Wonder

August “Auggie” Pullman has a facial deformity that attracts a lot of unwanted attention. He’s been home schooled through fourth grade and is going to start school at Beecher Prep for fifth grade. Throughout the year, he and his fellow fifth graders learn a lot about growing up, being kind, and standing up for what’s being right. On a personal level, Auggie and his family learn how to adjust their lives as their youngest member comes into his own. Wonder

The story is engrossing, and frankly makes me jealous I didn’t go to this school. Being a quick and enjoyable read, it was hard to put the book down. I didn’t care for the amount of points of view, each section of the book being told by a different character; it became distracting. There were several points of view that were missing, making the story feel somewhat lopsided. What it does accomplish is giving us a well rounded look at what it means to be kind. This is a great book for anyone to learn empathy. Especially because Auggie is not treated as a saint nor do we feel forced to like him.

As an educator, I did have real reservations about the ways in teachers, and parents, infantilized him. The fifth graders didn’t seem age appropriate; they seemed more like eighth or ninth graders. And the graduation ceremony for fifth and sixth graders seemed way too over the top. There’s no need to have a ceremony for moving from fifth to sixth or seventh to eighth. That seemed to cater to millennial parents who need to have every opportunity to have their child recognized.

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The Black Canary

Time travel intrigues me. It’s one of those devices that can either be done well or doesn’t work at all. In this book, it doesn’t work. There’s no explanation for why there’s a time waro that exists in the basement of James’s house nor how he’s supposed to know that once he crosses into the past that he’ll return to the same moment in the future.  It also leads me to question how random animals like cats, rats, etc. don’t wander into the time warp either.Canary

James is spending the summer in London with his workaholic parents when he discovers a time warp to Tudor London. He tries several times to go through the warp for increasingly longer periods of time. He discovers that the longer he spends in the past, the more time has changed when he returns to the present. He soon realizes that there are two of him that are existing the “present” and he doesn’t know how to fix the anomaly. Finally, after several weeks in the past, he’s able to rectify the duplication.

While it was intriguing to wonder how someone from today’s world could handle surviving in the Tudor-era, there wasn’t a point to the time travel. By the end of the book I couldn’t tell what the point of the novel was. There wasn’t a critique on how we live our current lives nor how people lived in the past. James doesn’t work things out with his parents. Instead, we are left with a final scene in which James is mourning the London of the past and his friends he made there.

It’s a quick read, but not one I’d recommend to anyone.

The City of Ember

A city called Ember has survived, as the citizens believe, as the only human civilization left after a catastrophe no one can remember. Things aren’t going well though because the lights won’t stay on, supplies are running low, and growing political unrest. The city doesn’t produce anything other than vegetables in green houses, so any building materials have to be recycled.  Even things such as paper and coloring items (e.g. paints, crayons, colored pencils, etc.) have become luxury items.

EmberLina and Doon are 12 and about to choose their careers. Similar to Divergent, teens are sorted into what will be their future careers.  There’s a certain prestige to some of the careers so all are vying for the more exciting ones.  Lina has her heart set on being a messanger, but draws working in the Pipeworks.  Doon draws messenger which doesn’t interest him. He swaps Lina because he knows that she wants badly to be a messenger.For all of the importance that’s given to these careers, it seems anti-climactic that the kids just draw from a bag.

Doon decides that he will use his career to help solve Ember’s problems. Lina is just trying to keep her family together. Until she stumbles on some instructions that lay out how Ember can solve its problems. Early on readers will realize that Ember is a city in a cave but the people living in Ember don’t know that since they only know Ember as their reality. I don’t know whether it was meant to, but this read like an allegory of Plato’s “The Cave”. Picking up on this early on made the plot more interesting. Lina and Doon are pretty flat characters and the plot isn’t too complex. This is definitely a middle school read rather than high school but adults may be interested in the allegorical elements.

Parzival

Parzival is a young naive boy who is brought up by his mother as far away from knighthood and chivalry as she can control. Until he runs into three knights on the road and decided he too wants to become a knight. We learn that his mother recognizes the dangers of chivalry and how violent it is. Interestingly enough, chivalry is what brings Parzival to near ruin. He’s too polite and doesn’t ask an important question.  I can’t say much more about the plot of Parzival without spoiling the plot.

parzivalThere’s a lot of the stock elements of a medieval lay, Arthur and his court, religious iconography (i.e. Holy Grail) and your random supernatural events.  Oddly enough, Parzival ends up wandering the wilderness in order to complete his quest and restore himself back in good graces with society and he keeps running into his cousin.  His cousin is a young woman who has lost her husband in a joust with Parzival’s rival.  Throughout the who story she randomly encounters Parzival.  I don’t know what was going on in Medieval culture, but a  young woman who was without a male escort was really vulnerable.  Yet she seems to be ok showing up in random places to confront Parzival.  Weird. 

In the end, I think the story of Parzival is highly ironic and would really disappoint his mother.  Parzival “breaks” with chivalry, apparently, because he doesn’t want to intrude on a king’s medical condition.  Because he doesn’t ask about the king, he’s ejected from the castle and everyone he meets, including the random cousin, curses him for his “thoughtlessness” and he’s kicked out of Arthur’s court and made to appear unchivalrous.  Thus begins his quest to right this “wrong”.  Due to his questing, his wife has given birth to twin boys and has raised them all by herself, JUST LIKE HIS MOTHER!  Once again, due to chivalry, a mother has had to raise children by her self.  This point wasn’t developed a lot in the story, but it’s a plot line that I found hides underneath several medieval lays.  Chivalry isn’t the nice, clean, everyone-treats-everyone-with-respect behavior plan.  There’s a real dark side to it.

Ranger’s Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan

gorlanI haven’t been so engrossed in a book since I devoured the Hunger Games trilogy in a matter of days. However, Ranger’s Apprentice became the second book to have captured my attention so much I literally wanted to just rush home from work and read.  The plot of the book seemed to tick off the boxes of things I look for in a book and it never lost its way.The underdog finds a purpose, a thrilling chase takes on life-or-death stakes, and ultimately we learn that heroes are usually the people we least suspect and they typically don’t plan to be a hero.  I typically don’t like to read books that are type-written for specific genders.  However, I will say that sometimes a book does it so subtly that it’s hard for me not to be taken in by it.  This book is definitely a “guy” book in the sense that it understands what young adult guys are looking for in a book and crafts a story that addresses their needs.

I will admit, even as much as I liked it, this book was oddly absent of women. Yes, there’s a few female characters in the beginning and they return at the end. It reminded me a lot of the Lord of the Rings and the absence of female characters. Part of wonders if it’s because the book is set in the Medieval and due to historical constraints there weren’t a lot of women who were becoming Rangers. On the other hand, I’m thinking that since this book is fantasy, why can’t there be more women? At the same time, I will at least acknowledge that there weren’t the stock female archetypes we often see in fantasy and I was grateful for that. I’m curious to see how the series continues and if the lack of female characters will be addressed.  I’m also curious to know what you all think.  Is it “ok” for a book to have an absence of either gender?

Over Sea, Under Stone

For some reason I read the second book of the “Dark is Rising” series before I read the first one.  I didn’t realize I had done that until I discovered Over Sea, Under Stone and read that this was the first in a series.  The second book, Dark is Rising was very odd.  I couldn’t get into it and I struggled with the power to travel to alternate times that some of the characters had.  I had the opposite experience when it came to Over Sea, Under Stone

stoneOver Sea, Under Stone is a contemporary quest taken up by Jane, Simon, and Barnabas Drew during their summer in Cornwall. They stumble upon a map that leads them on a quest and into the paths of some very dark individuals. While I was looking for this to be a book I might teach for a fantasy genre unit I’m putting together, I don’t think the fantastical elements are prominent enough for the students to pick out.  Other than the fact that the kids are searching for a grail related to King Arthur there’s not much else that ties the book to the fantasy genre.

There’s a strong good-vs-evil motif driving everything and it’s all nearly tied up at the end, while giving room for sequels to follow. There’s lots of thrills and actions through this well-paced tome. Susan Cooper knows how to pace her plot to give us the right amount of thrill and catharsis. The children are irritatingly naive which gets them into so much trouble. They seem to forget clues or details they learned only the day before. It’s all made up for in the end with an acceptable conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

When I began re-reading the Harry Potter series in May (clearly I didn’t make it very far), I remember wondering what I had committed myself to after finishing “Sorcerer’s Stone.”  Because my experience wasn’t as exciting as it had been previously, I think I didn’t put much stock into finishing “The Chamber of Secrets”.  Compared to my re-reading of “The Sorcerer’s Stone”, I liked “The Chamber of Secrets” a lot more than I thought I would.

chamberMaybe because the characters have all be established or they are a year older, I’m not sure. In book one I found Harry to be petulant, Ron to be naively thoughtless and Hermione was arrogant. In book they all seemed toned down. While Ron still is Harry’s hype man, he seems much less fly by the seat of his pants.  Harry isn’t quite so brash.  He seems to realize that not everything he says needs to be spoken.  Hermione has found a way to be ahead of the game, without telling everyone she is.  Her actions are speaking louder than her words.

The movie adaptation of “Chamber of Secrets” is my least favorite out of the bunch. I find that the battle in the chamber is too dramatic and takes away from the idea the book is developing. As I arrived at this point in the book I realized that the fight between Harry and the basilisk only takes two paragraphs. I think downplaying the action keeps the reader focused on the main struggle between Harry and Voldemort and Harry making peace with what he considers as his “dark side”. The entire book is about abilities versus choices, which Dumbledore makes clear in the end. This is an important lesson for all of us.

Bridge to Terebithia

The Bridge to Terebithia is another book I’ve never read before. And while it’s a YA book, and a young YA novel at that, it was still an all around good story.

Terebithia.jpgA girl moves in next door to a family that’s struggling to make ends me rural Maryland/Virginia.  The girl and her family are wealthy but are looking to get away from the rat-race of D.C.

The boy and girl soon become friends, although the boy was reluctant to be her friend because they’re at THAT age where boys can’t be friends with girls without being accused of “liking” them or being soft.  Luckily, Jesse doesn’t let all of this machismo business bother him and sees that Leslie, apart from her gender, is a good person and a friend worth having.

Leslie introduces Jesse to the world of Terebithia, a land she makes up but uses her imagination to recreate in their backyard.  Soon Leslie and Jesse develop a strong bond and show readers the power of friendship and the boundless fun you can have when you embrace your imagination.

One concern I had was the way Jesse’s female teacher takes him to a museum in D.C. by herself without consulting with his parents.  I feel like this might be an anachronism, showing a good teacher trying to give a curious student a taste of the outside world and the education that waits.  However, as a teacher in today’s environment, this good-meaning teacher would probably have  a lawsuit on her hands.

Paterson draws the readers into Jesse and Leslie’s friendship and then makes you feel all of the feelings when THE incident happens. An enjoyable read that shares the power of a good story and the impacts of good friends.

A Wrinkle in Time

I’m late coming to Madeleine L’Engle’s The  Time Quartet.  I’ve heard about since college, but never was interested in reading the series.  This year, the book club decided to do a Science Fiction read and needed some help selecting a title.  This was one proposed by several of the members and ultimately won as the choice for November.  This pushed me to jump and see what A Wrinkle in Time was all about.

wrinkleI had a mixed read of the novel.  On one hand it was entertaining and a quick read.  On the other hand it felt that it was too quick without developing characters or plot.  I was particularly disappointed in Meg, one of the protagonists. To me she started out with a complex foundation upon which to build an intriguing character.  The oldest child of two scientists, she’s struggling with growing up and processing the disappearance of her father.  Yet, as I progressed through the book, she quickly became quite flat.  It seemed she was constantly screaming and crying.Every time there was a new challenge or plot twist she seemed to be always stamping her foot, shouting, and bursting into tears.  I understand frustration and I understand as an adolescent there’s a lot of emotion, but when a character is only described as such, it becomes a superficial depiction of a character.  Halfway through the book I lost patience with Meg and wanted her to move into the background of the plot.

I liked the underlying message of the story and I think this is an important entry in the Sci Fi realm of YA, especially to middle school and Jr. high.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

IndianI’ve had this on my to-read list, but it wasn’t until the Cannonball Book Club chose this as their August pick that I was propelled to bump this up on my list.  Focusing on a member of the Spokane River tribe, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows us what it’s like for Arnold who exists in two different worlds.  He soon realizes that his potential is limited by staying on the reservation, but leaving the reservation and going to nice school nearby comes with challenges.  Amongst all of the white kids, his “Indian-ness” becomes an obstacle to integrating into the school’s culture.  Back on the rez, because he left, he’s treated like a traitor.  Did I mention that he’s only 15?

The voice of Native Americans is really lacking in American literature. I’m really sad that there’s not more writers who give us a view into a world that many people either ignore or are ignorant of.  I’m glad that Sherman Alexie has given us a glimpse into the lives of Spokane River tribe.  For me it showed me that while the reservations across the U.S. have their own governments and cultures there is more that connects us than divides us.

I was shocked at the world that Arnold and his best friend, Rowdy, inhabit. Not because I don’t think it’s real, but because it is. At the same time, Alexie showed readers that those young men are people too. He stripped away the “other” and brought out their humanity. For teens and adults I think this is a great read that’s entertaining and eye-opening.