Thursday, May 5, 2011

Happiness is...a good book.

I've been on a bit of a reading slump lately. Nothing I've read has really jumped out at me or wowed me or made me particularly glad that I'd spent several hours living in its world or made me care about its characters. My Goodreads ratings have been stuck in the land of 3 stars with nary a 4 or 5 in sight. I've tried to vary my reading in case it was just my mood that was stuck; realistic fiction, poetry, fantasy, classics, new releases, blind off-the-shelf picks, titles that have been languishing on my TBR list for months. Nothing seemed to work.  Until I picked up a little book appropriately titled Wither.

I'd heard some blogger buzz about it and my hopes were high. But I was also feeling a bit cynical and sure that it couldn't break my streak. I was wrong. Two more books have followed (completely unrelated to each other) that have renewed my faith in reading. (OK, it wasn't really lost, just a bit disgruntled.) These books are filled with everything a book should be; unforgettable characters and picture-perfect settings, heartbreak and humor, imaginative magic and cold-hard reality. They make me want to karate chop a hole in the brick wall of my writer's block and craft a story so incredible it will change your life, while at the same time burying me in the insecure realization that I will never be able to write a book like that, so why bother. It remains to be seen as to which side will win that argument.

But even if I don't write the next great American novel, I can at least write a paltry but gushing review of the books and hopefully encourage you to read them for yourself. So, my friends, get reading!

Book #1

Author: Lauren DeStefano
Pages: 358
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2011
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopia
Cover Score: *****
Overall Grade: ****
Rating: PG-13

In the distant future, an unknown disease begins killing off the new generation of boys at age 25, girls at age 20. There are major debates about whether research for a cure should continue or if society should just accept the inevitability of everything.  Children, young girls in particular, are kidnapped and sold for reproductive and/or research purposes. Rhine is one such girl.

Taken from her home in Manhattan where she lives with her twin brother, Rowan, she finds herself drugged in a van fulled with other girls headed to Florida. There she and two others are chosen as sister wives for Linden, son of an eccentric but wealthy doctor who is obsessed with finding a cure. Throughout the ensuing months she builds a cautious friendship with Jenna and Cecily, a serving boy named Gabriel and even her naive but kind husband (who has no idea just how cruel and dangerous his father is.)  Despite the life of comfort and privilege and her tenuous relationships Rhine vows to escape, to find her brother and regain her freedom.

There are some obvious gaps in the reality of the plot, but if you can overlook the unlikelihood of an age-related virus the rest of the story is quietly gripping. There are a lot of moral issues at play and various instances of what could/would/should the characters do that add to the depth and drama of Rhine's dilemma. Her thoughts and emotions carry the brunt of the story with her anguish and frustration at being kidnapped just as apparent as the grief and fear she feels when choosing to leave her fellow captives. The relationships are realistically portrayed and the world is well-crafted. There is non-stop action from page one, though it's of a more subtle nature, and I found myself sucked in and reading as quickly as I could to find out what would happen next. It reminded me a bit of Matched by Ally Condie in style and tone and even The Giver in places with the battles thus far being fought more in the mind than with actual weapons. It's the first in a trilogy however, so we'll see if that changes as the series progresses. I highly recommend it.  (And check out that cover. Seriously. How gorgeous is that?! The design is incredible throughout the book. Kudos!)

As for the rating, there is some discussion of violence and intense/mature themes but they aren't described in great detail and most happen off-stage.

Book #2

Okay for Now
Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Pages: 360
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2011
Genre: Historical fiction
Cover Score: ***
Overall Grade: *****
Rating: PG-13

Gary Schmidt just may be one of my favorite authors of all time.  I've only read 3 of his books so far but they've all been so consistently wonderful that I'm not sure why I haven't heard more about him or read everything his written. (I do have the Newbery committee to thank for bringing him to my attention. As part of my job in the library I am supposed to "familiarize myself with the collection", ie read it. One of my goals a few years ago was to read all of the Newbery winners and honor books and Mr. Schmidt has two on the list.  I cannot recommend Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars highly enough. Read them.  You'll thank me.) 

Okay for Now is a companion of sorts to The Wednesday Wars (though you don't need to read one to understand the other) taking place in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Doug Swieteck and his family (abusive father, bully/troublemaker older brother and slightly helpless but patient and well-meaning mother) have just moved to small town Marysville in Upstate New York.  His brother quickly muscles into the gang of local hooligans and makes a name for himself causing all the teachers and townspeople to assume that Doug is cut from the same cloth.  Doug is resentful but isn't sure what to do about it without proving them all right. In steps Lil, a girl his age who for some reason decides to take a chance on him.  That little bit of approval goes a long way to helping Doug find out who he really is.

Lil convinces her father to give Doug a job delivering groceries on Saturdays and he has a chance to interact with and help many of the townspeople he meets.  The two also spend a considerable amount of time at the local library, Lil reading and Doug ogling the John James Audubon book Birds of America, in the display case upstairs.  Mr. Powell, an astute librarian discusses the book, the birds and the artwork with Doug and slowly encourages him to try his hand at drawing the birds. This opens up floodgate of feelings Doug has never experienced before (awe, pride, passion) and when he learns the birds are being sold off a page at a time to meet the town's budget expenses, he finds himself on a quest to see them all restored to the book again. 

Doug's life is never easy. When he finds a way to escape his father's fists and insults his brother is there to take up the slack. After a series of misadventures he finds himself the butt of jokes and prejudices and the center of  fights at school from both teachers and students. But the few people who consistently believe in him are enough to keep him going and show, powerfully, that one person really can make a difference.  And sometimes that person is Doug himself. As we watch him get stronger and more confident he's able to pass a bit of that confidence on to his mother and eventually even his brother and dad.Schmidt doesn't shy away from the tough subjects and isn't afraid to hurt his characters (and make you feel their pain) but there is always an undercurrent of hope and optimism to carry you along through the rough spots.There is no magical happy ending where everything turns out right, but there is the promise of better days and that's all any of us can hope for.

Schmidt has such a beautiful way with words, though the words themselves are not beautiful they flow so easily and effortlessly that the overall effect is nothing short of perfect. I dare you to read this, or any of his books, without falling in love with them.

Book #3

If I Stay
Author: Gayle Forman
Pages: 196
Age Range: 14+
Published: 2009
Genre: Realistic fiction/sci-fi
Cover Score: ***
Overall Grade: *****
Rating: PG-13

I can probably blame some of this on PMS, but I cried throughout this entire book. This is another one where there are no words out of place. Everything is perfectly paced and spaced. The characters are realistic and likable and you are instantly drawn into their world as if you'd known them forever. It's also full of brutal situations that are neither heavy-handed nor maudlin. The touching parts aren't overly saccharine or sappy. But I warn you, you'll still probably need a tissue!

Mia and her family are enjoying a rare Oregon snow day when they decide to take a quick road trip. Mom, Dad, little brother Teddy and Mia all pile into the car only to get side-swiped 45 minutes later.  Mia finds herself standing on the side of the road in a ditch, detached from her body and stuck in some spirit world limbo. She sees the remains of her parents and hears the ambulance come for her and Teddy.  The next 24 hours we follow Mia's spirit to the hospital in Portland where she realizes she has to choose whether or not to 'stay.'

Mia relives moments from her life as people parade through the hospital.  She undergoes surgery and remains in her comatose state while she watches her grandparents, best friend and boyfriend arrive.  Each reacts differently but they all plead for her to stay while at the same time giving her permission to leave. We watch her relationships throughout her life and come to understand just how much influence one person can have on another.  Her parents, former rockers/hippies, are uber supportive even when she decides to shun her upbringing and play the cello. Her little brother idolizes her and brings out a playful side in her that no one else ever sees. Her boyfriend, though the exact opposite of her quiet and unassuming self, is just as dedicated to music as she is and loves her unconditionally despite their arguments and difficulties. She's a typical teenager with insecurities and doubts, trying to decide if love is more important than Julliard. And suddenly her decisions are much more important, literally life and death.

It sounds like a cheesy after-school special, I know. But it is so well done you don't realize it until it's over. And even then you can't find anything really cheesy about it after all.

So, do yourself a favor and track down at least one of these books to read. I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Do you agree with my assessments?  Do you think I have no idea what I'm talking about? It's possible! I find that with books it's often the same as art. You like what you like and you often can't prove the merit of a work just that it moves you in some way.  I've been moved and I hope you will be too.

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