Saturday, January 24, 2015

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

EchoMusic, magic, and a real-life miracle meld in this genre-defying masterpiece from storytelling maestro Pam Muñoz Ryan.

Lost and alone a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.

Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo. 

Middle grade books are tricky to write. The author has to balance between being overly adult-like in tone and being too cutesy for its intended audience. This book began with promise in that respect, but lost its way somewhere close to the end. 

The best part about this novel is the beginning story, with Friedrich in Germany as the Nazis are taking over. This section is balanced perfectly, bringing serious mentions of the Nazi movement while still managing to keep it at middle grade levels. The pacing was wonderful and it never got overly sweet. The second part, with Mike and his brother, was not as well done, with many eye-rollingly saccharine moments that would make any middle grader gag. Maybe it is the subject matter, two orphans trying to get adopted, but it was just too “precious”. The same thing happens with the third part of the novel, although at least this one has some interesting commentary on the way immigrants were and still are treated in the United States. 

The writer obviously knows what she is doing, I just wish that she would have left some of the Hallmark moments out of the novel. That would have made this book memorable and perhaps an instant classic.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays is a weekly meme that asks you to choose one of the following prompts to answer:
  • I’m currently reading…
  • Up next I think I’ll read…
  • I bought the following book(s) in the past week…
  • I’m super excited to tell you about (book/author/bookish-news)…
  • I’m really upset by (book/author/bookish-news)…
  • I can’t wait to get a copy of…
  • I wish I could read ___, but…
  • I blogged about ____ this past week…
THIS WEEK’S RANDOM QUESTION: How many books, approximately, do you think you have in your personal collection?

I once attempted to count all the books I have at home and got to about 1,000 before giving up. That was about ten years ago, too, so I'm afraid that amount has multiplied exponentially. I may have a wee book problem.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupez Martinez

Pig ParkIt's crazy! Fifteen-year-old Masi Burciaga's neighborhood is becoming more and more of a ghost town since the lard company moved away. Her school closed down. Her family's bakery and the other surviving businesses may soon follow. As a last resort, the neighborhood grown-ups enlist all the remaining able-bodied boys and girls to haul bricks to help build a giant pyramid in the park in hopes of luring visitors. Maybe their neighbors will come back too. But something's not right about the entrepreneur behind it all. Then there's the new boy who came to help, the one with the softest of lips.

Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez is the story of how a community in Chicago, worn and struggling with job loss after the lard company that provided income to the town closes down, pulls together to build a pyramid that will potentially help bring people to visit Pig Park. Our protagonist and heroine, Masi Burciaga, takes on the effort of saving her town so that her family and her friends can all remain in Pig Park.

The plot is certainly attention-grabbing, even if its execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. The novel’s pacing is its biggest fault. The reader gets only about a page and a half of setting before being thrust into the conflict, which works in many different novels, but not in one that should be categorized as a literary young adult novel. The reader is immediately introduced to too many “quirky” characters at the town meeting, without yet having really gotten a handle on the protagonist. From then on, readers have to play catch up to keep characters straight as the story progresses. We do not get nearly enough information on any of the characters, either, just a few of their personality traits that border on cliché. In the few paragraphs that are devoted to expanding a bit on Masi’s history, there is a lot of telling as opposed to showing, which is at odds with the rest of the writing style. 

The least believable aspect of the novel is how quickly the entire town agrees to build the pyramid, which is a dubious idea to get money for the town at best, and a money pit, at worst. Not a single person brings up some of the more serious concerns that would logically come to mind: where to get building supplies, who will build the pyramid, how the word will get out to the rest of the country, etc. All of these things are taken for granted, making the novel feel false from the very first chapter. It asks for readers to suspend too much of reality, too early on.

Although this is a book about a multicultural town, the author tries much too hard to give it ethnic flavor. This is where the borderline clichés begin. Every character is more of a caricature of a culture than someone believably alive. Even the protagonist is a cookie-cutter “Hispanic”. There is no real depth to this display of ethnicity, either. We get a few Spanish words sprinkled here and there arbitrarily and inconsistently, but the real meat of the different cultures is not there. We get gimmicks imbedded in language, not the real thing. 

The novel is categorized as a young adult novel, but the writing feels more like it should be for middle grade. It is overly simplified and the conflicts that teenagers face are not adequately represented. The conflicts are more appropriate to younger readers. 

There are many great novels for teens about multicultural communities out there, unfortunately this is not the best selection.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still AliceAlice Howland—Harvard professor, gifted researcher, and lecturer, wife, and mother of three grown children—sets out for a run and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. She has taken the route for years, but nothing looks familiar. She is utterly lost. Medical consults reveal early-onset Alzheimer's.

Alice slowly but inevitably loses memory and connection with reality, as told from her perspective. She gradually loses the ability to follow a conversational thread, the story line of a book, or to recall information she heard just moments before. Genova's debut shows the disease progression through the reactions of others, as Alice does, so readers feel what she feels: a slowly building terror.

A harrowing look at early-onset Alzheimer’s, this novel is one of those books that stays with readers for a long time. 

The subject matter is tough. This is not a book to read expecting a happy ending, but it is highly rewarding in its own right. One of the best things about the novel is that the author chose to tell it through Alice’s point of view. Even though it is in third person, we see everything through her eyes, which slowly become more and more flawed as her brain starts malfunctioning. Alice is an unwitting unreliable narrator that gives the plot its momentum. 

The writing is well planned, with great moments of repetition that mimic what Alice is experiencing. I do wish that the subject of suicide had been touched on a bit more. John, Alice’s husband, is flawed and wholly real, making it very difficult for the reader to not sympathize with him, even when he is acting selfishly or in ways we don’t quite understand. The rest of the characters all provide great foils for Alice, making each one vital to the story. 

This is a book that I will be recommending quite a bit. If you haven’t read it, do so before the movie comes out!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Still AliceFrom Still Alice by Lisa Genova 

"She remembered being six or seven and crying over the fates of the butterflies in her yard after learning that they lived for only a few days. Her mother had comforted her and told her not to be sad for the butterflies, that just because their lives were short didn't mean they were tragic."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

The Secrets of Life and DeathIn modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive....
In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her...
As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.
This book started off with promise but soon warped. The best parts about it were the historical chapters, while the modern ones dragged the story down.

The historical chapters create a mood that the modern ones do not. There is an air of mystery that is completely lost in Jack’s storyline. One of the most infuriating issues I had with the novel was how quickly Felix accepted everything that was happening with Jack and Sadie. He is a professor, why would he believe in the supernatural so quickly? Even with evidence, it should have takes a bit longer for him to have warmed to the ideas Jack presented. 

The characters could have all been developed more fully, including Kelley and Dee. When you write about historical figures, they better pop with life, and these did not. Bathory was better, but the menace wasn’t strong enough to be exciting. 

I was disappointed in this novel because its synopsis was so enticing. Its pacing is both too abrupt and too slow, if that makes any sense. This is not one I’d recommend.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Musing Mondays

• Describe one of your reading habits.
• Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).
• What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it!
• Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.
• Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!
• Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 
I've been rereading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson because I read it when I was about ten years old and it just needed a reread. I'm head over heels in love with it and I wish it were longer!