Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Judging books by their covers

Here's a little more of the YA books I've been reading and listening to lately, but for a slightly younger crowd:

Milo Pine and his parents run the Greenglass House, a place that has historically been used by smugglers and still attracts an interesting and not always lawful clientele.  Normally Milo has the place and his parents all to himself at Christmas, but this year they're surprised with an eclectic group of lodgers.  And when it turns out there's a thief among them, Milo decides to investigate and find the culprit.

I love love love the cover of Kate Milford's book – the artwork reminds me of books I read as a kid.  But it started very slowly for me, and I didn't get interested in the story until nearly halfway through.  In the end I honestly liked it, I just didn't love it.  First of all, time and place in the novel are very loose.  To me a smugglers inn lends itself to an earlier time period, yet it's set in a modern time (although no cell phones).  And the town of Nagspeake is fictional but very confusing as to where it might be located.  There's also a lot of talk about role-playing games and the dual-identity thing for Milo was kind of annoying (although I played a bit of D&D as a kid, it wasn't something that I felt any connection with).  Milford tries to tie the dual-identity theme to the idea that Milo was adopted by the Pines, but it felt flat to me.  The mystery of the story was what made it interesting, but too often a clue would pop up only to be immediately resolved.  There's plenty going on in the story but it never blended well for me (plus, one main character was kinda obvious).  Still, it wasn't a long read and it was kind of fun – even made me wish to spend Christmas time somewhere in the snow.

In Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer, Hope Yancey leaves Brooklyn with her aunt Addie for Wisconsin where her aunt has accepted a job as a chef in a small town.  Hope has a lot of baggage – as nearly every single NYC young person in novels seems to have.  Her mother didn't want her and she never knew her father.  But she deals with it well and tries to make the best of every situation.  She's 16 years old and gets to work in the restaurant as a waitress – a job she takes very seriously.  But the owner of the restaurant is battling leukemia, so it's a surprise when he enters the political fray against a crooked mayor. 

The cover of the edition I listened to is a bit misleading.  It shows a car with a U-Haul trailer and NYC in the background.  And while Hope's life in Brooklyn provides a backdrop for the story, it's not a NYC story.  It's more about family relationships – dysfunctional and broken – and the ugly side of small town politics.  Yet it's also a very nice story, with a kind and likeable protagonist who is nicer and more positive than she has any reason to be and makes the best of her situation while longing for a father figure.  The reader of the audiobook made Hope sound much younger than 16 which is probably more in line with the intended middle grade audience.  It's kind of a teary-eyed ending, but it's a nice story.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Salt to the Sea

The narrative of history in America usually focuses on those parts most closely concerning us.  I guess this is natural, and my own reading is almost entirely focused around history that is somewhat connected to my own.  If you were to ask me about maritime disasters I'd probably mention the Titanic which it an iceberg (about 1,500 died) or the Lusitania which was sunk by a German submarine (about 1,200 died) and drew the U.S. into WWI.  I might also think about the USS Indianapolis which was torpedoed during WWII (about 1,200 died), and the story is sometimes featured on television during "Shark Week."  I wouldn't have mentioned or even known about the half dozen German ships sunk in the Baltic Sea by Russian submarines near the end of WWII, when approximately 25,000 died, including over 9,000 on one ship alone – half of which were children!  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys tells the story of four young people among half a million refugees that were fleeing the advancing Russians as the German armies began to collapse.  Joanna is around 21 and from Lithuania, and is a skilled nurse.  Florian is from East Prussia and is around 18, and is a gifted artist.  Emilia is only 15 and from Poland, which makes her one of the 'lesser races' according to Hitler.  And Alfred is a doughy sailor aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship waiting to carry lucky refugees away from the barbaric Russian soldiers and to freedom.  Each, however, carries secrets – secrets that weigh heavily on them.

I'm not usually a fan of historical fiction – I find real facts mixed in with fiction confusing, but when I don't know that many facts to begin with, it's a lot easier to read.  And this was a very compelling story – told from each of the 4 perspectives in short alternating chapters.  Because each section is no more than a few pages at most, I often found myself reading more and more at each sitting, trying to find out what was happening.  One of the characters made me furious, but the others – and many of the peripheral characters – drew me into their collective stories.  It's the kind of story that readers who like historical fiction like The Nightingale will really enjoy.  And even though it highlights a lot of the suffering and tragedy of this time in history, it's a good read and a good story.  It's just one of those stories from the Eastern Front of WWII that I didn't know anything about.  (I rec'd an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top Ten for 2015

One thing I like about Goodreads is the ability to keep track of what I've read on multiple levels.  Not only do I mark off the books and rate them, but I can create "shelves" to categorize the different kinds of fiction, history, etc. that I read. 

I also really like the "stats" feature which says I read 81 books / 23,687 pages last year, although I think that includes some that I "did-not-finish" and some I marked as "reference" and therefore didn't entirely read, such as cookbooks.  The longest was Nicholas Nickleby at nearly 1,000 pages (and it felt like it!).  I gave an average of 3.5 stars in ratings (3 is "liked" and 4 is "really liked").

But for my Top Ten list I've picked books that stand out most in my memory, regardless of the rating.  Even though I re-read some favorites (Harry Potter) and loved some continuing series (How To Catch a Bogle and Lockwood & Co.), I've chosen not to include them on this list.  So, here it is (in no special order except that 5 stars are before 4 stars) with links to my reviews: