Sunday, June 30, 2019

Breakout by Kate Messner

I picked up Breakout from my school book fair this year. It was the same book fair that The Unteachables came from, now that I think of it. I was drawn initially to the bright cover, and then the summary on the back sealed the deal for me. I'm always on the lookout for books that might be interesting to recommend to my students, and this one seemed like a good candidate for that. Since summer is my time to read for the upcoming school year, I decided to give it a try next.

Breakout follows several young residents of Wolf Creek, a small town in upstate New York, during a few weeks in June. Two inmates have just escaped from a local maximum security prison and a massive manhunt is underway to find them. The breakout has significantly affected the day-to-day routines in the normally sleepy town; parents won't let their kids play outside, police are setting up roadblocks and searching cars, and reporters from national news stations are everywhere. People are scared and anxious for the inmates to be caught and the search is all anyone can talk about.

Kate Messner uses a mixed media format to convey the events of the story. She uses the letters, poetry, audio transcripts, text messages, and illustrations from a group of students who are assigned to create pieces of writing for a school time capsule project. Their writing both narrates the story of the manhunt and explores their feelings about all the changes taking place in their community because of it. This is a smart strategy that keeps the action of the story moving quickly, and allows the reader to get a sense of multiple perspectives.

The main contributor to the time capsule is a seventh grader named Nora, daughter of the prison superintendent and aspiring reporter. She, together with her best friend Lizzie, create several newspaper-style articles about the manhunt. Another big contributor is Elidee, a new student to the school and one of only two African American students that attend there. She moved to the area because her brother is incarcerated in the prison and her mother wanted to be nearby. She is a nice kid that tries not to make waves, but she desperately misses her old home in New York City and is having trouble adjusting to all the changes in her life. She has to deal with a lot of racism in Wolf Creek, so she has a different view than Nora, Lizzie, and most of the other kids on the police and prisons in general. As she becomes closer with Nora and Lizzie, her experiences help to broaden their worldviews.

The pieces from these characters all combine together to tell a powerful story about much more than just a manhunt. Breakout is about criminal justice, racism, friendship, and how fear can bring out both the best and the worst in a community.

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much when I picked up this book. I figured it would be a generally okay middle grades novel. I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. The story was highly engaging and the messages it contained were thoughtful and social justice-minded in a way that was appropriate for a younger audience. This is the kind of book that encourages its readers to think about some difficult topics without being preachy or overly simplistic. Throughout the text, the characters learn that there are multiple aspects to all people, and that their small, welcoming town isn't quite as inviting as they think. It is very much a coming of age story, with its young characters becoming more aware of the world that surrounds them and their roles within it.

Simply put, Breakout is an impressive novel. Messner did a wonderful job of conveying some very worthy themes within the framework of an extremely engaging story. I liked it so much that I am tempted to keep it for myself, but I think that it is ultimately more important for my future students to read it. My copy will be headed to my classroom library so I can get it into their hands. This was a random buy for me, but it ended up being a lucky pick.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 20/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 38

Saturday, June 29, 2019

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

One of the tougher reading prompts in the Back to the Classics Challenge this year is to read a classic comic novel. I don't mean to say that there aren't a lot of classic comic novels in the world, because there definitely are. What I mean is that comedy is not a genre I normally gravitate towards, and as I'm trying to combine Back to the Classics with my Classics Club reads, I didn't have many novels on it that would work for that category. I ended up going with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I've wanted to read this book for a while, since I've seen a lot of different media adaptations of it over the years, and I'm always interested in reading more Mark Twain. However, I was still a little skeptical about how much I would actually enjoy it. For some reason, I thought it might be boring. Summer is a good time to plow through classics though, so I decided to give it a chance.

The story begins with an unnamed narrator describing a visit he took once to Warwick Castle. While on a guided tour through the building, he strikes up a conversation with a fellow tourist named Hank Morgan. The narrator is immediately struck with how much Hank seems to know about the Middle Ages; he speaks of historical events and places as if he experienced them firsthand. Intrigued, he continues the discussion and gets Hank to agree to meet up for a drink with him at the inn where they are both staying later that night.

That evening, their discussion continues over their drinks. Hank begins to share a remarkable story about his background. He explains that he is from Hartford, Connecticut and used to work there as the head superintendent at an arms manufacturing facility. One day, he got into a fight with one of his workers, which culminated in him getting whacked in the head with a crowbar and passing out. When he regained consciousness, he was astonished to discover that he had somehow gone back in time to King Arthur's Camelot. At his point, Hank becomes too drunk and sleepy to continue telling the tale, but he helpfully produces a manuscript of his story and allows the narrator to read it. This manuscript forms the bulk of the rest of the novel.

Before Hank can get his bearings in Camelot, he is captured by the famous knight Sir Kay and hauled in front of the royal court both for their entertainment and so they can decide his fate. King Arthur promptly decides that he is to be hanged and he is taken to the dungeons. Things seem bleak, but Hank is a clever man, and he uses a combination of empty threats and modern knowledge to get himself out of his predicament (he also gets people to believe that he is a very powerful wizard, much to Merlin's chagrin). From that point on, he decides to make the best of his unusual situation and become a rich and successful man using all he knows about future ideas and technology. Before long, he is an adviser to King Arthur, has established a series of factories making everything from guns to telephones, and is dreaming of destroying the monarchy and turning medieval England into a democratic republic.

Interspersed within the narrative of how Hank transforms England are several chapters describing different adventures he takes part in along the way. Some of the stories are funny, with Hank getting into all kinds of scrapes while learning how to live in the past. Others are tragic, showing the brutality that often characterized life in the Middle Ages, especially for the poor. Hank does his best to advocate for the people, promoting ideas like universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery, which meet with limited success. He lives this way for years, and eventually settles down with a wife and child.

The good times, however. don't last.  A conflict between King Arthur and Sir Lancelot leads to a war that rips the kingdom apart and begins to set people against all the advancements that Hank put into place. He hatches a plan to eliminate his enemies, but the consequences of his actions set into motion a chain of events that lead to the end of his time in Camelot.

So, my concern before going into this novel was that it might be boring. It wasn't, for the most part. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, is still pretty funny. A lot of Mark Twain's jokes still made me laugh and some of the scenes he created blending modern elements with the Middle Ages were fantastic. A group of knights in full armor racing down the road on bicycles and Hank winning a jousting tournament using a lasso were treats to visualize, and genuinely hilarious besides. Hank's voice as a narrator is clever and sarcastic, and his observations on the absurdities of medieval life made for a pretty enjoyable reading experience. The character of Merlin also deserves a mention here because his encounters with Hank were my favorite parts of the book. Mark Twain's Merlin is a grouchy old fraud, and he is intensely jealous of Hank's rising status in Camelot. They clash continually, usually with very funny results.

What I didn't like so much about the novel was the structure. It felt very episodic, with Hank wandering from one encounter to the next without much tying them together. The overall goals he has to reform the kingdom take place largely off-page, with readers getting brief summaries on their progress from time to time, in between other scrapes Hank gets himself into. It honestly felt very similar to Don Quixote, with each chapter being its own little adventure. I would have preferred a stronger overall story; there were definitely times when I struggled to stay engaged throughout the choppy nature of it.

Also, the abrupt tone shift at the end of the novel was strange. The plot goes from being lighthearted and funny to shockingly serious in the final chapters and I wasn't sure what to make of it. It might have been reflective of Mark Twain's conflicting views on modern versus medieval life; throughout the novel, he showed positive and negative views on both. It could have also been a comment on the futility of forcing advancement on a culture that isn't ready for it. I'm not sure what the ultimate message was meant to be, but it sure was jarring and weird. It almost felt sloppy, but I'm not enough of a literary scholar to make that bold of a claim with a straight face. Twain must have intended something that I didn't pick up on.

This wasn't a novel that I either loved or hated. It was mildly entertaining and I'm glad I finally took the time to explore it, but I don't see myself ever reading it again. This is my third Mark Twain novel. I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn years ago, and I preferred both of them over this one. However, I still think that was an odd, funny little story that was worth the read. I'm glad that the Back to the Classics Challenge pushed me to try it.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#84 on my list): 49/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Classic Comic Novel) 9/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 37

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Unteachables by Gordon Korman

I picked up The Unteachables at my school's book fair a few months ago. I always end up enjoying that event more than any of my students, but I digress. The book happened to catch my eye since I was bringing a very challenging group of kids down to the media center at the time. A whole novel about a teacher trying to reform a tough group of kids was something I could connect to on a spiritual level at that moment, so I picked it up. Since all of July is going to be taken up with my Book Junkie Trials, I decided to finally give this shorter, middle grades novel a try during the last few days of June.

The plot of the novel centers around the "unteachables," a group of seven students placed into a self-contained 8th grade class, and their beleaguered teacher, Mr. Kermit. The students, as their nickname suggests, are very difficult to manage. They don't complete their schoolwork, earn abysmal grades, and have terrible behavior. Teaching this crew is the toughest gig in the school; they are the kids that no one else wants to deal with.

As the novel begins, Mr. Kermit is assigned to teach their class as a punishment. The superintendent of the school district is nursing a grudge against him and is trying to force him to resign his post before he is eligible for early retirement next year. He believes that forcing him to teach a difficult class might cause him to quit. Mr. Kermit, however, is determined to make it to the end of the year. He's completely lost his zest for teaching though, so he makes it through each day with the unteachables by assigning them worksheets while he sits at his desk doing crossword puzzles. 

Before too long, a young, idealistic teacher in the classroom next door takes an interest in Mr. Kermit and his unruly class. Her encouragement motivates him to put in a bit more effort, and his kids start to show some improvements. Their progress reawakens Mr. Kermit's original love of teaching, but the superintendent won't give up the idea of forcing him out of the school. When he comes up with a plan to use student test scores to fire him, the unteachables must pull together to defy expectations and save their teacher's job.

This was a cute, quick read with a lot of heart. The characters were charming and there were a lot of little moments between Mr. Kermit and his students that made me smile. However, Gordon Korman got so many details about how schools work wrong that I had trouble fully enjoying it. Obviously, this novel is written for a middle grades audience, and most kids that age won't be able to see the problems with it. For me though, an actual middle school teacher, I couldn't resist making several annotations as I read about everything that didn't make sense.

It would take too long (and be very silly) to go through every detail I took issue with, so I will limit myself to mentioning the biggest one I noticed: the use of a self-contained class as the main setting. Self-contained classrooms are serious business in schools. Students have the right to learn in the least restrictive environment possible. This is a law. For a student to be placed in a self-contained situation means that they have very severe behavioral/mental health issues. Lots of paperwork and monitoring is involved in self-contained placement decisions with input from doctors, counselors, and parents heavily considered. Teachers of self-contained classrooms need special certifications and training.

In the world of The Unteachables, however, self-contained classrooms are a holding tank for kids that misbehave or earn poor grades. Here's a quick rundown of the unteachables:

1. Kiana: A new student to the school that is given an incorrect schedule and attends the class for several months, despite not being on the roster. She earns excellent grades and displays good behavior. Still, no one questions her placement in the class and Mr. Kermit doesn't realizes she isn't on his roll for a very long time.

2. Parker: A nice kid with very obvious dyslexia. This goes completely undiagnosed for most of the novel, despite him openly being unable to decode words in front of Mr. Kermit.

3. Aldo: A student with anger issues. He is easily frustrated and punches inanimate objects when mad.

4. Barnstorm: A former football player sidelined from the team due to an injury. He got away with slacking off academically while on the team. Once he couldn't play anymore, teachers realized he never really did any schoolwork, gave him low grades, and chucked him into the self-contained class.

5. Elaine: A big, strong girl that everyone is afraid of. She's quiet and does well on her schoolwork.

6. Rahim: A boy that sleeps in class constantly. No one is concerned about this for most of the novel.

7. Mateo: A boy obsessed with Star Trek and other nerdy media. His fixation resembles mild autism, although his exact diagnosis is never mentioned.

None of these kids qualify for self-contained placement. Even if they did, Mr. Kermit would not be allowed to teach them without the correct certification. Teachers certainly can not be given an assignment like that as a punishment, and the fact that these kids are even in this class are grounds for a lawsuit. Students like the unteachables are actually just the type of kids that teachers have filling their mainstream classrooms every single day, twenty five at a time, seven or eight periods a day. I had around 75 "unteachables" this past school year alone.

I know why Korman structured the story this way. He needed to create a situation where one teacher dealt with a small amount of kids all day long. To have regular class sizes full of kids rotating on a normal schedule would have made this narrative impossible. There would be too many kids to keep track of, and Mr. Kermit could never have become close enough with all of them. Still, this was such an incorrect depiction of a self-contained classroom that it affected my enjoyment while reading.

Despite all of the inaccuracies, however, there were still a lot of great moments in the novel. While Korman got a lot wrong with the details of the school setting, he got a lot of the emotions that go on in teaching right. Mr. Kermit's initial burnout is all too common, and his negative feelings about teaching were things I have felt myself from time to time. There is one moment in the novel where his entire class doesn't show up one morning, and his brief fantasy about all of his students being absent on the same day is exactly something I have thought before on days when my students are slow to filter into the room. When he begins to turn things around, his protective feelings for his students and his pride in their work are also things I have felt. I actually got a little misty-eyed during some of the nicer parts of the novel, and that's not something I do very often while reading.

So ultimately, my feelings on The Unteachables were mixed. I know too much about how schools work to fully enjoy it, but at the same time, the story was sweet enough to make me smile. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to students though, and I will be sticking my copy in my classroom library for sure. Adult readers won't get much out of it, but this is a fast and funny little read for the middle grades crowd.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 19/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 36

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

I added Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to my Classics Club list while I was researching children's books to include. I'd heard of the story before, but didn't know anything about it beyond the fact that it was a Newberry Award winner. I didn't own a copy of it at the time, but I recently picked one up at a Scholastic warehouse sale while I was shopping for my classroom library. As it's a fairly short read, and I'm gearing up for the Book Junkie Trials in July, I decided that it would be a good one to cross off my list now, before that challenge takes over my TBR lists.

The plot follows Cassie Logan, a young African American girl growing up in Mississippi during the Great Depression. She lives on her family's farm with her grandmother, her parents, and her three brothers, Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man. Her family has owned the land they live on for generations, and work tirelessly to pay the mortgage and hang onto it. In addition to farming cotton, Cassie's mother teaches at the local school and her father works building railroad tracks, a job that keeps him away from their home for months at a time. It isn't easy, but through their hard work and dedication, the Logan family makes enough to scrape by and keep their little farm going.

When the story begins, Cassie is entering the fourth grade and is just beginning to take notice of the racial tensions that exist in her neighborhood. As a bold and independent child, she struggles to keep calm when facing discrimination and bullying at her school. She is a fighter, but as her parents explain, it is dangerous for her to give vent to her feelings against any white children. As Cassie struggles with her peers, bigger problems are emerging among the adults in her town. A group of white men have been terrorizing any black people in the neighborhood that they perceive to be "acting above their station." One night, their violence culminates in a murder and Cassie's parents step in to try to help their neighbor receive some justice. Their involvement in the situation has consequences, however, and soon, their land and their lives are facing serious danger. Throughout it all, Cassie watches and learns difficult truths about the racism present in her world and the importance of persisting in the fight for what's right.

I have a penchant for classic children's novels, so it's not surprising that I liked Roll of Thunder. What was surprising, however, was how perfect this story was. The characters were lovingly developed, the writing was vivid, and most importantly, the story tells the truth. Taylor doesn't sugarcoat the violence or the language that African Americans of this era faced just because she is writing for children, and this decision brings the story to life. It feels wholesome and loving in some parts, and horrifying and chilling in others. All of it feels genuine. This is a popular novel to read in schools, and even though the days of reading whole-class novels are starting to (sadly) fade away, I believe that this tradition should continue on. As many children as possible should get to experience this book. It's that good.

A big part of what makes the novel so brilliant is the voice of the narrator. At the start of the story, Cassie is unused to dealing with direct instances of racism. She lives in a rural area and attends a segregated school, so her involvement with white people has been limited. As her interactions with white people increase throughout the novel, we get to learn about the injustices she must deal with through her eyes. Since she is young, she doesn't understand everything she sees and asks a lot of questions, making her the perfect character to convey these tough concepts to young people. Aside from her innocence, her tough little personality makes her lovable in her own right. She is stubborn and not afraid to stand up for herself and her family, which makes her quite entertaining to read and easy to root for.

The other part of why I loved this novel so much was Taylor's writing style. Her words were the perfect combination of simple and beautiful. Things like the importance of the Logan family land and the rustic beauty of their farm came across clearly. Similarly, the love Cassie felt for her parents and brothers shone out from the page. The text alternated between being suspenseful and gentle as appropriate and made for a smooth, easy read. Reading this, I felt like I was reading something important, necessary, and special.

I suppose the greatest endorsement I can give is that as soon as I finished this novel, I got on Amazon and ordered the rest of the books in the series. Roll of Thunder is Taylor's fourth book featuring the Logan family. There are a total of eight books in the series, although they don't need to be read in order. This story really wormed its way into my heart and I'm looking forward to experiencing more stories featuring these characters. This one is a new favorite for me.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#30 on my list): 48/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 35

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

**This review will contain spoilers for the first two books in this series, Graceling and Fire**

After enjoying Fire last week, I decided to move on to the last book in the Graceling Realm series right away. I was really in the mood for some young adult fantasy and I didn't want to wait too long to finish the set, since I tend to start forgetting details about the books I read pretty fast. Bitterblue is classified as a companion novel set in the same universe as Graceling and Fire. However, unlike Fire, which had its own unique locations and characters, this novel shares quite a bit with Graceling. That being said, there will be some unavoidable spoilers in this review for Graceling and Fire, so anyone interesting in starting this series probably shouldn't read any further. If you will be stopping here, just know that if you are a young adult fantasy fan, I do highly recommend this series. Bitterblue ended up being my favorite out of the three books.

The plot of this novel follows Bitterblue, daughter of the evil King Leck that Katsa and Po rescue in Graceling. At the end of that novel, Bitterblue, who was only a child at the time, became the queen of Monsea after her father was defeated. This novel picks up several years later. Bitterblue is now a young adult, and is struggling to lead her kingdom past the trauma Leck inflicted on the population during his thirty five year reign. Leck used his mind control grace to inflict horrors on the people of his kindgom, and the nature of his abilities have left people confused about the truth of things and ashamed of the bad times that they do remember.

Bitterblue has a team of four elderly advisers who try and help her move her kingdom forward. They advocate hard for "forward thinking" policies, meaning that they want to try and legislate a fresh start for Monsea. All crimes committed under the reign of Leck have been forgiven, and efforts to investigate into past matters are strongly discouraged. Bitterblue goes along with this at first, but she is continually troubled by using this strategy. She senses that it is not working; strange events are occurring in her kingdom, people are behaving in illogical ways, and she gets the distinct sense that her advisers are hiding things from her.

Out of frustration, Bitterblue starts disguising herself and wandering the streets of Monsea at night. She hopes to get a true view of how things are in her kingdom, and what she finds only raises more questions. It is clear that some people are struggling mentally, some are desperate to remember and record the events of the past, and some are just as desperate to stop people from remembering anything at all. On these nightly wanderings, she meets Sapphire and Teddy, two young men who work to steal back items stolen during Leck's reign and return them to their rightful owners. As she begins to build a relationship with them, she is drawn deeper into the mysterious problems plaguing her kingdom. 

As time moves on, and as Bitterblue sees more and more events that confuse and sadden her, it is clear that there is a secret at the heart of her kingdom that she needs to uncover in order to help her people heal. Her quest to do so, however, will mean she has to dig deep into Leck's past, a painful and dangerous prospect. Leck was an unfathomably cruel man, and trying to uncover his motivations and his methods dredge up memories that many would prefer to stay buried. As she pushes deeper into her investigation, she must decode ciphers, explore hidden passages, and decide who to trust so that she can lead her subjects through the horrors of their past and into a kinder, more peaceful future.

I mentioned in my Fire review that I really liked that novel, but was embarrassed to have liked it so much because it was pretty cringey in parts. I am happy to say that Bitterblue was not as bad in this regard! I fell completely in love with it by the ending. In this novel, Kristin Cashore pulled back a bit on the romantic elements (although they were still present) and went all in on the mystery elements, and the story was much improved for it. The plot was extremely well-crafted. Bitterblue is a detective in this novel, and the secrets she uncovers are shocking and intensely engaging. Her growth throughout the investigation is well-written, and it was a joy to watch her transform from a peevish, inexperienced ruler into a mature, confident leader. She is wonderfully three-dimensional, with a past that haunts her and leads to some very believable internal conflicts. I also enjoyed the fact that she didn't have any unnatural powers, like Katsa and Fire before her. She is a normal, albeit quite clever, protagonist, and I liked seeing her navigate the story as a mere mortal. The only thing I didn't like about her character was her trademark exclamation. She says "Oh balls!" a whole lot, and I hated it. That's a small annoyance to put up with though, and it didn't take too much away from my enjoyment of the story.

I haven't written about Leck much in my previous reviews, even though he is an important force in all three novels. I couldn't say much about him earlier without revealing spoilers. He is, however, one of the most chilling literary villains I have ever read. His ability to control the minds and actions of others is genuinely scary, and what he chooses to do with those powers is incredibly disturbing. His actions are so harmful that they continue to damage his subjects long after his death. He isn't even alive for the entirety of Bitterblue, but he is still very present in the story. In fact, a unique aspect of the novel is the fact that the antagonists that are actually alive in this narrative are all acting in response to things Leck has done, and when their secrets are uncovered, what is left is just sadness. This is a novel with people who behave wrongly, but their reasons for doing so are understandable and spring from an unthinkable inner pain. Bitterblue works hard to solve a mystery that is necessary to uncover for the future of her kingdom, but heartbreaking in what it reveals. The true villain is already vanquished as the novel begins. Bitterblue's job is to be strong enough to reform a kingdom out of the broken pieces he left behind.

Similar to the other books in the series, Cashore doesn't shy away from including realistic characters and topics in her story. She includes characters of different backgrounds and sexualities and touches on topics ranging from gay marriage to birth control to consent. Again, some very serious plot elements are included, involving sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide. I always hesitate when an author incorporates these kinds of issues into their stories, as it's important to write them respectfully and sensitively. I believe that Cashore has done that here, and her writing is appropriate and realistic to her universe.   

The entire Graceling series, and Bitterblue in particular, ended up being a wonderful surprise to me. I expected that I would like these books, but I didn't anticipate the level of storytelling I found here. Cashore created an intricate world full of interesting characters that feel real, and unlike many other series, the stories here get better as they go on. They definitely have their awkward, cringe-inducing moments, but there is a sneaky maturity to the work as well that took me by surprise. I started my reading thinking that I would probably end up donating these books to my classroom library once I was finished, but I liked Bitterblue enough to want to hang onto them. In a world that is full of young adult fantasy series, this one really stands out. It's a new favorite for me.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 18/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 34

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Fire by Kristin Cashore

After finishing Don Quixote, I was ready to indulge in a lighter read. I have been trying to finish reading series in a timely fashion lately, so I decided to continue on with the Graceling books and give Fire a shot. I've heard a few reviews say that this novel was their favorite out of the series, so I went into my reading with high hopes.

Fire is a companion novel to Graceling. It's set in the same universe, but contains most of its own characters, locations, and storyline. The graces from the first novel don't exist here. Instead, this part of the realm contains creatures called monsters. Monsters are dangerous versions of humans and animals. Distinguished by their brilliantly colored hair, feathers, or fur, monsters are irresistibly beautiful to normal people. They have the ability to enter into the minds of others, read their thoughts, and make them do things. Monster animals use this ability to attack their prey, including humans, mercilessly. Monster humans can use these abilities in similar ways, although the way they choose to exercise their powers depends more on their personality and motivations. Monsters are a blight on the land. The animals are hunted and the people are regarded with deep suspicion. The issues with monsters in the kingdom form an extra layer of complication on top of the deep political issues currently dividing the realm.

The plot of the novel follows a young woman named Fire. She lives in a part of her kingdom called the Dells, in relative isolation with a few trusted advisers and friends. She is tangentially related to King Nash, the ruling monarch in the area. Her father, a monster, was the previous king's closest adviser. He used his monster abilities for evil; he lived selfishly and helped lead the kingdom to near-ruin. Both he and the king he advised are dead now, but people haven't forgotten his cruelty and the effects of his destructive decisions still linger across the land. Fire, who is a monster as well, tries to lay pretty low as a result of this. She isn't at all like her father; on the contrary, she is extremely kind and compassionate, but she lives under his dark shadow in the minds of the people.

She has to abandon her quiet life, however, when some mysterious events start happening in the forest where she lives. Strangers with dubious intentions and oddly empty minds begin appearing, and a political scheme from a neighboring kingdom is suspected to be behind it. King Nash supposes these strangers are spies, and requests Fire's services at the castle to get to the bottom of it. As a monster, Fire has the ability to read minds and influence people, but she is hesitant to use her powers, lest she becomes like her father. She decides to travel to the castle anyway and see if she can help without compromising her principles.

Her arrival at the castle is fraught with complications. Her monster blood drives people with weaker minds insane with lust or anger at the sight of her, so she must constantly be alert to danger. Aside from that, the relationships she begins to develop with the royal family, and especially with the king's brother, Brigan, make her want to forget about her previous resolutions not to use her power and throw herself into their politics wholeheartedly. Eventually, she is drawn deeply into the affairs of the royal court and must decide how far she is willing to go to undo the destruction her father wrought before she was born.

I actually really liked Fire, but I kind of feel ashamed that I did. It's a ridiculous novel with some really questionable plot elements, and I could never recommend to anyone other than a dedicated young adult fantasy fan with a straight face. Even so, it had me after the first couple of chapters. I liked the idea of the monsters, I liked the unlikely plot twists, and I liked the romance. I was genuinely invested in the story and was anxious to see how it would end. It's tough to explain why, because there were parts of it that I know were objectionable, or weird, or self-indulgent. However, buried underneath all the menstruation updates and sexual harassment was a compelling story. I was into it.

One of the strongest points in the novel for me was characterization. The main characters are very well developed, with conflicting wants and needs and clear growth arcs throughout the story. Fire is a particularly good example of this, as she struggles mightily with her feelings for her father and defining her morals. She is tormented by the love and hatred she still feels for him, and coming to terms with these emotions plays into her willingness to start exercising her monster abilities. As Fire moves through the plot, she comes to see how people have the capacity for both good and evil; it's possible to be both things at the same time. It's hardly a startling revelation, but it is a more nuanced view than a lot of young adult fantasy adopts.

The pacing in this novel was also excellent. Cashore did a nice job revealing information strategically. There were a lot of pretty juicy plot twists that made sense and felt like they belonged in the story, while still being surprising. The series of events was very well-crafted and engaging. Some stories feel like they meander from point to point, but that wasn't the case here. Fire's plot was deliberate and focused. I finished the whole novel in a few days, and it's nearly 500 pages long.

Part of what kept things so interesting was the inclusion of realistic and serious topics. Cashore is writing for a young adult audience, and her story is set in a fantasy realm, but she certainly doesn't shy away from modern (and some might say mature) ideas. I was surprised by a lot of the elements she chose to include. Fire has sexual relationships with both men and women. Birth control, menstruation, and abortion are frankly discussed. Pregnancy, being a single parent, and sexual assault feature prominently in the plot. There is even a sexual relationship between a fifteen year old girl and a twenty one year old man, which Fire roundly condemns. Ideas like this helped keep the story relatable. It was an interesting combination of brutal reality and fantasy.

So clearly, I felt like this novel had a lot of strengths, but my embarrassment at liking it so much springs from the handful of moments that were really weird or objectionable. One of the more innocuous examples of this is Fire's monthly cycle. One of the characteristics of monster animals is that they prefer to prey on other monsters. The smell of monster blood attracts them, so Fire's period is actually a somewhat relevant plot point in the story. When she is on her cycle, all of the monster animals around, including birds, bugs, and larger predators, attack her relentlessly. She has to travel with extra guards at this time and is always embarrassed by it. Maybe that's a realistic element to include in this universe, but what Cashore does in addition to this is lets the reader know every single time Fire's period is about to start, even if it's not going to affect the story at that particular month. It was weird. I didn't feel like I needed to know about her menstruation all the time.

One example of a more objectionable element was the frequent inclusion of sexual assault and rape. As a monster, Fire is irresistible to weaker men and women. Throughout the story she is groped, kissed, hit, and verbally harassed all the time, and it felt inappropriate. There was another instance in the story in which the previous king of the Dells sent a man to rape the wife of one of his enemies, which the man did successfully. This rape produced a much-loved child for this family, which was a really mixed message to put in a young adult book. Add to this the sexual relationship between a fifteen year old girl and a twenty one year old man I mentioned earlier, and it was too much. Sexual assault is too serious and sad for this.

There were a couple of other weird elements present throughout the story that took away from all the things Cashore did really well, but it wasn't enough to take away my overall enjoyment of the book. It was meatier than Graceling, and I did enjoy it a bit more than that novel. I appreciated the nuanced themes, complex story, and interesting ideas, and I look forward to finishing the series with Bitterblue next. Fire was most definitely a guilty pleasure read for me, but hey, summer is made for easy reads, right? 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 17/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 33

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

When people talk about the greatest books ever written, Don Quixote is almost always mentioned. Published in Spain in 1605, this story of the chivalrous knight Don Quixote of La Mancha and his faithful squire Sancho Panza is regarded by many as the foundation of the modern novel. In its pages, Miguel de Cervantes weaves a memorable and comic tale that uses a wide variety of literary techniques, including metafiction, poetry, allusions, and realism. Its influence in the literary world is profound, and despite its daunting length (940 pages of tiny print in my version), I've always been interested in reading it. It's one of those books, you know? A bucket list-type of book for classics lovers.

I always struggle with how to write about books like this. The greatness of Don Quixote is universally recognized, so it feels foolish to offer my opinions on it, especially if any of them happen to be negative. After all, I read the classics just for the joy of it. I'm not a literary scholar, so my analysis would be suspect at best. So, rather than try to give this novel a "review," I'm going to record some of my thoughts and feelings on it in this space. I recognize that this work is a masterpiece. My goal here is to reflect on my personal reading experience.

The plot of the novel follows Don Quixote, a Spanish man driven crazy by his love of reading tales of knights and chivalry. He's read so many of these stories that he comes to believe he is a knight himself and that he is deeply in love with the beautiful Princess Dulcinea del Toboso. He decides to set off on a quest to seek his own adventures and become famous throughout the world. He convinces Sancho Panza, a loyal and dim neighbor of his, to take on the role of his squire, and the pair begin to wander the Spanish countryside, helping those in need, battling monsters, and defeating evildoers.

Of course, Don Quixote isn't really a knight, Dulcinea del Toboso doesn't really exist, and he doesn't really battle monsters or defeat evildoers. In reality, his chivalrous acts are comedic misadventures that entertain or confuse all the people around him. His first and most famous quest is when he fights the "giants" that are actually windmills, but he gets into many other situations like this throughout the text. He frees a group of convicted criminals under the assumption that they are being unjustly detained. He assaults a barber and wears his shaving basin on his head for quite some time, believing it to be a famous helmet. He tries to halt an invading army that is actually a flock of sheep. As he moves from one "adventure" to another, he relentlessly gets himself injured through falls, fights, and the tricks other people play on him. Sancho remains by his side through it all providing comic relief, too simple to understand if what Don Quixote says is real or if it is all a delusion.

The novel is split into two parts, and both parts stick to the same basic structure of following Don Quixote and Sancho Panza around as they get into one scrape after another. They move through different locations and interact with different people, but the essence of what they are doing stays constant. The one big difference between the two parts is that Don Quixote's adventures from part one are actually published in the universe of the novel by the time part two starts. This means that most of the other characters he comes across in part two have actually read what happened to him in part one. In this way, he does achieve the fame that he set out to achieve, but it's not fame he earned through noble deeds, it's fame he earned through people laughing at his mental instability.

This knowledge means that people are able to craft elaborate scenarios to trick him for their own entertainment. So in part two, instead of running across commonplace events and interpreting them through the lens of his "knighthood," random noblemen prank him mercilessly. They make him believe he took a trip on a flying wooden horse. They make him believe a crowd of female servants sprouted beards. They make him believe he is speaking to a bronze sculpture of a head. Perhaps most disturbing of all, they make him believe that Dulcinea has become enchanted and the only way to break the spell on her is for Sancho is whip himself 3,300 times. These tricks go on for quite some time until one of Don Quixote's neighbors, out of concern for his health, tricks him into renouncing his knighthood and coming home, where his adventures finally come to an end.

As this novel is over 900 pages, this was a long reading experience for me. By the end of the story, I felt like I'd been out on an adventure myself - and much like Don Quixote's journey, it had its ups and downs. One aspect of the story I really liked were the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves. Cervantes did an excellent job making them pretty lovable. Don Quixote's unwavering belief in the rules of chivalry and the high standards to which he held himself were charming and the idea of him trying to bring honor to a dishonorable world was admirable. Sancho was endearing in his simple-mindedness and he had all of the funniest lines in the novel. It's clear in the text that he knew on some level that a lot of what Don Quixote said wasn't right, but he went along with it anyway, partly out of affection for his friend, and partly just in case Don Quixote's promise to gift him with an island to govern might eventually come true. He was a steadfast, loyal squire, and that was easy to like.

Another neat aspect of the novel was how Cervantes incorporated some petty revenge for plagiarism going on during his time. The second part of Don Quixote wasn't published until ten years after part one, and in those intervening years, a different author published their own part two of the story. It's clear from the text that Cervantes was very upset at this, as he has Don Quixote bring up the false story several times, roundly condemning it. He even goes so far as to have Don Quixote meet one of the characters from the fake part two, convince that character that he had never really met Don Quixote, and make him sign an affidavit swearing to that fact. As a lover of  public shade being thrown, no matter how old it is, I enjoyed this.

What I struggled with a little bit was the pacing and the ultimate theme of the story. After a while, reading adventure after adventure got old. There wasn't enough variation in the plot to completely engage me in what was going on. Rather than having one overarching storyline, Don Quixote felt very episodic. The characters stumble from one situation to the next without an ultimate goal in mind. By the time I got to part two, I was basically reading just to finish. It was still genuinely funny and clever throughout, but so much repetition started to wear on me.

Despite those feelings, however, I did finish reading the whole thing. Unfortunately, I was left unclear on what the overall message of the story was supposed to be. I couldn't tell if Cervantes was saying that the world should have been more like Don Quixote, or if Don Quixote's ideas of chivalry were hopelessly out of date and inappropriate for his modern world. As a reader, I wanted the message to be the former, but the fact is that Cervantes doesn't show much sympathy for his hero. He tortures him mercilessly throughout the novel with beatings and injuries, then subjects him to a series of rather cruel pranks by the noblemen in part two of the story. All of the injuries and tricks are written for laughs, like Don Quixote and Sancho are just meant to be fools. There isn't really an indication that readers are supposed to feel bad for Don Quixote or to feel like he is being mistreated. I feel like that was something I brought into the story based on my own feelings, and not something Cervantes encouraged at all.

I feel like I missed something though, because that can't be right. If that's really true, and Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to be no more than a fool, why is this novel so beloved? People clearly see more to the story than a slapstick comedy. Ultimately, I think there are a couple of valid theme ideas floating around in here and readers should interpret the message however they want to, but I do wish that Cervantes had been a bit more clear on what he intended Don Quixote's ultimate purpose to be. I do acknowledge that the time period this was written in and the fact that I have to read a translated version of the work probably play parts in my lack of clarity here. 

Although my opinions on Don Quixote ended up being mixed, I'm very happy that I made it all the way through the novel. The characters were so memorable and the story was so classic that I felt like I was reading history, which is why I love reading the classics in the first place. While I'm still wondering about what message Cervantes truly meant to send to his readers, I'm content to have had this experience. I can now cross this one off my literary bucket list and move onto another adventure.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#62 on my list): 47/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Very Long Classic) 8/12 Books Read 

Total Books Read in 2019: 32

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Book Junkie Trials 2019

I wasn't planning on joining any more reading challenges this year, but when I saw the Book Junkie Trials announced on YouTube, I had to join in. The rules are fairly elaborate, so I would recommend watching the official announcement video I linked above, but basically, this is a fantasy-themed reading challenge created by Rachael Marie in which you participate on a quest to find "The Bookie Grail" by completing different reading prompts.

The first step in the challenge is to take a personality quiz to get sorted into your challenge team (mage, scribe, bard, or outlaw). I was sorted into the scribe group. Each team has its own strength and weakness, and each has a separate route to the grail. Each stop on the journey has its own reading prompt assigned to it, making the challenge different for each team. I've copied the scribe map and prompts below. Posting to a blog is not a part of this challenge (posting to Twitter is), but I wanted to keep a record of my progress here too.

Image and challenge prompts by: Rachael Marie

 The Scribe Prompts

1. Dwarf Mount: You spot a fair tavern wench, however the Dwarf Mines, grimey and dusty, didn’t evoke a very romantic feeling. Read a book with a hint of romance to get you in the mood.
(My book choice: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang)

2. Apothecary Towers: Where the wizards dwell. Tricksters. They have blind-folded you and randomised all your books, choose a book at random from your bookshelf.
(My book choice: Matched by Ally Conde)

3. The Great Library: Ahh the great archives, find and read a book that has been on your TBR forever.
(My book choice: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven)

4. The Drowning Deep: The Whirlpool... is so.... mesmerising. Read a book with rich world-building that will suck you into its own world, instead.
(My book choice: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi - This is my over 500 pager)

5. The Bookie Grail: Here you find a lost manuscript, delivered on this forgotten island by a fallen star. Read the group book: Stardust
(My book choice: Stardust by Neil Gaiman)

Scribe Ability
The ability to rewrite their tale.
Their unique ability is to read a book that wasn’t on their declared TBR
- as long as it still completes the challenge.

Scribe Weakness
As scribes spend so much time documenting their findings,
one of their challenges will take MUCH longer than normal.
They must read a book over 500 pages.

This challenge takes place during the month of July, and I'm already feeling antsy to get started! I'm hoping to finish my quest early on in the month and then try out some of the other team prompts for extra points. Completing additional prompts will "level up" your character for next year's challenge, which sounds awesome to me.

I've been feeling a little bit low lately, but I'm really looking forward to trying this out. I'm thinking it will energize me and help me enjoy my summer break. Is anyone else out there interested in giving this challenge a shot? All the information you need is in Rachael Marie's announcement video. Check out the links in the description box for the team maps, the challenge tracker, and the personality quiz.

Edit: I finished the scribe challenges on 7/7. My next step is to work on the prompts from the other classes. I will keep a list of these below:

The Outlaw Prompts

1. The Crimson Peaks: Reread a favorite.
(My Book Choice: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson)

2. The Queendom Stone: Read a book featuring royalty.
(My Book Choice: Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson)

3. The Forgotten Forests: Read the next book in a series.
(My Book Choice: Crossed by Ally Condie)

4. The Weeping Falls: Read a tear-jerker.
(My Book Choice: Hold Still by Nina LaCour)

The Magi Prompts

1. Orc Grove: Read a book that is gruesome, gory, or gritty.
(My Book Choice: Gyo by Junji Ito)

2. Ol' Pirate Cove: Read a book that takes place on the sea.
(My Book Choice: And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness)

3. Glimmer: Read a beautiful or colorful book.
(My Book Choice: A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood)

4. Draconic Isle: Read a book featuring dragons.
(My Book Choice: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Bard Prompts

1. The Elven Guard: Read a book with war, military, or political themes.
(My Book Choice: Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen)

2. The Hallow Isle: Read an atmospheric or horror book.
(My Book Choice: The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman)

3. The Empty Barrel Inn: Enjoy an indulgent read.
(My Book Choice: Reached by Ally Condie)

4. The Giant Squid: Read a book that intimidates you.
(My Book Choice: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami)

Monday, June 3, 2019

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore has been sitting on my shelf for a long time - like, for several years. It's been so long that I don't even remember where I bought it, or what attracted it to me in the first place. I used to love young adult fantasy when I was...well...a young adult, I guess, but I've lost some of my zest for it in recent years. Thanks to book reviews on Youtube, however, I'm slowly making my way back to the genre. After hearing a few reviewers talk about this one, I decided to give it a go and finally check it off my TBR.

Graceling takes place in a realm known as the Seven Kingdoms. In this land, a small segment of the population is born with a "grace," or a special talent. The graces people can be born with take many forms, from mundane activities like being really excellent at swimming, to supernatural skills like the ability to read minds. Those born with a grace are regarded with suspicion by the rest of the ordinary citizens of the kingdom, so to be a Graceling is a mixed blessing at best.

The plot of the novel follows King Randa of the Middluns' niece, a young woman named Katsa. Katsa was born with a killing grace - she is able to defeat anyone in combat with ease. As this sort of skill is quite useful for a monarch, the king uses her like his own personal weapon. He sends her out to do his dirty work, killing, beating, and torturing his enemies. Inwardly, Katsa hates using her grace for this purpose, but she feels like she has no choice but to comply. To make up for some of her actions, she works secretly with a network of sympathizers to help out people in need all across the land.

As part of this secret work, Katsa rescues a man who has been kidnapped and hidden in a neighboring kingdom. It's a mysterious case; Katsa can't determine who gave the original order to kidnap the man or uncover any motives as to why. In her investigation, she ends up working together with the kidnapped man's grandson, Po, to try and uncover the truth of what happened. Their investigation ends up leading them into a dangerous adventure full of danger, conspiracy, and, of course, romance.

I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying this novel. The plot is full of interesting ideas, the characters are likable and well-developed, and the pacing is excellent. The idea of the graces is unique and adds variety and suspense to the story, along with some good opportunities for character growth. There were no points where I was bored or felt like reading was a slog. Even the romance, which can easily be cringe-worthy in young adult fantasy, was believable and sweet to read. While this doesn't rise to the ranks of giants in this genre, like Harry Potter, it is highly entertaining and worth the time.

Katsa is an admirable heroine for young readers to look up to. The days of damsels in distress are long gone in young adult fantasies these days, but I found Katsa to be different than the new sort of "tough-girl" characters we see now. While she is undoubtedly independent and able to take care of herself, her feelings about those abilities are complex. Her skills are a result of her grace, and she is constantly using it in a way she is uncomfortable with for the king. Beyond that, she finds it difficult to control it, with anger often driving her to impulsive and dangerous actions. Part of her story is learning to take ownership of her grace and to use it in ways that she sees fit. She changes quite a bit from the beginning of the novel, and that growth arc is satisfying to read. Her feelings and emotions feel genuine, even if her abilities are impossible. It makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride.

There are two companion novels in this universe, which I an interested in reading soon. Kristin Cashore has created an interesting world in Graceling, and I want to spend more time there. If I had actually read this book as young adult, I feel like it would have ended up being a favorite of mine. Reading it now, I am still impressed and entertained. It's simply a great story, and you can't ask much more than that from this sort of novel.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 16/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 31