Sunday, August 12, 2018

Hanging out with Harper Lee

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
By Marja Mills
Non-Fiction Memoir 

"To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. In 2004, with Alice and Harper Lee's blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at MacDonald's and trips to the laundromat with Nelle (aka Harper Lee), feeding the ducks and going out for catfish suppers with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees and their inner circle of friends. 

"Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their stories, Nelle helped make sure she was getting that-and the South-right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family." 

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I checked this book out of the library, as I've never read a book about living next door to a famous author. Mills opened up a window into these sweet women's lives, who were graciously willing to allow her and us, the readers, into them. It was mind-boggling how simple their lives truly are (except for, perhaps, that Alice still practices law at age 90). Why wouldn't they be? But we, at least I, expect people who write great things to live great lives. Not that simple living isn't great, but it just wasn't what I had in mind. It was refreshing, though, to relax and just enjoy the simple pleasures in life that the Lee's explore on a day-to-day basis. 

There is some background information about the making of the various movies, the Lee's family, and Harper Lee's fears, which help put flesh on this mysterious woman, and I found fascinating. 

I enjoyed traveling with Mills through the back roads of Alabama with these wise, yet fun-loving, sisters and their friends. I loved seeing how their Alabama, the Alabama of To Kill a Mockingbird, once existed, and how, sadly, it is fading away like a cicada's song at the end of summer. At the end of the book, I felt like I had become good friends with all three, a part of their intimate, book-loving, adventure-hunting trio. It was sad to say good-bye on the last page. 

I do wish I had re-read the novel before I read this book, as characters and places from the book are mentioned in this memoir, and they're bit foggy in my memory. You don't have to re-read the classic tale before you read this book, but I do suggest it so you can reap even more gold from Mill's laid-back telling. I also wish she had mentioned something about the second novel Lee wrote, Go Set a Watchmen, since she discusses almost everything, but perhaps she left before then or didn't have permission. 

I give this novel a 4 out of 5 and recommend it for anyone (older than a child) who adores To Kill a Mockingbird. 

What I learned: Beauty can be appreciated without the need to possess it. 


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Happy Birthday, Harry!

In lieu of Harry Potter's birthday today, I've decided to compile a list of some of my personal favorite stories featuring magic, some nonsensical, some more serious, some just fun, to overflow your days with delight. Of course they can't compete with Harry Potter, but they are still fantastic and worth a read! So go grab a mug of Butterbeer and pull out your to-read list. 


1. The Two Sisters of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine 
I adore this book! It's the tale of two girls, one of whom must fight her fears, specters, and dragons to save her sister's life. Magical gadgets and creatures dot this story, but the real magic is the sisters' love for each other.  

2. Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George 
This is a lighthearted, whimsical story of a girl who's captured by a dragon. She eventually becomes friends with another dragon as she's on her way to the city to find a job as a seamstress. There's not much magic in this book but the dragons and the slippers, but it's a lively read! The adventure continues in Dragon Flight and Dragon Spear, both equally entertaining and rife with action. 

3. Stardust by Neil Gaiman 
I read this book this year for the first time, and loved it. I enjoyed it more than Neverwhere by him, which was a lot stranger and creepier. The magic in Stardust rotates around the world of fairy and the boy who travels through it looking for the fallen star to give to his girlfriend. This world is definitely worth getting lost in. 


4. Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
This is not my favorite magical book or series (yes, it's one of those), due to an under-developed plot or something else; I'm not quite sure. However, it is a magical tale that takes place in Victorian England, so I give it points for that unique twist. It's also an epistolary novel, written as letters between two friends. So, if you're longing to read something in a different format, this novel's for your eyes. 


5. All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater 
This novel will have a place on my bookshelf as long as I have one (so, forever). It's full of magical realism, a magic that takes the contemporary world and turns it upside down so you, the reader can find your own miracle. See my full review here

6. The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker 
This is another jocund tale that I loved (and probably would still love if I re-read it) when I was a child. Instead of turning a frog back into a prince when she kisses it, the main character changes into a frog herself! This is a great twist on the fairy tale and riveting as the frustrated frogs venture to find the witch who cast this curse in order to break it. There are also many books in the same series, all easy reads. 

7. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin 
If you need a taste of more serious magic, you might find it in Wizard of Earthsea. It follows a young wizard who is being chased by something sinister and evil. This book chased me too, to lunchtime, to my bed, as the events became more thrilling and dangerous. 


8. The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time series) by Robert Jordan 
I'm not sure yet if this series is one of my favorite magical books. I haven't finished it yet, and I've been listening to it for two years. In my defense, I only listen to it when I wash the dishes, and the series is looong: fourteen novels, dicken-sized (each one). So beware before diving into this monstrosity. Despite some irritating characters and mountains of detail, the series is well-written with a very believable magic system and well-built world. 

9. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson 
Sanderson is the king of magical systems; each one in his novels are well-defined with specific rules and consequences. The one in the Mistborn series focuses on people with the ability to perform magical feats based off of burning different metals. It's a unique concept, and well-done. 

10. Eragon by Christopher Paolini 
More dragons! I appreciate and applaud Paolini for his dragons more than probably any other author who has written about them. His are the most detailed, the most wise and powerful. Their relationship with each other and humans is fascinating and complex. If you love the fire-breathing species, you can't read any other book about them until you read this one!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Cyborg Cinderella

Cinder 
By Marissa Meyer
#1 in the Lunar Chronicles 
YA Fantasy 

"Sixteen-year-old Cinder is considered a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother. Being cyborg does have its benefits, though: Cinder's brain interface has given her an uncanny ability to fix things (robots, hovers, her own malfunctioning parts), making her the best mechanic in New Beijing. This reputation brings Prince Kai himself to her weekly market booth, needing her to repair a broken android before the annual ball. He jokingly calls it 'a matter of national security,' but Cinder suspects it's more serious than he's letting on. 

"Although eager to impress the prince, Cinder's intentions are derailed when her younger step-sister, and only human friend, is infected with the fatal plague that's been devastating Earth for a decade. Blaming Cinder for her daughter's illness, Cinder's stepmother volunteers her body for plague research, an 'honor' that no one has survived. 

"But it doesn't take long for the scientists to discover something unusual about their new guinea pig. Something others would kill for." 

There are enough fairy-tale retellings nowadays to fill a ballroom. This one, though, is worth the trip to the library or bookstore. The fact that Cinder is a cyborg hooked me right away. Meyer does a great job, even though she's probably not a mechanic herself, of making Cinder's mechanical parts, their unique functions, and even her job as a mechanic, believable. Cinder is also a spunky, sarcastic, yet tender underdog-type character whom it's hard not to root for. Or possibly even shed some tears on behalf of. 

Kai is also a sweetheart, yet strong, and difficult not to like. This was my second reading of the book (yes, it's that good!), and I did notice this time around that there wasn't much foundation to the couple's feelings. I didn't quite understand why he liked her so much, and vice versa, so perhaps Meyer could have dived deeper into those reasons. But it obviously wasn't something that turned me off from the story. 

Also, who ever heard of a fairy-tale taking place in Asia, and a futuristic Asia, at that? The setting is fascinating and although not crafted in as many details as the world of Harry Potter (which book is?), it's still a place steeped in character. But the characters and the world-changing decisions facing them are what pulled me deep into every page and line. You might grow dizzy with all the plot twists and turns, but hang in there! The battle for this country and its people is worth fighting for alongside the characters. 

This is the first in a series, so you might want to have the second one, Scarlet-which follows another fairy-tale character, but in the same world-handy so you can dash right into it. Be on the lookout for a review of the sequel in the upcoming weeks. 

This novel deserves a shining four out of five stars, and I recommend it for 15 year olds and up. 

What I learned: First impressions are not typically true. It takes time and initiative to learn the depths of a person's soul.  

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Magic of Summer

Dandelion Wine 
By Ray Bradbury 
Adult Fiction 

"Twelve-year old Douglas Spaulding knows Green Town, Illinois, is as vast and deep as the whole wide world that lies beyond the city limits. It is a pair of brand-new tennis shoes, the first harvest of dandelions for Grandfather's renowned intoxicant, the distant clang of the trolley's bell on a hazy afternoon. It is yesteryear and tomorrow blended into an unforgettable always. 

But as young Douglas is about to discover, summer can be more than the repetition of established rituals whose mystical power holds time at bay. It can be a best friend moving away, a human time machine who can transport you back to the Civil War, or a sideshow automaton able to glimpse the bittersweet future." 

This book is rife with magic-the magic of summer according to two boys. But by the end of the book, you are sure to be as enchanted by this fictional town and its unique charm as the boys are by the rows and rows of green bottled dandelion wine lining their grandfather's cellar. 

This book is episodic: told in little episodes rather than weaving one plot throughout the book. I wasn't expecting that and haven't read many novels written in that style, but I quite enjoyed it. The style works well for the two boys who see the summer and life as a series of exciting or terrifying incidents. I didn't enjoy all the episodes the same, but they were definitely created of various flavours: silly, sweet, creepy, or just plain ridiculous, and I enjoyed most of them. Besides, if you don't like one particular 'story,' it's sure to be over in a few pages (by the end of the chapter, in fact). It was also nice that there were several threads connecting all the episodes or stories, since the two brothers play a part in each one, and they all occur in the same town in the same summer. 

The first chapter, or episode, was the most difficult for me to enter, just because I was still trying to nail down Bradbury's style and what was happening, but once you soar through that dramatic, vague chapter, you're good to go! The rest of the book is as lovely as a cup of tea during a rainstorm. 

I loved how lyrical this book is; similes, metaphors, and other various types of figurative language pop out on nearly every page like a sunset begging to be savored and admired. So beautiful! 

It was also quite different from the only other novel I've read by Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451. Dandelion Wine is as lighthearted and fun as that book is depressing and bleak. So, this is a great novel if you prefer the former, especially for a warm, bird-chatter filled summer day! It also helped that I read this book while being in Illinois, where the story takes place; it makes the story just lift off the page, alive and breathing. Have you read any books while being in the setting where it takes place? 

I give this tale a 4 out of 5 and recommend it for fifteen-year olds and up. The main characters are young boys, but the novel is written to be savored by an older audience. 

What I learned: I am alive, and each day is to be truly felt, from the delightful to the ordinary to the sorrowful.  

What great books have you been reading this summer? 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The City of the Gods

Elantris
By Brandon Sanderson
Adult Fantasy

"Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, and filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all.Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself grew dark, filthy, and crumbling.

"Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died, leaving a country caught in the machinations of a high priest who wishes to convert the country and claim it for his god, no matter the cost.

"Sarene doesn't suspect the truth about Prince Raoden: stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself." 

Sanderson does it again! This novel delighted me with its complex characters who turn out to have deeper, more layers than I imagined and make decisions I didn't think possible. The characters are not the only things in this book to possess layers: this land and its culture does as well. The complexity of the Aonic language of the country was well-thought out, as well as the habits, customs, and other important aspects of the various cultures mixed into Arelon. All these things helped make the world realistic and fascinating, although some of them could probably have been explained even more thoroughly. 

The main thing that kept me reading, though, was the major mystery shrouding Elantris. Sanderson keeps the answer tantalizingly close without giving it away, like a carrot in front of a rabbit. Close enough to be intriguing, but not frustrating. This was not the only mystery either, of course. The country is on the brink of collapse, and it was fun to see how Sarene attempted to outwit the priest at every corner of his masterminded plan. 

The politics did grow a bit insipid at times, but the ending, with all of its surprises, is well worth it! I also realized, while reading Elantris, that though Sanderson writes brilliantly, he does not write beautifully. His stories are logical and detailed when they need to be, but not woven with a plethora of figurative language. I missed that, but it all depends on personal preference.  

I give this novel a 4 out of 5 and recommend it for 16 year olds and up. If you're a fantasy nut, or even just like to breeze through it once in a while, you must definitely check this novel out! It's long, but there are so many interlocking plots that you'll shoot right through it. 

What I learned: People are not (usually) what they seem. 




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Superb Summer Reads

The summer, with its lethargic, warm days, is nearly upon us! I love reading books containing summery feelings or themes, such as cool breezes, bright water, or characters facing their own summers, since it makes reading a much more enjoyable, immersive experience. So here are nine superb books to spend your long, hot days with (not listed in any particular order). 

*Several of them also feature mermaids, because summer means the beach, and the beach means mermaids!

1. My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt



Hang out with Tiger, a twelve year old girl, in a rural town in Louisiana in the 1950s as she struggles with how to live and love her mentally challenged mother and 'slow' father. She longs to escape the difficulties of home to visit her aunt in the big city of Baton Rouge. 

This is a tender novel and has been dear to my heart ever since I first read it long ago in third grade. 






2. Aquamarine by Alice Hoffman



This short tale (pun intended ;) is one of my all-favorite mermaid stories. It's a classic for anyone who loves reading about the fantastical creatures. 

Two best friends, Hailey and Claire, are spending their last summer together when they discover something lurking in the decrepit pool of the Capri Beach Club. The mermaid therein has left her family in search of love, and the friends are forced to focus on someone else's needs as they help the creature. This is such a sweet story of lasting friendship and magic. 




3. A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck 



This child's chapter book focuses on the siblings, Joey and Mary-Alice, who visit their grandmother every summer in a rural Illinois town. I never knew that living in such a tiny town for a few brief months could be so thrilling! The kids have great adventures, and their grandmother, Grandma Dowdel, is a hilarious character. If you're in need of something light that will make your belly dance with laughter, this book is for you! 

*See my entire review of the book here: http://rachsreads.blogspot.com/search?q=Chicago



4. Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis 



If you think you're hot this summer, then pick up this book and travel to Uganda with Katie. This is an amazing true story of a normal American woman who realized what is vital and gave up the American dream to live in Uganda, adopt thirteen girls, and shower love on them. I am continuously challenged by this young lady's servant, compassionate heart. 




5. Ingo by Helen Dunmore 




This is another of my favorite mermaid books. One summer, Sapphire (or Sapphy) meets Faro, a Mer boy who introduces her to a fabulous world she never knew existed. She must let go of the world above to truly embrace the world of the Mer, but Sapphy also still craves to see her lost father again. 

This is a haunting story steeped in legend that will follow you long after you read the last page, its song of ocean waves reverberating in your head and heart. 

*It's a series, but the first was my favorite.





6. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis 



Why not travel across the seas this summer with a timeless tale of adventure and danger? 

Lucy and her brother, Edmund, find themselves coasting the seas with their bratty cousin, Eustace, and several friends. Their duty is to find several lost lords of Narnia, but they must first encounter sea serpents, dragons, and much more before they complete their quest. 

My husband and I just finished reading this book again (for my third time), and it remains one of my favorites of the Narnian books. 




7. Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan 


Travel to Camp Half-Blood this summer, where demi-gods of the Greeks battle monsters, fulfill prophecies, and fall in love. These books will exercise your stomach muscles and your fingers as you grip your fingers in anticipation of what will happen. 

8. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton 



If your summer is revolving too slowly or too boring, then hitch a ride to Jurassic Park! Many have seen the movie, but of course, the book far surpasses its visual partner. 

Before it can open, certain experts arrive at the park filled with reconstructed living dinosaurs to check it out. But their journey soon devolves into a battle for their lives against the wild creatures. 








9. Seven Tears into the Sea by Terri Farley 



Seven years after an encounter with a stranger on the beach during a storm (it's not nearly as creepy as that sounds), Gwen, seventeen, returns to her hometown to help her grandmother at the Sea Horse Inn. 

Gwen and the stranger soon become friends, and Gwen realizes the boy is not an ordinary boy; the sea is strong in him. 

This novel is steeped in Celtic mythology, and haunts the reader with its magic through every page. A definite must-read for those who love the ocean! 




*What other books do you love to read in the summertime?  
*If you liked this post, you might also like Spectacular Spring Reads.

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!).