Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes

Blame it on my mother.
She's the one who named me
Mary Rudine.
The name is some throwback
her old-fashioned thinking
came up with.
Nobody but Mom
has called me Mary Rudine
since forever.
First it was Mary,
then it was M.R.
Mister is all anybody
calls me now.

So begins this novel in verse about a 14 year old girl nicknamed Mister, who falls (literally) for a sweet-talking, good for nothing, boy named Trey. When Mister discovers she's pregnant she has to deal with Trey's shocking heartless indifference, her regret at not being faithful to her values, a crisis of faith (will God still love her after what she's done?), her classmates and a whole range of decisions that will impact her future.

Nikki Grimes contrasts Mister's plight with that of a young Jewish maiden named Mary, 2000 years ago. For Mister this is a new story - that of Mary of Nazareth who is betrothed to Joseph and who becomes pregnant during her betrothal. Mister finds Mary's story in a book her mother has. The Jewish Mary, without sin and righteous in the eyes of God must make a leap of faith and trust God will care for her in what is possibly a situation that could lead to her death by stoning. Mister, unlike Mary, is no less deserving of God's love and she too must learn to trust in God.
I always thought
Mary had it easy,
her knowing all along
God was the one
who wrote her story.
Guess I was wrong.
Turns out she needed God
as bad as me.

When the people at her church offer her support and love in place of condemnation Mister realizes that
"Maybe it's God
reminding me
I'm not as alone
as I thought."

Mister also comes to learn her mother's secret and though initially angry at her for what she perceives as her mother's lie, Mister realizes that how hard her mother has worked and that she truly loves her.

Written in beautiful free verse, A Girl Named Mister is a quick read. The story of pregnancy and birth is told in the alternating voices of Mary of Nazareth and Mary Rudine (Mister).

Book Details:
A Girl Name Mister by Nikki Grimes
Zondervan   2011
240 pp.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

pearl in the sand by Tessa Afshar

The synopsis for this wonderful book is as follows:

Rahab is a 15 year old girl living with her family outside of Jericho. Her father Imri is unable to find work and there is a drought. His family is on the verge of starvation. In desperation, Imri sells Rahab into sexual slavery to Zedek for a bag full of gold. She will go live with Zedek the goldsmith in Jericho for 3 months.

"He didn't need to finish his words. Horror seized her so tightly it nearly choked off her breath. With rising dread she realized her worst fears had come to pass. The nightmare she had dismissed as a misunderstanding the night before was real. Her father meant to sell her into prostitution. He meant to sacrifice her future, her wellbeing, her life."

After 3 months of slavery to Zedek, Rahab decides that she is a ruined woman without a life and therefore will continue in her life of prostitution. However, she decides to take only a few men as lovers over the following years and only one at a time. As time passes we see that Rahab does not worship the gods of her people. Instead, she shudders at the sacrifice of children to Molech and the prostitution in the temples. She is revolted by Baal, Asherah and Molech. Her life of prostitution disgusts her and to such a sensitive sould, slowly destroys her self esteem and her spirit.

"There were days when she would kiss her lover good-bye, smile at him as though he were the center of her world, close the door and vomit. She hated what she did. But she did not stop. She believed she had no alternative. What else could she become after what she had been? Her life was locked into this destiny."

By the time Rahab was 17 she had enough silver to purchase an inn on the city wall of Jericho. The walls of Jericho were so thick that homes and businesses could be built into them. Inns during this time period were synonymous with brothels but Rahab kept a reputable inn known for comfort and refinement where ordinary guests could rest. Rahab learns about Israel and the One True God through a lover who tells her about the recent Hebrew victories over the various cities in Canaan. When she learns of the victories of the much smaller and poorly equipped army of the Hebrews over Sihon, the great king of the Amorites and of further victories over other walled cities she hungers to know more about them and their God. Who is this God?

Gradually Rahab learns more about the Hebrew God, the Lord, who looks after slaves, the poor, and the forgotten. While Jericho quakes at the thought of the coming of the Hebrews, Rahab turns to the Lord, praying to the God of the Hebrews to give her life and to save her and her family. It is then that Rahab decides to leave her life as a harlot behind. Her choice will have incredible consequences for her and her family. When the Hebrews send spies into Jericho, Rahab takes the side of The God of the Hebrews with life altering results. She saves the spies and they in turn promise to spare her house if she hangs a red cord outside the window of her home.

When Jericho is destroyed and Rahab and her family are taken in by the Hebrews she now faces the challenge of being accepted by them. Her previous life as a zonah however means this task will be a daunting one that may never come to be. The warrior in charge of assimilating them into the Hebrews is Salmone who wants nothing to do with Rahab. He is scandalized by her past and believes her to be insincere in her repentance. But God has other plans and Salmone soon learns otherwise.

Arshar has crafted an incredible fictional account of the biblical story of Rahab, the harlot. What could have been a racy read given the nature of the story is, in the hands of this competent author a delightfully romantic and thoughtful story, chastely told.

Arshar does a wonderful job of helping us understand the Hebrew mindset of the time and even better demonstrates how Rahab's previous life in prostitution has so terribly affected her. Arshar explores the issues of trust and love both human and divine. Rahab must overcome the spiritual and emotional degradation that she has experienced and learn to love again. She must learn to overcome her shame and also to love and trust men again.

Both historical fiction and romance this wonderful novel makes this biblical story come alive. The development and growth of Rahab as a character and as a child of God was wonderful to behold and enlightening. She must learn to overcome her humiliation and lack of self worth to understand that she is worthy of God. It is only when Rahab looses something of great value to her that she begins to understand this. It is this incident which gives the book it's title.

I was particularly impressed with the way Arshar developed the relationship between Salmone and Rahab. Their relationship had character and was very realistic because we were able to see that despite the great love each had for the other, they also had to overcome prejudices, misunderstandings and weaknesses.

My own opinion is that often Christian fiction is poorly written but this is one Christian novel I will be heartily recommending. I can only hope that Tessa Arshar will write many more such novels.

Here is the book trailer for pearl in the sand:

Book Details:

pearl in the sand by Tessa Arshar
Chicago: Moody Publishers
316 pp

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Contagion by Joanne Dahme

Set against the backdrop of Philadelphia in the 1880's, Joanne Dahme's Contagion is a mix of historical and mystery fiction with a touch of romance - all of which works reasonably well.

To cement the business relationship of two wealthy Irish families, Rose is married at the tender age of 16 to 23 Patrick Dugan. Patrick is a well known and influential construction contractor who is determined to win the contract to build a filtration plant on the Schuylkill River. This river supplies the city with its drinking water but it is also the dumping point for the city's sewage too. This has resulted in numerous deadly typhoid outbreaks which have killed among others, Rose's mother and father.

One would think that in the 1880's filtration would be the obvious course of action in providing safe potable water but opposing Patrick Dugan is Sean Parker, manager of the Water Works. Sean lost his fiance, Eileen, in the last typhoid outbreak. He wants the city to enforce its sewer laws which require businesses and the city to dump their raw sewage into the diversion sewers which would then empty the sewage into the Schuylkill River, below the water intake for the city reservoirs.

It is this conflict that forms the backdrop for the novel. The conflict between the two escalates when Rose receives a series of threatening notes telling her husband to back off pushing for water filtration. But when her dear friend Nellie Murphy is murdered in what to Rose appears to have been a botched attempt on her own life, the conflict turns deadly. As Rose and Sean work together to solve the mystery of Nellie's murder, Rose begins to suspect that her life and the people she loves are not quite what they seem to be. Added to this is the deliberate contamination of the reservoirs.

Dahme tells the story in the alternating voices of Sean Parker and Rose Dugan. As Dahme develops the main characters in her narrative, it becomes obvious who the lead suspect in the murder of Nellie is, although Dahme does her best to try to distract the reader from this conclusion.

Overall, I found this book exciting and well written. Even though the book was almost 400 pages long, the action was continuous, fast-paced and engaging. My only complaint was that I felt the contaminating of the water supply was an extreme action that didn't seem realistic for the time period. Typhoid was considered a terrible disease in the late 1800's. Poisoning the water supply would have led to thousands of deaths. Could some person really have been that nefarious?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Contagion and I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction.

Book Details:

Contagion by Joanne Dahme
Running Press Teens 2010

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane adapted by Christian DeMetter

This is a graphic novel adaptation of Lehane's Shutter Island. I haven't read the original but the graphic novel was fantastic and has peaked my interest in reading Lehane's novel.
Shutter Island is a mixture of part gothic mystery and suspense. Briefly, the plot is as follows:

"In 1954 US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule are sent to Shutter Island to find a mass murderer who has escaped from Ashecliffe Hospital, a fortress-like fedreal institutions for the criminally insane. As an intense hurricane bears relentlessly down on the island, the marshals are forced to piece together clues to a shocking puzzle hidden within Shutter Island...."

In reality, Teddy Daniels instead of searching for a missing prisoner becomes increasingly consumed with finding the prisoner Andrew Laeddis who is responsible for murdering his wife. But what is reality? And just who really is Andrew Laeddis. This graphic novel plunges headlong to its shocking, twisted ending.

I loved the artwork which I believe is exceptional in this book. And I got enough of the plot to want to read the full novel. What could be better to draw teens into reading the novel than a good graphic novel adaptation!

Highly recommended.

Book Details:

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane  & Christian De Metter
Harper Collins    2010

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

Wicked Girls: A novel of the Salem Witch Trials is a unique book. It is a fictionalized account of the Salem Witch trials of 1692 told in free verse. Author Sephanie Hemphill undertook considereable research in preparation for writing Wicked Girls. Her story of the Salem witch trials is told from the perspective of 3 real girls who were involved in what happened in Salem; Ann Putnam Jr (aged 12 years), Mercy Lewis (aged 17 years) and Margaret Walcott (aged 17 years).

Research into the Salem witch trials has suggested many theories as to how a situation developed in which hundreds of persons, many unknown to the "afflicted" girls, were accused of witchcraft and 19 people were hanged. Hemphill reviews some of these theories in an Author's Note at the back of her book. We likely will never know for certain what precipitated the witch "affliction". But among the theories is the following: that a group of girls began experimenting with minor forms of witchcraft (telling fortunes). Eventually, what started innocently enough developed into an opportunity for attention, social empowerment and manipulation that involved not just individuals but entire families. It is this aspect that Wicked Girls explores in its fictional retelling of the Salem witch trials.

For example, Mercy Lewis, whose own parent's murders she witnessed and who lived as a servant in the household of Thomas and Ann Putnam (Sr), sees her status altered to a member of the family no longer required to do chores.

Overall the book was well-written, if a little lengthy at 389 pages. And this length might be problematic for teens. I also found that although the verse conveys the horror of the trials and hangings, the drama and suspense was largely lacking due to the sparce descriptions sometimes inherent in writing in verse. Nevertheless, the story is reasonably well told and I was amazed at how these girls could continue to name people whom they did not know as witches and yet were believed. I was amazed that someone as young as 12 could hold the power to convince a court to hang someone, even when there were people in the community who expressed doubts about the girls behaviour and sanity.

Wicked Girls is an interesting addition to the canon of free-verse YA literature. Its unusual topic is well presented and invites readers to question the effects of peer pressure, social status and empowerment and group dynamics within a specific community.

I highly recommend Wicked Girls especially for those looking to write about power and identity.
For those looking to study the Salem Witch trials further consider the Documentary Archives presented by the University of Virginia.

Book Details:

Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill
Balzer + Bray   2010

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Two Generals by Scott Chantler

In March of 1943, Scott Chantler's grandfather, Law Chantler, shipped out across the Atlantic for active service with the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, along with his best friend, Jack, a fellow officer. Not long afterward, they would find themselves making a rocky crossing of the English Channel, about to take part in one of the most pivotal and treacherous military operations of World War II: the Allied invasion of Normandy. Told through the eyes of everyday heroes, Two Generals is a story about friendship, and the tragedies and absurdities of war.

This is  one of the few graphic novels I've read this year and it was quite good. Very readable with excellent art done in sepia and black and white. Dramatic scenes were done in red. The story was interesting and I learned a lot about the Canadian troops struggles to help in the liberation of Caen, France. In fact, I felt the book captured the tremendous difficulties Canadian troops encountered during this part of the campaign to liberate France.

The entire book from the cover design to the quality of the paper used and the excellent art demonstrate that this book meant a great deal to Scott - it is the telling of his grandfather's story. In fact, the book is styled to look somewhat like a personal diary.

While there is some profanity throughout, overall Chantler does a very good job of making what is obviously  a very personal subject engaging and informative.

Book Details:

Two Generals by Scott Chantler
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 2010

137 pp.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hothouse: A novel by Chris Lynch

Hothouse by Chris Lynch is a novel that explores the culture of heroes within the firefighting profession - the accepted notion that whenever a firefighter dies, he is a hero regardless of the circumstances of his/her death.

DJ and Russell have known each other since babyhood. They are named after each other's dad, both of whom were firefighters at the "Hothouse" - the name given to the local fire station. When both of their fathers are killed in the line of duty the community and their firefighting comrades immediately assign them hero status. DJ and Russ must not only deal with their loss but also with the larger-than life image of their fathers as heroes. Suddenly they no longer have to pay bus fare and they are treated with great respect. There's a community barbecue in honor of their dads and an outrageous memorial. It's a image the fire department seems eager to promote until an inquiry calls into question that hero status. Overnight, their hero status unravels.

Now both young men must work through the public persona of "the hero" and the reality of who their fathers were - that they were human beings who were capable of making mistakes. Chris Lynch does this by having Russell tell his relationship with his father in a series of flashbacks. He remembers the dad his father was..."He made me pancakes with faces on them, and a fire helmet on top traced out of licorice...." He remembers the time he save a 13 year old boy who set his house on fire. This is juxtaposed with the community's reaction and perception of his father after the results of the inquiry are leaked. How can Russ come to terms with the man he knew and loved and the man the public seems to think he now was?
For DJ, the situation is more troublesome mainly because from the very beginning he has trouble accepting the hero image of his father. His relationship with his father is less than what Russ had with his dad.

Hothouse also has a second interesting thread throughout it and that is the recovery of a friendship between DJ and Russell. Initially they were childhood friends but somehow drifted apart. Now in trying to come to terms with their fathers deaths and the whole hero situation they gradually reconnect. They are the only ones who understand what each other is going through and it is this bond that helps to re-establish their friendship.

Hothouse is an intense novel that is sure to capture the interest of teen boys. I highly recommend this novel.

Book Details:

Hothouse by Chris Lynch
HarperCollins 2010

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit

I saw the original 1969 version with John Wayne, Glenn Campbell and Kim Darby when I was 10 (makes me wonder if my mom KNEW my dad was taking me and my brother to see this film considering the violence and our tender years). I well remember it because of the shootout in the valley and the snakes.....

Last night I took my teens to see the 2010 remake which stars Jeff Bridges as Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. True Grit (2010) is faithful to Charles Portis' book of the same name which originally appeared as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968 but was reprinted in book form later on.

The story is told by spinster Mattie Ross who as a 14 year old girl goes after the murderer of her father, Frank Ross. Mattie and her family lived on a farm near Dardanell in Yell County, Arkansas. Her father hired Tom Chaney a drifter, to help with the farm. When Frank and Chaney travel to Fort Smith to purchase horses, Chaney turns on Ross and kills him, robbing him of $150 and two gold pieces. Chaney then flees into Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma).

When Mattie arrives in Fort Smith to claim her father's body she is determined to see justice done and to see Tom Chaney hang for the murder of her father. She learns that Chaney has joined the notorious Ned Pepper gang. Upon hearing that Rooster Cogburn is the toughest US Marshall in the area she manages to convince him to help her find Chaney. Mattie Ross is convinced Rooster Cogburn has "true grit" despite his appearance as a foul-mouthed, overweight, aging, drunkard who likes to shoot his quarry dead rather than bring them in alive. A Texas Marshall, La Beouf, joins Rooster and Mattie in the hunt for Tom Chaney as he is wanted in Texas for the murder of a Senator and his dog.

Without giving too much away, I thoroughly enjoyed this film which was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The pacing was better than the 1969 version and the film was more faithful to the book both in storyline and in setting. I also felt the quality of the acting was greatly improved and that comes as no surprise.The cast of True Grit (2010) was chock full of academy award winners and nominees that included Matt Damon as La Beouf and Bridges as Cogburn and Josh Brolin as Chaney. I was doubtful that Jeff Bridges would be a believable Rooster Cogburn but he did a much better job than John Wayne. And although I liked Kim Darby in the 1969 version of True Grit by the end of the movie her screaming was annoying. She also was 20 years old when she played 14 year old Mattie Ross. By contrast, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld was believable as 14 year old Mattie (partly because she was 14 when she filmed the movies) who had enough "grit" of her own!

True Grit (2010) like its literary counterpart was told from the point of view of Mattie and there's closure at the end that was lacking in the 1969 movie.

I highly recommend this film but I also encourage movie-goers to read the book. In Canada, this movie is rated 14A and rightly so. There is a great deal of violence and gore in parts of the movie and some swearing. Not for children under 14 to be sure.

For more information on the real Fort Smith and how realistic (or not) the 2010 version of True Grit and the novel are, check out this article by Jennifer Boulden

Here's the movie trailer:

The book by Charles Portis: