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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Landline by Rainbow Rowell


After reading a few very serious books, I was happy that the next title in my stack was on the lighter side. Adult contemporary fiction isn't a genre I usually pick up, but I made an exception for Landline based on the author. I've been a fan of Rainbow Rowell's young adult work since I read Eleanor and Park years ago, so I was very interested to see how I would feel about her fiction for grownups. 

The plot of the novel follows Georgie McCool, a TV writer in her thirties. She is married to her husband Neal and they live in LA with their two young daughters. As the story begins, Georgie and Neal are going through some trouble in their marriage. Georgie has been focusing on her career while Neal, who is a stay at home dad, wishes she would spend more time with the family. When a big opportunity comes up that requires Georgie to work over Christmas, Neal decides to take the kids and visit his family across the country without her. Afraid that her marriage might be over, Georgie tries calling him to check in using her old landline phone and discovers something impossible. Her landline is calling Neal in the past, from just before they got engaged. Speaking to the younger version of her husband stirs up a lot of old memories and feelings in Georgie, and it also presents her with an interesting opportunity: a chance to save her present-day marriage by reaching into the past.

I ended up really enjoying this book, even though it was quite a different pick for me. Rowell's writing was easy read and felt quite relateable. The emotions were genuine and the characters were layered. I found myself torn between Georgie and Neal's issues. Georgie was often careless in the way she treated her family and should have placed more importance on being there for them. However, Neal was struggling with a personal aimlessness that made him needy and resentful, often unfairly so. Neither character was perfect but both were still sympathetic, which brought complexity to the story. I also appreciated that while the topic was a serious one, the tone wasn't too depressing. Georgie's dry sense of humor kept things from being too dark and the supporting characters (especially her mother and sister) added some lightness as well.

So, much like I enjoyed Rainbow Rowell's writing for young adults, I enjoyed her writing here too. I wouldn't say this is one of those novels that will stay with me forever, but it was a fun bit of escapism and the perfect thing to break up the serious stories I have been reading lately. This was a solid read that ended up being a sweet and emotional treat.

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 9/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 6/24

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker


There hasn't been much rhyme or reason to my reading selections lately. I've just been picking up whichever book is next in the stack on my book cart. That was how I ended up reading The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. It's a novel about a pandemic, which I didn't think would appeal to me at this particular point in time, but this ended up being a special one and I'm very glad I happened to pick it up.

The plot of the novels follows several characters living in a small college town in California called Santa Lora. As the story begins a handful of college students fall ill with a mysterious sickness. They fall asleep and can't be woken up. Quickly, the illness begins to spread and more and more people begin to fall asleep. Hospitals are overwhelmed and panic starts to set in. Eventually, the entire city has to be quarantined to try and stop the spread. Doctors are able to determine that the brains of those who are asleep are extraordinarily active. They are dreaming intense dreams, but no one knows what they are dreaming, what is causing it, or how to wake them. 

The chapters alternate between some of the students first exposed to the virus, two children left alone when their father falls asleep, a new parent with an infant, a college professor, and more. Each of them have to try and survive in their new reality, facing all of the fear and uncertainty that now defines their daily lives. 

This novel was beautifully written and highly engaging. Walker's prose is a pleasure to read; even a topic as freshly traumatic as a pandemic felt interesting and mysterious in these pages. She did a nice job of capturing the sadness and complexity of emotions that comes with a crisis like this and creating a world that felt genuinely real. Even though there are a lot of characters that we only get to know for a short space of time in their lives, I found that I was totally invested in their stories and was rooting for everyone to be okay. It's hard to put anything more specific about why I liked this book so much into words, but it was one of those that I didn't want to put down. Even despite my limited reading time, I moved through it pretty quickly.

It's funny how a book that I picked up totally at random ended up becoming one of my favorite reads of the year so far. The emotion, the characters, and the mystery of it all really spoke to me and made for a great reading experience. I really enjoyed The Dreamers and am definitely interested in checking out more by Karen Thompson Walker.

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 8/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 5/24

Monday, May 8, 2023

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez and The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

I’ve been buried in school work these past few months, but I did manage to read a few books. Both were young adult historical fiction, so I decided to talk about them both in the same post.

Historical fiction is a genre that I don’t pick up as often as others, but I always enjoy it whenever I do. Young adult novels in this category tend to hit me hard, with emotional storylines and compelling plots. These two stories were no exception to that.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez centers around two teenagers named Naomi and Wash living in a rural 1930’s Texas oil town called New London. Naomi just moved to the area from Mexico with her younger brother and sister to live with her stepfather. Her relationship with her stepfather is fraught and abusive, but there are better opportunities for her siblings in New London. They are light enough to pass as white and are able to attend a good school there. For their sake, she forces herself to stay. 

When she meets Wash, an African American boy, she is instantly drawn to him. Though she tries to deny her feelings at first, they fall in love with each other and start dating in secret. Although neither one is white and both suffer from the racism of their surroundings, no one believes it’s appropriate for them to be together. They dream of running away to Mexico to start a new life, but their plans are thrown into chaos when the New London School explosion occurs. The disaster sets a chain of events into motion that threaten to destroy everything Naomi and Wash have been working towards.

This novel was beautifully written and completely gut wrenching to read. It touches on many heavy topics including racism, domestic abuse, substance abuse, grief, and more. Trigger warnings are in order for just about every bit of sensitive content out there, but those that are up for taking an emotional journey will be rewarded with a complex story about love persevering through unimaginable difficulties. The chapters are quite short and rotate through the perspectives of several different characters, making this an easy book to pick up and read a little bit at a time. It was very sad, and very good. 

The New London School explosion is a real event that killed over 300 people, most of them children, in 1937. A natural gas leak caused a massive explosion that destroyed the part of the school housing the 5th-11th grades. I had never heard of it before reading this novel, but it was horrific and absolutely devastating to the community. It was a very intense backdrop to Naomi and Wash’s story and Pérez did a nice job of integrating it into the text. 

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 6/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 3/24

The second novel I read was The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. This novel was based on the life of a real Auschwitz survivor, Dita Kraus. Dita was taken from her home in Prague and imprisoned in Auschwitz when she was a young teenager. While there, she and the other children attended a makeshift school run by other captives. The school managed to assemble a secret collection of eight novels to use in their teaching, and Dita was placed in charge of these books. To be found with a book in Auschwitz would mean instant death, so Dita's job was extraordinarily dangerous. Fortunately, Dita is an extraordinary girl, and her bravery and determination to keep her little library safe keeps a spark of hope alive in an unimaginably terrible place. 

This was another beautiful book set in a brutal place. Iturbe is a Spanish writer and this is a translated work. Sometimes the language sounded a bit off in the way that translated works do, but it was still a very touching story and a great reading experience. The terror and sadness of Auschwitz was portrayed clearly, and Dita’s story was told in a way that was inspirational and emotional. The story did what great historical fiction does–make history come alive to readers. It’s incredible that the real-life Dita Kraus was able to keep this secret library safe. I really enjoyed learning about her story through this novel.

So ultimately, even though the pace of my reading has slowed down quite a bit, I have still been able to find some really great reads. Both Out of Darkness and The Librarian of Auschwitz were excellent books. My semester is nearly over now and I’m looking forward to a summer where I can read and write a little more frequently. It’s funny–I’m in a graduate program to learn about the science of reading and how to help struggling readers. I’m literally spending so much time reading about reading that I don’t have time to read. Go figure.  

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 7/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 4/24

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Hands by Torrey Maldonado


Back in May of 2021, I read Tight by Torrey Maldonado. It was selected as a whole class read for the eighth graders at my school. At the time, I didn't personally love it. However, I was hopeful that the kids would be able to relate to it. Now it's two years later and I can confirm, the kids really do enjoy it. They like the short length and the realistic plot. It's a manageable story about kids like themselves. It ended up being a good choice to use in the classroom. When I saw that Maldonado had published a new novel named Hands, I immediately wanted to give it a try to see if this would be another book that the students might get into. 

The plot of this novel revolves around a 12-year-old named Trevor. As the story begins he is reflecting on a traumatic family event. Two years ago, his stepfather was arrested for hitting his mother during an argument. This act of violence violated his parole, sending him to prison for two years. In the time since then, Trevor has been grappling with a lot of complex feelings. He is determined not to let his mother or sisters be hurt again, and has taken up boxing so he will know how to fight back when his stepfather returns. However, he's not a fighter at heart; he's actually a talented artist and a very kind soul. He just doesn't want to feel helpless. With his stepfather's release drawing near, he finds himself caught between the tough persona he's tried to adopt and the person he truly is inside.

Hands was a quick read, but it actually packed a pretty strong emotional punch. I felt for Trevor throughout the novel and I was definitely rooting for him to make good choices. His problems with his stepfather were very heavy, but Maldonado did a nice job of keeping the text appropriate for his audience. This is the kind of story that middle grades readers will love because it deal with a mature topic and isn't too long. With most chapters being just two or three pages, it's very approachable and uses language that kids will understand. I really liked its ultimate messages of being yourself and reaching out for help when you need it too.  

Ultimately, I think I enjoyed Hands a little bit more than Tight. I was able to connect more with the emotional topic and I liked Trevor as a character. I will definitely be recommending this one to students in the future. Torrey Maldonado has really found his niche writing these quick middle grades reads about boys with relatable problems, and I hope he keeps writing because it's tough to find books that boys at this age will stick with.  

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 5/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 2/24

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson


I was in the mood for an escape this month, so for my next read I decided to pick up A Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson. I've had this young adult fantasy sitting on my shelf for ages now, so it was high time to finally give it a try. Ready to read about some magic and some teen angst, I dove in.

The novel is set in the world of Austermeer, a place where magic exists, but is feared by most of the population. Its use is restricted to designated sorcerer families and the rest of the population gives it a wide berth. Magical spells are recorded in grimoires, which are dangerous objects that must be handled with extreme care. Grimoires can spring to life in demon form if proper precautions are not taken. Some are powerful enough to lay waste to entire populations. To keep them contained, they are placed in special libraries and protected by wardens, a class of warrior-librarians that guard the books and monitor their usage carefully. 

The plot of the story follows a teenager named Elisabeth, a warden apprentice working at a library. Her greatest dream is to become a full fledged warden, and she takes her work extremely seriously. Everything she's worked for is thrown into chaos, however, when one of the grimoires in her library breaks out of its restraints and turns into a demon under suspicious circumstances. The demon murders the director of the library, and Elisabeth is accused of being responsible for it. In order to clear her name, she joins forces with a prominent sorcerer named Nathaniel, a partnership that challenges her preconceived notions about the danger of magic and leads her to uncover some deeply dangerous truths about the world she lives in.

Since I'm in the midst of my master's classes, I ended up taking it pretty slow with this book, just reading a chapter here and there over the course of several weeks. That ended up being a nice approach, because it allowed me time to really sink into the story and get lost in the rich, detailed world that Rogerson created. This was a well written novel, full of creative ideas and interesting plot elements. I loved the idea of warrior librarians and books that come to life. The story moved at a good pace and remained interesting throughout. I was engaged and enjoying myself the whole time I was reading, which is nice because I've found my interest in young adult fantasy waning somewhat over the years. I still read a lot of it, but it often doesn't hit me like it used to. This book reminded me of why I used to like it so much.

One element of the book that I thought was pretty unique was Nathaniel's sexuality. It's not a central focus of the story at all, but it does come up a few times that he is bisexual. He has a romance with Elisabeth, and it doesn't bother her at all. I don't often see that kind of diversity in medieval fantasy novels, so I appreciated its inclusion. It's not a big thing, but I thought it was pretty cool. 

Another element I really enjoyed were the overall themes of challenging prejudices and staying loyal to your friends. Throughout the story, Elisabeth has to adjust deeply ingrained beliefs she's held about magic for her whole life. She's been taught to distrust and stay away from sorcerers since she's been old enough to understand the words, but her interactions with Nathaniel and some other characters lead her to reevaluate her feelings and overcome them. She decides who to trust based on their individual actions rather than on broad generalizations. There are clear parallels to real social issues, but the story doesn't feel preachy. I thought Rogerson did a nice job conveying this message naturally through the plot.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed Sorcery of Thorns. I was pleasantly surprised by the creativity of the story and I liked getting lost in the world Rogerson created. I can definitely see myself recommending this to young adult fantasy fans. Another point in this novel's favor is that it is a standalone, a thing that is very rare in this genre. I liked it being a one-and- done situation. As I don't have as much time to read as I used to, my reading time is precious. This novel was worth the time. 

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 4/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 2/24

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Tooth and Claw: The Dinosaur Wars by Deborah Noyes


I got quite lucky this month in that the stars aligned and I was assigned to read a young adult novel for one of my master's classes. I decided to go with nonfiction for a change. I ordered a whole slew of middle grades nonfiction for my school earlier this year and was itching to try out some of the titles. Tooth and Claw: The Dinosaur Wars by Deborah Noyes was one of the books at the top of my list, so that was what I settled on.

The text is set in the second half of the nineteenth century and follows two scientists at the forefront of a new field called paleontology, the study of early life through bones and fossils. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh quickly made names for themselves in this new science as they discovered and classified all sorts of prehistoric animal fossils from all over the United States, including dinosaurs. They became engaged in a fierce rivalry to lay claim to dig sites and bones in an effort to become the foremost experts in their field. Their constant clashes with each other came to be known as the "Dinosaur Wars" and they both engaged in lying, spying, stealing, destruction, and more than a little sloppy work in their pursuit of greatness. The novel follows their careers from beginning to end as they fight to be the ones to find more, to publish more, and to make a greater mark on science.

I thought this novel was great, and very readable for its intended audience of middle school students. The text itself was short, coming in at just 151 pages and the chapters within it were short as well, which kept the action moving at a good pace. Sprinkled throughout were lots of pictures, maps, and sidebars containing additional information to give background knowledge and context to the story. It kept my interest all the way through and Noyes' mildly funny and sarcastic writing style managed to get the historical information across while remaining entertaining. She did a nice job of portraying a time in the past where people were just finding out about the existence of prehistoric animals and copious amounts of fossils were laying right under the surface of the ground, waiting to be uncovered. It was a very well written exploration of a part of history that most people probably don't know much about.

One aspect of the story that I thought was very interesting was the emergence of a clear theme. You don't always see that with a nonfiction text, but in this case, there was a message to take away from the lives of Cope and Marsh. Over time, their rivalry become so fierce that it became more important than the science they were studying. Both became so eager to best the other that they rushed to classify specimens and publish papers. They acquired more fossils than they could study purely in an effort to prevent each other from obtaining them. They even took to destroying dig sites behind themselves as they moved to new areas, to stop each other from finding anything inadvertently left behind. Between these two men, hundreds of prehistoric animals were discovered, but people mostly remember them now for the Dinosaur Wars and how vicious they were to each other. As Noyes points out in the conclusion of the text, had these two worked together, science would have benefited much, much more. These two men caused several inaccuracies to be present in the fossil record, some of which took many years to sort out. Remember the confusion about Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, and whether they were actually the same animal or not? That came about from these two. There is definitely a message here that readers can take away about the importance of teamwork and the damaging effects of ego. Noyes told the story of these men in a way that allowed this underlying idea to come through, which is a nice takeaway for younger readers to add to the historical information they will learn. 

Overall, I thought that Tooth and Claw: The Dinosaur Wars was a worthy read about a very interesting topic. Noyes delivers a lot of historical information in an engaging way and provides plenty of support throughout the text to help middle grades readers place the events she is describing into context. Anyone interested in science or dinosaurs would probably find a lot to like in this novel. I was happy to get a chance to pick it up.

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:
Goodreads Reading Challenge: 3/24
Clear the Shelves 2023: 1/24

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Straight On Till Morning by Liz Braswell


"Never Land isn't just a simple place of childhood dreams--because childhood dreams are actually never simple."

As I've written here on the blog a few times before, I love a good Peter Pan retelling. I always pick them up at the bookstore when I see them, and I've read quite a few over the years. There's just something about the mystery and magic of Neverland that lends itself well to new interpretations. I still have a few sitting on my shelves that I  haven't read yet, and I decided to give one of them a try for my next read. I settled on Straight On Till Morning, one of the Disney Twisted Tales books. This series takes classic Disney movies and reimagines them around one fundamental change. In the case of this story, author Liz Braswell explores what might have happened in Peter Pan if Wendy first traveled to Neverland with Captain Hook.

The story begins in London with an older, somewhat despondent Wendy. It's been four years since she found Peter's shadow in her nursery and she's been waiting for him to come back and claim it ever since. She's an imaginative child, prone to daydreaming and fantasizing about fantastical places, and her preoccupation with Neverland is beginning to worry her parents. They decide to send her to Ireland as a nanny in an effort to bring her back down to earth and develop more ladylike traits in her. Dismayed at the prospect of being sent away, Wendy realizes that Peter probably isn't going to return for his shadow or to save her. Instead, she decides to save herself. She reaches out in her mind to Captain Hook and offers to trade him Peter's shadow for safe passage to Neverland. He is only too happy to oblige.

 Captain Hook manages to sail his Jolly Roger up the Thames and whisk Wendy away, but almost immediately breaks the spirit of their bargain. He plans to keep her on the ship as a mother to his crew, and he seizes the shadow to use as part of a plot to destroy all of Neverland. Realizing that her risky bargain might end up destroying the place that she loves, Wendy manages to escape the ship and reach Neverland's shores, where she almost immediately runs into Tinkerbell. Together, they embark on a dangerous and fantastical journey to find Peter Pan and stop Captain Hook from putting his evil plan into action.   

This was a pretty entertaining read, and I was impressed right away with Liz Braswell's writing style. I thought at first that this novel might be geared more towards a middle grades audience, as its involves Disney content, but I was pleased to find that the text was firmly in the young adult category in terms of the complexity level. Braswell's prose was slightly dark and very beautiful, perfectly suiting the mood of Neverland. There were several truly striking passages, and I found myself marking some quotes to read again later, which is something I rarely feel moved to do. I also very much enjoyed the themes of independence, following your heart, and creating change that ran throughout the story. Braswell did a nice job of taking a classic tale of magic and imagination and tying it to the emotional struggles and problems of our reality. There was a surprising amount of real things in these pages for a story set in a complete fantasy world.

Another element of the story that I really enjoyed was how little Peter Pan was actually in it. He doesn't appear until three quarters of the way through, and even then he isn't a major factor in what happens. This story belongs to Wendy and to Tinkerbell and I thought it was an interesting change to focus on them and their growth as characters. At one point, Wendy even comments to Tinkerbell that they need to stop talking solely about Peter to one another and focus on other things. Wendy gains more confidence and independence as she moves through Neverland, transforming from an awkward and sheltered child to a more confident and independent young woman. By the end of the story she has come to understand more about what she wants her life to be like, and she uses the lessons she learns during her adventure to change her own world. 

Overall, I thought Straight on Till Morning was a thoughtful and worthwhile take on Peter Pan, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to students and older fans of fantasy retellings alike. Peter Pan is one of those classics for children that really hasn't aged well. This version, however, strips away the stereotypes and sexism and leaves us with a Neverland that is both full of magic and surprisingly relevant to modern young people. I enjoyed it quite a bit and I am looking forward to trying some other books in Braswell's Twisted Tales series. 

"Ah, so many of us look for adventure and wind up as slaves, one way or another...When you're young, you think the world will make room for who you are and what you want...And then you find the world of adults is even more limiting than the world of children. With no room for adventure, much less your own thoughts."

2023 Reading Challenges Tally:

  • Goodreads Reading Challenge: 2/24
  • Clear the Shelves 2023: 1/24