Friday, August 31, 2012

Fiction Friday (11)

I couldn't let the month go by without setting aside at least one post dedicated to book reviews. As I've stated before, reading is such an important part of the writing process. What a writer reads, and how he or she interprets it, can shape concepts of style, narrative, and imagination. Often I think writers are drawn to very different books than readers, with the exception of ones just too brilliant to be ignored by either. I find it's the same way with musicians. Accomplished musicians always have these albums on their lists that, to me, are unlistenable. The musician hears something else, some level of technical playing that is masterful, but goes unnoticed to the average listener. Likewise, a writer can see something in a book that readers never look for. 

This week, I'd like to share two books that I've read in the last few months that I really enjoyed. Both are geared to an older middle grade audience, for readers not quite ready for the sometimes heart wrenching tone of YA books, but are ready to encounter the difficulties that arise when first coming of age. Hopefully everything I said at the start of this post doesn't apply here and anyone can find something to enjoy about these wonderful novels.

Bridge of Time by Lewis Buzbee

There are some adventure stories that you race through to discover what will happen next and next and next after that and all the way through to the end. The joy of those books is satisfaction that comes with being done and knowing what happened. Then there are the kind of adventure tales Lewis Buzbee writes...where even though you're desperate to know what the turn of the page will bring, you can't help yourself from wanting to linger in the world he creates.

Bridge of Time is definitely one of those stories. One day, best friends Lee and Joan find themselves 'unstuck' in time after wandering away from their boring class trip. They end up in 1864, during the early formative days of San Francisco's past to encounter a city that is vastly different and yet still not totally unfamiliar. As they begin their journey back, they encounter a reporter who will one day became Mark Twain, and who, just like his beloved characters, has a knack for adventure.

Any time a story involves time travel, there is bound to be a lot of intriguing action, both past and future. I must confess that I love time travel stories and always have. I love pondering the puzzles they create. Because of the unique approach this story takes to the concept, there is no lack of things to ponder. In fact, there are so many deeper concepts in this book, hiding just under the surface, that I was still unraveling it for days after finishing it.

Besides the core adventure, the book is a poignant and honest look at divorce. It is also a fascinating and sometimes brutal examination into the history of San Francisco and the role racism played in its development. And by looking at Sam Clemens' transition into Mark Twain, the book subtly defends the ability of fiction to have as much of a social impact as journalism.

At the heart of the book however is the journey of two friends, struggling with the uncertainty of their future. Their fears and concerns are the kind that most middle school kids are all too familiar with. The true adventure is watching them grow stronger through it all.

The Extra-Ordinary Princess by Carolyn Q. Ebbitt

To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I admit that I only picked it up at the bookstore because the jacket sounded like it would be good research for a project I was considering at the time...the beautiful cover didn't hurt either. But what I found inside the pages was a wonderful mix of fantasy and fairy tale.

Amelia is the fourth princess, born behind three sisters who all excel at one thing or another. Compared to them, Amelia feels ordinary. But as one might expect, as the story unfolds Amelia turns out to be anything but ordinary.

The plot follows a traditional fairy tale unraveling of a perfect life in a beautiful kingdom that is soon ravished by an evil and powerful figure. And in a cruel twist of fate, Amelia is left to save her home from this darkness. That isn't to say the narrative is without surprises. In fact, much of the story is unpredictable and takes clever turns throughout.

In addition to the wonderfully constructed fairy tale elements, the friendships of the young characters is very well written. I also very much enjoyed how impossible it was to pin down 'when' this story was supposed to take place. It didn't try to set the action in Medieval times, or make it some contemporary story struck a nice balance somewhere in the middle that had a way of making the story belong to it's own world. 

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