Monday, July 29, 2013

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Beginnings are everything. Some can be fabulous, others terrible, and others just plain boring. The beginning of A Corner of White (Panmacmillan Australia, September 2012) was a bit...quirky. Some might have dropped the book before really getting into the plot, because the main character had a bit of an unbelievable life. The book is told from two perspectives, one person in the real world and one in a fantasy one, and I almost thought that both were fantasy because the real world one was so strange. People were reading other people's auras and such. But once you get past that, A Corner of White is really quite a good book. 

In the real world, Madeline lives in London. She wishes she could return to her former life as the daughter of a rich man who had everything she ever wanted. Somewhere other than this earth, Elliot lives in the Kingdom of Cello, where attacks from colors are becoming more and more frequent. (These colors are physical things that I thought of as clouds of violence. They don't actually come wielding knives and other weapons, but the results are the same.) One day, both Madeline and Elliot discover a crack between their worlds, and begin a correspondence that sparks something in both Madeline herself and Elliot's entire world.

It's very important to me when I read a novel that it has a plot that isn't copied from other novels. If it has concepts that are imitations, it feels fake and half-baked. This was definitely not the case with this book. The plot and settings were like nothing I have ever seen before. (I say settings because the story goes back and forth between two different worlds). There was such creativity in the characters, especially in the composition of Madeline, one of two main characters. She is sort of the queen of quirks. She always wears colorful clothes, and has lived almost every exotic place that you can think of, even though she now resides in an "attic flat". She wasn't very nice, either. She was pleasant and polite, but it didn't really come from the heart. That was something that, ironically, made me like her, because she was imperfect. So many main characters are perfect, and it was nice to find someone who needed corrections here. Here's an excerpt: 

"She told them the memory while they ate scones under the apple trees, deck chairs slung low to the ground. 
      "I was riding a skateboard -- we were all on skateboards -- going down a hill."
      " Where was this?" said Belle, eyes closed. 
      "Genoa. In Italy. We were there for a summer. I was going fast -- I was ahead of the others and the hill was steep. The road swerved and suddenly there was an intersection with cars flying in both directions. So I jumped off the skateboard. And that was when I realized how fast I was going. I did that thing where your feet go --" 
She stopped and drummed her fists on the table. 
     "No. Wait. It was faster than that, more like --" 
This time she drummed her fingers instead, fingernails clicking like a typist, fingers tangling and tripping one another. 
     "You know, when your feet are in a panic, trying to catch up with your body." 
She paused. 
     "I came so close to falling," she said. "But I didn't. I saved myself."
She broke a scone in half, spread it with jam, and took a bite. 
     "That's it? That's the memory?" Belle sat up, and nearly lost control of her deckchair.
     "No. There was a six-car pile-up. While I was saving myself, my skateboard rolled onto the highway."
     "Oh, all right, then." Belle regained her chair's composure, and closed her eyes again. Jack hit the side of Belle's head. "Oh, all right then? A six-car bloody pile-up? Oh, all right, then?
Madeline laughed, then looked thoughtful. 
     "Nobody was hurt," she said. "Except the cars, I guess."

I don't know, but I think that if I caused a six-car pile-up (even a one-car pile-up, for that matter), I would feel at least a bit guilty. Certainly more guilty than "except the cars, I guess". These are the flaws that make her likeable to a reader, if not her friends: she doesn't know anything of the world's troubles, or even anything of empathy. She's so likeable because you get to watch her change throughout the story. On a bit of a different note, I think that I would have liked to learn more about Elliot. His world was so interesting, and I think that he was a very complex character. Maybe in the next book of this trilogy we'll learn more.

If you hate fantasy, don't read this book. However, if you like interesting characters, than you should give it a try. It is a great book about how people can change, with a very intriguing plot. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm off to search for a crack in this world. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman

Talk about motivational books. I recived The Milk of Birds (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, April 2013) as an ARC  (Advance Reader's Copy) but it has since been officially published. This book has definitely been added to my Top Ten list of favorites. The best thing about it was that the characters were very well constructed. Nawra, a girl in Sudan who went through a terrible experience, is now at a refugee camp in Darfur. K.C. is a young girl in America, experiencing the transition to high school with terrible grades and being as she calls it, "a loser." These girls are paired together through a program called Save the Girls, a program that provides girls who escaped villages that were attacked with money and correspondence from a donor in America. Nawra's village is one of these. And so the story starts, a correspondence across the world.

First of all, Nawra and K.C. are both such strong characters. It was great to see two main female characters who weren't waif-ish and dependent on someone else. Nawra always went through terrible situations and made the best of them, coming out stronger. And K.C., even though she struggled so hard in school and required summer school to pass eighth grade, she managed to joke and have fun with her friends and start a great movement, inspired by Nawra's situation. I can't applaud Ms. Whitman enough. One of my favorite excerpts from the book is the following. 

"It is gray now, no sun left behind the clouds.
    "You are tired, Tata?" Little Zeinab asks.
    "She is braver than she is tired," says Big Zeinab. "I see a lion beneath those clothes. It is my turn now to tell stories. "
She speaks of her daughter's wedding, the meeting of families, the preparation of a feast. I cannot tell my ears to listen as well as my legs to walk, so the story comes and goes. But Big Zeinab's voice is a rope that I keep my hand upon as we move forward in the starless dark."

(That was Nawra.) Can you see how she keeps walking, even though she is about to go through a terrible ordeal? Meanwhile, K.C., back in the States, reads what is happening to Nawra in one of her letters, starts calling her mother and they both go to Save the Girls to see what they can do. Not many people would go THAT far to help a friend. This is a glimpse of the kind of person K.C. becomes after exchanging letters with Nawra. I won't say what is happening to Nawra, but it's a big surprise! 

This book was amazing. It was so motivational and it actually inspired me to do something, after reading about K.C.'s work. I encourage all of you to read The Milk of Birds. It is very well written and the topics are ones that I think everyone should learn about. And who knows? Maybe after reading, you'll try to find a pen pal like Nawra.


Monday, July 8, 2013

A Question of Freedom by R. Dwayne Betts

When you look at the cover of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, (Avery, 2009) you see a picture of the author, R. Dwayne Betts. Most people would think that he was a smart, educated man. Which is what he is! Nobody would assume that he had once gone to prison, because his picture differs in so many ways from the stereotypical image of what a former prisoner looks like. And really, this is what his book is about: questioning what freedom means once you don't have it.
A Question of Freedom is about how R. Dwayne Betts is sent to prison at the age of sixteen, and given a sentence of nine years. His crime was carjacking a man. A theme that keeps popping up in the book is thirty. How thirty minutes of "joyriding" landed him in jail. That thirty seconds it took to threaten the sleeping man whose car he stole. With a gun. And how much he regrets it. 

The book itself was well written and I think that it got Mr. Betts' message across. The book was more of a question about society than a book about prison, so if you don't like ethics and philosophy, this might not be a good read for you. The beginning and the end are where he really talked about his life, so those were the most "action-filled" parts of the book. The middle of the book talked a lot about how the author felt, having cellmates, each of a different ethnicity, being in isolation, or the cell, and being changed between prisons of different securities. The book kind of follows the style of describing an event, and then describing how he felt about it.
One event that really stood out to me was when he started to learn Spanish so he could talk to his cellmates that spoke that language. He studied with a  cellmate who spoke Spanish for about three hours a day until he could converse with his Spanish-speaking aquaintances. It was so touching that instead of lying there thinking about his doom, he feels the barrier between him and his cellmates: language. He says that prison is one of the most diverse places he's ever been. I found that interesting, the fact that it was so diverse that it could earn that title. 
While reading about Dwayne's cellmates' sentences, I was shocked. They had recieved HUGE sentences for crimes that, in my opinion, deserved at least a tiny bit less time. I was so intruiged about how it felt looking back at a crime. From the outside, people in prison look mean, like people that are always defined by what they did to get them there. But reading this book gave me a great perspective of how sorry people might be. And I think that the long sentence won't make you any sorrier. Sure, you need to be extreme to make sure they don't repeat themselves. But couldn't they have a person who worked with the prisoners, someone who gaged a sense of if they were ready for release? I don't know. Something. But reading this book made me a whole lot sorrier for the people, the teenagers, trapped behind those bars.

 As I said before, the book includes a lot of writing about what prison felt like, not the actual events of the prison. Personally, I felt myself starting to skim while reading the middle, because that was where Dwayne (the author) had done most of his explaining. Explaining, in the sense, that he was explaining an event and his feelings about it. It might appeal to sixteen-year-olds, because that was Dwayne's age when he first entered prison. They might be able to more easily relate to his thoughts then I could, being younger. It might also prevent teens from committing crimes like the one Dwayne did, because they would have a little bit of perspective of really having no question of being free, at least for a while if not their whole life. A Question of Freedom is a book written for adults, but I think if you are advanced enough to read it in your teens and you feel ready to read this kind of book, then you should. If you are under 14, I would advise checking with your parents about it first. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy the questions posed and really start to think about them. Think about a question of freedom.