Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Danger of Silence

Speak 
By Laurie Halse Anderson 
YA Realistic Fiction

"Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so her old friends won't talk to her, and people she doesn't know hate her from a distance. It's no use explaining to her parents; they've never known what her life is really like. The safest place is for Melinda is to be alone, inside her own head. But even that's not safe. 

"Because there's something she's trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she admitted it and let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have no choice. 

"Melinda would have to speak the truth." 

I've never been much into realistic fiction because who would want to read about real life, when you can read about dragons, mermaids, and time travel? But I heard great things about this book, so I gave it a go. And I'm SO glad that I did! This book was exceptionally-well written about a hard topic that is often glazed over. 

The main subject in the book (which I won't give away) has the tendency to be depressing, and the book was at times, but Melinda's sardonic humor mitigated the somber feelings. Sometimes I even laughed out loud. Anderson, the author, did a wonderful job of leaping into a high schooler's brain and describing the tedious, difficult world of a high schooler from her opinionated perspective. Anderson handled the delicate balance between melancholy and humor magnificently, while remaining true to her point. 

The symbolism woven throughout the novel also helps deepen the story line and shows how Melinda changes. It was neat to see her healing, or lack thereof, in a tangible way. I love symbols, but I'm an English nerd, so I guess that's to be expected. But they add so many layers and meaning to the story, when done well, and these symbols were written expertly. 

The themes of silence, being rejected, the self-centered world of high school (and the world in general) were not too conspicuous and hit truth spot-on. Good job, Anderson, for speaking out about important, often pushed-away matters, and doing so in a gentle, loving way! 

It's probably obvious, but this book definitely deserves a five at minimum. It's appropriate for fifteen year olds and older, though you might want to check me on that (especially if you're a mom reading this). 

What I learned: We must give people time and space to speak and to truly listen. Our thoughts and words are always worth sharing (sometimes it just takes a while to find out who that 'safe' person is!). 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Machines Vs. Beasts

Leviathan, Behemoth, Goliath
By Scott Westerfeld 
Young Adult Steam Punk
*A Trilogy 

I read the first book in this series, Leviathan, several years ago, and knew I had to nab the rest of the series to know what happened, but I just got around to finishing it. 

This series is an alternate history of World War I, with elements of steam punk and fantasy. It follows Alek, a young prince of Austria without a throne running for his life. He is part of a Clanker nation, which surrounds itself with metal and machines. 

Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy in the British air service, also plays a crucial role in this series. She is a lover of fabricated beasts, from flying whale-like airships to message lizards, and detests anything metal. 

Fate throws the two together, and they must battle to end the war before it ends everything they know, both metal and beast. 

I highly enjoyed this series! Something exciting is always happening, so the story flies by. The books are also littered with excellent drawings depicting the fabricated beasts, metal creations, and characters so you can better imagine these bizarre things that Westerfeld imagined.

Alek is a bit dimwitted and naive at times, especially in the last novel, but Deryn more than makes up for his idiotic moments. She is clever, daring, adventurous, and basically a 'better' boy than he is. I do get frustrated with many of the female characters in today's world acting like boys. Can't there be a strong, clever girl who's more feminine? I suppose one must look to Jane Austen for that. But overall, Deryn was a great, realistic character (even with all of her crazy stunts); I just wish she didn't have to help/prod Alek so much. 

As I mentioned above, the series moves along at a gallop, which is mostly a good thing. However, I did find myself, especially in the sequel, Behemoth, wishing for the action to slow down a bit so the characters would interact more and grow. There was such a spate of action, that it was hard to keep track, in the second and third books, what was happening, and how everything is connected. Certain events in Goliath seemed random, or that Westerfeld just wanted to put them in the novel because they were cool. 

I enjoyed the first or the last book the best. I like certain characters in the final novel, but not how thick Alek acts. But once you've started the series, there's no going back! You must finish it, or you probably won't sleep at night. This series deserves a 3.5 out of 5, and I recommend it for 10 year olds and up. 

What I learned: Don't judge someone on just their appearance (including gender). Also, fabricated beasts are awesome, and it's really too bad that thylacines are extinct. 

*Westerfeld also wrote the Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series which is deeply provocative and fabulously written. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Massive Gold Robbery

The Great Train Robbery 
By Michael Crichton 
Historical Fiction 

This novel is based off the true story of the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, a massive gold heist, which takes place on a train traveling through Victorian-era England. 

My husband has opened the Michael Crichton door for me, and I'm not sorry. The Great Train Robbery has a different narration than the others I've read, as it's told from an objective historical view rather than a character's perspective. It took me a while to dive into the story due to that, and I missed being in the character's heads. But once I became accustomed to the historical narration, I chugged through the story as fast as the train on the cover. 

There are fascinating tidbits thrown into the tale, which sometimes seem a bit dull or overkill, but they're not. These historical almost-lectures are important for the reader who doesn't live in Victorian England to understand what is going on and why it's integral to the plot. Crichton definitely did his research! It's amazing how many books he wrote with all the digging around he had to do for them all. 

The plot of this novel is gripping and fast, the characters mysterious and daring, and the end even more so. If you think you know what's going to happen at the end (like I did), you're wrong! The fact that most of the events in this novel actually occurred and the characters actually lived make it even more breathtaking. 

I give this novel a 4 out of 5 and recommend it for 17 year olds and up due to one particular scene.  

What I learned: Criminals (the good kind) can be some of the most clever people alive. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Spectacular Spring Reads

Spring is in the air! That is why I've compiled a list of some great books to read in the Spring, due to their themes of new birth/beginnings, because they are light and joyful, or for other Spring-esque reasons. Most of them are YA, but a few other genres snuck into the batch.  

Bloomability by Sharon Creech

This was one of my favorite books in elementary/middle school, and I'm aching to read it again. This is a great tale for any age about how a girl is torn from all she holds dear, and is thrust into a different culture (in Switzerland!) for good reasons by her Aunt and Uncle. She must learn how to bloom in this new place with new people or suffer from hiding from the world. 










Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Although this novel takes place in the heat of summer, it has a physical spring in it, so Spring must obviously be the best time to read it! But seriously, the main character must face a difficult decision about a possible new beginning that could possibly change her life forever. Will she follow this decision with its serious, heady repercussions, or continue in the current season of her life? 







Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

This is a true story about a young woman who travels to Oxford for a Masters degree. But what she discovers there about the world and the One who made her turns her world upside down. This is a lovely book about the beauty of knowledge and England and one woman's journey into a different life. So pull up a chair out on the porch, and pour yourself a large mug of tea! You can read more about my thoughts on it here: http://rachsreads.blogspot.com/2018/01/best-of-2017.html under 'best biography.' 






Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman 


This young adult novel is based off of Shusterman's son, who struggled with schizophrenia, just like the main character. There are even drawings from Shusterman's son scattered throughout the book. This is a rich, poignant tale of one boy's journey to the depths-as far as Challenger Deep-and the opportunity to arise as someone whole and complete. 








Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein


This novel is full of new beginnings. The two main characters, Teo and Em, follow their mother to Ethiopia after tragedy strikes. There, as soon as they settle into a new life, war strikes. They must battle for this place they have come to love and for each other. 










Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth E.

This novel follows the true story of the missionary Jim Elliot and his friends and wives who journeyed into the heart of South America to share the gospel. Things did not go as planned, however, and the wives must wrestle with the aftermath. The natives that the missionaries reached out to and who bring so much heartache, also bring healing and joy to those involved in this inspiring story. 










Forest Born by Shannon Hale 

This book is actually the fourth, and last, novel in the Goose Girl series. All of the books are a delight, and some of my favorites, but this one has some special Spring themes. Firstly, trees play a large role in the story, as the main character can control them. As she learns how to shift these giants of the forest, she also learns more about herself in the process and blooms into the person she is destined to be, even though it might be different than who she wished she could be. A delightfully deep, provocative read! 






What other books do you think would make exceptionally good Spring reads? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments below!

If you liked this post, you might like my Best of 2017 post. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

We're a Long Way from Chicago

 A Long Way from Chicago
By Richard Peck 
Genre: YA Historical Fiction 

"Each summer Joey and his sister, Mary Alice-two city slickers from Chicago-visit Grandma Dowdel's seemingly sleepy Illinois town. Soon enough, they find that it's far from sleepy...and Grandma is far from your typical grandmother. From seeing their first corpse (and he isn't resting easy), to helping Grandma trespass, catch the sheriff in his underwear, and feed the hungry-all in one day-Joey and Mary Alice have nine summers they'll never forget!" 

This was a lighthearted, risible book that kept me laughing throughout its pages. I'm not sure, as I never read this book in elementary school, but I probably enjoy/appreciate its humor more now than I would if I had read it as a wee lass (there are no Scots in it, I just wanted to say that). 

Joey, the main character, doesn't have much of a character himself, but Grandma Dowdel more than makes up for it. She is by far my favorite character, and seems to always do what you don't expect. 

It's also fun to take a journey into early 1900 country life and see how difficult, yet still pleasant, life could be. I was surprised with the grandkids about how exciting life in a small town could be (not that I want to move to one now, however...). 

If you like this book, you also might enjoy its sequel, A Year Down Yonder, which is from Mary Alice's perspective, which is more stimulating than Joey's. Richard Peck has also written a spate more young adult novels, which I definitely wish to check out in the nearish future. 

I give A Long Way from Chicago a 4 out of 5 and recommend it for 10 year olds and up. 

What I learned: How to make soap (kind-of). 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Flying through Stunts and War

Black Dove White Raven
By Elizabeth Wein
Genre: YA Historical Fiction 

"Emilia's and Teo's lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt-pilot mothers were flying. Teo's mother died immediately, but Em's survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother's wishes-in a place where he won't be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adopted son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat. 

"Seeking a home where her children won't be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy..." 

This was the first Wein book I've read, and it was wonderful. The intriguing dynamic stunt mother duo drew me in almost at once. What would it be like to have mothers who do stunt flying for a living? And during a touchy race time when you're of different races? Well, I won't ruin it, but it's both exciting and boring at times for the kids. 

I loved Emilia's character: she's snarky, brave, and terrified, sometimes all at once. She lightened up the tense, sad moments, and I wouldn't have enjoyed the novel nearly as much as I did without her brazen personality. The relationship she and Teo have is adorable, and Wein made it personal with little relational details that I won't spoil but that are so neat. 

Wein also did an excellent job of describing Ethiopia. I fell in love with the country almost as much as Em, Teo, and Rhoda did! I'm sure this was a complex story to write for many reasons, but Wein did a great job weaving and displaying the tension between the Italians and Ethiopians in a way that grips the reader and pulls them in. I can't even imagine suffering through some of the things the main characters had to deal with at their age. Wow! 

Wein pieces the tale together through different essays and stories the kids wrote, which was well done and gave me better insights into their personalities. The stories especially helped me be able to see the situations through the eyes of a child, since that is what the main characters are for the majority of the novel. The stories of Black Dove, White Raven, exhumes Teo and Em's thoughts and feelings so the reader can better see and understand what they are going through. How I miss Teo and Em! I will definitely have to visit them again in this book. 

The only problem I had with this novel was a moral decision that one of the characters makes at the end. But overall, I give it a 5 out of 5 and recommend it for 15 year olds and up. I will definitely check out some of Wein's other historical novels, so keep a sharp lookout for them here! 

What I learned: Life is about relationships and those we love. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Curiosities and Crazies

The Old Curiosity Shop
By Charles Dickens 
Genre: Adult Realistic Fiction 

"Virtuous and stoic, young Nell takes care of her grandfather in his gloomy shop until his gambling debts force the pair of them to flee London. They are hunted by the grotesque and villainous moneylender Quilp and Nell's own worthless, brother, Fred, who wrongly believes that their grandfather has a hidden fortune." 

This novel is typical Dickens: dramatic/ extravagant characters, suspenseful plots, hints of humor, and twist and turns you don't expect. And of course, don't forget the happy ending (for the most part). Part of the ending fell a little flat for me, but I won't say more for fear of spoilers.  

It took me a while to get into the book, as not many exciting things happen, but at the end, Dickens had thoroughly ensnared me as I urged the cute Kit and precious (and almost too perfect at times) Nell to succeed and the wicked Quilp to get what he deserved. 

This was one of my favorite Dickens novels, though I'm pretty sure I say that after every one. If you love meeting funny, coarse, silly, bizarre, but real characters, seeing how characters' lives intersect and change each other and the course of a story, this book is for you! 

I give it a 5 out of 5 and recommend it for 16 year olds and up. 

What I learned: Gambling can corrupt even the sweetest people.

*Side note: I still don't know why it's called The Old Curiosity Shop. Not much of the story actually takes place in the shop. If you've read it and have a good reason for the title, post them in the comments.