Category Archives: GoodReads Reviews

Book Review: Try to Remember

Iris Gomez’s TRY TO REMEMBER is a beautifully written novel that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat–not through a steroid-pumped plot, but by painting the very real terror of an immigrant teen’s life. Deportation, jail, drugs, rape, pregnancy–these are all the dangers awaiting Gabriela de La Paz, adolescent daughter of Colombian immigrants. The reader spends most of the novel dreading the moment when one of these dangers will bring her down. But this is not just a story about the hazards of being an illegal immigrant. It’s a story about the dangers of family: How the same people who are supposed to help us can drag us under.

When Gabriela’s proud, temperamental father begins to behave in increasingly bizarre, even violent ways, the effect on her family is like a time bomb suddenly appearing in their livingroom. Gabriela’s mother refuses to acknowledge the change. Her brothers find ways to escape, through work and friends and drugs. Only Gabriela–barely a teen when the novel opens–can keep the family from blowing apart.

Iris Gomez is an award-winning poet and immigration lawyer. She was born in Colombia and writes with the kind of intelligence, authority and lyricism that even her fellow countryman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, would have to admire. TRY TO REMEMBER is a stunning debut novel. And in Gabriela de la Paz, you will find one of the most intelligent, sympathetic and unique characters you have ever met. A must-read!

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Book Review: Oliver’s Surprise

To cynical adult readers, it might seem like every bump on the head in a middle grade or young adult novel results in time travel and world-leaping. Yet anyone who truly understands the genre can tell you this is as valid a literary device as sniffing madeleines in a Parisian cafe. (And certainly more believable than faxing oneself back in time!)

Carol Cronin’s YA novel, Oliver’s Surprise, begins with the traditional bump on the noggin. And yes, Oliver gets whirled back in time—in this case to the Great Hurricane of 1938.  But Oliver’s Surprise is anything but a typical time-travel story.

For one thing, Oliver doesn’t run into a lot of historical figures. He runs into his own grandparents.  He even ends up being a guest in their house, and though they don’t have any idea who he is, he quickly figures out who they are.  This makes life a little tricky for him.

Also, unlike many time-travel novels, Oliver doesn’t end up in the right place at the right time. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. A horrible hurricane is coming, and not only is it going to devastate the little Rhode Island town of Dutch Harbor, it’s going to kill a lot of people: the men he’s working with at the docks; maybe even Finn, the boy who’s befriended him. Should he tell them? Would they believe him if he did?

Last but not least, the main character in most time-travel stories ends up “saving” history in some way: teaching King Arthur, inspiring Shakespeare, making sure the hero’s parents meet and get married. But Oliver’s Surprise is more about the past coming alive, how death and loss experienced in the moment are so much more acute than what the history books describe. Yes, Oliver does end up having an effect on history, but it’s a lot subtler and more personal than what readers are used to.

The writing in Oliver’s Surprise is tight and evocative, and Carol Cronin—former member of the U.S. Sailing Team and winner of two races at the Athens Olympics—is able to completely immerse us in the world of skiffs, schooners, goosenecks and derricks. And Laurie Cronin’s beautiful illustrations give the book a warm, nostalgic feel.

My only complaint about Oliver’s Surprise? It felt much too short. I wanted more of Oliver, more of his world, more about the hurricane. But since Ms. Cronin has already written a sequel, I guess I won’t have to wait very long.

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Book Review: The Dust of 100 Dogs

The Dust of 100 Dogs
The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King
Don’t be fooled by the over-the-top, romantic pirate death scene at the beginning of A.S. King’s wonderful The Dust of 100 Dogs: this is not your grandfather’s pirate story. The basic premise is that 17th century female pirate Emer gets cursed just as she’s dying, and she is condemned to be reincarnated one hundred times as a dog before she can be human again.

No, the book does not go through all one hundred dog lives.  After the initial curse, we fast-forward to Emer’s first human reincarnation in three hundred years. She is Saffron Adams now, a 20th century teen who is the genius child and grand hope of her manipulative alcoholic mother and mentally unbalanced father.

What makes Saffron a genius—and makes the novel so intriguing—is that she not only remembers everything from her past life as a pirate, she also remembers her one-hundred dog lives. That gives her a 300-year head start on most kids her age, and some very useful canine common sense.  It also offers her a chance at lifelong wealth and independence, if she can only find the treasure she buried just before she died.

The chapters about 20th century Saffron’s sufferings (it’s not easy to quell your inner pirate) are layered with chapters about 17th century Emer’s path. Here and there, we also get sprinklings of rules that Emer compiled during her centuries as one kind of dog after another, and these provide some interesting counterpoint to her human interactions.

The book’s development feels a little uneven, at times, and certain aspects (including the dog rules) are never integrated as fully as a reader might like. Also, the violence of 17th century Emer’s life may be too much for a Young Adult audience.

For an adult audience, however, The Dust of 100 Dogs has enough history, humor, tragedy and insight to satisfy all but the most picayune readers.  And how often do you find historical massacres, star-crossed lovers, embroidery, swashbuckling, sea battles, treasure, reincarnation, proms, and pirate sex all in the same book?

Okay, so there are no vampires. But you can’t have everything.

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The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
A boy wakes up in a pitch-dark elevator that seems to go up forever. He can’t remember who he is, why he’s in the elevator, doesn’t know where he’s going. When the elevator finally stops, he finds himself in a strange farm community run by boys—only boys.

The farm (called “the Glade”) is surrounded by a massive stone maze,and every day the boys send runners out to explore the maze and search for an exit. But there are monsters in the maze—half-living, half-mechanical creatures that will tear apart anyone they catch—and, as if that isn’t bad enough, the maze rearranges itself every night.  So every morning, the runners must start all over again.

That’s how this brilliant new book from James Dashner begins, and in the hands of other writers, it could have turned into a gray, predictable allegory for life, futility, art, etc. But The Maze Runner is anything but gray or predictable.  There is no Lord of the Flies style anarchy, or Ender’s Game “us against the buggers” simplicity.  The society the boys have created is tightly structured and stresses safety and responsibility above all; and yet, people still die.  Thomas, the main character, may be a hero or he may be in league with their captors—no one is really sure.  Even the Glade may not be what it appears to be:  It could be a prison, or it could be the last safe haven in a post-apocalyptic world.  No one knows, because no one can remember anything more than a few hints and flashes of life before the Maze.

And then, of course, everything changes.  The day after Thomas appears, a second new prisoner arrives in the elevator:  a girl—the only girl ever sent to the Glade.

Intense and tightly plotted, The Maze Runner falls squarely in the page-turner category.  And though I was  a little irritated to discover that this is the first book in a series (a small bit of information conveniently omitted from the cover, for some reason), I still think The Maze Runner is one of the best additions to YA fiction this year.  I just hope Dashner won’t take too long to finish the remaining volumes.

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Book Review: City of Thieves

City of ThievesA young Jewish boy in St. Petersburg in WWII is caught looting a knife off of a dead German soldier. Instead of having him shot, the local NKVD chief pairs him up with a captured Red Army deserter and sends them off on a special mission: to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.

Apart from first-hand historical accounts, you won’t find a better depiction of the horrors and deprivations the Russians suffered during the terrible Siege of Leningrad. But CITY OF THIEVES is, first and foremost, a coming of age story–one that happens to be set in Russia during their worst days of WWII.

Lev–young, naive, timid, and a virgin in every sense of the word–is completely unequipped to fight Germans, find black market eggs, or approach a woman. His traveling companion, Kolya, claims knowledge in all those things and seems very confident they will not only find the eggs, but also get Lev a girl before their mission is done. After only a few hours, however, Lev begins to think Kolya may be more likely to get him killed.

A funny, sad, horrifying, compassionate and ultimately hopeful story about how even in the worst of human circumstances, friends and lovers will find each other.

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