Thursday, March 28, 2013

Something Rotten, by Alan M. Gratz

 Something Rotten

Written by Alan M. Gratz, narrated by Erik Davies

Reason for Reading: I plan on reading a few Hamlet retellings, and this is the first I picked up. (Now if only I would pick Hamlet up again - what's with me?! I still have two more acts!)

In this hard-boiled teen retelling of Hamlet, Horatio Wilkes spends a summer in the small-town home of his buddy Hamilton Prince. The Prince family runs a paper plant which is currently undergoing scrutiny for pollution. On top of that controversy, Hamilton's father has just passed away, and his mother just married her dead husband's brother. When Hamilton gets a video from his dead father claiming that he'd been poisoned, Horatio promises to root out the murderer. Something is rotten in the town of Denmark, Tennessee. :)

This little mystery was funny (though neo-noir isn't my usual type of humor, I still got a few chuckles). The plot is pretty straight-forward if you already know the story of Hamlet, so I felt very little suspense - on the other hand, it was interesting to see how Gratz played around with the story to make it more appropriate to younger audiences. He managed to stay true to the events in the play, but made it more realistic and less tragic. There are a few Shakespeare quotes thrown in which made me roll my eyes and groan, but in a "good" way. :) I'd say this book is appropriate for 11-15 year olds.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wanted! by Caroline B. Cooney

Wanted! by Caroline B. Cooney

Reason for Reading: This book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

When Ally gets a phone call from her dad asking her to grab a couple of discs and drive (without a license!) in his corvette to "the place where she gets ice cream," she knows something is wrong. But when someone breaks into the house while she's in it, Ally makes a run for it - only to find out that her dad has been murdered and she's the prime suspect. Will she be able to evade the police AND prove her innocence? 

This was a fun, fluffy, and clean teen thriller published back in the late '90s and recently re-released. I read it practically in one sitting. There are certain aspects of the book that didn't translate well to the 21st century. For example, this was written in a day when most people didn't have a cellphone -  is that something today's teenager can even fathom? :) Ally made some stupid choices in this book (let's face it, it's hard to prove you're innocent when you're running away!), but in the end she managed to stay true to herself. This book would be appropriate for 11-14 year olds, and could be enjoyed by either boys or girls (i.e. it's high on suspense and low on romance). In fact, it made me miss the day in which the love triangle wasn't a required plot device for YA. Oh, those were the days!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam


Written by Bonnie Nadzam and Narrated by Tavia Gilbert

Reason for Reading: This was long-listed for the Prize Formerly Known as Orange. 

Lamb hits a mid-life crisis when his wife divorces him for infidelity and his father passes away. Just after his father's funeral, he meets Tommie - an 11-year-old girl who desperately needs guidance. Lamb is strangely attracted to the girl - he wants to help her seize life, he wants to buy her presents and make her happy. Then, with Tommie's consent, he abducts her. 

I had a really hard time deciding how to rate Lamb. The narrative was intriguing - almost addictive - but the subject matter was very disturbing. I had a hard time putting it down because I wanted to know how it would end. I felt compelled to keep reading despite a deepening sense of unease. From the subject, I should have known it would make me feel that way, but I thought it would be a book with more hope in it. I respect the way Nadzam kept the details subtle. There were no highly disturbing scenes (well, there was ONE scene that was a bit disturbing, but it could have been much, much worse). My recommendation - read this book if you would enjoy looking at pedophilia from another perspective, but avoid it if this is a sensitive topic for you.

Spoilerish Discussion 

Before deciding how to rate the book, I took a look at what other people had said about it. There are, predictably, people who loved the book and people who hated it. In the interest of proving to myself that I'm not narrow-minded, I want to have a spoilerish discussion to address some issues that came up in the positive reviews.

First of all, one review pointed out that it was unclear who the narrator of this book was. To me, it seemed that the book was in the third person subjective, focusing on Lamb. There were a few scenes where it seemed to be from the POV of Tommie, but even that could have been in Lamb's head. So that's how I'm interpreting the book - our narrator is telling us what Lamb is thinking, and sometimes Lamb thinks about what Tommie is thinking, and sometimes he thinks about what might be happening back in Chicago as Tommie's parents look for her, but we're always inside Lamb's head.  That is very important for how I interpreted the book.

Another thing that affects the way I perceive Lamb - I despised him from the beginning. Even before he abducted Tommie. Even when his intentions seemed kind. I despised him because of how he treated his girlfriend. He was manipulative and creepy and a liar. All he wanted was sex, and although he claimed to have qualms of conscience about his behavior, that's ALL he had. Small qualms. These qualms didn't stop him from manipulating her, did they? Qualms of conscience don't make someone a "good" person. Listening to qualms makes a person "good." Behavior is what I'm interested in, not whether a person feels guilt or not. The fact that he feels guilt proves that he's not a sociopath, but he's still a jerk. Just because he rationalizes his behavior, does not mean his rationalizations are justification. We need to interpret his rationalizations with skepticism.

Yes, he rationalized his original interest in Tommie as helpfulness. But let's think about it. The very first time he met Tommie, he grabbed her arm and threw her in his truck so hard that her head hit the window. She was terrified. Yes, he rationalized that he was helping her to see what could have happened. She shouldn't have approached him - a stranger - because he could have been dangerous. He rationalized that he taught her a lesson. But the fact that he was willing to frighten her like that was the first hint that his behavior towards her was driven by darker urges. Yes, perhaps this time around his rationalization had some grain of truth in it. Perhaps she did learn a lesson. But was that lesson his to teach?

Lamb's rationalizations continued throughout the entire book. I never interpreted them as anything but rationalizations. So I was rather surprised when I read in some reviews that they interpreted his intentions as good. Let's think about this. 

Rationalization 1) Abducting her in front of her friends taught her a lesson about approaching strangers and about shallow friends. - We discussed this above.

Rationalization 2) Encouraging her to skip school and lie to her parents in order to hang out with him didn't corrupt her, because she was already doing those things. - Well, if he really cared, he wouldn't encourage her to skip school and keep secrets. That's sleazy, creepy behavior. 

Rationalization 3) Abducting her and teaching her to be a woman was helpful, because she needed that would help her break out of that awkward phase in life and burst into the world with new confidence. She'd look back with fondness on him. - Now this is where the rationalization gets sticky. I interpreted these flash-forwards to be rationalizations taking place in Lamb's head. BUT, if you interpret these flash-forwards to be accurate or from the point of view of Tommie, I can see where you might (as some people apparently do!) think that Lamb helped Tommie. In the interest of not being narrow-minded, I tried to look at it from that point of view. But, no. The story simply makes more sense to me if I interpret these flash-forwards as rationalizations in the head of Lamb. And Lamb is rationalizing because he knows he's hurting her. In fact, it's clear he knows he's hurting her, because there are other scenes in which he's crying and telling Tommie that if she ever hates him, she should kick his balls in. Doesn't that show us that he knows he's doing wrong?

Some reviews actually suggested that Lamb loved Tommie, and that his intentions were good. But he knew he was hurting her (or else he wouldn't break down into tears and tell her to kick his balls in, and he wouldn't rationalize). He was consciously lying and manipulating her. (It's clear that these were conscious acts, because in one scene he pointed out to his girlfriend that he makes people say and do things.)  So, I'm convinced that Lamb knew he was hurting her - why would he act that way if he loved her? That's not love. Love is selfless. That's a darker sort of obsession. That's acting on urges. Love can be an obsession, but we shouldn't assume that obsession is love.

Finally, some people questioned whether Lamb had actually slept with Tommie. There was nothing that directly said he did, but I felt it was implied. He definitely kissed her, saw her naked, and slept in the same bed as her. Furthermore he got kicks out of letting Tommie watch him having sex with his girlfriend, which is a form of molestation in itself. So, yes, how far he went is still a question, and I'm glad I didn't have to read that one last detail. But I made my own conclusion about the issue - and it wasn't good.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Written by Manning Marable, Narrated by G. Valmont Thomas

Reason for Reading: This was one of the books I'd listed as potential reading for my Social Justice Theme Read in February. I chose it because it won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012 and was a finalist in the National Book Award.

In Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable set out to honestly portray a man and to humanize an icon. Marable intended on filling in holes left by truth-bending and necessary lack-of-future-knowledge in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Since I am not an expert on the subject, I have to say that Marable's book seemed very thorough and well-researched. It was also an engrossing narrative. I feel it well-deserves its Pulitzer Prize. My only complaint was towards the beginning of the novel, Marable inserted some innuendo about Malcolm X's sexuality - which was unnecessary, and rather rude since he didn't have any hard evidence to support his claims. That innuendo was referenced obliquely a few times in the first quarter of the book. Luckily, those references stopped for the last three quarters of the book, or I would have been left with a very bad taste in my mouth.

The only reason I bring up that complaint is because I was looking for hints to why there's a controversy about this book. I was wondering if there was anything I, personally, could pick up. I'm not very familiar with what the controversy is about - and I haven't seen any controversial reference to the innuendo that bothered me. Mostly, the controversy seems to be about Marable's lack of respect for the impact Malcolm X had on the Black Liberation Movement. If you're interested, here's an interesting article on the topic. There's also a book entitled A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable's Malcolm X, if you really want to delve into the issue. However, I am satisfied that Marable did a lot of really good research, and wrote an interesting and informative book. The issue of exactly what long-term impact Malcolm X had on the Civil Rights Movement and the country as a whole is an opinion, in my opinion. 

G. Valmont Thomas did an excellent job of narrating this book. Quite enjoyable. :)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata


Written by Cynthia Kadohata, Narrated by Elaina Erika Davis

Reason for Reading: This book won the Newbery Medal in 2005

In this endearing book, the Takeshima family moves to Georgia so that Katie's parents can work in the chicken factory. There, young Katie learns about Southern racism and the practically-slave-labor conditions of factory workers. But when Katie's older sister Lynn becomes sick, Katie learns the hardest lesson of all...This is a sweet story - and pretty typical for Newbery winners. (Newbery judges certainly like bereavement, racism, and Southern settings!) The character in the book ranges from about 5-7, I'd say, but I think the subject and reading level is more appropriate for a 10-12 year old.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

Let the Circle Be Unbroken, by Mildred D. Taylor

Let the Circle be Unbroken, by Mildred D. Taylor

Reason for Reading: This was one of the books that I planned on reading in my February Social Justice Theme Read and decided I would have to read later this year. (I really WILL read them all, I'm determined!)

Cassie and her brothers are sent reeling by a shockingly racist trial - the culmination of events from the first book in the series, Roar of Thunder Hear My Cry. In addition, Cassie's growing up, so she learns a lot about inter-race relations and the often humiliating effects. This is a heart-rending (though sometimes slow-moving) children's historical fiction. The story deals with complex issues and is character-driven, so even though the reading level is approximately 5th-7th grade,  this is not a book for reluctant readers unless they have a particular interest in race relations. It's a book for children who love to read - and to absorb ideas. It's definitely a good addition to the Roll of Thunder Series, and I find myself curious to follow the family's saga to the end. :)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Cast of Stones, by Patrick W. Carr

A Cast of Stones, by Patrick W. Carr

Reason for Reading: Review copy was provided by publisher through Net Galley for an honest review.

Errol Stone has grown to manhood as the town-drunk in an out-of-the way village. When a messenger from the capital city comes for a reclusive monk, Errol offers to help deliver the message in exchange for enough money to keep him in drink for a week. But he is attacked while trying to deliver the message, and is consequently swept up into an intrigue that he'd rather ignore. He and the monk must travel to the capital city, for it appears that the childless King might soon be on his deathbed, and corrupt politicians are vying for the throne. This story also throws hints about an evil force more powerful than man which might overthrow the land if the King dies without an heir. 

I really enjoyed this story. I was sucked in from the beginning, and I could easily empathize to poor Errol's feelings that events were circling outside of his control. He was a very real character to me, which is rare in YA fantasy. The world-building was also impressive in this book. The world was built upon foundations expected for Christian Fiction, but it had the right ratio of realistic to fantastical elements to make it a fun and easy read. My one complaint is that the book ended in a cliff-hanger. The basic quest that was begun in this book was completed, thankfully, but it left many threads dangling for the next book. Luckily, that book will be published later this year. This story is suitable for young teens and up. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Skellig, by David Almond

Skellig, written and narrated by David Almond

Reason for Reading: It was there

Soon after Michael's family moves to a new home, his sister is born prematurely. While his parents are ferrying the newborn back and forth to the hospital, Michael deals with his stress by exploring their dilapidated garage. There, he finds a strange owl-like man. As Michael and the girl-next-door nurse the winged man back to health, he learns a lesson about love. This was a sweet little book. It was quite short, so there wasn't a lot of plot, but the characters and premise was quite adorable. This book would be appropriate for 7-9 year olds who enjoy reading magical realism. 

Almond did a fantastic job of narrating his own book. He has an engaging reading voice and had all the rhythms and intonations flowing well. :)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

Reason for Reading: Real life bookclub

Camille Preaker is a troubled young woman and a mediocre journalist. When her editor sends her to her home-town in Missouri for investigative reporting on a possible serial killer, she must stay with her emotionally-destructive mother and wild half-sister. As Camille struggles with ghosts from her past, including her own self-destructive behavior and memories of a dead sister, she discovers that the murders are darker and more complex than she'd originally suspected. 

Although this book certainly had a good deal of mystery to it, it wasn't really for me. Although I generally liked Camille's character, there were several times when I groaned inwardly at her choices. She was weak and self-destructive. Such characters are really difficult to write well, and Sharp Objects had a bit of a debut-novel feel to it - perhaps Camille's character should have been created by a more seasoned author. Another issue I had with the book is it was simply too dark for my tastes. There was so much ugliness in the book. Violence, self-loathing, sexual exploitation, and more. On the other hand, I DO understand why some people like this book. The key question to ask is - how much ugliness can you deal with? If you like reading about emotionally troubled characters, then this book would be attractive to you. There was a slight redemptive feel to the story at the end. A ray of hope for Camille. I appreciate that I was given that much. :)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion

Reason for Reading: Loved the movie and trying to kill reading slump.

R is an above-average-intelligence zombie (he can speak 4-6 syllable sentences!) who is living a doll-drum life in an abandoned airplane - but his un-life gets a sharp slap in the face when he meets Julie, who by all rights he should have eaten. Instead, he takes Julie home and tries to communicate with her. This small act of curiosity on R's part ignites a chain event of new perceptions. The world must crawl out of it's stagnant existence and remember what it was to live.

I admit that I watched the movie first. I generally don't do that, but it just happened that way. I LOVED the movie and had to rush out to get the book. This is one example where I'd say I liked the movie and the book equally. :) Warm Bodies is unquestionably a retelling of Romeo and Juliet (right down to the balcony scene), but it was certainly the most unique retelling I've read. Additionally, I interpreted the book as a parody of YA paranormal romance - I took it very tounge-in-cheek. So I got a LOT of laughs while reading it. But what I thought was most interesting was the allegory. The zombies symbolized passionless people who have simply accepted life as directed by the ruling body (Bonies, in this case). And R was a zombie who just couldn't quite conform. I loved the idea that a renewal of passion (and I don't just mean romantic passion) could revive R's potential as an individual. One simple act of individuality could change the course of history. On the other hand, I got a little tired at the end of the book of the cheesy internal dialog (and I DO mean internal dialog and not monologue). I think Marion was laying on his philosophy a little too thick. It would have been much more elegant to leave these philosophical discussions out - anybody who was willing to see Marion's philosophy would be able to do so without cheesy dialog. But that was my only complaint about this funny, quirky, and delightful story. :)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Reason for Reading: This was one of my planned reads for the social justice theme read in February.

When Arnold "Junior" Spirit accidentally breaks his rez-teacher's nose, he gets a piece of unexpected advice: get off the rez before you lose your spirit. Junior decides to go to the all-white high school in a farm town 20 miles away from the reservation. He consequently deals with racism from the whites and hatred from his reservation friends, while fighting the usual teen problems of making friends, succeeding in sports, hiding his poverty, and impressing the girls. This book is hilarious and tragic at the same time. I loved the cartoons drawn by Junior...and I loved his dry, sarcastic humor. The characterization was fantastic - I really felt for Junior during his troubles. But you can't read this book and expect some fuzzy-happy picture to be painted of reservation life. This book is gritty and realistic. Even rather depressing at times. I was really touched at Alexie's honest portrayal of the life of a reservation kid. I look forward to reading more of Alexie's books in the future. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Unnatural Issue, by Mercedes Lackey

Unnatural Issue

Written by Mercedes Lackey,  Narrated by Kate Reading

Reason for Reading: This was meant to be included in a fairy tale challenge in February, but that didn't work out for me too well. But I'm still going to finish up my Donkeyskin books, regardless! 

When Earth Master Richard Whitestone's wife dies in childbirth, he discards their newborn  daughter Suzanne in a fit of rage. Suzanne is raised as a servant of the household, while her father wastes away in his chambers. After many years, Whitestone develops a new passion - necromancy. When he sees his daughter wandering his lands, he realizes she is the perfect vessel in which to trap his dead wife's spirit. Suzanne must flee her father, and hide in the guise of a servant in another household. But her skill in Earth magic is difficult to hide...

This is a non-canonical retelling of the fairy tale Donkeyskin, and is part of Lakey's Elemental Master series. Although it certainly has charm and originality, it is not my favorite of the Donkeyskin retellings, nor of the Elemental Master series. I felt the premise of the book - a necromantic father, Elemental Masters fighting in WWI, with a touch of romance - had promise. Unfortunately, it just wasn't delivered as well as it could have been. The romance seemed forced, and the war sections uninteresting. Not that it was a terrible book, but it could have been so much better. Lackey is better than this. 

But, if you're looking for a fluffy-quick read, or an original fairy tale retelling, this book will certainly deliver that. :) The narration by Kate Reading was quite good. She did the voices well, and had good timing. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Written by Tracy Kidder, Narrated by Paul Michael

Reason for Reading: This was meant to be read for my Social Justice Theme in February, but things didn't work out quite as I'd planned. I finished the book in January, and haven't had the time to review it until now. :) Better late than never!


In this moving biography of Paul Farmer, Tracy Kidder takes us on a world tour of medical missionary work. Farmer started his mission to save the world from tuberculosis one patient at a time in the slums of Haiti. Practically from scratch, he developed a clinic that would treat the poor. But Farmer not only treated his patients, he listened to them, he cared about each one with individual interest, and he provided food and supplies so that his patients wouldn't be saved from tuberculosis only to die of starvation.

As his mission in Haiti gained more and more momentum, Farmer's expertise on tuberculosis (especially antibiotic-resistant strains) became world-renowned. He was asked to help set up clinics in Peru. He worked with the health systems of prisons in Russia, where antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis was rampant. And he loved each and every patient, regardless of who they were. 

While describing the incredible non-stop work of Farmer, Kidder managed to make the doctor more human. I could imagine Farmer, cheerful despite sleep-deprivation shadows under his eyes, flying from one country to another in a worn-down suit that he would never have time to replace. From the book, it seemed that Farmer might pause for hours to have a heart-felt conversation with a patient, even while a room-full of self-important Harvard doctors awaited his arrival. I could empathize with Olivia, Farmer's old flame, who once felt a twinge of satisfaction to realize that Farmer was only human - she could annoy him. Being around someone like that must be exhausting. Kidder painted a brilliant man with limitless energy, unimpeachable morals, and the charisma to make his dreams a reality. I felt overwhelmed just listening to the book. :) I can't imagine what it must be like to work for him (or date/marry him). And yet, it's impossible for me to not admire him. 

I found this book fascinating not only because it was a description of an amazing man with a daring love for humanity, but also because I enjoyed learning more about the social/economic conditions of Haiti. The narrative flowed smoothly between Kidder's personal impressions of Farmer and Haiti to well-researched narratives of Farmer's life outside his work. 

I enjoyed Paul Micheal's narration of the book - though I have little to comment on his style of reading. It was one of those audiobooks that I was so absorbed in the story that I forget to be distracted by the narrator - which means Micheal must have done a good job. :)