Monday, March 20, 2017

Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali

Max is a perfect example of the Aryan race; he was engineered to be so as part of the Lebensborn program in Nazi Germany in 1936.  Max starts telling the story of his exceptional creation while he's still a fetus and continues until he is ten years old.  During that time, he stays true in his unfailing commitment to his "father", Adolf Hitler, while he helps in kidnapping and indoctrinating children from other countries, learning the ways in which Jews are ruining Germany, and preparing to be a soldier for the Nazis.  His belief in the master race is somewhat shaken by Lukas, a boy who looks to be the perfect Aryan in every way but reveals himself to be a Jew who is not above murder to avenge the deaths of so many others.  Lukas and Max bond despite their completely different ideologies as the truth about the Third Reich begins to come to light and Berlin falls to the Russians.

Other reviewers have said they had a very difficult time with the fetus as narrator but I am okay with that device as it provided a first person perspective of the Lebensborn program and the nonchalant way in which it was implemented.  In fact, I was all in for the first section of the book which used Max to show how completely so many people were brainwashed into believing the truly horrific tenets of Hitler's program.  I think that hearing what was happening from a person who had no issues with what was happening is much more powerful than viewing it from an outsider, judge-y perspective.  

But I got bogged down as the book went on.  It moved slowly and I never felt invested in either main character.  As a way to examine the hundreds of atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis - even above and beyond the death camps - it is a good primer.  The book also shows the reality of the Russian liberation of Germany which was also brutal.  But it failed to draw me into the human element which made finishing it a chore.

Watched by Marina Budhos

Naeem and his family are from Bangladesh and Naeem knows they are being watched.  The entire neighborhood is under surveillance with cameras on poles, people in their mosques, and friends who might be reporting conversations to the authorities.  Naeem has gone from being the model son to a boy who is in trouble.  His slacking off at school has made it impossible for him to graduate on time and his activities with his friend Ibrahim have led to him being arrested again.  But this time, the cops have a deal for him:  re-immerse himself in the Muslim community and report back to them on anything suspicious he might see.  Naeem manages to believe that he's helping his community by rooting out the bad seeds and the big wads of cash he gets for the information he provides is helping his family to succeed.  But is the cost too great?

The premise of this book is certainly timely and, I'm sure, realistic.  It should've been a fast-paced, gripping novel.  However, I was put off by the writing style - too poetic - and it felt to me like things moved sooooo slowly.  I was never completely drawn into Naeem's conflict about the rightness or wrongness of his actions which should've been the central focus of this story.  Nor did I really feel the conflict about the racial profiling that is prevalent in the book.  It seems that Naeem does locate some people who are doing some questionable things but does that make it okay to spy on an entire community?  That point wasn't driven home as clearly as I would've liked and expected.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

While renovating the old servant's quarters on their property, Rowan's family discovers a skeleton buried beneath the floorboards. Rowan and her best friend love a mystery so they begin trying to figure out who the skeleton was and who murdered him nearly 100 years ago.  Their main clue is a receipt for a Victrola with two sets of initials on it.

In alternating chapters, Will is living in Tulsa during the time of the Jim Crow laws.  After he is part of a violent incident based on race, his vision of life begins to change and he is pulled deeper into the divide between white and black.

I was trying to explain the book to my husband and he ended up confused because SO MUCH happens here but it is all expertly woven into the story.  I was captivated by both timelines and fooled about the identity of the skeleton several times.  The mystery in Dreamland Burning is great and the book would be worth reading for that reason alone, but there are three other parts to the book that are even more important to me.  

1.  The Tulsa riot.  I think of myself as pretty educated and yet I am pretty constantly learning about things I never knew.  These riots are one of those things about which I had never heard before this book.  In this case, it appears that might partly be because Tulsa covered up the riot which is shocking in itself.  The basic facts about the riot that I know so far are already horrifying and I know that more research is in my future.  Not to mention the treatment of the Osage in requiring a white custodian of their money.  SMH...

2.  The characters in the book are all kinds of good and bad and many of them are both at different times in the story.  Our introduction to Will shows him to be not so great but by the end of the book he is quite heroic.  His father transforms in another way.  Even Rowan, while not as dramatic of a change, comes to some realizations that change her character throughout the book.  I am impressed with how Latham is able to build depth into her characters somewhat effortlessly, by which I mean it looks effortless from the outside but probably took a lot of effort on her part. Like many real people they are layered and flawed, not easily pinned as good or bad.

3.  The issues of race are twined into every event in the story.  Oh sure, there is a build up to a huge race massacre, but the uncomfortable, everyday ways in which race impacts our lives is ever present in Dreamland Burning.  There is plenty of racism. most of it overt, in Will's storyline which you would expect at the time of Jim Crow.  But more importantly, Latham shows the many "small" ways racism is alive and well in the present.  It shows up when Rowan attends a concert, in her reaction to a homeless man, in the way her father is treated by authorities, in her own feelings about how people of color are treated, and in a dozen other ways that aren't labeled by the author with a neon sign but that are just part of modern day reality we manage to gloss over.  

Just go read this powerful book!

The Search for Olinguito: Discovering a New Species by Sandra Markle

Finding a new species of animal?  I was hooked before I even began!  The story of the olinguito begins over a decade ago with a scientist looking at pelts and skulls in a museum.  He notices that some of them look different from the other olingos with which they are stored.  Through careful scientific comparison at over 75 museums around the world along with DNA analysis, he is able to prove that there was an entirely separate member of the raccoon family no one had ever identified before.  But does the olinguito still exist?  Now the footwork in the cloud forest begins. The story of the animal is interesting but the real star of this book is the exacting scientific process necessary to prove olintuito exists and to identify its habits. 

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Nick is a great soccer player and his team has just gotten an invitation to an important competition in Dallas.  His best friend plays for a rival team and the two boys will be going head to head.  But in the weeks before the competition, Nick encounters a lot of problems.  He can't seem to talk to the girl he likes, his parents announce they are separating, his dad continues pressuring him to build his vocabulary by reading a dictionary he wrote, and a health issue might prevent Nick from attending the match at all.  

I wasn't a big fan of The Crossover but I was okay with it.  This book grabbed me even less than Alexander's first as it felt more like a book that appeals to adults, librarians in particular, than it will to kids. It seems to be blatantly schooling the reader on how cool it is to know big, unusual words (something adults would find appealing) as well as how you can turn a non-reader into a reader with some classic lit.  Neither of those plot points are going to help me sell this book to teens in my library.  I will admit that I didn't get all of the basketball play by play in The Crossover but my students who like basketball did so i can appreciate that and use that as a selling point.  I feel that the soccer tie-in here is not strong enough to bring in my soccer players who have to read something for class.  The whole book feels like a check box of things meant more for adults than kids.  Including the incredibly hip ex-rapper librarian.

Garvey's Choice by Nikki Grimes

Garvey likes to read and watch sci fi shows but his father is pressuring Garvey to be an athlete.  Garvey's best friend is helpful at school where he gets teased by bullies for being overweight but then his friend gets a new lunch shift and Garvey is all alone.  He takes a risk and tries out for the chorus where he quickly becomes a soloist and begins to find his voice in other ways, partly thanks to a new friend.  

This quick book is written in verse but still manages to convey a lot of emotion and story.  My complaint about it is the same as my complaint about any book with an overweight character: Garvey binges when he is sad.  At the end of the book where he is riding high, he starts running and seems to be on the path to losing weight.  If I put that one issue aside, however, I liked the rest of the story and Garvey's growth from isolated and quiet to being self-assured.