Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Review: Trouble - Highly Recommend

The more I read Gary D. Schmidt's books, the more I fall in love with his writing. I highly recommended The Wednesday Wars, a fine piece of historical fiction, and Okay for Now, an outstanding example of voice mastery. I enjoyed this book, Trouble, every bit as much as those two previous offerings. I listened to the book in audio form and could not wait to begin my daily treadmill time so that I could continue with the story and find out what would happen to these delightful, vulnerable characters.

From the very first sentence when Henry's father tries to convince him that if you build your house far enough away from trouble, it will never find you, we know that trouble is destined to make an appearance in Henry's comfortable, secure life. It first shows up in an accident where a pickup truck, driven by a Cambodian immigrant, plows into his older brother Franklin. As the petals of grief unfold for the family, causing his father to avoid work, his mother to don a brave face, and his sister to retreat in silence to her room, Henry must work through his anger and forge a new path. That new path begins when he rescues a mangy dog from the sea.

With Black Dog at his side, Henry interprets his brother's one word utterance, "Katahdin," as an appeal for Henry to climb the steep mountain alone. Before the accident, Franklin was sure Henry  couldn't make the climb. Now Henry is more than eager to prove himself and to flee a house shrouded with confusion and grief. But when Henry encounters the driver of the pickup along the way, he begins to realize that you cannot run from trouble.

I've been pondering how great authors unveil clues to a story a bit at a time so that the reader only slowly comes to understand the full dynamics of the truth. Schmidt does a stellar job of this. He has placed the clues expertly, with perfect pacing, so that the facts reveal not only deep truths about the story, but also deep truths about human experience. I highly recommend this novel and warn you that you just might feel a lump develop in your throat. At the same time, I know you will agree with the author's conclusion in the final chapter, when he says, "The world is trouble and grace. That is all there is."

As I think about this novel, I really wish that my son's teacher had selected this one instead of Monster, because it not only treats racial tensions, but it brings out the resilience of the human spirit and reveals the appearance of grace in the midst of trouble. It provides plenty of discussion-worthy topics and inspires the reader to reach for greatness. It metes out forgiveness alongside responsibility. Moreover, it does all of that without presenting anything that parents might find controversial or undesirable for their student's consumption. It was, in my eyes anyway, a far superior choice.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Review: Monster

This wasn't a selection I normally would have picked out for myself, but it was thankfully a very quick read (Trevor was flabbergasted when I read it entirely in one afternoon). Trevor required a parent signature in order to read this assigned text for his 7th grade language arts class. I immediately thought, "What's in the book to make it controversial?" In the end, I signed the form to allow Trevor to read the book.

Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is an African American boy standing trial for participating in a robbery gone wrong that ended in murder. Although he didn't hold the gun or pull the trigger, he allegedly served as lookout man casing the store before the thugs entered. Steve decides to present his case, his trial, and his feelings by writing a play about the proceedings. Through his script, the reader experiences his fear and trembling while facing the consequences of wanting to appear tough on the street.

I suppose the teacher was concerned some parents might not appreciate this assigned book because it references some horrendous behaviors that take place in the prison. While nothing happens directly to Steve, he does overhear things. I talked with Trevor briefly about the sexual attacks that often take place in prisons. I'm not concerned about this reading material, but I can see how some parents might wish to shelter their tween or teen from such realities. I appreciated the teacher's effort to alert parents. It does provide discussion-worthy content. However, if I look at this selection from a teacher's perspective, I feel there are so many more deserving books out there to inspire our students and to move their hearts and souls. I'm not sure it would have made the cut if I'd been in charge.

Indeed - stay tuned for my next book review post - a YA book that I feel would have been a better choice to prompt discussion about racial tensions in a far more productive and edifying manner.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: Truly Devious

I recognized this author's name from her book called 13 Little Blue Envelopes. I knew I'd enjoy that one because it was an epistolary novel about England. This one, however, was billed as a murder mystery. I was intrigued. Alas, it was only after I secured the book and glanced ahead to see how many pages were in the whole that I realized it was the first book in a series. Generally, I like to read series books only once the entire series is made available. I'm not patient enough for the endless waiting to know how the story line is resolved. As expected, this one ends with an open-ended clue of more to come. I will have to wait out the next installment (Truly Devious only came out on January 16, 2018 - I might have been the first library patron to read it).

Stevie Bell is a devoted fan of mysteries and true crime stories. In fact, the only reason she's at the famous Ellingham Academy (a private school in Vermont where qualifying students attend for free) is due to her intense desire to solve the crime that occurred on the grounds some eighty years before. Back in 1936, the founder's wife and daughter were mysteriously kidnapped. At the same time, a student at the school disappeared. While the bodies of the wife and student were found, the daughter's whereabouts remain unsolved. Stevie is sure that if she can get closer to the evidence (including the death threat riddle sent shortly prior to the crime), she will prove her detective chops and solve the case. Sadly, before she can solve that crime, another one occurs on the grounds and Stevie herself witnesses a troubling further riddle. Has the anonymous murderer who goes by "Truly Devious" struck again?

As School Library Journal proclaims, "Fans of puzzles, boarding school stories, and true crime will tear through this book and love every minute." I also agree with author John Green, who calls it "compulsively readable." While I didn't fall in love with any other character besides the protagonist, I was certainly swept into the tale. The writing felt absolutely effortless, almost like the story was dictated by some external force. Every sentence lures the reader in further. I did have a bit of trouble keeping the many characters straight, but the author managed the time hops quite well (she jumps, without any difficulties whatsoever, from a story of murder set in the 30s to a present-day cast of characters exploring the murder as a cold case). That is saying something.

The sad thing? I'm left hanging, wondering about the many clues uncovered. Plus, because the story is so intricate, I have a feeling when the next installment finally comes out, I'll have to reread this first bit to keep the many characters, clues, and contexts straight. At this point, I'm a fish on a hook. I feel powerless to fight against the line reeling me in.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: Bird in a Box

Once again, I was enticed by this audio tween selection, Bird in a Box, because it promised an expanded afterward by the author. I love to hear the author's personal take on what inspired them to write the novel, what details are based on fact, and what challenges they faced in the writing process. I was not disappointed. The story was engaging and the author information provided a great writing perspective.

Here's the blurb from the back cover:

"In a small upstate New York town during the Great Depression, three children - Hibernia, Willie, and Otis - are about to meet. Hibernia dreams of becoming a famous singer and performing at Harlem's swanky Savoy Ballroom. Willie is recovering from a tragedy that prevents him from becoming a junior boxing champ. Otis spends every night glued to the radio, listening to the voices that remind him of Daddy and Ma.

"Each of them is looking for hope, and they all find it in the thrilling boxing matches of young Joe Louis. They know Joe has a good chance of becoming the country's next heavyweight champion. What they don't know is that during this unforgettable year, the three of them will become friends."

Author Andrea David Pinkney did an outstanding job of capturing the voice of each child. I loved Hibernia's sass. I felt sorry for Otis's loss. Plus I raged at Willie's treatment at the hands of his own father. I was slightly annoyed by Willie's tendency to repeat the guttural "Uh-huh," but I understand the author was attempting to capture a flavor of character and it probably wouldn't have bothered me on the printed page because I could skim over it quickly. All in all, she captured a period of history and highlighted a special aspect with great skill.

I loved listening to the author's comments about her process and goals. I was impressed with her desire to get inside the heads of her characters by actually training for boxing matches herself. The research comes through solidly and fleshes out the characters, the time, and the place.

I had to transcribe this paragraph from the final comments because it inspired me to press on with my own writing goals. She observes:

"They say that writing is part inspiration, part perspiration. After my work on Bird in a Box, I've come to believe that if I want to inspire people with my writing, I have to do more than sweat. I have to train, reach, fight my resistance, and keep going for it no matter how sore I get, because like 'Mighty Joe Louis' and the kids in Bird in a Box, I learned that victory only comes after hard work."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: DIY MFA

I've never really considered going back to school to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. The time. The expense. The distance. It all conspires against me. Yet, I truly do desire to learn more about the craft of writing and wish to improve whatever skills I have to this point. Thankfully, there are always books available to condense a subject down to manageable parts. Think of this book, DIY MFA, as the equivalent to a MFA for Dummies. Gabriela Pereira boils the craft and the accompanying counterparts down to a science.

She divides the book into three categories of activity necessary to become proficient at writing to the level of a Masters degree student. First, she teaches you to write with focus. I felt a bit distressed reading this section, because once again I wondered whether I should put more effort into planning and plotting. I'd say that's just not my style, but that feels like a cop-out. I certainly could make note cards planning each scene of my novel. I could draw up an outline. But, I will admit, I tend to work better when I simply begin with an idea, a character, a title, and just jump in with both feet to begin writing. Still, the writing lessons in this book are quite helpful. They focus on all the standard writing subjects: characters, plot, point-of-view, setting, and dialogue.

In the second section, Pereira urges writers to "read with purpose." I'm quite sure I already take this approach. I believe firmly that if you wish to write, you should immerse yourself in good reading. Yet, the level Pereira takes this to goes well beyond my habit of reading with a dissecting eye. She encourages writers to take on particular topics, genres, and authors for deeper study and to write up the results of what you learn. While my blog book reviews often highlight skills I admire in other writers, I haven't been driven to take apart passages and finely dissect them to discover how the author achieved success. This is something I should do more of, I'm sure.

The final section focuses on building community. I know that I would benefit from taking much of the lessons in this section to heart. I need to work harder at building community, identifying and finding readers, and creating a platform or a brand for my writing. I found lots of helpful advice in this section.

All in all, I benefited from this writing text. Although it cannot come close to the full experience of pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at a school, the book does cover the basics you might find in a creative writing degree. It was easy to digest and full of inspiring information. I will be interested to see how this text compares to The Portable MFA in Creative Writing (the other MFA text I placed on my goal list in a previous post). Alas, reading is the easy part. The real challenge comes in putting the lessons to work and actually putting the pen to paper.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Book Review: I, Coriander

Several things attracted me to this audio selection, I Coriander, by Sally Gardner. First off, the cover art is gorgeous. Second, it promises an interview with the author at the end (I'm always a sucker for such things because I love to hear more about the process of writing from authors). As a tween read, I was certain it would be a clean read. Finally, I saw that it is read by Juliet Stevenson (you might know her from a few of her films Truly, Madly, Deeply, Bend It Like Beckham, or Mona Lisa Smile). Her narration is delightful.

Coriander Hobie sets out to tell her tale by the light of seven candles. Each candle's length provides a portion of her story. She tells of life with her mother and father, silver shoes that seemed to be made just for her, a stuffed alligator kept in her father's study, and a strange, enticing land full of magic and fairies. The fairy tale she shares is sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats waiting to know what comes next.

The novel is set in London during the 17th century in a period of political unrest, but it bridges a gap between the real world and a more magical world of fairies. Although, I'm not generally drawn to fairy tales, this one was well-done. I loved the main character, Coriander. She has pluck and spunk and deals with the many unpleasantries that come her way.

I should note, however, that Christian parents might wish to listen to this tale alongside their offspring and use it as a discussion tool. The author paints religious people in a very bad light. The Puritan step-mother and her minister friend are quite despicable and evil, all while touting that they are serving God. While I don't dispute that Puritans often were legalistic and fanatical, a child listening to the story might get the impression that belief in God is obviously a bad thing and will lead to the abusive behaviors the Puritan characters demonstrate. I did enjoy the story and believe it is worth exploring, with some caution.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Book Review: Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone

When I think of infertility, I tend to think of the women who experience that trial. I don't often put myself in the shoes of a man who desperately wants to have a family including children. This book helped to remedy that as I came to greatly care for the main character and to feel his painful longing.

Benedict Stone's wife has left him. It seems all he can talk about anymore is his desire to fill their happy home with the pitter patter of little feet and the joyful squeals of small children. Sadly, it isn't the first time Benedict's been left behind. His parents left him behind to care for his younger brother when they died in a tsunami. His brother left him behind when he moved away to the United States and made it clear that he wanted no further communication between the two.

Then one day, his sixteen-year-old niece Gemma shows up on his doorstep begging for a place to stay for a while. Gemma brings her own baggage and tales of a mother who left her. Yet, she also brings the opportunity for second chances. She is determined to help Benedict mend the rifts in his life and regain his relationships with his wife and his brother.

Phaedra Patrick impressed me with her debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, back in 2016. In that novel, the reader follows the main character on a quest to unravel his deceased wife's previous life by following a trail of several charms on a discovered bracelet. Each charm holds special meaning and unlocks a part of the story. In a similar way, as Benedict Stone unearths the legends behind gemstones, a variety of smaller stories, intersecting individuals, and life lessons unfold.

It was a sweet and tender read. I liked the image of the gemstones in the family tree. I loved the vulnerability of the main characters. The only thing I would change would be the character names, which seemed a bit much. Gemma Stone - really? Thankfully, it was a very engrossing read and kept me occupied during the endless waiting game associated with my husband's hernia surgery. I even found myself sharing tidbits of the story with him. I'll look forward to more from this author.

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The book I checked out from the library had a different cover from the one above, but I like this cover better than the library's one (an image of a man sitting in a weeping willow tree). Plus, this cover is vaguely reminiscent of another book I attempted recently, The Story of Arthur Truluv. Despite that story's great start (an older widow who encounters a teen girl in a graveyard and strikes up a friendship), I decided to abort the read due to content that made me uncomfortable.