Monday, May 29, 2006

It's almost time....

...for the summer reading challenge. Which I'm really excited for. It's odd, though. They're my books, I've had (some of them) for years now. No one (but myself) stopped me from reading them, so why am I so damn giddy about it?

In anticipation of this event, I've been reading through my library books as quickly as I can. It helps that a good portion of them are due in the next couple of days.

First up was The Wright 3 by Blue Balliett and illustrated by Brett Helquist. This book was rather simplistic in plot; Petra (the writer and observer) and Calder (the math genius), along with Calder's best friend Tommy (the finder), try and stop a group of thieves who are attempting to steal from the Robie House. (The Robie House was one of the houses that Frank Lloyd Wright designed and it's full of interesting patterns and geometric shapes in the stained glass windows.)

What held my attention though were the puzzles that Blue and Brett include throughout the story. For example, there are clues in every illustration that one is supposed to look for and they can be challenging to find. Also, Calder is completely obsessed with pentominos, so the children use a code to write down their notes that he derives from them. And while they give you clues to it, you have to figure it out for yourself.

It's not a great book in my opinion, but it is a good one. It makes you stop and think and work towards something, so you get the feeling that you have solved the puzzle, along with the children.

The next book was The Gods in Winter by Patricia Miles. As I mentioned in a previous post, it's a modern re-telling of the myth of Persephone. (If you don't know it, you can read it here.) Adam Bramble and his family (dad's a physicist, mom's an American-I think she used to be a teacher, and two younger siblings, Charlotte-called Lottie, and Zach, with a third on the way) are moving to their new home in the Midlands as their dad has just gotten a new job there. Nearing their new home, they pass a young girl who's picking poppies in a field by herself. A bit later, they're nearly run off the road by a large black vintage car, which is careening down the road. Inside, they see the girl from before, screaming, while being held by the driver. Shaken, they brush it off as her being terrified of the near crash and continue on. Well, until they come to the great hole in the ground, that is.

The story continues from there, with them settling into their new home, and their mom trying to find some help as she's having a rather rough time with her pregnancy. A Mrs. Korngold is the name of the woman who's hired. She settles in well enough, although the oddest things start to happen. There's the fact that she's crying for her missing daughter, that strange visitors start to ring and appear on their doorstep, asking her to return-she always says no. Then there are the dreams that Adam and his siblings are having, not to mention the strange guy who keeps trying to get Adam's attention at school. (He keeps changing his appearance, but Adam can still tell that it's the same messenger as before.) And did I mention that their mom can't seem to get well, or that it's the worst winter anyone can remember?

As the story goes on, the Brambles' eventually come to the conclusion that there is something going on with Mrs. Korngold, which comes to a head the day the messenger finally gets a hold of Adam and give him a telegram, which Adam passes on to Mrs. Korngold: her daughter is coming home. There are still things to be resolved though, but in the end, the family comes to the conclusion that they weren't hallucinating the things that happened over the winter and that Adam should be the one to write the story down for a future reader.

The book after that was Pay the Piper by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple. It's another re-telling, but this time about the Pied Piper. Callie McCallan is 14 years old and desperate for some freedom from her parents (they'd had the kids fingerprinted and registered with the local police). So, when the band Brass Rat is scheduled to play in her sleepy hometown, she comes up with a plan to get her parents permission to go to the concert; she's covering it for the school paper. Her plan backfires a bit, when her parents (fans of the band) decide that the whole family is going to go, including Callie's eight year old brother.

At the concert, where it seems that everyone is dancing like they can't stop, Callie and her brother go backstage to interview the band, along with a few other children. But the band doesn't give answers; instead Peter Gringras (the lead singer) tells a tale about where he got the name 'Brass Rat'...apparently, after purchasing one, he was whistling a tune while walking home, when he suddenly noticed he was being followed by a group of rats. Realizing that he couldn't shake them, he ran to the river and threw the statue in, and every last rat in the city followed, drowning themselves. That's when Callie begins to get suspicious and clues into the fact that the members of Brass Rat aren't exactly...normal. Going back to get another interview, she over hears a conversation in which Gringras is told that they aren't going to be paid, which ends with Alabas (the drummer) telling Scott (who's been with the band 21 one years, but looks like he could be Callie's age, but must be at least 20) that
He [Gringras] must send silver or gold or souls Under the Hill. Human souls. To pay off a blood guild, a teind. And if he does not, he will grow old as any who walks upon the earth instead of living long Under the Hill. He will grow old and then die himself.

Callie begins to research all of this, tying together the Pied Piper of Hamelin with the Children's Crusade, the missing Tower princes, and all the children whose faces you see on milk cartons, and writes one version after another for her article. But she can't hardly believe that what she's writing is true, and she knows that no one else will. But then it's Halloween night and every child in the town turns up missing, except Callie, who'd been trying, once again, to re-write her article and had been wearing headphones. She decides that it's her duty to find the missing kids, as she was the only person who knew what had happened.

Throughout the story, in alternating chapters, we're treated to Gringras's story. In his point of view, we see the events that lead to him becoming the "pied piper", his friendship with Alabas, and the only way that they'll be allowed back Under the Hill. It ends rather satisfactory, with Callie realizing what needs to be done, and Gringras getting his heart's desire. (The irony is what he discovers once he gets it.) The authors plan to continue this "Rock 'N' Roll" series, with the next book about a troll bridge; I'm looking forward to it.

The last two books that I finished over the weekend are Aftershocks by William Lavender (author of Just Jane), and Bowery Girl by Kim Taylor.

"Bowery Girl" is set in Brooklyn in 1883, and tells the story of Annabelle Lee, a prostitute and Mollie Flynn, a thief. The girls, best and only friends since the day that Annabelle rescued Mollie, have one goal: to earn enough coin and leave the Fourth Ward, via the Brooklyn Bridge. However, that dreams seems to be impossible once Annabelle comes back from jail pregnant. Unwilling, and soon unable to work, she'd rather spend her days at the Cherry Street Settlement House, learning to read and write, which Mollie sees as nothing but a false attempt by the "do-gooders", led by Emmeline DuPre, to make themselves feel better. She'd rather pick pockets all day, since they still need money to keep Annabelle's boyfriend/pimp Tommy off their backs, pay the rent, and buy food. But when Mollie starts to lose it (her hands just won't stop shaking), she ends up at the Settlement House too.

It's not a "happy" story, there isn't any white knight or saviour at the end. It's more about friendship, love, and having a dream and then doing whatever it takes to keep going, even after you're just left with the dream. And it's not just a "New York 1883" story, no, this is a story that's constantly being retold by women all around the world. The heroines aren't "good" people, but they feel real as do the choices they were forced to make. The author includes a ton of references that she used in the back of the book, and I think several of them will be fascinating reads.

"Aftershocks" is set a few years before the great earthquake of San Fransisco in 1906. Jessie Wainwright wants nothing more than to be a doctor when she's older, which her father finds intolerable. She single-mindedly pursues this dream, under her father's nose, with the help of Mei, the seventeen year old niece of Ching Lee, the family's servant. One night though, Jessie witnesses something involving Mei that she shouldn't and the end result is that one day both Ching Lee and Mei are gone without word, leaving Jessie to decide which is more important, her dream of becoming a doctor or braving Chinatown to find her friends. She gives up the search after being robbed and then arrested for entering an opium den and focuses on her studies.

A few years later though, the earthquake hits, Chinatown is destroyed and Jessie once again begins to search for her friends. Although she finds some of them in one of the refugee camps, helping them isn't easy as everyone is still prejudiced against the Chinese. Her friend Hazel, jealous because Jessie seemed to care more for her servants than her, didn't want to help, her parents flat out forbid her to have anything to do with Chinatown, her friend Wanda, also her father's head nurse, was resistant to helping as well. In fact, the only two people who really did want to help was Henry Wong, who Jessie and Hazel had met the first time they ventured into Chinatown, and Dr. Alan Lundquist, a doctor working in the refugee camps. (In all honestly, at first Dr. Lindquist and Henry really seems to be the only people who cares about the Chinese. Jessie is just looking for her friends; while she thinks things are bad for the refugees, she doesn't seem to give their situation much thought. That does change as the story goes on.)

This story has a much happier ending for those involved, ending with Jessie enrolled in college and actively working her way towards becoming a doctor, her goals realized and her friends helped. But it also re-enforced (at least for me), how poorly the non-white immigrants were treated when they came to America, and how poorly they still are. (This isn't unique to America though; it seems every country is trying to "block their doors" and bar entry, or make things impossible once immigrants do arrive.)

Now, I think it's time I run a few errands, like buying food for myself and getting my oil changed. It's amazing how little I care about errands when I have 3 whole days to do them. But give me 3 hours and I'm all about being non-stop. I'm also trying desperately to forget the horror that was X-men 3: The Last Stand. It's so un-cannon that it's pissed me off and left me rather desperate for the comics. I've put every last one I could find at the libraries on hold.

Hope you all had a nice Memorial Day weekend.


Danielle said...

Sheesh--you whizzed through those books!!! I know what you mean-I have books that have sat around for years, but then something will be chosen for book club or for some reason I need to read it, and I get all excited. It isn't as though I can't pick it up at any time and read it--but I think for me at least--I get so many, and then I sort of mentally rank them and think no I can't start that one until I finish those three...and I never get to it...until I am forced to...and then I get all happy about it. Crazy.

Heather said...

Exactly! I'll want to read something, but then another book will show up, or something will distract me, and the next thing you know, there's a whole book case full of things I've yet to read.

The sad thing is that I've got a ton more books from the library to (still) get through. It's going to be a challenging 14 weeks.