Review: Someone Named Eva, by Joan M. Wolf

Someone Named Eva, Joan M. Wolf

Another children’s novel about World War II—this one better, I think, than the average (certainly better than the nearly hideous and shockingly popular Boy in the Striped Pajamas), if only because it deals with such a little-known part of Hitler’s mission. The title character, Eva, is a victim of the Lebensborn project, in which Hitler abducted “Aryan-looking” children from occupied countries, who were then repatriated as German citizens and adopted by Nazi families.

Eva—or Milada, as she was called in Czechoslovakia—is a likable protagonist, though kids will likely find the ease of her transition to “Germanness”, and the degree to which she represses her former identity, difficult to understand and relate to. And the story’s rather dark ending doesn’t take long enough to unfold: we arrive very suddenly at the end of the war and Milada’s being reunited with her mother, though the rest of her family is dead or missing. The transition from her increasingly complacent existence with her German family – including a “sister” she grows to care for – back to her old life is abrupt and unsettling. It’s difficult to believe that her return would be so easy, especially because by the end of the book, she has almost completely forgotten her native language and her own history—even her name.

There is a degree of ambivalence here about the Lebensborn project, and the Nazis generally, that is unusual in a children’s book. Eva’s adoptive mother, though married to a top-ranking Nazi, is not a terrible person by any stretch of the imagination. One of Eva’s Czech cohorts, a girl named Ruzha, very quickly and happily takes on her new identity, and one gets the impression that her adoptive family may well be better for her than the one into which she was born. There are many characters on both sides of the conflict who are sympathetic, though Wolf doesn’t shy away from reality: Milada’s village has been destroyed by the Nazis, and her German family lives next door to a concentration camp where she sees first-hand what her adoptive father is responsible for. This is a surprisingly complex little book, and well worth reading.

In short: Very good historical fiction for kids and their grown-ups.

Read it if you like: Books about the Holocaust, The Upstairs Room


Addendum: In October 2009, I reviewed this book for school. That review follows. Continue reading “Review: Someone Named Eva, by Joan M. Wolf”

Review: Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer

This book is a mixed bag. Life As We Knew It deals with the aftermath of a horrific astronomical event, in which a meteor has crashed into the moon, causing its orbit to change drastically. Far-fetched? Yeah, sure, but the science isn’t really the point. (As a warning, though, those of you who are inclined in that direction will find plenty to complain about—there are all kinds of implausibilities in here.)

The novel focuses on a teenage girl, Miranda Evans, and her mother and two brothers. Life As We Knew It is really a survival tale, and so the novel’s target audience – high school students – is likely to think of a lot of things the Evans family should have done. (How is it that no one ever went hunting, or scavenging through dead neighbors’ houses?) That occasionally gets frustrating, but then again, I’m not sure how level-headed I’d be after the apocalypse. And much like the crazy science, the family’s survival skills (or lack thereof) aren’t what makes this book compelling.

And besides, those are pretty minor complaints. Most of the people who really have a beef with this book object to its perceived  “anti-Christian” and “anti-conservative” bias, which frankly is difficult to deny. There are a lot of pointed comments about the president running off to Texas with a stockpile of food, and the religious characters in the book are insane. Then again, that rather dim view of humanity is in keeping with the rest of the book – it’s not as though the Christians are singled out.

See, this book posits, on some level, that humans are pretty nasty creatures. When faced with a global catastrophe, it tells us, people will become terribly selfish. They’ll kill their neighbors, even their families. They’ll kidnap and pillage and murder. They’ll avoid at all costs doing anything generous, and serve only their own self-interest. This is exemplified by the Evans family: when Miranda tells the boy she likes about some available canned food, for example, her mother goes berserk. There’s a mantra here – family first, family first, family first – that is echoed by pretty much every character we meet, and it makes this book a little hard to swallow. It bears pointing out, of course, that in past global catastrophes, there have been an awful lot of incredible, heroic, generous humans, and in Pfeffer’s apocalypse there are absolutely none. Even Miranda’s mother, who is supposed to be more-or-less a good person and a good parent, eventually asks Miranda to make an enormous and kind of horrific sacrifice.

In the end, it’s Miranda who makes this book worth reading. This is told in the first person, in diary format, which more than anything highlights the surprising monotony of a post-apocalyptic Pennsylvania. She spends most of her time chopping wood, re-reading the same books, and fighting with her family. Towards the end of the novel, she devotes all of her time to keeping herself and her family alive, but until that point, she mostly just seems bored, and her diary very effectively blends Miranda’s mundane experiences with the harsh realities of her new world. Her very human, very teenage reactions to a devastating event are what make this novel plausible enough, and engaging enough, to finish: whatever else, you want to know that so resilient a girl can make it, even through the end of the world.

In short: Dark and thoughtful, Life As We Knew It relies on the spunk of its protagonist to keep the reader from getting too bored or depressed to finish the book. Luckily, Miranda is up to the challenge.

Read it if you like: Z is for Zachariah, post-apocalyptic fic

Review: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, by Libba Bray

The Gemma Doyle Trilogy: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray

So these books are good. I can’t really deny that. They’re basically the Harry Potter books, except with an almost-all-female cast, and set at an English boarding school in the 1890s. Plus, Bray throws in some young-adult-novel staples, like eating disorders, questions of sexual orientation, and cutting. (No, I’m not kidding – believe it or not, though, it’s not annoying.) You love all of the characters and want to be their best friends forever. There’s magic and friendship and romance and danger and corsets and conspiracy and patriarchy-fighting. The world Bray creates is detailed and involving, if not especially original. These books will suck you in and adamantly refuse to let you go. I literally could not read anything else while I was reading this trilogy, and these books are long – the last one is something like 850 pages. This trilogy is some glorious combination of Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Princess Diaries, Wizard’s Hall, and every Jane Austen novel. It’s great. It is fun, well-written, smart, and feminist.

But don’t get me wrong: I wish I’d never started reading them. Why, you ask? You wrote such a glowing review! Here’s why: because I felt really betrayed by certain events in the third book. (I don’t want to spoil things, you know, but if you want to know I’ll tell you. Or you can Google it.) I am not going to go into a lot of detail, for obvious reasons, but the last time I felt this betrayed by a novel was, well, when I read Invincible. I finished this generally uplifting and empowering book feeling absolutely terrible and sobbing my eyes out. Even thinking about it now makes me angry. So, you know. That’s the caveat.

In short: Read at your own peril. Sure, they’re great for the first two-thousand pages, but the fall is devastating. Brace yourself.

Read it if you like: Masochism

Review: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Being the great sinner I am, I read this after seeing the movie, which I enjoyed a great deal ( had the movie come out when I was sixteen, it would have been the best movie ever, but now that I’m ancient it was just a very nice evening out). The book, to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is even better. This is among the best and most honest young adult novels I’ve read in a while, and I endorse it wholeheartedly.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Nick and Norah (written by Levithan and Cohn, respectively), always in the first person. Both characters have distinctive voices. Levithan’s Nick absolutely channels that guy in your high school class who always sat in the corner of the cafeteria with a notebook (and you know you were dying to read what he was writing). Norah is instantly likeable, though her voice isn’t quite as surprising or unique. Both are genuinely good kids who’ve gotten inadvertently mixed up with (ob)noxious people, and you have to be glad that they’ve found each other.

A lot of people commented that the movie was a love letter to New York City, and the same can be said of the book—though really, it’s not all about New York. It’s about how great it is to be young and impetuous, have a driver’s license and no curfew, and spend a night listening to great music and sitting around at an all-night diner with the best person you’ve just met. Nick and Norah’s enthusiasm for music, food, spontaneity, and each other is infectious.

And so, one of the most appealing things about this novel is that it doesn’t try too hard to be cool. Too many novels—particularly novels designed to appeal to the ironic indie-kid set—are overly self-conscious and worried about coming across as genuine, and so they hide behind sarcasm and tongue-in-cheekiness. None of that in Nick & Norah’s. The title characters are vulnerable and charming, and their exploits, though probably clichéd, feel thrilling and new—just like they did to you, however many years ago. If this book doesn’t remind you of the best times you had in high school, then you’re…well, not a former indie kid. But whether this echoes your own history or simply offers you a window into someone else’s, rest assured that you’re experiencing all the best parts.

In short: Whatever, this book is terrific. Buy it in hardcover, read it fifty times, give it to all your friends.

Read it if you like: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, indie music, the movie

Review: Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe), by Kimberly Pauley

Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe), Kimberly Pauley

Mina Hamilton (yes, “Mina” is a reference to Dracula, good job!) is the daughter of two vampires. Not cool, sexy vampires, though: her parents are regular, middle-aged dorks: her mother teaches middle school and her father is an accountant. They just get bad sunburns when they go out on the beach.

Pauley’s vampires are endearingly normal (most of the vampires in the story dress and act normally, aside from the blood habit and that whole eternal life thing), which makes this book a refreshing take on vampire lore. At sixteen, Mina has to choose whether or not to become a vampire like her parents, which involves taking vampire classes, doing vampire homework, and going on vampire field trips (to visit a blood bar in one instance, and to talk to a vampire writer—think Anne Rice—in another). Her weird, badly dressed uncle—also a vampire—is her “sponsor”, advising her along the way.

While she’s dealing with that life-changing decision, she’s also busy looking for a prom date (will it be the popular jock, the dark, handsome, brooding vampire wannabe, or the sweet, funny vampire wannabe?) and dealing with the snobby girls at regular school and at vampire school. She’s got a lot on her plate for a junior in high school.

Sucks to Be Me is written in a diary format, and Mina’s voice reminds me a lot of Mia’s in The Princess Diaries: light, funny, and just a little self-conscious. The concept isn’t just clever and inventive, it’s also well-executed, which is a rare combination: Pauley re-writes a lot of the “rules” of vampires, but she’s always consistent, which will please vampire aficionados. (You know who you are.)

In short: This is a quick read, it’s fun, and it has a good message. Way better than some of that other vampire literature I could mention.

Read it if you like: The Princess Diaries, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Author Encounters: Stephen Chbosky

Today I went to see Stephen Chbosky read The Perks of Being a Wallflower at a bookstore down the street from my house. It is probably the best thing I have been to, reading-wise, and I’ve been to a lot of readings by a lot of authors I like.

But the thing is, he is exactly as nice as you’d think he would be, given he wrote that book, and he talked to everybody who brought books to be signed, and when he saw mine he laughed and said, “Wow, this has been thumbed. You’ve read this a lot.” And he flipped through to look at the things that I’d dog-eared and marked and written in the margins about, and it was really cool.

He also was really funny, and really seemed grateful that people had showed up ten years after he wrote that book. (I asked him if, looking back ten years later, there were anything he would change about it – he said two things. First, he thought Charlie should be less sexually naïve in the beginning. Second, he said Charlie should have cried about half as frequently, because he thought that had turned a lot of people off of the book.) He also told a great story about that line, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” which roughly paraphrased is this:

Before it was published, he’d given a xeroxed manuscript of the book to a friend, who read it on an airplane on the way to a birthday party for a girl he knew, who was rich and beautiful. He was neither – instead, he was chubby, with a tendency toward dating really terrible women. And he read that line, and it really struck him. And he’d liked this woman for a while, and that line made him decide to pursue her, because she was the kind of woman he wanted, and he decided to deserve her. And he did, and they got married, and afterward he gave her the manuscript and told her that it was the reason he’d had the courage to go after her. And she read it, and loved it, and called up a guy she knew who worked at MTV and was trying to start a book publishing branch. And he read it, and he loved it. And then he published it.

And that’s why we’ve read it.

He was really nice, and really funny, and he looked about a decade younger than he is. And some of the people he’d gone to high school with were in the audience because they live in Chicago now.

So I’m really glad I went. It makes the book even better, somehow, knowing that the person who wrote it actually meant it, and is actually as nice as someone who writes this should be, and seems to really appreciate and understand how much it means to people.

Anyway, I guess that’s a pitch for this book. But it’s a book I feel pretty good about pitching.