Tag Archives: novel

Primavera

By Mary Jane Beaufrand
Classification
:  YA Literature
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Age Level:  12+
Subjects:  Family, self-discovery, Italian Renaissance, Medici

Summary:  Scorned and neglected by her mother from infancy, young Flora Pazzi has grown up in the shadows of her family’s elegant palazzo.  Nurtured by her remarkable Nonna, Flora observes the endless political intrigues of her family whose chief rivals for power in Florence are the formidable Medicis.  When Flora and her friend Emilio become embroiled in the Pazzis’ latest sinister plot, Flora finds herself at a crossroads:  warn the Medici and betray her family, or remain idle while her father orchestrates a massacre?  Whatever she chooses, Flora knows the life she has led, however miserable, is about to end.

Notes:  Set in 1478, with Botticelli and the Pope figuring in the background, this exciting novel is a great introduction to the drama of Renaissance Italy.  The historical elements are the strongest aspects of the book; the writing itself is fair.  Would be enjoyed by middle school students reading Shakespeare for the first time. 
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Does My Head Look Big in This?

By Randa Abdel-Fattah
Classification: YA fiction
Genre: Realistic fiction
Age Level: 12+
Subjects: High school, cultural identity, personal beliefs, family, religion, self-discovery

Reader’s Annotation:  Australian-Palestinian teenager Amal decides to wear the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, full-time, a formidable challenge at her private school in a Melbourne suburb.

Summary:  Sixteen-year-old Amal is intelligent, sarcastic, focused and loyal, and she needs to be all that and more when she decides to wear the hijab as a symbol of her commitment to her faith.  With the support of her truest friends, Amal copes with the narrow-mindedness of classmates, the stress of preparing for exams, and the complexity of her relationship with crush-worthy Adam.  Then Amal’s own convictions are tested when her best friend runs away from home and Amal must confront her own prejudices and ignorance.

Notes:  Amal’s wit, insight and self-awareness make her a role model for all time.  This novel offers an engaging glimpse into a world seemingly different from—yet surprisingly similar to—that of most middle-class families.
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Storyteller

By Edward Myers
Classification:  YA Literature
Genre:  Fantasy
Age Level:  12+
Subjects:  Storytelling, personal identity, loyalty, self-discovery

Summary:  Jack grows up in the town of Yarrow with a gift for telling tales.  As he gets older, Jack decides to leave home to seek a living as a storyteller.  After a few tough scrapes, fate hands Jack a boon and he finds himself in the employ of King Alphonse.  For a while, all seems to be going Jack’s way, but when King Alphonse dies suddenly and his immature, self-centered son Yoss ascends to the throne, Jack finds himself working as a propaganda machine for the new king’s reign.  Though troubled, Jack lacks the conviction to act decisively against Yoss.  With his family toiling unfairly under Yoss’s rule, and his love Stelinda held captive by his enemies, can Jack master his art in time to enlist the help he needs?

Notes:  Stories within stories build upon one another to create a wonderful tale about the power of words.  A terrific read that celebrates a fading art.
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Bella at Midnight

By Diane Stanley
Classification
:  YA Literature
Genre:  Fairy Tale
Age Level:  12+
Subjects:  Family, loyalty

Summary:   Though the daughter of a knight, Bella is raised by a peasant family.  Her foster parents, Martin and Beatrice, also care for the king’s fourth son Julian when he is a babe, so Bella’s favorite childhood playmate is none other than a prince.  Unaware of her noble birth, Bella is happy and well loved in her humble home until her father remarries and summons his daughter to his estate.  Bella’s stepmother, grieving for her first husband and the loss of her own estate, wants nothing to do with uncultured, uneducated Bella.  Miserable, Bella takes to kitchen work and dreams of her former home.  When she overhears a plot that threatens Prince Julian’s life, she embarks on a dangerous journey to warn him.  But even if she reaches her destination in time, is anyone likely to take the word of a simple peasant girl?

Notes:  Fairy tale lovers will enjoy this re-imagining of Cinderella.  In alternating first person narrative, Bella at Midnight explores the point of view of the step-mother, step-sisters, godmother, and prince.
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Song of the Sparrow

By Lisa Ann Sandell
Classification:  YA Literature
Genre:  Fiction
Age Level:  12+
Subjects:  Arthurian legend, family, war

Summary:  Raised in an army camp and constantly surrounded by men, Elaine longs for a woman’s grace and manners to emulate.  At the same time she is proud of her ability to nurse and heal the wounded soldiers who defend their sovereign’s land.  As she grows into a woman, Elaine begins to idolize Lancelot, and fret over Arthur’s latest battle plan.  When the stunning Gwynivere arrives, Elaine is instantly jealous of the other woman’s beauty and Lancelot’s clear infatuation.  And Gwyn scorns Elaine’s wild ways.  But when the two find themselves in peril, pettiness must be pushed aside for the sake of their lives and the lives of Arthur’s entire company.

Notes:  Written in blank verse, Song of the Sparrow imbibes familiar stories with a fresh, feminine perspective, bringing new humanity to legendary figures and re-introducing us to characters we think we know so well. 
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The Shakespeare Stealer

By Gary Blackwood
Classification:  YA Literature
Genre:  Historical fiction
Age Level:  10+
Subjects:  Elizabethan theater, apprentices

“When you go to London, you will attend a performance of a play called the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  You will copy it in Dr. Bright’s ‘charactery’ and you will deliver it to me.  Now.  Any questions?” ~ from The Shakespeare Stealer

Summary: Retrieved from an orphanage by a preacher who needs an assistant, Widge is educated in English, Latin, and a curious shorthand of his master’s invention.  With no thought of right and wrong, Widge obey’s Dr. Bright’s commands to write down sermons given in other towns.  Then Widge is purchased from Dr. Bright by a brooding, fearsome man named Falconer.  Falconer delivers Widge to a new master who tasks him with stealing a play from the Globe Theater’s playwright—a one William Shakespeare.  Widge goes to carry out his duty, but ends up falling in with the company of players…and finding himself a real home for the first time in his life.  Suddenly, Widge understands the meaning of loyalty, and of betrayal.  With his master’s assignment hanging over him and Falconer watching his every move, Widge must confront the hardest moral dilemma of his life.

Notes:  A good companion book to a middle school student’s first Shakespeare play.  Widge is likable enough, so the book is a fun way to introduce Elizabethan theater to young readers and actors.
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The DeGranville Trilogy

By K.M. Grant
Classification
:  YA Literature
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Age Level:  12+
Subjects:  Family, self-discovery, honor, loyalty, betrayal, cultural identity, Crusades

Blood Red Horse (Book 1)
Summary:  Brothers and rivals, Gavin and Will deGranville have much to prove to themselves and each other when they join their father, Sir Thomas, in King Richard’s crusade to the Holy Land.  Riding the exquisite red horse Hosanna, Will proves his mettle as a Christian soldier.  At the same time, fighting on the opposite side, Saracen warrior Kamil proves his own worth.  When Hosanna falls into Kamil’s hands, soldiers on both sides of the conflict realize there may be common ground between them after all.  But can one horse really forge peace between armies out for blood?

Green Jasper (Book 2)
Summary:  Constable Piers deScabious barges in on Gavin and Ellie’s wedding with the claim that King Richard is dead!  John claims the crown and has given Ellie to deScabious as a bride.  DeScabious carries off his intended, leaving Will and Gavin to sort out their next move.  Will wants to rescue Ellie, refusing to believe Richard is dead without proof, but Gavin is reluctant to pursue deScabious and risk John’s displeasure.  Meanwhile, Richard is very much alive, held captive by the German Emperor.  The rightful king dispatches Saracen soldier Kamil to contact the deGranvilles.  En route, Kamil rescues Will’s beloved horse Hosanna, but what will become of Ellie in the midst of feuding monarchs and families? 

Blaze of Silver (Book 3)
Summary:  Kamil has been living in the deGranville household for some time, and this odd arrangement has finally come to the attention of the Old Man in the Mountain.  The Old Man sends his faithful servant Amal to England to entice Kamil into betraying his Christian friends.  When Kamil discovers Amal’s and the Old Man’s treachery, he is horrified and ashamed and also cornered.  All the while, Will and Ellie are learning to rely on each other as they attempt to reach their captive king.  Once more, across faith and cultural lines, everyone seems to find hope in one red horse.  But when the previously infallible Hosanna cannot keep pace with the silver mare Shihab, the fates of a family, a kingdom, and two countries, as well as the lives of the deGranvilles and Kamil, all hang in the balance. 

Notes:  Even though Will and Kamil share a special bond with the Blood Red Horse, readers expecting to become emotionally attached to Hosanna will be disappointed.  In all three books of the trilogy, the primary focus is the human characters.  The horses function as necessary literary accessories in a story about knights in armor.  That said, the trilogy is great reading and there are splendid passages about horses and riding.  Light and entertaining, it is emotional without being draining and will satisfy readers who enjoy a blend of history, romance and adventure.
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Buddha Boy

By Kathe Koja
Classification:  YA Literature
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Age Level:  10+
Subjects:  high school, bullying, friendship

“’They’re called pretas,’ he said.  ‘Hungry ghosts.  Big big bodies and little tiny mouths, they eat all the time but they never get full.  Like when you have a lot of stuff, you have everything, but all you want is more.’” ~ from Buddha Boy

Summary:  Jinsen is a new kid at school, tormented for his oddities which include oversized tie-dyed tshirts with dragon motifs, his shaved head, and his serene smile.  Justin is less than thrilled to find himself paired with Jinsen for an economics project, but quickly discovers Jinsen’s remarkable artistic talent.  As Justin gets to know Jinsen and the reasons for his behaviors, Justin finds himself inspired by his new friend’s equanimity—a result of Jinsen’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy.  But when classmates go too far, both Jinsen and Justin find out how hard it is to stick by one’s convictions in the face of extreme provocation.

Notes:  A very spare amount of Buddhist philosophy is introduced in this story.  In fact, the Buddhist elements seem contrived—a reader looking to glean anything insightful in regard to the Four Nobel Truths will be disappointed.  Koja does little more than toss out these concepts in a thin attempt at character development.  On the other hand, the issue of bullying is highly relevant.  Young readers will likely relate to any number of characters as the increasingly malicious taunting plays out and adult readers can use the plot to frame dialogue with tweens and teens about the subject.
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Blindness by Jose Saramago

Classification:  Fiction
Genre:  Fiction/Literature
Subjects:  Epidemic, human nature, loss of sight, civilization and savagery
Content to be aware of:  graphic violence

“You never know beforehand what people are capable of, you have to wait, give it time, it’s time that rules, time is our gambling partner of the other side of the table and it holds all the cards of the deck in its hand, we have to guess the winning cards of life, our lives…” from Blindness

Summary:  Beginning with one random motorist and spreading rapidly throughout an unnamed country, an epidemic of blindness deprives a nation of sight.  Only one is spared and thus forced to witness the descent of a people from civilization into savagery.  In an attempt at containment, the government quarantines the afflicted.  During their internment, a small group of protagonists forms, including an ophthalmologist (ironically) and his wife, a young woman, a boy, an old man, and another husband and wife.  The group bands together in a fight to survive even when all hope seems lost.

Notes:  Though I highly recommend this novel, it is not an enjoyable story to read.  Gritty and harrowing, it reminded me of the similarly disturbing work of William Golding in Lord of the Flies for its theme of the fragility of civilization.  What tethers humanity to civilization?  Truly could we so easily transform into beasts?  The author employs reader-response technique, writing with minimal punctuation and depriving the reader of conventional descriptions and characterizations (such as names and additional identifying features), which can make for slower reading, but is effective for simulating the confusion and unknown experienced by the characters.  Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
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Blindness (Miramax, 2008)
Director:  Fernando Meirelles
Main Cast:  Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover
Rating: R

Synopsis:  “White sickness” sweeps through a metropolis, blinding an entire population.  Initially the sightless are interned in an unused asylum, and conditions degenerate as more and more people are crammed into the facility.  Among the interned is the only woman whose sight has been spared.  She attempts to care for and protect her husband and the small group of people with whom they have banded together.  When another group of internees seizes control of the food supply and demands payment in exchange for food, a horrifying war ensues as the interned struggle to survive.

Review:  A project requiring the adaptation of a story about blindness to a medium wholly dependent upon visual effects cannot be anything but doomed from the outset. (Click the movie poster image to link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Blindness.)
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Book or Movie? Book.  Blindness is about people in general, rather than individual characters.  In the novel, the plot propels the reader forward, not an attachment to the characters.  The characters are “Everymen,” but this characterization technique is not successful in the film.  Without a dynamic, charismatic personality with which to identify, the audience fails to develop any emotional investment in the story.

Why I chose this book and filmBlindness is my husband’s book.  He is Portuguese and I imagine he wanted to read Saramago solely for that reason.  Indeed, Saramago is the only Portuguese writer I can name.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself prowling around our book room in search of something to read and decided to give Blindness a go.

I was surprised at how quickly I was absorbed in the story.  This is not an easy book to read, firstly for the lack of punctuation and paragraphs, secondly for the dark, gruesome imagery.

I was also surprised to discover the controversy that surrounded the theatrical release of Blindness in 2008.  In this press release, the President of the National Federation of the Blind expresses his anger at the portrayal of blind people as “incompetent, filthy, vicious, and depraved.”  He goes on to claim that “to portray the blind in this manner, even as alleged allegory or so-called social commentary, is outrageous and reprehensible–and it is a lie.”

With all due respect to the President of NFB, I have to question whether he read and understood Saramago’s novel.  Blindness is not a story about blind people.  It is a story about a nation of people who suffer a tremendous catastrophe and the ensuing chaos.  It reflects on the dark side of humanity and is an important social commentary in a world whose people are increasingly dependent on this one of five senses.  In response to the objections of the blind community to the movie, Saramago was quoted as saying, “Stupidity doesn’t choose between the blind and the non-blind.”

For Jose Saramago’s autobiography, click here.  For Saramago’s 1998 Nobel Lecture, click here.

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A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson

Classification:  YA Literature
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Ages 14+
Subjects:  Self-discovery, family, independence

“She whispers it aloud, ‘Lorelei.’ the sound makes her ache, makes the word even more beautiful, even more real. ”  ~ from A Room on Lorelei Street

Summary:  Everything in Zoe Beth Buckman’s seventeen years has centered around her mother, and Zoe is ready to change that.  No longer willing to tidy up after her alcoholic, pill-popping parent, and refusing to give up any more of the money she has earned from her job to pay Mama’s debts, Zoe moves into a small room in a house owned by the eccentric and wise Opal Keats.  Finally, in a space of her own where she can just be,  Zoe revels in her new freedom…and struggles against the guilt she feels over leaving Mama.  With dark family secrets hovering over her, Zoe determinedly stretches every penny.  But independence comes with a price.  Soon Zoe must decide just how far she is willing to go to keep her room on Lorelei Street.

Notes:  Zoe is a striking character for her solitude and her maturity—truly a young adult protagonist with none of the frivolity of adolescence.  An all around good read that can be enjoyed snuggled up on a rainy day, or lounging on a beach towel on a sunny day. 
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