Saturday, December 22, 2012

Legend by Marie Lu

My 2 cents:

You have about six weeks to read Marie Lu's breakout debut novel LEGEND, before the sequel, PRODIGY, is released January 29, 2013. Temple Hill Entertainment (Twilight) and CBS Films bought movie rights to LEGEND, and there is constant cyber-talk about which actors will play which characters. Will Kristen Stewart play June? Who will play Day, an Asian-Mongolian-Caucasian teen boy? Will Marie Lu get her wish of Ben Barnes portraying June's brother, Metias? Who will play Commander Jameson? Angelina Jolie? Or Meryl Streep?

Enough talk about the movie that is soon to be in the making. Let's talk about the novel. First, no question, similarities abound between Legend and Hunger Games. Like Suzanne Collins, Lu sets her novel somewhere in North America's future. Both Day and June (Lu's central characters) live in the “Republic of America,” which is in Los Angeles, California, and is at war with the Colonies, the rest of the former United States, apparently. The Patriots are rebels fighting against the Republic within the Republic of America (California). Like Katniss, Day is young, smart, extremely poor and has lost his father to death. Like Katniss, Day has a younger sibling (Eden) he is working to protect. Stealing a cure for Eden's plague pits Day against Metias, June's older brother. June – privileged, beautiful and brilliant - becomes Day's arch-enemy when the robbery goes wrong, and Metias is murdered. In her quest to find Day, June makes a series of startling, profound discoveries about the Republic and her family, as life intertwines her path with Day's in unexpected, gripping, can't-put-this-book-down ways. I actually started reading Legend, looked down, saw I was on page 118, and couldn't remember how much time had passed since I picked up the book. It was that engrossing.

However, my 12-year-old daughter found some parts disturbing. The interrogation scenes are unpleasant and upsetting, and I skipped over those parts, as well. Luckily, there were only a few of those scenes, and I suppose they serve the purpose of showing how cruel governing officials can be. Still, readers with sensitive hearts will find those sections difficult to read, along with June and Day's discoveries about the plague. Some readers will wonder if the book is set in the time period after the Second Coming of Christ. Particularly with all the references to war, rumblings of war, dark and light, wealth and poverty, and extreme weather – five hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes – in one year's time in Los Angeles alone.

And yet, I find the central theme of the book is love. How can that be, you ask? Fair question. Three words, well clues, in way of an answer: Tess, John and family. Not to mention the novel's central characters, Day and June, who take turns telling their story in first-person narrative, chapter by captivating chapter.

LENGTH: 305 pages

WORTH YOUR TIME: Yes, if you're high-school age or older, and you don't get squeamish at interrogation scenes.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Small Damages by Beth Kephart

My 2 cents:

I read Small Damages by Beth Kephart in one day. I checked it out of the library before lunch, and read until I finished it – at 9:45 p.m. It was a Monday in December, chilly and wet. I put it down only to take a shower and feed the cat. I read it straight through the day and two meals.

What can a book reviewer say about a book she loves? I want to walk into the pages of Spain, near Seville, present-day, and become part of the story. I want to cook and learn how to make paella from Estela, the queen of Los Nietos. I want to get a camcorder and film a movie about life for my daughter the way Kenzie does for her daughter. I want to sit in the courtyard in the hot sun with the lizards, and watch Esteban shoe his horse, while Kenzie waits, watching, too. I want to taste saffron, red and gold, from Estela's mother's jar.

Kephart's novel begins like any number of other well-written, interesting Young Adult novels. An intelligent, affluent girl, Kenzie, discovers she is pregnant in her senior year of high school, just months after the sudden death of her father from a heart attack. Kenzie adored and admired her photographer father, and grieves for him, while her caterer-mother, in her own grief, moves forward and away from Kenzie. Kevin, Kenzie's boyfriend, is a great guy, who's already been early-accepted into Yale. Thing is, Kevin's not ready to be a husband or a dad. Kenzie's mom's not ready to be a grandmother, so Kenzie is given a choice: “Spain or nothing.” Days later, Kenzie finds herself in Spain, not the Jersey shore, with strangers, friends of an old friend of her mother's, who know someone who wants to adopt a baby. Kenzie's baby.

There, in Spain, the novel changes from a good read into something different: a love letter to an unborn child, a love letter to a cross, old cook, a love letter to a gypsy, and, central to all, a love letter to a country. There in Spain - in the dust, the heat, the flashing colors and the sizzling aromas, Small Damages becomes a novel that might change your life when you read it.

“Don't judge, my father said. Evaluate. Evaluate. especially, yourself ...” p. 229.

“There's peace in not wanting what can't be had. There's peace in not regretting what was.” p. 275.

Length: 228

Worth Your Time? Whether you're flying through your senior year of high school right now, will be soon, or your graduation day is a sweet memory, the answer is a resounding YES.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

My 2 cents:

The saying “everything old becomes new again” is certainly true for A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. First published 50 years ago, L'Engle's novel boasts a brand-new “Anniversary Edition” cover in 2012. The look is sleek and shiny, with a blue metallic background, the gold Newbery Medal seal, and tiny ringed figures of L'Engle's beloved characters, Meg Murry, and Mr. Murry. The book's message is more relevant to me today than when I first read it.

The classic novel's new cover hints at one of the book's central themes, time and space travel, “tessering” - it's called, or “wrinkling time.” Brave to publish these ideas in 1962, L'Engle again shows courage in publishing her “radical” notions of bending time, keeping family together, rescuing the lost, and, above all, that love always trumps hate.

With Mr. Murry lost in another dimension, young Meg is compelled to leave home, go find her scientist father, and bring him back. She is assisted by her unworldly-wise younger brother, Charles Wallace, her new friend, Calvin, and a trio of mysterious, magical women – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who. Danger, adventure, confusing new planets and new friendships await Meg, her brother and Calvin on their journey to bring home Mr. Murry. When Charles Wallace is captured by IT on the dark planet of Camazotz, Meg learns she must find courage to face her fears, and find the answers to difficult questions in her own heart.

As I read about Meg's discovery on p. 228-9, I was surprised to find tears dripping off my jaw, and onto the pages of L'Engle's beautiful, new edition of A Wrinkle in Time:

“She knew!
That was what she had that IT did not have.
. . . But how could she use it?
What was she meant to do?”

If you've never read this remarkable story, or you have, but you've forgotten what Meg was “meant to do,” grab a copy and read it. Today.

Length: 232 pages

Worth Your Time: Oh, yes. Fifty years later, thank you, Madeleine L'Engle.

BONUS: A Wrinkle in Time (the GRAPHIC NOVEL), adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, was also published in 2012, for comic book fans. I especially love Larson's depiction of “Absolute Zero” on p. 297-303. Great art work.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The FitzOsbornes In Exile by Michelle Cooper

My 2 cents:

Michelle Cooper doesn't miss a beat. Not one. The FitzOsbornes in Exile begins where the prequel, A Brief History of Montmaray, leaves off – with Princess Sophia at Aunt Charlotte's sumptuous England estate.

“I write this sitting at an exquisite little Louis the Fifteenth secretaire in the White Drawing Room, using a gold fountain pen borrowed from the King of Montmaray (Toby), and a bottle of ink provided by one of the footmen. Fortunately, the paper is just a six-penny exercise book that I bought in the village this morning – otherwise I'd be too intimidated to write a word. Anyway, here I sit, scribbling away in my journal on this first full day of my new life.” (p. 3)

Sophia's new life in London is quite the contrast from her life at Montmaray. Remember the smoking stove, Vulcan, and Sophia huddled under dusty covers under a leaky roof to write her journal entries. In this second novel of the Montmaray series, Cooper's writing is stellar. It's concise, sparkling and really funny. Mostly, because the characters are sparkling and funny. “Exile” is set in the months leading up to WWII, from January 1937 to August 1939. Princess Sophia tells the story of her family: her younger sister, Henry (Henrietta), older brother, Toby, and cousin, Veronica. The four have been orphaned by a car bombing in Spain (Sophia's mother and father), and a fatal stroke (Veronica's father, King John), provoked by an unfriendly encounter with two German soldiers. The ensuing air assault destroyed the Montmaray castle and forced the four to flee in exile to London, along with Simon Chester and his mother, Rebecca. Meanwhile, the island is most likely being used as a landing base for German airplanes. Aunt Charlotte, who is very rich, very stern and now widowed, focuses her free time on raising horses, trying to find suitable marriage partners for Sophia, Veronica and Toby, and educating wild, young Henry. Not counting her prize horses, it's an uphill battle for Aunt Charlotte, given the fact that Toby fancies Simon, Aunt Charlotte's male secretary, and Veronica is consumed with the dangerous task of exposing Germany's aggression toward Montmaray. Henry goes through governesses like water through a colander, and Sophia … well, Sophia is the keeper of the journals. She becomes friends with a boy (and animal lover) named Rupert, but she also has a bit of a crush on Simon, as well. Also, Sophia is learning to find words to voice her growing opinions on, well, just about everything going on around her. Which is a lot.

“I do make a habit of observing people,” I said. “Not just you. It's simply that there weren't many other people to observe at Montmaray.” (p. 35-6, an excerpt from Sophia in a pivotal conversation with Simon).

Henry's assessment of her first riding lesson is hilarious, (p. 61):

“Well! You won't believe it!” exclaimed Henry. “I had to put both my legs on one side, in this silly girls' saddle! I thought it would be like pictures of cowboys, a leg on either side of the horse. How else is one supposed to stay on? But Aunt Charlotte says that only boys get to ride like that! It's the stupidest thing! It ought to be the other way round. It's boys who have dangling bits between their legs – they ought to be the ones riding sidesaddle!”

The novel weaves true bits of historical facts into Sophia's journal, like Hitler's progressive take-over of European countries, his propaganda campaign and cruelty toward Jews. Oddly, even with the dark cloud of WWII stories as a backdrop, I laughed out loud throughout the book, especially at Veronica and Toby's intense discussions. Cooper has a brilliant flair for dialogue.

In closing, let me just say this, if The FitzOsbornes in Exile is ever made into a movie, I nominate Taylor Swift to play the part of Sophie. Taylor fits the part, down to the light blonde hair, fair skin and penchant for spilling her guts onto paper. And, just imagine the songs Taylor could write about all the relationships in this novel … and the scenery and costumes from late-30's London. Just … wow!

LENGTH: 450 pages

WORTH YOUR TIME: Yes! For the history, the dialogue and the characters – yes, yes, yes!

Helpful Hint: Recommended Reading (also by Michelle Cooper
A Brief History of Montmaray (Book I of the Montmaray Journals) 

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

My 2 cents:

Michelle Cooper's novel defies the odds. First, it's her debut novel. Second, it is a work of historical fiction (set in pre-WWII on a rocky, windswept island off the coast of Spain). Third, Cooper's book was even more riveting, and down-right heart-stopping the second time I read it.
Princess Sophia receives a journal from her brother, Toby, as a gift for her 16th birthday. Thus, the novel begins:

“This is the journal of Sophia Margaret Elizabeth Jane Clementine FitzOsborne, begun this twenty-third day of October 1936, on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday.”

Forget cell phones, drivers' licenses, getting to school on time, and preparing for the SAT's. Sophia, an orphan, introduces her readers to the people who matter most to her: her older cousin and best friend, Veronica, older brother and heir to the throne, Toby, and little sister Henrietta (umm, Henry, rather). Also, there's Simon Chester, who's the son of their angry housekeeper, and Sophia's main crush (is he also her royal half-cousin?), and Uncle John (King of Montmaray, who lives in his bedroom). Forget the royal family you see in People magazine. Sophia entertains readers with stories of stretching meals based on the catch of the day, ghosts in the “castle,” fears of falling through the rickety drawbridge to the “chasm” below, crazed chickens and a feisty, fearless Henry. Oh, and there are also German soldiers, both friendly and unfriendly, a secret tunnel, deaths and injuries, a royal funeral, and exciting plans for Sophia's upcoming debutante season. Princess Veronica deals with the island kingdom's finances, the villagers, and Henry's schooling, while also deftly writing a lengthy book of her own – A Brief History of Montmaray. Cooper cleverly so constructs a story within a story. Sophia writes about their day-to-day experiences on the island in her journal, while Veronica vigilantly creates a record of the island's past. (Conveniently, the island features a multi-story tower library for research).
Especially cool is Sophia's accounting of experiences we take so much for granted, they are hardly noticeable to us, such as this description of Sir Anthony taking off from the small island in his two-seater “aeroplane” (p. 264-5):

“. . . Anthony was already pulling down his goggles and fiddling with the controls, and Simon was kicking away the rocks propped in front of the wheels. The plane seemed to trundle down the Green, and we ran for cover, ducking our heads. As before, it seemed impossible that such an enormous, unwieldy machine could lift into the air, but there it went – a hop, another hop, and then it was gathering itself up and soaring off over the island. Within minutes it was impossibly distant, a silvery blur against a leaden sky, and I prayed harder than I ever had before that it would arrive safely.”

And this, Sophia's account of the first time she sees a train (p. 289):

“There are electric streetlights each time we drive through a town, and rows of very tall trees, and once a passenger train running on tracks alongside the road. The windows were lit up and there were hundreds of people sitting inside. It was quite overwhelming – until that moment, I'd only ever seen a dozen people at a time in one place.”

Such “right-there-in-the-moment” writing makes me sigh with awe; however, the real pull of the novel is Princess Sophie herself, and the revelations she makes while writing in her journal. (p.194-5):

“At this, I thought, Oh, this is what it must be like to be a grown-up. Which is not a particularly comforting thought – I would have given anything to return to innocent childhood at that moment … So I sat up instead and wrote all this, and now the horizon is a thin band of silver. Soon I will get up and hide my journal in its secret cranny ...”

Yet, for all the high drama and open-mouthed surprise moments in A Brief History of Montmaray, Cooper's novel is also laughing-out-loud-all-by-yourself funny in places.

Length: 294 pages

Worth Your Time? Most definitely. The real question here is how you'll be able to put the book down once you've started. And, yes, there is a sequel.  

Three Willows by Ann Brashares

My 2 cents:

Did you read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series? Either way, you will love this newest novel by Ann Brashares, which is kinda, sorta an offshoot of “The Sisterhood.” Hence, the fitting name of Brashares' book, “3 willows.” Ama, Jo and Polly take turns telling the story is first-person narratives, beginning with the last day of eighth grade. In “Traveling Pants” tradition, this novel unfolds over a summer, in fact, the all-important, fork-in-the-road summer between middle school and high school. The three girls are connected by a five-year-old twist and turn-y friendship, and by the willow trees they planted together in a park near their elementary school.

Ama (p.8): “We met on the first day of third grade, because of all the 132 kids in our grade, we were the three who didn't get picked up … we didn't talk to each other at first. I was embarrassed and scared and I didn't want to show it … that was the day they gave out the little willow tree cuttings in plastic pots in our science class … “

Facts and quirky quotes are interspersed throughout the book like this one:

“The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.”

That one's by Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself.”

And this one: “The bark of the willow contains salicylic acid, the source of aspirin, and has relieved fever and suffering for thousands of years. It also gets rid of warts.”

Besides the quotes and lots of interesting sketches of willow leaves, there are also fast and furious text messages, e-mails and letters between Ama, Polly and Jo. About everything from rappelling and Noah (the guy Ama meets at her “Wild Adventures” summer scholarship program, to Polly's babysitting and her plan to become a teen model, to Jo's island summer living with her dad, busting tables at the Surfside. Chances are good you'll recognize yourself or someone you know in one of the novel's characters. If not, you'll still be a little sad when you reach the end and read the very last sage “willow” quote.

LENGTH: 318 pages

WORTH YOUR TIME? Yes! Times Three!