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river between usAlong with Bull Run, Richard Peck’s The River Between Us and Patricia Beatty’s Charley Skedaddle complete the Civil War segment of the O’Dell Awards. One is set at the beginning of the war, the other near the end, and both focus on the civilian experience.

River may be Peck’s most depressing book, a far cry from his usual fare of plucky mice and witty grandmas. It uses an odd framing device whose purpose only becomes clear at the end, as a boy journeys to his grandparents’ house on the eve of World War I. In an extended flashback, Tilly, his grandmother, tells him the story of her teenage years during the Civil War. As in many of Peck’s novels, the conflict begins when a stranger comes to town: in this case, two mysterious women from New Orleans who disembark from a riverboat in rural Illinois. The glamorous Delphine and her quiet, darker companion, Calinda, set tongues wagging as Tilly’s mother invites them to board at their house. Gossip and intrigue soon turn to sorrow when Tilly’s brother Noah joins the army, and Tilly gets a close look at the ugly world beyond her small town.

As the title suggests, Charley Skedaddle is about a boy–just 12 years old–who deserts the army. Eager to join the Yankees after his brother is killed in action, Charley dreams of heroism until he pulls the trigger in the middle of battle. He flees, full of self-loathing for his “cowardice,” and finds refuge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an eccentric old woman (Granny Bent) who could have stepped out of a Richard Peck book. It’s only through earning her trust that he begins to find his self-worth.

charley skedaddleEach novel explores the meaning of courage far from the front lines. River is full of secrets, and the act of keeping of them hidden is at least as brave as the revelations, which continue until the final page. Tilly’s family is not as it seems. Neither is Delphine, whose lazy, gauzy exterior hides tragic secrets from her past. Charley’s story is more of a traditional quest, as the hero learns to redefine his vision of bravery. The “glory” of battle and the dangers of his old street gang life pale next to his new mountain community, where subsistence farmers confront bandits, extreme weather and the occasional panther.

But both stories left me wanting more, especially from the supporting characters. Tilly’s life falls apart when a family member descends into madness. The problem comes with no warning and seems more of a plot device than something true to the character. Charley catches a glimpse of the local men hiding from conscription in the Confederate army. Their situation is such an interesting parallel to Charley’s that I would have liked to see them play a bigger role–yet they ultimately disappear into the background.

Where both books shine is their casual incorporation of historical context. In Tilly’s town, the sight of young men–neighbors–signing up for opposing armies gave me the chills. For Charley, the first shocking moment occurs when he learns that some men have enlisted multiple times to take advantage of the signing bonuses–and that the military now shoots anyone attempting this scam. Details like these fully transported me into the era, and I wish the authors had taken as much care with the secondary characters as they did with the historical facts.

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18480314I just finished the highly-anticipated The Lord of Opium, and like Jen, I found it rather lacking. Though it was trilling to reunite with the characters, this time around the plot didn’t hang together. There were too many plot threads left virtually unexplored, including:

  • What do you do with a problem like Maria? Trap her in a convent, apparently, with the occasional wormhole conversation so she can yell at Matt about his infatuation with Waitress. So much potential, wasted. I hope she has another starring role in the next book, if Farmer writes a sequel.
  • Hearing voices no one else can isn’t a good sign, even if you’re a drug lord. If Matt can hear El Patrón in his head, that’s a big deal. Is it a chip? a memory? a sign of his mental stress? I kept waiting for Matt to take this situation seriously, but he treated it as a minor nuisance. And with the destruction of the chips, the problem seems easily solved.
  • Don’t push the magic button! Matt’s final triumph was all too easy. A single button that solves everything? It’s like something out of Doctor Who.

That said, I did appreciate the complexity of the Waitress situation, and how frustrating it was to get glimpses of her humanity without ever succeeding. (That’s why it seems like such a cop-out when Matt saves everyone else with the push of a button). I also liked the quest aspect of the book, as Matt explores the hidden places of Opium. It felt like El Patrón was playing a game from beyond the grave, laying traps and secrets and puzzles at every turn. Now that Matt has Opium figured out, I hope he’ll return for a final book, one that’s focused on his own growth above all.

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ad-boxersboxBoxers and Saints may be the first book on this blog to get double reviews from Jen and me. Here’s her take, and mine is below. Major spoilers ahead!

Two weeks ago I wrote about book hype and how it can raise or lower your expectations for a book. Since September, the most-hyped book on my radar has been Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. It took months for my request to arrive at the library, so in the meantime I read a ton of reviews and grew increasingly psyched. It had everything going for it: starry-eyed praise, a chilling trailer, a historical setting I knew nothing about, and an ingenious setup–telling both sides of a conflict through a two-volume set.

Luckily, it lived up to the hype. I loved the characters, the humor (Yang gets bonus points for putting humor in a book about a bloody revolution), the art. He also avoids one of my pet peeves: too often, stories set in other countries star characters who speak broken English, which is idiotic, since they’re obviously speaking their native language even if the book is written in English. Thankfully, everyone in Boxers & Saints speaks naturally, and it’s the missionaries who butcher the grammar as they attempt to speak Mandarin to the villagers. Also, whenever we see foreign soldiers talking in their own language (French, English or German), their words look like gibberish, or drunken attempts at drawing Chinese characters (if you squint, you’ll notice how each character corresponds to a letter of the alphabet. With enough patience, you could decode what they’re saying. I managed to find “e” and “a” before my eyes crossed in dizziness).

Most importantly, Yang tells a complicated saga through compelling characters, and the story has enough complexity for me to appreciate the shades of gray. As Jen said, there are no winners in Boxers & Saints. Everybody loses. Under different circumstances, Vibiana and Little Bao might have been friends, but the pull of history–and Yang’s masterful storytelling–was too much. While each volume stands on its own, they’re infinitely better when read together (it makes the most sense to start with Boxers)–hence my insistence on calling the series a book instead of books. Yang kept the surprises coming, and I didn’t even know what I was missing until the last page of Saints. (more…)

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boxers saintsIt’s been over two months since I finished reading Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, and I’m still thinking about it. Told in graphic novel format from the perspectives of two Chinese teens on opposite sides of the conflict known as the Boxer Rebellion, Volume One follows Little Bao, while Volume Two tells Four-Girl’s story. Their narratives intersect briefly as children growing up in rural China during hard times, and then dramatically in a clash of allegiances as the Boxers, a pro-nationalist movement, march towards Peking in an effort to dispel the foreign powers–and their foreign religion–from China by force.

Yang sets the scene with ease, using Little Bao’s passion for folk opera, Four-Girl’s home life, and a host of mortal and supernatural characters, to give us insight into the cultural, social, and political situation influencing China as the 19th century drew to a close. Yang also portrays Chinese culture–even its more outlandish superstitions–with sensitivity and skill. Having read other books about China, I appreciate that his characters are influenced by, but don’t embody these superstitions. Rather, they come across as fully fleshed individuals with human motivations. (more…)

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The-True-Blue-Scouts-of-Sugar-Man-Swamp-2821158Jen was right–Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a book that should be read aloud, not read from the page. The cadence of the text drew me in from the first sentence of the audiobook, narrated by Lyle Lovett. It took me awhile to get used to Lovett’s voice, mostly because I’d always imagined a female narrator (my mind must be stuck on Keeper, narrated by Appelt herself). His narration initially sounded too detached for the humorous, warm atmosphere. But after awhile, Lovett won me over. Perhaps it’s because he relished the intrusive narrator moments (“You heard me. The DeSoto.”), and pulled them off so smoothly I barely noticed the intrusion.* I also appreciated the sly, matter-of-fact tone used for the raccoon brothers’ silly antics (“Blinkle,” Bingo’s dewberry guilt, their POUFing near Gertrude).

Speaking of Gertrude, Lovett has a particular talent for sound effects, including the all-important snip-snap-zip-zap! and the Farrow Gang’s ecstatic squeals. As for Coyote Jim’s howl, it was so loud I had to rip the headphones from my ears. Arrroooooooo, indeed.

*For a true test of Lovett’s skills, I suggest asking Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library if she can stomach the intrusive narrator when read by his voice.

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oceanAlthough Neil Gaiman’s latest book is steeped in myth like The Graveyard Book and as creepy as Coraline, unlike its predecessors, childhood in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is anything but safe. In perhaps his most reflective novel yet, Gaiman broods with melancholy and memory as his unnamed narrator returns to Sussex as an adult for a family funeral, and finds himself inexplicably drawn to the Hempstock farm at the end of the lane.

There, in front of the duck pond his childhood friend Lettie liked to call her ocean, he begins to remember how the Hempstock property was a place of solace for him, how he turned to Lettie for protection when he awoke from a nightmare choking on a silver shilling, how this sends them into the woods in pursuit of an ancient creature that takes the shape of rotten rags flapping in the wind–a creature that worms its way into the narrator’s life in the shape of a sadistic nanny who then wreaks havoc by turning all his family members against him. (more…)

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knifeIn many ways Hayley Rose Kincain is like the rest of her peers–the ones that inhabit YA books about high school. She starts off as the typical new kid, unused to the social pecking order after years of homeschooling on the road with her dad. A self-imposed loner, she is readily armed with a snarky response to everything high school throws at her. And just by being herself, she catches the attention of Finn, a “swoon-worthy” jockey nerd/nerdy jock who pursues her in his quest to find writers for the school paper, whom she promptly declines.

But Hayley also has an exhausting secret she is trying to keep. Everyday after school, she monitors the odometer on her father’s truck to see if he actually went to work that day. She checks the contents of the fridge to see if her father’s been eating (good) or drinking (bad). And she does her absolute best to keep everyone else in her life at arms length, lest they realize how poorly her father is coping with civilian life after the trauma of serving tours in Iraq–and take her away from him.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, it’s clear that as Hayley’s dad teeters on the brink of despair and destruction, Hayley is trapped just as trapped there beside him, even if she didn’t physically go to war. (more…)

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true blueTrust me when I say, don’t read Kathi Appelt’s latest book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Books like hers deserve to be heard. So do whatever it takes to optimize your experience. Find an elementary school teacher or librarian who does story-time, coerce your parents/child/sibling/spouse/kindly neighbor into reading to you, or listen to the audio recording. But don’t just read it–unless you’re reading it aloud.

True Blue Scouts flows as languidly as a long summer’s day on the porch with a glass of cool lemonade and a chatty relative. Equally whimsical but less melancholy or heart-wrenching than the The Underneath or Keeper, it’s adorably simple, silly, and sweet.

The tale opens with scouts Bingo and J’miah, who monitor Sugar Man Swamp–home of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWP), incomparable local canebrake sugar, mouthwatering fried sugar pies, and legendary Sugar Man–from the headquarters of a vintage 1949 DeSoto. When Bingo and J’maih, who are racoons by the way, notice an ominous rumble-rumble-rumble-rumble headed in their direction, they have no choice but to rouse the Sugar Man to protect the swamp. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, humans Mr. Sonny Boy Beaucoup and Ms. Jaegar Stitch are scheming to evict twelve-year-old Chap and his mom from their house-cum-cafe (home of the world’s best sugar pies) so they can build an alligator wrestling arena and theme park over the swamp. The only things stopping Sonny–a boatload of cash or proof of the Sugar Man’s existence. And the only thing that will wake the Sugar Man from his slumber? A snip-snap-zip-zap from Gertrude, his serpentine companion, or the aroma of fresh canebrake sugar. (more…)

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bull runBull Run, by Paul Fleischman, has an ingenious setup: each chapter is a monologue told from the point of view of a different character, 16 in total. There are soldiers and doctors, artists and mothers, children, slaves, Union and Confederate generals. It reminds me of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, only more depressing, because with every chapter you know you’re getting closer to the actual battle itself.

It’s amazing how quickly Fleischman manages to convey what’s going on. Each chapter is just two pages long, yet somehow we get a sense of the character’s identity, conflicts, motivations, and the political situation around them. Some of the portraits are archetypes–like the woman who sees multiple family members off to war, or the boy who dreams of glory in battle and manages to tag along as part of the band. But the best characters are full of surprises: the photographer who exploits the soldiers’ fear of death to turn a profit, a black man who “passes” as white so he can join the Union troops, and the newspaper sketch artist who selectively draws certain scenes to maintain morale. My favorite, by far, is the cab driver who had to shuttle D.C. socialites to a grassy area overlooking the battle–because they wanted to eat a fancy picnic while ogling the action through binoculars. Yes, this kind of thing really happened. Bull Run was the first major battle of the war, and civilians on both sides were so sure of an easy victory that they treated it like a sporting match.

Fleischman goes out of his way to include details like that–odd and subtle facts that get left out of the sweeping Civil War narrative I remember learning in school. I had no idea that lots of soldiers tried to desert when their contracts expired, or that thousands died of disease in the camps before the battles began. The novel sometimes felt like great nonfiction in the style of Bomb–teaching history without feeling didactic. I suppose my biggest complaint is that even though each character was unique, 16 is just too many. I would’ve preferred 12 or 14 to cut down on the confusion, especially when some characters get more chapters than others and when their plotlines start to intersect. So, even though the book is quite good on its own, it would be even better to find some friends and stage it as a play.

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Review: Better to Wish

better_to_wishBetter to Wish is the first book of Ann M. Martin’s Family Tree series, which includes four books about four girls in successive generations of the same family. It’s an intriguing premise that falls short. For the first third of the book, I was hooked. The story starts in 1930 with Abby Nichols, a young girl living in rural Maine. It moves quickly, with each chapter taking place over a single day of Abby’s life. We first see eight-year old Abby and her sister Rose sneaking out to pick blueberries with a forbidden friend. The next chapter opens months later during Thanksgiving. Pretty soon Abby is ten, then twelve. She gets new siblings, the family moves to a new home, and Abby develops a crush on the boy next door.

While Abby is young, the slice-of-life approach works well. Each snapshot tells us more about the family: Abby, the quiet, budding writer; rebellious Rose; their sad, haunted mother; and Mr. Nichols, a hard worker who lifts the family fortunes while becoming increasingly controlling and abusive. Martin also adds a lot of historical details–including the prevailing attitudes towards women, immigrants and mental illness—without being preachy or judgmental.

But as Abby gets older, the vignettes lose their focus. There are too many threads in Abby’s life, and I wanted more from each day. We get tantalizing glimpses of Abby’s friendship with Orrin, a boy her father has forbidden her to see, but there’s no meaningful trajectory to their friendship since all we see are disjointed moments. There’s also a death that comes out of nowhere and little closure or reflection on Mr. Nichols’ behavior—not even when Abby graduates from high school and finally gains her independence. By the end, I felt like I’d read a book with missing pages. And that disappointing experience means I’ll probably miss out on the rest of the series.

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