I am an enthusiastic reader of my blog stats--today was made more joyful by learning that mine is the second entry that Google shows when asked to find "experiences with demonic birds at sea." On a slightly more mundane note, it's become obvious that many students were asked to read Roland Smith's book, Peak (2007) for their summer reading, and that they didn't (lots of searchs for "plot summary peak" etc). I myself successfully read Peak last fall when it was nominated for the Cybils*, and I enjoyed it enough (here's my review) to see what else Smith had written. Another 2007 book, Elephant Run (Hyperion, 318 pp), caught my eye, and I recently made the time to read it.
London is being blitzed, and 14 year old Nick's mother thinks that it would be a good idea to get him out of there. So she sends him off to his father's teak plantation in Burma, where he hadn't been since he was a child. Turns out this was a bad, bad idea--almost immediately, the Japanese invade Burma, take over the plantation, and send Nick's father to a prison camp. Nick remains behind in servitude to the plantation's new Japanese overlord, until, with some unlikely companions, he escapes on elephant-back to rescue his father and race for the border into India.
This story makes for an exciting read, and I'd be happy to recommend it (probably more to boys than to girls), in large part because of its unusal subject matter and setting. There aren't, as far as I know, any other YA books designed to appeal to boys that address the Japanese conquest of east Asia in WW II. If I were a high school teacher of WW II history, I would defiantly put this book on my list of optional reading.
But I didn't find Nick believable as a boy from 1941 England--he came across as an out-of-shape contemporary American teenager (which perhaps means that the book will have more appeal to that audience). I felt that the relationships between the characters only existed to further the plot, not as things of interest in and of themselves (and as a result, I found the ending a bit contrived). This made it feel to me (possibly with complete injustice) as though Smith had set out to write a Book for Boys (see above), and therefore didn't bother too much with the interactions of his characters, which is the sort of thing that Girls like to read about. Although most of the story is told from Nick's point of view, several chapters are told from that of Mya, a teenaged Burmese girl who dreams of being an elephant trainer. This was useful plot-wise, but it didn't make Mya much more of a believable character in my eyes, and (cynic that I am) I found myself thinking that Smith had given Mya her own chapters to add Girl Appeal to his Boy Appeal. There is also a friendly and poetry-loving Japanese soldier, so that we don't fall into the trap of assuming everyone in the Japanese army is Evil.
I did enjoy reading it though--it is strong on setting and story! I guess my dissatisfaction comes from my hope that this would be comparable to Neville Shute's (a wondhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giferful book), and (since that is such a wonderful book) I was bound to feel a bit let down.
*The Cybils are awards given by the kidslit blogging community to the best books in several categories. Nominations for this years awards (anyone can nominate their favorites) will be starting in October. Here's the Cybil's website for more info.