Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review of All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

Kricorian, N. (2013). All the Light There Was.  New York, NY:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

When the Nazis marched on Paris on June 14, 1940, a four-year occupation of the city began, leaving a mark of hunger, despair, and brutality on its citizens.  In the midst of it all is the Pegorian family, Armenian refugees who are at the center of All the Light There Was. Maral Pegorian is 14 when the occupation begins and her brother Missak is 16.  For them, the real sign that the occupation has begun is not the sound of German boots marching through the streets, or the ominous sight of tanks, but their mother and Aunt Shakeh, who lives with them, rushing to the stores and frantically stocking up on as much food as they can find in preparation of the lean times that they know are to come.  Maral's mother even spends the money that she was saving to buy a new sewing machine, a signal to her and Missak as to just how serious things are about to become.

Eventually even this stockpile runs low and they, like many other Parisians, find themselves surviving on meager rations of rutabagas and other root vegetables, supplemented by occasional eggs and chicken from their cousins who have farmland outside of the city.  Maral tries to continue a normal life as possible-studying hard to keep her status as a top student at her academic high school, knitting with her aunt, and spending time with her friends.  However, her family's world changes in dramatic ways.  Friends and neighbors disappear, rounded up and arrested for political speech, being part of the Resistance, or for being Jewish.  Maral has a crush on one of her brother's best friends, Zaven, but just as their relationship begins to blossom, he and his brother Barkev, who along with Missak are part of the Resistance movement, disappear in order to avoid forced military service.  Zaven and Barkev are eventually caught and imprisoned, and after D-Day and the liberation of Paris, only one of them returns, causing a major shift in Maral's life course.

The culture of the characters in the novel is close to the author's heart, as Kricorian herself grew up in the Armenian community of Watertown, Massachusetts. She studied at Dartmouth and the University of Paris, and completed an MFA at Columbia University.  In addition to her essays and activism, she has also written two other novels.

Many novels have been written about life during World War II in Occupied Europe.  All the Light There Was takes a well-worn plot line and tells it from a unique perspective.  The Pegorian family are not native Parisians, horrified at what their homeland is turned into by Hitler's army, nor are they Jews, increasingly persecuted and ostracized until they are finally rounded up and marked for extermination.  Maral's family came to France to flee their own holocaust, the genocide that left Maral's parents orphans.  The lyrical prose told in the first person by Maral captures the unique position of her family-they maintain their language, culture, foods, and other practices while at the same time identifying strongly with their new country even though they are not citizens.  Maral's father literally fumes with anger each night as he reads the news reports of Hitler and the puppet French government.  Missak, Zaveg, Barkev and many other Armenians participate in resistance efforts.  However, to the Nazis, they are looked down upon as refugee immigrants, people without a land, only slightly better than the despised Jews.

Kricorian captures an important period in world history and infuses it with haunting beauty, sadness, and even romance. One of the most beautiful lines in the book is when a friend tells Maral "you are so beautiful that you shed light on dark walls".  Maral, her family, and her community find both small and large ways to find beauty and light in the darkness of Hitler's reign of terror. Her characters epitomize the struggle of those caught in the grip of Nazi Europe to maintain their dignity and their way of life despite ever-increasing difficulties and horrors around them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Yancey, R. (2013).  The 5th Wave.  New York, NY:  G.P. Putnam's Sons.

The 5th Wave is a young adult sci-fi novel by Rick Yancey that follows 16 year old Cassie Sullivan as she struggles to survive in a world that has been invaded by hostile aliens.  A mothership arrives above Earth one day and hangs in the atmosphere as everyone speculates what will happen next.  Then the first 1st Wave, or attack, arrives in the form of a total EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack, shutting down all electronic communications including cell phones and power grids.  Many die from the resulting car and plane crashes.  The second wave consists of alien-induced earthquakes and tsunamis that wipes out the coastal populations.  The third wave is a highly infectious plague transmitted by birds that kills 97 percent of the remaining survivors on Earth, including Cassie's mom.  When the book opens, Earth is in the middle of the 4th Wave.  The few surviving humans are being picked off by snipers that Cassie has ominously named Silencers.  The main rule of surviving the 4th Wave is to trust no one.  The aliens understand the human instinct to horde, and are taking advantage of this to kill.  Anyone that you meet may be a Silencer.

After a tragedy at the refugee camp that her family found shelter at, Cassie finds herself alone and on the run with an M-16 and a Luger for safety.  She wonders in her journal if she is the last human on Earth. She scrounges for food at abandoned stores, risking death by drone strikes or sniper attacks, and hides in the woods at night.  The only thing that can overcome her fear is the need to find her little brother, Sam, and she sets out on a dangerous journey to save him.  Along the way she meets Evan Walker, a handsome, intriguing young man who may not be what he seems.  Cassie now knows that she is not, in fact, the last person alive on Earth, but finds herself torn between the 4th Wave rule of trusting no one, and relying on him because she needs his help to find Sam.  Halfway through the book, the story shifts to focus on the fate of one of Cassie's classmates, Ben Parrish.  A tension-filled, harrowing journey ensues culminating with Cassie and Ben's lives intersecting in an explosive (literally) climax.

In addition to several award-winning books for young adults, including The Extraordinary Adventures of  Alfred Kropp, which was a Carnegie Medal finalist, Rick Yancey has also written several adult novels and a memoir.

The 5th Wave has enjoyed an immensely positive reception from both critics and readers.  It is being compared to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games because of some of the similarities in plot elements, and is on pace to enjoy the same popularity.  It is the first in a promised trilogy, again drawing a comparison to Hunger Games.  Like Hunger Games, The 5th Wave is officially categorized as a young adult novel but is strong enough that it is being well-received by older readers.  As a teacher, I would recommend this book for older students, 9th grade and above because of mature language and the intensity of the subject matter.  Because the characters spend so much time alone, this would be a great novel to use to explore character development with students.  The length of the novel (457 pages) may be off putting for reluctant and/or struggling readers but the fast pace and mystery of the plot make it a easier read.

As a reader, I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of sci-fi and survivalist fiction.  Although the basic plot of aliens taking over Earth seems played out, Yancey deal with this in a unique and refreshing way.    The disaster takes Cassie literally overnight from being a regular teenager worried about dating, school, and socializing, into a fugitive fighting for survival and trying to save what is left of her family.  The forced introspection and emotional growth of Cassie and Ben causes them to reach some mature conclusions about human nature, the force of human will against the odds, and what really matters in life.  Readers will have the chance to think about their own beliefs about the choices that they would make in similar circumstances and what they would be capable of doing in the name of survival.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review of The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

Winters, B. (2012).  The Last Policeman.  Philadelphia, PA:  Quirk Books.

What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end in six months?   This is the question at the center of The Last Policeman, the first mystery in a promised trilogy and winner of the 2013 Edgar Award.

The world has found out that a devastatingly large asteroid-scientifically known as 2011 GV1 but nicknamed Maia, is scheduled to collide with Earth and cause global loss of life.  In America, the economy quickly falls to pieces as employees and even CEOs walk off the job, determined to carry out their bucket lists and spend their remaining time with family and friends.  Some turn to religion to find solace and even more turn to substance abuse.  Drug use skyrockets so much that the government decriminalizes marijuana in an effort to deter people from turning to harder drugs.  The suicide rate climbs exponentially.

In the middle of it all is Detective Hank Palace, one of only four remaining members of the Adult Crimes Division in the Concord Police Department in New Hampshire.  Palace has only been on the force for little over a year when his promotion to detective is precipitated by the retirement-and in one case,disappearance, of his senior officers.  Most police officers, including Palace's team members, are only half-heartedly investigating crimes and the government has ruled that law enforcement agencies no longer investigate apparent suicides, for obvious reasons.  Hank Palace is the youngest member of his division and the only one that still takes his job seriously, provoking good-natured teasing from his colleagues.

The teasing is escalated when Palace is called in on what should be an open-and-shut suicide case- an insurance worker named Peter Zell who apparently hung himself in a McDonald's bathroom.  Palace can't shake the feeling that there's more to the story than meets the eye, and proceeds with investigating the case with noncommittal approval from his superiors.

As Palace investigates dead-ends and wrong turns, he must also deal with his personal issues, namely an erratic younger sister and her missing husband, as well as his personal nightmares.  Despite these obstacles, Palace perseveres, taking his job seriously and doing his best to maintain high standards and professionalism at work while the world crumbles around him.

The Last Policeman raises important questions about morality and humanity.  What does being human mean?  How important are relationships, law and order, and basic decency, in the face of apocalypse?  Palace believes in doing his job to the best of his abilities and not slacking, despite the fact that in six months, none of it will matter anyway.

Most of the apocalyptic novels that I have read deal with the actual disaster and its aftermath as people survive and begin to rebuild.  The Last Policeman is different in that it deals with the period leading up to apocalypse and how the human spirit is tested, broken, and in some cases, made stronger in the face of impending doom.  These questions become as important as the murder mystery that Palace is trying to solve and works in tandem with his investigation to create a worthy read that is most deserving of the awards and praise that it has received.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review of Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Jones, T. Silver Sparrow. (2011).  Chapel Hill, NC:  Algonquin Books

Like her previous two novels, Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow is set in urban Atlanta.  It chronicles the lives of two sisters-one who knows that the other exists, and one who doesn't.  The opening line of the novel, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist", begins the ride through the world of Dana Lynn Yarboro, the 'secret' daughter of James and Gwen.

Dana's parents meet at the department store that Gwen works at when he comes in to buy an anniversary present for his wife.  Gwen is still married herself, although long separated from her husband.  Thus begins an affair that leads to the birth of Dana, while James' marriage to Laverne remains childless.  Wanting her child to be legitimate, but knowing that James is already married, Gwen convinces him to cross state lines to Alabama and marry her there.  Her best friend Willie Mae and James' adopted brother Raleigh-who signs Dana's birth certificate and aids James in his duplicity throughout the novel, are witnesses.  It is Willie Mae who also points out another practical reason for marrying James-he is now considered a bigamist and this crime can be held over his head by Gwen should he ever mistreat her or attempt to leave.

Dana lives in a universe defined by secrecy and conflict. She gets only one night a week with her father-Wednesdays, when he tells his wife that he is working late at the limousine business that he owns with Raleigh.  She learns from an early age not to speak about her father to anyone, even her friends or teachers.  Her mother takes her on trips through town that they call "surveilling" in which they spy on her sister Chaurisse, and James' other wife, Laverne.

It's easy to feel empathy for Dana because while James attempts to be  loving father on his weekly visits and provides financial support, she still suffers as the secret child.  her life is constantly put on hold in order to maintain the family secret.  If  Dana is accepted to a school or summer camp and Chaurisse decides to enroll, Dana can't go.  She is even forced to give up a coveted summer job at Six Flags because Chaurisse is also hired there.

But just as you're totally siding with Dana, Jones flips the script and pens the second half of the story from Chaurisse's point of view.  Then we see that while Chaurisse enjoys the privileges that come with legitimacy, she suffers in her own way.  She is plagued with adolescent fear and self-doubt, especially regarding body image. Like her mother, she is overweight and plain in appearance.  During the two chance encounters in which she and Dana meet, she is struck both times at how beautiful she is.  She calls her a 'silver girl' one of those girls whose beauty Chaurisse aspires to but can never reach.  Chaurisse's title for Dana along with a Gospel quoted in the story about God watching over the sparrow, becomes the source for the book's title.  Like the sparrow, Dana is 'the least of these' because despite her beauty, she is and always will be the second-place child.

As the dialogue hints throughout the narrative, it is inevitable that James' double life implodes and the truth is revealed.  I won't put any spoilers in here, but suffice to say that James is not cast in a favorable light in his treatment of either of his daughters when he realizes that his secret is about to be revealed.  The confrontation between his two wives is climactic and tension-filled, yet at the same time, it provides you with a sense of relief because you have spent the entire novel knowing that this showdown must take place, but wondering when and how it will happen.

Tayari Jones is a lyrical writer who manages to weave poetic language in with adolescent narrative in a way that is both elegant and realistic.  She uses the children to tell the story of the parents and in the hallmark of a good character writer, she creates characters who are believable and none of whom are totally innocent or guilty.  While we cheer for Gwen when she tries to fight for her daughter, especially when privileges are taken away to keep her from running into Chaurisse, we then also have to remember that by knowingly getting involved with a married man, she set her daughter up for this type of treatment.  While James is an adulterer and a bigamist, he also tries to be a good father to both of his daughters, though he will always fall short in that role as far as Dana is concerned.

Jones strikes a chord with readers as she touches on subjects and emotions that are central to many families with multiple children and not just families with 'secret' children.  Feelings of favoritism and jealousy among siblings, the strains of the parent-child relationship as children grow older, complicated marriages, and unrequited love are universal topics that readers can identify with.  Silver Sparrow is a beautiful read with a poignant, somewhat sad ending that reminds us that in the real world our choices sometimes come with

hard consequences and that there are not always neat, fairy-tale endings.