Wednesday, June 25, 2008

second one first

Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: I'm kind of glad that I read Janice Erlbaum's second memoir, Have You Found Her, first. It allowed me to read her first one and not have to worry too much that she got seriously hurt. Or went crazy, which is what I think I would have done in her circumstances. Instead, Erlbaum left home, and turned to drugs and sex as a teenager, and she relates her experiences with both with a candor that is unapologetic at the same time it is tinged with regret.

Erlbaum's problems at this time of her life seem to stem from a combination of poor parenting and poor decision-making. Unfortunately, neither the shelter nor the group home into which she is placed seem well-equipped to really help her with either of those problems. It almost seems as though by leaving home she's gone from the frying pan into the fire. It all catches up with her at the end, though, and at the close of this memoir we begin to see the more mature woman that we got to know in her second memoir. I hope she writes a third so that we can continue to share her story.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sabrina with a twist

Bras & Broomsticks by Sarah Mlynowski
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: The only thing that gets this book two stars is that, rather than sticking to the done-before theme of teenager-suddenly-finds-out-she's-a-witch, Mlynowski switches things up a bit and gives us teenager-suddenly-finds-out-that-her-younger-sister-(and her mother)-is-a-witch.

Why did the magical powers skip Rachel, and go straight to her younger sister, Miri? Her mother explains that it could be because Miri is more mature than her older sister. Rachel demonstrates her lack of maturity throughout the book, making us all glad that she did not, in fact, get magical powers. Not that, in the end, Miri does much better, repeatedly bending to Rachel's ideas of how to use the powers. Predictable catastrophe ensues, with only a hint that Rachel has learned any of the predictable lessons about true friendship or family or the like. Maybe that's what the sequels are for, but I don't think that I care enough to read them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

a surfeit of persecution

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: What a difficult book to read, and, I can only imagine, to write. We start with the injustice of poverty and lack of opportunity in the shtetl and move almost directly into a variety of unjust accusations leveled against Yakov Bok, who has become a scapegoat for all the imagined evil deeds of all the Jews in Russia.

Bok leaves the shtetl with hopes of a better life in Kiev. At first, things look up for him. Serendipity finds him a good job, and he is able to afford some books, and even put away some money. The catch is that he has to live in a district from which Jews are forbidden from living. All goes well, although Bok is not a popular figure, until a young boy is found murdered in a cave nearby.

The police show up at his door, arrest him, and summarily throw him in prison. Things go from bad to worse as he is forced to submit to increasingly cruel and dehumanizing treatment, not least of which is having to repeatedly listen to the many crimes he is supposed to have committed. But he steadfastly declares his innocence, and it is this that is supposed to make him one literature's greatest heroes. I'm not so sure about this, but certainly he is a strong character.

His strength almost makes this book harder to read, though. I found myself almost wishing he would confess, even though I knew he was innocent, just so the horribleness would end. But he and I both knew that confessing to a crime that he didn't commit wouldn't help at all, either his own dignity, or the plight of the Jews in Russia. So we endured together until the trial, to which Bok is on his way at the end of the book. At first I was disappointed that we don't find out what happens at the trial, but then I realized that the result of the trial isn't the point of the book. It's the persecution and the strength that it reveals that really matter.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

not your father's Richard III

A Rose for the Crown by Anne Easter Smith
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Anne Easter Smith is known for the extent of the research that she does in writing her books. Unfortunately, she is not quite so talented with dialog as she with her historical facts and descriptions. But that does not take away much from this large and graceful novel.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

the difficulties of communication

The Ha-Ha by Dave King
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: Although the title might lead one to think that it's funny, this book was described to me as "depressing." In fact, the title refers to a type of hidden retaining wall, rather than laughter. Either way, though, I wouldn't describe the book depressing myself, aside from the steep slide downward toward the end.

Rather, I'd say this book is astonishingly hopeful. Our main character has overcome a great deal of adversity, and managed to make a life for himself despite an injury that has left him unable to speak or to read easily. He has overcome addiction and the death of parents. He has made a life for himself, and achieved an equilibrium largely characterized by his detachment from the people around him.

But when his high school sweetheart asks him to take in her 9-year-old son, Ryan, while she goes to rehab, he finds that they are able to form a bond. But perhaps this emotional reawakening is not all that Howard thinks it will be. Inevitably, though, Ryan must return to his mother, and Howard finds his newly constructed world unraveling.

This is the depressing part of the book, which perhaps is more drawn out than it needed to be. Again, Howard must struggle, but this time, instead of finding solace in solitude, Howard is able to turn to the relationships he formed through Ryan and find comfort in companionship.

Monday, June 2, 2008

nostalgia and foreshadowing

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is a book of finely drawn and distinct characters. I think it must be easy when writing a book about 5 women to have them all be similar in some ways, but the Wednesday Sisters (as they call themselves) each have their own identity. Each has their own struggles and fears and joys. Through Clayton's vivid writing, we get to share all of these as each character shares them with the group and gains strength from the sharing.

An excellent book of the power of women's friendships, this is also a story of how these women, young mothers at the end of the 1960s, each react differently to the women's liberation movement and other cultural upheavals of that time.

The story is told through the eyes of one of the women, looking back from 35 years later. Her tone is nostalgic for that era (in a very progressive way), but at the same time there is repeated foreshadowing of events to come, both in the lives of the Wednesday Sisters and in the world around them. Aside from this slightly troubling dichotomy of tone, this is an enjoyable book.