Progress: Notes on A Reading Life – June 30, 2010

Progress: Notes From A Reading Life ButtonWow!  I haven’t done one of these in the longest time, but I severely need to get back in the habit of tracking my reading.  I feel like everything has gone all helter skelter without me having all of my lists. The last time I attempted to do any kind of reading notes was way back on February 24, 2010. Basically a lifetime ago.  So much has happened in the interim that I won’t even begin to try to catch up from there.

This past week was a big reading week for me.  I finished Backseat Saints in time for my chat with author Joshilyn Jackson. (I have to say that it was so much fun talking with her about her blog, writing and having the Twenty Minute Book Club on Backseat Saints.  There was a lot to discuss there, and we tried to hit upon as much as possible.)

One book that I started reading by accident is Bad Marie, and I say by accident because I picked it up just to get a feel for what the story was like and see if I would like the writing, and I could not put it down.  The main character Marie, has just gotten out of jail for bank robbery and accessory to murder only to land herself into even more trouble when she takes off with the husband and child of one of her childhood friends.  This book is the best!  It’s almost impossible not to suspend your judgement.  You just want to see what Marie will do and think next.

I also finally got around to reading The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and I spent half the time I was reading wondering why I waited so long.  I must have been trying to save the best for last.  I was totally and realistically caught up in Louisa’s adventures during her lost summer.  Kelly O’Conor McNees does a brilliant job at tying together her family life and the conflict that she might have felt about being in love and  feeling that she would have to either choose marriage over career or try to juggle both.  McNees even touches upon the sore spot that I like many other readers had with Little Women.  Why couldn’t Jo marry Laurie?  I’m still not over that one.

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Lost vs. Rowan The Strange: A Nerds Heart YA Showdown

LOST vs. ROWAN THE STRANGE

The Nerds Heart YA Tournament seeks to find and recognize the finest in Young Adult Literature in underrepresented categories.  All books selected to compete in this tournament fit into at least one and sometimes more of the following: Person(s) of Color (POC), GLBT, Disability/Mental Illness, Religious Lifestyle, Lower Socioeconomic Status. To follow the tournament to its conclusion check for updates at the Nerds Heart YA Website, or alternately you can also follow along on Twitter.

Meg: OK, Nicole. Two great young adult novels. Two great main characters. I think I know what my pick is, but I’m reservingjudgment until I hear you out. Do you know your pick for the Nerds Heart YA tournament?

Nicole: I know what my choice will be.  Is your decision at all different from what you thought it would be?  I definitely had ideas before I even started reading the books which I would like better.

Meg: I’m definitely with you: before we started, I thought that for sure my pick would be Lost. The subject matter — historical fiction, New York, a strong woman working in a factory and supporting her family — seemed much more up my alley. From the beginning, I hated the cover of Rowan The Strange – and, to be honest, seemed a little creeped out by the subject matter. A disturbed 13-year-old boy? An insane asylum? You’re joking, right? But . . . I loved it. I loved Rowan. It shocked the pants off me, but it’s true. How did you feel?

Nicole: Me too!  I love that time period (the early 1900′s- NYC).  And when I saw that it would be about women working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory I really felt bad for the other book that had to go up against it.  The deck seemed to be stacked against whatever would be competing. And you are so right about the cover of Rowan the Strange.  I wasn’t looking forward to reading the book at all when I was judging by the cover.  I also wondered how they were going to frame a story about mental illness and an insane asylum – but I loved Rowan! He was such a strong character, so thoughtful and well fleshed out.  The suspense in the story was killing me.  I just needed to know what would happen to him next.  It was interesting because both novels ended up being about mental illness, and both were historical.

Meg: The cover is creeptastic! But there was something so endearing about Rowan and his struggles — and the fact that he wasn’t wholly good or wholly bad. He was a real person dealing with some pretty extreme circumstances. The backdrop of World War II was a brilliant choice by Hearn. There was so much going on in that book, it was crazy, but once I started reading — I couldn’t put it down. You’re totally right about the suspense: there was such a sense of foreboding. I had to find out what was going to happen to him, too.

Nicole:  That is what I liked about him the best, he was a regular boy, just trying to figure things out. I thought the frame of World War II and the connections that were made between the fear that was rampant was great.  I cared about all of the stories.  The story with Dr. Von and how they worked that element in there was fantastic.  It was amazing that when you think about it, not much happened in the book, but it was so suspenseful and such a page turner, quite an accomplishment.

Nicole: Which order did you read the books in?  I read Rowan and then Lost, and for me there wasn’t much of a comparison between the two.  It was a shocking upset, because I really thought I would like Lost.  I think it gave a great overview of the time period but it was missing something.  For one, I just never warmed to Zelda.  I know she was supposed to be cute and precocious, but she never warmed to more than annoying brat for me.

Meg: I read Lost first and absolutely loved it — read it in one sitting until the wee hours of the night. I really related to Essie and loved the strong narration, plus that sense of foreboding. I agree that Zelda could definitely be a brat, but I did love her — if only because I loved Essie, and Essie cared so deeply for her. But after I read Rowan The Strange — a book I didn’t expect to enjoy, as we mentioned — there was no way that one wasn’t head-and-shoulders above Lost — if only because it was so unlike anything I’d ever read, and dealt with such a different subject. Was that your upset, too? Is Rowan your winner?

Nicole: Rowan is definitely the winner for me.  I’m glad we agree! I think you definitely enjoyed Lost more than I did.  I thought it was well-written, but while I knew why I should be connecting with the characters, I never did.

Meg: I’m sorry Lost didn’t work as well for you — totally see where you’re coming from, though. And awesome news that we’re both big Rowan fans! Such a strong book, and considering it has a male lead character and such a fantastic setting, I’m excited to see it move forward. I really agree with what you said earlier about Dr. Von, too — to make someone we were predisposed to disliking so sympathetic was nothing short of amazing. In fact, everything I expected to find in the book was different. I thought, for instance, that Rowan’s family would be the stereotypical “my son is crazy!” lot, desperate to get rid of him and forget he ever existed. But not so. And Dr. Von? Definitely thought I had his number — but I was wrong again. The book was so different than I expected. That’s what I loved about it.

Nicole:  I was genuinely touched by some parts in Lost, but there were some sections that were just ho-hum.  To be honest it might have suffered for me because I have read some about the time period and place depicted in Lost and I felt like I was really told more than shown how hard their lives were, and just what their communities looked like.  Essie was so in denial that it was hard for me to get a sense of urgency from her, or to feel as much as I would have liked. I was surprised to see that Rowan is the third in a series of books, so there is more where that came from!  Rowan was very surprising in every way.  I was totally absorbed and invested and yet could predict nothing.  When is the last time that has happened in a book?

Meg: Exactly. Anything I predicted was totally wrong.

Nicole:  So?  How to sum up?  I think we liked both stories.  They were both historical fiction novels dealing with some aspects of mental behaviors.  You liked Lost quite a bit more, but do we agree that the writing in Rowan kicked it up a notch?

Meg: Yes — absolutely. Rowan had everything: family dynamics; illness; courage; imagery; awesome, atmospheric setting. Hearn is a master. While I really liked Lost, it couldn’t compare to Rowan for me.

Nicole: So there you have it…Rowan the Strange for the win!  I wonder what it will compete against?  I’m invested!  *bites nails*

Meg: Me too — can’t wait to see our little Rowan out there in the world! We’ll be watching . . .

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Rowan The Strange, by Julie Hearn – Book Review

Rowan the Strange, by Julie Hearn
Oxford University Press  – April 2010– Hardcover – 352 pages
Source: Purchased for my personal collection

Rowan the Strange is set in 1939, just on the eve of England entering the fighting in World War II.  Everyday brings fear of bombs and warfare and all live on the edge- ready to flee to air raid shelters, families poised to send their children away until the fighting is over.  Thirteen-year-old Rowan Scrivener is gearing up for a different type of fight.  Rowan has always had problems with temperament and suffers from strange “fits” that the family has endured for years, but lately the voice that he hears is asking him to do things, and each request escalates in severity and violence.  After Rowan injures his sister and himself within the space of a couple of days, his family decides that they have no other choice but to commit him to a mental institution for diagnosis and treatment.

It took me awhile to pick this one up because I was so turned off by the cover.  I’m not sure what  the thinking behind it was- if it was to make the story seem more suspenseful or to hint that the doings at the mental institution were sinister. Whatever the meaning behind it, it didn’t encourage me to read it, and I wondered if it made the topic of mental illness scarier than it needed to be.  I have to say that nothing on the cover could have prepared me for the depth of my love for the characters within and the masterfulness of the storytelling that Hearn accomplishes.  Everything was covered  and not one detail was too much.  I loved this story!

Julie Hearn’s novel is wonderful and works on many levels – as a story about a teen and his family in the grips of mental illness, as a boy’s coming of age story, and as a beautifully nuanced piece of historical fiction.  I felt like I had a good grip on how Rowan’s moods settled in on him, forcing him to act in ways which he couldn’t control, overriding his own voice and making sense at the the time, eventually scaring even him.  The novel was steeped in suspense – I wondered what would happen at every turn, how Rowan’s treatment would go, if it would work, and if anything harmful would happen to him at the asylum?

The supporting characters were engaging and complex, and the secondary story concerning Rowan’s German Dr. Von, cleverly brought the moral complexities of the war more to the forefront of the story, and illustrated  the fear and loathing that English citizenry felt for the Germans. Dr. Von’s own feelings about the work he was doing abroad (in England), and if and how he might have played a role in events unfolding in his own country are also chillingly explored.  Rowan’s fellow ward mate, Dorothea, was intriguing and her loneliness touching – her only company for most of her troubled life is being able to see others’ guardian angels and the rich relationship with her own Joan of Arc guardian angel.  I was very moved by the relationships that their little group formed with each other.

This novel will be of interest to so many readers and it definitely hit a lot of my curiosity spots.  The time period of the war provides the historical element, but the novel also examines electroconvulsive therapy  just as it’s starting to come into play with the treatment of mentally impaired patients. Hearn covers most all of the angles and the reader gets to see the director of the institution’s thoughts on the new treatment and how he hopes they will benefit the hospital, contributing to his own prestige and personal gain.

Rowan the Strange covers a lot of ground in a completely engaging and accessible way, and I felt that I learned a lot in a bunch of different areas.  Hearn is a fantastic writer. I enjoyed how real Rowan was.  I can’t even think of a character whom I have loved so much in recent reading. At thirteen he is basically a child who is just emerging as a teenager, and his sensitivities and insecurities concerning his condition and struggle with himself was what pulled me through this book. I was so invested in finding out what would happen next that  I looked up only when I had, sadly, reached the last page.

Highly  Recommended.

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Lost, by Jacqueline Davies – Book Review

Lost, by Jacqueline Davies
Marshall Cavendish Corp  – April 1, 2009 – Hardcover – 242 pages
Source: Purchased for my personal collection

Sixteen-year-old Essie Rosenfeld has had a hard life growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900′s.  Her father dies when she is just ten, and her mother never really recovers from his loss.  When Essie’s mother gives birth to a daughter eight months after her husband’s death, she shows no interest in the child and leaves ten-year-old Essie to name and raise her younger sister. Zelda means more to Essie than anything else in the world and she is heartbroken when she turns sixteen and must leave Zelda during the days and evenings to work in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

While working at the factory Essie meets and forms a friendship with the mysterious Harriet, a young woman whose husband has died, and is living and working in the city with no family.  Essie shows Harriet the ropes, and becomes her constant companion.  But both girls have something to hide, and neither is willing to reveal the secrets that they would rather not reveal, until terrible circumstances force both their hands.

I was immediately excited about this novel because it explores a fascinating time in New York History and is partially set in one the most infamous factories of the city’s history.  While I found the story to be moving in several places, it ultimately failed to capture my attention throughout the entire novel.  The time period being explored in Lost is particulularly gritty, the neigborhood where Essie grew up, a tough one, and the working conditions of women and chilren in the factories were notoriously grim, but that never really translated for me in this novel.  I thought that Essie was hard working and stuck in an unfortunate situation with being so responsible for her sister, but the events related throughout the story were written in such a gentle manner, that I found them lacking in urgency.

The novel unfolds in dual time periods with chapters that alternate between Zelda’s birth and the present time when Essie is working in the factory, and by the end the time periods have synchronized. As much as Zelda is mentioned, and seen at different stages in her life, she never became for more to me than a bratty child.  The novel hinged on believing in the relationship between these sisters, and I never really liked  Zelda (I know, I’m terrible for talking this way about a six-year-old).  This is a first person narrative in a story that would have benefitted from having some of the other characters fleshed out a bit more than Essie is able to do.  Essie is at a point in her life where she is hiding out from her past and always rushing to and fro.  She isn’t able to give much insight into the other characters because she herself is steeped in denial, and that made it hard for me to get a feel for her relationships  much less care about them very much.

Davies has a pleasant and flowing prose that is easy to read, and while her descriptions could have gone a bit further, she did conjure up an approximation of the neighborhood and the dialect of the immigrant families.  I felt apart of the hustle and flow of life, if not appalled by the circumstances and conditions.  While this novel does well when serving as a general introduction to the time period, and the Lower East Side neighborhood, I would recommend looking elsewhere for a more nuanced portrayal of life in this time period.  While the story proves compelling enough for me to wonder what would happen next, I wanted to feel more for the characters  than I did.

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The Summer of Skinny Dipping, by Amanda Howells – Book Review

The Summer of Skinny Dipping, by Amanda Howells
Sourcebooks Fire  – June 1, 2010 – Hardcover – 304 pages
Source:  Review copy sent by the publisher

16-year-old Mia Gordon has been just been dumped by her boyfriend Jake.  After such a shock to the system, she is especially looking forward to reconnecting with her cousin Corinne and having a low key and boy free summer on her family’s summer vacation in the Hamptons.  Mia’s relationship with her mother, and her parent’s relationship with each other, has always been fraught with tension, but Mia is surprised to see that Corinne and her mom don’t seem to have the warm relationship she had always envied. And she starts to feel the underlying friction that abounds between the adults in the house and their children.  Next door neighbor Simon proves to be a mysterious distraction, but as she gets to know him through their walks at night on the beach, she starts to challenge what she knows about her family and herself.

I was curious when I heard about The Summer of Skinny Dipping because author Amanda Howells has ghost written for some of the big teen series (think Sweet Valley High), and is only writing her first book with this novel. I wondered what that book would be like, and if it would have its own voice, so I was happy to find that it was completely refreshing and not like the other series for which she has written.

Howell’s characters are beautifully drawn and completely realistic human beings – by turns wonderful yet also flawed.  Mia has always seen those who surround her from the black and white perspective of a child, and awakening to a fuller understanding of her family and their relationships to each other informs her summer. I was completely in Mia’s head and empathized with her struggles to sort through not only class issues, but the anguish she experiences trying to fit in with a crowd who looks down upon her, when she clearly feels like she deserves better yet doesn’t want to be alone and an outsider.

While the girl depicted on the cover doesn’t seem to have any weight issues (and if she does, there are very few of us who aren’t in big trouble), Mia also struggles in being a more normal sized girl in comparison to her sleek and glamorous cousins (her mother exacerbates her worry by admonishing her about her food choices, and this is one of their sources of tension).  On many fronts Mia has to decide whether to fall in with group thinking or to be her own person, and she is conflicted by her budding friendship with Simon.  Is he using her to get near her cousins and their wealthy friends, or is he telling her the truth when he says that he wants to get to know her.

This was much deeper read than the cover would have led me to believe and I enjoyed every minute. The relationships and the issues grappled with are realistically portrayed, and Howells did a great job of capturing the angst felt by quieter and less popular teens who still have a lot of decisions to make about who they want to be and how they can go about becoming that person.  I connected with the characters and still think about them.  Thoroughly engaging and bittersweet, The Summer of Skinny Dipping, is a thoughtful read which compelled me to finish in just a few days time.

Highly Recommended.

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