Wednesday, January 28, 2009

And the Newbery Goes To ... A Most Unlikely Candidate

I never figured Neil Gaiman for a Newbery Medal winner. Apparently, neither did he. I just read an article in which he says:

I am so wonderfully befuddled. I never really thought of myself as a Newbery winner. It's such a very establishment kind of award, in the right kind of way, with the world of librarians pointing at the book saying, 'This is worthy of the ages.' And I'm so very used to working in, and enjoying working in, essentially the gutter.

However unexpected, the award is certainly deserved. Gaiman's The Graveyard Book stands as one of the most inventive, delightful books I've ever read. Aw, what the heck? I'm going to come right out and say it: This book is fabulous. Stop reading this review. Grab your keys. Hop in your car and head to the nearest bookstore. Don't waste time on library waiting lists. You want a copy of this book, and you want it now. What are you still doing here? I'm not kidding. Get thee to the closest bookseller and purchase this book. You will not regret it.

Okay, now that I'm talking to myself, let's rehash the story: One black night, a shadowy man kills three members of a family while they sleep (yes, this year's Newbery winner starts with a triple murder). His hunt for the last member - an 18-month-old baby - proves unsuccessful, as the child has tottered out the back door. Unaware of the tragedy that has befallen him, or the shadowy man who tracks him, the toddler climbs a nearby hill, seeking adventure. At the top of the hill sits an old graveyard, the residents of which are startled to discover a live baby in their midst. Sensing danger, a kindly ghost snatches up the child, vowing to protect him. The boy is granted Freedom of the Graveyard, which gives him invisibility from the living and protection among the dead. His new mother names him Nobody Owens, and proceeds to nurture him the best she knows how. With the help of Silas, a creature who dwells on the border between life and death, the graveyard ghosts raise "Bod," teaching him history (from firsthand accounts), manners (which haven't changed all that much through the centuries), ghostly tricks (Fading, Dreamwalking and Haunting) and language (everyone should know how to call for help in the tongue of the ghouls).

When Bod meets Scarlett, a living girl about his age who is playing in the graveyard, he feels alive for the first time. When she moves away, he is devastated. Desperate for some more interaction with his own kind, Bod begs Silas for permission to attend the neighborhood school. Knowing the man who killed Bod's family is still at large, Silas reluctantly agrees, but warns Bod to keep a very low profile. It's not long, however, before he is standing up to the school bullies, drawing more attention to himself than is wise. His bravery gets him into a fat lot of trouble - soon, it's back to solitary confinement in the graveyard.

Six years later, after isolating himself from all living creatures, Bod detects a familiar face in the cemetery. Although he's sworn off interaction with the living for good, he's immediately drawn to this grown-up Scarlett. The more time they spend together, the more questions she asks - suddenly, Bod is as curious about himself as she is. How did he get to be in the cemetery? Who were his real parents? And why is a dark, shadowy man trying to kill him? Finding the answers will put Bod and everyone he loves at risk - but he has to know who he really is. Most of all, he has to exact revenge on the monster who stole his family. Bod's not afraid to die, but now that his life is in real danger, there's only one thing he wants - to live. What will become of this remarkable boy?

If you followed my advice, you may already know how The Graveyard Book ends. If you didn't, then what are you waiting for? Trust me - you don't want to miss this most unlikely Newbery winner. A fun, family-friendly tale from the master of all things macabre - really, what more can a reader ask for? Nothing. So get off the computer and stick your nose in this book. It's so good, it's spooky :)

Grade: A+

Note: Although I designated this a clean read, it uses the "D" word at least once and it does contain a brief reference to homosexuality (Why do authors ruin a clean read with one line? I hate that.)

New York Ghost Story Disappoints This Reader

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I love me a good ghost story, even in January, when Halloween has long since faded away. Maybe it's because October in Arizona still feels like July; January's nice and crisp, like October in states with normal weather. Whatever the reason, I plucked The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh out of my ginormous box of books from Disney Publishing (Thanks again, Hallie!) with great anticipation. I loved the premise behind the story - a boy discovers New York's Underworld, a kind of purgatory for the dead - and was anxious to see what Marsh did with it. Unfortunately, she didn't do quite enough to satisfy this reader.

This YA novel concerns one Jack Perdu, a ninth grader who would rather translate Ovid than play video games or chase girls. He lives with his father, a college professor who still grieves for Jack's mother, who died 8 years ago in a freak scaffolding accident. A loner, Jack spends most of his time with his nose buried in a book, a habit that leads to an accident of his own - he nearly loses his life when a car slams into him. Although he makes it out alive, Jack's not sure he's completely back to normal. After all, he's seeing and hearing some very strange things. A concerned Professor Perdu sends Jack to New York for a consultation with an old doctor friend.

Things get even stranger when Jack arrives in the city. Dr. Lyons turns out to be a weird old quack, who doesn't even bother with an exam. Then, while waiting for his train home, Jack discovers an odd girl named Euri, who tempts him into some "urban exploration." It doesn't take him long to realize there's something very wrong with his new friend. By that time, it's too late - he's trapped in New York's murky Underworld. Not surprisingly, Euri's one of its resident ghosts. Although Jack's not real keen on hanging out underground, he has one very good reason to stay - since his mother died in New York, she's likely to be hanging around the Underworld somewhere. He will give anything to find her.

Being alive in the Underworld does have its drawbacks - namely, Cerebus, a slobbering 3-headed dog on the hunt for living invaders. Armed with his father's map, Jack and Euri set out on a quest to find Anastasia Perdu, but the search turns up more questions than answers. Why is there an asterik next to her name in the record books? If her death was accidental, why the strange notation? With the help of Euri and some rather famous ghosts - Ruthven Todd, Dylan Thomas and Alan Ginsberg, to name a few - Jack will discover some startling truths about his mother. He'll also get a few shocks from Euri, who's not exactly what she seems. Jack's quest will also give him answers to his most probing questions - who is he? And what have his parents been hiding from him?

Jack's adventures make for a quick, action-packed read, but so much of the plot just didn't come together for me. I also didn't feel much of a connection to the main characters, although I found many of the minors - especially the dead poets - utterly charming. As I said before, I love the premise behind this book, I just wanted a more cohesive storyline, fuller characters, and more satisfying explanations for all the mysteries of the Underworld. Despite its flaws, the story did keep my attention. The ending was not exactly what I was expecting, so I found it a bit of a letdown. I really, really wanted to like this story, but it just didn't quite do it for me. I'm debating whether I should pick up the sequel or not - I'd say there's only a ghost of a chance.

Grade: C

Note: Although I designated this a clean read, it does contain mild profanity, which amounts to a few hells and damns sprinkled throughout the book.

Second Chance Pass Makes V.R. Folks Fight For Their Happy Ending

The good folks of Virgin River, California, shoulder their ups and downs without a lot of
complaints Hardworking mountain people, they prefer to get on with life and leave the drama to the city crowd. Lately, however, life seems to be bringing more downs than ups, and the little town is not without its drama. All the excitement makes Second Chance Pass, Robyn Carr's 5th Virgin River novel, a fast, absorbing read. Never fear - Carr's not crossing to the dark side - the book still has all the cozy goodness of its predecessors.

Warning: While this review contains no spoilers for Second Chance Pass, I may inadvertently spill secrets from the earlier books. Trust me - if you haven't read the beginning of the series, do it. If you've already indulged, read on ...

The story opens with a discouraged Paul Haggerty drinking away his sorrows in an Oregon bar. Although he's still head over heels for Vanni Rutledge, he can't bring himself to tell her. That would mean betraying the memory of her deceased husband, Paul's best friend, Matt. No matter how passionately he loves her - has always loved her - Paul can't burden her with his guilty love. He stayed by Vanni's side through Matt's funeral, through her grief, through the birth of their child; now, it's time to head home and get on with his life. The only problem is he can't let go, and that leads to a one-night stand that gets him into even bigger trouble. Tortured by his poor decisions, Paul distances himself from the only person who can really bring him comfort. Meanwhile, Vanni can't understand Paul's reticence. Sure, she's still grieving her husband - she'll always miss him - but she's ready to move on. With Paul. Only, he's hiding in Grants Pass, ignoring her. Can't he see how she feels about him? And why is he being so cryptic about his life in Oregon? Is she better off with the handsome pediatrician who's all too available? Down at the bar, startling news from Ricky has Jack and Mel in a tailspin. Mel's second pregnancy has been tougher on her than the last - Jack's worried, with good reason, it turns out. Then there's Tom, who's relationship with Brenda's getting so hot everyone can feel the heat. What will happen to Brenda's tender heart when he ships off to boot camp? Speaking of heat, wildfires are burning up the hills, edging ever closer to the forests of Virgin River. A blaze could mean scarred trees, destroyed home and total evacuation of the little town.

Of course, good things are always happening right along with the bad. There's a baby on the way for Preacher and Paige; a happy surprise for Mike and Brie; plans for adding on to the bar; and romance is in the air for more than one bachelor. Even when friendships become strained between a few of our favorite players, the Grace Valley crew calmly moves forward. As usual, love, friendship and good humor sees them through their troubles.

My biggest complaint about Robyn Carr's books - and, really, it isn't much of a complaint - is that they're predictable. With Carr, happy endings always prevail. But you know what? It doesn't bother me. What I love about Carr is her ability to create the kind of warm, cozy towns everyone wants to live in, and the kind of good, loyal people everyone wishes they had as friends. Even though I know how the stories will end, I still want to read them. That says a lot about an author. Having said that, I need to say this - Carr really puts her characters through the ringer in this book. More than ever before, they have to fight for their happy ending. This makes Second Chance Pass the most exciting in the series so far. Virgin River, the first novel, will always be my favorite (since that's when I fell in love with sexy Jack *sigh*), but this one runs a close second. I couldn't put it down.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Adoption: It's About Love

Since I'm on the topic of adoption, I wanted to show you a video produced by LDS Family Services. It's less than 5 minutes long, but you're going to need a box of Kleenex to get through it. The video is basically an interview with a birthmother named Tamra who placed her baby for adoption several years ago. My husband and I had the opportunity to hear her speak at an adoption conference we attended last summer, and were touched by her story. I rarely use this blog to "preach" or debate hot issues, but I think anyone considering adoption (or abortion) should check this out:


Monday, January 26, 2009

In Their Own Voices Eye-Opening Resource for Adoptive Parents

(Image from Adoption Today)

The first question people ask upon glancing at my newborn daughter is, "What's her ethnicity?" Her brown skin and curly black hair pretty much serve as a billboard, announcing loud and clear that she is not my biological child. The fact that she's bi-racial (her birthmother is white; her birthfather is black) doesn't matter a lick to me, but I realize it may become a challenge for her as she grows up in a white family living in a predominantly white community. My concern led me to Amazon, where I searched for books to give me some instruction. I found surprisingly few. However, In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda looked to be exactly the kind of book I wanted. So I ordered it, waiting anxiously for it to arrive on my doorstep. As soon as I read the Introduction, I realized the book was not going to give me what I craved. What I really wanted was reassurance that: (1) As a white woman, I can effectively raise a bi-racial child; (2) Said child will be confident, responsible and whole, unaffected by her birth and subsequent adoption, and (3) Because of the bonds we create, she will never long for her biological family, or prefer it over ours. A few pages in, I discovered that In Their Own Voices is hardly the feel-good, reassuring type book I thought it would be. Instead, it's unflinchingly honest, sometimes frightening, but always fascinating. Like one reviewer said, "It should be required reading for anyone who is thinking of adopting or has adopted a child from another race."

The book consists of interviews with 24 black and bi-racial adults who were adopted as children by white families. Author Rhonda M. Roordan, herself a transracial adoptee (TRA), conducted all the interviews but one - Roordan answered questions asked by co-author Rita J. Simon. Prompted by the authors' questions, the interviewees discussed their experience as black children growing up in a white family; their relationships with both the black and white communities; their views on transracial adoption; whether they consider themselves black or white, and so on. The interviews are presented in Q & A format, which allows readers to hear the people speak "in their own voices." It feels like an intimate roundtable discussion, a candid, no-holds-barred conversation with those who have been there.

As the white parent of a bi-racial child, I learned some invaluable information from this book. The biggest eye-opener for me was this: The majority of the TRAs of mixed race identified themselves as black. Why this should surprise me, I don't know. If you saw my daughter, you would never label her white. Anyway, because society views them as black, they are treated as such. Therefore, almost all of the interviewees agreed that bi-racial children need to be exposed to the black community as they are growing up. To white parents they suggest living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods; teaching children about the literary, musical, scientific, etc. contributions of African Americans; allowing kids to explore their "blackness"; and being open and honest about issues of race, discrimination, adoption, etc. Every respondent but one said they supported transracial adoption, but nearly all of them suggested that adoption agencies provide serious training for couples considering a transracial adoption. Having received little of this kind of education, I wholeheartedly agree.

Another thing that surprised me (I know you all are laughing at my naivete) was that there are people out there who vehemently oppose transracial adoption. In my mind, it's better for a child to be placed with a loving family of another race than for him/her to bounce around from foster home to foster home, waiting for an adoptive family of their own race. Even if the child feels out of place in his/her adoptive family, at least he/she is in a loving environment. So, it shocked me to read these statements from William T. Merritt, a spokesman for the National Association of Black Social Workers:

"Black children should be placed only with black families, whether in foster care or for adoption."

"We view the placement of Black children in White homes as a hostile act against our community. It is a blatant form of race and cultural genocide."

To be fair, Merritt made the first statement in 1971, and the second in 1985, when debates about race were perhaps more heated. It is also unclear if he considers bi-racial kids "Black children." When I first read these words, I was appalled, especially after reading interview after interview stating that few black couples are available to adopt. After pondering the idea that "white families - no matter how liberal or well-intended - cannot teach a black child how to survive in an essentially racist society" (9), I find myself at least understanding the NABSW's position. I still believe that love conquers all, but I can definitely see where the group is coming from. (For more information on the NABSW and their work to find suitable African American homes for children in need, please visit their website.)

The authors of In Their Own Voices do not take a stand on the issue of transracial adoption, or white parents raising black children; rather, they allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions based on what he/she has read. What I took from the book is this: White families can successfully raise black children, but they should make a conscientious effort to expose their children to the black community. If they are not committed to helping their children find their identity - racial and otherwise - then they should not adopt transracially.

I'll be honest, certain aspects of this book scared me to death, but other parts actually did give me some of the reassurance I needed. Most of all, In Their Own Voices opened my eyes to issues to which I had not given enough thought. It's truly a fascinating, eye-opening look into transracial adoption. That being said, I also have to point out that this book was published in 2000, with most of the TRAs being adopted in the early 1970s. Also, most of the respondents were raised in the Midwest or on the East Coast. I'm curious how the experiences of TRAs adopted in the 90s would compare with their counterparts from the 70s. I also wonder how the lives of TRAs raised in the South or on the West Coast compare to those on the opposite sides of the country. I wish the authors had addressed both of these questions. Lastly, I should clarify something that the authors don't - all of the transracial adoptees with whom they spoke were either black or a black/white mix. So, if you are looking for a book that specifically addresses children of Asian or Eastern European or American Indian or Indian descent, this is not it. Of course, much of the information would apply, I'm just saying I think the cover should have noted that the authors were discussing black/white adoptions. All in all, though, In Their Own Voices is a fabulous resource for white parents and their children. I highly recommend it, as well as its companion volume, In Their Parents' Voices, which is sure to be just as enlightening as this one.

Grade: B

(Note: I realize this is a controversial subject and that I may have inadvertently offended some people. I apologize if this is so. As always, I value your comments on this book or the topic of transracial adoption in general. If you prefer to communicate with me privately, send me an email at blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM] .)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Happiest Readers On Earth


Passionate readers know there's nothing better than receiving a free copy of a favorite author's new book, so imagine how thrilled I was when a British publicist offered me a copy of Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. I was just about to hit the "Reply" button when I noticed a small problem: the publicist could only send books within the U.K. Cursing my U.S. address, I sent him my disappointed reply. A few days later, I got another email from one Hallie Patterson, a publicist from Disney. Not only did she offer me the Stroud book, but she sent me two fat catalogs of books she had available for distribution. I started marking my selections, thinking, "There's no way Hallie's going to send me 50 books," but guess what? She urged me to request as many as I wanted. Needless to say, I went crazy. Today, a big, heavy box arrived on my doorstep. Books, books and more books. And it's only a third of the titles I requested. I couldn't be more excited. Really, I couldn't. Thanks so much, Hallie and Disney!

My 4-year-old was home when the package arrived. I ordered two of these book and magnet sets for him - the Wall E and Toy Story themes. The sets come with a book based on the movie, a set of character magnets, several backdrops, and a handy dandy carrying case. The sides of the case are magnetic, so kids can slide in a backdrop then stick the magnets on to create scenes from the film. Best of all, everything fits neatly in the case creating a portable fun center. My only complaint about the product is that my son couldn't open the case by himself. Several of the sets are available on Amazon for between $10 and $15. The price may be a little steep, but my son loved this product. I'm not sure where else you can find these - I'll check with Hallie and get back to you all.


My impatient 7-year-old has been asking me every day when "her" books were going to come in the mail. When she saw the box from Disney, she about flipped. She's now devouring her many Disney Fairies books and kits. I haven't even had a chance to look through her loot, much less review any of the products, but I can tell you that she's super excited. I think the pictures say it all!
Yay for a good mail day, and yay for an awesome company who knows exactly how to get books into the hands of eager readers.

In the Land of Invisible Women Offers A Riveting Look Under the Veil of Arabian Women

(Image from Sourcebooks)

When my 7-year-old daughter spied the title of this book - In the Land of Invisible Women - she wrinkled her little face in confusion. "Mom," she asked, "How can a woman be invisible?" I know she was not asking a deep, philosophical question, but was stumped by pure logic - People are solid, therefore they cannot be invisible. Before I had a chance to explain, she flitted outside to build a fairy house, but it made me wonder if she, a daughter of 21st Century America, could even fathom a world where women live under such oppression that they cannot drive, own property in their own names, or drift outdoors without cloaking themselves in thick robes. To a child who's been taught she can do and be anything - a doctor, an astronaut, even president - such a world would be as foreign to her as Mars.

The land in question is Saudi Arabia, pre 9/11. Author Qanta Ahmed admits some things (like women being allowed to drive) have changed since she dwelt in the Kingdom, but In the Land of Invisible Women focuses on what was happening during the years she lived and worked in Saudi. Dr. Ahmed, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, studied and trained in both England and New York City. After several years in the U.S., her American visa ran out, so she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to relocate to Saudi Arabia, where her medical skills were needed at King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh. The prospect of a high salary and free rent drew her to the Kingdom. Although friends expressed concern over her decision, she felt little apprehension - after all, she was a Muslim woman "well-acquainted with the ways of an Islamic Kingdom" (8). It didn't take her long to realize just how different life in this foreign land could be.

Dr. Ahmed became especially fascinated with the lives of Saudi women, who functioned under laws dictated by extremist leaders. By Western standards, their lives were oppressive nightmares, their every movement guarded by men. At the time of Dr. Ahmed's residency in the Kingdom, females were required by law to veil themselves when in public. In addition, they were not allowed to drive, own property in their own names, or appear outside their homes alone. Powerful Muttawas (or religious policemen) patrolled restaurants, malls and other public arenas to ensure the rules were followed. Foreigners received no leniency, so Dr. Ahmed followed the same rules as her Saudi counterparts. By studying these women - feminists, extremists, cowards, advocates, vocal and silent - she learned to appreciate their plights. Through Dr. Ahmed's many stories, the reader also comes to admire them in all their variations.

Dr. Ahmed also discusses the many contradictions in the Kingdom, from Pepsi-slugging, Cadillac-driving Saudis who despise the U.S.; to American-trained doctors' "unmistakable fetor of relish in the face of [9/11's] destruction" (397); to brilliant female doctors unable to express second opinions for fear of offending their male colleagues; to women veiled to escape men's glances conducting affairs with "Bluetooth boyfriends." In the end, she remains puzzled by a place where

I still count the dichotomies: angry divorcees who dream of becoming second wives; conflicted Saudi men who cannot forsake the expectations of powerful matriarchs; womanhood that is both oppressed and liberated by veilings; Saudi men who are feminists and Saudi grandmothers who propogate female suppression ... (435-436).

As fascinating as all these discussions are, the most poignant sections of the book come as Dr. Ahmed deals with "the fleeting Muslim within me" (112-113). Disappointed with Saudi Muslims who display flagrant sexism, anti-semitism and other kinds of racism, she becomes disillusioned with the Saudi brand of the peace-affirming religion she has always known. Still, a trip to Mecca offers spiritual rebirth, which finally allows her to feel a sense of belonging in the Kingdom.

In the Land of Invisible Women is not light reading. It's a riveting hard-hitter that offers a unique and intimate look under the veils of a culture steeped in complexity and contradiction. Throughout, Dr. Ahmed provides an honest, sometimes scathing, sometimes sensitive look at the fascinating nuances of Saudi culture. It also provides a moving potrayal of one woman's search for her own self, her own soul. Unique and intensely moving, In the Land of Invisible Women is not to be missed.

Grade: B

(Note: If you're interested in hearing a radio interview with Dr. Ahmed, click here.)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Holocaust Memoir Explores The Pages in Between

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I always find it difficult to describe my reaction to books about the Holocaust. It just feels wrong to say I liked or loved or was entertained by stories about one of the greatest atrocities in human history. Still, the horrors and triumphs of the time period have inspired some incredible literature. While I don't consider Erin Einhorn's The Pages In Between to be of the same caliber as Elie Wiesel's Night or John Boyne's The Boy in Striped Pajamas, I do consider it to be an engrossing, well-written memoir about the Jewish experience in Poland.

The Pages In Between is a detailed account of the author's quest to better understand her mother, Irena. According to family folklore, Irena was born in a Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Bedzin in 1942. Terrified the Nazis would discover the newborn, her family kept her hidden, shoving pillows in her face to mask her cries. When she was 3, Irena's parents were herded onto a transport train; although they didn't know exactly where it was headed, they knew enough to be scared for their future. Knowing there was no other way to save his child, Irena's father leapt from the train, snuck back to Bedzin and placed his daughter in the hands of Honorata Skowronska, a gentile bread baker. Irena, of course, survived the war, and after being transferred from a host family to an orphanage to another orphanage, finally landed in Detroit with her father and stepmother (her mother died in Poland, possibly at Auschwitz). Years later, when Erin peppers her mother with questions about her early years, Irena can't understand her fascination. When an incredulous Erin asks, "Don't you think it's interesting?" Irena replies, "No, I don't think it's particularly interesting" (41).

Erin, however, can't contain her curiosity. For one thing, she's finding more and more holes in her mother's story - does Irena know something she's not telling? Or are the inconsistencies simply a result of her fading memory? Why has she never contacted the woman who saved her life? Is it because Honarata Skowronska really did it only for the money? Or is it because of the outdated belief that Poles and Jews can never be friendly? Erin knows the truth lies somewhere in "the pages in between" the stories she's always been told. In her heart, Erin believes she can rectify the past by finding the Skowronskis and reuniting them with the child they saved. If she can uncover the truth of her mother's past in the process, so much the better.

So, with Irena's tentative blessing, Erin heads off to Poland. She finds the Skowronskis with surprising ease, but meeting them brings Erin face-to-face with a decades-old real estate battle. Although the family welcomes her and kindly Wieslaw (Honorata's son) remembers Irena with fondness, it soon becomes obvious that what the family really wants is a solution to their problem. The issue involves a promise Beresh Frydrych (Irena's father) supposedly made to Honorata Skowronska when he gave his daughter to her in 1945. According to the Skowronskis, he gave the gentile woman his large family home and the factory situated on the property in exchange for hiding Irena. Sixty years later, the family still lives in the crumbling structure, but is unable to collect rent from its other occupants because they don't legally own the home. Erin feels duty-bound to help the people who saved her mother's life, but Polish law makes it a very complicated issue. The problem strains the relationship between Erin and the Skowronskis, costs the reporter significant legal fees, and saps all the time she wants to be spending tracing her family history. To complicate the matter even further, Erin's mother dies of cancer in the middle of the whole mess.

As you can tell, The Pages In Between differs from most Holocaust memoirs. The book focuses less on atrocities committed during the war and more on ways in which happenings during the war still color the surviving lands and people. Einhorn's honest and moving story touches on what it means to be a daughter trying to understand a mother with whom she's never been able to get along; what it's like to be a Jew in a country defined by its anti-Semitism; and what obligations current generations owe to their ancestors. It also looks at modern-day Poland in all its contradictions - from the kitschy Jewish-themed cafes to the haunting walls of Auschwitz; from its Nazi supporters to its Jewish sympathizers; and from Jewish festivals to Jewish graveyards. Mostly, though, its about one woman's search for her heritage. What emerges is a fascinating, moving portrayal of Poland and her people, especially two ordinary families brought together by extraordinary events, and reunited by a brave young woman determined to find the truth.

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Quirky Novel Proves Perfection's Not All Its Cracked Up to Be

If you can't tell from the cover, A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban is a quirky little

novel. In fact, at times, the story becomes downright odd. At least that's the impression I got when I read it the other morning between 2 and 4 a.m. while rocking a fussy baby. Sleep deprivation has left my mind in a fog, so I could be misjudging the book - maybe it's a perfectly normal story and it's just my exhausted mind that's odd. ANYWAY ...

This children's book (I think it would be considered middle-grade fiction?) stars 10-year-old Zoe Elias, a girl who dreams of performing at Carnegie Hall. In her dreams, she's a piano-playing prodigy studying under a "sweet, rumpled old man" (20) she calls Maestro. Elegantly coifed, she breezes through pieces by Beethoven and Mozart, earning herself dozens of admirers. Zoe's reality isn't quite so grand. Instead of a shiny baby grand, she plays a "wood-grained, vinyl-seated, wheeze-bag" (3) organ. Instead of a dignified gentleman teaching her the classics, she's stuck with Mabelline Person, who sips ginger ale while plunking out tunes from the Hits of the Seventies songbook. In Zoe's dreams, her mother buys her fancy gowns and piles her hair into sophisticated 'dos; in real life, she's too busy with work to pay much attention. Her father supports her ambitions, but his fear of crowds, change, and just about everything else, makes him a less-than-perfect talent manager.

Undeterred, Zoe decides to take on the Perform-O-Rama organ competition. While she readies Neil Diamond's Forever in Blue Jeans, she tries to quell her growing anxiety. All the practice, the sour notes and the fear are getting to her - she has to play the song perfectly, and it's just not happening. She wants to pour her heart out to her dad, but he's too focused on cooking up a storm for his Rollin' in Dough: Earn a Dolla' Baking Challah self-improvement course. To make matters worse, she can't even cry on his shoulder, because her friend Wheeler's having too much fun baking with her dad to ever leave. When Zoe hears an interview with a successful young musician, she decides that maybe she can endure her lessons after all. In fact, she vows to practice harder so one day she, too, will be interviewed on the radio. It's the perfect plan. But, as the Perform-O-Rama edges closer, her carefully-laid plans start to unravel fast - her mother has to work on performance day, leaving her in the hands of her father, who's terrified to leave the house. Can Zoe make it to the competition, let alone Carnegie Hall? What will become of all her perfect dreams?

Zoe may be a little odd, but readers will have no trouble identifying with her. She represents all of us in our yearning for enviable, picture-perfect lives. Like the rest of us, she learns that perfection isn't all it's cracked up to be and when we try our very best, we can find our own brand of perfect. Even if it's the crooked kind.

Grade: B


Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Tale of Despereaux Squeaks Right Into My Heart

For the most part, I ignore stories about animals. I don't mean stories in which a character owns a dog or works in a pet store or takes her children to the zoo. I mean books narrated by animals or books in which animals are the main characters. However, I figured a book that has won a Newbery Award, garnered countless glowing reviews and inspired a movie my kids loved, might just be an enjoyable exception. And guess what? Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux charmed the socks off me. You still won't find me borrowing stacks of animal books from the library, but you will find me reading more of DiCamillo's books (even if they do involve animals).

The Tale of Despereaux reads like a fairy tale (although a bit of a dark one). It's the story of a mouse named Despereaux Tilling, who is unlike any other mouse in the castle. For one thing, he's tiny. Well, except for his ears - they're huge. For another, he entered the world with his eyes open, a thing unheard of in the mouse world. As if those things aren't enough to brand him an outsider, Despereaux just can't seem to do the things mice do. Instead of just hearing the sound of crumbs dropping, the little mouse can smell them, too. Instead of nibbling the glue from books in the castle library, Despereaux actually reads them. His worst offense, however, is the one that dooms him to the dungeon - he speaks to a human.

Poor Despereaux really can't help himself. The human in question is the lovely Princess Pea, who looks at him adoringly and even compliments his large ears. He's smitten. How can he not speak to his beloved as the knights in the fairy tales do? Since he refuses to renounce his actions, Despereaux is soon carted off to the stinking depths of the castle. A red thread is looped around his neck, marking him for death at the hands (well, teeth) of the bloodthirsty castle rats. The mouse soon learns just how vicious the rats can be - not only do they plan to kill him, but they are also plotting against the Princess. Like the heroes in his storybooks, Despereaux swallows his fear and vows to save the girl he loves. There's only one problem (well, okay about 4) - (1) He's stuck in a dungeon; (2) The rats want revenge - they aren't about to let a mouse get in their way; (3) Despereaux has to get through the kitchen to warn the king about the rats' plan; and (4) Making it through the kitchen involves dodging the mouse-hating cook and her knife-wielding serving girl. Clearly, he will need all of his courage and cunning to save the Princess he loves.

The Tale of Despereaux offers enough heart-pounding action to keep young readers engaged, but also offers valuable lessons about love, bravery and fighting against all odds for that in which you believe. It also delights with rich, but subtle language that will make you smile. Anyone who has ever felt like an outcast (and who hasn't?) will enjoy cheering this loveable mouse on his gallant quest. I'm probably the last person on Earth to read this book, but just in case I'm not, let me suggest you head to the nearest library and pick up this utterly charming tale. Right. Now.

Grade: A
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