A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata (J)

a million shades of gray

A Million Shades of Gray    

Cynthia Kadohata (Juvenile Fiction)

Even at eleven years old, Y’Tin Eban knew what his future would look like:  he would work with his elephant, Lady, until she died; he would travel to Ban Me Thuot then to Thailand and finally to America; and he would open an elephant-training school in Vietnam.  But it’s 1975 and the American soldiers have been gone from Vietnam for two years now.  Y’Tin and his tribe live in Central Highlands in South Vietnam and every day, soldiers from the north are advancing closer and closer to his village.  The Americans called it the Vietnam War.  His father called it the American War.  And now, this war was coming to Y’Tin’s remote part of the country and everything that his future once promised is about to change forever.

It’s never easy to discuss the horror and ugliness of war, especially when that discussion involves a younger audience (this book is targeted for readers ages ten and older).  Cynthia Kadohata is able to portray a country savagely torn apart by Civil War with remarkable honesty and sensitivity.  Because she is dealing with younger readers, she avoids graphic details and opts for subtle clues and visuals that guide readers to the desired conclusion.  For example, she describes a scene where captive male villagers are forced to dig a very long and deep pit on the outskirts of the village.  Older readers know immediately that this is a mass grave and the outlook is bleak for the villagers.  However, the younger reader shares the same learning curve as Y’Tin and both share in the eventual realization of what is actually taking place at the same time.

Several reviewers found this book to be too “anti-American” given the repeated mentions by the villagers of the Americans’ broken promise to return should assistance be needed.  But Kadohata foregoes popularity points by choosing to give us a story based on the villagers’ perspective.  They are a community that is scared, helpless, and feels very much abandoned and alone.  It’s an honest representation of the many thousands who were facing certain annihilation by their own government.  While this book deals mainly with war and its effects, at the heart is a young boy—rapidly thrown into manhood—and his relationship with his elephant, Lady.  The mutual trust they have for one another and the formidable bond they share serve as the singular bright spot in what is often a rather dark and grim story.

The book’s title, A Million Shades of Grey, refers to the colors of the jungle right before sunrise, as well as the color of an elephant’s hide.  In life, we often view things—view choices—as being a matter of “black or white”.  Kadohata reminds us that things aren’t always that simple and that every day we face or own “million shades of gray”.  At one time, Y’Tin said that you don’t love and you don’t make promises during times of war.  But it took his village’s smallest but strongest elephant to show him otherwise…that even during war, it is possible to have both.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com 

 

 

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander

the kitchen boy

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar

Robert Alexander (Adult Fiction)

“My name is Mikhail Semyonov.  No, my real name—the one given to me at birth—was Leonid Sednyov, and I was known as Leonka.  Please forgive my years of lies, but now I tell you the truth.  What I wish to confess is that I was the kitchen boy in the Ipatiev House where the Tsar and Tsarista, Nikolai and Aleksandra, were imprisoned…and I saw them shot.  Trust me, believe me, when I say this: I am the last living witness and I alone know what really happened that awful night…just as I alone know where the bodies of the two missing children are to be found.  You see, I took care of them with my own hands.”

Mikhail (Misha) Semyonov is ninety-four years old.  He’s a man who’s tired of living with the knowledge of what he has caused, what he has seen, and what he has done.  Before he dies, he begins dictating his story into a small black tape recorder that will be given to his granddaughter upon his death.  Misha desires neither understanding nor absolution.  He merely wants the truth to finally be known and perhaps, at last, it will.

It’s one thing to read about the execution of the Romanov family during the late-night/early hours of July 16-17, 1918.  The information gleaned from a history book or online is rather antiseptic—a blurb here, a mention there.  On the contrary, what we get from Robert Alexander is an emotional, personal, and in-depth portrayal of a father, a mother, and their five children.  We get a glimpse of Nikolai Aleksandrovich and Aleksandra Fyodorovna not as Tsar and Tsarista, but as a loving husband and wife and doting parents.  Viewing them in this light makes reading about their horrific and heinous murders all the more gut-wrenching and abhorrent.  They are not merely line items, but flesh and blood who love, hate, fear, and trust.  Because of this humanistic portrayal of the royal family and the two weeks leading up to their execution, we almost forget that this is based on fact, and we futilely hold out hope for a courageous midnight rescue or a perilous, well-planned escape…although history reminds us that neither will happen.

This book held a few surprises for me.  First, the number of secret notes, letters, and diaries that not only survived, but were preserved.  I found this astonishing given the Bolsheviks’ ruthless intent to wholly wipe out the very existence of the Romanovs.  It was also interesting to learn how the Romanovs planned to smuggle their vast family fortune once they acquired liberation (I will not elaborate further should this be new to you as well).  Third, the ending was purely unexpected and opened up a whole new prospect of “What if….”.  Just when you think you’ve reached the end of the story, Alexander gives us one final jolt that depletes the room of oxygen and leaves us wishing that his work of fiction was indeed fact.  What if…

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (J)

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus     

L. Frank Baum (Juvenile Fiction)

Did you ever wonder why Santa delivers presents on Christmas Eve or why he climbs down a chimney?  Why reindeer were chosen to pull his sleigh or how the first Christmas tree came about?  All of these questions and more are answered about the jolly old man who delivers joy and happiness to every child around the globe on one very special night each year.  From his introduction as a helpless infant who was discovered by the Wood-Nymph Necile in the Forest of Burzee to the night he escaped the Spirit of Death by being given the Mantle of Immortality, the life of Santa Claus is finally shared and what you thought you knew about the man in red may never be the same again.

Two years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, L. Frank Baum delighted audiences again with another tale of mythical creatures and magical worlds.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is not just a history of one of the world’s most notable and recognized figures, but it is a heartwarming story of selflessness, devotion, family, and love.  More importantly, Baum gives us a book extolling and celebrating the virtues of inclusion.  As an abandoned baby, Claus was lovingly adopted and wholly accepted within the secret and protected world of immortals.  As an adult, he once questioned whether or not wealthy children were also deserving of gifts since they already possessed so much.  The Queen of the Fairies replied, “Whether it be rich or poor, a child’s longings for pretty playthings are natural.  I think, friend Claus, it is your duty to make all little ones glad, whether they chance to live in palaces or in cottages.”

Children and adults alike can benefit from the messages Baum delivers in this classic children’s story.  The idea of extending grace, mercy, and joy to everyone we encounter is something we should aspire to every day of the year and not just one.

“’In all this world, there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child,’ says good old Santa Claus; and if he had his way the children would all be beautiful, for all would be happy.”

Merry Christmas from The Dusty Jacket.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

 

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Biography) by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Ishmael Beah (Adult Biography)

Ishmael Beah is a typical 12-year old boy.  He enjoys rap music, practicing his dance moves, and playing soccer with his friends.  But on one January day in 1993, what he and his brother and friends don’t realize as they head to Mattru Jong for a talent show, as that they will never be returning to their village of Mogbwemo again.

War has come to Sierra Leone.  The adults call it a revolutionary war—a liberation of the people from a corrupt government.  But why do the liberators kill innocent people?  Why do they pillage and burn down the villages?  Ishmael and his friends soon find themselves wandering from village to village searching for food, struggling for survival, and keeping one step ahead of the rebels.  When they are captured by the government army, they are given a choice: join and fight or die.

Beah’s personal account of his years as a child soldier is horrifying and unimaginable.  In his book, he says that it was his father’s words that kept him moving despite his weariness: “If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.  If there is nothing left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.”

It was hard reading Beah’s story and learning about his vile actions during war, his terrifying nightmares that made him fear sleep, and his addiction to marijuana and cocaine.  Perhaps what is harder still is knowing that the practice of using children as soldiers in war still exists and remains rampant.  But Beah gives us a story not just of tragedy, but of redemption and hope.  When he is rescued by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center, every day counselors and medical staff would say to him, “It’s not your fault.”  After many months, the day finally came when he began to believe it.  By forgiving himself, Ishmael Beah started to forge a new beginning for himself and began to share his incredible story with the world—a story that will hopefully bring awareness and change for the thousands of children still fighting in wars throughout the world.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA)

Fever 1793

Fever 1793

Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult Fiction)

It started with the sudden death of a young and healthy girl.  Within a week, 64 more would die from yellow fever and the capital city of Philadelphia would be filled with the endless ringing of bells—one toll for every year the victim had lived.

In the summer of 1793, 14-year old Matilda Cook helps run her family’s coffeehouse, where folks idly gossip or talk politics.  Lately, the conversations have turned to the fever:  Is it a sign from God?  A punishment for sinners?  Did the refugees bring it with them?  As death draws closer, she and her grandfather are forced to flee the city for the safety of the country.  But Matlida soon discovers that death is not easily escaped.

Anderson gives us a compelling, gripping, and suspenseful account of one of the worst epidemics in the history of the United States.  Wiping out 10% of Philadelphia’s population in under three months, the effects of the fever were devastating.  Many fled the city to escape the carnage, but it was those who stayed and tended to the sick, as well as the dead, that were the true heroes.

You don’t have to be a fan of history to thoroughly enjoy this book.  From the first page, the plot never slows and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat.  It reminds us how even the direst of circumstances can often bring out the best in people and that both disease and heroism are not bound by either social status or race.

Rating: 5/5

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson (J)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

Ben and Me

Ben and Me

Robert Lawson (Juvenile Fiction)

Do you recall seeing portraits of Benjamin Franklin where he wore an old fur hat?  Little did you know that inside that hat lived one very intelligent, outspoken, and opinionated mouse by the name of Amos.  Amos was Franklin’s closest friend, adviser, and the one largely responsible for Franklin’s greatest innovations and achievements…regardless of what historians may have recorded.

Lawson writes with wit and charm and provides readers with whimsical drawings that give life to both Ben and Amos.  From lightning rods to “Liberty Forever!”, young readers will get a glimpse into the greatness and brilliance of one of history’s most accomplished individuals.  Of course, we need to temporarily overlook the flamboyant embellishments of one overly enthusiastic rodent, but when you do, you get a delightful story that is just the right length to hold a young reader’s attention while capturing the imagination.  Throw in a revolution…or two…and you have a tale that is sure to delight and amuse.

Rating: 4/5

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander (J)

Time Cat

Time Cat

Lloyd Alexander (Juvenile Fiction)

Did you ever wonder where cats go when you can’t find them?  No matter how hard you look for them, they’ve simply disappeared only to reappear just as quickly.  According to Lloyd Alexander, they travel back in time.

Meet Jason and his cat, Gareth.  Like all cats, Gareth doesn’t have nine lives, but he can travel to nine different places in history.  Alexander gives us a fun and fanciful story through time as we follow Jason and Gareth to places such as ancient Egypt, Rome, Japan, and Peru and meet many notable historical figures along the way.  The book may be fantasy, but Alexander spent over a year in research to ensure historical accuracy.  Each adventure is a standalone story that is short enough to hold a younger reader’s attention, while long enough to offer a nice glimpse into the history of that time.

Time Cat wonderfully reflects the bond that humans have with their animals and how—throughout the ages—people have relied on their pets for protection, comfort, and companionship.  This book reinforces the value of friendship and loyalty, while it introduces young readers to the exciting world of history.

Rating: 4/5