Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: Rotters

This book is not for everyone. I would even have thought it not appropriate or welcome to me, given the creepy subject matter, frequent expletives, unsavory characters, and disturbing plot development. However, I did find much to embrace in this novel. I was especially drawn to the writing. This author has a rare gift for dissecting a moment. Like the main character in the story, who "specifies" to avoid facing upsetting situations, this author narrows in on the minutest details of every experience, like a microscope highlighting the infinitesimal. It was, indeed, a thing of beauty and something I wish I could emulate in my own writing (although I doubt I have that skill or ability). Moreover, the narration by Kirby Heyborne was an experience to remember for a very long time.

In Rotters, we meet sixteen-year-old Joey Crouch, one of the few male teenage characters I have ever met who openly expresses his devotion to his mother. He adores her and depends upon her in their quiet existence in Chicago, where he practices his trumpet and achieves straight A's in order to please her. Thus, his world is turned upside down when an unfortunate accident kills her and Joey finds himself shipped off to Iowa to live with a father he barely knew existed. Because his father is known around town as the "garbage man," Joey is instantly the butt of jokes and bullying as the "son of the garbage man." But what is more horrific than the bullying and the challenges of being a new kid in a small rural town, is the fact that Joey's father is, in actuality, a grave-robber. The two live in a stand-off for a while, until Ken Harnett (the father) decides to apprentice his son for the trade.

The author certainly did his research, presenting countless facts and interesting details about graves, decomposition, and the history of grave-robbing. The characters he created are vivid and despicable. There's the bully who is alpha-dog in his small Iowa town. The attractive girl who only pays attention to Joey because she thinks he has connections to big-wig theater types back in Chicago. The loner who befriends Joey and introduces him to heavy metal music. The host of characters, known as "diggers," who work in separate territories, digging up graves for their material spoils. Once Joey snapped and decided to seek revenge upon the bully who taunted, the girl who rejected, and the teacher who humiliated him, the plot grew darker still and a bit unbelievable, but it was still an entertaining romp of a tale.

This book is certain to appeal to teenage boys, especially reluctant readers. It is full of things boys find fascinating like bullying, revenge, biology, dead bodies, and creepy gruesome activities. Writers will benefit from reading this book for instruction on so many great skills like character development, plot development, realistic use of dialogue, world-building, and microscopic description. I had to be very careful listening to the book. I couldn't just have it on when my boys were around, for fear that shouting expletives would explode from the soundtrack. Nor did I listen to it while doing dishes when a few workmen were around, because I was worried they'd think I was a nutter for the type of stuff I was listening to - ha! I still can't believe I liked it as much as I did, but for a reader who is willing to put up with bad language, horrible bullying activities, despicable evil, and gruesome details, it will provide a story which will stick with you for a long time to come and introduce you to a world you would never want to visit in reality. Somehow the author manages to bring brilliance and raw humanity from the seedier parts of life and death. I'm with author Michael Grant, who said, ""This is a bold, utterly fearless, uncompromising story told with such skill, with such beauty, and with such depth of focus it just warps the fabric of reality. I'm in awe of this book."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: Here's to You, Rachel Robinson

Here's to You, Rachel Robinson is a companion novel to go with Judy Blume's Just As Long As We're Together but it can stand alone, as well. While both books discuss the same characters and references are made to the first book, with a new narrator the reader really gets a new story perspective and a different experience from the first book. They were both very well written, but this one felt a little bland.

Rachel Robinson is heralded as the perfect student by her teachers, yet she is struggling with the expectations for perfection. Moreover, everyone seems to want to push a new activity on her. With trouble brewing at home, thanks to her older brother Charles, Rachel feels pressed in on all sides. Everyone else seems to find Charles amusing, but Rachel knows the emotional turmoil he can manufacture with ease in their home. Living in a family of over-achievers can be a daunting task.

Again, I'd have to say (just as with the previous book) I prefer the books about Fudge, but this book will surely appeal to girls between the ages of 9 and 12. They will, no doubt, relate to the anxiety of crushes on older boys and the pressure to keep up appearances. I think I would have really enjoyed these books back when I fit into the targeted audience.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: Just As Long As We're Together

This month, our young adult book club decided to explore Judy Blume's books for tweens and teens. We each selected two novels and this was the first of my two, Just As Long As We're Together. It was a quick and easy read about two best friends who allow a third girl to join their ranks. It had typical Blume fare of introducing topics previously seen as taboo - the girls discuss the perceived sexual activity level of a boy and talk about getting their period for the first time. It was still pretty tame compared to some of the other books offered up to our group.

Stephanie has been best friends with Rachel since second grade. When Alison moves into the neighborhood with her actress mother and step-father, she immediately strikes up a friendship with both Stephanie and Rachel. Each girl struggles with her own unique situations in navigating seventh grade: Stephanie with the recent separation of her parents, Rachel with the pressures of perfectionism, and Alison with her status as an adopted child to a famous mother. Can three girls all be best friends or will the friction of an interloper cause Rachel and Stephanie to drift apart?

I wouldn't say this was my favorite Judy Blume read. I am, by far, a bigger fan of the series of books starring Fudge. Of course, this might be because those books appeal strongly to my sons. I can remember really enjoying her tween books when I was a pre-teen, so I know they have great enduring appeal to tween girls. Next up is the companion book to this one, Here's to You, Rachel Robinson.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: The Opposite of Spoiled

This is a subject I haven't given nearly enough thought to - parenting my children with respect to the use of money. Ron Lieber's book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, was an excellent way to begin thinking about being more pro-active in guiding my children's experiences with and attitudes towards money. He urges parents to make a point of talking with their kids about money and presents many examples of others who have influenced their children powerfully in a variety of ways.

The author begins by establishing a definition of spoiled and I had to cringe because my kids could easily fall into this category given his four criteria: "1) they have few chores or other responsibilities, 2) there aren't many rules that govern their behavior or schedules, 3) parents and others lavish them with time and assistance, and 4) they have a lot of material possessions." Yikes! Nobody wants to raise kids who will be labelled as "spoiled." Next, he lists the traits he feels are the opposite of spoiled. The target characteristics are: "curiosity, patience, thrift, modesty, generosity, perseverance, and perspective." While I'm sure my boys have gained some sense of thrift simply by watching me save money with coupons and shop for necessities at resale shops, I haven't really made a concerted effort to teach them these targeted characteristics in regards to money.

Reading the examples, while inspiring, also felt a bit convicting. There were parents who encouraged their children by providing them with allowances and teaching the children to divide the money into three categories of giving, spending, and saving. Parents who encouraged their kids to put any purchase to the "hours-of-fun-per-dollar test" (an exercise we tried to illustrate by thinking about the punching bag Trevor requested for Christmas which languishes in the exercise/guest room now). Parents who, spurred by the curious questions and challenges of their children, sold their house to downsize and spent the proceeds on a philanthropic project selected jointly by the family. Parents who gave their children blank checks to fill out for the charity of their choice. Story after story of parents who have risen to this challenge in far greater ways than I ever will.

Still, the book did cause me to think about how I could go about instilling more subtle lessons about money, its value and its purpose. I do want to raise boys who feel a sense of obligation to help others less fortunate. I want them to realize the many blessings they have been given and show gratitude for what they have and can offer to the world. I want them to be smart in their spending. My middle son is the one who bemoans our standards the most. He wants an I-phone because "all the other kids have them." He wants to go to Florida on Spring Break because everyone else is doing it. For the most part, we don't give in to his desire to "keep up with the Joneses." It is communicating why we don't simply rush out and purchase whatever we desire that needs to be more intentional. I think this book is a great tool for introducing parents to the topic and providing examples of ways to be more proactive in your approach to the topic of money with your kids.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: Mightier Than the Sword

Somehow I thought this was the last book in the Clifton Chronicles. Alas, it isn't so. The story will continue and I will probably have to wait a further year for another installment of the riveting story of the lives of the Clifton family, which is disappointing. While I did enjoy this book, I missed listening to it in audio form (as I have done with the other four in this series). There are so many details to keep straight and somehow listening cements them in my brain better. I enjoyed everything except for the bits about Harry Clifton trying to help a Russian author achieve publication of an expose book on Stalin. I could have done without that bit (merely out of disinterest), although I can understand why it was helpful to the plot development.

The book picks up with the cliff-hanger ending from the last book, where the reader is waiting to hear whether the IRA attack on the Buckingham ship has successfully scuttled the maiden voyage or not. It follows the woes of Emma as she attempts to steer the board of Barrington Shipping and the trials of Giles Barrington in his further bids for political advancement. By far the most entertaining aspect of the story centers on young Sebastian, who is on the cusp of an engagement to an American girl, Samantha, and also rising in his banking career despite setbacks, intrigues, and opponents. It seemed like someone was constantly scheming something in this novel.

Although this was probably the weakest book in the series, I will happily stick with it to discover what piece of evidence is waiting to be revealed at Emma Barrington's libel hearing, whether Sebastian will end up with Samantha despite their rocky road, what will come of their talented daughter, Jessica (named after Sebastian's dead sister), and whether Giles will finally get the girl from Germany. The ending wasn't quite as strong a cliff-hanger as in the other books of the series, but it still leaves you wanting to know more details. Archer certainly knows how to weave a lengthy tale full of twists and turns and engaging characters.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: So Much to Tell You

I listened to John Marsden's young adult book, So Much to Tell You, in audio format. It was an emotionally stirring experience, but one which will be hard to explain because I don't want to give away too much about the book. Indeed, the cover blurb was very basic in its description:

"She watches; she dreams. She sees more than they realize. She has worries and fears, hopes and desires. She is troubled; she is angry. Above all, she is lonely. She may be someone you know. She may be you. In So Much to Tell You she tells her story. With humor and insight, with sensitivity and strength, with painful honesty. You will never forget her."

Not much to go on, but I assure you this book is worth the read (or listen). The main character, a fourteen-year-old elective mute, has recently faced a horrifying, overwhelming challenge in life and is living in a boarding school where others hope that she will break her silence. Told in journal format, the story unfolds gradually (perhaps a bit too slow at times) until the reader comes to understand the impetus for her silence and the hopes for her healing. Every teen can probably relate to the sense of isolation and loneliness Marina and other girls at the boarding school experience in this haunting tale. Everyone carries baggage in life, but everyone can also find hope and inspiration to go on facing life's challenges.

The journal/epistolary format will not appeal to everyone, but I personally like that style of narrative. Thus, I will probably seek out another John Marsden book called Letters from the Inside. He also has a few series books (like the Tomorrow When the War Began series - one I had heard about in my young adult book club). Given the positive experience with this book, I'd give this author another go.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: The Seat Beside Me

This was another bit of Christian women's fiction which I picked up from my mother while on Spring Break. It was quite brave of me to read a book about a plane crash just before boarding another flight home, don't you think? It looked more interesting than the Reader's Digest condensed book set which I had brought with me to read, so I gave the RD book to my mother and borrowed Nancy Moser's The Seat Beside Me.

I can only remember one flight where I happened to strike up a conversation with the man in the seat beside me. I was flying to London for a Spring Break trip (prior to having kids) and the man was quite interested in steering me to the best vegetarian restaurants (even though I planned to stay with friends and wouldn't be sampling many restaurants, let alone vegetarian ones). He was very nice and ended up requesting my address so that he could send me a copy of The Cranks Recipe Book from the Cranks restaurants. He did indeed send it and I still have it, but have never really utilized it. Perhaps I'll give it another look, now that I've dug it out to verify the title. He was certainly passionate about his cause.

This book is about being passionate about the cause of Christ. The book highlights five passengers and the seatmates beside them as they embark on a doomed trip to Phoenix. Some of the individuals have cordial conversations with their seatmates, some have curt conversations (at times a bit unbelievable). There is one individual, a haughty doctor, who looks upon his neighbor as "white trash," feeling he is so much above her. One passenger is flying to Arizona with the intent to commit suicide. Another is a Christian school teacher who is disappointed to find herself seated next to a teen. Each is given the opportunity to rise to the occasion and be a hero in the life of someone else. Some do, some don't.

I think the primary message was a good one - you never know when your last opportunity to share your faith might come and every one has it within them to seize such moments and be a hero in the life of someone else. The characters were interesting and the plot line smooth. I became fully engrossed in the story, despite being aboard a plane during the read (of course our weather was completely amenable, as opposed to the weather indicated in the book). It also reminded me that everyone has a story to share and often those stories intersect, if even briefly, for a reason.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: Balancing Act

This book, Balancing Act, by Kimberly Stuart, was a bit of Christian fiction which my mother-in-law passed on for me to sell at the Half Price Book store. I was glad I pulled this one out to hold aside because when we left for Spring Break, I didn't want to take any library books (despite having quite a large stack of them to get to). It was a light-hearted, quick and easy read (easy enough to read while flying on a plane). Although it was a bit humorous, I did feel that the author was trying too hard to be funny. Thus, many of the gags and jokes felt forced. I would probably give it 3 stars.

Heidi Elliott is anticipating returning to her career as a high school Spanish teacher after a brief maternity leave. Her substitute has made a mess of things. Heidi is exhausted, but wanting to prove that she can manage to balance a new baby and her job. Meanwhile, her husband encourages her to join a church Mom's group, which she does reluctantly. Moreover, her husband is paying loads of extra attention to a female client at his business. Heidi experiences the typical angst women feel when they return to jobs after having a baby. The pull of two worlds, the conflicts in marital relationships brought on by exhaustion, and the questioning glances of others who doubt a new mom can be all things to all people, all threaten to pull Heidi under. Thankfully, she learns to turn to God to assist her in knowing how to find the best balance for her life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review: The Running Dream - Highly Recommend

I don't know how many books there are out there about walking/running/journeying/accomplishing goals, but I tend to do best in my exercise when I am listening to such books. Especially since, due to a fifteen pound weight gain (my husband has been doing more of the cooking and I swear he is making me fat), I am walking 2-1/5 miles each day now. Thus, I was game for another book about such things when I saw the audio version of Wendelin Van Draanen's The Running Dream. I am familiar with this author, having loved her book, Flipped (a book I must have read prior to starting this blog).

I'm not a runner myself. I have a blogging friend, Amy, who does run and loves it. Even when I try, I find jogging to be quite difficult. My knees hurt badly enough just walking on the treadmill. I don't really get the charge runners get from running. It reminds me of that line, I think it is from Back to the Future, where the two old guys see someone run by with a shirt bearing the slogan "I run for fun," and the two old geezers look at each other and say, "Run for fun? What the hell kind of fun is that?" Thus, I thought I wouldn't really be able to relate to this story of a girl who just wants to run again. How wrong I was. This was an incredibly moving, hope-inspiring tale. Full of raw emotion, I would say this was one of the best young adult novels I've read this year.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica is injured in a bus accident on her way home from a track meet where she has just set a personal best record. Another girl died, but Jessica lost a leg. At first, Jessica is convinced that the girl who died is better off than her, but as time and the blessing of a budding friendship with Rosa develops, she comes to look at things differently. Rosa is a girl she would have snubbed or ignored before. Rosa has cerebral palsy and her speech is hard to understand. But when Jessica is placed at a table next to the wheel-chair bound girl, she learns that the most important dream of any disabled person is to be seen for who they are not simply for their disability. Rosa helps her to see a world of opportunities she didn't think existed for her anymore.

This is such an important story. Everyone can benefit from the messages this book conveys - messages of hope in the face of obstacles, recognition in the face of disabilities, and determination in the face of dreams. I can't wait to plunge into another book by this observant and gifted writer. She tugs at my heart strings and reminds me of what is most important in life.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book Review: The Teenage Brain

I love reading about the human brain. I guess it is just a strange fascination I have. Thus, when I saw that our library had this book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, I had to check it out. It was a fascinating and depressing treatise.

On the one hand, it was full of descriptions of the brain and its plasticity, which I love. I felt it was structured well, with chapters on "Building a Brain," "Learning," "Sleep," "Taking Risks," "Stress," "Mental Illness," "The Digital Invasion of the Teenage Brain," and "Sports and Concussions," to name a few.  But on the other hand, it was full of descriptions of teens who, because of their underdeveloped adolescent brains, made horrifying mistakes, often leading to death.

Although we haven't had much trouble to speak of with our teenage son, Bryce, he has certainly made some poor judgments and taken actions we believe aren't for the best. For example, he comes home from college every weekend to see his girlfriend, who is still in high school here. During her first weekend of her spring break, she wanted him to come see her for the few hours between his final Friday class and their 7 p.m. departure, so we begrudgingly agreed to shuttle him home for the weekend, while knowing that he had an especially stressful week already and was totally covered up with work, often staying up at night until 4 in the morning to study and complete his work. It is hard to know when to insist on intervening (especially, given the fact that we have every right to refuse to go pick him up) and when to simply let him make what we feel to be mistakes.

Even if we manage to navigate these waters with our almost young adult son, we still have two more boys coming up into that stage of development. The vast array of mistakes teens can make is overwhelming. There are dangers everywhere and the desire to fit in can be so strong. I don't think this book really provided all that much in the way of guiding parents (the guidance seemed primarily to be nurture a close relationship and talk to them about the potential dangers), but does make the reader more aware of the limitations teens have for thinking clearly and with long-term understanding (and makes fascinating reading). The only section I really balked at was the chapter on crime and punishment which seemed to imply that adolescents shouldn't be held accountable for their actions because their brain simply wasn't formed well-enough to make the right choices.

While I enjoyed reading about the teenage brain, I found it unsettling to think of all the dangers we still might have to encounter with our children. I did copy out a few pages on the chapter on sleep to share with Bryce, because college students have a tendency to think they will do better if they study well into the night, when in reality they do better if they study briefly and then allow their brain to absorb the information and process it while sleeping. I don't know if he'll take the information to heart, but at least I will be addressing some of the potential dangers (and I know that is a very mild example). Maybe one day when he's held hostage in the car as I drive him back to school, I'll tell him some of the more disturbing stories (alcohol, pot, hard-core drugs) to help him see some of the potential dangers out there. I still feel skeptical, however, because most teens think in their head "yes, but that would never happen to me." Ah, the teenage brain!

There are several other books out there which address this fascinating topic. If you're looking for information straight from another neuroscientist, you could check out Brainstorm, by Dr. Daniel Siegel. I noted that Parenting the Teenage Brain received 11 reviews, all of them 5 star reviews. If you are battling an educational or learning issue with your teenager, you might try Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain. I personally haven't read any of these titles, so I cannot make comparisons, but there is a wealth of material available if you are interested in gleaning more information about what makes your teenager tick.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Our Most Exciting Spring Break Yet

We're homebodies. I'd say we take "staycations," but to be honest we just tend to stay home, doing boring everyday things. Trevor constantly regales us with assurances that everyone else goes away but us. This break, we bit the bullet and ventured really far from home. We decided to visit my parents in the St. Petersburg, Florida area. My husband hates to drive long distances and couldn't leave home for the week. Since I balked at driving all that way on my own, we looked into flights. After realizing how expensive such a venture would be, we opted to leave Sean home (he didn't want to go anyway and the two boys together can be such a pain to deal with, with their constant sibling friction). Trevor and I made the trip, leaving on April 1st (I contemplated waking him up to tell him the trip had been cancelled, but couldn't bring myself to carry out such a cruel prank) and returning Sunday evening on the 5th.

While it is true that the boys together tend to murder one's patience, it is equally true that the key to the bad mix is Trevor. And, since I left the easy son at home, I had to deal with the fact that I still had the difficult one with me. He had a great time, but did, indeed, kill our patience from time to time (walking on the grass outside and then coming in barefoot, forgetting to close the front door, mimicking my every move at meals, making snide comments, honing in on the particular habits which annoyed my mother and instead of curtailing those things for the few days of our visit, insisting on doing the very things which annoyed the most - this is trademark behavior for my pre-teen son). Alas, at one point my mother looked at me and said, "I feel for you."

It would have been a wonderful break if I had simply gone by myself, but we did have fun nonetheless. We went to the beach.

We also explored the local park with its awesome outdoor exercise equipment, visited the neighborhood pool at my parents' retirement community, ate out almost every day (including a wonderful salad bar buffet restaurant called "Sweet Tomatoes," ate ice cream every day, and watched movies and episodes of one of my parents' favorite BBC shows, Monarch of the Glen. While my parents and I visited, Trevor spent his time listening to his I-pod and watching television in the guest room. I think one of my favorite things was an impromptu visit from my sister and her husband (they happened to be in Orlando and drove over for a brief visit). My second favorite thing was looking at all the photos around their house and on digital photo displays.

I think one of Trevor's favorite things was catching a gecko. He kept trying the first few days (thus the walking outside barefoot and leaving the door open) and we were convinced he'd never catch one of those quick little creatures scurrying around beneath my parents' bushes. Finally, my dad offered him a large fishing net. My mother and I scoffed because the openings were so big a lizard could easily slip through. But, in the end, it was the net which assisted him in his goal. He caught the tail of the gecko under the handle of the net and managed to scoop up the little guy.

I had to laugh when Trevor told his dad that he worked on his manners while he was gone. Dad asked what he meant by that and Trevor explained that he said "please" and "thank you," prayed for the meals when asked (he often balks when we request it), took his plates up to the counter (something which is hit or miss at home), and went to church without begging to bring along his I-pod. I'm sure my parents will laugh as well, because his behavior could have been better if he were ... well, a different boy.

All in all, we had a wonderful, long-overdue visit with my parents. Our flights went smoothly and Trevor took videos of the take-off. We managed to secure seats next to one another, with a window seat for Trevor. Trevor has plenty of stories to relate to his classmates. We'll have to convince Daddy and Sean to make the big trip with us next time so we can try out Disney World some day. Some day ...

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: I Capture the Castle

I thought I would like this book far more than I did. It is about England, a young girl finding love, writing ... all things I am crazy about. However, it just seemed to drag for me and I never really got sucked into the setting of the place, as I thought I would. It takes place in an old castle-turned home, which sounds romantic, but the descriptions of the poverty of their existence turned the romance of it sour. Moreover, the love story ended in a way that I found dissatisfying.

The description on the back cover made me think it would be amazing:

"I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle's walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has "captured the castle" - and the heart of the reader - in one of literature's most enchanting entertainments."

The book just never really hooked me into the story very well. I didn't care for or dislike the main character. I just felt neutral toward the whole thing. I'm sure there are loads of people who have loved this book. I'm just not one of them.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Book Review: Number the Stars - Highly Recommend

On the heels of hearing Lois Lowry speak at Butler University (a delightful experience, where I managed to secure a third row seat), I decided to listen to an audio-book of one of her books, one I had been wanting to read for quite some time but hadn't gotten around to. Number the Stars is an extremely well-written, moving story about a girl, in World War II, who helps her parents smuggle a family of Jews out of Denmark to safety in Sweden. The main character, like Lowry herself, has lost her older sister and is still reeling from the empty space she has left behind. Lowry manages to convey all the emotion of sibling loss with the even greater depths of emotion brought on by the difficulties of war.

When Annemarie Johansen's best friend, Ellen Rosen, comes to stay for a night, Annemarie is aware that the situation is perilous and they must pretend that Ellen is really her older sister, Lise, who died in a car crash a few years before. Ellen is a Jew and the Nazis are preparing to relocate the family. Soldiers do indeed come knocking, wanting to know if the Johansens know the whereabouts of their neighbors, the Rosens. Papa, thinking quickly on his feet, presents the soldiers with photos of his three daughters at birth. Thankfully, Lise had dark hair, just like Ellen, at birth, though both Annemarie and her younger sister, Kirsti, are fair-haired. The danger is not yet over. They must travel by train and attempt to fool the guards in order to get the Rosens safely across the sea to the shores of Sweden. Annemarie must be very brave and mature quickly in the face of these threatening times.

It was, by far, the best children's book I have read so far this year. Lowry's writing is enchanting. It is a perfect introduction for larger discussions with children about the harsh realities of war and ways people triumph over adversities. I especially appreciated the final track, where the author spoke of how much of the story was based in fact and how much came from her imagination. This would make an excellent read-aloud for older elementary students and will appeal equally to children and adults.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

I feel like I enjoyed this debut book, Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, far more than I should have. It contains elements which would normally be off-putting to me. But, it was the author's ability to get inside the hearts and souls of her characters which carried this novel for me to a height I hadn't expected. It felt like I was eavesdropping on the most private aspect of each of the character's inner workings. The story was profoundly sad and terribly enlightening, showing how mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, can often create emotional distance which tears at an individual until they reach the breaking point.

The beginning was impressive: "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast." So begins the tale of a family's contribution and response to Lydia's eventual undoing. Each family member is explored in depth to reveal the ways they have influenced and rocked Lydia's world. The mother, who longed to be a doctor but finds herself stuck in the very existence her own mother wanted for her, that of a housewife and mother. The father, who, tired of standing out, longs only to blend in, one Asian in a sea of Caucasians. The brother, who resents the fact that Lydia is the parental favorite, who wishes his parents would see his own potential instead of only focusing on their dreams and goals for Lydia. The sister, who stands by as a silent player, absorbing all the details of the lives around her.

In addition to exploring the ways each family member has pushed and pulled Lydia, we see the varied ways Lydia's death consumes and haunts each individual. The mother, faced with the loss of the one vessel in which she had placed all her unfulfilled hopes and dreams and convinced that someone has abducted Lydia, is undone. The father finds only one disturbing way to drown his sorrows. The brother is insistent that the neighborhood thug had something to do with Lydia's demise, but cannot speak of it because of the secrets he maintained from his parents on his sister's behalf. Again and again, I felt like I was invading personal space to see these characters stripped down to their most vulnerable essence. It is so telling, how we, as parents and siblings, can, by our own dysfunctions and woundedness, wound the ones we love the most. This book will stick in my mind for a long time to come.

Having said that, it did receive a fair number of perfectly awful reviews (and perhaps some of what was said reflects the reasons I feel I shouldn't have liked it as much as I did). Many reviewers felt it was just too overwhelmingly sad. They complained of flawed, entirely unlikeable characters. They questioned the actions of the characters as unrealistic. (Would a father really respond in that way? Could a mother really walk away from her children for a time to pursue her own ambitions and life goals? Would the brother really switch his feelings about the object of his intense hatred? Could there be any redemption possible for this mixed brew of self-absorbed characters?) Each of these criticisms feels perfectly valid, yet somehow, I did enjoy the book and felt moved by the exploration of this intense topic of a family's undoing. I seem to like books that emotionally move me and, despite there being minimal redemption for the characters involved, this book did manage to stir my emotions and pull me into the world of these tragically flawed characters. I look forward to future books by this author.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review: Walking on Water

Honeycrisp apples ruined me for all other apples. There is just nothing that compares to the taste of a honeycrisp. I think the same is true for me with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I loved that book so much that all other walking/journey books pale in comparison. Sad, but true.

Walking on Water was the final installment of Richard Paul Evans' journey series, The Walk. It was very inspirational and did cause me to feel stirring emotions, but the travelogue aspects of the telling got in the way of the significant message. I did cry often during this last volume. I was deeply saddened (which means I did come to care strongly about the main character) when Alan Christoffersen's father passed away from a heart attack. How many losses can one character tally up? Seriously! The poor man lost his wife, his business, his home, his ability to walk (when faced with a brain tumor), and now, the loss of his only remaining relative. Moreover, when he finally gathers the courage to admit to loving his previous employee, Falene, she shatters his hopes by telling him she is getting married. It was all a bit too much for me.

While this was an excellent conclusion to the series, I wasn't exactly sad to be done with it all. I liked the main character well enough and did care deeply about his life experiences, but I had journeyed with him long enough. Indeed, I think if the author had left out all the tidbits about what the characters ate and some of the less significant bits about the locations along the journey, he could have condensed this series into three books instead of five. It was a grand idea and I appreciated hearing the author's comments at the end of the audio version, letting the reader know what thought processes led to the germ of the story. Story ideas are out there everywhere just waiting to pop into the head of a talented writer, someone skilled enough to convey real meaning through the telling of the tale.