Tuesday, May 31, 2016

June Reading List: Adventure Books

As a teacher, I look forward to June each year like a little kid waiting for Christmas.  It's my time to kick back and relax!  Naturally, that means lots of time snuggled up in bed reading (I'm a real wild child).  What theme could be more appropriate for the season of summer blockbusters and fun than adventure books?  This month, I'm going to focus on stories of courageous heroes and daring feats.  I'm ready to balance on the edge of my seat for the next thirty days! 

I'm a little bit behind in my reading since Owen Meany took me a long time to read last month.  I really need to make up for lost time.  Here's the plan:

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle - This is the very first Sherlock Holmes mystery, and it's my "Classic Detective Novel" for my Back to the Classics reading challenge.  I've had to take two months off from this challenge because my nonfiction and Kindle themes didn't go along with any of my selections.  I'm excited to get back to it!

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas - This classic tale of adventure and revenge is my "Adventure Classic" for the Back to the Classics challenge. 

The Revenant by Michael Punke - This novel of the betrayal and revenge of a nineteenth century frontiersman inspired the movie that finally won Leonardo DiCaprio an Academy Award.  I want to check out the book before I see the film.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst - This book is a bit weird - it's interactive.  Made to look like an old book, the story is conveyed through writing in the margins and actual notes slipped in between the pages.  I think the process of reading this will be quite the adventure in and of itself - I had to find a tutorial for the best way to read it online!

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides - This nonfiction book tells the story of the voyage USS Jeanette, a ship on a mission to discover the North Pole.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson - This is officially the third time I've listed this book as something I aim to read.  It's long, so it keeps getting bumped.  Maybe this will be the month I finally get to it! This story of how humans must race to resettle on another planet after a catastrophic event on earth was a Goodreads Choice award nominee last year.

Bonus Round Books:
I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

I'm all ready to have an action-packed June!  Onward!

May 2016 Wrap Up

Well, I've made it to the end of my month of reading on my Kindle.  I haven't touched a physical book to read for pleasure in four whole weeks.  Did I go crazy living without the smell and feel of the pages?  No.  Did I gain a whole new appreciation for reading electronically?  Not really.  I found that there are pluses and minuses to both ways of reading.

Physical books feel more substantial in your hands.  Touching pages is more satisfying than touching a screen.  It's easier to flip back and reread sections when you get confused, and you don't have to worry about needing to charge a battery.  It feels comfortable and familiar.

E-readers save a lot of space on your bookshelf.  The percentage in the corner that tells you how much you've read is oddly satisfying to watch as it goes up.  It's easy to highlight sections and pull them back up later.  You can buy almost any book online and instantly start reading it.

I knew all of these things before I started my month-long experiment.

So, looking back, I can say that I became more used to reading on my Kindle this month. I finally read some of the books that had been languishing on it for ages, and I think I succeeded in making e-reading a more prominent option in my mind.  I just don't have an overwhelming preference on which way I like to read.  After all, books are books.  Any way of reading is a good way!

Books Read

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner
The Death Cure by James Dashner
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Best of the Month: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Snow Child, The Girl Giant
Worst of the Month: The Vanishers, The Death Cure

Books I didn't get to, but am saving for later:
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

New Favorites:
A Prayer for Owen Meany

I definitely didn't get to as many books as I wanted to this month, because Owen Meany was quite long.  However, I still count this month as a success because I discovered a handful of truly excellent books!  This does mean I'm a little bit behind though.  I'm glad summer is here because June is going to be the month of catching up!

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a difficult novel to summarize.  On the surface level, it is a coming of age story about two New Hampshire boys set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  Beneath the surface, it's an exploration of the bonds of friendship, religious faith and miracles.  The plot concerns best friends Johnny Wheelwright and Owen Meany.  The boys face a turning point when Owen, notable for his diminutive stature and unusual voice, accidentally strikes and kills Johnny's mother with a foul ball at a Little League baseball game.  While Johnny accepts this as a tragic accident, Owen considers it to be a preordained act of God; he believes he was acting as God's instrument.  The events that follow are miraculous, fascinating and deeply sad.  I'm not one to heap praise on every novel I read, but I don't feel like I'm exaggerating when I say that this book is completely extraordinary, and unlike anything I've ever read.

Since this was my month of reading on my Kindle, I didn't realize how long this book was when I started working on it.  As the novel gets off to a slow start, this worked against me.  I got frustrated with how slowly the little percentage read number in the corner of my Kindle was moving, and lost a bit of focus.  By the time I got myself on track and accepted that it was going to be a good long while before I was finished, I was behind on my reading challenge.  However, this book was so excellent that all of my slowness was worth it.  I'm four books behind now on my quest to reach 100 novels read this year, but that's nothing compared to what this story made me feel.  It really was that good.

Part of its appeal is the character of Owen.  His unusual height, his high-pitched voice, his sarcastic brand of intelligence, his unshakeable faith in God, and THE FACT THAT ALL OF HIS DIALOGUE IS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS firmly cement him in my mind as one of the best, most likeable characters I have ever read.  He wormed his way into my heart and kept me engaged in the story, even when I was frustrated that it was going slowly.  Owen is the kind of character that I would want to be more like - fully committed to his ideals.  He's the kind of person who absolutely knows himself.  This trait drives the plot forward - he is sure that God is using him for some purpose and is unwavering that that belief.  It's both unusual and refreshing to read about a person like that.  I admire that.  I wish I was as free from self-doubt!

Another aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was the intricacy of the plot.  Every little event in the story has a purpose, and watching all of the threads draw together at the end is an absolute pleasure.  This is the kind of novel that will only get better when you reread it.  I'd venture to say that you would notice something new each time you read - I'm sure I missed a ton of connections this first time through.  After struggling through a few clumsily written books this month (like the rest of the Maze Runner series), it was very refreshing to explore a plot that was so well-done technically.  This is a book for a mature mind, and I appreciated its intricacies.

Prior to reading this, I had heard good reviews, but I was still a little concerned about the religious aspects of the text when I first started reading. I am not remotely religious and am not generally entertained by reading about religion.  Strangely, although this book is about religious faith and miracles on a very deep level, I really didn't mind it - I would even go so far as to say I enjoyed the way religion is used here.  A Prayer for Owen Meany manages to be both religious and non-preachy at the same time.  It deals with faith in a way that doesn't feel condescending to non-believers.  It was completely fine, which feels weird to say.  I didn't expect to feel this way.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving has created a beautiful, honest and well-written novel.  The characters are unforgettable and the plot is well-constructed. This is definitely a new favorite of mine, and one that I hope to reread eventually.  I don't say that too often. This is a truly special book.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Not Dead

I have been reading A Prayer for Owen Meany for an eternity now and I don't feel like I'm progressing any further in the book.

This is a strange sensation for me, because I really like the book so far - the writing is sharp and wise, the characters are well-drawn and I want to see what happens at the end.  I don't know why this is such a SLOW read.

Being able to see the percentage read on my Kindle is actually more alarming than helpful at this point.  An hour of solid reading is yielding me about 5% of the book.  That's depressing for someone who generally whips through books in a few days.

Anyway, I just wanted to let the world know - I'm not dead.  I'm just reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog

I finished reading The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog about five days ago.  I've tried writing this review about it several times since then, and the words won't come.  I don't really know why, because I loved the book.  Sweet, sad and deeply touching, this novel about a young girl afflicted with a condition causing her to grow continually seems to defy simple commentary.

Maybe my difficulty is related to the simplicity of the story.  This novel is about the adolescence of Ruth Brennan, the aforementioned sick child.  Ruth narrates her story herself, recounting all of the difficulties and hardships she faces as she struggles to fit into what she calls a "dollhouse world" that is too small for her.  Interwoven with her story, we also see glimpses of her parents' lives--both in the present as they raise Ruth, and in the past as we learn about the events that brought them together.     

Ruth's ability to tell her own story and that of her parents with such detail and wisdom is never explained, but it seems organic during the reading.  It almost feels like a bit of the supernatural is peeking around the edges of this novel, but the ultimate truth of Ruth's storytelling ability is left up to the reader to decide. The narration, always conveyed in Ruth's voice, flows from one character to another; you discover more and more about each character along the way.  While there aren't a lot of plot twists, the emotional journey of the family is profound.  As the characters move through the years of Ruth's childhood, they learn more about who they are and what they need from each other.  The bonds between husband and wife, and parent and child are explored and tested in an attempt to arrive at what we all want out of life - happiness and contentment.

This is a quiet novel, and an exceptional one. Both Ruth and her parents are drawn with a blend of simplicity and rich emotional detail that make them all very relatable, despite the unique circumstances of their family. The writing itself flows beautifully and makes for a quick and memorable read.  I really enjoyed this one.  It's one of those books that just feels special, somehow. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

 The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits is a novel centered around complex deceptions.  Set in a world where occult phenomena exists, the plot follows a young woman named Julia Severn. Julia, a student at a psychic university, becomes entwined in a mystery after unwittingly entering into a rivalry with her professor and mentor.  Suffering the effects of her mentor's psychic attacks, Julia is approached by a stranger who asks her to use her impressive, if untrained, mental powers to help him find a reclusive French artist who vanished years ago. As odd events and coincidences start stacking up, Julia discovers unexpected truths about her own past and emotions.

The Vanishers is both a supernatural mystery and an examination of how people affect each other.  The bonds between parent and child are given special attention, as well as the bond between the living and the dead.  Unfortunately, for me, the deeper themes this novel was trying to explore were completely lost in Julavits' hazy, confusing writing style.  I was consistently confused while reading this.  I couldn't remember character's names, locations and relationships to each other.  I lost track of where the plot was going frequently.  I wasn't sure what was real and what was illusion.  Was this intentional on the part of the author?  Undoubtedly.  Did I enjoy this technique?  No.

Mixed in with the actual story is a lot of commentary on academia, feminism and art.  While I'm not an expert on any of those topics, I couldn't help but feel that Julavits wasn't being nearly as clever as she thought she was being.  Her writing, especially in relation to these topics seemed overly smug and self-indulgent. She did not create a world in which I felt connected to or engaged with anything that was going on, so her wry sarcasm and witty observations fell flat with me.  

This was not a good choice to read on my Kindle, simply because the Kindle doesn't make it easy to flip back and forth between pages.  I wanted to look back to remind myself about characters and situations frequently, but often didn't bother because I didn't know exactly what chapter/page number I wanted to go to and I didn't feel like flipping back page by page and losing my place.  It would have been easier to read this one in regular book format.

So, obviously, The Vanishers wasn't a favorite of mine.  However, I wouldn't say it was terrible either.  The story was interesting and the writing was sophisticated.  This novel just didn't speak to me.  There wasn't enough concrete explanation of events for me to hang onto.  I can see how other readers might fall in love with this quirky and complex story, but as it turns out, Julavits isn't writing for readers like me.  I didn't click with this one.       

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is about an older, childless couple living in 1920s named Jack and Mabel.  Devastated over the birth of a stillborn baby and their inability to conceive another child, they pull up stakes and move to an isolated farm in Alaska.  They are trying to escape their grief with a fresh start in a wild, untamed place, but they soon find that their sadness follows them to their new home.  In a rare moment of lightheartedness one winter, Jack and Mabel build a girl out of snow.  Their creation is a delicate little thing, with yellow straw hair and berry-stained lips.  Their moment of whimsy brings the couple closer together, but the next morning, they are startled to see their creation is gone.  Instead, they find a real little girl running through the frozen woods in its place.  What follows is a tale of love, loss, family and a little bit of magic.

This book was stunningly, achingly, amazingly beautiful. Ivey's language strikes an fine balance between simplicity and depth, allowing her to examine ideas like familial bonds, grief, and love in a way that feels fundamentally true. The Snow Child is based on a Russian fairy tale, and although this is a modernized version of the story, it still reads like an old storybook.  How much magic the story actually contains is left to the reader to decide, but it certainly feels like anything is possible in Ivey's cold, mysterious world.  I truly felt transported to the Alaskan wilderness while I was reading this. I briefly considered giving everything up a starting a farm somewhere--not seriously, of course, but I wanted a bit of the solitude and wonder that Jack and Mabel found when they struck out on their own.  The writing was that powerful.     

The plot of The Snow Child is quiet, and focuses on relationships.  The bonds between husband and wife, between parent and child, and between friends take center stage.  Jack and Mabel originally head to Alaska to isolate themselves, but fate, or magic, or maybe just human nature won't allow them to do so.  As time passes, they become entangled in the lives of others.  They learn how to depend on friends, to seek help and support, and to open their hearts to others again.  Their story is sad at times and hopeful at others, but always real.  While some events seems fantastic, the emotions they trigger are not.  The strength of this novel is in its heart.

The Snow Child was a Pulitzer nominee, and the recognition is richly deserved. Beautiful and magical, the impression this novel made will stay with me a long time.  I'm sorry that I waited so long to read it, but I am happy that my month of Kindle reading brought it to my attention again.      

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Death Cure by James Dashner

*Please note, there will be spoilers for the series in this review.*

The Death Cure is the final installment of the original Maze Runer series by James Dashner.  It picks up a few weeks after the conclusion of The Scorch Trials. After reaching the safe haven at the end of the Scorch, Thomas has been kept in isolation, locked inside of a padded room.  As the novel begins, the door opens and Thomas is greeted by A.D. Janson, a WICKED official who promises that the trials are all over for Thomas and he is about to explain everything that has been going on behind the scenes.  He says that the time has come for Thomas to work together with WICKED to finish their research and create the cure for the Flare.  Thomas, still suspicious of WICKED's motives, refuses to go along with the program.  Instead of getting his memories restored like most of his companions, he escapes the WICKED headquarters with Newt, Minho, Brenda, and Jorge and begins a quest to figure out what is going on on his own terms and to take WICKED down once and for all. 

I've noticed a pattern in young adult dystopian trilogies.  The authors of these novels build up a great mystery in their first few installments, and then fail to provide an ending that makes sense or is satisfying.  That's definitely the case here.  I'm glad that I read this series on my Kindle, because I enjoyed what I read well enough, but don't see myself reading it again.  It would be a waste of shelf space.  I didn't feel like this book was completely awful, but a couple of factors slightly soured the reading experience for me.

My primary disappointment with this one was in the explanation Dashner provides for the purpose of the Maze and the Scorch Trials.  Within the first few chapters, A.D. Janson tells Thomas this:
"Everything we've done up till now has been calculated for one purpose and one purpose only: to analyze your brain patterns and build a blueprint from them.  The goal is to use this blueprint to develop a cure for the Flare."
Um, what?  WICKED is asserting here that they need to see how a brain that is immune to the Flare handles emotions like fear and betrayal in order to find a cure for the disease.  That's a little too far away from how science works for me, even for a science fiction novel.  This revelation seemed so, well, nonsensical, that I was rolling my eyes throughout the rest of the novel.  It spoiled the suspension of disbelief I had established for the series.  It was a disappointing explanation for what was going on.

Thomas' insistence on remaining in the dark about WICKED's activities was also a letdown.  I have mentioned before that Dashner continually falls back on the lazy plot device of Thomas suddenly "remembering" things to move the action along.  When he is given the opportunity to recover his memories at the beginning of the novel, I was hopeful that this strategy would be abandoned.  No such luck, however.  Thomas refuses to have his memories restored, an odd decision for someone who is desperate to destroy WICKED.  Wouldn't all that inside knowledge from before he entered the Maze be helpful in taking the organization down?  Nope.  Thomas' point of view is this:
"I don't want to know anything.  Not one more thing.  All I care about is what we're going to do from here on out, not stuff about my past, or yours, or WICKED's.  Nothing."
 The stated explanation for this stance is that Thomas doesn't trust WICKED enough to let them do anything further to him.  The real reason for this stance is so that Dashner can keep using Thomas' recovered memories to move the plot.  This insistence on "remembering" as a plot device is a cheap way to tell a story and gets old very quickly.  I was disppointed to see it continue throughout the entire series as the primary way information is conveyed to readers.

Aside from these factors, there were a couple of weird disconnects that I had a hard time getting past.  One of these is the explosion of lethal violence that occurs in the last half of the book.  The Maze Runner series is no stranger to violence, of course, but before the last installment, the violence was generally fistfights and non-lethal clashes.  In the last part of this book however, Thomas and his friends are literally running down hallways killing people.  It was a rather abrupt shift. 

Another example is Thomas' age.  It is mentioned throughout the series that he used to work for WICKED, and not just as a rank-and-file employee.  He was someone important - someone who helped design the trials.  This comes into clearer focus when an older ex-doctor for WICKED snidely says to Thomas that he can't believe he used to work for him. How the heck did Thomas, a 16 year old kid, rise that high in the organization?  Was he that doctor's boss when he was 14?  We're consistently told that Thomas is smart - one of the best and the brightest among the Immunes, but nothing he does in the series ever seems that particularly intelligent (quite the contrary, actually), so I don't understand how he used to be so important to WICKED.  I thought for sure this point would be clarified by the end of the series, but since Thomas never gets his full memories back, we never find out the circumstances of his employment.

The Death Cure's disappointing explanation for the trials and continued poor storytelling makes it the weakest novel in the trilogy.  Despite its flaws, however, it's still an okay ending to the series.  It even has a little twist in the epilogue that adds a bit of complexity for the reader to think about after the story ends.  I wasn't pulled into this one with the same intensity as I was with The Scorch Trials, but it does serve as a decent conclusion to Thomas' story.  As far as popular young adult series go, I would rank this slightly below The Hunger Games and Divergent, but above Percy Jackson

I initially wanted to read this series because my so many of my students loved it.  I'm glad that I can talk with them about it now, and I will definitely recommend it to students looking for an action-packed adventure.  I appreciate that this is a series my male students will enjoy - something that is tough to find for the middle school age group.  While the Maze Runner books lack the crossover appeal for adults that other young adult novels enjoy, it is still a fun ride for the kiddos.    

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner picks up right where the first book in this series, The Maze Runer, leaves off.  The story begins with Thomas and the rest of the surviving Gladers learning that the Maze was only the first in a series of tests designed to weed out the people most capable of rebuilding the world after the Flare, a catastrophic natural disaster.  Their next challenge is crossing the Scorch, in which the boys must travel 100 miles across open desert to reach a mysterious safe haven.  As extra encouragement, each of the boys have been infected with a disease that will eventually turn them insane.  The cure is waiting for them at the end of their trial, if they can make it there alive.  As always, the mysterious organization WICKED is pulling all the strings behind the scenes, and Thomas continues his struggle to remember exactly what is going on and what his role is in these torturous experiments.

Perhaps it's because I just came off of a month of reading only nonfiction, or perhaps it's because my expectations for this series were significantly lowered after reading The Maze Runner, but I actually enjoyed this novel more than its predecessor.  It's still not particularly well-written and it still uses the cheap trick of Thomas suddenly "remembering" things at critical moments, but I found myself getting into the story more this go-around.  I wanted to find out what exactly was going on with WICKED, and what would happen when the Gladers reached the end of the Scorch.  In short, I was sucked right into this action-packed mess.

It helps that there were a few more female characters this time around.  The Maze Runner was hampered by its lack of girls.  It's only major female character, Theresa, was your typical Mary Sue type, and thus, not interesting at all.  The Scorch Trials introduces a few more females into the mix, along with the more-successful-than-the-boys Group B, an entirely female group that also escaped a Maze.  The depiction of these girls is still clumsy and uneven, but the more diverse collection of character types helps round out the story.

The strongest point in The Scorch Trials' favor is the fact that its story is just more interesting than Maze Runner.  I like the idea of the group going on a quest with an unknown goal at the end, and I've always been a sucker for survival stories.  It played better for me than the interminable Maze from book one.  My ultimate rating is still a 2/5, because high literature this is not.  Books like Harry Potter have raised the bar for how good young adult writing can be, and Dashner's prose doesn't really measure up.  The writing is too simple, the characters are one dimensional and the plot turns on lazy devices. It was a decent adventure though, and I enjoyed it more than the first.

Now I'm on to read book three and see how this story ends!