Friday, September 23, 2011

Lisa's Book Review: Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz

Author Alan Gratz hits a home run with his riveting first line: Toyo watched as his uncle prepared to kill himself. This intense coming-of-age story is full of references to seppuku (ritual suicide practiced only by Japanese samurai) and bushido (the samurai warrior code). Set in 1890, the plot centers on the experiences of Toyo, the son of a samurai, as he adjusts to his first year at an elite Tokyo boarding school. Though there are plenty of exciting baseball scenes, you don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy this book. In fact, the most rousing parts of the story deal with the violent hazing that takes place at Toyo’s school and the brutal samurai training that Toyo undergoes with his father. This historical novel resonates with universal themes including friendship, loss, patriotism and family. Especially if you are interested in Japanese history and culture, you’ll enjoy reading about Toyo’s experiences. Try the excellent audiobook version if you’re interested in hearing the correct way to pronounce the many Japanese words in the story.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Heather's Book Review: Daughter of Xanadu by Dori Jones Yang

Emmajin is a princess, as skilled a fighter as any of her brothers, and wants nothing more than to join Khubilai Khan’s army. However, she has a problem: The only contribution anyone expects her to make to the Mongol Empire is to be a bride in a powerful marriage. But the will of the Khan points elsewhere. A foreign merchant, Marco Polo, has arrived. The Khan wants Emmajin to learn the weaknesses of his land to see how best to invade it. She accepts his assignment, but soon, she cannot help but see Marco Polo as more than a person to be studied. And by the time she achieves her army position, she’s not sure that she wants it...I’m a fan of girls-going-to-war novels, but this novel quickly became a favorite simply for what Emmajin doesn’t do. Most girls in novels like this disguise themselves as boys to join the military; Emmajin impresses the Khan and asks permission to join his army directly! This frees the novel up to explore other areas, like her complicated relationship with Marco Polo. It approaches the romantic, but is tempered by Emmajin’s refreshing level-headedness. She’s a girl with a goal, and she’s not about to let romance change that. The book is also a surprisingly quick read. If you like fast-paced historical stories with strong female characters, this is a book worth trying.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Bronwyn's Book Review: The Mourning Wars by Karen Steinmetz

I love historical fiction and Native American culture, so when I saw this book about a Puritan girl who is captured by Mohawk Indians and raised as one of their own, I knew I’d love it. Since most Native American cultures are matriarchal societies, the women make the decisions. The title, The Mourning Wars, comes from a cultural practice of several Native American tribes, where the women’s council decides there has been enough slaughter of their people. When a mourning war is declared, the tribe takes captives from their enemies in order to replace their loved ones. Although this symbolic replacement of dead loved ones seems strange, balance was very important to most Native American tribes. By replacing a departed loved one with someone of the same age and gender, balance is restored to the tribe. Eunice, the protagonist of the novel, is seven years old when she is captured. She is young enough to be very impressionable, and after a few years forgets her English family, along with the English language and culture. In the first half of the book, Eunice struggles internally with whether or not she should fully assimilate into the Mohawk tribe, or hold on to her English heritage. After all, her Mohawk mother and father treat her with more kindness and respect than her Puritan minister father ever did. This novel is well-written and surprisingly historically accurate. I learned so much about Native American beliefs, customs, and their daily way of living. If you love history, or just want to read a good adventure story, then this book is for you!