Sunday, May 29, 2011

INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Hannah Moskowitz

A brief, yet necessary, preamble:

So. My bad. I totally thought I wrote a review here for BREAK, Hannah's debut, which I was going to link in this review... aaaand I didn't. If you follow my blog, though, or follow me on goodreads, you already know I loved BREAK. It was a (well-deserved) 2010 ALA Popular Paperback for Teens, and I highly recommend it for reluctant readers. Easy to read and get sucked into. Quick pace and a brilliant concept. Get on it.

Now for the actual review of said novel in the post title.

Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz
Young Adult Contemporary
Simon Pulse, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4424-0751-0
First edition, paperback
Source: own

First, a word from Hannah. Because she highlights some things in this video that I think are important. One: this novel is difficult to summarize. And two: it's about family. No, really. It's about FAMILY. Just with some sex and the occasional F-word sprinkled in for good measure.

This is probably one of the most difficult reviews I've ever had to write. There is so much about this novel that I want to talk about, but a good majority of it will come off as spoiler-y if I get into it. Yet, at the same time, if I don't, there isn't much to say without coming off as rambly and disinteresting. (I'm getting red squiggly lines under both of those words. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Let's start with the viewpoint character, Chase. At the beginning of the story he is 14 going on 15. At the end he is nearing his 18th birthday. So that's four years. Or rather, four summers. The presentation of the story solely through the summers spent at the family's beach house is just... amazing. The stuff that happens elsewhere really doesn't matter, and that's a difficult thing to pull off. It includes all of Chase's high school experiences, which in most YA lit is a defining quality, but not so with this novel. The definement (another red squiggly line, wtf? I swear I'm using real words) of Chase's self-perception comes through his summer experiences.

Hence the title, Invincible Summer. It's perfect. Also perfect? Is the cover. This story is told through summers, and I believe the cover presents summer in all its wondrous glory. It's clean and bright. It gets up close and personal with a hot chick in a bikini. That's summer, yes? But for some reason it has been the source of much debate among book bloggers and readers. So there's a girl in a bikini on the cover. Everyone assumes, then, that the love interest (or rather, the sex interest) is the main plot. It SO isn't. The disaster that is Melinda certainly has influence on the events of the story and the realizations of the MC about life--his life--but she, herself, is not the plot. The fact that Chase and his older brother Noah are both "involved" with her is NOT the plot. It's just one element of a much bigger concept.

And that concept is -- family relationships. In my goodreads review I mentioned that this novel is just as much Noah's story as it is Chase's. The perception of Noah through Chase's eyes is yet another item that goes under the "reasons why this book is brilliant" column. Chase calls him "my brother the flight risk", and if that isn't enough to get you interested in the relationship between these two brothers, then maybe this will be: they're both doing the girl next door, and they both know they're both doing the girl next door, and they both continue doing the girl next door in light of this knowledge. It's all very weird and gritty and makes you want to powerwash your brain. Or dry heave. Sorry, but I had a hard time stomaching the idea of so obviously sharing a girl. This didn't stop me from reading, though, and I still love the book enough to recommend it.

But again, that is just one element of the big picture.

Noah is a huge part of the story. He has real issues. Issues I can relate to, and I think that's why I fell for him so hard while reading this. We also have Chase's younger brother, Gideon. Oh God... where do I even start with Gideon. Well, he's only six years old at the beginning. And he's deaf. And stinking adorable. And wildly intelligent. I can't even... seriously, I can't even talk about Gideon without getting teary-eyed. How Hannah managed to portray such a deeply layered character through the eyes of someone else still has me reeling.

Then there's Claudia, Chase's younger sister, who is eleven years old at the beginning. She is, in a word, adventurous. Totally love her. The parents? Mom is pregnant during the first summer. So, another kid is added to this already large family. You'd think the parents just can't get enough of each other, right? Wrong. Hannah added huge parental issues to the mix. Again, brilliant.

The story is just one dynamite layer after another after another after another... until it all explodes.

I can't get into the minor issue I had with the ending without giving anything away, so I'll add one final remark on the Melinda thing. She was raped when she went to college -- I don't think saying that here will ruin your enjoyment of the book. It's made pretty obvious early on in the story.

The thing I want to comment on is that even though she was raped, and subsequently fell into a depression (which is expected), she didn't shy away from sex after that horrible experience. To me, this came across as REALISTIC. Yes, many girls who are raped can't stand the thought of going near a guy for a long, long time, after much, much therapy. But. That isn't always the case. Some girls then use sex as a way of staying in control. They had an "out of control" sexual experience, so they put themselves in situations where they are "in control of" the sexual experience. And that's exactly what Melinda does with Noah and Chase.

And I just want to personally thank Hannah for going that route, when most novels that include this touchy subject go the obvious route of the girl completely withdrawing from all forms of sex. It was refreshing to see something different, yet still real.

Okay, I think I've blabbered on long enough (no red squiggly line under "blabbered"? I give up). All that's left to say is READ THIS BOOK. 4 out of 5 stars.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Where I got the book: from the library. It's been on my TBR list for a while, but when Holly Tucker started a history and science readalong on Goodreads, I knew its moment had come.

The Ghost Map is, in part, an account of a cholera epidemic that took place in London in 1854. I say in part, because the epidemic is really a springboard for a series of discussions. In a sense, this book is the history of an idea: that a disease could be waterborne.

Back in 1854, this idea was startling, and unacceptable to most of the medical and administrative establishment. Johnson does a good job of highlighting the work of two men, John Snow (who did a lot of the thinking that led to the understanding of how the epidemic grew) and Henry Whitehead, who confronted the disease at street level, talking to the survivors and collecting much of the informal data that helped Snow test his theories.

I found it very interesting to read about the struggle that Snow had with the proponents of the "miasma theory," the prevailing wisdom of the time. Back then, people believed that diseases were spread by smells traveling through the air; I've read a lot of Dickens, so I'm well acquainted with the notion of pestilential or noxious air. The fact that this belief seems so ridiculous to us now is evidence of the inroads science has made into our lives.

I had never really thought about the seismic shift that occurred when science began to understand nature at the microscopic level. And I had never given much thought to the correlation between clean water and the expansion of cities to the multi-million-headcount levels that are normal to us today. So on the whole, The Ghost Map was a pretty enlightening book. It's written in an easy to read style, and is a page-turner in its way.

The book ends with an extensive consideration of urbanization and what it means to mankind. I'm not sure whether this enhances the central story, or detracts from it. It's interesting, in its way, but in the end it's only speculation--and speculation is endless. So the end of the book seemed, well, endless. I probably could have stopped reading at around page 217.

Still, on the whole this was an interesting book, and I'm glad I finally read it.


"Welcome to Guantanamo Bay Prison. You're now the property of the US Marine Corps. Heads down!"

"It's not often that Khalid can look at his life from a distance. But, instantly, he can see himself clearly for once. He's another meaningless bent orange shape dropped into some weird world game, the sun fixing him here on this lump of tarmac like a dart in his back. He's nothing but an orange heap for soldiers to toss around because they think he's a terrorist who wants to blow up cites. Think he hates the West, even though he lives there and doesn't know anything about weapons of mass destruction or bombs or buildings crashing to the ground in New York."

There’s nothing unusual about 15 year old Khalid. He’d much rather be playing a computer game than polishing his school shoes. He hasn’t got a clue how to flirt with girls, and there is no way he’s leaving England to visit his father’s boring family in Pakistan. Especially when his football team is so close to being promoted.

Unfortunately for him Khalid’s parents disagree, and they soon arrive in the bustling Pakistani city of Karachi. What Khalid finds there is far from boring. The streets are filled with whispers of U.S troops and terrorist informers, and Khalid’s worst fears are horribly realised when he’s kidnapped and detained for questioning by U.S troops.

Surely they’ll quickly realise he’s innocent and release him? They can’t possibly send a 15 year old to Guantanamo Bay. Can they?

This book combines that chilling mixture of everyday normality and unimaginable horror. It’s the kind of story that really haunts you because it depicts a horribe situation that could so easily be true. As the author notes, ‘although Guantanamo Boy is a work of fiction, it is inspired by real events. It remains a fact that children have been abducted and abused and held without charge in the name of justice in Guantanamo Bay and many other secret prisons around the world.’

I certainly couldn’t put this down. I can’t say it was always an enjoyable read, but it was definitely immersive and thought provoking. Whilst this book carries a strong and valuable political message, the overriding sentiments are that of love and the support of family and friends. Khalid is well drawn and Anna Perera does a brilliant job of persuading even the most indifferent of readers to truly care about his wellbeing. She does this subtly over the course of the story, and I found my affection for him building slowly whilst my full attention remained centred on his inhumane treatment.

Unlike many other novels dealing with similar stories of abuse, the narrative of Guantanamo Boy is lightened by lifelike humour and small acts of kindness. This contrast allows the darker moments to retain their sharpness, and it allowed me to keep reading for long periods of time without feeling emotionally drained.

Anna Perera has highlighted the importance of human kindness in a truly remarkable setting. This book needs to be in every school library.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

In a brutal and archaic punishment a beautiful young Lady is locked away in a rat-infested tower for 7 years. Her father imprisons her after refusing a favoured Lord's hand in marriage. The only one brave, or perhaps foolish, enough to accompany her to this prison is her faithful maid Dashti.

Dashti and Lady Saren live in a mystical land overseen by distant pagan gods who rule through the privileged gentry. Stripped of her family, Dashti has never known luxury and has faced a daily battle to stay alive. In contrast, Saren is a pampered princess to whom the squalor of the tower is a brutal shock.

Despite their differences the girls slowly build a routine and begin to fashion a home for themselves. At times their readiness to accept their situation felt slightly offbeat. However, it soon becomes clear that for both girls the prison develops elements of a sanctuary from the outer world as Dashti begins to suspect that Saren's extreme fear of her rejected suitor is far from natural.

Dashti is a mucker, a peasant class known for singing songs of healing. Her talent and empathy for healing the pain of others renders her blind to her own feelings and she soon becomes unwillingly entangled in a web of deceit and mistaken identities. Think Twelfth night meets Emma with a touch of Brothers Grimm.

Dashti's stubborn respect for the gentry verges on irritating and her patience with the pathetic Lady Saren is beyond understanding. This does make for an interesting take on the corruptability of religious belief but it did feel overdone at times.

That being said, Shannon Hale's engaging and humorous style kept me turning the pages and the book definitely lightens up in the second half. It's a sweet story with slightly gothic moments and a few twists and turns. Would recommend if you've got a weakness for fantasy teen romance

Monday, May 16, 2011


The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
Young Adult Historical Fiction
HarperTeen, 2011
ISBN:  978-0-06-157968-4
First edition, hardcover
Source:  library

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Naziera Berlin, it doesn't matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn't practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn't accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.

So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl's father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.

But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max's fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero's sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?

(book cover image and blurb are from goodreads)

This book is not what it seems. It's freaktastically better.

Don't be fooled by the title or the cover. I mean, I totally love the cover (that guy has really nice hands), and the title fits the story, but at the same time, they can be misleading. Although Karl's boxing training is a HUGE part of this story, it is about SO MUCH more than just boxing.

And this isn't just another "Anne Frank" book. In fact, it's nothing like the story of Anne Frank, despite being set in the exact same time period. Karl's experience as a Jew in Nazi-era Berlin is worlds different than Anne's. He doesn't practice religion. He doesn't even *look* like a Jew. This makes things extremely interesting as the story moves along. Secrets are kept and ultimately exposed, and I have to credit the author with how well he kept me guessing--I never knew how any one person was going to react when they learned of Karl's Jewish heritage. It truly kept me on the edge of my seat.

But the thing I liked best about this story was the portrayal of relationships between Karl and every other character he encounters, even the minor ones. Karl is 14 when the story begins and 17 when it ends, and his growth as a character is both external and internal. The relationships I thought were especially fabulous in this story were: Karl and his very Jewish-looking younger sister; Karl and his emotionally distant father; Karl and "the Countess", a homosexual cross-dresser; Karl and his stuttering corner-man, Neblig. I also really enjoyed Karl's sketches throughout the story, especially those of "Winzig und Spatz", as they relate to him and his sister.

The emotional impact of the story is compounded by the ever-increasing hate crimes against Jews. But again, it's not exactly like the story of Anne Frank. It is more outwardly public, since Karl and his family do not (technically) go into hiding. For this reason, and the others I mentioned above, I highly recommend this book for teens and adults. It is a serious contender for my "best read of 2011." 5 of 5 stars.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Demise of the Soccer Moms by Cathryn Grant

Where I got the book: won a free copy from the author's blog.

The Demise of the Soccer Moms is Cathryn Grant's debut novel. Amy, Jane, Kit and Rachel have been friends forever. Their kids have grown up together, and their lives revolve around soccer and suburbia. But the suburbs aren't as safe as they should be--there's a rapist and murderer on the loose. And then Charlotte shows up: spiky hair, no bra, Doc Martens and a very big camera.

This is a story that starts out feeling very mundane and then quickly turns dark. Amy's and Rachel's insecurities have formed a bond between them, but when Amy's fears of the twin threats of sex and violence begins to pervade their world, the reader is never allowed to recover a sense of normality. I felt as if the characters were all walking along the edge of an abyss, and yet all of them were instantly recognizable types of Suburban Woman, complete with their different insecurities and their ways of coping with the boredom of their lives. The neighborhood is in California, but it could easily have been my own; any affluent suburb in America, in fact.

I found it to be a compelling read, and stayed up late to finish it (always a good sign). Grant is an indie author, so there were some places where I detected technical weaknesses that the rigors of traditional publishing might have corrected (if she'd been lucky enough to get a good editor, which is not always the case). Still, they were comparatively minor and I have to give props to Grant for her professionalism and attention to detail. I have seen far worse products come out of traditional publishing houses.

Grant calls her style of writing Suburban Noir, and I would recommend it to all who enjoy a good psychological thriller made more menacing by its everyday setting. Grant avoids overblown descriptions of gore, leaving much to the reader's imagination, and the story's all the better for it. I'm giving it a "good" rating, and look forward to Grant's next book.