Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Wolf Hollow - Highly Recommend

While the last Newbery book I read didn't appeal to me, this one was a completely different experience. Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk, was outstanding from start to finish, fully deserving of its numerous accolades and awards. It opened with a bang up first sentence: "The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie." Indeed, the whole prologue was absolutely breathtaking. I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn't disappointed. The writing sings and it is a song well worth hearing.

Wolf Hollow takes it's name from a hollow where they trapped and buried wolves in holes to reduce the threatening population. How appropriate as we meet a true threat to our young protagonist. Annabelle is a sweet, sincere girl who has no idea what is in store when she first encounters Betty Glengarry, an "incorrigible" youngster sent to live with her grandparents. At first, Annabelle is determined to handle Bettty's bullying on her own, but over time, realizes that she is in over her head. Still, Annabelle is plucky, intelligent, and compassionate. She figures quite a bit out on her own, without the help of grown-ups, something sure to appeal to young readers.

This book will stun and enthrall readers of all ages as they watch Annabelle lose her innocence and learn about the more difficult challenges of life. It takes on subjects of prejudice, justice, and mercy. Somehow the author manages to make readers feel empathy for both the bullied and the bully.

As Annabelle thinks on her plight, and the plight of Toby (another of Betty's targets), she wisely observes, "There might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried... there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried with me that day: If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?"

The story ends just as eloquently. Annabelle declares, "The wind always swept my words away like cloud shadows, as if it mattered more that I said them, than who heard them." Thus, readers are challenged to live lives that speak into the darkness of this world, even if their voices go unheard. I am a better person for having read this book, and I think other readers will be, as well.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I wanted to love this book. I really did. The cover is gorgeous, the idea is intriguing. and the endorsements are full of powerfully positive words ("spellbinding," "captivating," and "imaginative"). It is a New York Times bestseller and a Newbery winner. The Amazon page is full to the brim with accolades. I just can't bring myself to join the throngs.

I know there are friends of mine who would rave about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. People who love fairy tales, readers who enjoy fantastical stories, and lovers of magic will all be enthralled with it. I could imagine myself reading the book to an eager little girl (granddaughter perhaps, because I'm done in that department). But, the story never fully engaged me or pulled me in. Despite liking the portrayal of the little girl, I really struggled to care what happened to her because the story rambled and drifted aimlessly.

Living in the Protectorate sounds like it would be safe and cozy, doesn't it? But the whole idea of the Protectorate is held up by an annual sacrifice to the Witch in the dangerous forest around them. They hope that by offering up the youngest member, they will appease the thirst of the Witch. Thus, the story begins with a baby placed on a tree stump in the forest and left to its fate. The Witch does indeed come to take the baby, but falls in love with her and allows her to drink from the moon, thereby filling her with magic. That baby's mother is driven to madness and locked away in a tower. A young boy, training for a position as Elder, watches it all, convinced that something should be done to do away with this barbaric practice. So far, so good.

But, after that, the story begins to weave so poetic and allegorical that it began to bore me. Everything seems to be leading up to a climax, but it takes so long to get there and when things do finally come to a head (and I feared the girl would be mistaken for the witch and her throat slit - surely it couldn't end that way, I thought), it just sort of unravels and resolves quietly.

I felt hesitant about the undertones of the story. Was it poking fun at people who believe in a higher power, a God figure who works in mysterious ways? Was it mocking the idea of sacrifice? Why does the religious figure end up being the supreme evil entity? It felt like New Age philosophy triumphing over Christianity. Despite beautiful writing, I hesitantly read on, hoping for some form of redemption or some value to the story. Alas, I never found it. Am still confused by it, to be honest. Great potential, but sadly not a story to my tastes.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: Dark Matter

I occasionally join in on the festivities of The Deliberate Reader's on-line book club. When I read the description for April's selection, Blake Crouch's Dark Matter, I was drawn in. Then, when I discovered it was a book I could listen to in audio form, my participation was clinched. The only thing that could have been better would have been for me to discover this a bit sooner (since I had to avoid viewing the questions for this whole first week and a half of April).

What a thought-provoking book! Jason Dessen lives a mediocre life with his lovely wife, Daniella, and his teen son, Charlie. He is a physics professor at a small Chicago college. Where would life have taken him if Daniella hadn't gotten pregnant and they hadn't chosen to get married? On a quiet night, heading home from a celebration for a colleague's recent achievement, Jason is kidnapped and drugged. He awakens to another world. A world where he supposedly went on to pursue the great scientific discovery of dark matter (innumerable alternate realities bent by individual human choices). In this world, his wife is not his wife and his child, never born. He is faced with a host of scenarios that might have happened if his choices had been different. But once trapped in this other world, he must find a way back to his truest self and the most important choices of his existence.

Who doesn't wonder what their life would have been like if they had simply taken a different path at any number of cross-roads? I've previously mentioned my own fascination with the "what ifs" of life. I loved the movie "Sliding Doors," for its treatment of just such a question. I enjoyed this book even more than that movie. I hated the villain, even though the villain was part-and-parcel of the hero. I desperately wanted Jason to end up in the life of his choosing, where love and happiness both rule supreme over success. I loved second-guessing how Jason could triumph over his dilemma. The twists in the tale were cleverly executed.

As for personal application, I thought long and hard about whether I would trade my current existence for something other, if that alternate life provided more success or a more satisfying path. Would I trade my time with my sons, if it meant more fulfillment in a career? Would I so long for the elusive grail of publication that I would be willing to trade personal happiness for it? Hmm. I think I should focus more energy on gratitude and less on wishful thinking.

There is some on-line talk of a movie production. I would welcome the experience. Moreover, it would be a movie my husband might even enjoy seeing with me (something we seldom do) - he's always game for philosophical rumination.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: By Your Side

It seems harder and harder to find clean reads in YA fiction these days. As I have conducted agent searches for my own books, it amazes me how many are looking for story lines that I would consider morally bankrupt. As that discouraging article mentioned in my August 2015 post suggested, "if you want to publish YA in this day and age, you should sex it up." Sadly, much of what is currently popular contains language, sex, opposition to religion and traditional family structures, and graphic violence. I know there are young adult readers out there who crave a good clean read. This author, and this book in particular, offers an interesting story line without caving to the modern thirst for smut and filth.

From everything I have read recently in my search for more wholesome literature, Kasie West is a name you can trust. In By Your Side, we meet Autumn Collins, a girl who suffers from an anxiety disorder. I'm sure numerous teen readers can relate to this character. When Autumn is accidentally locked in a library over a snowy holiday weekend, her panic emerges. It is ratcheted up a notch, when she discovers she is not alone. Dax Miller, a mysterious and notorious troublemaker, is hiding out in the library, as well. She is confused and dismayed when her prospective boyfriend, Jeff, doesn't immediately appear to rescue her. Why is nobody coming? Can she get along with Dax for the whole weekend? Will Autumn still want Jeff after getting to know Dax more?

This was a light-hearted, quick, and easy read. I was immediately drawn into the story. I loved the idea of being trapped in the library with a mysterious guy and was intrigued by the developing relationship between Autumn and Dax. The conflict is resolved in a satisfying manner and Autumn grows and changes as a result of the events she experiences. Kudos to Kasie West, her agent Michelle Wolfson, and Harper Teen for pushing this satisfying and safe read to publication.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: A Separation

At the outset of every new year, I tend to peruse lists of books recommended for book clubs. Katie Kitamura's A Separation landed on one of those lists this year as a recently released title worth group discussion. If it hadn't been so short, I might not have stuck with it. I guess I kept hoping it would improve, but it never seemed to change course and pick up speed. It is a very cerebral novel and thus, I understand why some might consider it a good book for discussion, but for me, the discussion possibilities were fairly slim.

Basically, the plot (if you can say there is any plot) revolves around a young woman who has secretly separated from her husband. When that husband, Christopher, goes missing in Greece, his mother sends the wife (the couple had made a pact not to inform his parents of the separation) to find her husband. The young woman, whose name we never learn, intends to find him and demand a divorce. However, before she can find him, she learns more about his infidelities and what has transpired since they agreed to separate.

The novel had a very stream-of-consciousness feel to it. The reader is trapped inside the thoughts of the narrator as she ruminates on the deeper subjects of marriage, commitment, infidelity, responsibility, and relationships. The narrator talks about the ritualistic words "I do" paired with "the archaic and unreasonable phrase until death do us part." As far as the author and narrator are concerned, marriage is a temporary commitment, unrealistically expected to endure over time. Infidelities are to be expected. The eventual demise of relationships a foregone conclusion.

For me, this perspective rings shallow and untrue. I recognize the sacred covenant of marriage and aspire to uphold it. Thus, I could not stomach much of the thought processes elaborated in this novel. Moreover, I could not, in good conscience, recommend this as a book to foster realistic conversations about relationships and marriage, distance and divorce. I did not consider it "profound," "gripping," or "mesmerizing," as the accolades on the back cover profess. It was superficial, boring, and disturbing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: Vicious Cycle

The author blurb on the back of Vicious Cycle proclaims the success of Christian author Terri Blackstock. She had sold over six million books at the time of this book's publication (2011). I'm sure the numbers would be even more astounding now, in 2017. She certainly has the skill to present a riveting story with a fast-moving plot and interesting conflicted characters.

In Vicious Cycle, the reader is sucked into the world of meth addiction. Just as an addict is desperate for another hit, I voraciously read chapter after chapter. In fact, when I sat down to finish the book, I ended up being late to pick Trevor up from his weightlifting session after school. Time began to blur and I forgot to keep my eye on the clock. It was also good for distracting my thoughts on the plane ride home from our spring break trip.

Although this is a second novel in a series, the author quickly brings the reader up to speed on details from the first book and plunges you into the action of the tale immediately. Lance Covington just wants to help his sister's friend, Jordan. Pregnant and recently released from a rehabilitation center for a meth addiction, Jordan needs clean friends to pull her away from the pressure of her thoroughly addicted family. When her mother and brother decide to sell Jordan's baby to gain money for drugs, Jordan hides the baby in Lance's car. Lance only wants to do the right thing, but is soon arrested for kidnapping.

The pacing was excellent. I felt so incredibly sorry for the characters whose lives were destroyed by drug addiction (I'm pretty sure it was an accurately painted picture). I wanted Lance to be cleared and Jordan to find a way to save her tiny baby. This was an engrossing tale of addiction and the desire for freedom. If you're looking for a good, clean read with a great deal of suspense, Terri Blackstock delivers in this novel.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins

The only other Chris Bojhalian book I attempted was The Double Bind and I had a rather "meh" response to that one. I think this one was far more appealing. At least, it sucked me in quite quickly, held me on the edge of my seat waiting to determine the identity of the killer, and ended with a satisfying conclusion.

The Light in the Ruins jumps back and forth between the war time of 1943 and a later time of 1955. A killer has targeted the Rosati family, cutting out the hearts of both Franscesca Rosati and her mother-in-law, and investigator Serafina Bettini must pursue the killer to call him or her to justice. During the war, eighteen-year-old Cristina Rosati lives with her parents, her sister-in-law, and her niece and nephew in the family's ornate villa. When German officers visit the estate to view the Etruscan ruins, Cristina falls in love with a German lieutenant. Her peaceful bucolic existence is threatened by this relationship and the actions of the Germans on her property.

Serafina holds her own secrets and her own history of involvement in the war. She must battle the demons of the past to unveil a path through the present and face difficult memories to free the Rosati family of the threat of immanent murder. Both Serafina and Cristina provide interesting character studies for the reader.

Although the book won't make my top list at the end of the year, it was fairly enjoyable and a far better experience than his other novel, The Double Bind. I believe his writing skills are commendable, and his story-telling techniques quite polished. While I never fell in love with any of the characters, I did hope for a redemptive end to the story. I was glad to have listened to the book in audio form, as it preoccupied my thoughts on my daily treadmill time.