Summer of the Monkeys
Wilson Rawls (Young Adult Fiction)
Up until I was fourteen years old, no boy on earth could have been happier. I didn’t have a worry in the world. In fact, I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be hard at all for me to grow up. But, just when things were really looking good for me, something happened. I got mixed up with a bunch of monkeys and all of my happiness flew right out the window. Those monkeys all but drove me out of my mind.
It’s the late 1800s and brand-new country just opened up for settlement. The Lee family were sharecroppers in Missouri, but providence led them to a farm right in the middle of Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma. Life is good for fourteen-year-old Jay Berry and his parents, although a bit tougher for his sister, Daisy, who was born with a twisted leg and got by with the help of a crutch. It’s summer and Jay Berry has the entire farm to explore…not to mention he has his eyes set on owning his very own .22 and a pony. But then his grandfather brings word that some monkeys have escaped the circus and the reward to anyone who finds them is more than Jay Berry can count! With his grandfather’s help, Jay Berry sets off to find and capture those monkeys, even if it takes him the whole summer to do it.
I unashamedly admit that I am a complete pushover for any book where the parents are respected, the grandparents are revered, or a boy’s best friend is his trusted dog. Written in 1976 by Wilson Rawls—author of the classic Where the Red Fern Grows—Summer of the Monkeys has all three. Rawls gives us a lovely story about family, sacrifice, and faith and the importance of putting aside what your heart desires and instead focusing on what your heart requires. The writing is down-to-earth and folksy and the lessons are timeless. Today’s young adult readers may find the dialogue and situations a bit trite and hokey, but a story of a brother’s love for his little sister or a father’s pride in his son never truly goes out of style.
Throughout the book, Rawls shows us the strong bond of the Lee family and the particularly tender relationship between Jay Berry and his grandfather. On one occasion, Jay Berry mentioned to his grandfather how much fun the two have together to which the grandfather replied, “We surely do. You know, an old man like me can teach a young boy like you all the good things in life. But it takes a young boy like you to teach an old man like me to appreciate all the good things in life. I guess that’s what life’s all about.” Call me old-fashioned or sentimental, but books like this always remind me that whenever you have a loving family, a wizened grandpa or a furry companion by your side, life is never really all that bad.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
Pat Schmatz (Young Adult Fiction)
“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.” Might as well be, “One fish, two fish, Travis is a stupid fish.” At least that’s what they all say…well, what one person says, but he is a VERY influential person. Travis Roberts is the new kid in the eighth grade. The only thing keeping him in school was his dog, Rosco, and now that he’s gone, what’s the point? He’ll always be stupid. He’ll always be a bluefish. But then Travis meets Vida (her public calls her “Velveeta”) and Bradley Whistler (who is THE smartest kid EVER) and Mr. McQueen, his reading teacher. Up until this point, everything that Travis cared about was gone. Maybe now he has a reason to begin caring again…even if he is just a bluefish.
Pat Schmatz serves up an awkwardly accurate and often humorous portrayal of adolescence through three flawed and endearing misfits—all longing to fit in and wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Our three protagonists are no longer a child and not quite an adult, and Bluefish shows us the mask each wears to cover up their insecurities and shortcomings. From the brainiac to the class clown to the strong, silent type, Schmatz successfully encapsulates the complicated world of teenagers and the tangled and convoluted roadmap that directs their everyday lives and dictates their emotions.
Bluefish is more than a story of friendship and middle school survival, it’s a story of how one person has the power to change the very course of our life: a kid who finds and hands back your stolen shoe; a girl who invites you to sit with her at lunch; or a teacher who volunteers his or her time to tutor you before school. Thank you, Ms. Schmatz, for reminding us of the importance of not giving up on our friends, and—more importantly—not giving up on ourselves. You have shown us that being a bluefish really isn’t so bad and can actually be a rather remarkable thing after all.
*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com
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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.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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.
*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
Lunch at the Piccadilly
Clyde Edgerton (Adult Fiction)
Carl Turnage is watching his beloved Aunt Lil—the last leaf of his family tree—slowly slip through his fingers. Seeing that she is no longer safe living alone in her apartment and quite unreliable behind the wheel of her car, Carl sends her to a convalescent home to recuperate after suffering from a fall. There she joins several other residents including Flora Talbert (who owns four colored housecoats and has an obsession with footwear), Clara Cochran (has a glass eye and a penchant for spewing obscenities), Maudie Lowe (the little woman), Beatrice Satterwhite (owns the “Cadillac” of walkers), and L. Ray Flowers (who is quick with a sermon and always looking for a song). Despite the laidback atmosphere that Rosehaven Convalescence Center offers, Aunt Lil isn’t ready to take it easy just yet. She wants adventure and she is bound and determined to find it…one way or another.
Lunch at the Piccadilly clocks in at 238 pages (not counting the Epilogue). After reading ninety-three percent of the book, it inexplicably fell apart. It was absolutely agonizing to see this witty and charming book careen so horribly and fatally off course. The last few pages lacked what the entire book simply overflowed with: heart and soul. Edgerton’s novel was a poignant, funny (with a few laugh-out-loud moments), and compassionate book with characters dealing with loss of mobility, loss of independence, and loss of memory. He gives us several women with an insatiable zest for life, but know that the mortality clock is ticking louder and louder with each passing day. Why this same passion and fervor failed to carry through until the last page is both confusing and disappointing. However, the ending wasn’t the only problem. There was also a salacious backstory that kept resurfacing throughout various points of the story. This past event between two of Rosehaven’s residents really had no purpose, lent no value to the story, and only managed to introduce some unneeded drama and friction. Also, L. Ray’s need to break out into lengthy religions sermons broke the momentum of the story and was irritating at best.
It truly was heartbreaking and frustrating to see a book with this much promise and value self-destruct so quickly. I felt a little duped in the emotional commitment I invested in caring about these sassy, snarky, and spirited seniors who are making the best of what little life they have left. In the end, I felt as if this book was like one of Rosehaven’s residents who stands steadfastly by the front door, waiting for visiting family or friends that will never come. No matter how many times I might flip back in the book, looking tirelessly for my sense of closure, I realize that that too will never come.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
While on his way home from school, 15-year old Michael Berg falls ill. Sick with hepatitis, he is found by a kind stranger who cares for him then walks him home. His benefactor is 36-year old Hanna Schmitz and that chance encounter sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to their unlikely and indecent love affair. Throughout their relationship, Hanna is secretive and keeps her past private. All Michael knows is that she grew up in a German community in Rumania, served in the army at 21, and held various jobs following the end of the war. Hanna’s silence is off-putting yet intriguing, and the mystery surrounding her only increases with her abrupt disappearance from their town and his life. Years later, all of Michael’s unanswered questions about Hanna’s past are revealed when he sees her in a courtroom standing trial. Hanna’s shrouded past is a secret no longer.
The Reader is divided into three parts: the first deals with Michael and Hanna’s meeting and growing relationship while the second and third focus on Hanna’s trial and the events following her verdict. The latter two parts deal with weightier issues and make for a more interesting and faster-paced story. Early on, Hanna is portrayed as a detached lover actively avoiding any kind of emotional commitment. She has no need for our sympathy and we, the reader, duly deny her of it. However, as Schlink sheds light on Hanna’s past and we begin to fully understand her moral makeup, our apathy slowly and willingly gives way to pity. The author doesn’t allow our feelings to develop much further beyond this given Hanna’s tragic and unsympathetic backstory. At this point, most authors would attempt to force a more intimate connection with one of his main characters, but Schlink seems satisfied in allowing us to remain unemotional bystanders and we do so without guilt or regret.
Bernhard Schlink gives us an unforgettable story of love, betrayal, secrets, and sacrifices. What surprised and impressed me most about this novel is the number of thought-provoking and provocative questions he poses: Is being right or honest worth the price of freedom? Can you recognize atonement without granting absolution? Is it ever too late to change? Questions such as these not only offer us a more in-depth view into Michael’s internal thoughts and struggles, but they also force us to examine our own moral convictions. The Reader is one of those rare books that not only entertains and educates, but also challenges the way we think and feel while encouraging us to be better versions of ourselves.
*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
Patrick Somerville (Adult Fiction)
It’s 1997. Matt and Marissa Bishop are expecting their first child. In her eighth month of pregnancy, Marissa suddenly asks Matt to find her something. Not a certain brand of pickles or obscure flavor of ice cream, but a cradle. Her cradle. The one that she used when she was a baby and that was stolen from her home many years ago. Flash forward ten years and Renee Owen, a former children’s author, is preparing to send her son off to serve in the military in Iraq. She counts down the days to his departure as she counts the white notecards on her bulletin board—cards that represent a book of poetry that longs for completion. Both Matt and Renee are on a path where they will discover that secrets are powerful things and have the ability to either rip a family apart or make the shared fabric even stronger.
I’ve found that when books have two central characters with alternating story lines, there is always one that stands apart and tends to be more interesting and compelling. The Cradle is no exception. We follow the individual stories of Matt and Renee and from early on, Matt’s story is definitively the deeper and more developed of the two (out of fourteen chapters in the book, Matt is featured in ten). Renee’s inclusion in the book seemed superfluous and the parts featuring her were a needless drag on the story’s pace. Deciding to give Renee equal billing (or close to it) in this story was unfortunate. Her inclusion didn’t add much to the story line and her contribution was more of a weak supporting character rather than a central, standalone figure.
The Cradle is clearly Matt’s story and the struggles he faces when dealing with his past while trying to understand his future. Throughout the book, Matt is all about what matters. Family matters. Things matter. His quest for his wife’s childhood heirloom not only puts him in direct contact with several strange and unforgettable people, but it also allows him the opportunity to begin realizing what a family is and what having a family really means. And in the end, to Matt, those are the things that matter most.
* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com