Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Chase by Jessie Haas (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)--
Times were hard in coal country during the 1870s, and America was flooded with immigrants (with many more on the way) who sought a better life. The Molly Maguires, known as the Sleepers in Jessie Haas’s new novel Chase , were Irish union activists often accused of intimidation and even murder tactics. Although their intended goals, fair treatment and living wages for Irish miners, often seemed to be honorable, their heavy-handed tactics ultimately caused their demise. The mining companies were even worse than the Sleepers and ultimately infiltrated and discredited them. This backdrop of fear and tension serves as the setting for this novel in which a street-wise but inexperienced young man must struggle for survival against an unfair world.
Phin Chase does not have a traditional, wholesome home, but he generally gets what he needs. Orphaned and living in the empty room behind Murray ’s Tavern in a small Pennsylvania mining town, Phin’s greatest pleasure is going to the mining company boss’s office and reading one of the 22 books on the shelf. However, trouble is brewing, and Phin has heard the men talking about the toughness and possibly the cruelty of Engelbreit, the boss; he “drove his men like a demon, so the talk ran at Murray ’s” (3). Phin is in the wrong place at the wrong time when local malefactor and Sleeper Ned Plume murders Engelbreit and frames Phin, because he is not so cold that he can shoot a child in cold blood, but his limited conscience can allow Phin’s placement in immediate, mortal peril. This act that seemingly had nothing to do with Phin suddenly becomes the defining moment of his life. He has some brains, but Phin has been sheltered from the harshest realities by his late mother who incurred shame by living in a room behind a tavern but wanted only the best for her son. Although they need the money, Mom will not allow Phin to work, especially in the mines: “He could have gone to the mine and taken what work was offered. He didn’t because he half understood. She’d moved to Murray ’s for his sake, and while she didn’t mind what people said, she didn’t go there because she liked it. If Phin went into the mine, her sacrifice would be for nothing” (31). Phin starts running to avoid the law and the Sleepers, and he is chased not only by Ned Plume, who knows that Phin has important items belonging to him, but also by the mysterious Mr. Fraser: “What was he? Not a mule dealer, not really. He must be some kind of spy . . . If this man was a Pinkerton, was that good for Phin, or bad? Would he be viewed as a murderer or a witness?” (53). Phin’s frenetic journey takes him far from home and intertwines him with another family as he searches for a way out of his fatal dilemma.
Once this novel takes off, it soars at breakneck speed. It is a pleasure to watch likable and noble Phin grow up throughout his painful chase. He shows the kind of can-do resourcefulness we seek and foster in our students and possibly in ourselves. Like our best self-images, Phin is a hodgepodge of hopes, dreams, disappointments, and memories of happiness. We feel his pain as he runs from his former life and into a brave new world, if he can only grow up to enjoy it. Chase by Jessie Haas is a roller coaster ride that both satisfies and leaves the rider wanting more. It is the best kind of historical fiction: it informs and entertains.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Iris, Messenger by Sarah Deming (3 out of 4 stars)--
As soon as I saw Iris, Messenger, the first novel from New Yorker Sarah Deming, I loved the premise: What if the Greek gods really did exist and all of the myths and stories were history, not folklore? What if they were still alive and living in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, but they had diminished in strength and influence because nobody cared about them anymore? What if one young lady could rekindle their fire, Karate Kid-like, and everyone could grow and prosper in the experience? OK, it gets a little clichéd, but the point is that I wanted to like the novel. Much of the time, especially when I chuckled, I did.
Iris Greenwold is miserable. She attends Erebus Middle School, a literal and figurative living hell, in which she is humiliated and uninspired by her sadistic teachers. Iris suffers for the crime of being a dreamer: “This made her unpopular, for the teachers at Erebus did not like imagination; they liked neat handwriting” (2). Iris lives with her mother, an agnostic soybean expert; her Jewish father lives in Wisconsin with his sickly wife. Her life is changed on her twelfth birthday when she receives a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology from a mysterious messenger on a skateboard. The book contains margin comments personally directed to Iris and her fascination with legendary and heroic figures. One of them, “SEEK POSEIDON AT THE GATE OF THE SEA” (16), directs her to Margate, NJ, (“mar” means “sea” in Spanish, Iris realizes) to find the original Aquaman, the sea king Poseidon. However, like many of the gods nowadays, Poseidon is despondent and depressed, because as he puts it, “Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The world moves on and leaves you behind” (22). Iris believes she can help Poseidon, but it will involve enlisting the aid of many of the other gods. With the help of a magic rainbow that will take her anywhere, Iris goes off in search of the gods and her destiny. Along the way, Iris’s mother loses her job, but Ares, who has turned to law as a more satisfying form of warfare, agrees to help. Through her enthusiasm and her belief that she is not only psychologically drawn to, but also genetically connected to the Olympians, Iris attempts to inspire the gods and goddesses and help Poseidon reunite with his love, Amphitrite.
In many ways, this cleverly written novel is an enjoyable read, and may be a good summer choice. However, it will help if you are already familiar with the myths to ensure the best experience. The gods and goddesses each tell rather long stories to Iris, and they can get a bit confusing if you don't have a background in mythology. The portrayal of the characters is very funny and imbued with a humorous modern sensibility, i.e. Aphrodite runs a beauty salon, and Artemis and Athena are private detectives. However, the joke is diminished if the reader is previously unfamiliar with the history and background of the god or goddess. Despite those minor shortcomings, and an ending that seems a little too much deus ex machina (god of the machine; it means an unrealistic ending or one that is too easy), Iris, Messenger is a good first attempt from Sarah Deming. Mythology fans will like it; others may need some coaxing. Fantasy lovers, take note: like the Harry Potter series (and others), this novel contains a secret world known only to a few, and it has a protagonist who thinks she is special, then finds out she is right.