Thursday, December 27, 2007

The King of Mulberry Street Celebrates Triumph Over Trial

I was planning to take a break from this blog until January, but I just can't seem to do it. Maybe it's that I can't bring myself to stop reading, even for a week. Who knows, but here I am with a review of the book I just finished - Donna Jo Napoli's wonderful young adult novel, The King of Mulberry Street.

The year is 1892, and 9-year-old Dom Napoli is sleeping in a barrel on the mean streets of New York. It's not the life he imagined for himself when he stowed away on a cargo ship bound for America. Now, his homeland of Naples, Italy, is far away and he has nothing except the clothes on his back and the brand new shoes his mother gave him before secreting him on the ship. Although he knows no English, Dom knows he must do what his mother advised: he must simply survive.

But survival on the streets is no easy feat. The filthy alleys teem with homeless children willing to commit any crime to satisfy their cruel padrones. Dom knows enough to stay away from these evil overlords, but he still has to live. Other street kids advise him to steal what he needs, but Dom can't bring himself to do it. After all, what would his Nonna think if he surrendered all the principles she strove so hard to teach him? Maybe he has to hide his Jewish roots to survive, but he will not abandon them altogether.

So, Dom does what his Jewish ancestors have always done - he pulls himself up by his bootstraps (so to speak) and gets to work. First, he hunts for a job to earn money for passage back to Italy. His search leads him to Chatham Street, where he hopes to find work in a factory. When he realizes that Italian workers make less money than anyone but the Chinese, he knows a factory job will never work; he will have to use his own ingenuity to make enough money to get home. While visiting his friend Tin Pan Alley, a beggar on Wall Street, Dom hits upon a brilliant plan. He decides to buy a long sandwich in Five Points for .25, cut it into smaller pieces and sell the portions for a quarter each on Wall Street. With the help of Tin Pan Alley (the only one who speaks enough English to hawk the food) and Gaetano (Dom's friend, also from Naples), he starts his own business. The sandwich plan works like a dream, earning Dom and his friends more money than they ever dreamed possible. Their newfound wealth brings trouble as well as prosperity - suddenly, bigger boys are stalking them, eager for the coins in their pockets; Tin Pan Alley's padrone is getting suspicious; and other kids are moving in on their turf. Still, Dom is determined not only to survive, but to spread his fortune to the other street children. His generosity - or stupidity, in Gaetano's mind - earns him the nickname "The King of Mulberry Street."

Dom soon realizes, however, that even a king can't right every wrong he sees. His determination to topple the patroni system leads him to a situation that will change his life forever. Learning the truth about his mother will also force him to face truths he'd rather not see. Will these horrors cripple the boy? Will he succomb to the gritty streets and their evil padrones? And, most important, will Dom survive to return to his beloved Italy?

I enjoyed this story about the resilient Dom, who fights to stay alive without letting his humanity die. He's a boy with whom all readers can identify, and one whom all will cheer on as he battles for survival. His story moves along swiftly, with well-developed characters and vivid settings. Although Napoli hints at the darker elements of street life (i.e. prostitution and drug addiction), the references are subtle. The only truly devastating scene in the book is when Dom confronts Tin Pan Alley's padrone. Despite these dark matters, the tone of the novel is definitely hopeful. It really celebrates triumph over trial and remaining true to yourself even in the most dire situations. You'll love this story of Dom, The King of Mulberry Street.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bookish Gifts

I wasn't planning to post here until after the New Year, but I wanted to pop my head in and show you the fun bookish gifts I got for Christmas and my birthday (the 22nd). My MIL got me Bookopoly, which looks like a lot of fun. She also got me Big Susan by Elizabeth Orton Jones and the hilarious red lady on the far left, whose skirt holds one of my favorite quotations: "She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain." I believe it's by Louisa May Alcott, who penned one of my favorite books, Little Women. I received Strangling Your Husband is Not an Option by Merrillee Browne Boyack - you'll never guess from whom it came :) My mom gave me the fun cookbook, and my SIL gifted me with Barbara Taylor Bradford's Living Romantically Every Day, which looks fun. I also got book money that I'm very much looking forward to spending! Thanks, everybody, you sure know how to spoil a bookworm.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Well...I'm going to be MIA this week. I'll still be reading, of course, but I will be busy with Christmas and family. I'm sure you will be,too. Have a wonderful holiday, whatever you celebrate, and I'll catch you in the New Year!

All Wrapped Up

Whew! I finished the Fall Into Reading challenge, reading all six books on my list. They were:

The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Sarah's Quilt by Nancy E. Turner
Woman in Red by Eileen Goudge

The only book I really did not enjoy was Woman in Red. It was poorly written, poorly edited and poorly constructed. I wasn't really wowed by The Zookeeper's Wife either, but at least it was a well-written account. The Giver, The Lightning Thief and Sarah's Quilt were my favorites.

Thanks for hosting, Katrina. It was fun!

Despite Small problems, Sarah's Quilt Sews Up Nicely

I waited so long to check in with Sarah Agnes Prine, I'd forgotten how much I adore her. Her story begins in These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner, then continues in Sarah's Quilt. Although I didn't enjoy the latter as much as I did the former, I was still glued to Sarah's every word. You will be, too.

Sarah's Quilt continues Sarah's journal, with entries from the year 1906. And what a year it is. A terrible drought has seized the Arizona Territory, sizzling Sarah's crops and killing her cattle. Despite wishes and prayers, rain eludes them, leaving the land to bake and wither under the unrelenting sun. As if the weather hasn't brought Sarah enough troubles, she soon receives a letter from her brother Harland, which tells of the terrifying earthquake that has leveled their San Francisco home. Sarah rushes to their rescue. After torrential rain in California, she is disappointed to find that none has reached the desert. Her ranch is still suffering. To her dismay, she finds that Mother Nature isn't the only culprit - someone has tampered with her well. Desperation finally causes the family to hire a water witch, a strange man who sets Sarah's teeth on edge. Soon, another stranger arrives to cause her angst: Willie Prine, a teenage nephew Sarah has never met. Before the summer's through, Sarah will be up to her neck in troubles, from Willie's childish acts to her mother's "addled" mind to tornadoes, wildfire, and two men vying for her attention. Amidst it all, she must fight with all her strength to save the ranch she loves.

While Sarah's Quilt teems with action and drama, it's the characters that really make the book shine. All of them, even down to a poet cowhand, are memorable. Sarah, herself, makes an honest, believable narrator. Her strength and forthrightness demand respect, while her trials and sorrows make her real and sympathetic. I literally laughed and cried with her. She feels that real. Sarah's saga is so moving because she's a strong character who tells her story simply and beautifully, without melodrama or saccharine sentimentality.

I thought the plot presented surprises aplenty, although I felt the human source of Sarah's problems was obvious enough. It took her the whole story to see the truth, of course, but you'll spot the traitor a mile away. My copy also had a plethora of editing errors, although I found myself forgiving them because I was so caught up in Sarah's story. A lot of times, predictability and poor proofreading can ruin a book for me - not so much this time. Sarah's Quilt is just that good.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Challenge Crazy

Against my better judgment, I signed up for two more challenges:

You can get more information about the challenges and see my lists on my challenge blog, Up For A Challenge.

I think I'm officially insane. I just typed up a list of all the books I'm reading for challenges in 2008 and the remainder of 2007. My list has 128 titles on it! Maybe a dozen are alternates, but still...I'm going to be busy.

So, my New Year's reading resolutions are: 1.) Finish all the challenges I've signed up for, and 2.) Host one of my own (probably toward the end of the year).

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Percy Jackson's Debut is the Stuff That Myths Are Made Of

Percy Jackson, star of Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, has had a tough life. First, his father abandoned him and his mother when he was just a baby. Then, his mother married Gabe Ugliano, whose surname just about says it all.

At least, his mother dotes on him. Still, Percy just can't seem to stay out of trouble; He's been kicked out of six schools in as many years. Now, he's at Yancy Academy, which would actually be enjoyable if it weren't for two things: dyslexia, and the fact that nothing seems to go right when he's around

Now, he's headed home for the summer and things seem to be going from bad to worse. He and his mom set out for Montauk, where a hurricane has them running for their lives. Only the hurricane isn't really the problem - it's the minotaur that's got Percy terrified. Yep, you read that right - a minotaur, as in the bull-man monster from Greek myths. I know they're not supposed to exist, but in Percy's world they do, because (as he soon discovers) he is a half-blood, as in half-god, half-mortal.

After narrowly escaping the minotaur's grasp, Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood. Here, he finally learns the truth about his parentage (some truth anyway), his dyslexia (his brain is pre-wired for ancient Greek, not English), and the reason bad luck always seems to be only a step behind him (monsters have been following him, of course). Still, this is the worst bad luck he's had. Explanation? Easy. Hades (God of the Underworld) and Zeus believe that Percy has stolen two magical objects - Zeus' lightning bolt and Hades' war helmet. The thefts have the gods threatening war, a prospect that would not be good for anyone.

The only solution seems to be for Percy to take up a quest to find the true thief, recover the stolen items, and return them to their rightful owners. Despite the oracle's warnings, he selects two companions and embarks on the quest. What ensues is a harrowing trip across the U.S., which will take the trio to the River Styx and beyond. On their way, they encounter a group of monsters that seem to have stepped right out of a textbook on Greek mythology. When all is said and done, the thief is not who they thought it was, but someone much, much closer. In fact, it's someone Percy would call a friend.

The Lightning Thief offers a wonderful romp through a fantastical world of larger-than-life characters, from the powerful Zeus to a modern-day Medusa. The plot twists and turns, cleverly using mythological elements to keep the story racing along. Probably the most engaging thing about this book is Percy, our bumbling, misunderstood hero. He's likeable, human (well, kind of) and completely sympathetic. His voice is so authentic you almost believe his story is real. Although the story's a little predictable (you will spot the camp traitor a mile away), it's an irresistibly fun read. I'm heading right out to find the sequel.

Grade: A

Don't Waste Your Time on Goudge's Cliches and Melodrama

Just when I thought I may not have time to finish the Fall Into Reading challenge, I got a surprise - my husband bought me a plane ticket to visit my parents in Washington State. This was a wonderful gift in and of itself, but the fringe benefit was all that reading time. I spent about 6 hours on a plane and 2 hours in the airport. The result? Two books read. Woo hoo.

I boarded the plane with Woman in Red by Eileen Goudge in hand. I loved the cover art on this one and the story's premise sounded intriguing, so I delved into the book. After a few chapters, I wanted to climb right back out. Since my other book was stowed somewhere under the plane, it was Woman in Red or Southwest's in-flight magazine. I stuck with Goudge.

At the book's center is Alice Kessler, a woman who is fresh out of prison and looking for a new start. After doing nine years for the attempted murder of the man who killed her eldest son, Alice only wants three things: a home, a job and a chance to reconnect with her surviving son, Jeremy. That is, of course, easier said than done. When Alice returns to her home on an island in Washington, she crashes into roadblock after roadblack. No one wants to rent to an ex-con, let alone hire one, and Jeremy refuses to forgive her for abandoning him. Even her normally laidback brother-in-law, a sheriff's deputy, is acting strangely toward her. To top it all off, the man Alice tried to run down is now the mayor of the city. She suspects his influence has closed every door in the town. Alice's only allies seem to be her faithful sister and a stranger she met at the ferry dock.

The stranger is Colin McGinty, a New York City lawyer haunted by the death of his wife on 9/11. After drowning his grief in booze, he has ruined his career and lost all his friends. He is retreating to the cabin he inherited from his grandfather, hoping to find a little peace. What he finds is Alice Kessler, someone wrapped as tightly in sorrow as he is. Colin is drawn to her not only because of her obvious vulnerability, but also because she looks startingly familiar. It is only when Colin is alone in his grandfather's cabin, staring at a portrait the old man painted, that he realizes Alice bears a striking resemblance to the mystery woman in the picture.

While unraveling the mystery of the painting, Alice and Colin form a friendship that has the potential to go much deeper. Before the relationship has the chance to blossom, however, Alice gets another blow - Jeremy is being accused of rape. She knows only too well who's behind the trumped-up charges. Together, the two work to help Jeremy, while still probing the past for clues about old McGinty's painting. The two are, of course, connected, and Alice is determined to find out how. The question is, can she do it in time to save her son? Or is she doomed to face him only through prison bars?

As I said before, the plot really caught my attention. Unfortunately, its execution had me gritting my teeth in annoyance. For one thing, Goudge tried to pack so many issues into the story that it became both meandering and melodramatic. Too many crises occurred for the story to be believable. Don't even get me started on the scene between the mayor and Alice's brother-in-law - it's ridiculous to say the least. I could have forgiven the weak plot if Goudge had at least created some interesting characters. Nope. Didn't happen. Each one was as flat as a paper doll. Some of them were so cliche (Calpernia, for example) that I actually laughed out loud. Another thing that bugged the heck out of me was the sloppiness of the text, both in editing and in sentence structure. I got especially sick of redundant sentences like, "'Alice,' she said, not giving her last name" (16). Ugh. I hate it when an author thinks she has to do all the thinking for you.

This book annoyed me so much that I would have abandoned it after the Prologue (which was riveting, by the way), but I wanted to finish it for the Fall Into Reading challenge. So, I did, but if I were you, I wouldn't waste my time.

Grade: D

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sequel Shines As Bright As First in Stroud's Magical Trilogy

After reading and loving The Amulet of Samarkand, I worried that the second book in Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy might not live up to the first. I shouldn't have worried.

The Golem's Eye picks up two years and eight months after the first book left off. Our hero - er, young magician, Nathaniel - is now working for Internal Affairs, strutting around London enjoying his new-found importance. His cozy little world is shattered, however, when an unknown menace begins wreaking havoc in the city. The government assumes it's another hit from the Resistance, and assigns the problem to Nathaniel. Eager to solve the crimes (thus gaining the notoriety he craves), the young magician summons his most powerful servant, the colorful Bartimaeus. Predictably, the djinn is not happy to see his former master, especially since "The boy had changed somewhat since I'd last seen him, and not for the better ... he was harder, harsher, and altogether more brittle" (167). Still, he's bound to young Nathaniel, and must obey his orders. Thus, he finds himself in the destructive path of an ancient enemy, who appears to be controlled by a magician. In order to return to his own world, Bartimaeus must help Nathaniel find the Golem's master.

This old pairing might have gotten a little dull (even though I adore Bartimaeus as a narrator), but Stroud introduces an exciting new element in the form of Kitty Jones. The teenager belongs to a group of Resistance workers, all of whom possess some form of resilliency to magic. This ability puts her in the perfect position to undermine the magicians who rule London. However, the group's activities prove ineffective, causing Kitty increasing discontent. When an informant tells the group how to break into the treasure-filled tomb of a famous magician, she can hardly contain her excitement. The dangerous mission doesn't exactly go as planned, and Kitty soon finds herself hunted by the government and one John Mandrake (a.k.a. Nathaniel).

Kitty proves slippery, but when Nathaniel dangles a friend's life in her face, she has no choice but to cooperate. Before the magician has a chance to extract information from Kitty, the two - along with Bartimaeus and Kitty's friend - find themselves face-to-face with not one, but two monstrosities from the Other World. Can the group save London from its twin terrors? Can they escape with their own lives? And, perhaps most importantly, will Nathaniel survive when everyone who knows him wants him dead?

I thoroughly enjoyed this second installment in Stroud's trilogy. Bartimaeus shone as usual, but he definitely had to share his spotlight with the brave Kitty Jones. She's as compelling as Bartimaeus, although her voice is more somber. Still, it's hard not to feel for her as she courageously takes on the magicians who routinely trample commoners like her under their shiny boots. I enjoyed these two characters immensely, but I really couldn't stand Nathaniel. He's an arrogant brat whose morals take a backseat to his ambition. Honestly, I found him almost insufferable in this book. Hopefully, he'll prove himself in the next volume.

For anyone who loves tales of magic and mystery, this trilogy is not to be missed.

Grade: A-

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Doing My Duty

While I sipped my hot chocolate this morning, I read an editorial about the decline of reading in the U.S. The reporter, one Kevin Horrigan, was pondering the irony of selling out of Kindles in the same week the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the U.S. is experiencing a reading crisis. According to the NEA, which got its info from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "the average American, age 15 and up, spends three hours and six minutes every weekend watching television and only 26 minutes reading." In addition, the NEA cites a 2002 survey which said that 43% of Americans hadn't read a single book for pleasure in 2001. Seriously? That's appalling.

Considering all this, I thought I should do my part to support booksellers and encourage reading in my home. It was all out of duty, I promise. So, I hit Borders, where I bought the following:

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig - I love Gone With the Wind and am excited to read this "official" sequel (prequel?) to Margaret Mitchell's classic
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James - I'm planning a Jane Austen binge for the Triple 8 challenge, and thought this one would fit in nicely.

Then, because my sense of duty was so overwhelming, I forced myself to go to a big sale at the Scholastic warehouse in Phoenix. Obviously, I took the obligation seriously, because I couldn't stop myself from purchasing these goodies (all at 30-60% off - yipee!):

Magyk by Angie Sage and Mark Zug - I've seen some great reviews of this YA book
Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle - This YA mystery/adventure caught my attention
The Secret School by Avi - I'm excited to read this one for the Newbery Award Project
The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue - This is the story of a woman hovering between Earth and whatever comes after death - sounds interesting
Coraline by Neil Gaiman - It's Neil Gaiman - what more do I have to say?
The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale - I've read great reviews of this one
Monday with A Mad Genius - This one is for my daughter, who loves the Magic Treehouse Series
A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck - This book cracks me up, and it was only a dollar! What a steal.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson - I thought this historical novel about a young woman who works a homestead in Montana sounded intriguing
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis - This one has gotten fabulous reviews. I can't wait to read it.
Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin - This one is for my son, who adores Diary of a Worm
The last book is a book about weather for my science-obsessed son.

Phew! I love stacks of books - they carry such promise. Plus, they give me something to write about when I haven't quite finished the book I've been reading for a week. I'm getting there...hopefully, a review of The Golem's Eye will be up tomorrow. Until then you can feast your eyes on my bargains :)
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Monday, December 03, 2007

So Many Books, So Little Time

I read - okay, devour - book blogs for two reasons: to get reading recommendations and to
mingle with other book lovers. I love books about books for the same reasons. So, when I heard about Nancy Pearl (via a podcast from NPR), I just had to check out her books.

If you don't know, Nancy Pearl is a bibliophile who has worked as both a bookseller and a librarian. Her book recommendations have earned her a reputation as "a rock star among readers and the tastemaker people turn to when deciding what to read next" (quote from her website). Pearl chats about books on National Public Radio (NPR), on her website and in her books Book Lust, More Book Lust, Book Crush, and others.

Book Lust is essentially a listing of recommended titles categorized by topic. The topics cover nearly every genre, from poetry to historical fiction to biography to "books that are simply about nothing" (256). Each section contains at least 6 recommended titles, both fiction and non. Some of her suggestions are obvious (Amy Tan for Chinese-American fiction, Chaim Potok for Jewish, etc.), and some are more unique. Pearl also offers a good mix between classic and contemporary literature.

I'm not sure how many titles Pearl covers in Book Lust, but it's a lot. To cover that much ground, she makes short work of plot summaries, usually limiting herself to one sentence per title. I need more than that to decide if I will like a book or not, so I found that aspect of the book annoying. Otherwise, I thought the book covered a good, wide-ranging selection of titles. I was awed by the sheer amount of books discussed and the fact that I had read only a fraction of them. That's the only problems with books like this - and book blogs for that matter - it reminds me of how many books there are out there and how little time I have to read them...

Grade: A-
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