The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (YA)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas   

John Boyne (Young Adult Fiction)

Bruno slowed down when he saw the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.  Although there was a fence separating them, he knew that you could never be too careful with strangers and it was always best to approach them with caution.  So he continued to walk, and before long they were facing each other.

Bruno may have been just nine years old, but he knew something was wrong when he came home from school and found the family’s maid in his room packing up all of his belongings.  His father had received important military orders and the family was to leave their luxury home in Berlin to go someplace that Bruno had never heard of before.  When Bruno saw his new home, he didn’t like it all.  Theirs was the only house on the road.  And it was much smaller than their other home.  And behind it was a big yard with a spiky fence all around it.  A yard that contained small huts, several soldiers, and many, many men and boys all wearing identical striped pajamas with a matching cap.  It was all very strange.  Yes, Bruno didn’t like this place at all.

Bruno is innocent, naïve, and an unlikely protagonist who neither recognizes nor understands the horrors of the concentration camp located behind his new home.  Through his young and selfish lens, he only sees unfairness when he views the camp for why should there be so many boys on the other side of the fence who have one another to play with while he has no one?  Bruno is absolutely angered by this injustice.  Of course, the reader realizes what the true injustice is, which makes Bruno’s self-centeredness all the more unpalatable.  Boyne doesn’t introduce readers to the boy in the striped pajamas until halfway through the book, which allows readers ample time to become acquainted with Bruno.  During that period, we realize that Bruno’s “faults” are really just him being a small, sheltered, and unworldly boy of nine: he’s thoughtless, scared, self-indulgent, petulant, and irrational.  But Boyne also shows us a Bruno that is kindhearted, inquisitive, and who understands the value of maintaining a secret and the importance of keeping a promise.

I’ve read several books for both juvenile and young adult readers that deal with the Holocaust and concentration camps.  This one is unique in that Boyne shows us the horror through two young boys of the same age, height, and physical features—virtual mirror images of each other.  Bruno is essentially the “before” while Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas, is the “after”.  One is German, well fed, idealistic, and blissfully ignorant while the other is Polish, gaunt, hopeless, and worn down by hate, starvation, and fear.  It’s a stark contrast and Boyne is able to successfully illustrate the horrors of war and bigotry without having to delve into graphic detail.  Although this book is recommended for grades 9-12, its implied acts of violence (there is one brief mention of a dog being shot) and death make it suitable for younger readers although a knowledge of World War II would help put the subject matter into context.  The use of repetition and puns also help to successfully reinforce key points and ideas for readers.

Above its grisly subject matter, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a touching story about two lonely boys who find comfort and security through friendship.  American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Emanuel James “Jim” Rohn said, “For every promise, there is price to pay.”  Bruno had to weigh the value of a promise he made and although he knew very little about politics or geography or just the world in general, he did know that there was value to be placed on life and that you always, always keep a promise…especially to your best friend.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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Heft by Liz Moore

Heft

Heft 

Liz Moore (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Opp hasn’t been weighed in years.  Back then, he was 480 pounds, but he’s probably between 500 and 600 pounds now.  He lives in isolation in an aging yet expensive brownstone in Brooklyn and hasn’t taught a college class in eighteen years.  Kel Keller is seventeen, athletic, and popular amongst his friends.  He’s a poor kid from Yonkers who attends an affluent school and dreams of playing professional baseball.  What these two very different people don’t realize is that they have something in common…a woman by the name of Charlene Turner.  Charlene is Kel’s mother and Arthur’s former student and she is about to alter both their lives when she decides to pick up the phone and ask Arthur for a simple favor.  Suddenly, Arthur is forced to open himself up to the outside world while Kel is forced to open his eyes to discover the girl his mother used to be.

I really enjoyed Heft and was impressed with Moore’s proficiency in writing as a middle-aged ex-professor struggling with obesity and isolation and then as a teenaged boy caught between the worlds of poverty and prosperity while dealing with his mother’s insecurities.  The story moved along at a nice pace and rarely lagged, even through multiple character flashbacks.  There were several supporting and interesting characters in the story, but the one that stood out to me was Arthur’s maid, Yolanda.  She’s a spitfire and truly the yin to Arthur’s yang.  We see a whole new side of Arthur when Yolanda is around and that was a pleasure to experience.  Despite the praise, I did have a few issues with this book that prevented me from giving it a full five-star rating.

The first problem I had (might not be as big a deal to others) was when Moore was writing as Arthur.  For his “voice”, she chose to flip back and forth between using an ampersand (&) and the word “and”.  At first, I thought maybe something slipped by copy editing, but when it happened repeatedly and then when she started a sentence with an ampersand (and she even began a paragraph with it), I just about popped.  This is a deliberate style choice that Moore made for this character, but it prevented me from totally immersing myself in Arthur’s story since I had to constantly decode such sentences as “I read it twice. & then I read it three more times.”  *pop*

Another problem was the last part of the book. Although Moore delivers a story that is touching, insightful, and uplifting, I felt that at the end of the book, there was something missing.  If I were to describe it (so as not to spoil the story), it would be like buttoning your shirt and realizing only when you got to the bottom that your shirt was uneven.  You’re going along button to hole, button to hole, button to hole, but despite everything going swimmingly, it doesn’t end up right.  Moore gives us a beautifully written story that seamlessly fits together but the end of the book seems a bit off and I ended up with more questions than answers.

Aside from those issues, I did love how Moore presented Arthur and Kel with such fearless honesty.  Both men are flawed, fractured, and burdened with regret and loneliness, but they are also proud despite their brokenness and willing to open up their hearts regardless of the risk that love often carries with it.  Usually when a book presents two different character threads, I find myself enjoying one more than the other, but with Liz Moore’s Heft, I enjoyed both Arthur and Kel equally and loved laughing and crying with each of them.

Heft is an enjoyable read offering up a message of hope, forgiveness, redemption, and second chances.  It also serves as a reminder to never underestimate the full impact of a seemingly simple act…like making a phone call or asking for help.  As the Dalai Lama once said, “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Dead Boy by Laurel Gale (J)

Dead Boy

Dead Boy

Laurel Gale (Juvenile Fiction)

Being dead stank.  Literally.  With everything rotting, decaying, and decomposing, it really did stink.  And let’s not talk about the maggots and the skin falling off and the hair falling out.  Death was really the pits and eleven-year-old Crow Darlingson should know because Crow is dead.  Well, dead but somehow alive.  If you ask Crow what’s worse than being dead, he would tell you that it’s being alone.  Loneliness really stank.  But along came Melody Plympton, his new neighbor, who somehow accepted his deadness.  Just when things were looking up, Crow and Melody discover a terrifying and mysterious creature hiding in the park.  A monster that also grants wishes.  Could this same creature be the cause of Crow’s unusual existence?  Could Crow somehow wish himself a normal life?  Crow is willing to face whatever tests and dangers the monster throws at him.  After all, once you’re dead, what’s the worst that can happen?

Dead Boy is Laurel Gale’s debut novel and she sure delivers!  She delights and entertains readers with a creepy, ghoulish, sweet, and imaginative story that’s full of heart.  Although it’s labeled as a “horror” story and depicts scenes of maggots falling out of various body parts at inappropriate times (not that there’s an appropriate time), Dead Boy is really a story about a young boy wanting to be accepted and longing for a friend.  Anyone who’s ever wanted a friend who liked and accepted them for just the way they are will empathize with Crow and his unfortunate situation.

What I found refreshing about Crow was his ability to see the positive in any situation and to enjoy what little pleasure life might happen to toss his way.  Here’s a boy with no friends, unable to eat food, incapable of sleep, and whose entire existence is spent indoors surrounded by the safety of air conditioning (he lives in the desert of all places), yet he delights in the simple act of lying beneath the stars and gazing up at the night’s sky.  He’s selfless, understanding, intelligent, loyal, and a true friend in every sense of the word.  He’s probably one of the most unlikely protagonists that I’ve come upon in a long time and I certainly hope he won’t be the last.

Near the end of the book, when the dust has settled after all of his exploits and adventures, Crow realized something important that beautifully sums up the meaning of this book: “Maybe having friends wasn’t as important as having the right friends”.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland by Dave Barry

Best State Ever

Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

Dave Barry (Adult Non-Fiction)

Poor Florida.  A state that has become synonymous with all things weird, daft, looney, loco, nutty, and just plain one-beer-short-of-a-six-pack crazy.  Don’t believe me?  Just Google “Florida Man” along with your birth month and day and ten times out of ten (or REALLY close to it), a corresponding headline will pop up.  For example, on my birthday, this made the headlines: “Naked Florida man breaks into home, tries on woman’s clothes, police say”.  See?  Well let me tell you something.  Dave Barry is S-I-C-K of people wrongfully labeling his beloved state and he’s set out to defend the good name of his hometown by showing us the lighter and brighter (and not necessarily saner) side of “The Sunshine State”.  So, buckle up because you’re in for an interesting and unforgettable ride!

According to Cosmopolitan magazine, women are attracted to guys with a sense of humor.  If that’s the case, then Dave Barry is one of the sexiest men alive.  With Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland, Barry gives us Fodor’s on laughing gas.  His book contains countless (truly) laugh-out-loud moments that makes reading in public a somewhat perilous undertaking…unless you love awkward moments and getting suspicious side glances from complete strangers.  Barry lovingly introduces us to real-life, overlooked treasures and he does so with the warmth, adoration, and pride as a parent would present his first-born to the world.  Through wit and black and white photos, we meet Dave Shealy, operator of Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee; we delight in watching mermaids eat underwater (they get hungry, you know) and waving an American flag at Weeki Wachee Springs; and we get to know more than we ever thought imaginable at the Spongeorama in Tarpon Springs.  Using a Florida Tourist Attraction rating system of Out-of-Order Mold-A-Matics, Barry ranks these unsung heroes on a scale from one to five (five being the BEST…and he even rates one attraction a six, but you have to read the book to discover this hidden gem) and offers valuable insights that only a native can appreciate and share.

Read Best. State. Ever. and I promise (or at least hope) that you’ll laugh, you’ll cry (from laughing), and you’ll probably Google “Florida Man” and your birthday as soon as you finish reading this review.  But mostly, you’ll have fun gaining a whole new perspective and appreciation for a state that was not only known as the birthplace of the “hanging chad”, but is also chockful of anything and everything that is weird, daft, looney, loco, nutty, and just plain one-beer-short-of-a-six-pack crazy.

(Reviewer’s Note: If you love the gloriously quirky, kitschy, and sometimes tacky roadside attractions that are a part of our unique culture, then I highly recommend you continue your journey with Betsy Carter’s book entitled Swim to Me about the mermaids of Weeki Wachee.  I think Dave would approve.)

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson (J Non-Fiction)

How We Got to Now

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Steven Johnson (Juvenile Non-Fiction Science)

Ever wonder how a plant in Syria could enable scientists to study galaxies and supernovas billions of light-years away?  Or how one man’s desire for a cold drink in the tropics would ultimately change the political map of America?  Or how a 19-year-old boy daydreaming in a church pew would lead to the ability to trace humans crossing into the Americas more than ten thousand years ago?  Well wonder no more as Steven Johnson shows readers how big ideas changed the world and how ordinary people were able to accomplish some rather extraordinary things.

Steven Johnson’s young reader adaption of his New York Times bestselling book has its own “How We Got to Now” story.  His non-fiction book was made into a television version for PBS and the BBC.  After several airings, Johnson began hearing from families (and later schools) who enjoyed watching the show with their children.  He was then approached by Penguin Random House with the idea of adapting his work for a middle grade audience.

How We Got to Now covers the topics of glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light and Johnson presents each subject in a fascinating step-by-step, connect-the-dots-type story full of interesting facts and tidbits.  If you are familiar with James Burke and his television series Connections, this book follows a similar format so if you enjoy Burke, you’ll find Johnson to be an equally talented historian and storyteller.

How We Got to Now is an ode to the tinkerers, dreamers, inventors, hobbyists, scientists, and reformers who had an idea to make life easier or the desire to make something better.  Some achieved their goals through grueling trial and error while others stumbled upon greatness purely by accident.  Whether it’s a flat and filthy city, a thirsty businessman, or a bored teenager staring at the ceiling of a church, every problem leads to an idea and that idea—however outrageous, ludicrous, or preposterous—marks the beginning of an amazing, unpredictable, and never-ending journey.  To all the future scientists, inventors, innovators, and dreamers, here’s to your success and here’s to now.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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