Middle Grade

Book Review: The Red Magician by Lisa Stein

I must admit to having read more Holocaust fiction than can be considered healthy. I have a morbid fascination with frightening level of darkness that human beings can allow themselves to participate in. Nearly every major nation involved in WWII completed atrocities that today would be considered highly unethical. They did it for science. They did it out of fear. They did it because everyone who was not there ally had become “the other” and therefore, less than human. The psychology of it is both incredibly scary, and extremely interesting. When I read a Holocaust novel, or any WWII novel, I am looking for an exploration of the elements that could turn normal, loving, people into monsters. I am looking to understand the feelings of the victims. I am looking for a window into one of humanity’s most terrifying times. Stories like Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” and Tatiana de Rosnay’s “Sarah’s Key” are beautiful and heart wrenching examples of amazing Holocaust fiction. You understand the characters, and through them, you understand the true effects of the Holocaust. You understand the nightmare the characters lived. Next to such deep, emotional, and character driven stories Lisa Stein’s “The Red Magician” pales in comparison.

I do not want to say “The Red Magician” was bad. It wasn’t. The National Book Award sticker affixed to the cover is a testament to its technical flawlessness and uniqueness. The magical realism aspects were a fascinating glimpse into Jewish mysticism. Thematically, the story is rich. The characters embodied the belief that many Jewish communities held that surely the German government was not exterminating the entire Jewish population of Eastern Europe. It was unthinkable in the modern age. And, if they were, other countries would certainly step up and stop them before their reach extended too far beyond their borders. Many communities believed everything would be fine, despite the warnings they received. It also digs deeply into the desire to keep fighting, and survivor’s guilt.

Unfortunately, that is as deep as things got. The characters were incredibly underdeveloped. Strong relationships were created with little build up. A few pages of conversation, and suddenly the main character is in love. A handful of interactions, and another character is willing to take responsibility for another’s life. A page or two of confrontation, and life long enemies are created. I couldn’t convince myself that these relationships were real, or important, and therefore could not connect to the characters.

I remember reading “Bartleby the Scrivener” in high school. At a specific point in Melville’s famous story Bartleby apparently decides that he will no longer do anything. He would “prefer not to” review a document in his office. He would “prefer not to” leave the office. He would “prefer not to” defend himself in a court of law. He would “prefer not to” do anything at all, even eat. To this day, remembering the story fills me with a rage I cannot explain. It bothers me that Bartleby does not care if he lives or dies. He does not value his life, and no one stirs him to care. It bothers me, which is probably more telling of my mental state than anything else. There is a point in “The Red Magician” where the protagonist gives up as well, and I felt that frustration and rage again as her character refused to listen to those around her, including the person she was supposed to have loved. Perhaps if I felt more connected to her as a character I would understand how the horrors she witnessed throughout the Holocaust would have brought her to a passive point where she neither sought death, nor continued to live, but I could not. I almost gave up reading at that point, but persevered.

“The Red Magician” is definitely a different view of the holocaust, and it stirred me emotionally, though not in the way I am accustomed to stories from this time period moving me. I would recommend it to fans of magical realism and fans of WWII historical fiction. I believe, in this case, my lack of enjoyment was mostly emotionally and not intellectually driven. This story is a unique view that I think would be a great way to spark a conversation among middle grade and young adult readers while keeping them interested with a magical and almost fantastical setting.

If you have read it, what did you think?

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Book Review: Nest by Nancy Ehrlich

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

This isn’t a book review, per say, as I was not able to finish the story, but I could not think of a better category to place my commentary. Why would I post about a book I did not finish? Because I think it has the makings of a classic and I want as many people to know about it as I can. It might sound strange, but there is an explanation. Tagging a book as “Did Not Finish”, especially an advanced reader copy, tends to have a negative connotation, and in nearly all cases that is true. In this case, perhaps instead of saying “Did Not Finish,” I should say “This was not the season for this book.” Nancy Ehrlich has written a beautiful and emotional middle grade novel that deals with the theme of coming of age in the shadow of illness and depression. It is so powerfully emotional that I could not finish, because as I read, I began to draw parallels between the protagonist, Chirp’s, story, and my own.

When I was 12 going on 13 the grandparents who raised me took my sister and I to the Northern California coast just a few weeks before summer’s end. I would be entering the 7th grade. Middle school. It seemed so exciting back then. It was morning when my grandmother fell ill. We were in a hotel room only a short walk away from Pismo Beach, a beautiful and rocky shore with sand crabs that pinched when you unknowingly sat on their nests. The past few days had been wonderful, building sand castles, swimming the day away, watching as my grandmother’s teacup poodle, Dolly, chased the receding waves and then ran away when they inevitably came back. Sure, we got kicked out of our first hotel because Dolly was technically not welcome, but that was not enough to ruin our day. We found a room where she was, and continued on our merry little way. We were due to go home in another day, but instead my grandmother woke up screaming and dry heaving into the ice bucket.

It happened quickly. The memory is just flashes. The sounds of sirens and waves mixing. Stuffy hotel room. Cool ocean breezes that smelled of seaweed and sand. The heat of the summer sun on the concrete outside the emergency room. Red lights flashing. Patients in and out. Feet wrapped in stiff white sheets. My sister and I wondering if everything would be all right– hungry, tired, and afraid to ask for anything for ourselves. Then came the diagnosis; a burst aneurysm. Prognosis? Not good.

I would lose my grandmother nearly six months later. That day was the last day we would see her eyes and hear her voice. She had an operation. It was successful in that they repaired the burst blood vessel, but the bleeding had already done its damage. On my first day of middle school, she was in a hospital an hour and a half from my home, stuck in a coma she would never come out of. I started out awkward, sad, and somewhat broken. But there was joy, too.

“Nest” captures the fear, joy, and awkwardness of 12 year old Chirp whose summer ends much like mine did. Erhlich captures the fear and sadness so well. She captures the beauty of every day life and the resilience of children who must go on with their life, despite everything they know falling down around them. She understands how those in pain reach out to other aching souls for comfort, friendship, and camaraderie. I could sympathize so well that my heart was heavy while reading, and I needed to put the book down.

I will one day return to “Nest”. Maybe when my son is older and he starts to learn the sad truth that illness exists and that bad things happen to good people. Perhaps when he is 12-years-old, all arms and legs, and squeaky voice. When he needs to know that no matter what, life goes on, and it is beautiful. I know it is odd to recommend a book you have not finished. Almost as odd as it is to put down a book you find so well written because you simply can’t finish, but I truly feel that “Nest” should be in every middle school and high school library. Go ahead and give it a try. I think it is worth it.

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Book Review: The Stone of Valhalla by Mikey Brooks

This book was received free from NetGalley in Exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

I had what many would consider a turbulent childhood. In the darkest times I turned to books as a way to escape the very real stresses of my life. I often wondered, as it is evident in our literature many have, what it would be like to be pulled from my world into another. There is an entire sub-genre of fantasy books that involve such an idea, and it goes back decades. Faced with what must have felt like a lifetime more of abuse and neglect at the hands of his aunt and uncle, Harry Potter receives a letter from Hogwarts inviting him to the secret life of witches and wizards. In the heart of World War II, three children are ripped from their homes and forced to stay with their mysterious uncle. Tucked away in his house is a wardrobe that holds within a portal to the magical world of Narnia. Adventuresome Alice is being forced into a life on conformity she doesn’t want, and finds herself falling down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. During times of emotional or physical trial, whether it be large or small, these children are taken into another world where they learn about themselves, grow in maturity, and return to the real world more able to face life’s challenges than before. ‘The Stone of Valhalla’ is one such book. It is not spectacularly well written, nor is it groundbreaking, or even original, but I enjoyed it. ‘The Stone of Valhalla’ is an entertaining bit of escapism with some decent lessons for middle grade and young adult readers.

I think it is important to note here than I don’t feel that every book needs to be a show stopper. There are some amazingly well reviewed classics that I cannot stand, and there are some generic genre pieces that I sped through from start to finish and found myself wishing for more. This was one of those. What made me like it so much? I honestly could not tell you. I had a difficult time starting this review, because I could not figure out why I had rated this a four when other, more original stories, ranked a three. Ultimately, it comes down to a combination of factors, but mostly characters, setting, and message.

In ‘The Stone of Valhalla’, you find a veritable smorgasbord of fantasy classics. There is a young boy named Aaron who is slightly nerdy, and desperate to find out where he fits into this world. He is willing to do almost anything to fit into a group. He will undoubtedly appeal to the nerdy young folks out there who long to feel like they belong somewhere besides the pages of a book. Accompanying him on his adventures is a life loving orphan boy, a wise and grumpy old wizard with a chip on his shoulder, a sharp tongued old witch, and a gorgeous, kind hearted young witch in training. Each character is well developed and grows along with the story, with a few twists and turns along the way. Their interactions, for the most part, are beautiful from stories of ancient dragons being told around the fire, to dealing with broken hearts, to forgiveness for wrongs small and large. I was connected to them and found myself cheering them on as they moved through their adventure, and mourning with them when, inevitably, they were caused pain. Through their eyes, a young reader can learn lessons about love, loss, forgiveness, and the slippery nature of good and evil.

Aaron in particular goes through some amazing character development. If we think about the sub genre, one of the defining characteristics of it is that the protagonists learns about his/herself as he/she makes way from the beginning to, the end. At first I was confused because Aaron’s actions and thoughts seemed to be those of a younger character than 13. It is hard to say if it was intentional because I do not have a window into the author’s thought process, but intentional or not, it was artful. By the end of the book, he has matured quite a bit in a believable way.

The setting is equally classic and just as fun. Aaron is transported to a medieval fantasy world complete with competing factions, magic, witch burning, imps, goblin kings, and more. The reader gets to see much of this world as the characters travel through it adventurer style. D&D players and other gamers will recognize the setup, like I did, as the party faces random encounters along the way that ultimately lead them to a boss battle. There are some twists and turns in the road, some predictable, and others utterly surprising.

This story sang to the game loving, fantasy reading, nerd girl inside of me. It was a quick read, being targeted at middle grade readers. There were, alas, some elements I could have lived without. First, in the beginning of the story, the female characters are downright rude to the male characters. There is a bit of background story that explains why the witch and wizard have their magic knickers in a twist while dealing with each other, but I am growing tired of seeing so many sniping women and girls in middle grade and young adult fiction. Female characters can be strong without being abrasive or rude. It sends the wrong message. It is not all right for men to treat women that way, but it is all right for women to treat men terribly. I would love to see writers of fiction for young people change it up a bit.  In the same vein of broken records, I could have done without the love triangle. I feel like the story had enough conflict and emotion already without adding a triangle to the mix. It added nothing. How many must we suffer through before this fad finally dies out?

Problems aside, I think Stone of Valhalla will appeal to the demographic it was written for. It is a fun story with great character development. I look forward to checking out more of Mikey Brooks’ writing.

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