Monday, December 30, 2013

The Best and Worst Books I Read of 2013

Although it wasn't my 2013 New Year's Resolution, I read more books in 2013 than any other year.  Because I recently resigned from my high school English teacher position where I needed to reread the same 10 classics each year (which don't get me wrong rereading The Great Gatsby, Hamlet and To Kill A Mockingbird among others each year was a gift more than a curse), I sometimes had time to squeeze in a book each month between grading stacks of student essays and narratives. When I no longer needed to bend my head over the seemingly endless grading and no longer had the same classics to teach, I went on a book binge.  For the past 8 months, I read at least one book a week, many weeks I read two and occasionally I read three.  The following is a list of the best books and the worst books from my 2013 book bender (note: for this post I only chose books that were published in 2d013):

The Best Books I Read of 2013:

1) And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Infused with fable, loaded with tragedy and triumph, and unforgettable intersecting characters, Hosseini's latest tribute to Afghanistan and beyond broke my heart and made me respect his prowess as a writer.  Even though I loved both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, this book now reigns as my Hosseini favorite.

2) The Round House by Louise Erdrich: I am embarrassed to admit that I never read a novel by Louise Erdrich before especially after I fell in love with the National Book Award winning The Round House.  This part coming of age novel, part mystery, part crime thriller, part mystic Native American lore kept me captivated from the first chapter.

3) A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett: I didn't want to talk to anyone as the story of Amanda and Nigel's Somalia kidnapping unfolded.  I cried, I cheered, I felt anxious and sick for the day and a half this book held me hostage.  I have recommended this memoir to so many people since I read it because ultimately it is the story of survival through hope.  A huge thank you to Suzi at the NCTE Convention in Boston for recommending it to me.

4) Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: I fell in love with this simple romance between two very unlikely romantic counterparts.  The freshness of the storyline set in the 1980s reminded me of a John Hughes film with big twists but without the drama.  I loved the title characters and their simple tale of falling love against all odds.

5) Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: I love memoirs, and this one made me understand the devastation of the tragic tsunami along the Sri Lankan coast during the Christmas holiday travel season in 2004.  Deraniyagala's survival and devastation of losing her entire family and trying to make sense of it touched my soul and made me appreciate the value of each moment I am lucky enough to have with my family.

6) Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller: In this memoir Miller bared her dirty, big secrets of growing up with parents who were both hoarders.  She retells her often bug infested and trash heaped past, but pays respect to her parents who loved her so much but couldn't come clean from their own hoarding sickness even if it meant giving her a "normal" upbringing.  Kimberly Rae Miller's bravery to tell this story needs to be recognized.

7) After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey: At first I wasn't so sure about this memoir where Hainey divulges his quest to find the truth of his father's mysterious death.  Because it was told in bits and pieces of interviews, clues, conversations, and recollections, my brain didn't latch on to the style at first, but as soon as he started to uncover more and more about his father's past, I was hooked on the unconventional telling and was breathless at the conclusion.

8) Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh: This graphic novel memoir compiled the best of Allie Brosh's award winning blog by the same name and presented new material.  I wasn't familiar with her blog before hearing her speak on NPR, but was compelled enough by her interview that I wanted to buy the book.  I laughed, I felt uncomfortable, and I thought of Allie as she cried during her interview as she recollected her darkest days as she dealt with the black cloud of depression.  The creativity of both the retelling of the stories and the illustrations kept me intrigued.

The Worst Books I Read of 2013:

1) Inferno by Dan Brown: I don't know what I expected.  I admit that I liked The Davinci Code, and because of that I read a few of Brown's other books.  BUT - I don't think I will ever read another one because this book was really, really awful.  I mean seriously bad.  Why? Ridiculous story lines, drab characters, formulaic writing, bad editing and eye roll worthy conflicts and resolutions.  My husband and I nicknamed this book (which we both slogged through and laughed about at certain spots) Dumbferno.

2) Allegiant by Veronica Roth: Okay. I know that every teenage girl who read this book and loved it will despise me for saying anything bad about the end of the Divergent Trilogy, but I am actually proud of myself for even attempting to read it after I struggled with Insurgent (the second book in the Trilogy).  Roth seemed to give up.  Tris got more and more unlikable, as did Four, and the story twists and turns felt forced and silly.  Roth's writing actually seemed to get worse with each book.  I actually cheered when I finished the book because it was OVER!

3) The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon: This much hyped book written by 21 year old Samantha Shannon was selected by The Today show as they launched an Oprah-esque book club series.  Shannon's futuristic London world was touted as the next J.K. Rowling success story with seven books slated in the series.  With movie rights already pending, the book should be incredible, right?  I found myself wanting it to be over and questioning whether or not I really enjoyed the story of the Clairvoyant hierarchy and the Rephiam conflict.  At the end I wasn't hungry for the second installment let alone six more.

4) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: I still hear about this book and how incredible it was, but it only seemed REALLY, REALLY long to me.  I liked parts of it, but overall the drab and depressing story lines and the unlikable characters made me think that it was not so interesting to force myself through this one.  It could just be me, but I loved the idea of the book - a pack of friends form life long friendships at a camp for gifted kids.  The reality of the book did not intrigue me as much as the idea.

5) The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls: I'm so disappointed that Jeanette Walls is on my worst books of 2013, but I think that her book is here because I loved her memoir The Glass Castle and expected so much more out of her first attempt to write fiction.  Instead of loving this, I couldn't help but feel like she wanted it to be the new To Kill a Mockingbird and she started a great story with so much potential, but it fizzled so much by the end that it left me feeling empty.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Raina's Faves: Top 10 Books for Elementary School Aged Book Lovers

Maybe I obsessed a bit much over bringing books into my daughter Raina's life.  Before I even bought a onesie or diaper, shopped for cribs, figured out how to install a baby car seat, read What to Expect When You are Expecting, or did any other nesting activity, I scoured yard sales and the internet for great deals on books to start a library for Raina.  When we designed her nursery, building a floor to ceiling bookshelf topped my list for "must haves" in her room.  So, you could say that the fact that Raina loves to read really doesn't shock me.  What does sometimes throw me a bit is the voracity that she tears through books.  She will stay up all night to finish a series.  In the summer when we go to the library, I need to limit the amount of books she checks out just to insure that she will get into the pool at my mom's house.  Many nights we need to give her the "It's 10pm, and you need to get up for school tomorrow so even though we made you this way with books, you must put that great book down and get some sleep" talk.

Today, my book-loving, baby girl turns 9 years old, and in honor of her birthday, I asked Raina which books out of all the books she has read stand out as her favorites.  We looked at her bookshelf, and we talked about each of these books.  As we chatted, she tuned me out and started rereading a book (she's still reading it now), but I did manage to get her top 10 list of her favorite books of all time (so far) with a little quote about why she chose the books that she loved best:

*These are in no particular order

1) Captain Underpants (the entire series) by Dav Pilkey-
Parent side note: I was reluctant at first with these books because of the potty humor, but seeing Raina laugh out loud when she read these in 1st grade made them okay for me.  She was even okay with getting car sick just to finish one of these books.  They are great for girls or boys - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "These books are so funny! They're about a superhero that flies around in his underpants saving people from crime.  The names make me laugh and so do the pictures."

2) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the entire series) by Jeff Kinney-
Parent side note: I LOVE these books just as much as Raina does.  We watched the movie together as a family and loved it, too.  They may better for 3rd graders and up, but Raina read most of the series when she was in 1st and 2nd grade.  Boys or girls would love this series - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "These books follow Greg Heffley's life in a diary format.  Funny things happen to him, and I love stories based on diaries."

3) Little House on the Prairie (the entire series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder-
Parent side note: These books bring back so many memories for me.  When Raina received the first 5 books in a box set from her grandparents for Christmas, we bought the t.v. series on DVD.  I remember watching all the episodes with my sisters when I was a little girl, but I did NOT remember how hot Pa was.  Michael Landon makes me drool a bit when I watch these, but I also cry at the touching story lines like when Pa had to leave his family to make money because his crops died.  He walked barefoot for days just to get home! Men today don't know how easy they have it. This book series is probably better for girls (and women of any age will really like looking at Pa - especially the episodes where he takes his shirt off.  For real.) - advanced readers will most likely enjoy these books more since they move a bit slower.
From Raina: "I love the details and how these books tell about what life was really like in the olden days."

4) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl-
Parent side note: My third grade teacher basically destroyed my self esteem and flipped out on our class every other day, BUT he read this book out loud to us and it became my favorite book ever.  I checked it out of the library and reread my favorite parts as often as I could.  Raina's 2nd grade teacher read the book aloud to her class, and Raina recently played the role of Oompa Loompa in York Little Theater's production of Willy Wonka.  She was a bit obsessed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for a bit. We watched and compared the two movies, sang the songs, read the book, listened to the musical soundtrack in the car, and then watched her do cute little Oompa Loompa dances on stage. This book is good for boys or girls - advanced readers or a great read aloud for any level of reader.
From Raina: "This book is my favorite! It's full of chocolate and details, and you can just melt into this book.  All the characters are very naughty except for Charlie."

5) Goosebumps (any of these books) by R. L. Stine-
Parent side note: I need to admit that after Raina read a few of these books that she suffered nightmares.  She freaked about playing her piano because one of the books had a storyline about phantom hands that played a piano.  I probably won't win parent of the year for allowing her to continue reading these books (I did actually ban them at one point when she refused to walk upstairs by herself if any of the lights were out), but these books are addictive and foster a love of reading and an understanding of mood.  I still don't allow her to watch the television series even if each story turns out not so scary at the end (that counts for something, right?) These books are good for boys or girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "I always liked scary books and Goosebumps books are SCARY! This is the best series of scary books."

6) Bad Kitty (any of these books) by Nick Bruel-
Parent side note: Raina reads these books in less than an hour, so it might be more economical to check them out of the library.  She does like to reread them.  They make her laugh out loud, so in the hour that she reads or rereads any Bad Kitty book, I can hear her laughter emanating through the house.  Because these are graphic novels, they are great for boys or girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "Bad Kitty is about a crazy, bad cat.  It's fun reading about the life of a cat.  But she is BAD."

7) Dear Dumb Diary (the entire series) by Jim Benton
Parent side note: Because these books are a "sneak peak inside the diary of Jamie Kelly" who is a student at Mackerel Middle School, these books are more appropriate for older girls who are middle school age, but Raina received these as a gift from my best friend's daughter and she couldn't resist the hot pink covers, the funny illustrations, and the snarky personality of Jamie Kelly.  These books are for girls - advanced elementary school readers or any middle school reading level.
From Raina: "I love that these are in diary format.  Jamie Kelly writes really funny things."

8) The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Parent side note: When I was Raina's age, this series was my favorite.  I checked every single book out of the library and stayed up and read one a night.  I loved the magical world of Oz which is way more complex than the famous movie shows.  We started this one as a read aloud before bed, but Raina decided she wanted to read it herself instead. This book is good for boys or girls - more of an advanced level.
From Raina: "This is a great fantasy book full of interesting characters. The whole idea of the book is mind blowing with munchkins, witches and a big adventure.  What's not to love?"

9) Katie Kazoo (entire series) by Nancy Krulik
Parent side note: My pediatrician said her daughter loved these books, so I tried them with Raina when she was in first grade.  She LOVED them and got hooked on the series.  If your daughter likes Judy Moody or Junie B. Jones, she will love this series, too. This series is best for girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "The cool part of Katie Kazoo is that she switcheroos from a normal girl into a whole different person when the magic winds blow.  I like the perspective switch."

10) Judy Moody (entire series) by Megan McDonald
Parent side note: Judy Moody is a very sassy girl, but she is lovable, too.  It seems like every elementary school girl knows about Judy Moody books, so this is a good series to get your daughter hooked on reading. This series is best for girls - advanced or reluctant readers.
From Raina: "I love that these books are realistic fiction.  Judy's personality makes the books really good because she is daring and mischievous."

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Husband's Secret: Lies, Seduction, and Skeletons in Closets

"There are so many secrets about our lives we'll never know."

Liane Moriarty's book The Husband's Secret takes a harrowing look at the damage of long kept secrets, and short term affairs - both emotional and sexual. The novel opens with Cecilia Fitzpatrick deciding whether or not to open a letter written by her husband, John-Paul, that she found in the attic when a stack of old tax receipts toppled over accidentally.

Two other story lines intersect Cecilia's troubles as she uncovers her husband's secrets. The second story line involves the crumbling marriage of Tess and Will right after Felicity, Tess's best friend and cousin, and Will sit Tess down to tell her that they are involved in a love affair that has yet to be consummated.  In Will and Felicity's love oblivion they believe that Tess will somehow consent to this love affair and possibly even allow all of them to live in the same house together.  In a fit of disbelief, Tess leaves Will and Felicity to sort things out while she and her son, Liam stay at her mother's home.

Meanwhile, Rachel Crowley, a school secretary, deals with her depression stemming from her husband's recent death, her son's latest news that he, his wife, and his son, Jacob (Rachel's only bright spot in her days) are moving from Australia to New York City for a great business opportunity, and Rachel still suffers from the horrendous murder of her only daughter, Janie, which after almost 30 years is still unsolved.

Does all of that sound like a soap opera?
It read like one, too.

Pop culture, modernity and history cross the lives of all three characters with thoughts on Tupperware parties, The Biggest Loser and the Berlin Wall.  Rather than making the story feel more relevant and fresh, Moriarty's narrative read almost farcically at times.  I liked the fact that even a serious book with the underlying theme that we never really know a person even when we think we do, didn't need to take itself so seriously, but at times I rolled my eyes at the dialogue or the twisted fates of the characters.  Moriarty relies heavily on the idea that "karma is a bitch" almost to a fault, but the absolution and redemptive nature of the plots kept me engaged until the end.  The flashbacks to the day Janie was murdered (and fast forwards of what awaited her in the life she never led) showed Moriarty's prowess as a gifted storyteller.

Although I raced through The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty and enjoyed parts of the book, I can't say I loved it.  At the end, even after the fast forward Epilogue, I couldn't quite wrap my head around what I didn't love about it.  Maybe it was the melodramatic way that the stories all intertwined around the tragic car incident close to the end.  Maybe it was the easy transition from marriage to love affair and back again for Tess.  Maybe it was the ease of forgiveness, or the way karma had to intercede even though John-Paul paid a lifetime's worth of penance.

If you need a book with a murder mystery, a steamy romance, a dissolving marriage, truths that are uncovered and paid for in ways that are almost unthinkable, and a neurotic, Tupperware-selling housewife who takes pride in her perfect life, The Husband's Secret might be the best book you have ever read.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

A House in the Sky: A Story of Hope

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett held me hostage for two days. I couldn't stop reading the terrifying account of Amanda and Nigel's kidnapping in Somalia.  I felt their fear when their captors forced them into a jeep and locked them in a room with two small mats and mosquito nets. I visualized their anguish when their captors shackled their ankles just in case they tried to escape.  I cried for Amanda's torture and rape.  I understood her religious conversion and her clever manipulation of her guards.  When she and Nigel found ways to communicate after their separation, I rejoiced in their  reunion and secret Christmas presents.

Mostly as I read this book I gasped.  My husband watched me reading and continually asked me, "What is going on in that book?  It's like you're not here."  And when I told him the story of Amanda and Nigel's Somalia capture, he wanted to know the play by play.  Each hour he saw me reading he asked, "Did they escape?" or "How are they doing now?"  I hardly wanted to come up for air to explain it to him as I flew through the pages to find out what happened to Nigel and Amanda.

What, you might be asking, led to the capture of Nigel and Amanda, two amateur photographers and journalists, in Somalia? The story Amanda tells starts in her impoverished childhood where she dumpster dove for fun - rifling through the remnants of other's trash to find treasures.  As an adult Amanda sought escape and comfort in travel, and when she found her footing on foreign soil, she wanted the thrill and challenge of visiting forbidden places - Afghanistan, Beirut, Baghdad, Amman, and Damascus.  When she received the opportunity to travel to Somalia as a journalist and photographer, she reasoned with herself that "there were stories here - a raging war, and impending famine, religious extremists, and a culture that had been largely shut out of sight." She wanted to "do stories that mattered, that moved people" even with the impending danger and even with the knowledge that few reporters risked going to Somalia.  As the Italian missionary man on the fretful plan ride to Somalia told her and Nigel, "Be very careful in Mogadishu . . . Your head is worth a half million dollars there.  And that's just for your head."

Even with the sinking feeling in her soul, and the warnings from others, Amanda and Nigel forged forward to Somalia with the blind faith that their guides and press passes would protect them.

They didn't last long in the harsh landscape of violence before Somalia reared its ugliness.  Amanda and Nigel were captured and held hostage and thrust into a bizarre business world of negotiations, ransom, political maneuvers, religious extremists, fear, and suffering.

I felt this book the whole way through, and rejoiced at the end of the story because ultimately Amanda's story is one of hope, survival and forgiveness.  I cried during my two day A House in the Sky binge and got sweaty as Amanda and Nigel suffered at the hands of their captors.

When I finished the book, I sat still in front of my iPad for a few minutes - wanting to absorb the full weight of Amanda's story.  My husband asked, "So how does it end?" and I didn't know what to tell him.  I simply said, "Do you know how strong the human spirit is? We can survive anything.  We just need to convince ourselves that we can."

Monday, December 2, 2013

Eleanor & Park: A Refreshing YA Love Story

It's been awhile since I felt myself falling in love with a YA book . . . falling hard to the point where I didn't want to do anything but read and block out the world.  Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park took me back to when I first fell in love - the awkward, dangerous first moments of romance when nothing else in the world matters but the person of your affection.

Rowell gives her readers so much to love. I rooted for Eleanor, a red headed, slightly overweight, misfit new girl as she braved her first day of school, the horrible bus (before it became not so horrible), and her despicable step-father.  Eleanor's brashness and ability to transcend the pettiness around her rubs off on Park, a quiet Asian kid whose loving family comprised of his Korean war veteran father, Korean mother, and younger but taller brother lives in suburban blissfulness.  His parents still make out (much to Park's disdain).  Park wants nothing more than to be left alone, to lie low under the radar of high school ridiculousness all around him until he falls for Eleanor through their mutual love of graphic novels, music and each other.  Then, he starts to change - getting into fights for Eleanor's honor, wearing a new punk style and not caring what people think or believe about him or Eleanor.

Set in 1986, Rowell's book feels like a John Hughes movie - only better with vibrant and lovable characters who all have heart.  I actually pictured Molly Ringwald in certain scenes as I read this book with her pouty lips and defiant stare; she'd be a perfect casting choice for Eleanor.

Rowell reminded me what falling in love feels like.  I remembered phone conversations with Eric (who is now my husband) that lasted so long we'd fall asleep with the phone pressed to our ears.  I remembered seeing him in the high school hallways and feeling safe and loved and happy and confused all at once.  I remember the evolution of our relationship from a joke to a friendship to something so much deeper (it's still going strong after almost 15 years of marriage and the addition of two beautiful daughters in our lives), and Rowell captures all of those feelings in the 325 pages of Eleanor and Park's romance.

When Park first meets Eleanor, he really just wants her to go away, to stop being such an embarrassment for drawing negative attention to herself.  "He could remember thinking that she was asking for it . . . That it was bad enough to have a face shaped like a box of chocolates. . . He remembered feeling embarrassed for her. And now . . . Now, he felt the fight rising up in his throat whenever he thought of people making fun of her."

Eleanor possesses the ability to free Park from the shadows, and Park possesses an equal ability to free Eleanor from her hardened shell where she has convinced herself that she needs no one because all the people she loves and trusts most violate that trust with neglect and violence.  Park's tenderness and care towards Eleanor melts her and shows her how beautiful love can be, even if she fears needing him.  "She wanted to lose herself in him. To tie his arms around her like a tourniquet. If she showed him how much she needed him, he'd run away."

And the book does involve some running away, but not the kind you'd expect.  None of this book feels expected, false, empty or forced.  Instead it feels like the first moments of love - the real kind - that you lose yourself in because it is so easy and full of happiness even if the world around you feels unkind or confusing.  I can already see this book becoming a movie with a killer soundtrack full of 80s music, and a multi-generational following.  If you know a teenage girl who loves Sarah Dessen or even Veronica Roth books, you need to get her a copy of Eleanor & Park this Christmas.  AND, if you know a 30something 40something woman who grew up in the 80s, you need to get her a copy, too. She'll love you for it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Funny, Creative and Honest: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I love memoirs more than any other type of book.

When I searched "great new memoirs" Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened kept appearing.  It looked promising, so I ordered it.  Unlike many of the reviewers for this book, I had never read Allie Brosh's blog titled "Hyperbole and a Half", but I did hear her interview on NPR last week where she started to cry as she talked about her bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts.  I was more than intrigued and did a bit of a happy dance when my Amazon box arrived at my door.

The book reads like a graphic novel because Allie Brosh illustrates her stories.  The drawings are rudimentary, but hysterical (especially the dogs).  I read the whole book in an evening and laughed out loud and reread her chapter "The Helper Dog is an Asshole" to my husband.  He laughed, too, because it is funny and when you read it, you can't help but laughing.

Here's a tip, though - you may want to just check out Allie's blog (which is an award winning blog) since most of the stories in this book are taken directly from her blog posts.  This book really is a compilation of her best blog posts, so you don't even need to buy it UNLESS you are looking to buy a funny (and sometimes sad and disturbing) book for someone this Christmas.  I realized while perusing her blog, that the posters the English teacher put up about the A LOT came from Allie's blog.

Brosh's sense of humor and her ability to show her stories through the pictures is worth reading and discovering and passing along to friends and family members you know won't be offended by the stick figure with the triangle pony tail.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The roots of evil and justice: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

After plodding through the dismal Allegiant by Veronica Roth (the last book in Roth's Divergent trilogy), I picked up The Round House that same afternoon.  I craved a hearty read with substantial characters, breathtaking writing and a storyline that kept me not only engaged, but made me think.  Although I have read some of Erdrich's short stories, and Love Medicine is still on my lists of "must read before I die" books, I have never read one of her novels.  This novel, already adorned with The National Book Award Winner seal of approval, made my mouth water a bit.  I knew little about the story line - only that it was a cross between a mystery and a coming of age story.

The story opens with Joe and father Bazil as they pull tenacious, weedy, small trees from the foundation of their home in 1988 on their Indian Reservation. Unsuspecting and innocently, hours later, Joe's father asks, "Where is your mother?" Joe believes she went to work to pick up a file, but feels uncertain and uneasy.  They discover hours later that Geraldine, Joe's mother, was the victim of a brutal rape that renders her a ghost like whisper of her former self - scared to tell any details of the crime committed against her.

The book, told from the narrative perspective of Joe's adult self, centers on Joe's young detective skills and his need to bring the rapist to justice.  He and his band of friends, all on the brink of adulthood and discovering that the adult world comes with complications of love, sex, violence and justice, work together like the boys in Stand By Me to uncover truths at the scene of the crime, the Round House, a sacred space where there Ojibwe hold spiritual ceremonies.

Erdrich's storytelling left me breathless (just like I wanted to be) with her ability to weave together humor (in the form of the elderly Indian women who have no qualms about divulging the secrets of their past love conquests much to the chagrin of the unsuspecting listeners), and memorable characters (like the tragically beautiful priest, Joe's charming best friend Cappy, and Sonja, Joe's crush who mothers him when his mother is unable to move from her bed). The storyline floats through mystery, and a coming of age summer which is shrouded in discovery and loss.  The boys protect each other and help each other through the darkness and manage some freedom in their summer of discovery as they bike through the reservation.

The magic of Erdrich stems from her ability to enhance the storyline with as much mysticism and spirituality and reality, but make the reader question the nature of good and the nature of evil.  As Father Travis tells Joe, "Every time there is an evil, much good comes of it ---" to which Joe responds by deepening his need for vigilante justice.

Erdrich furthered my breathlessness with the revelation (at least to me) that "tribal governments can't prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on their land." That law (which Amnesty International  called "Maze of Injustice") coupled with the jigsaw puzzle of land laws surrounding Indian territories and federal properties lead to the freedom of the rapist and the eventual outcome of the book as the community seeks justice.

Even with the abrupt ending and the thin wisps of some of the storyline still left unanswered, Joe's narration of his summer of discovery founded in both evil and justice will stay rooted with me for years to come.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Have Mercy . . . It's Over!: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Ummm.... it's hard for me to know where to start with this one.  The song "Mercy" by Duffy kept playing in my head as I read the third and final book in the Divergent series.  Allegiant by Veronica Roth hurt to read.  I know, I know . . . she has tons of fans.  Girls in the age range of 12-17 probably LOVE this series, and don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the first book, Divergent, but I couldn't enjoy this book at all.  

Not at all (sorry Veronica Roth fans). I can picture my good friend's daughter reading this post and crying because she loves Veronica Roth so much and just met her at The National Book Festival.  And I appreciate this adoration, but I can't say that I appreciate Roth's writing in the 2nd book in her trilogy, Insurgent, and even I possess even less admiration for the writing in Allegiant.  

I rolled my eyes while reading just about every chapter.  Before you jump to the conclusion that I just hate YA literature, please reconsider.  I LOVE YA literature, but not all YA literature (just like not all adult literature) is created equally, and Roth's book Allegiant is a sad attempt to continue and conclude the very intriguing dystopia she developed in Divergent.  The main action of this book takes place outside of the faction led (and crumbling) futuristic Chicago in a secret compound that has been monitoring the city experiment.  In the world outside the city, the dystopia continues but instead of faction fighting faction, it is the Genetically Pure (or Divergent) against the Genetically Damaged (those who aren't Divergent). Beyond this compound there is an even harsher landscape called the fringe which seems just like the factionless sector in the city.  

Although the conflicts are all set, there is little to love about this book. Let's take the characters of Tris and Four (Tobias) for an example of the deteriorating story line.  Their relationship in the first book blossomed during the initiation process, but in the second book it thinned and it almost became a laughable aspect of Allegiant.  Tris huffs and puffs so much at Tobias, and Tobias seems bent on lying to her which seems so different than the very lovable and admirable Four that Roth presented in Divergent.  Whenever a "love" scene appeared in this book, I felt nothing for this couple but an annoyance.  Why does every time that Tobias looks at Tris that she has to question why such an attractive bloke would love the skinny, pale, and plain likes of her?  The murky lack of self confidence even with the plans and bravery Tris shows in every other situation just seems wrong and so sadly misplaced that it grew tiresome. 

I also grew tired of the plans and revolutions.  I know that this too might be a subject for Roth fans to debate me, but almost every chapter presented a new plan involving a new serum of some sort that only some people are immune to or some people have been inoculated against. All of the plans felt contrived and a bit childish rather than well thought out and complex.  

The new characters presented from the compound outside of the city also seemed thin and underdeveloped.  Nita, whose appearance furthers the understanding of the resistance against the Genetically Damaged prejudice is also presented as a love hiccup between Tris and Tobias.  The whole situation is so ridiculous with Tobias accusing Tris of just being jealous, and Tris focusing on Nita's beauty.  Aren't they in the midst of some huge revolution and in mind blowing revelations about the Matrix-esque role of the compound?  In one part after Tris shoots Nita she visits her in her guarded cell.  Tris describes Nita in her powerless state and thinks, "half her body is encased in plaster, and one of her hands is cuffed to the bed, as if she could escape even if she wanted to. Her hair is messy, knotted, but of course, she's still pretty." I had to mark that passage, because I rolled my eyes after I read it.  Really? You visit the rebel in her prison cell after you almost killed her and you are focusing on her still being pretty?

The dual narrative from Tobias and Tris's perspective also got tiresome and didn't offer too much of a different perspective until the end.  

I don't want to be cruel, but I was so glad when I finished this book.  I know that it will still sell, sell, sell, and with the movie coming out for Divergent in the Spring (as well as another collection of stories from Four's point of view), Roth is sure to be given high praise for her trilogy.  My biggest hope was that Roth's Divergent world would improve with each book like J.K. Rowling's writing improved and grew more complex with each installment of Harry Potter. Instead every interesting aspect of the first book dissolved in the second book, and the third book basically ran on empty the entire 526 pages.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stolen: A Kidnapping Tale with a Twist

Lucy Christopher's debut YA novel Stolen (2010) presents a psychological thrill ride in which a beautiful and broken Aussie, Ty, kidnaps teenaged Gemma while she is at the Bangkok airport on a layover and looking for an excuse to escape her parents. After drugging her, Ty transplants Gemma to his home in the Australian desert hundreds of miles from civilization and tries to convince her that they are meant to be together. Ty proves to be a benevolent kidnapper who stalked Gemma from the time she was 10 years old, and wants only to protect her and show her all the beauty of the Australian wilderness. He's beautiful with blonde hair, fire lit blue eyes and rippling abdominals, but something about him repulses Gemma.  It could be the fact that he drugged her and took her 1000s of miles away from the only life she ever knew.  It could be the fact that he created a life for them without her consent.  It could be the fact that he stalked her as she grew up.  It could be that he repeatedly says that he will never let her go.

Maybe since I just saw The Great Gatsby and I have been thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird, something in this kidnapping tale seemed almost romantic. In any other situation, Ty, the pained loner who loves the land and pledges devotion to one woman for his entire life, who only wants to show this woman the beauty of the harsh wilderness around them, who never touches this woman but protects her, who paints and traps snakes during the day, and who seems to know everything there is to know about the Australian desert would be a hero.  In Stolen, however, Lucy Christopher twists the tragic hero and places him at the center of a kidnapping tale. We see Ty's devotion to Gemma, but the connection between the two characters remains uneasy because the motives and the violence of kidnapping underly the entire skewed relationship.  In The Great Gatsby, Jay constructed his lavish empire only to win the love of Daisy and be worthy of her love.  There's a romanticism in that story.  Jay Gatsby endears readers as the tragic hero whose fatal flaw stems from the fact that he did it all for love.  He wanted to repeat the past with Daisy, and he created just the sort of world that would attract her.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, Boo Radley watches over Jem and Scout and protects them from danger, going as far as killing a man to protect them.  In the end, Boo, although creepy and somewhat stalkerish, becomes a hero who overcomes the evil.  Christopher's portrayal of Ty leads even his victim to question him - can she trust him? Should she? Does she have feelings for this man whose motives are twisted and his sense of reality warped? Is he tender or terrifying? Is he calculating or kind? The complexity of the character makes it hard to know which leads to the brilliance of Christopher's work and the well deserved Printz Honor it received.

I loved this book and tore through it in a day abandoning other work responsibilities to be entrenched in the heated story of kidnapper and victim, the wild of the Australian dessert becoming a vivid, living character itself. Gemma's internal struggles, her will to escape, and the overriding seductive nature of her captor, all drew me in from the first page.

It's that lingering question of what really constitutes love? How do we differentiate love from capture? Hero from hunter? Healthy relationships from unhealthy ones? Devotion from deviant behavior? Lucy Christopher presents a character as complex as the Australian landscape he knows so well - dangerous and deadly as well as beautiful and breathtaking.  Ty will make you question your concept of hero and villain and Stolen will make you question what it means to be taken and what it means to be saved.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lost and Found: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Unlike much of the adult fiction I selected over the past few months, I knew relatively nothing about Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  I read a John Green interview after I reread his book The Fault in Our Stars in which he named Semple's book his favorite of the year so far.  Semple wrote for Saturday Night Live and for Arrested Development, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette was touted as a one of the year's best books, with glittering praise for the comedic writing and spot on satire from every major news outlet from the New York Times to Vogue.

I chose this book for my Book Club because I needed a change of pace.  Where'd You Go, Bernadette certainly offered something different.  The story revolves around a family living in Seattle - Bernadette Fox, a brilliant architect from Los Angeles whose distaste for the Seattle inhabitants and lifestyle pushed her over the edge and made her a recluse in her run down home; Elgin Branch, Bernadette's genius Microsoft inventor husband who received national recognition for his top rated TedTalk on Samantha 2; and the narrator of the story, Bee, Bernadette and Elgin's gifted 15 year old daughter who attends Galer Street school and asks for a trip to Antarctica for receiving perfect grades.

The story unfolds in a series of letters, faxes, medical reports, interviews, and emails.  The biting satire about families, overzealous Suburban moms, creativity, and the artistic temperament highlight the mystery of what really happened to Bernadette, but brings up the broader question - what happens to all of us as we age, compromise our beliefs, raise our families, recover from illnesses and loss, and try to navigate the world and find out what we can really tolerate.

I loved Semple's style and found myself flying through the narrative.  I especially loved the character Audrey Griffin and her flawed rivalry with Bernadette.  Audrey's letters about blackberry bush removal, parent involvement at Galer Street School, and her unhinging at the Westin Hotel where she realizes how out of touch with her reality she really is parallels Bernadette's unhinging and circle to eventual restoration. The way the story unfolds made me appreciate Semple's brilliance - the truths keep coming in bursts of light through the various clues Bee recovers about her mother's disappearance.

I never laughed aloud as I read the way that I do when I read David Sedaris, but the fresh originality of the dysfunctional world of Bernadette, her husband, and her daughter showed human truths in a way that didn't feel awful and sad.  Yes, there are sad aspects to the book, but all the sadness is tempered with Semple's comedic edge, and the wit led me to smile rather than frown.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Insurgent: A Watery YA Sequel

Because I preordered the third installment of the Divergent trilogy, Allegiant, and I knew I would receive it around October 22nd, I wanted to read the 2nd book in the series, Insurgent.  The first book, Divergent, introduced a fantasy world constructed with the teenage girl audience in mind.  Lots of kissing, lots of breathless moments of the hot leader protecting the not so pretty, but really determined heroine, Tris.  The world itself was imaginative enough to hold my interest with the five factions- Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Abnegation (which oddly all seem to be dominated by teenagers with the exception of a few adult leaders), and the gutsy Dauntless initiation rituals.  When the faction inspired war began by the end of the first book, my interest waned a bit, but I still wanted to continue on to the 2nd and ultimately the 3rd book in the series.

Admittedly, Sci-Fi / Fantasy books are not my thing.  I love it, though, when a new author creates something that people love to read enough that they start buzzing about it.  Because a Divergent movie is in the not too distant future and the 3rd book was just released, I wanted to read this series to have an opinion.

Unfortunately, Insurgent, the 2nd book in the Divergent trilogy,  is a fluffy read - hardly any substance but teeming with an overabundance of teenage relationship angsty moments in the midst of a war that seems watery itself.  Tris just seems stupid to me in the 2nd installment, and Tobias (Four) also comes off as a jerk - moody, aloof, and then mushy all at once.  He lost his hard, edgy, mystique from the first book, and comes across more like a controlling boyfriend.

I found myself skimming pages, and wanting the inner dialogue of Tris and her self esteem issues to end as quickly as possible.  Rather than showing her fearless side, in this book, we see more of her Divergent tendencies, but they are all overridden by her attachment to Tobias.  I found the capture and torture of her rather boring, and the plans and attack strategies contrived and a bit cliche.  It really wasn't until the very end of this book that I felt mildly entertained and even considered picking up the 3rd book.

I know most teenage girls will completely disagree with me, and anyone who fell in love with the first book probably LOVED the second book, but now I need to either wade through my murky 2nd book emotions or scrap the series with one more book to go.

I've never been a quitter, so I vow to give Veronica Roth one more chance.  Right now she is 50/50 in my book, so maybe Allegiant will change my mind and tip my book scales more in her favor.

Monday, October 28, 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird - A Fall Feast

Every year when the leaves fall from the trees, when I need to locate my scraper to remove frost from my windshield in the morning, when I need to clean the drawers and closets and replace the light summer shorts with jeans and the tank tops with sweaters, I also need to replace my candy summer reading to the more substantial, hearty meal novels.  I love curling up with a great classic full of symbolism, diligently woven themes, and carefully crafted characters who experience epiphanies. My favorite hearty classic is still To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Up until this year, every fall I handed out the purple covered coming of age gem. As students studied the front cover, and thumbed through the 280 pages, I smiled and couldn’t wait to feast on the substantial meal and once again join the Finch family in Maycomb, Alabama.  

This year, I will miss as students unravel the ghost story of Boo Radley or stage the trial of Tom Robinson.  I don’t get to witness students fight over the role of Atticus Finch as he defends Tom’s rights at a trial they lost before it even began due to the pervasive blanket of racism in the deep south in the 1930s.  When students laugh at Dill’s storytelling and his idea of how babies are born, or react to Scout’s treatment of Walter Cunningham when he pours syrup on his meal, I won’t be there to hear it.  As Scout and Jem take their eery walk home after Scout’s failed attempt to be a star ham in the Halloween pageant, I won’t teach students what really happened on that confusing journey home.  The definition of hero, will be up to another teacher to instill in the 10 Honors students, and the final sequence that brings the framed narrative full circle, will be up to another teacher to highlight.  Just knowing that students will still be experiencing Lee’s literary banquet makes me happy, though. 

Atticus Finch will always be my hero, and I believe if everyone followed his sage advice to Scout after her disastrous first day of school, that people would learn to get along a whole bunch better.  Scout tells her dad that she never wants to return to school because of her clueless teacher.  Atticus tells her, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” If people followed this wisdom, our world would be different.  Before we taunted, teased, judged or ridiculed, if we could for a moment consider the other person’s side, many fights and disagreements would disappear, or at least we could come to an understanding.  I’ve witnessed 15 years worth of students ponder this theme, and try and put it into action in their classrooms and lives.  I assigned a “walk around in someone else’s shoes” activity, and watched students see the world from a different perspective.  If politicians, world leaders, parents, teachers, and neighbors tried Atticus’s “simple trick” humanity might be a lot more humane. 
Although candy summer books can transport us to different worlds and wrap us in easy romantic sagas, rarely do they transform us as people.  That’s the power of a hearty classic. This year as the leaves fall, and I grab my pumpkin latte to curl up with my substantial meal of To Kill A Mockingbird, I will miss my eager 10 Honors students and their discovery of how influential a good meal of a book can be. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

StageofLife Editors: YA Recommendations

Loki surrounded by our Editor's recommended YA reading

In honor of Teen Read Week (last week), I asked my teen editors to send me a list of their favorite YA books either books assigned in high school that they were forced to read for a grade, or books that they read on their own.  Here's what our brilliant editors and interns recommended:

From Nate:
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: A great sci fi novel about a virtual reality utopia. The book is entirely filled with references and allusions to current pop culture and pop culture from the last 2-3 decades. Great book for teens into video games/pop culture.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card:   One of my favorite science fiction novels and is even more relevant now with the movie coming out soon. It's a great starting point for the genre as it doesn't get into heavy topics like Isaac Asimov or series like Dune

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon:   Follows two teenaged aspiring comic artists during WW2. I don't have much to say other than it's a great book! A bit long though (like 800 pages)

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: Probably my favorite book I ever had to read from a school reading list. It's a weird blend of fiction/non-fiction and deals with the Vietnam war. I think many older teens go through a phase of being really interested in war novels, movies, etc. and this is one of the best in my opinion.

From Amanda:
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: addresses danger, result of violence, and meaning/acceptance of death

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: deals with culture, racism, and ideas of love/respect

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: identity, family

From Megan: 
In high school I liked...

The Great Gatsby because I like how Gatsby's love for Daisy doesn't die after years of their separation and he refuses to give up in his search to find her again. I really like that it pulls in a lot of the elements of the 1920's and I love the new movie version! I think what really got my attention about this book is that the whole story is told through the eyes of Nick.

Tuesday's With Morrie because I never thought I would become so attached to a character, Morrie, in a book (while in high school). I loved how Morrie continued to teach even when he was no longer in a classroom, especially since I always wanted to go to school to be a teacher.

1984 because I loved how different the totalitarian government is from our own and how different the world would be if we operated under this type of rule. It made me think about what it would be like if there really was a telescreen in the wall watching my every move and how my life would be completely different.

Lord of the Flies because who doesn't love Piggy? I really like how these young boys are stranded on this island with no adult supervision at all and they still manage to figure out some way to live on this island together. Plus, young boys are not the type of people that would be expected to be all alone on this island.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan because how weird would it be for you to meet someone who has the exact same name as you in a place that can be considered to be very awkward. This book follows the lives of two Will Grayson's who lead two very different lives while following their love lives and friendships along with the usual drama of high school. 

After by Amy Efaw because the main character, Devon, is the all around good girl in her school. She ends up going to a juvenile detention after she gets caught in a sticky situation after giving birth to her own child on her own after swearing she was never pregnant. I really liked this book because it really opened my mind to what other types of things are happening out in the world and why some people make some of the decisions that they do. 

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay because this follows the history of a house that was used during the time of the Holocaust. Sarah's younger brother is hiding in a closet when the rest of her family is taken away. Years later, the history of the house is discovered through the ancestors and newspapers of the past. I really liked this book because the story does a great job at switching between the past and present without becoming confusing, and it pulls in a lot of history without making it feel as though you're reading a history text book. 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold because this book sucks you in within the first two sentences and it doesn't go down hill from there. When a book starts off with a murder, I always want to find out who did it and why. I liked this book because it always kept my attention, and it shows just how little you can trust some of the people who live around you. 

From Raisa
Zero Regrets by Apolo Anton Ohno because it teaches that the best thing that people can do in life is try their best. 

Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman  because in learning the different ways in which people like to express and receive love, we can better communicate with one another. 

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom because it teaches that everyone does have a purpose in life. 

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini because it teacher that there is time to make up for wrongs. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because it discusses the traumatic experience of rape and the journey to be able to speak about it. 

From Michelle: 
From Required High School reading: 

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams: The opening monologue of this play is one of my favorite monologues ever written. I have a soft spot for Williams, and this play shines for its realistic characters and symbolism. 

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: An intriguing memoir that turned me onto blogging (i.e. writing about myself). The way she artfully blends fiction and reality makes for an interesting story. 

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin: The story of a young girl learning tolerance and acceptance, especially in regard to mentally disabled people, is important. This was a supplementary class read to Of Mice and Men, but I preferred Martin's book because it was more realistic and relatable. 

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: We didn't read much classic lit in high school, but this book really stood out to me for its important--and still timely--message. My freshman year Honors English teacher gave me the book as a gift. 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safron Foer: Beautifully written with a unique style and powerful storytelling. My favorite book: period. 

Recommended Reading / Non-Required books: 

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Hilarious and strange, this classic helped integrate me into the world of sci-fi literature, even when I was not the genre's biggest fan. 

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: This book speaks to Tumblr-loving, fandom-obsessed teens. The protagonist provides a fabulous insight into the world of an introvert who writes fanfiction for a Harry Potter-esque book series. 

If I Stay by Gayle Foreman: The guy at the bookstore sold it to me as being "sort of like Speak, but not quite as emotionally abusive." A girl who lost her family in a car accident must decide, while in a coma, whether she wants to live or die. Beautiful and emotional storytelling. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: Poetry-prose about a girl who was the victim of a horrible crime. I love this book so much I got a tattoo in its honor. 

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler: A fat protagonist comes to terms with her body and familial relationships; an excellent introduction to body positivity. Probably my favorite YA book.

From Tracy:
Sunshine by Robin McKinley - This is still one of my favorite books to read from time to time. I think one of the things that I like most is the mysterious and magical world McKinley creates with demons, fairies, wizards, and vampires as part of the everyday. I like the tone McKinley uses to keep the tension of the book going, yet allows moments of light mysticism and fun.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer  - When I first read this book I couldn’t put it down. I read it all in one sitting. I thought the plot was so interesting and original. I felt like the plot was well developed and the depicted in a realistic manner of what could or would happen is such a scenario.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini - This book is a fantastical, magical read. The plot is full of pits and twists so that even when you think you can predict what is going to happen something comes in and changes everything. I also like how varied and memorable all the characters are. Lots of detail of the world – reminds me a bit of Tolkien.

Dragon Champion by E.E. Knight -  This book is amazing! It is so imaginative and complex! Auron’s journey growing up, fighting tooth and claw to come into his own is so full of danger, intrigue, and adventure. I love the in-depth lore about the different races of Demon, Dragon, Dwarf, Human, and Elf, as well as the dragon teachings Auron recites throughout the book.

Just Listen Sarah Dessen - I feel like this is a more realistic depiction of life as an older teen in high school which young adults can relate to. I really like the message this book conveys and the real life problems and the characters have to deal with.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer - I love the one-liner humor that runs rampant through the character dialogue. Great characters. I really enjoyed all the plotting and espionage that keep you guessing.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Underguards, Rephiam, and Emim, OH MY

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season .  Before reading it, I knew the following information: 
  1. Samantha Shannon, only 21, wrote the book when she was a student at Oxford University
  2. The dude who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Andy Serkis, owns the film rights for the book
  3. Shannon plans to write 6 more books in the series which leads many critics to call her the next J.K. Rowling
  4. “The Bone Season” was selected as The Today Show’s first Book Club book
  5. Shannon does not consider her book “literary” 
  6. The book is set in 2059 in an authoritarian ruled London where clairvoyants are outlaws.  The main character in the book, Paige Mahoney, just happens to be a “voyant” (slang for clairvoyant) and one of the rarest kinds, a Dream Walker. 
  7. The reviews of the promise and worth of this book are way mixed

As soon as I saw the complex web of clairvoyant hierarchy before the map of Sheol, I again didn’t know what to expect.  Most books that contain maps and character webs bore me and thrill my husband who loves intricate Sci-Fi / Fantasy books. I, however, tried to suspend my judgement and give the book a chance.

The first person narration begins in London where Paige is a member of The Seven Dials Voyant gang under the leadership (or wrath) of mime-lord, Jaxon Hall.  In the first few chapters she is captured because she accidentally murders two Underguards, and after significant punishment, she is thrust into a secret clairvoyant penal colony called Sheol 1 that is run by the Rephaim, an ancient society with many secrets. This society enslaves voyants and trains them to fend off the Emim, fearsome creatures who skulk around the perimeter of the city. The blood consort, “Warden”, selects Paige from this Bone Season’s voyants to be his slave.  This comes with many mysteries as well.  Why does he want her? What role does Nashira, the blood sovereign play in this selection? Will Paige ever find a way out from this voyant prison?  

First, I must admit that I love the whole ESP / clairvoyant storyline.  When I was in 5th grade I read Lois Duncan’s “A Gift of Magic” in which the main character, Nancy, struggles with her ESP gift. I wanted to be Nancy and even though she had ESP I could relate to her trials in the book. Something about Shannon’s book made Paige, who is scrappy, vulnerable, but determined and quick to learn violence and leadership, unreachable.  Shannon developed Paige way more extensively than any of the other characters and when I wasn’t able to relate to her, it was hard for me to get a sense of the overwhelming amount of secondary characters in this book.    

I also couldn’t decide which society she presented was worse - the 1984-esque world of 2059 London, or the Rephiam controlled Sheol 1.  Both seemed terrible, so the need to return to one or leave the other seemed odd to me.  Not to mention Shannon’s writing style which induced a few eye rolling moments because of the writing cliches and descriptions, lack of momentum, or the watery love stories in the book which seemed forced and a little creepy for various reasons.  

After I read “The Bone Season” and set it aside for a day, I kept thinking about the events of the book, and the limitless possibilities Shannon has for the other six books she plans to write (which will take her entire 20s to complete). Rather than any sort of annoyance or focus placed on the fact that she is only 21, I felt in awe of the imaginative landscape that she conceived.  I thought of how cool the movie will be, and I thought of the scores of young adults and adults alike who will read this book, and be impressed, baffled, possibly put off, and in awe of the worlds Shannon created at such a young age.  Anyone who has the power to get people reading 7 fantasy books, and talking about their worth, and comparing them to some of the greatest dystopias or fantasy literature ever written, is truly a magician in my mind, and when that one person is only 21, well the word that comes to mind is genius. 

If you are not seeking a literary masterpiece, but want to be transported to a terrifying dystopia that is reminiscent of “The Hunger Games”, “1984”, “A Clockwork Orange” (because of the new language Shannon created - this book comes complete with a voyant slang dictionary in the back), and possibly even a little dash of “Divergent”, this is the book for you. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Attention Teenage Girls Ages 13-19

Divergent by Veronica Roth (movie release March 2014)

No wonder all my female high school students told me I had to read Veronica Roth's book Divergent. No wonder I could never quite keep it on my classroom library shelf.  No wonder all the girls who read the first one cheered when the second book in the series "Insurgent" finally came out last year.  No wonder they kept asking me when the third book "Allegiant" would be out.

If you know any teenage girl who read "The Hunger Games" and loved one or all of the trilogy, and you haven't seen this particular teenage girl reading anything lately because she can't find anything that is as good as "The Hunger Games," you need to hook this particular girl up with Veronica Roth's "Divergent" trilogy. Do it now before the Spring 2014 movie hype (watch the movie trailer ), and the last book in the trilogy called "Allegiant" (release date October 22, 2013) hits book stores.  The loud whir of teenage girl hysteria will reach a high squeal at this point, and there may be too many spoilers for a true reading experience.

I am not a teenage girl, but I really enjoyed "Divergent" and Roth's imaginative post apocalyptic Chicago society where each 16 year old, at the Choosing Ceremony, must decide which of the five factions that they want to belong to:
Candor: The Honest
Abnegation: The Selfless
Dauntless: The Brave
Amity: The Peaceful
Erudite: The Intelligent

This one choice directs their path for the rest of their lives.  If a 16 year old chooses their own faction, they are treated better than if they essentially defect from their family faction and join a new identity.

Sixteen year old Beatrice Prior whose faction aptitude test (designed to help the teenagers choose their fate and faction) was deemed inconclusive and "Divergent" (a word not to be mentioned or talked about in the society as her test administrator tells her "Divergence is extremely dangerous") decides to go against her Abnegation faction and instead chooses to join Dauntless who her father calls "the hellions" due to their fearless, almost reckless, adrenaline junkie ways.  Beatrice who nicknames herself Tris must first past the violent and mentally exhausting initiation to be accepted as Dauntless and rank well enough not to be cast out as factionless.

The concept is very much like "The Giver," or "Anthem," or "The Hunger Games," or many dystopian society books, but Roth also adds the angsty teenage female touch that makes this like reading a dystopian Sarah Dessen book.  Girls will drool over Four, one of the initiation leaders in Dauntless who chooses to both humiliate and protect Tris from the more blood thirsty leaders and initiates.  They will gush over the love story painted through the characters who are suffering and surviving in a very divided world where certain factions are deemed weak, and others are morphing into something they were never meant to be.

I finished this book quickly.  I felt breathless during some of the Dauntless initiation tasks.  I got a little gooey with the blossoming of new love.  As a grown woman, I did feel myself sometimes internally cringing at all the teenage love stuff, but . . . I still read it and enjoyed this page turner.

In Roth's dystopian society, she uncovers many truths of humanity - like what divides us is usually what unites us, that we all contain traits of each faction, and the age old question: is blood truly thicker than water?

As soon as I finished "Divergent," I quickly picked up "Insurgent" and am already half way through it.  I already pre-ordered third installment, "Allegiant," which will be out later this month.

If you have a teenage girl who needs a good book, get her hooked on this series.  She'll thank you for it.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Atrocities of Modern Warfare

In my quest for the perfect book to jumpstart my co-ed book club, I chose our local library's selection for The One Book, One Community "The Cellist of Sarajevo" by Steven Galloway.  Highly acclaimed by everyone from O Magazine to Yann Martel (author of "Life of Pi") as a moving novel about retaining humanity in the face of the inhumanities of war.

At first, I found it hard to connect to the monotone writing style of Steven Galloway, but I soon fell into the rhythmic wave of the mere quest for survival that each of the four main characters faces on a daily basis.  The monotone writing style showed how war strips every person of their personalities, how it rids cities of culture, art and libraries, how it makes people cower with fear.  I appreciated Galloway's strokes of genius throughout the novel as the four intersecting character's lives overlapped in a city destroyed by fear, shells, and snipers.  The loss of electricity, water, food, and safety of all those who decided to stay in their beloved Sarajevo either because they couldn't leave or didn't want to showed the devastation of war time.  How a once functional city could deteriorate.  How Dragan, who was a baker before the war started,  could risk his life to move the body of a stranger out of the street because the Sarajevo he loves would not allow for a man's dead body to be left in the middle of the street to be filmed by an opportunistic journalist.  But "every day the Sarajevo [Dragan] thinks he remembers slips away from him a little at a time, like water cupped in the palms of his hands, and when it's gone he wonders what will be left."

The new reality of Sarajevo during the siege (from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996, the longest city siege in modern warfare) is one where people who are starving are killed while waiting in line to buy bread, where people who are filling water containers to take home are attacked by mortar shells lose limbs and some are unlucky enough to lose their lives, where people need to fear for their lives while crossing the street because snipers wait for perfect shots in the hills that overlook the city playing target practice with innocent civilians, where some snipers have a heart and try to protect the innocent, where one man decides to pay homage to the 22 civilians who lost their lives while buying bread by playing his cello for 22 days in the town center defying the war torn land that is now their home.

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" focuses on the powerful struggle of humans to retain dignity in the face of war's atrocities, and how music can soothe the souls of a tormented city and offer hope for the future in the face of a bleak present.

I actually went back and reread the novel again (it's short enough to do that), and I immersed myself in the bleak world or war torn Sarajevo - the world of Arrow, Dragan, Kenan, the cellist, and the other faceless citizens that lived like rats scrounging to survive.  My biggest take away -  I am spoiled and lucky.  I have never faced hunger or deep loss, nor have I been in a constant state of fear for my life - that almost overrides my need for basic necessities.  I've always been able to provide for my daughters, and my life is rife with choices and an excess of fun.  The reality that Galloway paints in "The Cellist of Sarajevo" is a sobering view of modern war fare and the hopeful reminder of the power of the human spirit.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Big Story, Little Bee

Rule #1 about Little Bee Club: You Do Not Talk About "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave.  It even says this on the inside jacket cover, "We don't want to tell you what happens in this book.  It is truly a special story and we don't want to spoil it . . . Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it.  When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is how the story unfolds."

With that out of the way, I won't say much, other than I loved this book.  You should read this book.  I  read it in a day in huge greedy gulps because I wanted to see the magic unfold. When I needed to put the book down, I actually felt angry.  Chris Cleave astounded me with his ability to inhabit the minds of two very different female characters and make me believe in them; both Little Bee and Sarah made me think about life on different levels and plights in the world that I never really considered before, but now I have to know more.

Not only that, Cleave's style left me a bit breathless at times in both Sarah's and Little Bee's narration.  Here is just a little taste to draw you in if you need a little peek of the magic:
"What is an adventure? That depends on where you are starting from.  Little girls in your country, they hide in the gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them. Me and my sister, we used to hide in a gap in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around us, and make believe that we had a washing machine and a refrigerator. You live in a world of machines and you dream of things with beating hearts.  We dream of machines, because we see where beating hearts have left us."

That's all I can give you.  No context to this quotation, but just a taste of Cleave's magical storytelling.

So . . . without much information other than a glimpse at Chris Cleave's style, I strongly recommend that you become a part of Little Bee Club.  You won't be disappointed in Little Bee's big story.

Raising Our Spirited Story

Loki - Age 9 and Story - Age 4

Story screamed, she cried, she fussed, she threw red faced tantrums.  From the time she was born, my husband and I came up with unsavory names for our second daughter: The Fusser, The White Tornado, The Widow Maker, and The Iron Fisted Dictator (my husband, by the way, came up with that one). In all of Story’s baby pictures, her mouth is wide open and she is screaming in my face, my husband’s face or her big sister, Raina’s face.  I remember one evening after bath time when Raina held Story who, of course, was screaming and crying.  Raina’s tears plopped on Story’s Boppy.  When I asked her “What’s wrong, Rain?” She looked at me and said, “I think Story hates me.  She always cries when I hold her.”  I looked at Raina and said, “Honey, she doesn’t hate you, she cries for all of us.  This is the only way she has to communicate with us.”  Raina looked at Story and said, “Well, Mommy, she’s communicating that she’s mad at something all the time.  What can we do to make her stop?”

I wished in that moment that I could make Story less angry, and more of the happy baby I wanted her to be.  I didn’t want my house to be filled with crying.  We were joyful people who loved being together as a family, and I felt like we were letting both Raina and Story down. 

Our big blue eyed, alabaster skinned, white haired daughter who started talking at 6 months did more than break us, Story made us question ourselves as parents. We never questioned our parenting prowess with our first daughter, Raina.  As a baby, Raina only cried for specific reasons - she was tired, hungry, overstimulated, or scared.  Story cried all the time and only nursing would calm her rage.  People stopped me when I took Story on walks because of her anxious screams telling me, “It sounds like her finger’s pinched somewhere” or “The sun is really bothering her eyes” or “She just wants you to hold her.”  In the grocery store as I wrestled with Story, often times giving in and trying to hold her while I put my groceries on the conveyor belt and tried to bag them, people would say, “It sure looks like you have your hands full with that one.” I internally cringed at their judgement or need to give advice on how to parent my daughter, but somedays I felt like screaming louder than Story from my frustration. How could my funny, linguistically gifted baby be such a handful of emotional unease?   

As she grew into a toddler, Story’s frustrations didn’t subside as much as shift.  We found out that she is lactose intolerant, so removing dairy from her diet helped her explosive tummy, but didn’t quite quell her explosive personality.  My husband, who did the morning girl routine, often complained about Story’s inability to get dressed.  “She can’t even put her socks on without crying and fussing.  Putting her in pants is a nightmare,” he would tell me with a weary look on his face.  When I picked her up from preschool every afternoon, I could tell when my husband didn’t want to fight the Story dressing battle - allowing her to wear whatever she wanted as long as she was properly covered for school.  These outfits ranged from cowboy boots and pajamas to striped pants and brightly flowered shirts.  We shrugged our shoulders and hugged our beautiful little daughter and loved her through every quick shifting mood.  Every day, we made sure she had plenty of fresh air and a nice long bath - both of these things seemed to help, but we still struggled. 

Everything became a battle.  After school time meant red faced screaming bouts until after dinner.  At dinner, we battled Story to eat anything other than noodles and strawberries.  Any transition into a new activity could lead to ferocious yelling and crying.  I finally knew I had to change something after telling yet another person who asked “How are your girls?” my broken record response, “Story is wild.” I knew I reached a breaking point while I told my friend, Cari that I didn’t always enjoy being Story’s mom.  “I love her, but it is so hard with her,” I said as my chin got wobbly and I willed myself not to cry.  

After that conversation I remembered an article that I had read when Story was only 18 months old from a free doctor’s office magazine.  The article described life with “a spirited child.”  I remembered feeling relief that I wasn’t alone after reading that article, and this summer I decided to research more about “spirited children.”  I found Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book “Raising Your Spirited Child” and read the entire book and annotated it in just one day.  I felt that finally I had tools to deal with Story - that she was normal, just MORE normal than other kids.  Story is always the loudest in a room, she always takes the longest when we need to leave the house, she gets fixated on one thing and trying to unlock her from that activity feels like trying to pry open a stuck lid, and she is so sensitive to noises, smells, sounds and textures like scratchy clothing that getting dressed can take 45 minutes in the morning.  Intense and persistent are two words we use to describe her now (which are way better than fussy and The Iron Fisted Dictator). 

Kurcinka’s book helped me to understand that 10% of children can be labeled “Spirited” and Story scores off the chart in every category associated with spiritedness.  The biggest part of Kurcinka’s book that helped me was her advice that we did not make our child spirited, but we need to help Story learn how to cope with her temperament without fighting who she is.  Why would I want to take away her intensity for life, her ability to fill up a room with her presence, her creative way of seeing her world, her ability to fixate on a task until she believes it is finished, or her keen sense of fashion.  At 4 years old, I recognize that Story is as unique and amazing as her name.