Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Living vs Family Romanov

Henry's eloquent response: Yikes.  I can tell that I am already going to spend too much time writing my thoughts.  But… here goes.  First, “The Living”... an interesting title considering that the VAST majority of people in the book die, even those who, against all odds survived three apocalyptic tsunamis.  The protagonist is Shy.    Shy is the kind of kid who buys cookbooks for friends, pays his nephew’s medical expenses with money won in a basketball shoot out and is making summer money to further his educatoin.   He also  has a fixation with a curvaceous ship mate who is engaged to be married, has a victim complex because of his Mexican American heritage, and believes that “you can tell if a girl is right for you by holding her hand”.   Huh?   At first, Shy is portrayed as a sensitive and, wait for it…  shy… character whose personality is revealed in detached and fragmentary sentences and easy going patter.  Shy works on a cruise ship and by chance meets a rich American Pharmaceutical Executive who claims to be the embodiment of corruption.  Despite Shy’s efforts to save him, the man plunges to his suicidal death in the ocean.  Shy, heroically clutching the man’s suit sleeve, gloomily reflects that the ship would not even slow down had it been a Mexican American worker that had gone overboard.  And now the plot thickens.  

In comes the villain appropriately dressed in a black suit and  reflective sunglass, stalking our hero only to be thwarted in his conquest by catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis, fights for survival in life boats, machine gun death squads, and a pharmaceutically generated death virus… I kept waiting for the man eating sharks… and I wasn’t disappointed!!  All that was missing was the fair maiden attacked by dragons and the chandelier falling on the bad guy.  Pity that those could not be woven in.  I felt like I was reading a cross between Titanic, Jaws, and Full Metal Jacket.  

There is the obligatory racial and class bigotry personified in a stereotyped stuck up blond teen. There is the predictable romance with the voluptuous Carmen (shades of Bizet’s Operatic Carmen?).  And who could have foreseen (rhetorical question to be read with sarcasm)  the selfless acts of heroism as Shy saves first, the very dark suited villain (who later tries to kill Shy… such ingratitude), and second, the very same stuck up American blond Cassie, who referred to the hero as “her pool boy”.  

 Here are a couple of my favorite sentences.  “It went quiet between them for a few long seconds.  A shared feeling of loss hanging in the air like gas.”   Hanging in the air like gas?  Another gem: Describing the approaching storm, Shy “watched it all in awe for several minutes, the world lining up exactly with his insides.”  His insides?  OK.  I did not like the book.  I do however understand that I am not the intended audience.  But honestly, do adolescents (young adults) really fall for this predictable, stereotyped drivel?
None of our team could really get into the Living...there is potential that it would resonate well with a younger audience - especially as it belongs to a series!

The Family Romanov however, was a stunning book.  It is intimately written, and cleverly weaves politics, family dynamics, and historical context into an engaging narrative non-fiction that captivated both my intellect and my imagination.  The story goes beyond the Romanov family to include the revolutionary leaders of the time, and the common people of Russia.  I found myself sympathetic to all the divergent groups that shaped the history of a time plagued with entitlement, social unrest, loyalty and both cowardice and courage.  The book is supported with authentic excerpts from diaries, letters, memoirs, and fascinating photographs.  Each member of the Romanov family comes to life fully realized and their stories are balanced with the vignettes of common peasants and workers, giving the book a bracing insight missing from other historical accounts of the Romanov family.  This book weaves scholarly research, primary sources, historical speculation, limited but appropriate literary license, and personal / intimate insights into a family ill equipped to handle the political unrest of the time.   There is a juxtaposition of the glittering lives of the aristocracy with the impoverished lives of the common people that builds in tension to a horrifying climax, made all the more stunning in its truth.  I found this book endlessly fascinating, as absorbing as any fiction novel (perhaps moreso) with the added benefit of understanding the political and historical context that changed the face of Eastern Europe to this day.  Perhaps the acid test of this book was my own 12 year old daughter’s delighted reaction to non-fiction historical narrative and her reluctance for the book to end.  This is a brilliant book!

Our team's unanimous vote is for Family Romanov this round. A book such as this has great potential for getting kids excited about non-fiction. It is really well put together and offers an easy to read introduction to an incredibly interesting family and insight into an interesting country's history.
We studied Russian History in junior high school and all of us found the whole topic to be fascinating then, and do now. It was easy to read, engaging and full of insight. We think many of our students would enjoy it as well.

1 comment:

  1. I love that you included some of the sentence clunkers from The Living. I get our kids love a good action book - as do I. This just wasn't it!