Sunday, June 27, 2010


Last Tuesday I enjoyed my first encounter with Broadway in Boulder's musical Grand Hotel at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Based on the 1929 Vicki Baum novel and play, Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel), the musical focuses on events taking place over the course of a weekend in an elegant hotel in 1928 Berlin and the intersecting stories of the eccentric guests of the hotel. The cast is made up of talented 15-24 year olds from Boulder County, Arvada and Denver, several of whom are headed to prestigious musical arts programs in the fall.

Imagine my surprise when I started Kathryn Lasky's latest historical novel, Ashes, on Wednesday and found references to People in a Hotel throughout the book! In Ashes, the rise of the Nazis in 1932 Germany is seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Gabriella Schram, who is a privileged German child. Gaby is a passionate reader, whose favorite book is Vicki Baum's People in the Hotel. Blond Gaby looks like the Aryan ideal, but her anti-Fascist family members are called white Jews, because of their political sympathies. Her father, an astrophysicist at the University of Berlin, is a good friend of their neighbor, Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity is termed Jewish physics by the Nazis. Her mother's best friend is the celebrated Jewish newspaper columnist Baba Blumenthal, whom Gaby adores.

While the intellectuals in her parents' social circle anxiously debate what to do about the looming Nazi rise to power, Gaby observes those around her with Aryan sympathies, such as their pro-Hitler maid who is looking to rise above her poverty; Gaby's elegant literature teacher, who wants her to become a leader in the Hitler Youth group; and her sister, whose boyfriend is an ardent Nazi. Gaby begins a Diary of Shame, listing private moments, where she gives in to peer pressure, such as when a gang of boys forces Gaby and her best friend to return its "Heil Hitler" salute, rather than stand up for what she believes is right.

Each chapter of Ashes begins with a quote from a book that she is reading, by authors such as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London, that foreshadow elements of the chapter. The prophetic opening quote, by Heinrich Heine -"Where they burn books, they will end by burning human beings."- sets the stage for this compelling story. When book-burning threatens Gaby's beloved books, as well as free thought in Germany, she and her family must determine how to proceed in the future.

In answering the question, "How did you come to write Ashes?", Kathryn Lasky replied, "What fascinated me most was what led up to the all-time catastrophe, the tragedy of modern times. I did not want the perspective of a Jewish person, but a gentile—in other words not a girl whose life was threatened, but whose sense of humanity was threatened; where she begins on some level—most likely a subconscious level—to question what it means to be human." This well researched portrait of pre-WWII Germany eloquently chronicles this volatile time in human history. When I attend the final performance of Grand Hotel at the Dairy tonight, I will do so with a much deeper understanding of Germany during this era.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Epitaph Road

Band on the Bricks this week featured Paper Bird, an indie folk band with three amazing female vocalists, including Esme and Genny Patterson who were in my class at Southern Hills in sixth grade. Their angelic vocal harmonies are supported by instumentalists playing guitar, banjo, upright bass, trumpet and trombone. Playing to their hometown crowd on the Boulder mall, the girls charmed the audience with their powerful voices and upbeat blue grass sounds.

Speaking of strong females, I just finished Epitaph Road by David Patneaude. This post-apocalyptic thriller takes place in 2097 after an airborne virus has wiped out 97% of the male population. Woman now rule the world and have eradicated poverty, crime, and war, but the remaining men, whose numbers are being limited to 5% of the population, are not happy campers. Fourteen-year-old Kellen Dent is one of the rare males, whose neglectful mother is involved with the ruling Population Apportionment Council. The council is busy trying to thwart an uprising of men, including Kellen's father, who live independent of female rule. When Kellen overhears his mother talking about an intentional resurgence of the virus, he begins to worry about his father's safety, and he and his friends Sunday and Tia decide to take it upon themselves to warn him. In the process they discover a secret about the virus which rocks their world.

Each chapter opens with an epitaph for a variety of males who were killed by the plague, poignantly depicting how some women who are left behind mourn their lover's death, others, whose men were abusive, rejoice in it. This is an intriguing exploration of gender relations, which depicts the dangers of extremism. The ending is satisfying, but does leave an opening for a sequel if the author is so inclined.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Brightly Woven

Wandering through some spectacular gardens Saturday on the Mapleton-Whittier garden tour, I realized how magical nature can be. One garden in particular came with its own fantasy story and transported me to another place and time. A man-made stream meandered through the two acre garden and the lush foliage harbored hidden ponds and statuary that were a complete delight. The garden would have been a perfect place to curl up with Alexandra Bracken's debut fantasy entitled Brightly Woven, which I happened to be reading last weekend. It tells the story of a weaver who accompanies a rogue wizard on a quest through a mystical world to save their homeland.

After Wayland North ends the drought in her village, Sydelle, a 16-year-old weaver, is given to the wizard as payment for his services. She s finds herself accompanying him to the capital in a race to prevent a war with neighboring countries. At first she is furious, but gradually she comes to care for him as she realizes they are together by design, not by accident. They are plagued by wild weather, North's strange illness and a vengeful wizard who is stalking them. Sydelle is mysteriously able to mend North's magical cloaks without disturbing the magic, and she begins to recognize that she has magical powers of her own. As their journey progesses Sydelle discovers that North is harboring a dark secret about their shared destiny.

Readers are going to find this charismatic pair and their breathtaking adventure irresistable. Wayland is an alluring tortured soul, who is curiously devoted to the strong feisty Sydelle, despite her sharp tongue and failure to comply with his wishes. Brightly Woven is a fresh take on an archetypical fantasy story, that will find readers clamoring for a sequel.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Airhead Series

I really enjoyed sharing middle level book ideas at the Barnes and Noble summer reading kick off. Many of the books I suggested were the latest or first books in series, so that readers would have additional book ideas if they liked a book that was introduced. Yesterday, I finished the final book in Meg Cabot's Airhead series entitled Runaway. Although I loved the first book in the series, I did not think Being Nikki and Runaway were nearly as strong.

If you are not familiar with this series, Airhead introduces a video game playing feminist, Emerson Watson, whose brain is transplanted into the body of a super model. Em and her best friend Christopher deal with their outcast status at school by immersing themselves in online video games. When Em's mom makes her accompany her sister to a star studded opening at a Stark Megastore, Em suffers a terrible accident and wakes up in the hospital one month later with her brain transplanted into the body of teen supermodel Nikki Howard. She's dying to tell Christopher who she really is, but to protect her parents from a law suit, Em has to keep her identiy a secret and learn to live in her hot new body. Keeping up with Nikki's modeling schedule and attending school is almost more than Em can handle, and she begins to realize that Nikki was more than just an airhead. Geeky Em's adjustment to her super model body creates an opportunity for hilarious "fish out of water" antics.

In the sequel, Being Nikki, Em aka Nikki, is now the "Face of Stark Enterprises." Unfortunately, Christopher is determined to destroy Stark to avenge what he believes is her death. Then Nikki's brother shows up, demanding that Em help him find their missing mom. At the cliffhanger ending, Christopher discovers Nikki's true identity, and they find out some shocking news that leaves readers clamoring for the final book in the series.

The final book, Runaway, takes up where the second abruptly ends and Nikki/Em is being held captive by Brandon Stark, the son of the Stark Enterprise owner. She learns that Christopher is right about the nefarious plans of Stark Enterprises, and she enlists his help to engineer her escape and expose them to the world.

Without the endearing awkwardness of the girl geek turned supermodel that permeates the first book, the next two enstallments are not as engaging. Nikki/Em seems annoying at times and idiotic at others. However, the reader loyalty that the first book creates makes the next two "must reads" for fans.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Finnikin of the Rock

After a attending a delightful Memorial Day party yesterday, followed by a nap, I picked up Melina Marchetta's riveting new fantasy, Finnikin of the Rock. Marchetta is the Printz award winning author of last year's Jellicoe Road. Five hours later I turned the last page of a very compelling and satisfying read.

The story begins ten years after assassins attack the kingdom of Lumatere and murder the royal family. A curse now creates a magical barrier around the kingdom to prevent those who fled from ever returning. Finnikin, exiled son of a former royal guard, is serving as an apprentice to Sir Topher, the murdered king’s First Man. While wandering in neighboring kingdoms and aiding refugees, they receive a message that leads them to Evanjalin, a novice who says Finnikin has been chosen to take his people home. Evanjalin is able to walk in other people's dreams, and she insists that Balthazar, heir to the throne, is alive and will breach the barrier, once Finnikin leads the refugees back to Lumatere. Along the way Finnikin is reunited with his father who has been imprisoned for a decade. He agrees to reassemble the royal guards to aid in the quest.

Although Evanjalin frequently aggravates Finnikin, he is also strangely drawn to her and becomes more and more worried about her safety. She tells him that their destinies are intertwined and that he will become king through the flow of her blood. He assumes this means her death and is bound and determined to avoid this eventuality.

Filled with mysticism and violent battles, the story is an allegory about the atrocities of war; especially violence toward women. Marchetta creates a believable fantasy world and characters that we care about deeply. The violence and allusions to sexual situations make this a novel for the more mature reader.