Thursday, January 27, 2011

Star Crossed

Star Crossed
By Elizabeth C. Bunce
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010. 359 pgs. Teen fiction

Digger is a thief, forger, and spy whose partner in crime in nabbed by the Greenmen, the king's police group. With him gone, Digger has to quickly find a new plan, and when a group of young nobles invite her to join with them, she invents a new identity, Celyn Contrare," and soon finds herself serving as a lady-in-waiting for Merista Nemair and living with Merista's family in a remote region of the kingdom. She's waiting for a chance to escape, but one of the Nemairs's guests knows "Celyn" isn't who she says she is and forces her to spy for him, so she has to figure out how to give him enough information to keep him satisfied without revealing enough to destroy the family that has so graciously taken her in.

This book started off a little slow for me; the world Bunce is different enough from what I'm used to reading that I struggled to get into it and understand what was going on. Once I discovered the glossary in the back, that helped speed things up for me , and from then on, I was hooked. The story is adventurous, and I liked watching Digger deal with her emotional struggle: she doesn't want to get attached to the Nemair family, and she also has to face things from her past that she is running from. Overall, I really enjoyed the book and am anxiously awaiting the sequel. Four stars.

This book is mostly a clean read--a little bit of innuendo, and one of the characters is a "companion" but that's about it.

(As a side note, I expected there to be an element of romance--maybe because the title made me think of Romeo and Juliet--but there isn't any. I still hope to see that develop in the next book, but for other readers who might be seeking that element, be warned that it isn't there.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Help

The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009. 451 pgs/approx. 18 hours. Historical Fiction

In 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, society girl Skeeter, who is an aspiring writer, finds that she's uncomfortable with the way white women treat their black maids. As she decides to write about things from the perspective of the help, she gets Aibileen and Minny, two of the black maids, to tell stories about their lives and their experience working for white families. Although this puts them all at great risk if anyone ever finds out, as they work together, they also realize how important it is for them to take that risk.

This was one of the most-talked about books of 2009...and I just finally got around to listening to it on CD. (In my defense, it's been constantly checked out at the library.) I really enjoyed it; the story really makes you think about race relations and how people can work together to change things. The characters are great, the story is moving, sad, funny, and inspiring, the setting is well-developed, and the language is perfect! This is a book that could draw in just about any reader.

Looking at things from a multicultural aspect, I've done some internet searching and found that some African American readers think the book is offensive because of the dialect; others have said the dialect was accurate and that the story is good because it dispells the Mammy image. One complaint was that only the African American characters speak in dialect. I haven't seen the book so I don't know about the way it's written, but I will say that listening to it on CD, I did think the white women spoke in a southern dialect, too. I definitely thought the portrayal of African American women invited readers to look beyond this "Mammy" image of African American women and see that they're aren't jolly, happy, love-to-serve-their-white-families type women. Instead, we see a diversity of African American women; we see women who are strong and sassy and smart. We see women who are sweet and those who have a bit of a temper. We see PEOPLE, not stereotypes. For me, that's the mark of a good book--when the characters are real, rather than flat, stock, stereotypical characters.

Listening to it on CD was both good and bad--I loved the narrators' voices, however, it's SO long, and I could have read it so much faster than I listened to it. But for listeners who have the patience to make it through all 18 hours, it really is a treat to listen to the narrators.

Five stars.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour

Any & Roger's Epic Detour
By Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2010. 344 pgs. Teen fiction.

Amy has just finished up her senior year of high school in California and is supposed to drive--or rather, be driven--across the country to Connecticut where her mother has taken a new job. Emotionally empty after her father's death, her mother's move and her brother's commitment to rehab, Amy isn't looking forward to this journey. However, it turns out Roger, the son of her mother's friend who will be driving her across the country, has some issues of his own, namely the girlfriend who dumped him and his lack of closure about the situation. Amy and Roger quickly decide to find their own way across the country, rather than following the route that Amy's mother mapped out for them, and their emotional journey takes even more twists and turns than their physical journey.

YES! I have been a little burned out on books, feeling like I've been wading through mediocre books and not really enjoying anything, but this book was exactly what I was looking for. Great characters, great story line, and great voice. I thoroughly enjoyed detouring with Amy and Roger and am excited about not only this book but about reading again, which shows the power of a great book.

Four and a half stars.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Where the Streets Had a Name

Where the Streets Had a Name
By Randa Abdel-Fattah
Scholastic, 2010. 313 pgs. Middle Grade Fiction

Hayaat is thirteen years old and lives in Bethlehem, where her family has been forced to relocate after the creation of Israel and subsequent conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A Muslim Palestinian, Hayaat must live with curfews and restrictions on travel. Although her family lives only six miles from their beloved Jerusalem, they are not allowed to go there. However, Hayatt believes that getting a jarful of soil from her grandmother's (former) land in Jerusalem, she will be able to prolong her grandmother's life. So Hayaat and her best friend Samy, a Christian Palestinian, set out for Jerusalem.

This book is phenomenal. Have grown up in the U.S., I think there's definitely a bias toward Israelis and against Palestinians, since the U.S. has traditionally been an ally of Israel's. I think there's a prejudice toward Palestinians, thinking they're all a bunch of Muslim terrorists. However, this book does much to encourage readers to think about the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts and see how there are many similarities between the peoples; just as many Jews wanted a place to live and feel safe following the Holocaust, Palestinians wanted to have their ancestral land. There are some very thought-provoking scenes in this book and characters of a variety of faiths (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) representing a variety of beliefs. It's also a great coming-of-age story as Hayaat faces her fears and finds peace in herself and hope in the future even in a situation where it would be tempting to lose hope. Although this book is being promoted as Abdel-Fattah's "middle-grade debut" (she's written two other great books for young adults), I think the story is interesting enough to drawn in older readers as well.

Four stars.

Left to Tell

Left to Tell
By Immaculee Ilibagiza
Hay House, 2006. 215 pgs. Biography

Immaculee Ilibagiza was living a good life in Rwanda; the first woman in her family to attend college, she was working toward a bright future. However, racial tensions, which had been in place in Rwanda for many years, erupted in 1994, and Immaculee was caught in the middle of it. As the majority group, the Hutus, began massacring the minority Tutsis, Immaculee, a Tutsi, found herself fighting for her life. In approximately 100 days, one million Tutsis were killed, and while Immaculee lost the majority of her family, she found a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ as she hid from the Hutus and prayed for her survival.

Immaculee's story is simultaneously sad, horrifying, inspiring, and moving. The atrocities committed against the Tutsis will turn readers' stomachs, but Immaculee's developing relationship with God is remarkable. This faith-filled story is an important one for people to become familiar with.

As a side note, it seems like a lot (or...all) of the books I've read that take place anywhere in Africa feature violence and war, and while such topics are certainly important and accurate, I wonder if I'm getting a skewed perception of Africa. Is Africa as bloody and violent as we're led to believe? What are the other sides of it?

Another African author, Chimamanda Adichie, talks about the "danger of a single story," or, basically relying on a single idea to represent a whole people/nation/continent in this really fascinating video: Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story | Video on
There's a really interesting part where she discusses a professor informing her that something she had written wasn't "African". So, I ask--what do we think it means to be "African"? Do we simply think of poverty, violence, and AIDS? What else is there? What other stories are there that need to be told? Tying this back to Left to Tell, Immaculee talks about how Rwanda is a beautiful country, like paradise. How many of us would associate Rwanda with beauty? While it's definitely important to know about the Rwandan holocaust, what more is there about the country that we need to know? What other stories do Rwandans have to share? And, what are some good sources for finding those stories?

Overall, 3.5 stars because the story is great, but the writing isn't necessarily the most compelling.