Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements (YA Science Fiction)

Things Not Seen

Things Not Seen    

Andrew Clements (Young Adult Science Fiction)

Did you ever wish that you were invisible or could just become invisible—even for a day?  Well that’s what happened to Robert “Bobby” Phillips one morning.  He goes to bed an average, normal fifteen-year-old boy and wakes up invisible.  There’s no explanation for it, although his physicist father knows that something doesn’t happen without a reason.  But how can this possibly happen?  What could have caused this?  Promising to keep his “condition” secret, Bobby and his parents frantically search for a cause and a cure because a boy that suddenly vanishes won’t go unnoticed for long.  But then Bobby meets Alicia, a blind girl he literally bumps into at the library.  Surely his secret would be safe with her?  After all, Bobby needs to share this with someone and maybe she can help because time is quickly running out.

Things Not Seen is the first of three books in the “Things” series by Andrew Clements.  In this installment, we are introduced to Bobby and his sarcastic yet devoted love interest Alicia Van Dorn.  This book has just enough science to make it a true science fiction, but not too much to bog down the story and lose reader interest.  Clements also gives us the standard fare of teenage angst: wanting acceptance from peers, craving independence from parents, and longing for a bit of attention from the opposite sex.  The need for acknowledgment, approval, and acceptance is truly universal, but these feelings are personified effectively through Bobby’s invisibility.

Throughout the book, we see Bobby’s new condition force an emotional awakening and maturity upon him.  What was a pleasant surprise was the evolution of his relationship with his parents (and vice versa).  Things Not Seen is a wonderful reminder that parents don’t always have the answers, and sometimes in order to really “see” someone, you simply just need to close your eyes and open your heart.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy

William Saroyan (Adult Fiction)

In a small town in Ithaca, California, during World War II, there lived the Macauley family—Mrs. Macauley and her four children: Marcus, Bess, Homer, and Ulysses.  Marcus is serving in the army, Bess is attending college, Homer is determined to be the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, and young Ulysses, who at four years old, is enamored with everything in his very small world.  The Macauleys are workers, dreamers, and God-fearing folks who are living each day to its fullest while trying to find their own particular place in the world.  For Homer, it’s a time of hurdle races, playing catch, and riding his bike, but with the war and the grim news printed on each incoming telegram, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to put off manhood any longer.

This novel was billed as a coming-of-age story, but it truly is so much more.  With its short chapters—almost vignettes—The Human Comedy gives us a humorous and bittersweet peek into the lives of the citizens of Ithaca.  The elderly telegrapher fearing retirement, the son fighting in a war that he doesn’t understand, the town simpleton with a naïve heart of gold, a young boy with big dreams and ambitions, the teacher trying to impart a sense of civility and kindness into her students.  All of these wonderful characters’ stories are stitched together to form a tightknit community that mourns their fallen, cheers their heroes, comforts their sick, and opens their doors (and hearts) to strangers.

The Human Comedy is considered semi-autobiographical as many of the novel’s characters and situations are based on real-life people and events from Saroyan’s childhood.  Like Homer, Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian immigrant who lost a father quite early in life and worked as a telegraph messenger while a teenager.  Interestingly, The Human Comedy began as a screenplay written by Saroyan, but while Metro Goldwyn Mayer was filming the movie, Saroyan decided to turn his screenplay into what would become his first novel.

One of the novel’s youngest characters, Ulysses, gains great pleasure and satisfaction from the simplest things.  He often runs alongside the train as it travels through his town, waving to its occupants who always ignore our young man.  On one occasion however, a black man sees Ulysses and returns his wave while shouting, “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!”  The Human Comedy is a story of love, loss, decency, humanity, and kindness, but most of all, it is a story about home and the people we are blessed to call family.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle (YA Historical Fiction)

The Lightning Dreamer

The Lightning Dreamer    

Margarita Engle (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

In a country where both men and words are closely guarded, it is the poet who proved to be the boldest and most daring abolitionist.  Gertrudis G mez de Avellaneda (nicknamed Tula) is thirteen and enjoying her last year of personal freedom in Cuba.  When she turns fourteen, she will be sold into matrimony to the highest bidder and her mother will use the proceeds from her marriage to buy more slaves.  Tula abhors slavery and often feels enslaved herself by a society that denies her an education, the right to vote, or the freedom to choose when and whom she will marry.  But Tula suddenly finds light in her dark world when she discovers the convent’s library.  Here, in a dusty corner, lies forbidden words of hope, rebellion, and the promise of freedom from a rebel-poet by the name of Jos  Mari  Heredia.

The Lightning Dreamer is a work of historical fiction and is based on the life of Gertrudis G mez de Avellaneda, a poet and playwright known as one of the world’s most influential female writers.  Written entirely in free verse, this story switches between numerous points of view to allow the reader to see firsthand the profound and unimagined impact that poetry has on its audience.  Engle’s work is stunningly vibrant and beautiful and conveys an expansive range of emotions with just a few carefully chosen words.  For example, we experience Tula’s heartbreak as she finally resigns herself to a life devoid of freedom and choices: “During those times,/ I find it easy to forget/ that I’m just a girl who is expected/ to live/ without thoughts.”  The nuns at the convent see Tula torn between two worlds and offer her the only comfort they can: “In a mother’s eyes,/ she can be only/ a monster of defiance/ or an angel of obedience,/ nothing/ in between.//So, we send her to the library,/ a safe place to heal/ and dream…”

During her lifetime, Avellaneda fought for racial and gender equality and although her ideas were considered shocking at the time, her vision was eventually accepted and Cuban slaves gained their freedom, schools became integrated, and young girls were able to enter into marriage voluntarily and for love.  Tula once said, “Books are door-shaped portals carrying me across oceans and centuries, helping me feel less alone.”  Engle reminds us of the power behind the written word and the hope, promise, and escape those words offer when nestled between the covers of a book.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

At thirty-nine years old, Charlie Beale arrived in the town of Brownsburg, Virginia (population 538) in a beat-up truck and toting two suitcases—one holding his clothes and a set of butcher knives and the other filled with cash.  Brownsburg is a town where prestige is measured by the size of your floral blooms and the yield of your vegetable garden, where no one divorced, schools let out in May so the children could help with the family’s planting, and everyone believed in God and The Book.  It’s 1948 and as soon as Charlie drove into Brownsburg, he knew he was home.  When he saw Sylvan Glass, the teenage bride of the town’s wealthiest resident, he knew that he was heading to something wonderful.  But Brownsburg is a small town and news—good, bad, and particularly scandalous—travels fast and Charlie is about to find out that wonderful comes with a very hefty price tag.

If I were to give half ratings, this book would lean more towards three-and-one-half stars, but I gave it a three simply because the last twenty pages of the book were so severe and such a drastic departure from the rest of the story that it left me feeling confused and a bit angry.  Goolrick is a wonderful storyteller and gives readers an idyllic town where folks sit on their front porch and gossip and the shop merchants know what you want before you cross their threshold.  Being a small town, we know that no good will come from Charlie and Sylvan’s illicit relationship and that it is doomed from the beginning; however, Goolrick’s handling of these star-crossed lovers is not only severe, it’s incomprehensible.  The last few pages are such a stark contrast to the rest of the story, that it begs one to question what could possibly have made Goolrick deviate so unbelievably from his story and characters?  It was almost as if he handed the remainder of his novel to someone else and said, “You take it from here.”

When Charlie entered Will Haislett’s butcher shop looking for a job, Will said to him, “Let me tell you something, son.  When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right.  And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”  The problem with Heading Out to Wonderful, is that we started out in Wonderful and were able to happily hang out and enjoy the scenery for a bit, but somehow we missed a sign or drove too far or made a right instead of a left and suddenly found ourselves far away from Wonderful and instead somewhere between All Right and Okay.  Unfortunately, Charlie Beale didn’t have the luxury of GPS tracking in 1948.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton (J)

Bedknob and Broomstick

Bed-Knob and Broomstick    

Mary Norton (Juvenile Fiction)

Carey, Charles, and Paul Wilson are rather ordinary children who are planning to spend a rather ordinary summer with an old aunt in Bedfordshire.  The children, not being very fond of her house, choose to spend most of their time outdoors playing in the barns, by the river, in the lanes, and on the hills.  One day seemed to flow into the next rather uneventfully until the day that Miss Price hurt her ankle.  It was on that day where this story truly begins because Miss Price didn’t just visit the sick or teach piano or was the most ladylike in the village.  Miss Price also happened to be a witch…well, a novice witch…and it was this same Miss Price who cast a spell upon one of Paul’s bed-knobs—a spell that could take him and his bed anyplace in the present or past.  A spell that would eventually lead to a trip to the police station, an encounter with cannibals, and a chance meeting with a lonely necromancer.  Perhaps this will not be an ordinary summer for the Wilson children after all.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is the combination of Norton’s The Magic Bed-knob (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947).  The first part covers the initial meeting between the Wilson children and Miss Price and details their adventures in the present while the second part picks up two years after and sends the group into the past.  Norton’s tale is sure to delight younger readers and has enough unexpected twists and turns to keep older readers engaged as well.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is a humorous, suspenseful, and enchanting book filled with courage, loyalty, friendship, and love.  American author Debasish Mridha once said, “The magic of love is that it has the power to create a magical world in and around us.”  Norton indeed gives us a magical world which teaches us that you’re never too young for an adventure and you’re never too old to find love.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

Big Fish

Big Fish

Daniel Wallace (Adult Fiction)

Edward Bloom was born in Ashland, Alabama during the driest summer in forty years.  Edward knew he was destined for greatness…at least that’s what he always imagined.  He was to be a big fish in a big pond.  After all, wasn’t it his birth that finally brought water to his town’s scorched ground?  Weren’t people and animals inexplicably drawn to him?  Throughout his life, Edward would be a sailor, a successful business owner, and a true man of the world who also bought an entire town down to the last square inch.  Edward was also a husband, a father, and a friend to all.  But most of all, Edward Bloom was a myth.  His son, William, longs to be close to a father whose past is as vast and complicated as the current space between the two.  With Edward on his deathbed, can William distinguish fact from fiction so that he can better understand his father?  Surely stories of a two-headed geisha, a giant, and a mermaid can’t possibly be true…can they?

Daniel Wallace gives us a quirky and lighthearted story showing us the complex and messy relationship between a father and son.  This book is a quick read so only lightly scratches the surface regarding Edward’s inability or unwillingness to emotionally connect with his son.  All attempts at intimacy by William yield little more than a humorous story and a punchline and the reader shares in his growing frustration and apathy.  Edward explains to William that his own father was rarely around, but this fact doesn’t make it any less painful for William who is constantly at odds with a pithy metaphor or a ready one-liner.

Fathers are so many things to their sons or daughters: superhero, knight, prince charming, mentor, teacher, coach, buddy.  Like Edward, our own dads seem invincible, immortal, and a tad mythical.  Edward measured greatness through deeds.  William merely wanted a father who was an active participant rather than an occasional onlooker. And although laughter is said to be the best medicine, perhaps laughter is not the medicine, but it merely makes the real medicine go down a little easier.

Edward once said to William, “Remembering a man’s stories makes his immortal, did you know that?”  I have many stories from my father’s past—stories made up of fact and fiction that intertwine and entangle themselves like vines on a trellis.  Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the truth from fantasy, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because you realize that even though your dad didn’t own a town or rescue a mermaid, he’s still pretty great because he’s YOUR dad and that alone makes him a pretty big fish.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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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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