I was completely blindsided by how much I love Barry Lyga's I Hunt Killers. I had an inkling that it would be good after reading positive reviews on ...moreI was completely blindsided by how much I love Barry Lyga's I Hunt Killers. I had an inkling that it would be good after reading positive reviews on The Midnight Garden and The Readventurer, but there was no way for me to know just how good. I Hunt Killers is the type of book that makes me wish I were more articulate, that I could communicate with the written word more effectively than I can.
I Hunt Killers captures the reader quickly; less than five pages in and I was hooked. It is a fast paced read, one with a complex plot, plenty of action and adventure. Yet, I would still call it a character driven novel, for it is Lyga's characters that make this story. Lyga is also a master with voice and tone. For a novel with such gritty, graphic, candid depictions of violence, it is surprisingly devoid of gratuitous shock value. It is darkly humorous and lacking in pretensions, but still manages to examine some serious issues.
I love that I Hunt Killers is written from Jazz's point of view in a way that actually reads like a teenage boy, but is assessable to a female reader. His feelings of alienation and isolation, his questioning of his values and sense of place in the world, are universally relatable. It is part of the human experience to manipulate, to be selfish, to feel isolated, to wish someone away, to desire someone or something unattainable. Where the line between normal and sociopath lies, then, is an interesting question. Many of us do things that Jazz worries about; but, because of his upbringing, Jazz is hyper-aware of when he does things that brush that line. He has a bit more excuse than the average teenager to feel so angsty. This is where I feel the genius of Lyga's writing lies: "normal" is a spectrum, and the spectrum of Jazz's behavior is best shown in his relationships with the other characters.
Jazz is at his most human with Howie. I love the way this friendship, this unconditional love between two teenage boys, is expressed. (view spoiler)[Howie having tattoos on Jazz's body is one of the most touching things I think I have ever read. That alone should convince Jazz of his humanity. (hide spoiler)] I also love his relationship with Connie. She is smart, independent, and completely uninterested in taking his crap. I love that she calls Jazz out when he starts taking himself too seriously, that she won't allow him to wallow. She forces him to face his self-indulgences and get over himself. I also love that Lyga has shown such a healthy and happy interracial relationship (without glossing over the external problems such a couple might face.) It is with Connie and Howie that we see Jazz at his most human--see him as he may one day be.
With Melissa, G. William, and his teachers, Jazz is much more reserved, more calculating. You can see that he still cares, but also that he is much more willing to manipulate them. I really like that Lyga didn't perpetuate the stupid/inept adult motif: Melissa is actually a competent social worker--and she is shown to be one. Likewise, G. William is a smart, resourceful cop. He neither dumbly bumbles along while Jazz solves everything, nor does G. William blindly hold Jazz accountable for his father's mistakes. Jazz's involvement with the police, while still fairly implausible, takes nothing away from the abilities of the adults. In fact, much of the procedural parts of the novel are almost anticlimactic in their authenticity--no CSI rush jobs of forensic results here. Most of the adults in Jasper's life are good people who actually want the best for him--and he knows that, even if he disagrees with them.
One would assume that Jasper would be at his worst when with his father (who, despite only actually appearing once is almost omnipresent in the novel). However, it is with his Grandmother--whom he clearly loves--that the scariest bits of Jasper's personality come out. Jazz recognizes what he is doing wrong with everyone else in his life; he sees when he is following bad advice from his father. However, it is the chilling things he does to his grandma that are the most frightening, because he is completely oblivious to just how wrong they are. It leads to some rather harrowing moments late in the book.
I Hunt Killers is undoubtedly a really good, thrillingly suspenseful mystery. And fans of the genre--adult and teen alike--couldn't go wrong reading it. But I would also say that, if one could get past the gore, the readership for I Hunt Killers is much larger than that. (I just don't know who precisely that readership would be.) I do know, however, that I Hunt Killers is now one of my favorite books, Barry Lyga has become an auto-buy, and I cannot wait for more from Jasper Dent.
To be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It...moreTo be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It is the kind of book that can affect you deeply if you let it, but the reaction is just as deeply personal. And, at this point, its awards and accolades allow it to speak for itself. It is clearly a beautifully written, well constructed book. There are two things, though, that Zusak does so incredibly well that I feel I have to mention them: his use of language and foreshadowing.
As Death began his narration, the very first thing that struck me was the words. In a book that is all about the power and importance of words, that shouldn't come as a surprise, but it did. Zusak talks about things--familiar things--in a completely different way than I am accustomed, and it changed the way I saw them. I have heard of people 'carrying' a memory of someone. However, when Death described Liesel's mother carrying the memory of her brother like a Werner-shaped bag slung over her shoulder, and that she occasionally had to drop him limbs flinging to the platform of the Bahnhof before slinging him back over the other shoulder, Zusak made the cliche so much more visceral--he made it something new. We can feel the weight of that memory, how unwieldy a burden it must be, the sheer exhaustion her mother must feel while carrying it, but she cannot put it down or leave it behind. One has baggage for a reason. Just like when Liesel's crying for her brother is described as "a gang of tears;" or a draft is described as the breeze of the Third Reich gaining strength, or Europe breathing; or perhaps when two grey-eyed men, father and son, disagreeing across a dinner table are described as "metallic eyes" clashing "like tin cans in the kitchen;" each of these instances pack so much more into the words than what is on the surface. The words are like tightly folded little notes that you must open before you get the full message. We can see the violence and the multitude of Liesel's tears in the word "gang." We feel the coolness of the air, the fear in the room, the smallness and helplessness that the people feel as the draft whips by. And we feel the sharpness, the uncomfortably loud emotional clanging of two like things meeting in discord. In someone else's hands this 552 page book could have been so much longer, and still not have said everything Zusak was able to communicate. His words burn, even in their multitude.
I was also greatly struck by something Death says about half way through the book:
I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. (p 243)
Here Death is being very disingenuous, because he is actually quite good at creating a mystery. Sure, we are given a few very big pieces of the story; we know how some things are going to end. History tells us how many things are going to end! But, as Death says himself at the end of that quote, the ending isn't really what is important. It reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings":
The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.
That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
The mystery, the beauty, of The Book Thief lies in the how and why. Even knowing some of the really big pieces, and picking up on the increasingly obvious foreshadowing, I was still left completely emotionally unprepared for how and why certain things occurred. Zusak is a true connoisseur.
The thing I think I most love about The Book Thief, though, comes back to language. Only this time it is Deutsch. It is almost impossible to get more than a couple of pages without a new German word or phrase being used or defined. Zusak never lets the reader forget that the characters about whom they are reading, for whom they now care, are Germans in Nazi Germany. He gives Germans back their voice, and, in doing so, fights a propaganda machine that has been chugging away continuously for over 100 years now with the same message: All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. That is not to say that we don't occasionally get movies or books about the everyday Germans who were doing good things, being heroes in both little and big ways, but they are often Anglicized. Aside from character or place names, all Deutsch is removed from the text. And, unless they are Nazis or Evil Geniuses (or in the case of Indiana Jones movies, both) their accents are crisply British or smoothly American. (Hence the reason that an atrocity such as Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg can occur!!! Breath, just breath.) We sometimes get so caught up in what the Nazis did, thought, were, etc., that we forget that to be German and to be a Nazi were vastly different things. Not all Nazis wore uniforms; and not everyone who wore a uniform was a Nazi--compulsory military service will do that. (And we get to see that with some of the characters.) I also love that Zusak says this of Max:
[H]e had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been. (p 159)
Taking his lead from famous Jews who would have been contemporaries of Max such as Gertrud Kolmar, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein or Katja Behrens, he shows that, at least for them, it was never a choice: They were German and Jewish.
Despite its Literary bent or all of the Big Things, Important Topics, or Issues addressed within, at the end of the day The Book Thief is really just a beautifully written story. A story about a young girl who learns the power of words in a difficult time; that "books and words...mean not just something, but everything." And it can make you believe that, too, if you let it.(less)
OH. My. Goodness. I would give this 10 stars if I could! I think this may end up being one of my favorite books, period. Review closer to release date...moreOH. My. Goodness. I would give this 10 stars if I could! I think this may end up being one of my favorite books, period. Review closer to release date...
Rachel Hartman's Seraphina is nothing short of exquisite. It is beautiful - breathtakingly so - and I find myself wanting to reread it again and again. This is how it starts:
I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart's staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.
Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.
I simply could not help myself; I fell in love with Seraphina's voice right there.
When I think about the idea of 'world-building' I often actually visualize little houses in my head - spaces that have been constructed piece by piece. There are houses that are done quickly, with little care, and they look sloppy at first glance. There are houses that look pretty good when taken as a whole, but upon closer inspection you see the slightly misaligned window trim, the irregular gaps between the wood-flooring, or the spots of cabinet paint on the edge of the wall. Then you have houses like what Rachel Hartman has built: they look nice up front. Then, you get a little closer and you start to see details. That isn't just a nice wooden mantel - it's hand-carved with intricate details. The walls aren't expertly painted with paint bought off the shelf - every color in the house has been custom tinted to compliment each other. You get the idea. Goredd doesn't feel 'built' at all - Hartman has made it so effortlessly stunning that it is impossible not to believe in it. All the little details of culture and tradition have received the same level of attention as her big ideas - everything from blasphemous interjections stemming from a complex and lush religious tradition to the details of variations in regional style and dialect. The characters, whether dragon, saar, quigutl, or human, were equally complex and vital.
My favorite thing about Seraphina, though, is the way Hartman interweaves science, logic, art and music. So often people who are scientific or logical are thought of or portrayed as being cold and passionless. In contrast, artists and musicians are thought to be moody and mercurial. But that isn't really the case at all. Anyone who has ever watched Feynman talk about, well, anything, can see his passion for science; and the methodical precision required to master the most passionate of musical masterpieces requires determined discipline. And Math. Math is at the core of everything. There is no music without math. There is no logic without math. The scientific method is defined by its ability to produce measurable results, and there is no measurement without math. They are all interconnected. The very idea of separate areas of study is just our human brain trying to analyze and compartmentalize reality. The real world, and the way our human mind approaches it, is much more complex than than that; and I think Hartman would agree. The book itself is a testament to this idea - it is lyrical even at its most analytical. At moments of highest emotion for Seraphina, she invokes mathematics and logic. For example:
I couldn't fill that space with Linn. That name meant nothing to me; it was a placeholder, like zero.
Hartman allows her characters to be passionately logical and coolly romantic, and that impresses me to no end.
I will admit that I found the romance a little lacking in spark or chemistry at times. However, I am not sure if that is because it was actually lacking, or because I was uncomfortable with it happening. ( I was thinking of Selda.) That is really the only complaint I can find, and (considering the romance is really low on the hierarchy of importance in the story) it isn't even a very big one. I can't imagine not rereading Seraphina time and again. I can't wait to give it to my daughter for the first time with a, "this is what complex, vital, talented, vibrant, brave, strong, intelligent heroines can be like!" And I will be recommending it to everyone who will listen to me (and probably those who won't as well.)(less)
I just finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for the third time, so, according to Gordy, I suppose I should know it by now....moreI just finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for the third time, so, according to Gordy, I suppose I should know it by now. However, I feel just as inadequate to the task of writing a review for it as I did the first time I finished it. You see, every time I have read it, I have come away from a different book. It would be reallyeasy to justgo onand onabouthowoftenPart-Time Indian is banned, and why that is wrong or absurd, and never have to say something personal. (And yes, each of those words is its own link.) However, though I lack his humor, I will try for Arnold's honesty and explain why I think this book is so very special.
My first time to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was not long after it had been published. My life was full of change, and much of that change was a result of death. I didn't really know anything about Part-Time Indian, or I probably wouldn't have picked it up. Thank goodness I did! Even while reading things that resonated so deeply that I thought I would shatter all over again, Alexie made me laugh. Laugh! Because Alexie is right, "I know death is never added to death; it multiplies." (p 212) But it is also true that, "When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing." (p 166) After finishing, my love of Part-Time Indian was something that was just too personal to share.
My second reading of Part-Time Indian brought shame. Not a general sort of shame, but the very specific sort that comes from recognizing privilege you have previously ignored. I live near reservations. I have friends who are Native American. I know the very unsavory statistics of life on reservations. I thought of myself as a knowledgeable, understanding sort of ally. I could be quick to jump into a conversation with historical facts or statistics. But what a place of privilege! I could think about it or not as I chose--I don't have to live it. And a verbal 'victory' at a dinner table does precisely nothing for the people who do have to live it. I was one of those "liberal, white, vegetarian do-gooders" or "white missionary saviors" or "yet another white guy who showed up on the rez because he loved Indian people SOOOOOOOO much." You see, it took reading Part-Time Indian to realize that just 'caring' wasn't enough. Just trying to 'fix' things within the reservations isn't enough, because the problems come from outside as well. Until the Arnold's of this world are wrong when they say, "Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists," then we are still doing something i>wrong as a society. (p 6) I just love what Sherman Alexie said in an interview with the Progressive when he was included in the banned curriculum of the Mexican American Studies Program in Arizona:
"You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world. In the effort to vanish our books, Arizona has actually given them enormous power. Arizona has made our books sacred documents now."
I want our world to change. But, yet again, what a personal response! Who really wants to write a review revealing just how ignorant they have been of their own privilege?
With this last reading, though, things changed. I realized that it wasn't the comfort it brought the first time I read it or the self awareness it provided with the second reading that brings me back again and again. It is simply this: Arnold. His frank, funny, painful, humiliating, triumphant, honest story. The way Alexie can bring you from the greatest of emotional heights to the most painful moments of sadness or shame with a single sentence--and you want to stay along for the rest of the ride because you're invested. Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a compelling story of a young boy's coming of age; it is not an issue book, but a character-driven story about a boy with a lot of issues. It is a story about finding hope when you think all hope is lost. It is about making your own hope. It is a story of learning to expect more for and from yourself than what others expect for and from you. It is about learning that where you come from does not have to define where you are going. It is about seeing the good and bad of each situation; that love can be expressed in a lot of different ways and still be real. It is about realizing that we are all a part of many different tribes, be they the tribe of poverty, small-town kids, funeral-goers, tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers, or chronic masturbators. It is about learning that "the world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know." (p 97) So maybe Gordy is right, maybe I do know Part-Time Indian, at least a little better than I did the first time. But that doesn't mean I won't be back again. I think there are still some things I don't know in this small part of the world, and I enjoy it here.
I still vividly remember the very first time I read Buck's translation of the Mahabharata. It was my first semester back to school after taking time o...moreI still vividly remember the very first time I read Buck's translation of the Mahabharata. It was my first semester back to school after taking time off to have my son. We lived in a large room that was a sort of add-on to the side of my parent's church and doubled as the nursery on Sundays. My husband was working nights while going to school full time. I was trying to juggle a 21 hour semester at school while simultaneously only having my toddler in daycare for half days. Needless to say, I had little enough time for school work, and even less for reading for pleasure. It was assigned reading for our Honors Humanities Project - basically a four semester course that combined World Literature, World History, Composition, Religions (and a bunch of other things I am sure I have now forgotten).
So, late one night as my son lie sleeping on a mattress in one corner of the room, I curled up with a lamp and Mahabharata in another - ready to get my assigned reading done for the week. As I began reading, though, something magical happened. I could no longer hear the soft snoring of my son, the whisk of cars along the highway outside the window, or the steady crunch of gravel as people pulled in and out of the liquor store across the street. (There is always a liquor store across from the church, isn't there?) Nor could I feel the weight of all the things I needed to do but hadn't yet done pressing down on me. For the first time in a long time I was transported somewhere else. Buck's words washed over me, through me, surrounded me, engulfed me. I did not stop at whatever arbitrary page had been chosen on the syllabus, but continued on until I had devoured it in full.
For a long time after that, I carried it with me to revisit. I loved the stories within stories within stories. I could reread the whole book, or the 30 page story within the book, or the 11 page story within the 30 page story, or the 2 page story within the 11 page story. I cannot read the Mahabharata in its original language, but I like to think that Buck did something very right in the way he chose to translate it. His language is lyrical. Reading it is like listening to the ocean, humming a lullaby, or listening to crickets and tree frogs in spring - but not quite. The cadence is comfortable, but also slightly unfamiliar. I understand all the words, but he puts them together in new ways that completely change the way I think about the words.
Five years and innumerable readings later I still love it as much as the first time I picked it up. The edges are a little worn, the pages a little smudged, the cover has some deep seams where it has been folded and can't be smoothed. Now, I read those small stories within the stories to my son at bedtime. Slowly working my way out to the larger stories, the bigger picture, even so far as to tell the story of Buck himself - a young man entranced by the spirit and flavor of the sweeping epics of India, intent on sharing them in his own language. I love becoming part of this tradition of stories of storytellers telling stories of storytellers, spiraling forward through the generations.(less)
There have been a few books that I have read in my life that seemed to become part of my soul afterward. Each time I come back to it I find something...moreThere have been a few books that I have read in my life that seemed to become part of my soul afterward. Each time I come back to it I find something different, am changed anew, but find the comfort of familiarity as well. "West with the Night" is one such book. Beryl Markham's writing seems so effortless, beautiful, true, that I find myself pausing over passages, rereading them, then reading them aloud to whomever happens to be in the room with me. Markham's voice is so clear, so strong, that she emerges from the page. If you have never read this book, I strongly urge you to do so.(less)
I have put off reviewing The Boneshaker for some time now because it leaves me feeling absolutely inadequate to the task. It is quite possibly one of...moreI have put off reviewing The Boneshaker for some time now because it leaves me feeling absolutely inadequate to the task. It is quite possibly one of the best books I have ever read.
The Boneshaker is the story of Natalie Minks, a young tomboy with a passionate love of all things mechanical. Few things give her more pleasure than tinkering with her father on their automata, unless it is perhaps her red Chesterlane, a beautiful boneshaker of a bicycle he built for her. Except that she cannot ride it just yet. She has grown up in a small Missouri town near a crossroads, listening to her mother's fantastical stories of the town and it's people, because all things are possible at a crossroad. And it is in this way that The Boneshaker becomes a story of stories. Tom Guyot's victory over the devil with a guitar that can talk. The mysterious drifter. Simon Cofferett's frightening jump, and his uncanny youth for one who has lived just outside town as long as anyone can remember. When 'Dr. Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show' comes into town with intricate automata, fantastic healing machines and miraculous cures, Natalie begins to realize there is more truth in her mother's stories than she previously suspected.
Though a steampunk novel (for kids!), The Boneshaker is so much more. There are layers upon layers to it. The language is so evocative of the region and time about which she writes that her fantasy feels like truth. This absolutely could have been Missouri in 1914, it just wasn't. It makes me think of my Grandmother, and the way she would say, "sometimes it's easier to see the truth when it's in a story." Everything about it feels real from the dusty roads under her bicycle tires to the taunting boys down the lane. You can hear the music as Tom Guyot plays. No, really. You can.
"Tom's humming turned into strange syllables, sounds that weren't words but sort of broken pieces of words, bits and bobs of song dodging and darting over and around and under the music of the guitar, rising and falling and ducking, and every once in a while climbing sharp and clear and plaintive...
It made a strange tableau, and plenty of people paused to look: the old black man singing blissfully with the guitar flashing sunset colors on his knees; and the sweaty, bruised, and scraped girl, unmoving and rapt, absently holding on to a bizarre bicycle with her head cocked like a bird's. Neither of them noticed anyone else's stares." (p32-33)
It is like Milford lifted the essence, the very life force, of the folklore of an entire region, and slipped it into her novel. I could feel my grandparents in it. I could hear the echos or their parents. I caught myself, over and over again, stopping to savor something I had just read. As soon as I finished the book, I immediately read it again, only out load to my husband and son. We spent weeks lingering over it, bellowing to sell wares or whispering in fear. It almost feels wrong to NOT have the Boneshaker become the very oral history it describes.
The Boneshaker is the kind of book that will grow with you. A mid-grade reader could pick it up and be entranced by the mystery, captivated by Natalie's courage. A few years later, they may better understand the fear motivating the choices Natalie's father and brother made about her mother; grasp the deeper, darker elements of the story that are always running just under the surface. It talks about darkness and light, good and bad, courage and weakness in a way that just leaves me breathless at times for its beauty. The different meanings of this book are so multilayerd that different readers of different ages will experience what is happening in very different ways, none of them wrong. If I could, I would give a copy of this book to every boy or girl I know. Adults, too. (less)