Sunday, July 27, 2008

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

If you have ever been to London, you will have seen that the London Eye dominates the skyline along the Thames River across from Parliament. When one flies the Eye, you experience breathtaking views of the city and on a clear day, the countryside for roughly 20 miles. Siobhan Dowd sets her mystery around this landmark. Ted and Kat are on half-term break and are really not looking forward to a visit from Aunt Gloria and their cousin, Salim who are on their way to relocating in the United States. From the onset of the novel we know that Ted is a very special kid. He is consumed with meteorology and numbers and thinks outside the box. As the book progresses we see that he most likely as Asperger's syndrome. Salim has always wanted to fly the Eye and so Aunt Gloria, Ted, Kat and Ted and Kat's mom, Faith, set out the day after their arrival to do so. While Gloria and Faith have coffee, the 3 young people stand in queue for tickets and boarding. But, what luck! A stranger approaches them and offers a free ticket. He bought it and realizes that being claustrophobic, he could never get into one of the pods.

Since Kat and Ted have flown the Eye, Salim takes it and boards for his flight. The flight takes exactly 30 minutes and Kat and Ted wait for him. The people in his pod disembark, but Salim is not among them. Maybe it was the wrong pod. Could they have missed him? Where is he?

The mysterious disappearance has everyone puzzled and the story that ensues takes the reader on a very wild ride. Ted is certain that he can figure it out. He and Kat develop some nine theories as they try to find Salim. The police become involved. But time is ticking away and throughout the next 3 days the family becomes more frantic. To test a few theories Kat and Ted venture out on a trip through London and the Tube. As they develop and test the hypotheses, we get an incredible and fascinating insight into how Ted's mind really works.

This is a great mystery, full of Britishisms, some laughter and some very tense moments. I tried to pick up on some clues through the course of the story, but must admit, I missed one that would have helped me solve it. It is a page-turner and would be a fun book for both boys and girls. Siobhan Dowd was a wonderful author and it saddens me that she will write for us no more.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

I must say that I was a little more than skeptical when I heard that The Invention of Hugo Cabret had won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for 2008. How could a 500+ page book qualify for this honor that is awarded for the most distinguished "picture book" of the year? I am NOT skeptical NOW after reading Hugo. What a gem that is surely to go down as a favorite for generations to come.

From the opening page's picture of a moon and then the sketches of Paris at night, the reader is entranced by the charcoal drawings and words have yet to appear. We learn that Hugo has taken over keeping the clocks wound and synchronized at a train station in Paris after his uncle disappears. He lives in a small room, also occupied by an automaton that was rescued from the ashes of a fire that killed Hugo's father. Hugo forages for food since he has no way to cash his uncle's paychecks. Our empathy builds for this young orphan as he tries to do the right thing, but who is eventually caught stealing a small wind up mouse from a toy store in the station. He needs some parts to fix the automaton because he knows from his father's notebook that the mechanical creature holds a deep secret. The shop owner takes his notebook and holds it as ransom. Hugo will need to work in the shop to try to make amends.

Enter Penelope, the shopkeeper's godchild. She befriends Hugo and the two embark on the journey that will lead them to discover the secret. Through magic, a bit of cinematic history, and the exploration of days gone by, the two friends eventually share their deepest thoughts and feelings about their lives with each other. Not all of them are happy.

This book can be read on many levels. It is an insight into cinema and the contributions of Georges Méliés, the tragedy of young people left to their own devices for survival, and some real history as illustrated by the train crash at the Gare Montparnasse. As the Caldecott committee stated, "Neither words nor pictures alone tell this story." Pick it up and you will be lost and enchanted for a good couple of hours.

For background and history of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, click here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a well-known author of adult books and poetry. His first novel for Young Adults is an absolute winner, literally. It won the prestigious National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007. Based on Alexie's life it is comedic, tragic, and poignant in so many ways.Told in the 1st person, the novel recounts the year that Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, leaves the rez school to attend a white school 20 miles from his home. Junior is a Spokane Indian who suffers from multiple physical issues. He was born hydrocephalic, he stutters, and he lisps. In addition his parents are alcoholics and the family is extremely poor. When handed a book in math class on the first day of school, he sees that his mother's name is listed on the inside of the book. It had been used since his mother was in school and that was not fair. He heaves the book and it hits his teacher in the face. It was at this point, after his suspension, that Mr. P. encourages him to attend the white school. "You've kept your hope. And now you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."

And so he does and he meets people who give him some of that hope. But he still has to go home to the rez. The year goes by and Junior tells us of trying out for the basketball team, facing his good friend, Rowdy, on the court, trying to understand why is sister Mary has runaway, and lamenting the countless funerals he must attend. He is fourteen and already has attended forty two funerals. "That's the difference between Indians and white people." His talent on the basketball court allows him ,finally, to be accepted, tho the process is not without pain. His coach reminds him of the Vince Lombardi quote (no not the win or lose one), but "the quality of a man's life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor." That should be a mantra for us all.

The book is enhanced by the cartoon-like drawings Junior draws. Some are just hilarious as he attempts to get his thoughts down on paper. Drawings are understood by everyone and transcend speech and language. And these drawings do that for this book. This was an amazing book and one that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. Yes, in times it is raunchy and earthy, but it is blatantly honest and captivating and should be a must read by all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis

A Death in Vienna is a very absorbing novel that is set in turn of the century Vienna. Charlotte Lowenstein, a very attractive medium, has been shot. But there was no bullet. She is found in a locked room - locked from the inside and there is no evidence of an escape by the murderer. Could it be an illusion or is a supernatural being the perpetrator? Enter Dectective Oskar Rheinhardt who enlists the aid of a cutting edge psychoanalyst, Dr. Max Liebermann to try to solve the murder. There are numerous suspects, many of whom have participated in seances with Charlotte. They include a banker, a locksmith, a count, and a well-to-do couple. Tallis masterfully develops each character and sets them against the back-drop of the beautiful and bustling city of Vienna, almost allowing the city to become a character in herself. The investigation becomes a study of forensic and criminal methods versus psychological. Several additional story lines become interwoven within the main story line, the engagement of Max, the treatment a very disturbed Amelia Lydgate. And then in the midst of all the action, one of the prime suspects is bludgeoned to death and is found in a room locked from the inside. Is it the same killer or a different one?

The crimes are solved in a very clever manner as a result of some ingenious twists and turns of the plot. Tallis weaves the historical into the novel as we witness a symphony conducted by Mahler and an exhibit opening of Klimt's paintings at the Secession. And, of course, no novel set in 1902 Vienna would be complete without an appearance by Sigmund Freud whose influence of thought at the time is quite evident. We also get a glimpse of a Freud who is trying to push the sales of a book of jokes, no less.

A Death in Vienna transports the reader to the titular city in every way. We can taste a sachertorte at Demel's, hear the works of Beethoven and Wagner as conducted by Mahler, smell the coffee at the Imperial and other cafés, be awestruck at the beauty of the Hoffburg Palace, and lose our breath as we ride high above the city on the Riesenrad. It was a very good trip indeed. A great combination of thriller, historical and psychological fiction.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

There are books that, when you read them, you know will stay with you for a long time. Jay Asher's first novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, is just such a book. Clay Jensen receives a package of tapes that detail the thirteen reasons why Hannah Baker has committed suicide. Recorded before her death, the tapes are Hannah's own accounting to the thirteen people who contributed to her decision to end her life. Just as Clay must know why he is involved and listens to the tapes without a pause, we want to know what has happened to this young woman that has caused her to make such a decision.

Hannah's taped voice appears in italics, interspersed among the the thoughts of Clay. Although he has had a crush on Hannah for a time, he cannot figure out what has caused him to be included in the persons who will be receiving the tape. Also among those receiving the tapes is the boy who was her first kiss and ruined her reputation, the one who labeled her as having the best a-- in the school, the girl who pretended to be a real friend and a peeping Tom who stalks her outside her window. All of them have played a major role in her high school life, but were their actions enough to really put Hannah over the edge.

This is an eerie story. At times it feels that we are eavesdropping on a very private conversation between Hannah and Clay. But we read, anxious to get to the end because we have to have the answers. This book resonates with the truth - the truth that, even what seems as an inconsequential action, can have consequences that snowball. This novel is so well written and so powerful The lives of those who have received the tapes will never be the same. It is a guarantee that the reader's life will not be the same either upon finishing the book.

Don't wait to read this one!