Tag Archives: Book Reviews

The Year of Reading Leisurely: Book 1 — What I’m Going to Do, I Think by Larry Woiwode

When I was searching my bookshelves for a book to read I came across Larry Woiwode’s first book and thought how appropriate I read it for the first book of my book group break. I’ve been meaning to someday read it ever since I was in the 6th grade and Mr. Woiwode visited our class.

Mrs. Anderson, my wonderful 6th grade teacher, had a student teacher named Mary Woiwode. It turned out that Miss Woiwode’s brother, Larry, was a published author. He was invited to give a talk to the two 6th grade classes at Highland Elementary School. It was the 1968-1969 school year, but I don’t recall when the visit took place – I’m thinking second semester, so it was probably sometime in the spring of 1969.

Mr. Woiwode published his first book, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, three years earlier, in 1966, and was either working on, or had just published his second book, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, when he visited our class. I remember him mentioning that the second book might be made into a movie and he named a famous actress of the time who might be in the film.

I only barely remember the rest of his talk. He mentioned John Updike, and may have said, “my friend, John Updike” in answer to a question about writing. Our teachers encouraged us to ask questions, and I asked him what courses in college an aspiring author should take. I don’t remember his answer, except that he said it was a good question. After the talk and the question/answer session he signed autographs. He signed a piece of notebook paper for me – I still have it, but since I wrote, in purple ink, all around it, it probably is worthless.

I don’t know if anyone had him sign copy of his book – probably not because, although he encouraged us to read it, our teacher and parents were a little more conservative about 10 and 11 year olds reading books with adult content in them. The paperback copy – which was published the following year – contains this description on the front:

The literary discovery of the year – The haunting, erotic novel of a young man and his girl and their doomed honeymoon…

Here’s the excerpt chosen for the back:

He saw sand and dune grass and felt he could count the grains of sand below the curve of her shoulder and throat, each was so individually clear as they made love, and he realized she was seeing the sky, the bright blue sky he’d been staring at, and there was the freedom and openness of sky in her body, in its growing lightness of motion, and then all the space of the sky came.
They lay in silence, still linked, with the wind blowing over them.

Then, the quote from a book critic (Robert Phelps, Life Magazine) reads:

“THERE IS PLENTY OF SEX
Chris and Ellen make love abundantly, and in assorted moods, but never merely to put down Puritans. The lovemaking is sweet and horny, bewildering and majestic, funny and emboldening, somber and joyous – everything, in fact, that sex is always in literature, as well as in life, when it isn’t being used to sell something. …The day I read this book was wonderfully quickened, nourished, consecrated for me. I am grateful.”

I finished the book last month and, for the most part, really enjoyed it. I’m not sure I would have liked it if I didn’t have the connection with Mr. Woiwode, but it was well written and had many wonderful passages. I enjoyed meeting the characters of the book: 23 year-old Chris and his 20 year-old bride, Ellen. Ellen’s grandparents were interesting, as were neighbors, Orin and his sister, Anne. As I read the book I felt like I was meeting people I should have met years ago. I’d first heard about them over 40 years ago and, until now, had kept them locked away. Unlike some things, however, characters in a story don’t go bad with storage. There were a few parts that didn’t quite pass the test of time, but I tried to keep in mind how long ago the book was written.

There was not that much sex – and nothing graphic at all by today’s standards.

The hardback cover of the book holds a photograph of a rifle. Mr. Woiwode said something about a gun in his talk. For more than four decades I’ve expected this book to be tragic and as I read it I worried each time a character picked up a gun. The gun, I think, is another character in the book.

The most complex character is Chris. He claims to love Ellen, yet he is alternately jealous of men she may or may not have slept with during their one year apart and completely overwhelmed in his adoration of his wife. He slept with women during their year apart – and flirted with others when they were not apart yet cannot get over her possible infidelities. He carries a lot of baggage from his earlier life as the son of a Catholic farmer.

Ellen is less complex, although has at least as much baggage as Chris has. Her parents were killed in a mysterious accident when she was young – something that makes her so terrified to talk about, Chris rarely brings up the subject. She was raised by her Christian Scientist grandparents.

When Chris and Ellen marry, earlier than planned (she’s pregnant) her grandparents, who dislike Chris, offer their cabin in a remote area of Michigan on the shore Lake Michigan for their honeymoon. The book tells the story of their honeymoon from their arrival to Chris’s hellish day bailing hay for the odd neighbor, Orin to Chris’s demand that Ellen tell him the truth about her year in New York to his jealousy of what she revealed to him. It also introduces the gun and keeps the reader in a sort of suspense not unlike the works of Stephen King. In fact, I found Woiwode’s writing style to be a lot like King’s writing style.

Woiwode has written many other books – I own probably 80% of books he’s written. I recently read online that he is now a right-wing republican who is active in the right-to-life campaign. The blurb I read about him also said he gave up writing. It cannot have been that long ago, because he published a book called “What I Think I Did” within the last ten years.

I’m not going to recommend this book – only because you probably won’t find a copy anywhere. I believe it has been out of print for a while. Also because, while I am happy I read it, it left me flat –wondering if I missed something or if it really ended the way it did.

Finally, here is the description on the inside cover:

There is a remote summer lodge high on a wooded bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. A farm is down the road, and a village seven miles away. But otherwise there are only sky and lake, wildlife and weather – And a young man and his wife on their honeymoon…

L. Woiwode’s What I’m Going to Do, I Think is a hauntingly beautiful novel about youth growing up to the pain of loss, the puzzle of love, and the sense of despair lying near the surface of modern consciousness. This wildly acclaimed first novel introduces an author of unique and memorable talent. A best-seller since it was first published, What I’m Going to Do, I Think has also been bought for motion pictures.

[Review] The 13th Reality: Volume 1 — The Journal of Curious Letters

The 13th Reality: Volume 1 -- The Journal of Curious Letters
The 13th Reality: Volume 1 -- The Journal of Curious Letters

Note: I belong to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer group and was sent this book January 2008. When I received the book I took one look at the cover and decided that I wasn’t interested in reading it after all. The cover of the book, as you can see in the image to the right, was of a boy with a surprised look on his face as he stares at something floating in front of him. The quality of the drawing made me uncomfortable in the same way as the characters in the movie version of The Polar Express did — they just looked creepy — and not in a good way. The face was too shiny and fake looking and was like a plastic doll that came to life.  I cannot really explain my reaction, except that I thought that if the cover looked that bad, the content was probably worse.

I knew that not reading and reviewing the book would affect (or is it effect? I never remember) my chances of receiving another early reviewer title, but at the time I guess I thought it didn’t matter. Perhaps I was over the thrill of getting books before they were published. Then, when I received notice recently that a new batch of early reviewer books were up for grabs I checked them out, just to see what was available. I was excited and surprised to see John Irving’s newest book, Last Night at Twisted River, and clicked the “Request” button, knowing I had very little chance of getting one of the 30 copies the publisher was offering. So, at the end of the month I was more than a little surprised (and delighted) when I received word that I had actually snagged a copy of Last Night at Twisted River.

A few days later I received another note from LibraryThing — they reminded me that I’d indicated that I’d received The 13th Reality: Volume 1 — The Journal of Curious Letters and had not yet reviewed it. So, reluctantly, I located the book and began reading it.

You know the saying about not judging the book by its cover? Well, this book proved that saying true.

[FULL DISCLOSURE NOTICE — Dear FCC & Lawyers: I received this book for free from Random House via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.]

The unfortunately named 13-year-old Atticus “Tick” Higgenbottom is a self-described nerd who chooses to give in to the schoolyard bullies when they torment him, as they frequently do. He’s a straight A student, is on the chess team and loves science. Tick also has a birthmark on his neck that makes him so self-conscious that  he covers it, inside and outside, winter and summer, with a long knitted scarf.

One day in November Tick receives a letter postmarked from a small town in Alaska that informs Tick that he’s been chosen to be a part of  dangerous and possibly deadly events, but first he needs to solve a series of clues, that are also described as dangerous and possibly deadly. Tick, being curious and good is intrigued by the letter and chooses to not burn it because the letter also explains that if he succeeds in solving the clues he’ll save many lives.

Throughout the next half-year Tick receives many more clues that he attempts to solve with the help of some other chosen teenagers and a cadre of unlikely otherworldly characters.

This book was surprisingly hard to put down. I was never bored reading it and looked forward to reading it each time I picked it up. It kept my attention — even when sitting on bleachers in a noisy gym during a wrestling tournament. It even scared me a little, especially when Tick heard noises in his bedroom shortly after receiving the first letter:

“Late that night, after watching the movie Dad had brought home–a creepy sci-fi flick where the hero had to travel between dimensions to fight different versions of the same monster–Tick lay on his bed alone, reading the letter once again. Night had fallen hours earlier and the darkness seemed to creep though the frosted window, devouring the  faint light from his small bedside lamp. Everything lay in shadow, and Tick’s mind ran wild, imagining all the spooky things that could be hiding in the darkness.

A noise from the other side of his room cut him out of his thoughts. He leaned on his elbow to look, a quick shiver running down his spine. It had sounded like the clank of metal against wood, followed by a quick burst of whirring–almost like the hum of a computer fan, but sharper, stronger–and it had lasted only a second or two before stopping.”

I think that the storyline in this book is very good and rather unique. It takes the good vs. evil theme and makes it readable, even for a middle-aged grown-up like me. I imagine it would appeal to upper elementary school students, especially if they like science fiction or fantasy stories. The characters are moderately well developed, although everyone but Tick and perhaps his father, seem a little one-dimensional. Sophia, Tick’s friend from Italy is a rich smart-alack but we know little else about her. Paul, their friend from California is full of himself and seems to like sports, but what else? Rutger is portly and likes to eat. Mothball is tall and kind. I would have liked the supporting characters to be a little more fleshed out.

My other problem with this book was the author’s voice. Voice is usually a good thing in stories, however Mr. Dashner’s voice is too strong in this story. It comes through in all the characters. His sense of humor is slightly stilted — as if he’s working to hard to get a laugh out of a group of bored businessmen and has no idea how to do it, but thinks he does. The humor also seems dated. I cringed and had a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach several times in most chapters — thinking that the characters’ words could have been different and the meaning would have come across just as well, or better.

Maybe the voice works for school-aged readers — perhaps the humor is just right for 5th graders — but I suspect not. I think that Mr. Dashner has an incredible imagination and for the most part wrote a book that will keep many readers engrossed, however the delivery of the story needs a little refinement. I’m not sure I’ll read the next installment of The 13th Reality, although the first volume left me wanting more (which is a good thing with the first book in a series).Perhaps I will read it, though — perhaps the writing style has changed a little. Maybe I’ll read some of his newer books as well, because I think this guy has potential.

I am going to Barnes & Noble on Friday to see this author. From the voice in the book (and on his website), he seems like a likable guy. I only wish I could have given this book a better review, but maybe I needed to be male and in the 5th grade to really like it.

The Overachievers — a review…sort of

Had my kids not been students at the school profiled in Alexandra Robbins‘ exposé of success-driven teenagers, The Overachievers, I would probably never have heard about the book, much less read it. However, since they go to that same high school that AP Frank and the rest of the overachieving students in the book attended, I thought it would be an interesting read.

It was more than interesting, it was an eye-opener and a sigh-producer. I threw it across the room more than once. I vowed to quit reading it more than once. It took me nearly a full year to read and I still have the last few pages to go.

My daughter is now a senior at the school. Clare is not an overachiever in the true sense of the word, but she does push herself academically, which can be hell for her and her parents. I won’t elaborate because she occasionally reads this. Hi Clare.

My son, also not an overachiever, is a sophomore. He’s begun to take school more seriously this year. Hi Andrew! (actually he never reads this, so I could tell you lots of stories about him…

Whitman High SchoolSo, I’d be reading The Overachievers and forget it was so close to home (on a couple of levels) until the author mentioned something I’d seen that day, like the façade of the building or the carpool line or a storefront in Bethesda. Then I’d throw the book across the room.

Sure, sometimes I wish my kids were at the top of their class and candidates for valedictorian, but they’re not. Neither was I. Neither was their dad. We’re not [medical] doctors or lawyers. We didn’t go to ivy league schools.

It’s supposed to be made into a movie. I don’t know how that’s going to work unless it is a documentary. But I think it is a drama. Or a comedy. Or better yet, a tragedy.

Robbins is on our side — she wants schools to stop pressuring kids to overachieve. The last chapter provides many ways to help kids be successful and get into colleges without the terrible stressful hell it has become, but unless all parties (colleges, kids, parents and high schools) agree to follow what Robbins says, it’s not going to happen.

AP Frank wrote a letter [pdf] to the editor of the school newspaper last month. It’s a little rambling, but I think he gives the students some good advice — Be yourself and enjoy your life.  Thanks Frank, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all year.

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman has done it again. I was first captivated by his Coraline (soon to be a Major Motion Picture), then drawn in by the campy Neverwhere miniseries, then entranced by his collection of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors. This time it is another book for younger readers — a sort of re-telling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. This book is absolutely charming.

The Graveyard Book begins with a gruesome murder by a man only identified as “the man Jack”. The only survivor is a toddler who escapes to a nearby cemetery and, after some discussion, is taken in by the occupants. The rest of the story contains elements of romance, mystery, horror and adventure.

If you’d like to hear the first chapter (read by Gaiman himself), click the play button on the widget below.

Review: Mrs Lieutenant

A couple of weeks ago I received a google alert for Elgin, Illinois. I get them several times a week, and usually read them, then delete them. This one, however, I not only read and saved, but I took action that I don’t regret.

The alert was about an author, Phyllis Zimbler Miller, who grew up in Elgin. I’d not heard of the author, but found her on a site I’d been to before, The Author’s Den.  I sent her a message, telling her I was pleased to see that Elgin produced talented people and that I’d also grown up there. I also found her on twitter and found her weblogs. In fact, this woman is all over the Internet.

I added her to my twitter feed and we exchanged a couple of twits and messages on The Author’s Den. She offered to send me her book to read and review here. I accepted, so here we are.

I have to admit, when I looked at the cover of the book and read the blurb on the back, I was a little worried that I was not going to like it. After all, I was a knee-jerk anti-war teenager (and am a more thoughtful anti-war middle-aged woman). Why on earth would the story of four vastly different women who happened to be married to budding army Lieutenants in the 1970’s interest me in the slightest?

I was mistaken. Mrs. Lieutenant was an interesting read. It kept my interest and I came away from it more enlightened about life of military folk during the Viet Nam war. The book has romance, drama, drama, sex, and conflict. I cared about the characters and hated a couple of them. What more could I ask for?

The premise of the book is that four young women from different US cultures are thrown together for a couple of months on a military base while their husbands complete some needed training. Although backgrounds and pasts differ, their futures seem to all hold at least one near-definite: the possibility of their husband’s going to, and possibly dying, in Viet Nam.

Sharon Gold, the main character, is a Jewish anti-war protester from Chicago, Illinois. Donna is a Puerto Rican married to an “Anglo”. Kim is a white woman from South Carolina who doesn’t like Jews, Puerto Ricans or Blacks. Wendy is a sheltered Black woman from South Carolina.

While I believed the tension between Kim and the other women, I had a hard time understanding the tension that Sharon felt. Maybe I’m too young to remember tension between Jews and non-Jews, or perhaps I’ve lived in a community with a lot of Jewish culture for so long. Although, I do admit to not knowing anyone Jewish in my hometown until I got to high school, but it never seemed to be an issue — in fact I might have known them, just didn’t know they were Jewish.

I think this book might even appeal more to women that lived that life — even if they lived it during other wars, or during times of peace (have we actually had those?)

While Ms Zimbler Miller’s writing style occasionally felt awkward (possibly because she was writing in language of the 1970s), there were some spots of brilliant writing:

“Don’t lie to me. I know you were with a man.”

Jim’s face flushes with the ugliest shade of purple she’s ever seen. His eyes will pop out of his face any minute, landing at her feet and rolling away, becoming marbles for Squeaky to chase.

She sinks to the floor as her knees fold under her. “I swear Jim, I swear on my sister’s life, that I was home all day alone. That I was not with another man today, or ever before, or ever in the future.” The tears plop onto her hands.

He stides down the hall. In a moment he’s back.

He has the gun!

“I’ll kill you if you’re ever with another man. I promise you, Kim, I’ll kill you.”

So, as I told Ms Zimbler Miller in my first message — it’s great to see that Elgin, Illinois produced people with her talent. She spent time at the very same library I did as a young child — perhaps we read the same books.

I’m sending this book to my Aunt Ginny, who went to high school with Ms Zimbler Miller. I think she’ll even get more out of it than I did.

Review: Life Among the Savages

Before Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr wrote about life as housewives and stay-at-home-mothers in the 1950’s, Shirley Jackson had already published her account.

You’ve probably read, or at least heard of Shirley Jackson, but you might not remember where or how. Think back to your high school English classes. Remember reading The Lottery? If that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you are a fan of horror films. If so, you might have seen the 1963 film, The Haunting or its mediocre 1999 remake, both based on her novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

While Ms Jackson is more widely known for her Gothic horror stories, she’s likely the creator of the humorous housewife/mother sub-genre of literature.

In Life Among the Savages, Jackson tells us about raising her three children, Laurie, Jannie and Sally. It’s told with humor and not a little self-deprecation. Ms Jackson was matter-of-fact about not being the perfect stereotypical 1950’s housewife:

Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and–as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I had to make a good many compromises.

I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living–sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves; would we be pleased, I wonder, at a wholesale elimination of these things, so that we were reduced only to necessities (coffeepot, typewriters, the essential little wheels off things) and then–this happening usually int he springtime–I begin throwing things away, and it turns out that although we can live agreeably without the little wheels off things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.

Life Among the Savages begins when Ms Jackson, her husband Stanley and their two children live in New York and decide to move to Vermont, where Stanley (Hyman)has a job at a local college. It describes their house hunt in a small town in Vermont.

One nice thing was, there were lots and lots of houses available. We heard this from a lady named Mrs. Black, a motherly old body who lived in a nearby large town, but who knew, as she herself pointed out, every house and every family in the state. She took us to visit a house which she called the Bassington House, and which would have been perfect for us and our books and our children, if there had been any plumbing.

“Wouldn’t take much to put in plumbing,” Mrs. Black told us. “Put in plumbing, you got a real nice house there.”

My husband shifted nervously in the snow, “You see,” he said, “that brings up the question of…well…money.”

Mrs. Black shrugged. “How much would plumbing cost?” she demanded. “You put in maybe twelve, fifteen hundred dollars, you got a real nice home.”

“Now look, if we had fifteen hundred dollars we could give an apartment superintendent–” my husband began, but I cut in quickly, you must remember, Mrs. Black, we want to rent.”

“Rent, did you?” said Mrs. Black, as though this proved at last that we were mere fly-by-nights, lookers at houses for the pleasure of it. “Well, if I was you folks, small children and all, well, I‘d buy.”

While Jackson’s other works are more widely acclaimed and on some “the best of” lists, Life Among the Savages is a well-told and funny slice of life tale. Some critics call it forgettable. I disagree and like reading about this side of a woman whose tales of darkness have fascinated me for years.

It seems to have been written before the darkness that ended up plaguing her took over. It’s readable and funny. While Jackson’s mental illness may have contributed to her genius and spawned some of the last century’s best horror tales, she was a good writer anyway and Life Among the Savages proves it.

One thing of which to be aware, however — this book didn’t age well. While I was able to laugh at many of the vignettes without really thinking, some made me chuckle with reservation. Remember this was written in the late 1940s and 1950’s. Back then people drank more. People smoked more. Even pregnant women smoked. And probably drank too, without thinking about how it was harming their unborn children. Shirley Jackson was a very heavy smoker and she wrote about smoking cigarettes a lot. While cooking; while reading; while waiting for labor pains to begin in her fourth pregnancy. In fact this book is, in some ways, a direct opposite of some of the mommy blogs I’ve been reading lately — yet similar in some ways. Current expectant moms wouldn’t think of writing about lighting a cigarette while pregnant, but they do write self-deprecating vignettes about their day-to-day life. I suppose the women who are writing the blogs about motherhood (the ones who do it well) are the current Erma Bombecks, Jean Kerrs, even Shirley Jacksons. The times have changed–technology, medicine, child-rearing; but maybe more has stayed the same.

Hmm, that might make a good Masters Thesis.

Review: Digging to America

Digging to America -- Ann Tyler [Cross-posted on Revish]

I don’t remember the title of the first book I read in which nothing happened, but I remember being surprised that 1) Nothing happened and 2) I enjoyed it. It may very well have been an Anne Tyler book.

In Anne Tyler’s latest book, Digging to America, nothing happens. Well, that’s not entirely true. What I mean is nothing but life happens. There is no mystery, no great climax, no real plot to speak of. And that’s ok. Anne Tyler’s gift is not necessarily plot heavy books, but books with intricate character studies.

I’ve been an Anne Tyler fan since I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant back in the 1980’s and have read 15 of her 17 novels. Although I didn’t realize it until today, all of Ms Tyler’s books are mostly character studies, and therefore it is the characters I mostly remember from her novels. I loved the way Ms Tyler wrote about quirky characters and I often joked that my in-laws would make great characters in an Anne Tyler novel.

Digging to America is about two very different families that meet at an airport while waiting to meet their adopted daughters from Korea. The story revolves around the two families through the next five years: their evolving friendship, occasional bitterness, a loss, a romance and not a little misunderstanding.

Brad and Bitsy Donaldson are well-meaning, politically correct suburbanites. Sami and Ziba Yazdan are Iranian-Americans, adapting to American culture, while occasionally shaking their heads at Americans’ behaviors. Each family has extended families whose characters are as colorful as anyone in real life.

The book alternates between the two families’ points of view, each chapter providing a different character to speak, so the reader gets to be “in the head” of several characters in the novel.

If you are looking for a book with an intricate plot, I’d pass this one by, but if you want a cozy book in which the characters are highly developed, give Digging to America a go.

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

While Christmas shopping I came upon a book with an interesting title and cover in the teen section of Barnes and Noble. Reading the description on the back intrigued me so much I felt I had to buy the book and read it. Here is what the back cover says:

If you start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old by named Bruno. (Although this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence.

Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one.

The Boy in the Striped PajamasBecause the book cover illustration was a simple striped pattern of sky blue and a paler shade of sky blue and a fence was mentioned, I assumed the book was about the Holocaust. I also assumed it was about a concentration camp. I also assumed the main character, mentioned in the title was a Jewish boy in the camp.

I was partially correct. The book is about the Holocaust. And a concentration camp. And there is a Jewish boy in it, but he is not the main character mentioned in the title. Instead he is the son of the Nazi who runs the concentration camp.

When I realized that the book was about the son of a Nazi who runs the concentration camp I thought to myself, “What a brilliant idea! I wonder how the author, John Boyne, is going to carry this off — especially since this was a book found in the teen section of Barnes and Noble and not in the adult section of Barnes and Noble.

How John Boyne carries it off is interesting indeed. But not interesting in a good way, really. He writes the book in a voice that becomes kind of annoying after a while. If you’ve ever read any picture books that repeat themselves over and over, you might understand what I mean by annoying after a while. In fact if this review is annoying you right now, you’ll understand what I mean by annoying after a while. I think this is a writing rhetoric called repetition. Repetition is good when you are first learning how to read and repetition is good when you really want to hammer a point home. Repetition is not good when you are using it to make a nine-year-old boy sound unbelievably naive.

Boyne seems confused about who he wrote this book for. According to Boyne himself, when he handed it to his editor he said he thought he’d written a children’s book. The voice seems to agree with that, because it is repetitive and the language is deceptively simple. However the text on the back of the book warns that the book is not for nine-year-olds. The subject matter of the book — Nazis, concentration camps, the Holocaust — is not subject matter I’d want my young children to learn about quite yet.

Because the book was in the teen section of Barnes and Noble, one would think it an appropriate book for teens — and yes, I think that the subject matter of the book– Nazis, concentration camps, the Holocaust — is subject matter my teens could handle. After all, they’ve both read Number the Stars. My daughter has also read a number of other books about the Holocaust including The Devil’s Arithmetic (my personal favorite) and Night. However this book, with its repetition and simple language might put off teens that attempt to read it. I’m pretty sure my son would be put off by the repetition and simple language, however my daughter might not be put off by the repetition and simple language because she’s an aspiring writer and understands the use of voice to convey a certain feeling in a book.

It is obvious that Boyne was using the repetition and simple language to create a voice of innocence and naivety. If this book were about anything other than the son of the Nazi who runs a death camp during the Holocaust, then the use of that voice would have been believable, but I could not get over the fact that the children in the story spent a year living at the camp and neither knew what was going on.

Another thing about the book that annoyed me was Bruno’s consistent mispronunciation of two words. He called Auschwitz “Out-With” throughout the entire book (thinking the former occupants were told to “get out”), even when told the correct pronunciation by his sister. He also said “Fury” for Führer. I kept on thinking, they speak German, not English and I’d bet the German words for “out with” and “fury” are not the same as in English. (Ok, I was wrong about “out with”. According to AltaVista’s Babelfish, the German for “out with” is aus mit. But the German word for “fury” is Wut.)

But do I recommend this book? Even though it is repetitive, carries an unbelievably innocent voice and has characters who are much more naive than they should be for their ages and situations? Yes. The basic idea is really very interesting and thought provoking. That I’ve spent the last few days dissecting it verbally, mentally and in writing is proof that it affected me more than I want to admit. Yes, I recommend it with the caveat that the reader suspend belief (about the character’s innocence) for a while and just get into the lyrical sound of the words. I recommend it to teenagers and adults, but not to anyone younger than, 12.

Review: A Door Near Here

A Door Near HereAnyone who knows me well knows that C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was a huge factor in the person I’ve become. I cannot say I’ll read them again, but when I read them in my mid-teens I was somehow different aftwards.

I remember devouring anything that was in any way associated with the Narnia stories and now still get a small thill out of mentions of the Wardrobe or Aslan like when I saw a car with ASLAN on the license plate outside Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago. Or when I remember the time I ate dinner off a table with a pedistal made out of the packing crate in which the Wardrobe travelled to Wheaton College.

Back when I was frequenting the bulletin boards on a forum discussing the Narnia movies I heard mention of a book about a girl who looked for the door to Narnia. I found it on Amazon and put it on my wishlist, expecting to know when I should buy it. I eventually broke down and purchased it about a month ago, and began reading it last week.

The book, A Door Near Here, is not the light fiction/fantasy I was expecting. It is a very heavy story about alcoholism that resulted in child neglect. It is about four siblings who stuck together and survived a very nasty part of their lives.

Katherine, the eldest sibling has a lot on her plate. Besides being only 15 years old, and all that that entails, she has been responsible for ther younger siblings for several years while her alcoholic mother worked long hours and dated promiscously. After losing her job, Katherine’s mother drank more and spent much of her time, intoxicated, in her bedroom, leaving her four children to fend for themselves.

When the story opens, Katherine’s main concern, apart from feeding the family from an empty larder, is her youngest sibling, Alisa who has developed a strange attraction to the woods behind her school. Alisa believes that a door to Narnia lies beyond the fence, in the forbidden woods. She also believes that if she finds the door she can bring back a magical cure for her mother.

Katherine thinks that Alisa is losing her mind and tries to disuade her from looking for the door and believing in Narnia and Aslan. Katherine’s religion teacher is no help because he seems to be meddling in her life and encouraging Alisa to belive in Narnia.

This story, although it ends on a positive note, is not a happy one. It doesn’t have the magic of Bridge to Terribithia, another book that elicits images of Narnia. The book kept me interested. The writing was never clumsy or stilted. The characters were compelling enough – not perfect, any of them. The jacket of A Door Near Here explains that the book was the author’s Masters Thesis. It is certainly the most interesting Master’s Thesis I’ve read.

Review: The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth TaleIn sixth grade my friend, Eugenia, introduced me to the genre of Gothic novel. I’d fill a grocery bag full of them at the library, take them home, devour them in a week, then return to the library the following Saturday, hungry for more.

By the time I discovered the Brontës, I’d read most of the contemporary Gothic novels at the library and decided to go to the source. I’d just returned from a visit to Bronte country and was embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any of their works. So my sophomore year in college I read Wuthering Heights in 15-minute increments before I began my homework each day.

I finally grew out of Gothic novels and moved on to other genres. But when I heard about The Thirteenth Tale, I had to buy it. I had no option. I had to read it.

The Thirteenth Tale sat on my bookshelf for months waiting to be read. It wasn’t quiet about it either. It whispered to me each time I passed. “Read me. Read me.” Because I had other things to read first, I was not able to abide by its request. Until last weekend…

“It’s my profession. I’m a storyteller,” Vida Winter explains when defending the numerous lies she’s previously told about her past.

Her real past, the truth, as told to Margaret Lea, proves to be the best story of them all, filled with characters so rich, so colorful they could have stepped out of novels written by the Brontë sisters, Wilkie Collins or George Elliot. Set in the same Yorkshire moors that inspired the Brontë sisters, Vida Winter’s life story reads like a real Gothic mystery.

When Margaret Lea, the daughter of an antiquarian bookstore owner, discovers she had a twin sister who died at their birth she understands her feelings of aloneness. She comforts herself with the unwanted books of her father’s bookshop – her only companions other than her protective father and distant mother. When the famous author, Vida Winter, approaches Margaret to write her biography, Margaret is not so sure, but visits Ms Winter in her Yorkshire home. As Vida Winter reveals her story to Margaret, both Margaret and the reader are immersed in an unforgettable tale spanning three generations.

Isabelle Angelfield was odd.

Isabelle Angelfield was born during a rainstorm.

It is impossible to know whether or not these facts are connected. But when, two and a half decades later, Isablle left home for the second time, people in the village looked back and remembered the endlessness of the rain on the day of her birth. Some remembered as if it was yesterday that the doctor was late, delayed by the floods caused by the river having burst its banks. Others recalled beyond the shadow of a doubt that the cord had been wrapped round the baby’s neck, almost strangling her before she could be born. Yes, it was a difficult birth, all right, for on the stroke of six, just as the baby was born, the doctor rang the bell, hadn’t the mother passed away, out of this world and into the next? So if the weather had been fine, and the doctor had been earlier and if the cord had not deprived the baby of oxygen, and if the mother had not died…

And if, and if, and if. Such thinking is pointless. Isabelle was as Isabelle was, and that is all there is to say about the matter.

If you are a fan of gothic novels, this book is a must. Even if you’ve never read a Gothic novel, you should still check this book out. It is a can’t-put-it down/stay-up-all-night kind of read.