from his family.  One of the “lost boys” of Sudan, Salva travails the African continent in search of his family and safety.  After spending years in a refugee camp, he finally gets the chance to move to America.  Nya is 11 years old in 2008 and travels with her family as the seasons change so they can be near water.  She makes multiple trips a day to a pond hours from her house so that they can survive.  These two children’s lives with intersect in ways they never dreamed possible.

Linda Sue Park’s sparse narration makes this beautiful, hopeful novel one to remember.  The bare minimum approach to the narration makes the novel’s dual stories move along at a fast pace, perfect for readers of all ages (and especially well-suited to readers who have short attention spans).  Both Salva and Nya are compelling characters,and Park does an admirable job of allowing them to have their own unique stories and motivations.

Interweaving true-life historical details (the character of Salva is based in part on the life of a real Sudanese lost boy) with fictional ones, Park creates a novel that is grounded in history but has a timeless feel to it.  By including the more modern story of Nya, Park helps readers bridge the gap between the war-torn Sudan that Salva experienced with a more contemporary perspective.  Readers of all ages should be moved and astonished by the resilience of these character’s and the novel’s realistic yet hopeful tone.

Surprising, moving, and definitely a book that should be in libraries and classrooms all over the place.  Although the novel occasionally treads the line of providing too much context, Park’s control over the prose and the narrative keep it from ever truly intruding into the story.  This is a gem of a book.  Highly recommended.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books: 2010. Borrowed from Oyster.

Book Review: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry

When Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station four years ago, they weren’t expected to ever return.  So when Judith did, two years later, but with her tongue cut out, unable to speak, she was shunned by her town.  Now, Judith lives the life of a ghost, unable to speak what she witnessed, silently telling Lucas, her childhood friend and love, all that she thinks and feels.  When the town comes under attack, Judith must make a decision: continue to be silent, or be heard for once.

Julie Berry’s debut novel is haunting, poetic, and completely memorable.  Berry creates an incredibly unforgettable narrator in Judith, and raises some hard questions for both her heroine and the book’s readers.  Which is worse: not being able to speak at all, or speaking the truth and having no one believe you?

This is the question that frames this suspenseful novel.  Berry’s novel is told through Judith, but because she is mute and illiterate, readers spend much of their time inside her head, where she directs many of her thoughts to her childhood friend Lucas in a second-person narration that works beautifully.  Because readers spend so much time inside her head, Berry is able to authentically portray how isolated and alone Judith is.  It’s effective, chilling, and builds suspense.

The novel takes place in the past, but Berry doesn’t give the reader any real clues as to where or when it takes place.  Most will be able to discern that it takes place somewhere in North America, most likely during the eighteenth century, but the frustratingly vague setting keeps readers on their toes.  The society in which Judith lives is evocative of the Puritans, and there’s more than one mention of the society’s religiousness and devotion to Jesus.

None of that really matters, though, because Berry has done such a wonderful job with the character of Judith.  Even though much of the novel’s rising action takes place in the first third, she manages to keep building suspense throughout the novel, culminating in a satisfying ending that readers will stay up late to get to.

Recommended.  There’s a lot to unpack here.

All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry. Viking Juvenile: 2013. Library copy read for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Althea is seventeen and the only hope for her entire family.  If she doesn’t marry well, her mother and brother stand to lose everything, which isn’t much.  The family lives in a crumbling castle near some cliffs with Althea’s two (sort of) evil stepsisters.  While Althea is very beautiful, it’s more complicated than that: there are very few wealthy suitors to choose from, and even fewer handsome ones.  Then Lord Boring arrives and sets all the eligible women in town into a flurry of flirting.  To complicate things, Lord Boring’s friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks seems to tag along to all the events and outings, and he tends to cause trouble wherever he goes.

A delight of a book, Kindl’s Regency-set romance is a witty, frothy good time.  Kindl has crafted a strong, smart heroine in Althea, who wants to have adventures but fully realizes she will have to marry for money.  She loves her family but recognizes that they’re mostly useless, and as a result, she has to be the strong one.  Althea’s smart, funny (really, really funny) narration propels this sweet little book.  Although it’s largely predictable, it’s also incredibly fun.

There’s a lot of silliness to be found within the pages of Kindl’s breezy novel.  The characters are charming and funny, and Kindl’s gentle mocking of the Regency-era tropes adds a layer of entertainment to the already compelling story.  Althea’s attempts to attract a suitor are engaging and very funny.  Readers will be as enamored with her as her eventual marriage prospect is.

Funny, witty, and satisfying.  This is a great, sweet historical romantic comedy.  Teens looking for clean, clever reads will gobble this one up.  Recommended especially for fans of Jane Austen.

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl. Viking Children’s Books: 2012. Library copy. Read for 2012 Cybils Round 1 Panel.

Book Review: The Good Braider by Terry Farish

Viola and her family live in Sudan until the war-torn country’s turmoil forces them out.  With her mother and brother, Viola moves to Cairo before finally arriving in Portland, Maine.  While Viola dreams of Sudan, she struggles with the differences she faces in America.  Her mother also struggles, as she is a traditional Sudanese woman at heart.  How will Viola manage to adapt to her new world when she feels the pull of her old country so strongly?

There’s a lot happening in Terry Farish’s sparse verse novel that readers will find appealing.  Although verse novels won’t work for every reader, this one is accessible, beautiful, and quite moving. It’s also a fairly accurate historical account of life in Southern Sudan at the end of the last millennium.

Viola’s beautiful narration propels the story.  Whether she is in Juba or Portland, her surroundings become very real and almost palpable.  Her struggles with culture shock and clashing ideals are authentic, frustrating, and sensitively handled.  Although the readers never get to know any of the other characters as well as they do Viola, there are likable elements to be found in each of them.

Perhaps what is most refreshing is the fact that there are no outside saviors working to enlighten Viola or her family.  All of the help comes from within the Sudanese community, and Viola’s strength ultimately comes from her culture.  This is a nuanced verse novel and probably is best suited for sophisticated readers, but it’s a good read and would work particularly well in a social studies classroom.

The Good Braider by Terry Farish. Marshall Cavendish: 2012. Read for the Cybils 2012 Round 1 Panel.  Library copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Expected Release Date: September 4, 2012

The enchanting story of a midwestern girl who escapes a family tragedy and is remade as a movie star during Hollywood’s golden age.

In 1920, Elsa Emerson, the youngest and blondest of three sisters, is born in idyllic Door County, Wisconsin. Her family owns the Cherry County Playhouse, and more than anything, Elsa relishes appearing onstage, where she soaks up the approval of her father and the embrace of the audience. But when tragedy strikes her family, her acting becomes more than a child¹s game of pretend.

While still in her teens, Elsa marries and flees to Los Angeles. There she is discovered by Irving Green, one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood, who refashions her as a serious, exotic brunette and renames her Laura Lamont. Irving becomes Laura’s great love; she becomes an Academy Award­-winning actress—and a genuine movie star. Laura experiences all the glamour and extravagance of the heady pinnacle of stardom in the studio-system era, but ultimately her story is a timeless one of a woman trying to balance career, family, and personal happiness, all while remaining true to herself.

Ambitious and richly imagined, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is as intimate—and as bigger-than-life—as the great films of the golden age of Hollywood. Written with warmth and verve, it confirms Emma Straub’s reputation as one of the most exciting new talents in fiction.

(summary via Goodreads)

Perhaps it’s a little out of my normal title selection for this particular meme, but I think this one looks great, and it’s already attracting a fair amount of buzz. I spend a long weekend in Door County every September, and I know the playhouse the book makes reference to.  I’m kind of excited for this book simply because I love Door County so much.  Even so, this looks like it’s going to be a very interesting novel.  I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Libby decides to spend her summer working at Camden Harbor, Maine’s Oldest Living History Museum.  Despite her best friend Dev’s protestations about the ridiculousness of such an endeavor, Libby’s got her heart set on it, because she loves history.  A hardcore Jane Austen fan on the lookout for her own Mr. Darcy, Libby’s summer looks bright.  Of course, things don’t go according to plan, and between a roommate who hates her, a newspaper reporter on the hunt for a ghost, and a cute pirate who might be more of a jerk than she realized, Libby’s got her plate full.

Sometimes really great books don’t connect with a person because they came to them at the wrong time. At other times, the moment is just right.  There’s no question that Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink is the fluffiest of fluff novels, but it’s also a really good time.  My guess is that it came to me at exactly the right moment, because I enjoyed the hell out of this funny, observant little romantic comedy.

The historical camp that Libby works at is full of characters that are quirky without being overwhelming.  Even Libby’s own quirks don’t overwhelm the story, which allows the story to be predictable but also kind of refreshing.  There aren’t any real twists to be found in Strohm’s story, but it never feels tired, either.  It’s kind of like a comfort read (I mean this in the best way possible): the characters and story are interesting and compelling, but they have a familiar feel to them.  There are no huge revelations in Libby’s story, but there is plenty of fun: a ball, a gay best friend, living on a ship, and a possible ghost all make appearances.  All of it is enjoyable, and all of it is incredibly fun.

There’s some nice development of the main characters.  Both Libby and Garrett, ace reporter, demonstrate the most growth.  The two have a quiet chemistry that builds into a nice little love story.  There’s nothing earth-shattering about their feelings for one another, but it’s satisfying all the same.  Some of the secondary characters feel a little too stereotypical at times, but readers who go in expecting light fun won’t be too bothered by this.  Libby’s character development helps offset any lingering feelings of stereotypes, anyway.

Recommended to fans of contemporary YA featuring plucky heroines.  Readers who enjoyed Leila Sales’s Past Perfect might find a nice companion novel here–especially if they found Sales’s heroine to be too much at times.

Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink is out today.

Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink by Stephanie Kate Strohm. Graphia: 2012. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

Book Review: 101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic by Tim Maltin

Titanic expert Tim Maltin tackles the myths and legends surrounding one of history’s most famous doomed ships in this new book.  Methodically moving from the ship’s construction and launch to its notorious sinking, Maltin tackles the biggest stories about the big ship and tells readers what the real story was.  History buffs and fans of shipwrecks should take note: this book is detailed, compelling, and accessible.

Obviously this book is going to find a readership in hardcore Titanic fans.  This could mean the ship itself or James Cameron’s eponymous, epic 90s movie.  (Did anyone else see that it’s being re-released in 3D?  Is nothing sacred any more?!)  The book might also resonate with fans of shipwrecks and history in general, but because Maltin’s book is so detailed, Titanic fans are going to be the most entertained by his account of what happened.

Using a variety of sources, including actual interview transcripts from surviving passengers and crew members, Maltin dispels the myths surrounding the ship in a clear, concise manner.  Each of the 101 issues Matlin tackles is handled in a few pages, but it never feels overly rushed–his accounts are detailed and thoughtful.

It’s a book that will also work for individuals doing research about the ill-fated ship.  The writing is accessible enough to work for high school students (or even sophisticated middle-grade readers) looking for detailed information about the boat.  This book wouldn’t be a bad resource to have in classrooms or school libraries.

Overall compelling, Maltin’s book about the Titanic is a relatively quick read that offers a great deal of information to chew on.  Recommended to fans of the ship, the movie, or those just looking to learn more about what happened to that crazy ocean liner.

101 Things You Thought You Knew About the Titanic…But Didn’t by Tim Maltin. Penguin Books: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.


(#97) Book Review: Past Perfect by Leila Sales

Chelsea has been working as a historical reenactor with her parents for years.  This summer, she’d be happy to work at the mall with her best friend and finally get over her ex-boyfriend Ezra.  But when her best friend insists on working at Essex Historical Colonial Village with Chelsea, she feels stuck.  When she shows up for work and finds out that Ezra is also working there, she feels horrified.  Between struggling with her feelings for Ezra and for a new boy (who might also be her enemy?), Chelsea’s summer is anything but carefree.

This is a written version of a romantic comedy if ever there was one.  Sales’s sophomore novel doesn’t quite hold up to her first one, but it’s still a light, fluffy, mostly satisfying read for those looking for a little escapism.  Sales is a good writer, and her humor is what carries this novel.

Because of the novel’s unique setting, Sales is able to get away with some cliches that wouldn’t work for most contemporary YA novels.  These cliches and tropes seem almost fresh because of the setting, and the funny, almost over-the-top events that happen to Chelsea and her co-workers help to lessen the trite feeling of the meet-cute and otherwise predictable plot points.  The problem is that much of the novel’s conflict is based on a petty dispute between two different re-enactment companies, and it feels too petty at times to sustain any real sense of tension.

There’s also the problem of Chelsea, who is, frankly kind of annoying.  She’s immature (and she’s supposed to be) and she mopes for a very long time over a boy the readers don’t know much about and therefore have very little stake in.  More than once, it felt as though Chelsea made decisions to further the plot instead of furthering her own character.  While Sales was able to create realistic, flawed characters in Mostly Good Girls, her protagonist in this story feels too much like an everygirl and sort of fades into the background.  As a result, I had a hard time connecting to her.

That’s not to say that the novel isn’t without merit.  It’s still a fun look into the world of historical re-enactment.  It’s clear that Sales has a respect for the business of history, and the scenes where the characters were at work were some of the strongest and most entertaining.  It’s just that the overarching conflict never felt like much of a conflict, and without that added tension, the story never quite came together.  There are charming bits, but the story feels like it’s missing something.

Past Perfect by Leila Sales.  Simon Pulse: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher.

Book Review: Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins

Lily Renee Wilheim was fourteen years old in 1938 when the Nazis marched into Austria.  Her life, formerly full of art and dance and being a young teenager, is transformed overnight.  To ensure her survival, Lily is sent to England without her parents.  That is not the end of Lily’s story, though.  She must continue to escape: from hardship after hardship and trial after trial.

Without a doubt, the strongest part of Lily Renee are the superb illustrations done by Mo Oh and Anne Timmons.  The illustrations are detailed, vibrant, and help the characters come to life.  It seems fitting that a story about a woman who was a pioneer in the comic book industry should be told by other talented women.  The use of color is especially well-done.  Lily Renee’s story seems like it could only be told through graphic novel, and so there’s no doubt that this is the right format for it.

That being said, there were some issues with the actual content.  While the graphic novel is clearly aimed at middle-grade readers, the writing was often stilted and awkward.  Too often, the story felt rushed, with important details glossed over or completely omitted.  There’s a great deal of history to cover here, but much of it is missed.  The pacing suffers as a result, making for a rather jarring read.  At roughly 100 pages, one feels that this story could have been given a little more length.

This novel will work especially well in classrooms.  Students doing biography pieces or learning about the Holocaust could seek this out as a resource, as it combines personal details with historical facts and offers both up in a pleasing, accessible format.  The drawings will attract both reluctant readers and visual learners.  Younger readers are less likely to get tripped up by the strange pacing and lackluster prose.

Recommended for middle grade classroom libraries.

Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins.  Graphic Universe, 2011. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

(#87) Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Jacob Portman’s grandfather has always told him crazy stories about the orphanage he grew up in during World War II.  He even had a collection of strange photographs of children doing peculiar things to accompany these stories.  Despite all this, Jacob always dismissed the stories as tall tales.  Then his grandfather is killed by some sort of creature right in front of him.  In order to deal with his grief (and guilt) and to make sense of what happened, Jacob and his father travel to the mysterious island which houses the orphanage, long-since-abandoned.  It is there that Jacob begins to unravel the story of his grandfather.

Ransom Riggs uses vintage photos interspersed in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and it isn’t hard to understand the appeal.  With these often creepy old photographs, even everyday moments have a sort of mystery about them: the people featured in the photographs are long-dead, the places they inhabit are changed, and the aging of the photographs lends a sense of melancholy or eeriness to what would otherwise be a normal photograph.  The photographs present in this story are the best part, which is both a good and bad thing: it is good because it creates a depth to the story that would otherwise be lacking, and it is bad because it only further highlights the problems with Riggs’s prose, story, and characterization, which are all sorely lacking.

The first third of the novel is the most compelling as Jacob provides some back story and describes the rather brutal murder of his grandfather.  The initial exploration of the mysterious island is also very interesting, and then the book takes a turn for the ridiculous and loses steam quite quickly.  It is here that the gap between the photographs and the prose is most noticeable: while the prose is just serviceable, the photos offer such potential for great storytelling that readers can’t help but be disappointed by what is offered.  Many readers will struggle with the authenticity of Jacob’s voice as a narrator: at times he sounds like a sixteen year old boy, and at times he uses the stilted vocabulary of a tweedy professor.  This uneven narration only further illuminates the novel’s flaws.

It is clear that Riggs has his eyes on future volumes (the book’s movie rights were optioned before it was even published), and perhaps because of this, he wastes no time on character development (to the story’s detriment) and instead focuses on setting up the story, which isn’t anything new.  It’s the well-trodden “chosen one” trope, and it’s not even particularly well done, which makes it that much harder to swallow.   The end of the novel clearly panders to the inevitability of a sequel, offering readers no closure whatsoever.*

That being said, some will enjoy this one.  It’s certainly a twist on the paranormal genre.  Casual fans of stories like X-Men might enjoy this one, as will fans of Neil Gaiman, if they’re looking for something that’s pretty light on substance and character development.  This reviewer probably won’t pick up future titles in the inevitable series, but she will probably flip through to look at the vintage photographs, which gave her nightmares and lit up her imagination.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  Quirk Publishing: 2011.  Library copy.

*After writing this review, Quirk announced on August 25th that a sequel is indeed in the works, to be published in the Spring of 2013.  Told you so.