Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

So, it seems like the Amazon/CA tax spat is, perhaps, the reason why the Amazon Associates Blogger widgety thinger isn't loading. I don't use it for kickbacks, just for adding book covers to my posts, but I really wish it would be available again.

Without it, I can still tell you about a book I finished a few days ago. How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) is the first book I've read from the author; I often get her mixed up with someone else whose books aren't quite to my taste, and I keep accidentally avoiding Zarr. Oops, because this was really good.

Jill is a senior in high school who's coping with her dad's death and her mother's desire to adopt a baby. When soon-to-be mom Mandy, hardly more than a child herself, arrives in Denver to stay with Jill's mom ahead of childbirth and her open adoption, Jill can't believe what's happening to her family. Mandy can't, either; she's never been loved, but she knows what it feels like to be without love, and she wants her child to have a good home. Jill hates Mandy instantly, and suspects her story and motives. Mandy is suddenly unsure about everything besides her desire to get away from her mother and her mother's abusive boyfriend. But, maybe, Jill and Mandy have something to learn about the meaning of the word family.

What I loved: I was totally sucked in by How to Save a Life, even though it sounds like an "issues" book that I wouldn't be so interested in. This is a story where the issues are part of the story, as opposed to a story where the issue is the story. The latter tend to not work so well. Also, Bechdel test. Also, in alternating chapters, Jill and Mandy narrate the story and have distinct voices--something I'm finding to be rare of late. Jill is cynical, bold, suspicious; Mandy is straightforward but secretive, childlike, needy. Fantastic work.

I received this book in advance copy from the publisher.

Posted by e-mail. Tags and graphics TK.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Steel Trapp by Ridley Pearson

Steel Trapp: The ChallengeSteel Trapp: The Challenge by Ridley Pearson (Disney Editions) is a middle-grade thriller about a kid named Steel Trapp, who gets involved in solving a kidnapping and terrorist plot on the way to the national science fair. His foil is Kaileigh, a runaway who's on her way to the science fair too, and whose help Steel will need if he's going to figure out why this strange woman was trying to leave a briefcase on the train, and what it has to do with a missing person.

I liked this more than I thought I would, especially given how much I hated an adult thriller I read by the same author. This kid thriller doesn't have as much science or tension or spies as I'd like, but unlike adult thrillers, it doesn't have the casual misogynism, racism, etc. that so many do. It's tough to get middle grade kids in on the action, but this worked for me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown) is one of those books you start hearing about, and you don't have, and then later, you wonder what took you so long to get around to reading it.

First, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a gorgeous book. The cover is beautiful. The interior is beautiful. There is color and nice paper. Even as I read more books digitally--in order to keep from feeling like I'm going to be buried by falling shelves, to avoid dust and illness--there are books I would always prefer to read in treebook format. I'm glad to have held this in my hands.

I'm pretty sure I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon in March, so I can't quite remember why I didn't totally love the first twenty pages, but I'm pretty sure it was random personal preferences in how I feel about particular words and sentence construction. Nothing exciting there. I do recall that I put the book down for a couple of days, and when I picked it up, I was sucked in for good.
My remaining impression is that WtMMtM is utterly charming--gently whimsical, adventurous without brashness, positive. Lin provides a bibliography of resources for the many Chinese tales that served as inspiration; I've seen a lot of people comment that even when they're familiar with the originals, they don't know how the original works into the plot. I think that's fascinating! Retellings are tricky, but it's also tricky to turn lots of influences into something new. Let's face it: we love particular tales so much that we've handed them down over and over, problems and prickles and all, so it's not easy to let go in just the right places to make something feel both fresh and timeless.

Minli and her parents live in the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, and they have to work hard to eat. Minli's mother wants more, and Minli wants more for her, so she sets out to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him to change her fortune. Before long, she's teamed up with a dragon and a talking goldfish, and before long, she's relying on the power of story to guide her to the end of her journey and home again. The power of story is a very nifty thing in this book. With no spoilers, let me just say that it's a book that manages to be both simple and sophisticated, that manages to address the mundane in a magical way.

Marketed as MG, the prose is accessible even for early readers (perhaps with an assist here and there), and there are multiple levels on which one can read the book, so it's a worthy pick for all ages.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetI read The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Random House - Ballantine) back in February. Yes, I am behind on reviews. (Only about 15 more books to catch up on, though!) I'd recommended the book as a gift for others, but hadn't gotten around to reading it myself, and I kept putting it off; I think I had the wrong idea about it from the cover, or maybe from not looking closely at the cover. (I was expecting something set along a boardwalk-like place in Italy. I have no idea why.)

If I had had a better idea of what the book was about--I was avoiding spoilers!--I might have read it sooner. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is set in WWII-era Seattle and the modern day. A (first-generation Chinese) man, whose wife has just died, passes by a hotel that has been closed for many years, and sees that the belongings of Japanese families who were interned were retrieved from the hotel's basement. He remembers a Japanese-American girl he knew as a child, as well as what was happening with internment camps, politics (particularly local ones), music, discrimination, and the like, while--in the present story--trying to sort out his feelings about his wife's death, about his relationship with his son (who's marrying a white girl), and what happened to his friend Keiko.

I had a hard time getting into the first couple of chapters; they felt rough, to me. But, after that, I was completely hooked on this story of lost love--and the history, the setting, the story. Some of it shocked me; for example, there's a mention of two adults not able to be married because of their skin color, and I realized that it hasn't been nearly long enough since that was how things were. I recognized some of the same (often irrational) fears that drive people to do things not in keeping with human civility. And so on.

While I've never lived in Seattle, I've spent enough time there to enjoy the city as character; for example, there was mention of a street that's now a place to get on and off I-5, an exit that's always my nemesis when I visit. I've driven through some of the areas where the characters live and work on my way to other places.

Despite my interest in WWII-era music, I don't recall spending a lot of time on WWII in history classes, and I've always been much more interested in culture and pop culture of time periods than I have been in who was at war with whom and the details of battles. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet isn't a history book, but it opened my eyes to some things that I never knew had gone on so near to where I lived. I would be very interested in reading more by this author, no matter what the subject.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pretty Monday

How about a collection of nifty kidlit book trailers? See them at http://publishingperspectives.com/2011/03/ultimate-childrens-ya-book-trailers/ -- and have a great Monday.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Best Of: One Year Ago

Last September, I was deep into the Tomorrow series by John Marsden. I really, really love Ellie. I really love how that series makes war no fun at all, but keeps you hanging on the characters' every move. You want them to fight--and you want them to go home and rest.

Room: A NovelBut if I had to pick a best book from that month's reviews, I'd have to go with Room for being that book that you simply can't forget. It's horrible, thought-provoking, and amazing. I was at turns disgusted and at turns laughing at Jack, the five-year-old narrator. I couldn't believe the resilience of his mother. I wondered what was going on in the brain of their captor. I was angry. I plotted escapes. And when I was done, I was certainly exhausted. But if you're up for a read like this--one disturbing in many ways--I very much recommend Room.
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