Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Airborn review by Abby

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. Grades 6 and up.

(Originally posted at Abby (the) Librarian)

If you're looking for an engrossing fantasy-adventure with believable characters and a well-detailed world, look no further. I'd been meaning to pick this one up for a long time and I'm so glad I finally did.

Young Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the Aurora, has always dreamed of flying an airship. He was born on one and he feels more at home in the sky than anywhere else. When he helps rescue a dying man from a balloon over the ocean, Matt sets into motion a series of events that will change his life forever.

There are a few things about this book that really stuck out in my mind as I read it. The first is imagery. I noticed it from the very beginning. Oppel's detailed writing really made me feel like I was there watching all of this happen. Take this bit about stars (on the very first page):

The sky pulsed with stars... So when I look up I see a galaxy of adventures and heroes and villains, all jostling together and trying to outdo one another, and I sometimes want to tell them to hush up and not distract me with their chatter. I've glimpsed all the stars ever discovered by astronomers and plenty that haven't been. (pp 1-2)

Right from the start, I was with Matt Cruse as he stood on the crow's nest and looked out over the ocean, seeing billions of stars as far as he could see. I was in his world. I was hooked.

Another thing I loved about this book are the characters. My problem with some kids' books, especially mysteries and adventure, is that I don't always believe that these kids can really do the things they're doing. I want to shake them and tell them to go get a grown-up to help them. But with Matt Cruse, 15-year-old cabin boy, I honestly believed that he could do all the adventuring and taking charge that he does in this book. Oppel gives him a history with the ship, a history of being in the air. You know that Matt has a passion for this airship and that he will quite literally do anything he can to save her.

Another of the main characters is a spunky girl named Kate de Vries. She's a passenger on the airship who also has passion for the things she loves. She also happens to get Matt into trouble a lot. I love that Matt has a love-hate relationship with her. She's high class and pampered, while he's poor and has had to work hard for everything he's ever gotten. Although he's immediately attracted to her, there are also times when he sees how different they are and he doesn't always like her.

...I understood then that hers was a world where she got her own way and nothing was impossible. For a moment I almost disliked her. Could she even imagine how other people lived? (pg 100)

Although Matt may have mixed feelings for Kate, I never did. Kate is an energetic, intelligent, stubborn young lady. She doesn't need rescuing and she's intent on meeting her goals, no matter who she might inconvenience. As the book is set in an alternate history (a date is never mentioned, though the author mentions that he imagined it in the time of the real airships, so somewhere between 1900 and 1930), Kate's gumption is not much appreciated by her chaperon. Matt, however, likes her just the way she is. When he's not almost disliking her, that is.

Class is also a strong element in the book (or maybe I'm just noticing it more because of the recent discussion about class in YA lit). Matt is quite definitely from a lower-class family. He's also very low-ranking on the ship, though he believes that with hard work and perseverance, he can rise in the ranks. It's been slow going for him, though, and it's not easy when a young man with connections swoops in and takes the job that had been all but promised to Matt. Although Matt and Kate are together quite a bit, Matt always feels that wrong-ness of it, the impropriety of him being there with this high-class girl. Kate, however, never seems to think of it.

Altogether, I thought it was a fabulous book. I couldn't put it down and I'm really looking forward to reading the sequel. I'd recommend this one to fans of fantasy-adventure like Peter and the Starcatchers or Gregor the Overlander or even The Golden Compass.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Originally appeared at Becky's Book Reviews

Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief.

The Book Thief may just be the hardest book I've ever tried to review. It is beautiful. Though it can be ugly. It is intense. It is powerful. It is memorable. The first thing you should know about The Book Thief? It is narrated by Death. This is fitting in many ways since the setting is Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Death is the narrator, and he never lets you forget it. But there are many players--many characters--in the story that Death is relating to his audience all these years later. One of them is a girl, Liesel, and is known by Death as 'the book thief.' These thefts provide some structure to the text. (The structure is one of the odd things about the Book Thief. It isn't chronological. Death doesn't tell a story traditionally. He has his own way of jazzing it up, arranging it so it suits his needs and purposes.) The language, the style, is unique. I think it is written in such a way that you either really love it or you really don't. (It's written in such a way that you could almost open it to any page, and find a sentence or two or a whole paragraph that you want to just lift out and let resonate with you for a time.)

This is how it begins:

First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. Here is a small fact: you are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. (3)

It continues:

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me, it's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. As I've been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision--to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors. Still it's possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need a distraction from? Which brings me to my next point. It's the leftover humans. The survivors. They're the ones I can't stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors--an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fish fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. (4-5)

Before the story gets underway, he invites the reader along for the journey:

Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt, an immense leap of an attempt--to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I'll show you something. (14-15)

There is depth, substance, to these words, to this story. The descriptions. The details. The powerful sway of the words whether they're describing the beauty of love and family and friendship or capturing the ugly heaviness of hate, anger, and death. It's not an easy story to read. It's full of emotions. It's full of words. It's a book that at it's very heart and soul captures humanity in all its depths--the good, the bad, the ugly. Here is a book that captures what it means to be human.
One of the most memorable passages for me (224-236), and I hope this isn't much of a spoiler--is the hand drawn--hand written--portion written by "Max" for Liesel. I find it so powerful in its simplicity. So hauntingly beautiful. There is a second story specially written for Liesel by Max, this second one is found on pps 445-450. This is how that one begins, "There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life: 1) He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. 2) He would make himself a small, strange mustache. 3) He would one day rule the world." (445)