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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska (J)

Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull    

Maia Wojciechowska (Juvenile Fiction)

When Manolo was nine he became aware of three important facts in his life.  First: the older he became, the more he looked like his father. Second: he, Manolo Olivar, was a coward.  Third: everyone in the town of Arcangel expected him to grow up to be a famous bullfighter, like his father.

To be a bullfighter was to be revered for a bullfighter was a hero, a magician, and a killer of death.  In Arcangel, death came in the form of a bull and to conquer death brought glory to yourself, your family, and your country.  Manolo was the son of Juan Olivar, the greatest bullfighter in Spain.  Ever since his father’s death, everyone anxiously awaited the day when Manolo would take his father’s place and Spain would once again have a hero.  But unlike his father, Manolo’s future was not prophesied for greatness and he worried that his heart would never allow him to live up to the expectations of his town or the legacy left by his father.

Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull (winner of the 1965 Newberry Award) is a book brimming with valuable lessons and important messages of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-importance.  She encourages the reader to question the idea of heroes and those we choose to idolize—the celebrated sports figure or the wizened town physician—and she shows us the emotional and physical price of sacrificing your own future in order to carry on someone else’s.  She writes of life versus death, bravery versus fear, and a dream versus destiny.  It’s a lot to take in, but Wojciechowska lays out all of these issues as smoothly as a matador works his cape.

Shadow of a Bull is rich in its history and detail regarding the art of bullfighting.  Readers will learn the training involved and will be introduced to several Spanish terms (pronunciation guide and definitions are included at the back of the book).   It’s an effective primer for the sport that may test the patience of a few readers, but proves interesting nonetheless.  Above all else, Wojciechowska doesn’t let us forget that the heart of this book is young Manolo, a boy wishing to bring honor to his family by fulfilling a future that is beyond his desire or control.  He carries the hopes and dreams of an entire country on his very small shoulders and we feel the weight of this burden grow heavier as the day of his testing nears.  It’s a beautifully told coming-of-age story of a boy trying to discover his place in the world.

Walter M. Schirra, Sr.—a fighter pilot during World War I and father of Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs—once said, “You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons.  And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes.”  By being true to himself, Manolo found honor beyond the shadow of a bull and was able to become a hero in his own right.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.abebooks.com 

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell (YA)

Dovey Coe

Dovey Coe

Frances O’Roark Dowell (Young Adult Fiction)

“My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him.”

The youngest of the three Coe children, twelve-year-old Dovey would just as soon carry around a pocketknife than a pocketbook.  She’s wasn’t a skilled tracker like her brother Amos and she certainly wasn’t pretty and charming like her sister Caroline, but Dovey was loyal and honest and had a mind of her own.  You never had to guess what Dovey Coe was thinking because she would tell you exactly what was on her mind…whether you cared to hear it or not.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a few awkward situations and quite a number of bruised egos.  Such was the case with Parnell Caraway.  Son to the richest family in town, Parnell always got whatever he set his eyes on and at the present moment, his eyes were set on Caroline Coe.  No other girl in Indian Creek, NC deserved his arm more, but Caroline was set on going to college in Boone.  Covey was certainly not going to let the likes of Parnell Caraway tear her family apart, but would she resort to murder to keep her family together?

I am an absolute and unashamed pushover for plucky and feisty heroines: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Matilda Wormwood (Matilda), and Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) to name a few.  Dovey Coe handily earns a spot among these lovable, irrepressible, undaunted, and spirited young ladies.  Whether she’s confronting a school bully or the son of the man who owns half the town, Dovey is righteous in her convictions and uncowering in the face of injustice, unfairness, or just plain meanness.  No matter how few nickels she had to rub together, Dovey never considered herself or her family poor.  Her life was simple and satisfying and when something got her down, it wasn’t anything that a slice of her MeMaw’s chocolate cake or hammering a few nails into a two by four wouldn’t make right again.  Failure was not only not an option for Dovey, it simply wasn’t in her vocabulary.

Dovey Coe was shelved under the Young Adult section in my local library; however, the book is listed for ages nine to twelve and I highly recommend younger readers seizing the opportunity to meet Dovey and her entire family.  Older readers may feel the writing style is a bit simplistic, but the lessons Frances O’Roark Dowell lays out for her readers are ageless.  Loving who you are, standing up for what is right, defending the weakest among you, and finding joy in life’s smallest pleasures are things we should all aspire to do.  I think Dovey summed it up best when she said, “The way I seen things, us Coes had everything we needed in this world.  Some might see us as poor, but that was their problem.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

River Season by Jim Black

River Season

River Season

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

I think my mom’s patience with Charles, Gary, and myself stemmed from years of working on the pediatric floor at Methodist Hospital in Lubbock.  Maybe seeing so many sick and dying kids makes you look at your own in a different light.  I don’t know.  I do know she was not overly protective or strict back then.  I really think she just wanted us to enjoy the privilege of being kids, and I’ve always loved her for that.  It was easier back then, too, because times were different.  In our small town, we really did sleep with doors unlocked and windows open.  I know now those were the best of times.

Jim Black was thirteen in the summer of 1966.  Growing up in Archer City, Texas with his two best friends, Gary Beesinger and Charles Luig, life was great.  This summer, Jim had big plans: playing baseball, mowing lawns, and hanging out with his friends.  What he didn’t plan on was meeting Samuel “Sam” Joseph Washington, an older black man from the other side of town.  This man, who decided to take up residency at his favorite fishing spot, would not only grow to be a father figure to Jim, but would also become his friend and would show Jim the value of acceptance, generosity, and love.

In an interview with Brothers Judd (brothersjudd.com), Jim Black explained that There’s a River Down in Texas (which, after the addition of fifty pages, would later become River Season) is largely autobiographical with the remainder being pure fiction.  River Season gives us a warm, sometimes bittersweet, and nostalgic look at growing up in small-town America during a time when the only things on a boy’s mind were baseball, pretty girls, hanging out with friends, and getting into just enough mischief to make life interesting but not enough to get you arrested.  It was a simpler time when you knew who your friends were and, more importantly, who your enemies were.  Bullies were never anonymous and disagreements were settled swiftly resulting in either an inflated ego or a black eye.

I picked up River Season at a secondhand book store and after visiting Black’s website (jimblackbooks.com), this may be the only way for interested readers to obtain copies of his books.  Black explains that all contracts with his publisher have been cancelled and his books are no longer being produced.  I hope lightning strikes twice and I am able to find his sequel Tracks so that I can follow a fifteen-year-old Jim as he tackles high school, bullies, and a broken heart.

Although River Season does touch upon the racial tensions that occurred in the 1960s South, Black is not overly preachy on the subject.  He could have easily made this the focal point of his story, but he instead concentrates on the friendship between himself, Charles, and Gary, as well the touching bond he shared with Sam.  American author and businessman, Arthur H. Glasow, once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.”  Most of us would be fortunate to have just one friend like this.  Jim Black was blessed to have found three.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

 

The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson (J Historical Fiction)

The Friendship Doll

The Friendship Doll

Kirby Lawson (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Miss Kanagawa was the last doll that master dollmaker Tatsuhiko would ever make.  She was a doll like no other and was to be Master Tatsuhiko’s masterpiece.  Miss Kanagawa, along with her fifty-seven sisters, were being sent to the children of the United States by the children of Japan as a gesture of friendship.  These fifty-eight ambassadors of peace and goodwill carried with them the assurance that Japan was indeed a friend of America.  But Master Tatsuhiko wanted his prized creation to be more than just a messenger and wished that she would discover her true purpose as a doll: “to be awakened by the heart of a child”.  Sadly, Miss Kanagawa was as callous as she was beautiful and she was very certain that a doll with a samurai spirit such as hers would never have a need for a child.

The Friendship Doll is based on the actual arrival of fifty-eight dolls from Japan to the United States in November 1927.  In her book, Kirby Larson takes us from 1927 to the present day and introduces readers to such events as the Great Depression, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Through Miss Kanagawa, we meet a hopeful orator, an aspiring pilot, a voracious reader, and a devoted writer—each with her own remarkable story and each changed by a chance encounter with a unique and proud doll.

While reading The Friendship Doll, I couldn’t help but notice several similarities between it and Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (one of my favorite books).  Both stories revolve around an exquisite doll with an overly-high opinion of itself who imparts something of value with those it meets while simultaneously discovering the joy that comes from being wanted and loved.  While Edward is a silent presence, Miss Kanagawa somehow speaks directly to her visitor’s subconscious.  Young readers won’t be bothered by this, but those of us old enough to remember The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Living Doll” featuring Talking Tina might be overly susceptible to the heebie-jeebies.  Still, if you liked Edward, you’re sure to enjoy Miss Kanagawa as well.

Although this book does touch upon the sensitive subjects of death and dementia, its historical insights offer readers a valuable glimpse at a few events from our nation’s past.  It also serves as a reminder that it is often the smallest of things that can bring about the greatest change within ourselves and there is nothing heebie or jeebie about that.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket