R.I.P. Harper Lee

R.I.P. Harper Lee

Yesterday, the world of literature lost one of its giants, as Harper Lee passed away quietly in her small town of Monroeville, Alabama.

Lee is most famous for her seminal novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most read books on the planet, and a seeming right of passage for teenagers to read at some point in high school. The novel became more than a book for so many people, and the adventures of Scout and Atticus, growing up in the small, racist town of Maycomb, has become an integral part of the American fabric. It is a novel that exposed us to injustice, and justice, and fairness, and compassion, something that too few books have been able to do for us over the course of our lives. It is impossibly memorable to the millions who have turned its pages again and again.

While Harper Lee truly only wrote the one novel (despite the recent publication of Go Set A Watchman), she managed to change the way we look not only at books, but at ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless classic, and it will endure for the ages.

Being semi-reclusive over her life, and never writing again made Lee more of a legend, and had us respecting her for knowing that she would not be able to top her original work, and not chase dollar signs just by slapping her name on just about anything.

For me, Mockingbird changed the way I looked at books. No longer were they just means of escape; I knew that they could be so much more. They could make me think, and push me, and make me love characters, even decades after reading it for the first time.

Harper Lee will remain an American literary icon.

Rest in peace.

Man Made Boy (Book Review)

Man Made Boy (Book Review)

Here is a fun YA novel.

The story of Frankenstein’s son, pieced together over the years by the Bride, provides us with a fun story about a boy trying to escape his past, and the mistakes of his present, all the while hoping to fit into a world where he doesn’t belong.

Boy, the simply named protagonist, is a monster. Stitched together, he is a hideous creation that is faced with the common dilemmas of a teenager, but has to deal with them while being stuck in The Show, a carnival-like atmosphere filled with all types of legendary monsters: a vampire, fairies, trolls, a centaur, minotaur, Medusa. You name it, and The Show has it.

But Boy wants more than to be a part of The Show for the rest of his life: he wants to be outside, and live in the normal world of humans, something that is easier said than done.

It doesn’t help that his parents are the legendary literary characters created by the mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein. They are as would be expected, and over-protective to boot.

boy5Man Made Boy takes us on a pretty awesome adventure, as Boy tries to integrate himself in the real world. In New York, he is able to get an under-the-table job, and is eventually joined by his troll girlfriend, as they try to make it as people. Of course, there are innumerable complications, including her growing addiction to Glamour, a drug that enables her to appear as a beautiful human.

To make things worse, Boy is a tech genius, and has created an Artificial Intelligence that forces him to hit the road, in search of normalcy, and in search of a place that he can call home, with other monsters that are like him. This creates a fun road trip, and the meeting of other interesting monster characters, both from urban legend and from literature.

Man Made Boy is an excellent YA read. It provides a lot of fun, and a lot of literary allusions that could hopefully pique the interest of young readers to learn more about monsters from books past. It is also rich in teen themes that are explored in new and unique ways. In an increasingly bland and repetitive world of YA literature, it is always refreshing to have a unique take on the same stories, and Man Made Boy definitely provides that. The novel is about inclusion, and love, and coming-of-age, in a situation where none of these things seem possible. It is about wanting to find the place where you belong, and having to make the sacrifices needed in order to find your place.

Boy is faced with questions galore about his life, and where it will lead him. He will need to love and lose, run and hide, and face the world. He will need to deal with his family, and with their past. He will need to look at his own creation, and be forced to deal with the fact that perhaps he isn’t too unlike the Frankenstein’s a family he has nothing but disdain for because of what they did to his father.

Despite being a page-turning ride, Man Made Boy offers plenty of complexity within its characters and themes. It is a very good read, and highly recommended in the genre. While there may be some language, it is a book that could be given to adolescents 14 and up without any issues.

The Last Leaves Falling (Book Review)

The Last Leaves Falling (Book Review)

There are some pretty horrific and sad diseases out there. It is unfair that children anywhere have to go through the hellish trauma of any kind of disease. Recently, YA novels have undergone a trend of featuring sickly children as their focus, creating instantly heart-breaking novels. There are some that are great, and some that are average, and some that are blatantly trying to jump on to the “sick lit” bandwagon.

The Last Leaves Falling would fall into the first category: this is a very strong novel, and it tackles the truly heartbreaking and incurable disease of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

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Typically, ALS is a sickness that befalls the elderly, as it slowly shuts down the body of the person who has it. There is no cure, and it is not a good way to go. After the legs and arms slowly shut themselves down, the disease begins to work on the internal organs of the sufferer, until they are barely able to breathe. People essentially become trapped in their own bodies, able to think clearly, but unable to do anything about it. ALS is brutal, and it doesn’t stop.

It is not happy material.

The Last Leaves Falling takes this disease a step further, giving it to a young man, who must face his imminent death as his body begins working against him. With his amazing and dutiful mother at his side, he withdraws from the world that he no longer feels a part of: he has grown tired of the sympathetic stares, the judging, and growing feelings of uselessness that comes along with the disease. Leaving school, Sora shuts himself inside, rarely wanting to leave the apartment he shares with his mother. He reads books, and he goes online to be a watcher in an online chat forum.

SPORT RIPKEN

 

Here, he is able to do something he didn’t think was possible: he made some friends.

Online, and eventually in person, Sora is able to be himself, to the best of his abilities, with his new friends, and they spend some amazing times together, having fun, as kids should do, but at the same time dealing with the issues that come along with ALS.

As Sora worsens, the novel takes a turn when he makes a decision that will impact not only himself, but all of those who know him and care for him.

It is gut-wrenching.

The Last Leaves Falling is such a strong book for several reasons. The characters come across as real, and the situations that Sora must be a part of are described perfectly. We feel his pain, and understand his sentiments towards those that look at him in his wheelchair. We want to tell him that people aren’t so bad, that they will accept him however he is, but we can’t truly know this, no matter how much we wish it to be true.

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The sadness of the novel is ever present, always looming over our likable protagonist, but first time author Sarah Benwell doesn’t smash it into our faces. The disease is there, and always present in Sora’s life, but there is more to this novel than disease and sadness. It is a skillfully written tale of someone trying to come to terms with the hand that life has dealt them, no matter how brutal or unfair it may be.

Sora struggles, and his friends struggle, and his mother struggles.

But there is a conclusion, and one that is worth pouring through the 350-odd pages to get there.

This is a good read, albeit not a terribly happy one. We know what happens with ALS: there is no remission, no remedy, no way to delay the inevitable.

The Alex Crow (Book Review)

The Alex Crow (Book Review)

Andrew Smith has a knack for being one of the more original, and interesting, YA authors out there. His works may always be borderline for a younger audience, but despite some language and very frequent sexual references, his books offer readers something unique and original, which may be the most difficult thing to find in the copycat industry of Young Adult novels.

Coming up with a plot summary of Smith’s latest novel, The Alex Crow, is fairly difficult, as he weaves together a handful of story lines that remain blurry until all of the pieces begin to fall into place. There is the story of Ariel, a refugee new to the small town of Sunday, Virginia, after a harrowing escape from attacks in his native village. We get multiple perspectives of Ariel’s life, both during his incident of hiding in a refrigerator, his terrible life in a refugee camp, and his move to America. Then we get Ariel in the present day, at a camp for boys who are addicted to video games, along with his new brother, Max, who is pretty funny, if overly obsessed with masturbation (the names he comes up for the act are pretty impressive and hilarious). Here, the boys befriend Cobie, and the three of them are tied together by the work their parents do on something called the Alex project, which tries to de-extinct animals and creatures from the past, while creating some kind of killer drones. Throw into the mix some journals from Arctic explorers from the past, and the multiple voices and personalities of the Melting Man, an experiment gone wrong, and you may get an idea as to what The Alex Crow is about.

alex3It is a bit of a mess, until it isn’t.

Despite the stories being all over the place, and seemingly unrelated, the novel plows forward, and all of the stories are interesting on their own. This is a feat by the author, and each of the story lines is quite interesting and engrossing, leading us to question their inter-connectedness as the novel moves forward.

Ariel is a likable protagonist, and his rough life makes us sympathize for him, and his journey into a new life provides very good depth of his character, to someone we can see struggle, and change, and overcome his obstacles.

alexThe Alex Crow is full of fun secondary characters. From Cobie, to the pet crow named Alex, to the disgruntled camp councilor Larry, and all of the boys at the summer camp, Andrew Smith creates an interesting world that moves his story forward, and provides a ton of entertainment along the way. He has been great at doing this in his other novels as well, specifically Winger and Grasshopper Jungle. Even if the story isn’t for you, the characters always provide a ton of fun.

As for this being a YA novel, it shouldn’t be recommended to younger audiences, much like the rest of his work. He never hesitates to swear, and the sheer amount of sexual references makes The Alex Crow something that should only be given to high school students and older, for the time being. I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to a well-read Grade 9 student, but anything younger than that would be questionable.

alex4Over the course of his career, Smith has developed a very distinctive style, and I have found all of his reads to be very entertaining. He is a breath of fresh air in the world of YA, not focusing on the same old stories that we have seemingly read a hundred times before. If anything, you know that you will be in for quite a wacky ride when you pick up a Smith novel. He pushes the boundaries, and provides his readers with something that we are all striving for in a novel: something different.

The Alex Crow fits in with his previous works, and it continues on his path, of fun, original stories. A worthy read.

Wind/Pinball (Book Review)

Wind/Pinball (Book Review)

One of the more exciting things for me is to walk into a bookstore and see something new by my favorite author, Haruki Murakami. Upon seeing that he had released a new book that contained his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing, and Pinball, 1973, I was ecstatic. This collection would provide his fans to see where his stories, and his style, originated from, as he has taken readers on a wonderful, and strange, journey, over the course of his writing career.

wind3To begin, the set of two novels (more like novellas) starts with an introduction from Murakami himself, called The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction, which provides a fascinating insight into his method as a writer. He speaks about the decision to try and write a novel for the first time, and the process that he went through in order to try and accomplish this goal. It is truly interesting to hear him discuss his methods, and it is very cool to read about his struggles, and how he developed his style. Among the interesting things, he would often try to write the first part of his work in English, before translating it to Japanese himself, in order to try and develop his style.

Murakami’s style, if nothing else, is unique.

The novels themselves are quite short, barely over 100 pages each. Each of them offers a glimpse into the things that were to come for the great author. In Hear the Wind Sing, he creates his world of the lonely Japanese man, this time a college-aged fellow who returns home from Tokyo each summer to drink beers, and hang out with his friend called The Rat, at J’s Bar. It is his journey of understanding things, aided of course by a mysterious woman with nine fingers who comes into his life during a drunken night at J’s.

wind2With Wind, he establishes his writing fascination with the concept of loneliness, even when someone is among friends. The idea of being lost that he explores so thoroughly throughout his entire career begins with this novel, and it provides a very good read. It is very much Murakami, even if it was him just dipping his toes in the waters of becoming an author.

The second novel, Pinball, 1973, takes his style and narrative voice further. Again, we have a man who sort of drifts through life. He lives with a set of twins, not that anybody would believe him, and again we have encounters with J’s bar and with The Rat, who gets a story arc of his own in this version. While Pinball is not the stronger of the two books, in my opinion, it still provides that insight into the author. It also has a focus on a quest for a rare pinball machine that becomes an obsession for the protagonist, which creates a story line that was extremely interesting, and probably could have been explored further.

In Pinball, we get a little more of the surreal that Murakami has incorporated into the majority of his books after these ones. Those moments when the narrator is faced with something unreal, and uses the experience to develop and change who he is. They are endlessly interesting, and have become such a centerpiece to his writing over the years. Think of the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as a similar writing tool.

Each of the novels comes with some of the beautiful descriptions and great lines that have helped me to fall in love with Murakami’s writing. He can provide a wonderfully vivid description of something, and write a line that can make you put down the book and think for a while, considering its merits and questions being posed. There are few authors that can do this for me, and by the end of reading one of his books, I always end up with a few dog-eared pages that contain lines that are truly memorable or thought-provoking.

wind4Wind/Pinball is a must-read for fans of Murakami. For those who are new to his writing, it definitely provides a light entrance into his work, and can absolutely serve as a starting point to get into his writing. The novels, on their own, are good enough to warrant reads, and are strong enough on their own that it could create that love of his work as a starting point to begin devouring the rest of his excellent novels.

The Boundless (Book Review)

The Boundless (Book Review)

The Boundless is the biggest train ever built, and it is on its maiden voyage across Canada. The beast of a machine is over 5 miles long, and contains everything from the stateliness of First Class, all the way down to the immigrant cars. It even includes its own traveling circus.

Will, son of one of the main engineers of the train, is on this first voyage across the country, a few years after he is present at the hammering of the final spike to conclude the building of the trans-national railway. When he ends up with one of the keys that opens a mysterious train car/tomb, Will must embark on an adventure that will lead him across the various sections of the epic Boundless, spend some time evading nefarious enemies in search of the key, and even join the circus, where he is helped out by characters such as Maren, and the ringmaster, Mr. Dorian.

boundIn The Boundless, Kenneth Oppel has created a very good adventure novel for the Young Adult crowd. In the novel, he seamlessly blends history with fiction, creating a novel of historical fiction that never gets too dry, or focuses too much on the history aspect of it. He blends in actual people and events into his story, and does so in a way that will keep the information interesting for the teen reader. His main focus is the adventure, and of this he manages to pack in a ton of action into the novel, which is sure to please readers of both sexes.

bound3Oppel has written a handful of very strong YA books in the past, and The Boundless belongs among them. He writes interesting characters, and is able to keep a breakneck pace through the majority of the novel. On The Boundless, he manages to create a machine of wonder and awe, mixed in with some fantastical elements that don’t take away from the interest or realism of the tale he is telling.

The Boundless is a fun read, full of twists and turns, and quirks that are fun to pour through. It is not a terribly difficult read, and could surely find itself a strong audience in the younger YA reading crowd.

For those who have enjoyed other Oppel works, specifically This Dark EndeavorThe Boundless makes for a good follow-up read by the same author, who has become pretty prolific over the past few years. The Boundless also serves as a novel that will be of interest to male readers. While it often seems like this is a dwindling crowd in the YA genre, this novel should appeal to both boys and girls. The love story aspect of the story remains subtle, never too much in your face, as the focus is consistently on the action.

The Boundless provides a strong YA read overall.

Challenger Deep (Book Review)

Challenger Deep (Book Review)

Neal Shusterman’s new Young Adult novel, Challenger Deep, tackles the intense issues of mental illness in teens, along with schizophrenia, a very complex and difficult to describe and understand illness.

And he does it extremely well, providing some insight into mental illness, and the harrowing journey that people facing it must endure.

The story focuses on Caden, a teenager who is sinking further into his own world, one where he is on a ship that is headed for the depths of the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of Earth, at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Through alternating chapter views (one will be on the ship, one will be in the real world), Caden goes through a journey filled with a cast of characters that mostly seem intent on helping him, others who serve as mentors, and some who stand in his way of reaching his goals.

challenger3I will admit that at the beginning of the novel, everything seemed quite fractured, and the very short chapters interrupted much of the flow of the narrative. Which, I suppose, is part of the point. It just took me a while to catch on to the whole thing, but once I did, it all fell into place very nicely, and the two stories melded together seamlessly, providing more meaning to each.

What Challenger Deep offers in an insight into something that we know very little about: the problems of mental illness, and what people must go through in order to overcome their obstacles with the illness. For a good part of the novel, Caden is hospitalized, and we gain an understanding of the people that are in the hospital with him: their struggles, along with his. And we get a perspective from the patient on what it is like dealing with others, whose sole goal is to improve and steady their mental health, in order for them to be active members of society again. Shusterman also provides a very strong view of the impact on family when illness strikes, allowing us to see and understand what Caden’s parents and younger sister are going through while he is in the hospital.

challenger2Some of the more touching moments of the novel occur between Caden and his sister, as she is too young and innocent to completely understand what is happening with her brother, but old enough to share her thoughts and ask the questions that, seemingly, nobody else will ask.

While I didn’t initially love the start of the book, more based on my reading style, once everything came together, Challenger Deep became a strong, and important, YA novel. It is one that could not only have a great impact on those who suffer from mental health issues, or have in the past, but on those who need to be provided with something to help us understand what is taking place in the minds of those who suffer.

Filled with interesting characters, Challenger Deep may not be for everyone, but it is a very, very good YA novel.