War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

War and Watermelon

War & Watermelon    

Rich Wallace (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

If you were to rank boys based on “coolness”, Brody Winslow would be near the bottom…low-middle at best.  But things could be worse.  It’s August 1969 and his brother Ryan could STILL avoid the draft (if he just got off his butt), the New York Mets COULD win a game (if they just got off their butt), and Brody MIGHT be a starter on his football team (if he could just stay off his butt).  All in all, things are looking pretty good.  In less than a month, Brody will be starting junior high school and his brother has promised to take him to a farm in upstate New York for some hippie concert protesting the war in Vietnam.  That might be fun.  Big changes are coming and Brody is about to tackle them all…whether he’s ready or not.

Rich Wallace started his early writing career as a sports editor for various New Jersey newspapers and his talent shows in War & Watermelon where the football and baseball references abound.  But what’s really at the core of this tender and sentimental book is the special bond shared by brothers Ryan and Brody.  Unlike the competitive or jealous sibling relationships you find in some books, the Winslow boys are fiercely supportive, loyal, and kind to one another.  As Ryan’s 18th birthday approaches—along with his draft status—Brody senses his brother’s increasing anxiety and is not sure how to comfort him: “I should get to bed; we’ve got another game tomorrow night.  But I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, so I’d rather stay here with Ryan.  He’d been there for me.  Teaching me how to shoot a basketball or cook a hot dog.  Taking me to the movies, even when he goes to the drive-in with Jenny.  Giving me things like a Giants jersey he got too big for, or a flashlight when I was four and scared that there was a monster in my closet.  Now he’s scared.  I’m scared, too.  We might as well sit here together.”  There’s also a tight-knit relationship between Ryan, Brody, and their father.  Nights sitting up cheering on their Mets while eating olives and saltines or laughing out loud to re-reruns of The Honeymooners are clearly enjoyed and treasured by all three.

War & Watermelon is a humorous and delightful book about one young man trying to make a difference and one boy trying to make it through the day.  It’s a little slice of Americana served with grape soda pop and a bag of pretzels in front of a black and white TV.  It isn’t dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, or riddled with angst.  Some may even go so far as to call it trite or boring.  But as Brody Winslow once said, “We wander around for an hour, shoot some baskets, then go home.  Yeah, it was boring, but that’s life.  Boring isn’t always so bad”.  I would even venture to say that boring can be great…now pass the olives and turn on the TV!

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst (Adult Fiction)

“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei.”

Paul Iverson is desperate to understand how his young, beautiful, and artistic wife died.  Judging by her injuries and how her body landed, the police conclude that she didn’t jump.  There are so many things that Paul is just discovering like there are two ways of falling and that each one tells a story.  That on the day she died, Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf and cooked an entire steak just for Lorelei.  The books, the steak, and the apple tree all tell Paul that the day Lexy died wasn’t a usual day.  There are so many questions and the only one who can answer them can’t even speak…yet.

Carolyn Parkhurst delivers a novel that is a thriller wrapped around a mystery and enclosed within an endearing and heartbreaking love story.  Paul is our narrator and shares with us the moment he heard of Lexy’s death and then rewinds to show us how his and Lexy’s story began with their initial meeting and subsequent first date.  His voice is rich in detail and overflows with the love he feels for his wife and the loss he experiences by a life cut tragically short.  Every marriage has its ups and downs and Paul and Lexy’s marriage is no different; however, she was the yin to his yang and their union was symbiotic albeit sometimes tempestuous.

The Dogs of Babel is a beautiful, painful, thoughtful, and at times humorous story, but at its very core is a man grieving and desperate for answers.  His obsession of finding out the truth from his dog is futile and ridiculous.  We know it, his friends and colleagues know it, and even Paul himself knows it, but when you’re drowning, you’ll grasp for anything that can serve as a lifeline.  In this case, his lifeline is Lorelei.  Parkhurst gives us a memorable and stirring novel about the ones left behind when a sudden and untimely tragedy occurs.  The ones left with questions, loneliness, and oftentimes guilt and whose daily goals are measured by mere breaths.

Paul Iverson was a linguist by profession, and he often made a game of seeing how many words he could make out of a name.  He felt that these newly formed words somehow gave insight into the person themselves.  With The Dogs of Babel, I see the words blood, desolate, loathe, and death, but I also see self, glee, holdfast, and heals.  In the Bible, The Tower of Babel signified the beginning of the division of mankind through the infliction of diverse languages—punishment for man’s desire to reach the heavens for “godlike” status.  But Parkhurst reminds us that grief and love are universal and transcend the written word or spoken language.  They unite us in our healing and help us find a way to move forward…one breath at a time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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The Giver by Lois Lowry (YA Science Fiction)

The Giver

The Giver    

Lois Lowry (Young Adult Science Fiction)

It is against the rules to brag.  It is against the rules to keep your feelings hidden.  It is against the rules to point out someone’s differences.  There are a lot of rules in the community—rules that are very hard to change, but keep the community orderly, predictable, pleasant, and safe.  Rules are good and will be followed or offenders will face the terrible punishment of release.  Jonas has nothing to worry about because he follows the rules.  What he is worried about is the Ceremony of Twelve where he, along with the community’s other twelve-year-olds, will be separated into an Assignment Group and receive training for adult life.  Jonas isn’t sure what he is suited for: nurturer, doctor, speaker, engineer, laborer.  When the big day finally arrives, Jonas isn’t assigned like the others.  Instead, he is selected and for the first time in his life, he’ll know what’s it like to feel alone and apart.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was published in 1993 and since that time, it has graced a spot on the American Library Association’s list of banned books.  Life really does seem to imitate art since members in Lowry’s fictional community are themselves banned from reading all books except the dictionary and The Book of Rules.  Lowry addressed this very issue in the F.A.Q. section of her website (www.loislowry.com) by saying, “I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.”  Much of the resistance to The Giver stems from its targeted age group (grades 5-8) with the ALA considering the book “unsuited to age group”.  I would tend to agree that the subjects discussed in this book are weighty and extremely complex (population control, free will, memory suppression, psychological manipulation).  Interestingly, while some schools are banning this book, others are embracing it and actually making it required reading.  With such sensitive topics as infanticide and geriatricide, The Giver is a book that clearly benefits from teacher-led group discussions.  Talking about individual choice, the challenges of change, and the benefits and drawbacks of constancy can be debated and explored in a thoughtful and engaging environment.

One of the things that Jonas learns from the Giver is that the community was built to protect people from their own wrong choices.  Almost like the ALA and their list of books.  As Lowry said on her site, “Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.’ But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people.”  We’re fighting, Ms. Lowry, as hard as we can.

Reviewer’s Note: The Giver is the first in a series of four books.  All take place in the same futuristic time era but have different protagonists.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Mystery)

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler (Adult Fiction Mystery)

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

Philip Marlowe is thirty-eight, single, and makes a living as a private detective charging clients $25 per day plus expenses.  It pays the rent.  Then a case arrives involving a very wealthy General Guy Sternwood.  The general is being blackmailed (again) and he wants Marlowe to handle the matter “personally”.  Over the next five days, Marlowe becomes embroiled in pornography, gambling, missing persons, and murder.  It’s just an average week in the life of Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep is a gritty, edgy crime novel where the skirts are tight, the brandy is served cold, and cigarette smoke permeates every square inch of a room.  Chandler’s writing is sharp and crisp and the similes and metaphors fly around faster than bullets: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.” or “Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.”  Chandler wrote this book about fifty years before the introduction of “girl power” so readers shouldn’t be surprised at seeing women being objectified, marginalized, abused (they tend to get slapped around a LOT), and vilified.  But it really wouldn’t be the same book if some blonde-haired Trixie kept pulling Marlowe out of tight fixes.  Would it?

Chandler entertains us with a book that’s as humorous as it is dark.  The only downside is his penchant for overly describing everything.  True, we know exactly what a character looks like (down to his sock pattern) or how a room is laid out (as well as the color of the wallpaper), but the momentum of the story is dragged down by the weight of these excessive details.  Still, this is a small price to pay considering Chandler gives us such gems as, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”  It’s good to be Philip Marlowe.

Reviewer’s Note: The version read was published in 2011 by Thinking Ink Media and should be avoided due to numerous editing errors found throughout the book.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong (J)

The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School    

Meindert DeJong (Juvenile Fiction)

Welcome to Shora, a fishing village in Holland on the shore of the North Sea in Friesland.  Shora has some houses, a church, a clock tower, and a school, but it is the school children that makes this town—this story—so special.  Of these six school children, there is only one girl and her name is Lina.  One day, in the middle of arithmetic, Lina asks a question that will set in motion a series of events that will change their little village forever: “Teacher, may I read a little story about storks?”  You see, no one can remember a time when there were storks in Shora and Lina’s essay made everyone begin to wonder and ask why this was so.  So begins the story of Jella, Eelka, Auka, twins Pier and Dirk, and Lina who share a common dream of bringing the storks back to Shora.  But for now, that dream would have to wait…at least until after arithmetic.

Every now and then, a book comes along that reminds you why you fell in love with reading.  Meindert DeJong’s story about a small Dutch village is such a book.  It’s a charming and enchanting story about how a single dream ignited the imagination and united a village.  DeJong brings the reclusive, the misunderstood, and the outsider together to show that each has importance and value.  His message of inclusion and acceptance is delivered warmly and lovingly and gives readers a sense of hope and faith and the promise that perhaps dreams really can come true.

The Wheel on the School is a brilliant gem that shows us how a legless man could still walk tall among his fellow fishermen, how a heavyset and slow boy could become a hero, how a lonely grandmother could become a friend, and how a girl could be just as strong and brave as the boys.  Mostly, this story reminds us that even in the midst of the impossible, lies the possible.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com