1. Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman
For a while this book has caught my attention, and yet I never picked it up until a week and a half ago. This story involves likable high school senior Vince Luca, who has the misfortune of being the son of a heavy hitter in the mob. Vince himself is not interested in what his family calls, "The Life," and works hard to steer clear of the Luca's dealings. The only problem is, that his family's dealings seem to follow him around every corner. After a painfully hilarious episode in which a body in the trunk (he is alive, just roughed up) ruin's Vince's chances with the newest object of his affections, Vince is convinced there will be no chances of a romance in his future. Enter Kendra Bightly. Kendra and Vince are thrown together through a series of circumstances which ignite a first love within them. The only problem is that Kendra is the daughter of the FBI agent who has been investigating the Luca crime family for years! Determined to hold on to the new light of his life Vince jumps through hoops to keep his identity from Kendra, and his love life from his family.
I really loved this story. Vince was a very believable protagonist with a range of emotions anyone can relate to. The smart and yet slightly innocent Kendra was a great foil for Vince's all to close ties to a life of crime. Though not quite star-crossed lovers, these two really carried a very real feeling of first love. I also found Vince's crime laden family to be very entertaining. One thing I found very admirable was that Korman defines the Luca's and their many "Uncles" as hardened criminals, and yet there is no villain in the story. You know that are the "bad guys" and you find yourself angry at their actions, yet you don't hate them. They are a necessary bouquet of characters, which are tastefully placed throughout the story to carry it along to the very end. One more thing of a more personal note is that Korman is a Long Island native. I was especially fond of his references to areas on the Island. Being a native myself, I felt right at home in this novel.
2. Darkhenge by Catherine Fisher
Again, here is a YA book which I really wanted to read for a while and never got around to. I near forgot about this book until I saw it on the shelf near "Twilight" and grabbed it. One of the things that appealed to me immediately and I am not afraid to say it, is the name. I am a sucker for "Henges". I find most mythology and mysteries from the area or Avebury fascinating. I am also a sucker for celtic mythology. Immediately I was intrigued by the way Fisher managed to weave a tale of old magic into a very modern setting involving a 13 year old girl's coma.
Rob has been distant ever since his younger sister Chloe was injured during a horse riding accident. As do many folk dealing with loss, Rob has created this image of his sister in his mind in which Chloe is perfect, kind and innocent. Part of the problem is that the real Chloe held a lot of rage, especially directed at her brother whom she believed to be the favorite of her parents. Rob takes a job at a local archeological dig to take his mind off of Chloe, and finds himself intertwined between a Pagan coven led by a man called Vetch, and Clare, the scholar heading the dig whom Vetch had scorned in her youth. The question here is what does this have to do with Rob and Chloe? Clare and Vetch are avatars of Talisen and Cerridwen manifested in our world. Vetch claims that Darkhenge, the site on which Clare is digging is a portal to the Awwyn, a land of dreams in which a lost Chloe has let herself slip. Vetch/Talisen needs to return to Awwyn in order to save his own life. He promises to help Rob retrieve his sister as well, only by the time the arrive, Chloe has her eyes set on the throne of Awwyn and refuses to return.
One problem with this book was for some reason I could never allow myself to like Vetch. He was just very hard to trust, and though in the end he got better, something about the way his character was written grated on me. I did like how he somehow got through to Mac, the Catholic priest to whom Rob and Chloe's family were closely linked. Inspite of Vetch's over all sketchiness, Mac was able to put aside his mistrust in order to come through for Chloe.
As a whole this book was brilliantly written and I wish to see much more from Fisher in the future.
3. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
I actually have to admit that I read this book because I was told that it was a book that all children's librarians should familiarize themselves with. For some reason I just never had the desire to read it prior to this. I expected an extended "Velveteen Rabbit" type story. This book is far deeper that I had expected, to the point in which I would not recommend it to younger audiences even though the text is readable for younger ages.
The story is simple. Edward Tulane is a child's toy (A 3 foot China Rabbit). Adeline, his little girl loves him with all her heart, but Edward is too self centered to love her back. Of course she doesn't know this because Edward is a doll and cannot speak. Somehow, Pellegrina, Adeline's grandmother who had commissioned Edward's creation can sense the Rabbit's vacant vanity. She tells Adeline and Edward a story of a beautiful princess turned into a warthog because she doesn't feel love. The next day Edward boards the Queen Mary with his family only to be thrown overboard the Queen Mary in a dispute in which two boys are teasing Adeline.
From this point in the story on, Edward is put through numerous trials in which he is bounced from one owner to the next learning the feelings of fear, anger, loss,and of course love. The amazing thing about Edward is it seems as if his many owners are aware that he is conscious. He is owned and loved by an elderly couple who dresses him in girl's clothing and calls him Susanah. A hobo who takes him on the road and tells stories of family lost, a farmer who uses him as a Scarecrow (the accompanying picture has been looked at as an image of crucifixion), a sick young girl with an abusive father. Eventually his ailing owner passes away and Edward feels the ultimate loss. Throughout the story Edward feels as if Pellegrina is watching his plight, waiting for the time in which Edward is free of vanity and full of love. In the end, Edward ends up back where he started, in the arms of Adeline's daughter. How he gets there is something I won't put here, though I found that to be a bit predictable. This book has the feel of an old classic, though I cannot say it sat well with me at all times.
4. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
As an avid fan of fairy tales I am always fond of retellings as long as they are clever and well written. Yolen's take on Sleeping Beauty wove the tale of the cursed princess into a mysterious tapestry with a moving holocaust survival story in the background.
The story begins with 23 year old Becca Berlin as her grandmother, "Gemma", passes away. Becca recalls that her grandmother always used to tell them a special version of the fairy tale, "Briar Rose." Becca relished every telling, as her sisters tired of the tale as they grew up. As Gemma dies she tells Becca that she (Gemma) really is the princess Briar Rose, and that Becca must find the castle and the prince who saved her. After the death Becca and her family find a rose carved box with mysterious pictures and documents which add to the puzzle of Gemma's identity. It seemed no one knew anything about her prior to her arrival in the US. Not her real name, no tales of childhood in Poland, not even whether she was married to Becca's grandfather (he was never alive during her mother's childhood and Gemma never spoke of him.)
Becca, a journalist begins to put together the vivid of Gemma's version of Briar Rose with the scattered pieces of her known past. Where this leads Becca is to the heart of a modern and very bittersweet fairy tale and to a remote city in Poland. Behind her is a supportive editor and possible love interest, Stan, who supports Becca's search and helps her along the way.
Throughout the chapters in which we received each part of Gemma's story, I found the very base of the mystery easy to solve. Knowing that Becca's grandmother was a Jewish woman in Poland during World War 2, and piecing to together the images of barbed wire covering the castle instead of rose bushes clearly tell us that Becca's grandmother was a survivor of the mass genocide. The actual tale of how she survived and who her prince was is dizzying and gorgeous. In spite of the slight predictable aspects of the book I found enough surprises to make it memorable and more than one take on a "happy ending".
5. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
After seeing and subsequently purchasing the controversial Japanese film of the same name I soon became curious to read the equally controversial novel on which this film was based. "Battle Royale" is, in concept most easily compared to William Golding's, "Lord of the Flies", though Takami's Orwellian vision of the future is both more merciless than Golding's tale. "Battle Royale" also manages to be poignant at its most brutal points, and raw at its most sentimental points.
The Republic of Greater Asia is a fascist government which has brutally ruled over its people and kept them from the free world. Under the rule of a man simply known as the "Great Dictator", citizens are in constant fear of the government. Rock music is outlawed, parents "disappear" leaving their orphaned children baffled and alone, and then there is "The Program." According to a famous speech, it was decided by the dictator that each year 50 middle school classes will be chosen at random to be taken to their own adandoned island. Each class will then, be equipped with weapons and be prompted to kill their classmates in a horrific game. Only one can survive, this winner gets a pension and an autographed card from the dictator. If they refuse to fight, collars have been placed on their necks and can explode.
This novel deals with the plight Shuya Nanahara's class when they are chosen for this program. Shuya, and orphan, and rebel rock music fan, is one of 42 students in his class. At first he does not believe that his classmates will kill each other. Sadly he is mistaken, and thus begins his descent into the psyche of human nature and government brutality. Shuya takes it upon himself to protect, Noriko, the crush of his best friend who perished in the introduction stage of the "game". Sadly, Noriko and Shuya find it hard to trust anyone else as they witness how easily some friends will kill one another. Lucky for these two, they are discovered by Shogo, an older classmate who transferred to their class recently. The catch? Shogo survived a previous program and has plans to tear the government apart. Shuya's loyalty to Noriko and his blazing love for American rock music add color to this story. Throughout Shuya centric chapters you hear him compare the situations to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and John Lennon. Shuya is angry and rightfully so. His budding love for Noriko as well as the idea of a "love confession" makes this novel uniquely Japanese. Many of the students use the opportunity of the game to protect someone who they admire, maybe someone they have loved and hadn't been able to tell until this very moment. This provides many tender scenes between dying students further deepening the wounds as each one is brutally killed. Furthermore, Takami manages to give each student a unique personality and background, making it easy to keep track of who is who. Some of the most interesting students are the most troubled. Schoolyard politics also plays into the story. With each death you can feel the anger of the protagonists and want to tear the country apart as well. The end is moving and enraging at the same time. Highly recommended for anyone with a strong stomach. Takami is not discreet when describing a gory scene or upsetting event.
6. The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham
The Romance Reader was a book I picked up due to its provocative title, and the recommendation of my boss. The story centers around Rachel Benjamin, the eldest daughter of a Chassidic family in the 1960's. Rachel is a rebel, though the strict rules of her religion and the family who holds them so dear stifle her voice and further infuriate her. For example Rachel's mother often succumbs to gossip and tells her daughter she must cover up completely during her job as a life guard. She refuses and wears a bathing suit which she swears is modest enough and fine since it is a women's only swim which she guards.
One of the most important things about Rachel's character is her love of romance novels and "English" books. This is forbidden in her culture. According to her Rabbi Father, Jews must never assimilate and must only read books by other Jews about Jewish issues. Rachel can't get enough of tales like Wuthering Heights, and especially provocative tales about women involved in sensuous heated love affairs with "men".
It is clear as the story progresses that Rachel will never completely fit the role her parents want her to. She tries to act out of respect for her parents most of the time, but often her sense of rebellion flares and she reaches for the forbidden. Rachel clearly loves her parents but longs for something more than the life she is raised to live. This is clear when she is ultimately set up to marry a young man who is presented to as perfect.
One of the criticisms I had with this book is a scene in which we think Rachel is being seduced by her handsome boss. The scene seems to come out of nowhere and ends abruptly when we find out it is a dream. It does well by explaining what Rachel's fantasies are, but leaves us hanging and is not repeated at all throughout the rest of the novel. This scene is present halfway through and seems out of place since it is the only lush description of Rachel's rich sexual desires we see until her half hearted hopes for her pale marriage bed. Also, the end was a bit too vague. Somehow it reminded me of "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin. I got the impression that Rachel was going to commit suicide, though I don't quite think that is what the author was going for.
The novel was good as a whole. I wish there was some sort of follow up. The descriptions of Rachel's family were so vivid you felt like you knew them by the end of the story. Aside from a few flaws the read was quick and pleasurable.
7. Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville
One book I picked up a while ago and just never got around to actually reading, this tells the story of two teenagers, Jed and Marina, brought to a mountain by their parents. The mountain is supposedly a haven from Armageddon. Unfortunately for these kids, their parents are part of a millennium cult, run by a shady "Reverend Beelson."
Jed immediately thinks the cult of the "Believers" is bogus, where as Marina struggles to follow what her mother wants for her. These two eventually meet and fall in love, much to the anger of Marina's mother. While Jed tried to understand his father better and the actions of the "believers" around him, Marina is forced to accept her mother's mental illnesses and protect her younger brothers from this. Also, Armageddon is scheduled to occur on Marina's 14th birthday. Compelling, this book is told from Marina and Jed's P.O.V's alternating. I am not a fan of this method, though it works well in the story. The climax is touching and upsetting at the same time. Of course, like many such cults, there is hints of possible sexual exploitation, the girls are supposed to become "Eve's" in order to repopulate the Earth. This is a fact only the men know, and Jed tells Marina later. Beelson supposedly assigns Eve's to the men, and they have to be 16 before they can become an Eve, but still the notion is archaic and disturbing. Also, like Waco, firearms are used by certain cult members known as "Angels" to protect the premises. A good quick read and a nice story of strained teenage love, though the end is a bit heartbreaking it leaves the reader with a sense of hope.
8. East by Edith Pattou
The premise of this book was based on East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is one of my favorite Fairy Tales. I like the tale because the heroine of tale takes an active role in her fate and the fate of her prince, as opposed to the typical fairy tale princess who needs rescuing and constant protection.
Rose, or Ebba Rose as she is known is born the youngest into a family in which her mother has a seemingly silly superstition that the direction in which a child is born affects their personality. She decides to have a child for each direction of the compass save for North, because North born children supposedly are unfortunate and aggressive. When her favorite east born dies, she bares a second to replace her, but Rose is actually North born by accident. Rose is wild and impulsive and close to her older brother Neddy, a North East born. When Misfortune hits her family a white bear appeals to her family and asks them to send Rose with him promising an end to their troubles. Rose agrees to go at once and finds herself a guest in an enchanted castle where her every whim is granted. Also, she has a mysterious guest who sleeps next to her every night.
The constantly alternating narration (Each chapter begins with the name of the character whos P.O.V it is) is distracting. Somehow this style always bugs me. In spite of this the story is pretty well done and takes off after Rose finds the secret of her White bear, he is a prince under enchantment by a troll queen, who takes him away once she discovers his human form. Much like the greek myth the fairy tale is based on (Cupid and Psyche) Rose must go through numerous trials to be reunited with her love. As the tale continues the chapters stick with the same narrator for longer and are therefore more affective to me. The characters are appealing and Rose is a good role model for adolescent girls. While not my favorite novel based on fairy tale, it tells the story well and stays faithful to the original.
9. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Though this is a non fiction book, it is often said to be written as a novel. The book tells the alternating stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect who struggled to bring the World's Fair to Chicago in the late 1800s and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair's popularity as bait for many young women who he killed.
The book's preface promises to connect the two stories in spite of the fact that Holmes and Burnham never meet. As interesting as both stories where on their own, I found the sheer suspense and horror of Holmes's descent into maddess overpowering and therefore I was almost embarrassed that I found the horrid chapters in which Holmes' crimes where depicted far more interesting than Burnham's struggle to bring the fair to Chicago. Holmes' crimes where gruesome and horrible, but somehow the fact that a man could get away with building a hotel designed to trap and kill it's inhabitants just kept my interest more than a man who couldn't get past the red tape of construction.
It amazed me that any man could simultaneously cheat so many workers and insurance companies out of money, and not be caught due to the habit of directing creditors to numerous alias identities who did not exist. I was also horrified and fascinated by how Holmes' demeanor of calmness and sensitivity continued to dupe impressionable young women as well as soothe many men who confronted him in anger. It truly seemed as if this man could put a spell over anyone, be they the husband of the women he had seduced or a money lender who demanded to see profit. The fact that Holmes was able to find people to examine the kiln in which he cremated his victims without report or someone to strip the bones of numerous unfortunate young women who fell for his act was just far more interesting than the World's Fair. Yes, sick, but just more interesting.
In spite of my guilt for preferring the story of the serial killer to that of the brave young many who wanted to show Chicago a good time, I can recommend the book as a whole. Many reviews of the book seem to think telling both stories in alternating chapters worked well. Personally I felt as if they could have been connected better. Holmes' awful deeds where just so strange and unbelievable. As a separate book I believe Burnham's story could have been far more compelling, but as so many unfortunate young women in the 1800's, I just was drawn to the horrible Mr. Holmes as a character.