Saturday, November 29, 2008

a little unbelievable, but fun

Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: mystery, YA
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: While the situation is a bit unbelievable (two students stumble upon a blackmail scandal at the Final Four of NCAA basketball and are determined to save the star player) the characters themselves are well-drawn. The scenes with the big-name sports reporters are very funny, even if you don't recognize all the names. Anyone who enjoys NCAA basketball and a good mystery will like this book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

don't wait up

Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: The first two-thirds of this book were pretty good. We start with young Peter describing his childhood visits to his grandparents in Switzerland. His grandparents edit a series of light novels, one of which is the story of Carl, a German soldier, and his struggle to return home from the Russian front after WWII. Unfortunately, Peter has only the manuscript of the book, and the ending is missing. What happens when Carl returns home and finds his wife with another man and two small daughters? Does he stay and fight for his wife, or does he turn and leave? Peter is unable to find the book on his grandparent's shelves and forgets about it until he finds the manuscript again as an adult. Then he begins the quest to find the book so as to learn its ending.

The story of Peter's search for the book and it's author is quite interesting. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the way through, Peter makes a startling discovery about his father, who he had thought died in WWII. The rest of the book is about Peter's search for the truth about his father, not just what happened to him but why he disappeared. This story is much less compelling, and even bizarre in places. Schlink tenuously connects this search to Peter's interest in the Carl story, but neither the connection nor the individual stories are resolved.

Monday, November 24, 2008

practically perfect

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction, YA
Review: It's not often you find a book that doesn't have a single wrong note to it, but this is one. This book really has it all, from suspense to a little bit of political philosophy to unrequited love. Collins takes all the elements of this story and puts them together in a tightly-woven narrative that keeps its pace throughout. Her message, about government and the masses, is not very subtle, but the book is so well written that it goes down very smoothly. I could gush on and on, but I won't. I will say that I'm very skeptical about the proposed sequel(s), because they couldn't possibly be as good as this one!

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, YA
Review: If the purpose of a YA memoir is to be a cautionary tale, I suppose this is a good one. Certainly it will make any teen think twice about accepting a job on a sailboat that's running drugs from St. Croix to New York. But perhaps Gantos's story of life in prison will not prove to be such a disincentive, since he gets a job in the prison hospital and never has to live with the general population. His biggest problem seems to be boredom. So yes, be cautioned, but Gantos's experiences overall are too atypical to really have much chance of changing the course of someone's life.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

love, regret, and war

I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA
Review: This is not meant to be a book of suspense. From the very beginning we know that the narrator is telling us the story of his experiences during World War II from many years since that time. We need not even have any suspense about the fate of his relationship with the girl he left behind, as it's reasonably clear that he's alone when he tells us the story.

Rather, this is a story of what happened to one boy when the U.S. entered WWII. Told with incredible detail, Rylant puts us inside the head of a seventeen-year-old boy who can think of nothing else but joining the army and doing his patriotic duty. Until he meets Ginny, who challenges all of his beliefs about war and patriotism. Looking back on it, he is able to recognize her extreme courage in speaking out against war and encouraging him to register as a conscientious objector, but at the time, all he could see was all the other boys going off to war, even though he knew that all too many of them were not coming home.

He joins up as soon as he is able and is shipped off to the European front. His patriotic ideals last for a while, but soon he admits that he is killing the enemy only to stay alive himself. Ginny's letters ring too true to bear, and eventually he stops writing back to her. When he returns from the war, she and her family have moved away, and he is never able to find her again.

This is also not a book of regret, although clearly the narrator regrets in some way the loss of Ginny, and the loss of his own innocence when he went away to war. But this is a book of truth. Rylant doesn't sugarcoat the nature of war or the effect it has on those who must fight it, both on the battlefield and at home.


The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, YA
Review: It takes a lot of courage to write a book like this. Most people can not write so openly and honestly about their feelings, especially when they know they've done something to grievously hurt their family. But Brent Runyon can, and does.

As an eight grader, Brent set fire to himself in a suicide attempt. He suffered sever burns over 85% of his body, but, obviously, did not die. Brent's story takes us from the events immediately preceding his attempt and through the many months of his recovery.

Much of the narrative is taken up with the details and routines that anyone suffering such severe burns must endure, no matter how they occurred. But in Brent's case there is the ever-present knowledge that he brought this on himself.

Although I wish we could have learned more about why Brent attempted suicide in the first place, he says very plainly (through recounted sessions with assorted psychologists) that he doesn't really know why he did it, can't remember what could have made him so sad and desperate, and certainly isn't going to do anything like it again. A cautionary tale indeed for any teens thinking of committing suicide.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

inside the head

Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: A wonderfully imagined look into the mind of a boy debilitated by cerebral palsy. The author, who himself has a son with cerebral palsy, imagines that Shawn, though confined to a wheelchair with absolutely no control over his own motor functions, is very smart, incredibly observant, and has perfect memory of everything he's heard since a young age.

Unfortunately, what Shawn's been hearing lately makes him think that his father is planning to kill him, to "end his pain." Naturally, Shawn has his own thoughts about that plan, but knows that he's completely powerless to stop his father. Yet the father is not portrayed as a villain, but is sensitively drawn as a father who is just trying to do the right thing by his son.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

feminist revisionism?

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised the Nation by Cokie Roberts
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, history
Review: An interesting, though not particularly deep, look at the female relations of the men who get written about in the history books. Unfortunately, although Roberts makes much of the historical context when discussing how the women broke out of the mold, she does not give the historical context much thought when it comes to the men, leading her to be a bit harsh on the men sometimes.

Perhaps a bit more problematic is that approximately the entire second half of the book is really the same story about the men that we already know, with just brief glimpses of the women. What are we supposed to take away from this? That there's only enough about the "Founding Mothers" to write half a book? Or that, in the end, as interesting as they were, it wasn't the women who made the history after all? Well, we probably already knew that. But this book does give a brief glimpse into the trials and tribulations of the women behind the men.