Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

The very last book I had to read for the Book Junkie Trials was a book that intimidates me. What intimidates me as a reader is probably quite different from a lot of people - it's modern and post modern literature. Ask me to read Shakespeare? No problem. A 500 page Victorian era brick? Easy. Deeply weird and technical science fiction? Bring it on. When it comes to contemporary literature though, I start to lose my cool. I struggle to understand and enjoy stories where authors deviate from traditional forms and structures, especially when it's difficult to tell what's real and what's not. These types of literature are tough reads for me, and even though I want to learn more about these periods, I basically have to force myself to pick up books from them.

So when it came time to pick my intimidating read for this challenge, I decided to go with something from this general time period. I settled on Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. It has the added benefit of being on my Classics Club list as well, so I could finally cross another one of those off my list with it. I did not think that this would be an overly difficult book for me, as it is fairly short and definitely not the most challenging of Murakami's works (at least as far as my Googling has been able to determine), but I still felt apprehensive about it. I got started anyway, determined to finish it before the end of the Trials.

The plot of the novel centers on Toru Watanabe, a Japanese college student in the 1960s. As the start of the story, he is struggling to process the recent suicide of his best friend, Kizuki. He has been profoundly affected by the loss and feels very ambivalent about his future. On a train one evening, he runs into Naoko, Kizuki's old girlfriend. They haven't spoken since the suicide, and it's clear that she is having a hard time processing it as well. They begin meeting for walks around Tokyo, and before long, romantic feelings develop between them.

The relationship between the pair is complicated; the memory of Kizuki always seems to be standing between them. Eventually, Naoko's grief takes a turn into mental illness, and she goes away to live in a treatment facility, leaving Toru lonely and indecisive about how to proceed with his life. After visiting Naoko in treatment, he decides to wait for her to recover, in hopes of moving in together and building a life once she is feeling better. However, as the months stretch on, it becomes more and more difficult for him to see the way forward. Naoko's condition begins to deteriorate, and Toru meets another young woman, a classmate named Midori, whose vitality offers him a brighter vision of what his future could be. Unsure of what to do, he must learn some difficult truths about love, grief, and moving forward after a tragedy.

I feel very split about Norwegian Wood. There were things I liked about it and things I didn't. I will elaborate on both in a moment, but first I want to comment on my initial apprehension. It turned out that I didn't need to feel intimidated about this novel at all. The magical realism and surrealism that characterizes many of Murakami's works is absent here. In fact, in looking at some reviews for the novel after I finished reading, I saw many people claim that this is his most realistic and straightforward work. I had no problem following the story and there was nothing particularly non-traditional about it. So, I was okay with that.

As for what I liked, it begins and ends with the writing. Murakami is clearly an incredibly gifted wordsmith. His prose is rich, imaginative, and a little unsettling. Throughout the novel, Toru and Naoko's sadness felt heavy and real - it oozed out of the text and went straight to my head. It was very successful at impacting my real-life mood; I was in a fog of gloominess while reading. I realize that doesn't sound great on its face, but it does make for a deeper reading experience, especially when you take into consideration that this is a novel where not a whole lot happens. It is very character driven and slow. In many other writers' hands, this story would be boring, but Murkami's writing was so enjoyable that I didn't mind the lack of action. I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat, but I was still engaged in the story.

What I didn't like about the novel is a bit more difficult to explain. There seemed to be a very male immaturity running throughout the text. Toru comments frequently on the breasts of all the female characters, for example, and a lot of emphasis is placed on sex and masturbation. Nearly every woman in the story engages in some kind of sexual activity with him, and these encounters are described in abruptly frank detail. I'm not opposed to this type of content in stories, but the way it was included here felt weird. Each time a new female character was introduced, I was just waiting for her to have sex with Toru, and I was basically never disappointed. His prowess in the bedroom was unrealistic as well, with more than one character claiming that no other sex will compare with the sex they had with Toru. These parts of the story felt juvenile, like a teenage boy was describing an ideal sexual future for himself. It verged into the realm of ridiculous in an otherwise very serious and emotional novel.

Running alongside this issue for me was the depiction of women in general in this story. They don't fare very well. Most are weak, ill, overly emotional, or a combination of the three. Naoko, for example, despite being one of the main characters, is largely absent throughout the plot. Her instability is her defining character trait, and she seems only to exist to further Toru's character development, rather than be a character in her own right. Another major character, Reiko, is also defined through her instability as well. She is Naoko's roommate at the mental health facility, and she is a combination of a typical manic pixie dream girl and a sexual predator. Again, she exists only to help Toru mature. I would have preferred the women in the story to be a bit tougher, or at least more realistic. In this element of the novel, Murakami reminded me strongly of John Green - a male author creating zany, unpredictable girls to help a cool, nice guy protagonist grow up.

I know that last two paragraphs sound harsh, but I definitely didn't dislike this novel. The writing was strong enough to help me get through what I wasn't crazy about, and I was moved by the story overall. I was reminded strongly of Catcher in the Rye while reading. Much like that novel, Norwegian Wood is a coming of age tale featuring a disillusioned young man unsure of what to do with his life. There is a similar heaviness in the tone of both stories and Toru and Holden share several traits. Fans of one will most likely be fans of the other. It's worth picking up, if only to experience the writing.

For me, I think that this was a good read, but probably not the best choice for my first Murakami novel. It diverges significantly from the humor and magical realism he is known for. I would like to pick up a work more indicative of his signature style in the future. The irony is not lost on me that I started reading this book apprehensive about techniques like this and then finished it wanting to see more of them, but hey, the life of a reader is strange sometimes.

On a side note, finishing this novel marks the halfway point in my Classics Club challenge! Out of the 100 novels I plan to read by the end of 2021, I have now completed 50. I am only a few books behind where I should be at this point, meaning I have made up a lot of ground after the failure that was 2018's reading. I'm hoping to catch all the way up and maybe even get a little bit ahead by the end of this year. I'm going to have to pick up the pace though, because there are still a lot of really long classics on that list.

On another side note, this is my last book in The Book Junkie Trials. I have completed all 17 of the prompts and become quest champion! Participating in this challenge pushed me to read a total of 17 books this month, which is a personal reading record for me!

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (The Giant Squid - Read a book that intimidates you) 17/17 - Complete!
Classics Club (#10 on my list): 50/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 55

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reached by Ally Condie

*This review will contain spoilers for the first two books in the Matched series*

Well, here we are. The last book in the Matched trilogy. I've been working on this series throughout July, with very mixed results. I thought the first novel, Matched, was entertaining enough. However, I thought the second novel in the series, Crossed, was pretty bad. I don't like to leave things unfinished, and I knew that I had to read the third book. Reached, before the details of the first two slipped out of my head. Luckily for me, one of my last two remaining prompts in The Book Junkie Trials was to "enjoy an indulgent read," so I could use it for this. Young adult fiction, especially dystopian stories, are one of my biggest reading guilty pleasures. While "enjoying" is a strong word for what I feel about this series, it's definitely an indulgent pick for me. I didn't go into this novel completely hopeless though; I figured that it would probably be better than Crossed, since this is the big conclusion to the story. Determined to see it through, I charged up my Kindle and dove in. 

Reached begins shortly after the events of Crossed, after Ky and Cassia make it to The Rising. A little bit of time has gone by, and both characters have been accepted into the rebel movement and given positions in different cities. Ky has been trained as a pilot, and he works to shift supplies around to Rising units as needed. Cassia has been sent to Central, to continue her work as a sorter and sabotage Society work from within.  Their different locations and objectives prevent them from communicating much, and both long to reconnect.

Along with Ky and Cassia, Xander is also working for The Rising. He is posing as a Society medic and works to support the rebellion from within by altering the medications the Society gives to citizens to control them. He was Cassia's original match and close friend, and he still carries a torch for her, even though Cassia has told him a few times that she loves Ky and has chosen him. Xander is hoping that if he can distinguish himself in the movement, that he can win her back.

The narration alternates between the three characters as they work throughout the story to aid the rebellion and reconnect with each other. The Rising is able to seize control of the government right at the start of the novel, but they begin to lose that control almost immediately when a plague sweeps through the population. The Rising has already developed a cure for this plague in secrecy, hoping to win the loyalty of the people by healing them. However, when the illness mutates, their cure is useless and they have to deal with an increasingly angry and scared population. The measures they take to prevent rioting start to look an awful lot like what the Society used to do to control everyone, throwing their carefully laid plans into chaos.

Ky, Cassia, and Xander now have to deal with the threat of infection along with their increasing distrust of The Rising and it's mysterious leader, the Pilot. When the group finally comes back together to help the Pilot deal with the plague, it is immediately clear that their movement for freedom isn't as righteous as they'd thought, and that there are many secrets floating around underneath the surface of their missions. Together, they must work to understand exactly what is happening with the Rising, cure the plague, and achieve the freedom they have been fighting so hard for. 

So, it turned out that I was right. This book was better that Crossed. Unfortunately, that's about the only good thing I can say about it. Whereas Crossed had an issue with a lack of story, Reached has entirely too much. Most of the story is spent on dealing with the plague, and the amount of details included about where it comes from, how it spreads, how immunity works, how the mutation works, why some people catch it but not others, how it attacks the body, how to cure it, how to care for those that have it, how it connects to the Society's tablets, and whose fault it was that it spread in the first place absolutely take over the story.  It's a confusing tangle of information to digest, and Ally Condie knew this, hence the amount of passages that explain and re-explain this information in different ways. So much time is spent on the plague, in fact, that this feels like a novel from a completely different series. All of the mystery about the Society and the Rising are largely cast aside here, in order to focus more on the medical drama that is unfolding. It felt like an odd choice for the direction of the story, and despite all the attention given to it, it still ended up being confusing.

With so much effort being placed on that aspect of the plot, a lot of other elements from the first two books didn't get enough development. The Society and the Rising remained very vague, with little new information revealed about their motivations, strategies, and goals. I was hoping to dive a little deeper into their organization, find out more about how they managed to form and grow, and discover some dark secrets about what was going on behind the scenes. Instead, the Society is allowed to remain a faceless, bland organization with a general mission of controlling everyone. The Rising fares slightly better, with some attention given to it's mysterious leader, the Pilot, but what was there was felt too thin and confusing to be satisfying. I feel like the rules and structure of this society were never clearly enough defined, and it really shows in this final entry. Details are all over the place and it's hard to keep track of how everything comes together.

The narration of this novel also works against it. Instead of two narrators, like in Crossed, we have three. Cassia, Ky, and Xander take turns telling the story, and all three voices are exactly the same. The overly dramatic language I took issue with in the last book is toned down a bit here, but it is definitely still present, and it becomes quite tiresome after a while. On the positive side, however, the characters are separated from each other for much of the novel, so the three perspectives don't end up repeating events that much. This is a clear improvement from Crossed, and I appreciated it.  

There were a few other things to appreciate here too. I enjoyed Condie's use of poetry throughout the text and her focus on the importance of art and creativity in people's lives. I liked Indie's character as well. I thought that she had the most clearly defined personality out of anyone else in the entire series. Oker was a great character as well, even though he wasn't in the story for very long. Despite the issues I had with the amount of time spent on the plague vs. other story elements, I was still interested enough in it to keep on reading until the end, so there's that. It wasn't all bad; it just could have been so much better.

Ultimately, Reached is a mediocre conclusion to a mediocre trilogy. The ideas Condie presented in Matched were intriguing, but the exploration of those ideas throughout the rest of the series was disappointing. Nothing was as exciting, interesting, or clever as I wanted it to be. The plot structure was uneven. The details were confusing. The messages were unclear. I know that in a few weeks, I will have completely forgotten everything that happened in these books. It's rare that I so blatantly dislike a young adult series, but I must be honest, I was let down by these. At least I can say I finished them and I can move on to find something else I will like better now.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (Empty Barrel Inn - Enjoy an indulgent read) 16/17
Finally in 2019: 36/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 54

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman

The next prompt in my Book Junkie challenge was to read an atmospheric or horror book. I decided to go with The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman for this category after seeing it recommended by several Booktubers I follow. This young adult contemporary fantasy is being compared to Stranger Things, a show that I really like, so I was excited to give it a try. I was also excited to actually read a book in the year it came out. Look at me, on the cutting edge of things!

The plot centers around the small town of Four Paths in upstate New York. Generations ago, the four founders of the town managed to trap a monster that was terrorizing the population in an alternate realm of the town called The Gray. In the process of trapping the monster, the four founders inherited some magical powers, which they used afterwards to keep the monster imprisoned in The Gray and to protect the rest of the townspeople. Over the years, their magical powers and their responsibility of keeping Four Paths safe have been passed down to their descendants. Over the years, however, various members of the founding families have moved away, rivalries have cropped up, and family drama has caused conflict and hurt feelings all around. Making matters worse, the monster has been getting stronger over the years, and has developed the ability to pull people into The Gray to attack them. A series of bodies have been found in the woods, and people are starting to doubt the current batch of Founders' abilities to keep them safe anymore. The mood in Four Paths is uneasy and tense; it feels like matters are at a breaking point.

The story focuses on the most recent generation of Founders, a group of teens struggling to understand what is changing in Four Paths and trying to figure out how to reign the monster back in. Justin and May Hawthorne, whose family powers revolve around reading the future and seeing into the minds of others, are working hard to live up to the image of their mother, who is the town sheriff. Harper Carlisle, who's family powers center around the ability to control stone, is trying to heal after a terrifying ordeal in The Gray that cost her an arm. Isaac Sullivan, whose family's powers involve destruction, is working to adjust to life after a magical ceremony gone wrong caused the death of several family members and the flight of the rest. Rivalries stretching back across generations and more recent conflicts have fractured the group. They do not work well together and don't have much of an interest in trying to do so, despite their shared responsibilities. It takes the introduction of Violet Saunders, a founder moving back to Four Paths with her mother, to start to bring the group together. Everyone, for various reasons, believes that gaining her trust and loyalty will help their own families further their ambitions.

However, Violet is in no condition to be used by anyone. She is still grieving the loss of her older sister, and is completely unaware of any of the supernatural events going on in the town. She also doesn't know anything about her heritage, or even that magic is real. Her mother is only able to give her suspiciously hazy information about the her past, so when she starts to exhibit some curious abilities, she is on her own to figure out what is going on. Before long, she joins up with the other teens to solve the mysteries of her past, a decision which will trigger a chain of events that could lead them all to save Four Paths, or lose it forever to the monster.

The Devouring Gray was a surprisingly good read. The plot was interesting and suspenseful, the characters were well-developed, and the setting was excellently rendered. Four Paths felt alive and creepy, with both the normal town and The Gray maintaining an authentically foreboding atmosphere. The excellent cover design and artwork at the top of each chapter helped contribute to that feeling as well. The mysterious elements of the story were similarly well-handled, with information being revealed at a good pace and surprising twists popping up at the right moments. I was impressed with Christine Lynn Herman's ability to create such a detailed, imaginative world. This story had no trouble keeping my interest and taking me away to another universe.

The narration hopped around to follow the different teen characters frequently, a style which I don't always enjoy. Here, however, I found that each perspective offered unique information to further the story, so I didn't mind it. Each characters' experiences were different enough for me to tell them apart without much trouble, although I sometimes had to flip back a few pages to make sure I was thinking about the right character while reading. Another small point of confusion was sorting out all the connections between past events and the previous generations of founders. There is so much backstory presented throughout the story that it was tough at times to remember everyone's past actions and relationships. On the whole though, the amount of detail was a good thing, as it created a richer reading experience.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Devouring Gray. It's the first book in a duology, and I will definitely be hanging onto this one so I can read it again before the second volume comes out. I can see how others have drawn comparisons between it and Stranger Things, they both share that creepy, contemporary horror/mystery vibe. I'm glad that I decided to give it a shot!

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (The Hallow Isle - Read an atmospheric or horror book) 15/17
Finally in 2019: 35/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 53

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

My next challenge for the Book Junkie Trials was to read a book with war, political, or military themes. I decided to go with Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen for this prompt, as it met the requirement, was relatively short, and would be a good book to donate to my classroom library when I was finished. This was my third book by Nielsen. I read The False Prince years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit, but then I read The Scourge a few years after that and I wasn't so impressed. I started my reading curious to see how I would end up feeling about this one.

Resistance is set in WWII era Poland and follows a teenage girl named Chaya Lindner. Chaya is Jewish, but her blonde hair allows her to pass as a Polish girl. She uses this ability to join a Jewish resistance movement and works to smuggle various items in and out of the ghetto in Krakow. Although she is young, she learns her job quickly and becomes quite successful at it. She is passionate about fighting back against the Nazis, even though she knows she is facing insurmountable odds.

After a particularly dangerous mission ends in disaster for her cell, Chaya finds herself on the run and without a clear direction to head in. After a few days of hiding in a safe house, she is able to reunite with a member of her former cell, another teen girl named Esther. Esther explains that she has been given a new mission - she has to deliver an important item to a resistance cell in Krakow and she needs Chaya to help her. Willing to do anything to support her people, Chaya immediately agrees and the pair set off on a dangerous quest to stand up against an impossible enemy.

Resistance is a middle grades historical fiction novel, and it is clear that Nielsen did her research when writing it. There is a lot of factual information woven into the plot and young readers will probably learn quite a bit about the Holocaust from it. I have read several pieces of fiction and nonfiction about this era over the years, and even I was still able to learn a few new things in its pages. At the end of the novel, there is a short section containing factual information about some of the Jewish resistance fighters that inspired the characters in the book. Nielsen explains that she used real names and quotes for several of the resistance leaders shown throughout the text, and that her overall goal with this novel was to highlight the brave contributions these people made to help their people. In this effort, she was definitely successful; the novel does a nice job of informing readers about Jewish resistance movements during WWII and emphasizes their difficult and heroic fight against the Nazis.

Another area Nielsen was successful in was her action sequences. There are several battle scenes throughout the book, and each one feels suspenseful and dangerous. It's easy to cheer along Chaya while reading as she lobs Molotov cocktails at German tanks and takes down Nazi soldiers from a sniper's nest. The action doesn't let up from page one, and most of the final section of the novel focuses on a massive battle within the Warsaw ghetto that was extremely intense. While not overly graphic, Nielsen doesn't shy away from telling the truth about what fighting in a war is like. People starve, get sick, get tortured, get shot, and die in this novel. Young readers will definitely appreciate the breakneck pace and realistic depiction of violence here. One issue I frequently see when trying to use historical fiction in the classroom is that students tend to get bored quickly with it. I do not think that will be an issue with Resistance.

However, the strengths that will make this novel attractive to young readers are also the weaknesses that prevent it from having crossover appeal for older readers. The amount of historical information directly narrated by Chaya frequently feels clunky; some passages feel more like a lecture or a paragraph from a textbook than a fictional story. I suspect Chaya and her friends knew much more accurate and detailed information about German military strategy than real resistance fighters would have had at the time. Also, the perspectives offered by the characters often contain thoughts that are too accurate and sophisticated for a teenage character to come up with on their own. It's not realistic for a young girl who was just rescued from Nazi torture to calmly explain that, "The Nazis murder us many times over. They take our ability to worship properly - a spiritual death. They separate our families - another death there. They kill our dignity, our will to live, and finally they take our lives." Similarly, it's improbable for a teenage character in the middle of a battle to say that, "There is nothing more they can take from us, but today, we have taken their superiority, and their belief in our submissiveness. No matter how this ends, history will recognize today for its greatness." These statements sound like an adult writing about a historical event, with the benefits of research and historical perspective to inform their storytelling. I do not think that younger readers would even notice these issues, but it definitely took me out of the story from time to time. It didn't feel natural.

The nonstop action also has a negative effect for older readers, because it comes at the expense of character development. Chaya and her friends move from one encounter to the next throughout the text, with very few quiet moments for readers to make a connection with them or to watch them grow. There wasn't enough of a clear story for me in Resistance. Instead, there were a series of dangerous encounters to watch the characters get through. I could never really tell where the plot was going from one chapter to the next and I never felt especially invested in any of the characters. It is clear that Nielsen's priority here was to teach about the Jewish resistance during WWII. It was not to create an original story about a character who was a Jewish resistance fighter. That's fine, but I couldn't help wanting more out of this novel. When I think back to books like The Book Thief, Between Shades of Gray, or Code Name Verity, which managed to both teach readers about WWII and tell extremely emotional, original stories, I can't help but think that Resistance fell a bit short of what is possible in historical fiction for young people.

I think what Nielsen has done in this novel is valuable and important for her intended readers. She was successful at creating an informative and action-packed story that kids won't be able to put down. Children will learn more about the Holocaust from reading this. That's a wonderful thing. For me, however, Resistance fell short. The story was thin and the characters weren't deep enough for me. I very much appreciate Nielsen's efforts to inform readers about a lesser-known part of WWII, and I can definitely see myself recommending this novel to my students in the future. Personally though, It's not one that I will be picking up again. 

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (The Elven Guard - Read a book with war, political, or military themes) 14/17
Finally in 2019: 34/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 52

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

My next stop in The Book Junkie Trials is Draconic Isle, which requires me to read a book featuring dragons. I decided to go with The Girl Who Drank the Moon, as I've seen a lot of people reading this in the Booktube community lately, and there's a tiny dragon on the cover. I'm generally not too interested in middle grades fiction, but when I saw that this won the Newberry Medal in 2017, I decided to give it a go.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a fantasy story set in a town called the Protectorate. Once each year, the people of the town sacrifice their youngest child to the evil witch who lives in the woods. They believe this will prevent the witch from reigning terror down on their village, but having to lose a child each year has caused them to live under a heavy cloud of sorrow. What they don't know, however, is that the witch in the woods, whose name is Xan, isn't evil at all, and she doesn't know why people leave a baby there once a year. She has been taking the babies to other cities, and placing them with loving families this whole time.

One year though, Xan makes a mistake. While rescuing the latest sacrificed baby, she accidentally feeds her some moonlight, imbuing her with powerful magic. She decides to raise the child herself, so that she can teach her how to control her power. She takes her back to her home, which she shares with bog monster named Glerk and a tiny dragon named Fyrian. The unusual trio falls in love with the baby immediately. They name her Luna, and they do their best to teach her about her magic and the world they live in.

Trying to raise a small child with incredible powers is difficult, however. By the time Luna is five, she is out of control, wielding her magic at random with disastrous effects. In an effort to protect Luna (and everyone else) from her abilities, Xan casts a spell on her which will prevent her from using her magic until she is thirteen. She intends to teach her everything she needs to know about magic before then, so she will know how to use it responsibly. Unfortunately, the spell she uses has an unforeseen side effect; it makes Luna unable to learn or remember anything about magic at all until she comes of age. It's a heavy consequence to deal with, and Xan is wracked with guilt over what she has done to Luna's mind. As the years go by, Xan, Glerk, and Fyrian have to carry on as if magic doesn't exist, and wait to see what will happen once she turns thirteen.

At the same time, the situation in the Protectorate is starting to deteriorate. Political schemes and evil magic are taking their toll on the people and the volcano that the city is built near is becoming active once again. As the time draws near for Luna's powers to return, everything starts to fall apart. Once the magic hidden inside her begins to make itself known, she must remember what she is capable of and learn how to help the people she loves before disaster strikes.

This book was surprisingly excellent, and it definitely deserves the Newberry Medal that it won. Kelly Barnhill's writing is lyrical and feels like a fairy tale while still communicating deep and interesting themes. One of the main focuses of the story was the impact of lies, both those told out of malice and those told to protect others. Secrecy in this novel has a tremendous impact on the characters, and it was interesting to see the ripple effect that came from the many deceptions going on. The ability of the heart to love was also thoroughly explored, and the idea that love is beautiful and good and infinite was threaded all throughout the story. The way the characters loved each other and made decisions based on those relationships was utterly charming and heartwarming. Something about this story made me want to be better to those I love, and that's not a feeling I get too often when I read.

The characters in The Girl Who Drank the Moon are endearing and well-developed as well. Luna's growth is clearly illustrated across the text; the young woman that emerges at the end of the story is wiser and more thoughtful than the little girl at the beginning, and the reasons for these changes make sense within the plot. The minor characters grow and change over the course of the novel as well; no one is static here, and that is quite unusual to come across in middle grades fiction. You know you are reading something remarkable when a bog monster and a dragon both have meaningful personal revelations in a story.

This novel was a big surprise for me. I went into it with middle grades expectations, and was pleased to discover a story that a person of any age would find entertaining and meaningful. Barnhill did an excellent job creating a world that feels alive and enchanting, with magic lurking around every corner and a cast of characters to fall in love with. The story wasn't perfect; some elements were a bit confusing for me to untangle and I think younger readers might get lost trying to make all the connections between the characters. I thought there were a few pieces of backstory that needed more explanation. However, these issues didn't have much of an impact on my overall enjoyment. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is an absolute pleasure to read, and I know I'm going to be recommending this one to my students over and over again.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (Draconic Isle - Read a book featuring dragons) 13/17
Finally in 2019: 33/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 51

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

My next challenge in The Book Junkie Trials was to read a beautiful or colorful book. Right away, I thought of A Sky Painted Gold. I know it is difficult to tell from the picture above, but in person, the cover of this book is absolutely stunning. The gold parts are shiny and reflective, giving it a very Art Deco vibe (which is very appropriate, as the novel is set in the 1920s). It's currently my favorite book cover of all time, so I knew this had to be the one I read for this prompt.

I first come across A Sky Painted Gold through a recommendation on YouTube. One of my Booktubers, Lucy the Reader, absolutely loved it. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and when she recommended it for fans of The Great Gatsby, I was done. I had to have it. I ordered it right away. So obviously, I had pretty high expectations going into this novel. I was hoping to find a new favorite.

The plot follows a seventeen-year-old girl named Lou. She lives a modest life in her sleepy Cornish village in 1929 and dreams of becoming a writer one day. As a creative and imaginative soul, she's always had a fascination with the old Cardew mansion that stands empty on its own island nearby her house. Sometimes she sneaks over to it to explore its fruit orchards, gardens, and elaborate rooms. Her secret visits there come to an end, however, when the Cardew siblings suddenly return to the house to spend the summer.

At first, Lou is intent to observe the antics of the wealthy and glamorous Robert and Caitlin Cardew from afar, but when fate puts her in Robert's path one evening, she can't resist his invitation to attend one of their parties for real. Immediately, she is drawn into the glittering, golden world of the Cardew siblings, where the money, alcohol, and good times seem endless. However, as she spends more and more time in the mansion, she begins to realize that there is more to Robert and Caitlin than they are telling her and the extravagant lifestyle they are living isn't quite as fabulous as it seems.

I really enjoyed A Sky Painted Gold, and the comparisons to The Great Gatsby are apt. The 1920s setting feels lush and expensive, and the Cardew's lifestyle definitely encapsulates the wild excesses that characterized the era. Lou's character is similar to Gatsby's Nick Carraway, an outsider pulled into a lavish world utterly unlike her own. Like Nick, she is simultaneously entranced and dismayed at the things she see there and learns a lot from the experience. The comparisons aren't endless, however. Laura Wood dives deeper into the lives of the wealthy characters, exploring the reasons behind their wild behavior, and Lou's story is decidedly more sweet and romantic than Nick's. This is a young adult novel, after all.

There was something very compelling about this story, even though it isn't exactly action-packed. Wood's writing is beautiful and vivid, and Lou's coming of age story is very engaging to read. Her character development is handled quite well, and she clearly grows and changes over the course of the novel. The Cardew siblings are also interesting characters; they are flawed, mysterious, and likable all at the same time. Wanting to figure out what was going on with them kept me turning the pages. 

A Sky Painted Gold was a great reading experience. I was impressed with Wood's ability to recreate the world of the 1920s and I was completely drawn into Lou's journey. There were a few moments in the story that felt a bit slow, and I found myself wishing for more drama at times, but overall I thought the book was wonderful. I'm glad to have come across this author and I am looking forward to reading more from her in the future.     

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (Glimmer - Read a beautiful or colorful book) 12/17
Finally in 2019: 32/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 50

Monday, July 15, 2019

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness

The next part of my Book Junkie Trials journey was to read a book that takes place on the ocean. I decided to go with And the Ocean Was Our Sky for this one when I saw another reader had picked it. This book has been sitting on my shelf for years and I basically forgot I owned it. I didn't know much about the story, aside from the fact that it is full of beautiful illustrations and that it is a take on Moby Dick (and honestly, that was more than enough to get me to pick it up). Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls is one of my all-time favorite novels, so I was excited to read another one of his works and see if it would find another favorite.

The plot is essentially a retelling of Moby Dick, but from the opposite perspective of the story. It follows a whale named Bathsheba. She is the third apprentice in a pod of whales that hunt humans. She, much like the Ishmael character she mimics, becomes deeply entangled in her captain's mission of revenge against a larger-than-life enemy, the fearsome sailor Toby Wick. Captain Alexandra was wounded by him in a confrontation many years ago, and still swims around with the harpoon he threw at her sticking out of her head. She is obsessed with finding and killing Wick, in order to make the world safer for all whales (or so she tells herself). She believes it is her destiny to do so, and when the pod stumbles onto a string of clues leading them into a final battle with him, she enthusiastically follows the trail.

Bathesheba isn't so sure about this, however. She has never been as spiritual about the ideas of fate and prophecy as the rest of her group, and she doesn't believe that all the rumors about Toby Wick can be true. While she has no great love for humans, she begins to wonder if the behavior of all the hunting pods in the ocean aren't needlessly prolonging the conflicts between whales and humans in the first place. When Captain Alexandra orders her to take a human man captive and question him about Wick, her misgivings become even stronger. She starts to seriously doubt the wisdom of continuing on with their mission, but her captain is too far gone with ideas of revenge to pull back now and the strict rules governing authority within a whale pod prevent her from breaking rank to speak to Alexandra about it. When that last confrontation finally does arrive, Bathsheba will learn difficult lessons about the power of gossip, rumors, and hatred, and how we often let our fears create our own worst enemies.

I really enjoyed And the Ocean Was Our Sky. Physically, the book is beautiful. It's a short novel, with stunning illustrations by Rovina Cai sprinkled liberally throughout the text. For being only 160 pages long, the book is surprisingly weighty, due to the thick, glossy paper it's printed on. This is is one of those novels that feels good to hold, flip through, and even to smell. It looks pretty without its jacket too, which is always a fun surprise to uncover. I highly recommend reading the physical version over the ebook or audio version, if possible. The experience is better with the real book in your hands.

The plot and writing in the story is similarly well done. Patrick Ness was very clever in his execution here, paying homage to the original Moby Dick story while putting his own ideas into place. I loved the flipped perspective and the rich, imaginative world of the whales. He did a wonderful job making the setting interesting and detailed, while staying within the confines of a shorter text. Similar to A Monster Calls, there is also a nice thread of magical realism running throughout, which gives the story a sense of absurdity and wonder that is highly engaging. As a reader who has read and likes Moby Dick, I was very engaged in this novel and thought it was a worthy retelling.

The book's overall message is one about self-fulfilling prophecies; about how people have the tendency to create their own monsters. This is an important and interesting theme to discuss. If I had one criticism of the novel though, it would be how this theme is ultimately conveyed. I found the final events of the book, while epic, to feel a little incomplete and confusing. I would have preferred there to be more detail or explanation throughout the last parts of the story. I am still a big fan of this work though, and I would like to reread it one day. I think I might find the ending more satisfying the second time around, since I will know what to expect.

Ultimately, I really liked And the Ocean Was Our Sky. It was a creative, interesting take on a treasured classic. Combined with the beautiful illustrations, this novel was an extremely unique reading experience, and one that I would highly recommend to anyone who likes Moby Dick and magical realism. When it comes to Patrick Ness, I think that A Monster Calls is still my favorite, but this book is wonderful as well.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (Ol' Pirate Cove - Read a book that takes place on the ocean) 11/17
Finally in 2019: 31/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 49

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Gyo by Junji Ito

I first came across Gyo through a review on YouTube. I don't read much manga, but this one sounded really interesting and creepy, so I picked it up when I happened to notice it in a comics shop at a mall. Junji Ito is known for his horror stories, so it matched up perfectly with the Book Junkie prompt to read something gruesome, gritty, or gory. Plus, mangas are generally quick reads, so I figured that now was a great time to actually try it. After reading a string of sad books of varying quality levels over the past week, I was in need of something less emotional. I had a feeling this would do nicely.

The story begins on a beach in Okinawa where a young man named Tadashi and his girlfriend Kaori are vacationing. Suddenly, a strange, rotting stench begins to fill the air and the fish begin to walk out of the sea. All of creatures in the ocean, from tiny fishes to great white sharks, have somehow sprouted legs and are on the move. Chaos soon ensues, with everyone scrambling to get out of the streets and hide. Tadashi and Kaori manage to escape back to the home they are staying in, but they are soon attacked by a particularly vicious and persistent fish that they can't seem to shake. Tadashi incapacitates it and secures it in a garbage bag. He plans to take it to his uncle, who is a scientist.

As Tadashi and Kaori make their way back home, the fish continue to crawl out of the ocean and gradually invade all of Japan. They attack any human they come across and begin to spread a hideous disease with their bites. The country is in crisis; martial law is declared and the armed forces begin waging war on the creatures. Tadashi, hoping that his uncle can help figure out what is happening, brings the fish from Okinawa to his lab. His uncle does have some insights, and what he uncovers draws Tadashi and Kaori into a terrifying nightmare.

I realize that summary sounds absolutely ridiculous, and it is, but in the best way possible. Gyo is crazy! I alternated between being creeped out, laughing, and saying "ew" all throughout my reading; I thoroughly enjoyed myself the whole time. The novel is very action-heavy and moves quickly, so I can't describe a lot of it without spoiling too much. What I will say, though, is that the plot is outrageous, bizarre, and very engaging. The illustrations match the content of the story well and are both interesting and gross to examine. This is unlike anything else I have ever read and I was delighted with the experience. It's not a particularly deep or meaningful story, but it's creepy, twisted fun.

Gyo is a wild time, and I would most definitely recommend it to any fans of horror looking for something different to fall into. This would also be a fun pick for anyone interested in trying out manga, as this is a complete story; you can buy the whole thing in one collected volume and avoid being overwhelmed with collecting multiple, short pieces of it. It takes less than an hour to read and is totally worth the time, if you don't mind some gore and a totally bonkers storyline. This was just what I needed after reading too many serious novels in a row! I'm glad that I chose to include this in my read-a-thon.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (Orc Grove - Read a gruesome, gritty, or gory book) 10/17
Finally in 2019: 30/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 48

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Hold Still by Nina LaCour

*Trigger warning for suicide*

The next prompt for the Book Junkie Challenge is to read a tear-jerker. I chose Hold Still by Nina LaCour. I bought this book fairly recently on impulse, mostly based on the cover design. The summary on the back is sad and the story is on the shorter side, making this a great choice for a read-a-thon. However, I went into my reading a little apprehensive about the subject matter. This is a novel that deals with suicide, and after reading All the Bright Places last week, I wasn't sure my heart could take any more. I decided to push ahead and give it a shot though, since the book had pretty good reviews and I was very curious.

The plot follows a high school junior named Caitlin Madison during the year after the suicide of her best friend, Ingrid Bauer. The two girls were extremely close, and Caitlin is having trouble adjusting to the loss. She is depressed, angry, and feeling guilty for not realizing Ingrid needed help before it was too late. One night, while searching for something in her room, Caitlin finds Ingrid's journal under her bed. Realizing that Ingrid probably left it there for her to find, Caitlin begins to read the entries. She spaces out how much she reads each day, in an effort to make this last glimpse of her friend last as long as possible.

The journal reveals a side to Ingrid that Caitlin never knew; the entries show a young woman struggling with clinical depression and unable to hang on. While it is sad to digest, Ingrid's writing helps bring Caitlin the closure she needs to start moving forward with her life. Hold Still is a story about those left behind after a suicide - about the overwhelming grief that creeps up in the aftermath and the long journey towards healing in a loved one's absence.

I enjoyed this novel, and I thought that the difficult topics within it were treated respectfully. Nina LaCour's writing was easy to read and seemed to accurately capture the feelings of a person dealing with grief. Caitlin's growth throughout the story was well-developed as well. The book is divided into sections by season, and as the year moves forward, Caitlin is able to process more and more. Slowly, she comes to be more social, returns to her former artistic pursuits, and starts to make peace with her new reality.

One thing I was concerned about when Ingrid's journal was introduced was that this would turn into something unrealistic and emotionally exploitative, like the scavenger hunt in All the Bright Places or the tapes in 13 Reasons Why. Happily, the journal didn't take over the story and it was, for the most part, just a teenage girl's journal. The vast majority of the novel stays focused on Caitlin and her healing process, so I didn't feel weird about enjoying it.

At the same time, I didn't love this story. I didn't connect with it as deeply as I have with other young adult fiction. I feel like some piece was missing somewhere to make me care more about what was going on and I'm not sure what it was. I can't think of anything I would fault specifically and I would definitely still recommend it to readers who enjoy young adult contemporary fiction, but it wasn't a special favorite for me. To tell the truth, I think All the Bright Places may have burned me out on suicide stories for awhile.

Ultimately, Hold Still was a competently written, emotional exploration of a person living in the wake of a loved one's suicide. It was quite moving and felt realistic. I'd be open to exploring more of Nina LaCour's work in the future. As for now, I think I need to read something a bit lighter for a little while.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (The Weeping Falls - Read a tear-jerker) 9/17
Finally in 2019: 29/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 47

Friday, July 12, 2019

Crossed by Ally Condie

*This review will contain spoilers for the first book in this trilogy, Matched*

For my next task in the Book Junkie Trials, I had to read the next book in a series. Since I read Matched earlier in this challenge, I decided that its sequel, Crossed, was the most logical pick here. I enjoyed Matched well enough. It was a serviceable, if unremarkable, young adult dystopian novel. I was interested enough in finding out more about the story to continue on with it, but honestly, I didn't have very high hopes for this next installment. In my experience, series like this tend to get worse as they go on. Determined to give it a shot anyway, I loaded it up on my Kindle and got started.

This novel picks up directly where Matched left off, with Ky sent away to fight in a mysterious war against the Enemy and Cassia getting herself placed in a work camp in the outer provinces to try and find him. The narration alternates between the two characters, with each chapter giving readers a little bit more of their journey to try and reunite with each other.

Ky's journey starts off with him realizing the true purpose of his military assignment. He hasn't been sent to fight in a war, he's been sent to die in one. He, along with a large group of other aberration boys, are tasked with posing as farmers in a long-abandoned settlement to confuse the Enemy's intelligence on the population and spread of Society citizens. The Enemy shows up to bomb the settlement on a regular basis, and several of the boys die in these attacks each day. As the dead boys are removed, new boys are shipped in, and the process continues indefinitely. Ky manages to survive in this situation for several weeks, but finally escapes with a few other boys at an opportune moment. He sets out to hide in The Carving, a system of canyons and rivers that he remembers from his childhood.

Cassia's journey begins when she manages to get herself reassigned to the same settlement Ky was working in through a bit of deception. Upon arriving there, she learns that she missed him by a few days; he has already escaped to The Carving. Heartened that he is still alive, she sets off along with another girl to follow his trail. By discovering little items and tracks he has left behind, she eventually manages to catch up with him.

Once the pair come back together, Cassia's attention shifts to the Rising, a rebel group working against the Society. She longs to find their base and become part of their movement. She assumes Ky will fight alongside her there, but he is unenthusiastic about the idea. There are secrets in his past connecting him the Rising already, and based on those prior experiences, he doesn't trust them. He would rather stay out of any fighting and make a life with Cassia somewhere far away, outside of Society control. Cassia's heart is set on rebellion, however, so Ky must decide if he will join her and fight, or head off on his own, losing her forever.

I went into reading this with low expectations, and, unfortunately, my instincts were correct. Crossed, is not a good book. It's not even a fun read, the way Matched was. This was due to two main issues: the lack of plot, and the writing style.

Simply put, there are not enough plot events in Crossed to tell a satisfying story.  I suspect this was why Condie decided to use two narrators, as it allowed her to give two perspectives on every event. This almost doubled the amount of pages she could fill, but it had the overall effect of making the story overwhelmingly boring. In addition to the lack of action, the twists and secrets that were revealed were underwhelming and poorly implemented. Rather than let important information be revealed organically at moments strategically placed throughout the story, Condie directly states that characters have "secrets" in the text, and then refuses to say what the secrets are until later in the book. It is a cheap way to drum up suspense, and it is especially disappointing here, as this wasn't an issue in Matched. The information that is revealed by the end of the novel isn't especially surprising or interesting, making the slog through the text feel pointless.

The other main issue here is the voices of the characters. Both Cassia and Ky speak in the exact same way across the chapters. Once they meet up, which occurs about halfway through the story, it becomes very difficult to remember which one is currently narrating. That's a problem in and of itself, but what makes it worse is that the voice both characters use is incredibly dramatic; their inner monologues are completely saturated with tortured metaphors and fragments of poetry. Their thoughts do not remotely resemble the way anyone thinks in real life, and it seriously damages what little story there is.

 Examples of this abound. I could list one from every page if I wanted to, but I will mention just two. Towards the beginning of the story, Ky, looking at a map, thinks, "I wish I could rewrite this map. It would be much easier to mark how I want the world to be, instead of trying to figure out how it really is."  Later, Cassia, upon looking upwards one morning thinks, "Only the sun is in the sky. Nothing flies. There are no angels here." And it just goes on like this. Every thought both characters have is intensely melodramatic. It made it impossible to take much of the book seriously, and it was very odd as well, because Cassia didn't think like this in the first book.

Obviously, I didn't find much to enjoy in Crossed. I didn't start out with high hopes, and I actually ended up being more disappointed than I thought I would be. The thin plot and clumsy delivery made this a tough read to get through, and I generally cut young adult books a lot of slack. That is my guilty pleasure genre, and I like most things I read within it. This book, however, was a total miss for me and probably the worst sequel I have read in recent memory. That being said, I still plan on reading Reached, the third and final book in the series. It's already part of my read-a-thon plan and my hatred of leaving a book series unfinished is stronger than my dislike of this novel. I'm hoping that Ally Condie saved all the good stuff for last.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (The Forgotten Forests - Read the next book in a series) 8/17
Finally in 2019: 28/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 46

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson

The next stop in the Book Junkie Trials is The Queendom Stone, which asks me to read a book featuring royalty. I decided to go with Magic Flutes by Eva Ibbotson for this prompt, as I recently heard about this author from a reading blog I follow and really wanted to give one of her books a try. Ibbotson is known primarily as an author of children's literature, but she wrote some novels for adults too. Recently, some of her adult novels have been republished and marketed as YA fiction. Magic Flutes is one of these. She wrote between the 1970s and the 2010s, but her work is set in the past and the plot summaries I saw gave me major fairy tale/classics vibes, so I went into my reading hoping to discover a new favorite author.

The plot of the novel follows Tessa, a young Viennese princess living in the early 1920s. Despite being born to royalty, Tessa doesn't care a bit for wealth or titles. Her true love is music, especially opera. It would be unheard of for a member of Austrian nobility to work with an opera company, so Tessa disguises her true identity and takes a job working backstage with a small theater company. Tessa is a hard worker and is devoted to helping the company create beautiful productions. She quickly becomes an indispensable and much-loved member of the crew, completing a wide variety of tasks ranging from costume alterations to painting scenery. None of the people she works with know who she really is, and she endeavors to keep things that way.

It becomes impossible to maintain this facade, however, when a wealthy investor purchases her family's ancestral castle and hires Tessa's company to put on an opera there. This investor, Guy Farne, is an orphan that has worked his way up in the world from nothing. In buying the castle, he is hoping to impresses Nerine, the young, upper class woman he has been in love with for years. The opera, a production of The Magic Flutes, is part of a week-long party he has planned, and all the titled people in Austria will be there.

Of course, Tessa can not continue on with her false identity with so many other royals around. She is instantly recognized, but she continues on working for the company in spite of this, just as before. Her devotion to helping create art is strong, and she is starting to feel drawn to Guy, a man with a big personality and a love of music very similar to her own. Guy is starting to have feelings for Tessa as well, although with Nerine finally accepting his advances, he is torn as to how he should proceed. Should he stick with the woman he's been chasing for years, or should he throw caution to the wind and choose the unusual princess with a heart as musical as his own?

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It was reminiscent of a Jane Austen romance, overflowing with charm and all sorts of characters to love and to hate. I did have a few issues while reading; Ibbotson's language, while clever and tongue-in-cheek, took some getting used to. Many sentences felt oddly constructed and didn't necessarily flow into each other smoothly. I did eventually slip into her style, but it was something I was very conscious of throughout the first part of the story. I also thought that the descriptions of the various settings went on for too long, and that the pacing in general was slow throughout. However, I still really enjoyed the novel in spite of these things. It's one of those stories that you know isn't perfect, but you like it anyway.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel was Tessa's character. She is quiet, unfailingly kind, and incredibly thoughtful. She always considers the feelings of those around her and is a hard worker. At the same time, she is very strong willed and independent. She makes her own decisions and doesn't let anyone push her around. She works in a theater despite her royal status. She refuses a very advantageous marriage because she will only marry for love. She refuses to act any particular way just because people expect her to. I loved her, and so did almost every other character in the novel. She might have been a little too perfect, in fact, but I have such a soft spot for characters that are quietly powerful that I could forgive this. She is exactly the kind of heroine that I would want to be if I were in a book.

The secondary characters are similarly wonderful. Ibbotson develops them with such distinct personalities that they feel very genuine. It was easy to tell them apart, which is not something I can always say of minor characters in a novel. They behave throughout the story in ways that make absolute sense for them, and there were some reals gems among them. Guy's foster mother, Mrs. Hodge, was my special favorite; she's another kind, thoughtful character that's easy to love. Her relationship with Guy is charming and a treat to read.

The plot of the novel definitely has a "classics" feel to it. It's an utterly predictable romance, so there aren't a lot of twists or suspenseful moments to uncover. Instead, it's the kind of book that encourages the readers to slow down and enjoy the ride. Many common romance tropes fill the pages, and it's comforting to watch all the pieces of the story fall into place. Good triumphs. Selfishness is punished. Happiness reigns. The world manages to become as it should be by the last page, with lots of laughs, pretty dresses, and swirling emotions along the way. It's a wonderfully sweet story, for the right reader.

Magic Flutes was a very enjoyable read for me. I do feel, however, that you have to be in the right mood for a book like this. This is a book made for quiet days, big cups of coffee, and a desire to drift into familiar waters where you know things will turn out okay in the end. I think that some readers will fall in love with Eva Ibbotson, and others will be bored out of their minds. As for me, I fall in the former camp. I wouldn't say this book is a new all-time favorite, but it's a comfortable one that I will remember fondly. I will certainly seek out more of Ibbotson's work in the future.

Challenge Tally
Book Junkie Trials (The Queendom Stone - Read a book featuring royalty) 7/17
Finally in 2019: 27/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 45