Sunday, December 28, 2014

Watership Down

by Richard Adams

A few months ago my daughter started reading Watership Down and since it had been forever ago that I read it, and since I was kinda in a limbo about what to read next, I picked it up for a refresher, and after all these years I still liked it. At first I wondered if my preteen opinion would hold up after 35 years, but this is a classic that spans the ages.

Most people, whether they've read it or not, know it's a book about rabbits and their minds go to Peter Rabbit and they think Watership Down is just another cute little rabbit tale. But WD is not a little tale, it's a huge adventure! In short, the book is about some rabbits seeking new territory to relocate their warren after one of them predicts their current home's impending destruction. Along the journey, Bigwig, Hazel, Fiver and friends have to battle farmers, dogs and other rabbits in order to finally reach their Eden. Interspersed throughout, Adams includes rabbit customs, characteristics and folklore that connects readers with the rabbits and makes them real.

The first thing I'll say is don't try to read too much into it, just read the story for fun. The next thing is to stick with it... the book has a lot of made up language, which makes it a bit slow to begin, but once you get going you understand these words without trouble. I wouldn't say this is a fast read, but the story is strong and keeps you turning pages.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ordinary Grace

by William Kent Krueger

Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, Ordinary Grace is one of my top reads of the year.  Frank Drum, now in his forties, looks back at the summer that shaped the rest of his life, in 1961, when in his small Minnesota town, five people were murdered. The summer began as any ordinary one until Frank and his younger brother stumbled upon the dead body of a schoolmate, and ended with a death that hits close to home. Local police are sure the transient Indian is responsible, but Frank uncovers information that points elsewhere.

Krueger does a good job of bringing the '60's, these characters and boyhood struggles to life. He also addresses the hard issues of racism, justice, depression and forgiveness. The theme quote,

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God" - Aeschylus

comes to life as Frank matures through some painful situations and recognizes that God's grace is often the result of great suffering.

Reminiscent of the movie "Stand By Me," (SK's "The Body") and some of my other favorite transitional novels: A Prayer for Owen Meany and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Between Shades of Gray

by Ruta Sepetys

No, this is NOT one of those shady Shades of Grey books! Between Shades of Gray tells the horrors of the Stalin's regime. This account is told from the perspective of Lina, a 16-year old Lithuanian girl who, along with her mother and younger brother are separated from their father, arrested, taken from their home, and transported to a Siberian labor camp. Being an artist, Lina's job in the camp is to paint pictures for Russian diplomats, however Lina also secretly makes pictures of the harsh life she and her companions are living. These paintings Lina and fellow artists in the camp, carefully hide in the hopes that someday the truth of their experiences will come to light. Additionally, Lina is constantly trying to locate her father by sending out secret messages.

Many books have been written regarding Hitler and the Nazi's, not so much concerning Stalin and his secret police, which happened in a near parallel timeframe. I'm not sure if that is just my lack of reading or if this ugly slice of history has just been kept better hidden. Anyway, if you've read lots of the WWII stories of concentration camps, this Great Purge of Stalin will sound all too familiar.

Reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank or Night. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book of Ember Series

by Jeanne DuPrau

The Books of Ember are a series of four 'tween books that I started reading because of my little pew buddy at church. She was so excited about this series and her eyes lit up when she was telling me about Lina and her friend Doon who were living in an underground city, having been spared from nuclear fallout a few hundred years prior. Always the sucker for a good book, I began reading.

The first, The City of Ember, introduces all of the characters, describes their city and the struggles they are beginning to face as resources are becoming scarce and their electric spotty. DuPrau does a good job in making likable and engaging characters and in creating a sense of their urgency in trying to find solutions to their struggles. The two main characters, 12-year olds Lina and Doon, discover a secret message, which after deciphering it, shows them an escape. Try as they might to convince the townspeople to leave, they are unable to, and so the two set out on their own.

After that comes The People of Sparks. Upon coming above ground for the first time, Lina and Doon see what a huge and amazing place they have discovered and know they must convince other Emberites to follow. Although some people remain behind, many do come out, and this small group starts an exploration of Earth above ground. Soon they encounter the small city of Sparks, who they then try to join. In it we meet Tick, who is a little bit of a troublemaker and not very friendly to the new residents. This story presents ideas about prejudice and cultural understandings in a straightforward and easy to understand manner. It also teaches the lesson about returning good for evil without being preachy.  A very good sequel!

And this is where it all falls apart; in The Prophet of Yonwood.  DuPrau had such a good thing going in the first two stories, and then decided to provide a back story. Yonwood totally removes the reader from the intimacy created with the previous characters and takes you back 300 years, before the Great Disaster that required the building of Ember in the first place. This strategy might have worked if:
a) it were written for an older audience
b) it retained a similar style and voice as the previous books
and c) there had been a more clear connection between it and Ember

The prophet in this story is a lady who seems to have had some traumatic illness or injury, after which she sees a vision of a great war and then is left almost non-communicative. Wanting more information, the town leaders listen to and try to interpret some of her additional mumblings, which they use to issue decrees on their citizens. This story explores some very deep themes of religion and asks some hard questions about faith, following God and perspectives on evil, which also may have been more appropriate for older readers. But they are concepts that believers wrestle with and have to sort out.

The thing is, this book may have been fine as a stand alone novel, but the Ember story didn't need a back story, and this attempt just served to distract from rather than enhance the flow of the series.

And so, I never got to The Diamond of Darkhold. I've kind of lost that sense of urgency to see what becomes of Lina and Doon in the new world. And apparently I'm not the only one,  I've read some reviews that lead me to believe Ms. DuPrau lost it too, which is unfortunate.

Should you (or your kids) read this series? Maybe if you skipped the Prophet book.
Should you read the Prophet book at all (or before the others)? Sure, just don't think of it as any part of the series as it doesn't make any contribution to it. It would make for great discussion.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Lost Wife

by Alyson Richman

This is a sweet story of Lenka and Josef, a newlywed Jewish couple living in Germany at the onset of the Hitler regime, who become separated while trying to leave the country. The Lost Wife was well written and had potential, but in my opinion fell short because of the format. To begin with, the little bit of mystery about what happened to each of the characters was spoiled within the first chapters. Having the big reveal at the beginning of the book eliminated any possibility of surprise, although given the nature of the story I'm not sure that would have happened anyway. Then there is the whole issue with Lenka, her reactions and responses to Josef and her family don't seem believable, making her a tough character to relate to. The author does a good job of relating the hardships of these characters throughout the book, maybe even going overboard on the trials, without much relief. And just when there is a glimmer of happiness, the story is over! The ending is abrupt, and while it is pretty obvious what will happen, the story as a whole would have benefitted from going there. I've read my fair share of WWI stories and for me this one was just ok.

If you're a fan of Nicholas Sparks, this is your kind of book.