Friday, June 27, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Main Character: Liesel
Location: Germany
Time period: 1940s
Genre: YA Fiction, Historical, World War II, Holocaust

This book was so highly praised in so many ways that I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. But when I read it, my main reaction was repeated annoyance. The book is narrated by Death telling the story of a young girl named Liesel and the people in her life, but he keeps interrupting himself with asides and hints as to what's still to come. This stylistic choice breaks the flow of the narrative and diminishes the emotional impact. (I had a similar reaction to the ending of the author's I Am the Messenger.)

That being said, there are many things to like about this book. Liesel, her friend Rudy, her foster parents, the Jewish man they take in and hide, even the Mayor's wife--they are all compelling characters and you want to know what happens to them, despite the annoying interruptions. Liesel has had a hard and tragic life and yearns for something more. She is taken in by a foster family, Rosa and Hans Huberman. Rosa is a loud, screeching woman whose shrewish behavior masks a soft heart while Hans is a house painter whose true calling is playing the accordion. With them and with the neighbor boy, Rudy, Liesel finds love and happiness despite their poverty. And in a freezing cold room at the Mayor's wife's house, Liesel discovers the unimaginable wealth of a room full of books. When a young Jewish man shows up at the house, looking for shelter, Hans and Rosa take him in without hesitation, and Liesel develops a special relationship with him. When I think back on this book, it's the characters and the imagery that stick with me, not the style and structure.

In short, this is a challenging but rewarding read.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Main Character: 19-year-old Ed Kennedy, a cab driver
Location: Australia
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

Ed is a high school graduate who doesn't know what to do with the rest of his life. He is content to work as a cab driver and hang out with his friends. His mother is afraid he's going to waste his life just like his father did. Then Ed foils a bank robbery and is lauded as a hero. Shortly after, he receives a playing card with three addresses on it, each one representing a person who needs help. This help can take different forms--sometimes just by talking to and encouraging someone, sometimes by using violence even to the point of letting himself get beat up.

I like Ed and his friends. He starts out a slacker, but with the cards as motivation, he opens up his world and begins to realize his potential. All through this, he wonders who is sending him the cards, who is manipulating his life. The answer, when it comes, is an unsatisfying and self-conscious deus ex machina. But until that point, I found this book an engaging read. Because of language and violence, it is for the more mature YA reader.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Black Room by Gillian Cross

Main Character:
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: The Dark Ground Trilogy #2

Robert has returned to his normal life but he can't forget those left behind, especially Lorn. He enlists his sister, Emma, and his best friend, Tom, to help. When Robert comes upon a boy who has a braided tie on his backpack, he recognizes it as Lorn's handiwork.

In the meantime, Lorn has been exploring their cavern and finds the darkness calling to her. She would like to spend more of her down there but it upsets the others, particularly Bando. With Zak and Cam now gone, Lorn has become the leader.

Again, major questions remain unanswered, but hopefully all will be revealed in the third volume.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Dark Ground by Gillian Cross

Main Character: Robert
Location: England
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: The Dark Ground Trilogy #1

Robert is on a plane returning from vacation and falls asleep. When we awakens, he is in alone the midst of a large forest. Did the plane crash? Is he the only survivor? Where is the wreckage?

Robert soon learns, to his dismay, that none of his suppositions are correct and that the truth is stranger than anything he could have imagined. He is in the park close to his house, but has somehow shrunk down to such a tiny size that his world is full of unimagined danger and challenges. He is taken in by a group of others in the same predicament but while they are content to forget their old lives and merely survive, Robert is determined to find a way home.

This is an exciting survival story with a mystery that is not solved at the end of the book--what exactly happened to Robert and the others? And who is responsible?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas by Tracey Mack and Michael Citrin

Main Characters: Ozzie, Wiggins, and the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars
Location: London, England
Time period: 1889
Genre: J Fiction, Mystery
Series: Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars #1

When a tightrope is cut and four tightrope walkers plunge to their deaths. it looks like a job for Sherlock Holmes. But Mr. Holmes has to do a job for the Prince of Wales, so he gets the Baker Street Irregulars to help out. As fans of the original Sherlock Holmes stories know, the Baker Street Irregulars are street urchins and orphans who act as Holmes' eyes and ears on the street.

This is a pleasant enough book, and a good way to introduce Sherlock Holmes to readers who are not quite ready for the original stories.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

First Boy by Gary Schmidt

Main character: Fourteen-year-old Cooper Jewett
Location: New Hampshire
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Political Thriller

Cooper loves his life on the dairy farm with his grandfather. It's just the two of them now that grandmother has died. Cooper helps out at the farm before and after school, and has no ambition beyond staying on the farm forever. But then his grandfather dies too, and Cooper is left alone. He is determined to keep the farm, and accepts the help of two neighbors, Mrs. Perley and Mr. Searle. But then odd things start happening. A black car seems to be following Cooper through town. He finds his birth certificate, but his parents' names are blanked out. The house is broken into and the small barn is burned. Then Cooper is approached by Senator Wickham, who wants Cooper to help him in his presidential campaign, representing the struggle of small farmers. But Cooper distrusts the Senator and believes that he has ulterior motives.

This was a very enjoyable thriller. Cooper is a likable character with a strong sense of self--he needs it to withstand all the adults who want to use him for their own purposes. The answer to the main mystery--why the Senator's attention is focused on Cooper--isn't that surprising since clues are well-laid, and Cooper's reaction is well in keeping with what we know of his character.

First Boy was on the 2006-2007 Lone Star Book list.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Main Character: High school student Clay Jensen
Location: Undefined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

Clay Jensen comes home from school to find a package addressed to him. Inside is a set of audio cassettes tapes. He has to dig in the garage to find a player, but when he begins to listen he is stunned by what he hears:

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo. I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why.

The story unfolds slowly, relentlessly. As each tape reveals more of the story the inevitable question is why is Clay on this list? What did he do that was so terrible? I don't want to say much more because I don't want to spoil anything, but this was an incredible, heartwrenching story of a suicide--what was done to cause it, and what wasn't done to prevent it.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Diamonds in the Shadow by Caroline B. Cooney

Main Characters: The Finches, a family in Connecticut, and the Amabos, a family of African refugees
Location: Connecticut
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Suspense

Jared Finch is not happy when he discovers that his mother has volunteered their family to host a family of African refugees. He is even less happy when he discovers that the arrangements for an apartment have fallen through and he will need to share his bedroom with the son. He notices something odd about this family--they don't act like a family. The parents don't look like their children; the son carries the ashes of his grandparents which his parents barely notice; and none of them seem to even acknowledge the daughter, who has been too traumatized by her experiences to speak. No one will pay attention to his concerns, thinking that he still resents having to share his room. How can he convince anyone of his suspicions, which just intensify when he discovers rough, uncut diamonds in the grandparents' ashes.

I like these new thrillers that Caroline Cooney is writing. This book and her previous Code Orange bring in elements of current global concerns--Code Orange deals with the threat of bio-terrorism and this one with the terrible civil wars in western Africa and the smuggling of blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds.

All of the characters are well-drawn and appealing. OK. so maybe Mrs. Finch is a little too enthusiastic is her desire to help, and maybe Mopsy is a little too annoying as the annoying little sister, but they all come through in a pinch. Jared and Mattu circle each other for a while, wary and suspicious, but they come to an understanding. Alake has the most heart-breaking story, feeling great guilt for something that she was powerless to prevent. Guilt and shame are big themes in this book, as are understanding and forgiveness.