Monday, February 28, 2011

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

A writer on the flap of this book called it a "work of art." I must agree. Reading The Winter Ghosts is like looking an impressionist paiting or reading a piece of flowing poetry. The story unfolds like a period film, drawing you in with its simplicity and beautiful language.

It begins with the main character, Freddie, looking for an interpreter for an ancient document he has in his possession. The book seller/interpreter says he'd love to hear the story behind the exceptionally rare piece of writing and how Freddie came to have it. The book then becomes Freddie's memories of a time when he struggled with his brother's death in WWI. He tries to escape his grief in travel, and one night he wrecks his car and  comes upon a small village  and some innkeepers who take him in. While lodged there, he has a dream-like experience that is so real to him that he finds it hard to separate it from life, feeling deep love for a girl he swears he talked to for hours. The girl also tells him a haunting tale of her brave escape from enemy soldiers, and she begs him to come and find him the following day. But when Freddie wakes up with a raging fever, the innkeepers are baffled and think him insane.

Has Freddie seen one of the "winter ghosts" the car mechanic warns him about? Is any of his "dream" real and what does it mean for his life? In this brief and beautiful book, Mosse unfolds these mysteries for us with language that seems as if it, too, is from another time and place. I urge you to pick up The Winter Ghosts for something different, a story that strays from today's norm in fiction writing.

The Help by Kathleen Stockett

Last year,  The Help became the most requested interlibrary loan book that I have ever seen at our library, and now I get it. Our book club has read a lot of great books this year depicting race struggles both in the US and in other countries. Sometimes I kind of get bogged down by reading too much in a "theme" like this, but reading The Help was like a strong, cool spring wind that rushes you, taking your breath away: it takes you by surprise, is refreshing, and warns you not to get too comfortable because the bite of winter is not long gone.

The story unfolds through three different viewpoints, told in alternating sections. These three women represent three different perspectives on the issue of race in America in the early 1960's. Miss Skeeter is a budding writer who just wants to escape the small town where she grew up so that she can become the woman she knows she is inside. She has come home from college with a degree instead of a husband, something that her social-climbing friends just can't understand. Skeeter's mother doesn't help matters, always criticizing Skeeter's clothes, hair, and manner, making Skeeter an insecure mess. Aibileen is the maid for one of Skeeter's "friends" who has lost her only child and who loves the white children she is paid to tend. She is an intelligent, insightful woman who is trapped in a job much beneath her by her race and her race alone. Minny is Skeeter's very outspoken friend, also a black maid, who can't seem to keep a job because of her "big mouth" and pride. She is abused by her husband and loathed by the white ladies, but she finally finds a maid job with an unusual white woman who has come from a poor background in the South.

It is Miss Skeeter who brings all these characters together in a story within a story. She is asked by a New York publisher to write a book about the "colored" maids in her town, exposing their real lives to the world. At first Skeeter has a very hard time convincing any of the maids to come forward, jeopardizing not only their jobs by telling the truth, but their very lives which become threatened by whites who may seek revenge for the exposure to their lives and prejudices. It is Aibileen's struggle then, too, to help Miss Skeeter, who she initially mistrusts but grows to love. She wants desperately to tell her story, but she also wants it to mean something to all the other maids. She knows that their stories will be a tiny step in helping abolish segregation and injustices due to race.

Do these powerful women find their voice in the end? Does the book they write ever get published? Does the KKK seek retribution for their boldness? Does Miss Skeeter ever get out of her small town? Do Minny and Aibileen ever get a better life and is it everything they hoped? By the end of this beautifully told story, you will know all these answers, and I hope you will be as moved as I was.  I hope you will be moved enough to try to end prejudice where you see it in your life. Because it always takes the first person to say "No, this wrong!" before the right and truth can be found. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I am Number Four

So, yes, I am easily influenced by media, and when I saw the trailer for this movie, I had to read the book before I went to see it. I read the book, loved it, and now I'm iced in, locked in my house, and I may not even get to see the movie version. I'll try to console myself with the fact that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The premise is this: The planet Lorien has been defeated by the merciless Mogadorians who pillaged Lorien for its natural resources. So only nine Lorian children escaped, along with their care-givers, to Earth where they had to separate and stay alive until their individual powers come to them. They can only be killed in numerical order because they are protected by "charms." These powers will help them to fight the Mogadorians and recapture their planet. But the Mogadorians not only want to wipe out the Nine, they also want Earth for its resources. So it becomes the mission of Number 4, now named John Smith, to learn to fight them, although his powers are still not fully developed.

Meanwhile, John just tries to hide in plain sight, going to school and being a "normal" teen. But on his first day in Paradise, Ohio, he gets in a fight with the most popular guy at school and falls for his girlfriend. Not a good way to hide.

All in all, this young adult title is a fun, sci-fi thriller full of great characters and lots of danger. The build up to the fight with the Mogadorians was very suspenseful, with the tension building up at a good pace. The ending, full of high-tech violence and much blowing up of aliens, got a bit long-winded for me, but most younger readers will probably enjoy it.   I hope I can get to the movie before it, like the Mogadorians, blows town.

Once a Spy by Keith Thomson

When another librarian recommended this book, it sounded like a fun read, and she was so right! If you're ready for a fun yet thrilling spy/espionage novel by a new author, this one's for you.

Charlie Clark, a lazy gambler who really hasn't found himself yet at near middle age, always thought his father was an average, low income appliance salesman. But when he takes Drummond, who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease, home after a confused episode, Charlie starts to wonder. He is forced to wonder things like, "Gee, why is that guy pointing a gun at me, and how does Dad know how to kick his butt and get away?" and "Okay, why did my house just blow up and my dad grabs me like a super hero and throws us both out a window before we're fried." These things can only add up to one thing: Dad is a spy. A class A, undercover, knows lots of secrets kind of spy.

This may seem kind of cool and exciting to a guy whose life is only as lively as the next horse race, but it gets a bit tricky when a CIA operative gets Alzheimer's. He becomes a threat- a threat that needs to be eliminated.  And so the action begins. The father and son become a spy-fighting unit, complete with guns, stealth, and code-breaking expertise. Drummond's coherent moments seem to come at just the right time, and the two battle to try to find the person who isn't a bad guy who can help them out of their mess.

Thomson's thriller was a fun, surprising ride, and I can't wait for the sequel which comes out soon. So, give Once a Spy a try. It'll have you on the edge of your seat and looking over your shoulder. After all, anyone can be a spy, even dear old dad!