Wednesday, February 15, 2017

1995 Honor - The Ear, the Eye and the Arm

The what? What a strange name for a book, I thought.

After I read a couple of other books from Nancy Farmer (and reviewed them on this blog) , The Ear, the Eye and the Arm was also recommended to me. This one was also deemed good enough for a Newbery medal, and so it was good enough for me.

When I know I'm going to read a book, I try not to know too much about what happens in it. I avoid the details in blurbs and reviews that give away the surprises. But I also like to be just a little prepared, so I can have more appreciation of the tale from the beginning. So I read the author's forward, which bears quoting:

I used to work for a company in Zimbabwe called College Press. My job was to create stories for African school children, so I went to the secondhand stores to find out what they liked. There were no free libraries in Zimbabwe then, and new books were far too expensive for my students. I discovered that they loved science fiction. Several would chip in to buy a new novel for ten cents. They would read it and read it and read it until it fell apart. I went straight home and wrote The Ear, the Eye and the Arm.

So yes, it is science fiction. But it is grounded and accessible to a concrete mind, concerned with all the things that children of this age are concerned about.

It is 200 years in the future, and although Africa is recognizable, things have changed technologically and to a lesser degree,  politically. Tendai, Rita, and Kuda, the children of Zimbabwe's wealthy and powerful chief of security are itching to fulfill their scout badges. But even though all have been earned in the safe enclosure of the family compound, the explorer badge required some exploring. 13 year old Tendai wants to be allowed out into the city, for the first time in his life, to quickly and safely navigate a distance, and then return home later that day. With just a little trickery, they are out, and on an adventure.

When their father finds out, he is devastated, and for the first time realizes how unprepared he has made them to be out in the real world. He has made them weak, by keeping them isolated and totally safe, all while being somewhat disappointed in them because they were not as strong as he wanted them to be. He knows that his enemies will be after them, for ransom and, as it turns out, even more nefarious purposes.

But the children are actually pretty resourceful, and even when they end up in the clutches of people who don't wish them well, they are getting savvy, and learning the strengths of each other, and Tendai begins growing in the spirits of Africa.

After it is obvious their father will be unable to find them, their mother hires three detectives from an agency. They are Ear, a man with freakishly large ears who can hear whispers from another room, Eye, a huge-eyeballed man who can see details all others miss, and Arm, a strange spider-like man who picks up others' emotions.  They pick up the trail, always just late enough to miss the children, but as they work, they are a part of the larger story that comes to a crashing conclusion with all the characters and spirits warring against each other at the top of a mile-high building.

I haven't read many African- based tales, but I do remember the feel and rhythm of Anansi the Spider books that I used to read to my children when they were small. This has a similar feel. Farmer's writing is fun and refreshing, and the concrete details that pop up make the story come alive.

I think the most popular youth books are coming-of-age stories, like this one, and the best ones handle complicated subjects in an interesting, skillful and realistic way. I liked how Tendai comes to appreciate the stubbornness and uncooperative personality of his sister, Rita, because that is how she survived their ordeal--she was strong. I appreciated the deep bond between the children. I liked the subtle way Farmer shows that Tendai's parents understand that he has now become a man.

I bought this book from Amazon. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

1931 - The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Have you ever heard of this one? I had not! Not until the other day, as I was browsing among the kid's books at Goodwill and saw it. There it was, the gold Newbery seal in the corner. The Cat Who Went to Heaven, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, is a slim little novel, only 54 pages in this edition. At the start of each chapter there is a small woodcut-looking picture of the cat, and between chapters there is a small poem, the old housekeeper's reflections and observations on the events unfolding.

This is an oriental story, specifically Japanese. It is supposedly based on a Buddhist folk tale, from what I can glean on the internet.

The painter is poor, so poor that he and his old housekeeper are practically starving. He hasn't sold any paintings in so long, there is hardly any money left. The wise housekeeper understands that they are lonely, and buys a cat with some of their last coins. At first the artist is furious. After all, cats are evil!
"'A cat? A cat?' he cried. 'Have you gone mad? Here we are starving and you must bring home a goblin, a goblin to share the little we have, and perhaps to suck our blood at night! Yes! it will be fine to wake up in the dark and feel teeth at our throats and look into eyes as big as lanterns! but perhaps you are right! Perhaps we are so miserable it would be a good thing to have us die at once, and be carried over the ridgepoles in the jaws of a devil!'"

But the cat's meek, polite and well-mannered ways gradually win over the man. Especially when he notices the cat "praying to The Enlightened One," he becomes quite fond of her.

One day the priest brings news that a painting of the Death of Buddha is needed for the temple, and the omens have chosen this artist to provide it. The commission comes with an initial purse of money, to ease his mind while he works.

The artist spends 3 days meditating on Buddha's life, so that he can best represent his death. He paints in all the animals that have a significance in Buddha's life and his past lives. As the painting nears completion, he becomes more and more saddened as his fondness for the cat grows. For everyone knows that a cat has no place in heaven or with Buddha, since the cat was too proud and rebellious to receive his blessing. What should he do? Turn in his commissioned work like he knows they would all want it to be? Or to follow his conscience and paint in this cat, who obviously honors Buddha and wishes to be included?

You'll have to see what happens. I wish I could say what happens. But it should be discovered on one's own reading. Not your typical western children's story finale.

I did enjoy reading it, though it did read equally balanced between a folk tale and religious tract. It was interesting to imagine it told in a western Christian version.

I got this from Goodwill for $1.99.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2003 Honor - The House of the Scorpion

This one, I couldn't put it down. I think I pretty much read it straight through. It was the day after Christmas guests left, and it was just me, the fireplace, the couch, and leftover Christmas candy. And The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer.

I like books that don't spew everything you need to know on the first couple pages; that is part of the deliciousness, letting the interesting and pertinent bits come as they will. And even though you will be a little ahead of Matteo in figuring things out, that's ok, because he is just a little kid.

This dystopian-shaded book is set in the future, not too far away, just far away enough so that some things have changed. The important one being the border area between The United States and Mexico. Finally the countries got fed up enough with trying to manage border security that they made a deal with the drug lords, and a new country, appropriately named "Opium" stretched in a narrow band all along the border. Opium handled border security far better than either of the countries above and below, and in the process ending up with enough workers to toil in their eponymous fields. The concession was that they would only peddle their wares to the eastern hemisphere.

But that is just the setting. What of the boy Matteo? Why is he so important, yet treated so strangely? What is his connection to El Patron, the 140 year old de facto ruler of Opium?  You'll see a glimpse in the short family tree printed at the prologue, but you won't understand all the meaning of that until you get a little further into the book.

At first I was dismayed by listing of the family tree and the summary of who the characters were, at the start of the book.  I don't like to have to figure out who everyone is before I am even motivated to do so, or to have all their relationships be so confusing that I need to keep flipping to where it's all mapped out. But never fear. A brief scan of the tree and then a few referrals are all that is needed. Once, I couldn't remember if someone was a cousin or other relative, but a quick check at the summary showed me she was only an acquaintance.

This is a book that I don't want to summarize, because you should enjoy the same pleasure I did in finding things out as they come along. But just a hint--if you like clones and "zombies", this will satisfy. One trait this book shares with some others I'm sure you have read is the jolt of the New Section, in this case called La Vida Nueva (The New Life). When you enter that, you will have the sense that it is another book, yet there is no time gap or style change between the two sections. You understand that he must leave in order to go back. He must endure other experiences before he can become a man. He must see things, understand other things, and The New Life brings that to Matteo.

I felt like the book could have spent a little more time handling the wrap-up of the new life, which circled back around, of course. It felt a little dizzying, the speed by which events happened. but perhaps since this is a young adult novel, it felt long enough to the author or editor by then. There is a sequel, which has good reviews, and I am interested enough in what happens to these characters and their situation that I plan on buying it.

I bought this book new on Amazon.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2011 - Moon Over Manifest

Not only was Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool, a Newbery Award winner, it was also a New York Times bestseller, according to the cover. A book full of mysteries, both big and little, it is a lush 342 pages, long enough to relax into the tale and let it unwind itself.

The adolescent girl Abilene is at the heart of the story. At least she is the heart of the story of her present day, which is actually back in the 30's, in the depression era. A sort of parallel story is going on alternately, which is happening around 1918, during WW1.

Abilene has been sent by her father to the town of Manifest, his hometown. They both rode the rails, until she became ill. She recovered, but it spooked him and caused him to send her there into the care of an old acquaintance. She knows nothing about the town, nothing about his presence there, nothing about the people, except embellished stories he has told her. She understands that she is to find out certain things, but no one in town is apparently willing to fill her in. She gains a couple of gal pals and they start sleuthing around, looking for the answer to some of the questions brought up by a bundle of old letters she has found in a secret hiding place.

Her best source turns out to be the local mystic/diviner. Abilene ends up spending time with her, and the old woman tells her, as if in a trance, segments of what happened back during the time of her father's childhood. Finally it all comes together, and Abilene is made more whole, along with those around her.

It could have been a little more confusing to keep track of what time period was going on at different times, but a couple things helped. The typeset was different, and the present day is told first person, while the older time is told by a narrator. But still, thinking back on the story, parts of my mind get a little confused about when was when. I liked the story and appreciate a lot of the elements, such as how people can give a first impression, but then when you get to know them, how different the story is.

Vanderpool is a really good writer, but... I liked reading it, but I didn't LOVE reading it. Why? I'm not sure. Personal preference with the style, possibly. I found it harder than I would have thought to latch on to Abby as someone I liked/identified with/had strong feelings about. The girls' conversations and figures of speech, and Abby's internal conversation just didn't grab me that much.

There is plenty here to enjoy and try to guess along with the clues gradually revealed, and the end wraps itself up pretty well. It was interesting to me that I am also in the middle of an audiobook with the subject being the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was also part of the "older time" part of the book.

I bought this copy from Amazon.

Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 Honor - The War That Saved My Life

A dramatic title, and boy does it fit! This is bestselling author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's first Newbery Honor book, but I bet it will not be her last. I was hooked from the first page, and I could hardly put it down until I had read the whole thing. The War That Saved My Life is WWII historical fiction for middle school readers, but adults will also find this to be a great story with enough depth to satisfy a more mature reader.

The story is set in England, at the cusp of Germany's air attack on that country. But Ada is hardly aware of what is going on outside her small room and little window, which is her only view and knowledge of the world. That and what she finds out from her little brother Jamie, who is allowed to go outside for school and to play and explore. But not Ada. She has a clubfoot, and her mother is ashamed for anyone to see her and so keeps her confined. But it becomes obvious that the mother is also sadistic and cruel, and there is no way for Ada to escape from her abusive life. Not until Jamie comes home with the news that London's children are being evacuated to the country. Without their mother's knowledge, the siblings manage to slip onto the train with the other evacuees and start a new life.

It is not that easy to move into a new life, especially with the burdens and trauma Ada has already suffered, and the home they move into is not especially welcoming at first. Susan, their new "foster mother" has more than enough of her own distractions and sadness to have a lot to give to the children. But they gradually work their ways into each other's hearts. Ada's clubfoot has always defined her, and indeed, it continues to loom as a large presence in her life, but her spirit heals and grows in the setting of kindness, respect, accomplishments, and... Ponies! The horses are moved into the story so naturally that it never feels like a horsey-girl genre book, but it will please any horse-loving girl reader.

I like both character-driven books and plot-driven books. This one handles both, each without the expense of the other. And 316 pages give the author a nice amount of time to round both Ada and Susan's characters in satisfying ways. I found the final scene with Ada and her mother a bit abrupt, and I had to ask myself if it were as believable as the rest of the story. If it were my story, I would be saying, OK, I'm near the end of this story, and I need a way to resolve it right now, so I'll write it this way. But the very end is rewarding and heart-warming.

If you read Goodnight, Mr. Tom by Michelle Migorian, you will see a lot of similarities, however, Mr. Tom was told more from the old man's point of view, and The War is from the girl's view and thoughts, and I believe at a reading level more accessible to younger readers. Be aware though, that there are several disturbing images, some descriptions of the war, and the cruelty of her mother. So very young readers, while at the reading skill level, may not be at the maturity level to read it.

I bought this book from Amazon.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

1977 - Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, took me a long time to read. Only 276 pages in a smaller sized paperback, but I did not zip through it like I could have done. It sat on my bookshelf for a year before I decided I had better get going on it. It was the cover. I knew it would not be pleasant. I knew it would be sad and hopeless and I would feel the horrid injustice of the racist evil present in our county a generation ago, and be reminded that all is still not well in America. But I faced up to what was right, and that was to read, and to gain knowledge and wisdom from reading good literature. And to trust that the Newbery brand on the cover spoke for its integrity and worth.

So I read a couple chapters, and put it down. Some days later, I read another couple chapters. And then after a few weeks, another chapter. Finally I decided to get with the program and get the thing read.

The Logan children ranged from ages 12 to 6, with Stacey the eldest, then Cassie, telling this story in her own first-person words, Christopher-John, and Little Man. Their Mama and Papa, Grandma "Big Ma," and Mr. Morrison, the hired hand made up the rest of the household. They lived on their own land in 1930's Mississippi cotton fields. Living and working on their own land sets the Logans apart from most of their neighbors, who are sharecroppers. The importance of keeping their land is the fabric of which the background of the story is made of.

The indignities and slights and injustices that made up parts of their daily lives are laid into the tale, without mining them for melodrama or manipulation of emotion, but not glossing over the stark realities of growing up black in the deep south. Cassie is a lively bold girl who does not quite understand her position in the community as being "less than" her white neighbors. And her parents are reluctant to make her grow up too soon by educating her in those things. Which makes for some tense situations, such as when Cassie doesn't understand why the white shopkeeper keeps waiting on white customers ahead of her, when she had been waiting before they entered the shop. Indignant, she tries to bring the merchant's attention to his rudeness, but instead gets chased out of the shop by angry men, asking the crowd, "Whose little nigger is this?" For a bright girl, Cassie seems really slow to pick up on some of the harsher realities of life.

While the children have their conflicts and relationship issues in their world, the grown-ups have their problems too, one of them being the local bigwig who wants to own the Logan land. The kids' and the adults' crises come together near the end of the book, with a crime, a near- lynching, and a fire. The end is not entirely satisfying, but is realistic, which is as it should be.

Having the story told through the eyes of Cassie is effective in making the topic accessible to young readers and helps keep the uglier realities at an appropriate distance, while still being an honest eye-witness to the facts. But to do this, the author has to keep Cassie on her toes, eavesdropping on every important conversation, sneaking out of her room past the sleeping "Big Ma" multiple times, talking her way into going along when something interesting was up. It made me begin to wonder what the story would have been like if told in a different perspective. And she is sassy and talk-back, enough to make you think, "You are hiding! For Pete's sake, shut up!"

Yes, I would recommend this book for kids to read; it's an important story to be heard and thought about. And the warmth of this family, and the safe place that home is, regardless of the uncertain world outside, that is also an important feeling to know.

This copy was given to me as a previously read book.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

1986 - Sarah, Plain and Tall


This little book is absolutely charming. I had not heard of it before, and when I saw the title, I did remember the movie they had made of it, though I had not seen it. There are only 58 pages, but the author does a lot with those pages.

The plot is simple, but deep and meaningful to the characters. Papa, Caleb, and Anna, the narrator, have been left without wife and mother when she died the day after giving birth to Caleb. There is a lingering sadness; Papa doesn't sing anymore, Caleb wants to hear the story of his birth over and over again, hoping that it will bring up a memory, any memory of his mother. They live in pioneer times out on the Midwestern plains. And now Papa breaks the news that he has placed an advertisement for a wife, and it has been answered by Sarah, "Plain and tall," as she describes herself.

Sarah comes out for a month, during which time she will see if they suit each other. The story gently proceeds, with them getting to know each other, Caleb worried that she will not like them, Anna and Caleb looking for clues and hints that she is planning on staying, and Sarah's lonesomeness for her place by the sea, where she came from. Sarah does stay, saying that "There is always something to miss, no matter where you are," and that she would miss them more than the sea, if she left.

I enjoyed that the children were not bratty and resentful about a new person coming in to take a role in the family - they wanted their Papa to have a wife and themselves to have a new mother. The conflict was whether Sarah could love them and the land that was so different from her home enough to stay. We only see Sarah's mind through Anna's eyes and words, as Sarah speaks of the sea and is quiet and thoughtful.

I liked the book, and I think it would be a pleasure to read aloud to a child. I picked this copy up for under a dollar at the thrift store.