Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

Aside from about 12 hours between Saturday and Sunday, our internet was down for a solid week thanks to the power outage frying our modem. With no Netflix in the evenings, I read. A lot.
The Enchanted: A Novel
This book. I don't even know how to accurately describe this book, but I will try my best. Often times when I request books, I forget by the time they come in and don't even know what they're about. This was one of them and the title and cover with golden horses didn't give it away, so when I settled in to read it I didn't know what to expect. I didn't expect a lyrically beautiful and powerful book about death row, and I didn't expect to be so enraptured that I would read the book all in one sitting. This book grabbed me from page one, with these words: "The most wonderful enchanted things happen here--the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow." And then on page two, "The lady hasn't lost it yet--the sound of freedom. When she laughs, you can hear the wind in the trees and the splash of water hitting pavement. You can sense the gentle caress of rain on your face and how laughter sounds in the open air, all those things those of us in the dungeon can never feel. The fallen priest can hear those things in her voice, too. That's what makes him afraid of her. Where can that freedom lead? Nowhere good, his pounding heart says."
Narrated by the nameless death row inmate waiting to take his final bow, most characters in this novel have only titles, not names. The lady is a death row investigator (like the actual author of this book) hired to give inmates a final chance to get off the row. The fallen priest is there to offer comfort in final days, though he can't technically perform official last rites. The warden is caught between his life at the prison and his life watching his wife slip away to cancer. The death row inmates, the murderers, the monsters, have names. The corrupt prison guard, the lifers who work with him, have names. What is the line that divides them all? The lady, currently trying to save York--the rapist, the woman killer--finds that the line isn't as wide as one might think as she delves into his past.
I was hooked from line one to the very end. I finished this book and flipped back to the beginning to start again and probably would've read it back through, except that it was 11PM and I was tired. I don't know if this book is for everyone, but I believe that it's one of the most beautiful, powerful books I've read in a long time.

The Darkest Path
In a dystopian world, a civil war rages between the US government and the order of the Glorious Path. Cal and his brother James were captured by the Path years earlier and forced to make the Choice given by the Path (hint: if you don't choose their side, it's not a good outcome). Cal reaches his breaking point when a commander wants to train a stray dog he's rescued to be a vicious attack dog and this fuels his escape from the Path and search for his parents, which is nowhere near as easy as one might think. Along the way, Cal finds out that enemies are sometimes hidden and that peace is hard to find.

In the article that I read listing off young adult books and their adult contemporaries, it said that if you loved Goosebumps, you would love this book. And who didn't love the Goosebumps series? I had some trouble getting into this book at first, but then it finally hooked and I was drawn into the mystery. Anders and Cecilia live on a remote archipelago set off by a lighthouse. One winter day, they walk to the frozen channel with their six year old. She vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Two years later, Anders returns to try and discover what happened to his daughter. As he spends more time, he realizes that her disappearance is much deeper than it seems and carries with a secret held by the entire island, of the evil that is contained within the sea. I don't know that this book was scary, but it definitely made me anxious, coupled with Anders being somewhat of an unreliable narrator. This is the kind of scary story that is told around campfires or on sleepovers. It's not gory, but it's haunting and bizarre.

The Impossible Knife of Memory
I have a lot of students this year with a lot of things going on, so this book was especially hard to read. Hayley's father Andy is an Iraq war vet with PTSD. For years, they've been on the road, going from place to place when things get hard for Andy. Finally, he's driven back to his childhood home and Hayley has a shot at a normal life, but with her father, it's anything but normal. This book explores not only the all too real issue of PTSD but also, the complexity of memory--can we really trust our memory? Or do we create what seems right to us? Hayley's situation was heartbreaking. She spent so much of her life covering for her dad that a normal childhood is beyond her grasp, even when she tries. Despite how sad this book made me in parts, I loved it. I was drawn in to Hayley's story.

Never Let Me Go
According to the same article that I keep referencing about YA vs. adult books, this is the adult version of The Giver. Or the adult book to read if you loved The Giver. In a lot of ways, this book was more disturbing than The Giver. Jonah's world was pretty straight forwardly disturbing when I first read The Giver because I immediately sensed what was wrong. In this book, the main character, Kathy, doesn't give you many details of her world. She tells you that she's a carer for donors. That she went to an exclusive boarding school called Hailsham. But what is a carer? And what are donors? This is revealed slowly throughout the novel, though you can easily look at the words and piece it together yourself. Unlike typical dystopia, there is no moment where the protagonist realizes how wrong the world is and overthrows the flawed government. Instead, there's a lot of reading between the lines and antagonizing over what, exactly, goes on in Kathy's world. This is one that I would say should be read in conjunction with 1984 or other eerie looks into the future. It's good.

Shadow and Bone (Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone))
This book reminded me of The Neverending Story and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The world of Ravka has been separated by the Fold, a land of darkness haunted by winged creatures. When Alina's regiment is attacked in the Fold, she discovers she has a power that is much valued: the ability to summon the sun. This makes her Grisha, something of a sorcerer. Doubtful at first because Grisha are usually so beautiful, Alina finally accepts that she has power but also learns how corrupt the magical world is.
I enjoyed this book. It was a quick, easy read. Not the best written fantasy novel out there, but it was enjoyable, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

Chance: A Novel
The characters in this novel read like the characters in a Carl Hiaasen novel--larger than life, almost surreal, yet somehow believable. Dr. Chance is a psychotherapist who rarely meets with actual patients, making his living mostly by giving his opinions to trial lawyers on the mental state of clients. Somehow, his life becomes intertwined with a woman who supposes to have borderline personality disorder and is entangled with her violent ex-husband, who happens to be a homicide detective--as dirty a cop as they come. And then there's Big D, the shady antique furniture shop owner's assistant who speaks somewhat fondly of his military tours overseas and leans toward violent tendencies. Somehow, they all end up entangled in a violent, confusing wake set in the foggy city of San Francisco, while Dr. Chance tries to sort out what is real and what is the product of a disturbed mind.
This was not a simple read. In fact, I was super tired when I was reading it and that didn't work because I really needed to focus, so it took me awhile. But I enjoyed it. I had to re-read parts of it because it's not the type of gritty novel that you just breeze through at the beach, but the complexities and layers make it a worthwhile read.

The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel
I think this is a novel people are either going to love or hate. I loved it. To begin with, it has a unique prose: first person plural. The wives speak collectively as a group… everything is "we." I loved this style. Second of all, if you're looking for an accurate entirely put together history of Los Alamos and the building of the atom bomb, it won't be in this book. This isn't the story the book is seeking to tell, and I don't know why one would imagine so (yet, from some of the Amazon reviews, it seemed people did). What the writer was going for, at least in my perspective, was the idea that if you were the wife of a man sent to Los Alamos, you HAD to rely on the collective we. You didn't know what your husband was doing. Your parents couldn't visit you. You couldn't even tell them where you were. If you had college age or older children, they couldn't visit you, either. If your children graduated high school while you were at Los Alamos and they left, they were NOT allowed to return. Imagine those guidelines. Now imagine trying to do that alone. I would imagine that save for very few women, none of them could. So it became the collective we, the few who were in this together, doing what they could to get through their time at Los Alamos. When I first began reading, I kept waiting for separate voices to break off, as specific characters were mentioned, but in the end, I think it would've done this novel disservice. The wives were a collective force and their story needed to be told collectively.

Kindred (Bluestreak)
I've never read anything by Octavia Butler and that is apparently a great overlook on my part. I found out about this book through an article that talked about the adult books that pair up with great childhood books. This book was paired up with The Devil's Arithmetic, which I just finished teaching. Like Hannah in The Devil's Arithmetic, Dana in Kindred goes back in time to a time period in which her ancestors suffered greatly: the antebellum South. Like Dana, Hannah is sent back for a reason, though their reasons are different. Unlike Hannah, Dana can slip in between the past and the present, making her position even more precarious. Although this is an adult novel, it was written at a level that could easily be read by teenagers, and I would definitely recommend it. This was a beautiful book. As Dana--and sometimes her white husband Kevin--go back in time to the early 1800s, both learn how easy it is to assume the roles that one must accept to survive in the slave-driven South. Dana is beaten, whipped, almost raped, but her love for Kevin and her want to know and understand why she is being sent back to the past keeps her going, beyond the mental and physical scars she's accruing. This was not an easy book to read, but I didn't want it to end.

The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)
I love Shirley Jackson but realized that I've only read her short stories ("The Lottery" and "The Possibility of Evil" being my favorites), so I decided to read this one--knowing that it would probably terrify me. And no, I've never seen the movie and won't. I don't do scary movies. At its surface, Hill House is not that scary, but after putting it down and really thinking it over, it's pretty terrifying. Dr. Montague, a psychiatrist, puts together a team to stay in the haunted Hill House. He chooses Eleanor, who at the age of twelve witnessed stones raining down on her house for three days, stopping only when she was removed from the house. Theodora who seems to have some telekinesis power. And Luke, who stands to inherit Hill House. The story is mostly narrated by Eleanor, who seems to be haunted inwardly by her own fears and her own lies that she tells to the others at Hill House, but outwardly the house is haunted by banging on the walls, messages in chalks, and clothes soaked in blood (or is it red paint?). At no time does a ghost ever appear, but somehow, the story is all the more scary for that. I was left at the end wondering, as Jackson does so well, what was real and what was false in the story. Was Eleanor a reliable narrator? Was Hill House haunted? This is one I can't get out of my head.

Before My Eyes
This book… wow. It was not a happy read, but it was a good read. Told from three different perspectives: Max, the son of a senator running for re-election who is ousted by his friends and spends the summer working at the Snack Shack at the beach, along with Barkley, a brooding boy who was expelled from community college and spends his days not showering and playing video games, and finally, Claire, who takes care of her six-year-old sister Izzy while her mother is recuperating from a massive stroke. No kid in this story has a good home life, least of all Barkley, who is--I am sure not unintentionally--somewhat similar to Adam Lanza. Over the course of a Labor Day weekend, Barkley, Claire and Max's lives all collide, in a violent, brutal manner that slowly built through the course of the book. This was one of those books where dual narrators really, really works. I left it feeling troubled, but I enjoyed the story.

This is by the same author as Before My Eyes. 17 year old Skylar's boyfriend, Jimmy, and her best friend Sean are in jail, following a physical altercation with two boys from El Salvador. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is not the first time the two boys have done something like this, led by Jimmy, called "beaner bashing." This time, though, it just got out of hand--or so the boys tell themselves. Told from several different perspectives: sometimes Skylar, Sean, Jimmy, Skylar's best friend, their parents, the principal, the boys' Hispanic baseball coach, this story really reached down deep. Skylar finds herself questioning what is real, what gives a person value and what side of right to stand on.

What are you reading?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

Happy National Reading month! I only read YA books this week. I have an adult book that I've been trying to finish for days, but I keep falling asleep. Not the book because it's really great, but I'm so exhausted from work and life in general. When is summer?

One Came Home
This is a Newberry Honor book and an Edgar finalist, both categories that I like to read in. Georgie is a thirteen year old girl in the late 1800s in Wisconsin, at a time when the largest recorded nesting of passenger pigeons descended upon her town (history). Georgie's sister Agatha, unhappy with a grandpa who won't allow her to go to college, leaves town with the pigeoners, but a few days later, the sheriff returns with what he claims is her body. Georgie refuses to believe that Agatha has died and sets on an adventure of her own to prove that Agatha is still alive. Georgie's adventures and strong belief in her sister still being alive definitely drew me in--this was a good one.

The Eleventh Plague
I've wanted to read this one for awhile because I always see my students with it. Stephen Quinn is a kid trying to survive in a dystopian world wiped out by war and disease. Stephen and his dad walk the path along with his grandpa, scavenging items to sell, until Stephen and his dad run in to trouble with slavers. Stephen's dad is in a coma and Stephen comes across a group of men claiming to have a safe space called Settler's Landing. Like most communities in dystopian worlds, Settler's Landing seems too good to be true. I breezed through this one. It's an easy, enjoyable read, in parts unsettling and true.

The Tyrant's Daughter
15 year old Laila comes to America from a nameless Middle Eastern country where she thought her family was royalty, but following the murder of her father, she's learning they were more like dictators. As she struggles to fit in with a new life, she struggles to right old wrongs and distance herself from the pull back to her country, where her mother still insists her younger brother take his rightful place as leader.
This book was incredible. Laila's point-of-view was painful at times and the author's style of not naming Laila's home country was excellent, making it a nameless, faceless but all too real war-torn country where human rights are low on the list. This is one that will stick with me for awhile, especially the end.

What are you reading?