Friday, August 22, 2014

Reread #34 Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust. Karen Hesse. 1997. Scholastic. 240 pages. [Source: Bought]

I first reviewed Out of the Dust in March 2008. Out of the Dust is a historical verse novel that I likely would have avoided at all costs as a kid. It is set in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl and Depression.

Billie Jo is our piano-playing heroine. Life was hard enough for Billie Jo and her family BEFORE the tragic accident. Multiple crop failures in a row. Worry and doubt weighing down whole communities, and, not without cause. But after the accident, things are even worse.

Added to despair and doubt is anger and bitterness and regret. Billie Jo doesn't know how to talk to her father anymore. She doesn't know how to be in the same house with him. Things are just off between them. Both are suffering souls. Both have needs that aren't being met. Both need time to heal at the very least.

The novel spans two years, 1934 and 1935. These two years are very hard emotionally for almost all the characters. Out of the Dust is a great coming-of-age novel. I think I liked it even more the second time.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Absolutely Almost (2014)

Absolutely Almost. Lisa Graff. 2014. Penguin. 304 pages [Source: Library]

I loved Absolutely Almost. I think I loved it at least as much as Umbrella Summer. Maybe even a little bit more. I don't know. Time will tell. I don't actually have to choose between the two, right?! I can LOVE two GREAT books by one very talented middle grade author, can't I?!

Albie is the protagonist of Absolutely Almost. His narration gives the book a just right feel. It's a satisfying read about a boy who struggles with meeting expectations: his parents, his grandparents, his teachers, his own. He's never good or great, he's always only almost. Almost good at this or that. Almost ready for this or that. And this oppressive almost gets him down now and then. Not always, mind you. I don't want to give the impression that Albie is sad and depressed and unable to cope with life. Albie is more than capable of having a good time, of enjoying life, of appreciating the world around him.

I really appreciated Graff's characterization. Not only do readers come to love (in some cases I imagine love, love, love) Albie, but, all the characters are well written or well developed. Albie's parents at times seem to be disconnected, out of touch with who their son is, what life is like for him, what he wants, what he needs. But just when I get ready to dismiss them as neglectful or clueless, something would happen that would make me pause and reconsider. Readers also get to know several other characters: his nanny, Calista, his math teacher, Mr. Clifton, and his friend, Betsy. For the record, he does have more than one friend. But Betsy is his new friend, his first friend that he makes at his new school. It is their friendship that is put to the test in the novel. It is his relationship with Betsy that allows for him to progress a bit emotionally. If that makes sense. (So yes, I know that his best-best friend is Erlan. But Erlan has been his friend for as long as he can remember, probably since they were toddlers. He's completely comfortable in that friendship. Their friendship does come into the novel here and there. But for me, it wasn't the most interesting aspect of the novel.)

I loved the setting of Absolutely Almost. I loved how we get to spend time with Albie in school and out of school. I loved how we get to see him in and out of his comfort zone. I loved that we got to see his home life. We got to see for ourselves how he interacts with parents. I love how Albie is able to love his parents even if they don't really make him top priority. Especially his Dad. Albie's need for his Dad's attention, the right kind of attention, can be FELT. Albie held onto hope that one day his Dad would find time to spend with him, that one day his Dad would see him--really see him. There were moments that hope lessened a bit as Albie gave into his emotions-of-the-moment. But Albie's love for his dad always won out at the end. His hope would return.

The writing. I loved it. I did. I think the quality of the writing was amazing. There were chapters that just got to me. Their were paragraphs that just resonated with me. The writing just felt TRUE.

Absolutely, Almost is set in New York City.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Oliver and the Seawigs (2014)

Oliver and the Seawigs. Philip Reeve. Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre. 2014. Random House. 208 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I didn't not like it. I could easily say I liked it well enough. But you know how there are certain books that you read and get excited about and just can't wait to talk about? This wasn't that kind of book for me. While there was not one thing about the book that I didn't like, I just didn't find myself loving it. I don't know why readers feel, in some ways, obligated to love everything they read.

I liked the opening paragraphs. "Oliver Crisp was only ten years old, but they had been a busy and exciting ten years, because Oliver's mother and father were explorers. They had met on top of Mount Everest. They had been married at the Lost Temple of Amon Hotep, and had spent their honeymoon searching for the elephants' graveyard. And when young Oliver was born, they simply bought themselves a back carrier and an off-road baby carriage and went right on exploring." See. It starts off cute and promising. And it doesn't disappoint. You know from the start what kind of book this will be. And you get just that.

I liked the characters. I liked Oliver Crisp. I liked the wandering albatross, Mr. Culpeper. I liked the near-sighted mermaid, Iris. I liked the island, Cliff. I liked how they met and became friends. You can certainly see this is a unique story.

I liked the pacing. It is a nice, imaginative adventure story starring unique characters.

I like the illustrations. I like the layout. Many kids, like Lewis Carroll's fictional Alice, do look for stories with plenty of pictures! It's a sign of it not being horribly dull. If you share Alice's opinion on books that is.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Princess of Celle (1967)

The Princess of Celle. Jean Plaidy. 1967/1985. Ballantine. 400 pages. [Source: Bought]

The Princess of Celle felt longer than it actually was. Perhaps because the chapters were so long. Perhaps because the book was complicated. If it helps, it was necessarily complicated. It is the story of a dysfunctional German family, one of whom would come to the throne of England as George I.

I was a bit disappointed that George Lewis does not become George I until the epilogue of this one! I suppose I had the silly idea that this book would focus on the obviously unhappy marriage between George Lewis (George I) and Sophia Dorothea (the so-called Princess of Celle). And, in a way, it is. But George Lewis is one of the most unimportant characters in the whole book. Seriously. Readers get to know--for better or worse--his mother, his father, his uncle, his aunt, some of his brothers. But for George himself? Well, he gets a tiny fraction of the author's attention.

If I had to describe The Princess of Celle, I would say it was a tug of war between multiple generations of mistresses in a super dysfunctional German family. I would say that almost all the men in the novel are vile, power-hungry, lusty creatures with big egos. I would say that the mistresses in the novel are vile, power-hungry, lusty creatures with big egos. The wives, well, have to make the best of it. They may hate their husbands. They may hate the mistresses their husbands keep. They may be humiliated in public by those mistresses. But they can take comfort that their children are legitimate.

For better or worse, the "main" story of The Princess of Celle begins in the middle of the novel. It is at the halfway point that readers see Sophia Dorothea marry her cousin George Lewis. She had wanted to marry someone else, another cousin. He had not cared who he married. He was content to marry whomever pleased his mother...and his father. He very much cared about picking his own mistresses. But a wife?! Not worth his bother. It's not like he'll be enjoying her company!

Is Sophia Dorothea the main character? I'm not sure that she is if I'm honest. She's not the strongest character. The most obnoxious or ambitious or strong-willed. George Lewis's mother is SOMETHING. As is his father's mistress, Clara von Platen. I would say that Clara gets more time and attention from the novel than any other character in this one. What does Clara want? What will Clara do to get what she wants? Who will Clara hurt to get her way? How many lives can she destroy? How much power can she grab? How can she keep the power? Clara is a disgusting character, truly revolting.

Did I like Sophia Dorothea? Well. She may not be as horrid as Clara. Who could be?! But she could not keep my sympathy. Yes, to a certain point I could see why she was so miserable and so trapped. She could not escape her in-laws and her husband. Not that her husband stayed remotely close to her. He was off doing whatever, whenever, whoever. But court-life was miserable for her because of the dominant women: her mother-in-law and her father-in-law's mistress. There were people at court, namely Clara that hated her and were actively plotting against her, plotting to ruin her life thoroughly. It was almost Clara's one ambition in life to destroy Sophia Dorothea, or perhaps the right word is obsession.

A sick love triangle. What every book needs is a love triangle, right?! Sophia Dorothea falls for the same man as Clara. His name was Königsmarck. There was nothing about him that I could admire or respect. Because his love for Sophia Dorothea was oh-so-pure and oh-so-true, he satisfied his lusts with Clara. Until he went off to war and was thought to be missing in action. Then Sophia Dorothea rejoiced with his return! Of course, she abandoned her morals, she was so happy! Clara then takes evil to a whole new level. You see, Clara already hated her and despised her. She already was out to get her. But NOW...she was a million times more determined to win the day.

I did not like spending time with any of these characters. I really didn't.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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Monday, August 18, 2014

A Street Cat Named Bob

A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life. James Bowen. 2013. St. Martin's Press. 279 pages. [Source: Library]

A Street Cat Named Bob is a simple story in many ways. It's the story of one man and his cat: how they found each other, how they changed each other's lives, how they got to be so close, so fast. At the time the book opens, James Bowen was a street musician--a busker--and a recovering drug addict. He had taken steps to get off the street--at one time he was homeless and addicted to drugs--but the road ahead was still long and uncertain. He sees a stray cat, "a ginger tom," near his building, he sees that it could use a little help. He's injured. He's hungry. He decides to take the cat in and nurse him back to health. He didn't know it at the time, but, Bob wouldn't be going anywhere. Bob had found his home.

If Bob had been an ordinary cat, readers would never have heard of him or James Bowen. Bob would not have become a YouTube star. But ordinary doesn't exactly describe Bob.

Bob wasn't content to stay at home and let James go off busking. He wanted to go along. He wanted in on the action. James found that with a cat, he was irresistible, or rather Bob was irresistible. Wherever he and Bob went, Bob got ATTENTION and ADORATION. Busking became a LOT easier for him when Bob was there sitting on his guitar case and looking cute and adorable. People wanted to take Bob's picture. People wanted to take video. People wanted to pet him. People wanted to give him treats. People wanted to KNIT him clothes. But busking was still rough and unpredictable as the book shows. Eventually, James and Bob gave it up and pursued one of the few things possible. He was still on the streets, still out with Bob, but, now he was selling a magazine, Big Issue, instead of a song.

The book, as I mentioned, is in a way simple, a story of man meets cat. Happy cat. Happy man. But it's also got a bit of a message. And by message, I don't mean the preachy kind. It's the story of a man who went from invisible to visible. He talks about how having the cat gave him back his humanity, his dignity. The book, in a way, is about how we see others. Do we see the homeless, the poor? Do we see them or brush them aside?

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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