Monthly Archives: April 2013

‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan

The LifeboatstarstarstarIn 1914 Grace and her new husband Henry board an elegant ocean liner which suffers a mysterious explosion at sea and subsequently sinks. Grace finds herself castaway in an overloaded lifeboat with a number of fellow passengers. Where is Henry? Who can she trust? What choices should she make?  ‘The Lifeboat’ is not a means to a rescue but the beginning of a survival story which deals with the physical, moral and emotional aspects of life and death issues.

Survival at sea is a great premise for a novel, especially when you throw in a mystery, some theft and some psychological intrigue. But sadly this one left me somewhat underwhelmed. It was not a bad read, but not a really good one either. The main character narrates the story but I feel like I still never really got to know Grace at all. We do know that she is strong and because she narrates you do know that she survives, but she never displays much depth of character or growth despite the brutal and horrific circumstances. The other characters are also rather hard to follow, mostly because they are also not so well developed or described.

‘The Lifeboat’ is a good novel and had the potential to be great but that never happened for me. I really wanted to like it and I still would recommend it for an intriguing read but I could never shake a feeling of disappointment about it. There were also way too many loose ends left for a satisfying closure and it seemed to just “end with a shrug” in the words of one reviewer. However, there were many positive reviews from some who “couldn’t put it down” and others who “gulped it down in one sitting” so perhaps it was just me and the time I read it in.

Author feature: Gary D. Schmidt

Gary D. SchmidtGary D. Schmidt is an award winning young adult author who teaches at Calvin College, my alma mater. His books are deep, well crafted and multi-layered, yet very readable, full of humour, and witty. His specialty is coming-of-age stories. In a speech, he once shared his fascination with those transitional moments when a youngster leaves childhood and heads toward adulthood. Schmidt’s books appeal to people of all ages, in fact, I sometimes wonder if adults and judges like his books better than the middle school tweens his books are pitched at. Adults reading these books will remember how hard adolescence is and appreciate Schmidt’s humour and pathos around the difficulties of this age. Someone once said, “The only thing harder than going through adolescence is watching someone you love go through it.”

Middle school boys are notoriously difficult to hook into reading. When I was working as a high school librarian, I was always looking for those gems which were compelling and readable, yet well written. Books like Hunger Games and Harry Potter are the ones which would draw reluctant readers in, while Schmidt’s books would usually only be read by those who were already avid readers.

Gary D. Schmidt Website

The Wednesday Warsstarstarstar‘The Wednesday Wars’ is a slightly exaggerated comic tale of middle school woes. It features Holling Hoodhood a 7th grade student who must spend his Wednesday afternoons with his teacher Mrs. Baker because the rest of the class is receiving religious instruction. Holling feels he is being punished because the teacher, on those afternoons, makes him read Shakespeare. The story is set during the Vietnam War which adds a sober element to the story and places everyday muddles into perspective.  Holling tries not to get into trouble, but this seems impossible when he has things like bullies and angry rats to deal with, and they’re making him wear yellow tights in the school play!

Okay for NowstarstarstarIn a companion book to the ‘Wednesday Wars’ Doug Swieteck calls his new home “The Dump” and he endures a move to a small town where he knows no one and everyone else knows everyone. It’s 1968 when the Apollo space missions were happening and the Vietnam war was going on. He suffers from a number of abuses and is barely surviving complete despair. But when Doug makes a discovery at the local Public Library, things start to turn around. Someone kind takes an interest in him and he discovers that being passionate about something can make all the difference in the world. In ‘Okay for Now’ Schmidt gets a firm grasp on a heartbreaking topic and manages to coax out some hope and redemption. But in a realistic way, since we can all relate to a time when the answer to “How are you?” can only really be “Okay for now” and that’s okay. The earthy and gritty beginning to the story hooked me in immediately, but halfway through it became a bit unbelievable. Even though the ending was not ‘happily ever after’ for everyone in the story, I did find it got tied up a bit too neatly and too sweetly. I did love the way he wove the Audubon pictures of birds into the story.

Troublestarstarstar‘Trouble’ grapples with the idea of how to live in a world with trouble. There are some very Calvinist themes in this book.  The story begins with a tragedy that sparks racial tension between two communities. One night Henry’s older brother Franklin is accidentally hit by a pickup truck driven by his Cambodian classmate Chay Chouan. Henry’s father alway said, “If you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.” But what now? It is a study in contrast and is all about grace.  Forgiveness and grace make things ok again, at least for now. Henry feels helpless in the situation but decides to act. After rescuing a Black Dog from drowning, he attempts to climb Mt. Katahdin, something he and Franklin were planning to do together. It becomes for him, not only an adventurous challenge, but a journey of redemption and self-discovery.

‘The Red House’ by Mark Haddon

The Red HousestarstarstarA family holiday in Wales. A brother and sister decide to vacation together with their families after their mother dies. Richard and Angela haven’t been close but perhaps they should build bridges. Richard is recently remarried and has a new step-daughter. Angela and her husband Dominic have three teenage children, but the memory of the fourth who died in miscarriage still haunts.

The week progresses with the eight characters all fighting demons of their own. The author weaves together glimpses of their  thoughts and actions into a series of candid snapshots of a family’s life. There is a poetic quality to the writing and a skillful portrayal of the characters and the setting. Haddon has a creative, unique way of handling description resulting in very vivid yet ordinary and recognizable sets of images and scenes. Haddon once said in a speech that various people and events are like dots on a page, thrown together in random ways, but it’s not the author’s job to connect all those dots, that’s left to the reader.

Though I really enjoyed this book, I’m not sure that everyone would. There is no doubt that the writing is good, but it is very character driven and relationship oriented. If that is the sort of book which appeals to you, you will not be disappointed. However, in my mind it didn’t even come close to his first book ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timestarstarstarstarstarHaddon’s creativity as an author is very evident in  ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’, recently made into a stage production in London’s West End. When I read Curious Incident years ago, it was a book I wanted every person I knew to read. The story line is a mystery about a 15 year old autistic savant named Christopher who is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. He embarks on an investigation which reveals so much more to the reader about him, than about the mystery he is solving, giving a unique insight into the mind of someone with autism. It is a tremendous and surprising novel about being different, and how the world could change if only people could look deeper and understand each other better. Both funny and tragic, Haddon displays rare insight in this novel, using a character who struggles with emotion, to create an experience full of emotion for the reader.

‘Stolen’ by Lucy Christopher

StolenstarstarstarWhile on vacation with her parents, Gemma is kidnapped in the Bangkok airport. It went so fast. Ty, a rugged and tan stranger with ice blue eyes but with a gentle manner who looked vaguely familiar, bought her a coffee, slipped something into it, and the next thing she knew she was in a far away land with no chance of escape.  ‘Stolen’ is written as a letter from Gemma to her captor.

This is an award winning young adult novel which did keep me on the edge of my seat. Since I lead a reading group for 15 year old girls I am always on the lookout for thought provoking stories and adventures that easily draw the reader in. This one also has a thrilling emotional twist. The desolate setting of the Australian outback is vividly portrayed as both beautiful and dangerous. So is the kidnapper, who expects Gemma to fall in love with him.