Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I haven’t read many middle grade books as an adult. Most of the ones I read are actually rereads of my favorites (such as the Baby-Sitter’s Club books, Roald Dahl’s novels, and Judy Blume’s books). I have walked past Wonder so many times at Target and just never felt like I needed to read it.

Recently I saw that Wonder has become a move that will be released this November. The trailer looks amazing (although I am a huge sucker for anything Julia Roberts!) and of course the book lover in me had to read the book first. I’m trying really hard this year to be a better patron of the library, so I checked it out.

I sat down with the book and blew through it in a day. I had to put it down a few times because it was just so good that Palacio’s writing made me emotional. What I loved best about the book is that I felt like it was written for its audience. I’ve read middle-grade books and have rolled my eyes because it never felt like those books were written for 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds. This book feels just right for that audience.

Colored chalk on a blackboard background

Wonder also tackles some tricky subjects like self-esteem and bullying in a realistic way. Things aren’t magically solved. Auggie is a tough, brave kid but he also struggles. His sister has struggles. Friendships are tested. We get to hear these struggles from a lot of different points of view. This makes the book seem so real. I can see kids reading this and related to the things Auggie is thinking and feeling as well as the thoughts of the other characters. It’s the kind of book that will lead to really rich and deep conversations.

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Book Reivew: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir You know those books you walk past about fifty times while you’re at the bookstore, reading the inside cover multiple times and even walking around with it for a while before putting it back? That’s exactly how my relationship with Andy Weir’s The Martian began. I love the premise: Mark Watney is stuck on Mars. He landed with his crew six days before the book begins, but unfortunately a giant dust storms takes him out before he can get the heck off Mars in an emergency departure. He is sure he will die there – because lets face it, Mars isn’t exactly the most hospitable of environments. His crewmates and NASA presume that he is dead. Left with a limited — very limited — supply of food, water, air, and time, The Martian is a fun, compulsive read that keeps you up, reading “just one more chapter” because you have to find out what happens to Mark Watney. The reason I kept going back and forth about reading the was because awesome premise aside, I could see so many potential pitfalls. Like the giant elephant in the room… er, in the book: Mark is on Mars. Alone. Zero other people. And something told me that could be a very good way to write a very bad book.

The first large chunk of The Martian is exactly what I thought — Mark is alone on Mars (I think that is a well-established fact at this point) but my reading eyes and heart are so very happy to report that it was not the trainwreck I feared it would be. During this time, Mark makes a plan, explores how he ended up on Mars alone, and breaks down a lot of really boring scientific words and math into narration that is surprisingly interesting and engaging — and for you fellow non-sciencey people, incredibly understandable. I had to reread a few places but for the most part the science and the math clicked as I read.

Mark’s narration is also broken up with chunks of events taking place back at home at dear old NASA and with the crew mates who believe Mark to be dead. While I enjoy Mark’s entries into his log the most, I do think the parts of the book that deal with external characters are a really nice and refreshing break with what could otherwise be a long of repetitious stuff happening on Mars.

One thing I think is really important to point out here is that I really, really like Mark. He is the kind of person who, if he existed in real life, would have friends but a lot of people would think of him as a little bit of an arrogant jerk. I think that’s what made me like him so much. He seemed totally really and really funny. I never would have thought that a book about being stranded on Mars and left to die in the barren wasteland of a far-away planet could be hilarious, but there were so many times during Mark’s entries that I legitimately laughed out loud.

I’m not a quick reader, but I finished this book in a couple of days. In fact, when it was done, I thought, “Wow… what a short book!” But looking back I see it’s 300+ pages. I just couldn’t stop reading it. If anything this is where my main conflict and “criticism” come in. On one hand, I wish the story were longer, because there’s a lot of time where we read entries from Mark with massive amounts of time between them. But on the other hand, a lot of what happens is very repetitious, and reading more of that could get boring very quickly. I would have loved to see a little more of the NASA side of things — how the crew was selected, how the mental health of all of crew members post-accident were being monitored (this is mentioned a little but not in tons of detail), etc.

I hear this is being made into a movie and I have to say, I can’t wait to see it. I’ve already recommended this book to several of my friends because I enjoyed it so much.

One cool fact about The Martian: Andy Weir wrote this book and originally published it online for free. His readers wanted an ebook, so he formatted it for the Kindle and sold it on Amazon for 99¢, the lowest he could list it for, before it was picked up by Crown Publishing. I think that is really awesome and a giant plug for self-publishing – and the quality of the writing itself!

You can read an excerpt of The Martian for free here.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher’s Blogging for Books in return for a fair and unbiased review. I wasn’t asked to give a positive review, just an honest one!

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@readathon prep: the stack!

Oh my goodness, I feel like this has been the most productive week in my book blogging life! I published three reviews today – all three books I’ve read this year! That seems like a lot but I wrote one review of a book I read at the beginning of the year, the second review I modified from a review on my primary blog (kristaonpurpose), and the third I reviewed as soon as I finished the last page.

#proudascanbe

(Ok, total rabbit trail but it makes me both smile and cringe that hashtagging in blog posts is a real thing.)

A couple of days ago I did a “how am I prepping?” post for the 24 Hour Readathon that’s taking this place. I’m just popping in with an updated!

Location
I will for sure be at my parents’ house! With internet access besides my phone! Granted, I have my ten-year-old sister and two of her little buddies who are spending the night, plus three nutso dogs, to content with, but where there is a will there is a way.

Media
I think this is pretty much the same. Yes to twitter, blogging, and instagram. Very limited to facebook and texting.

And now… drum roll… the reason why we do the readathon…

BOOKS! (books are below after lots of boring, mathy analysis)
I’ve been so excited to pick out what books I want to set aside for this, my very first, complete readathon, but I’m dog sitting and trying to be careful with how much I spend on gas so I forced myself to wait until tonight, when I had a class near my house, to pick out my books. Here’s what I’m aiming for. I am not a fast reader, just a consistent one. That said, I don’t anticipate finishing all six of the books below. Two, maybe three if all goes well.

What are my books, you ask? Here you go!
IMG_1951The end. Haha, just kidding! A little about the books before I go. I don’t want to hurt their feelings!IMG_1958This picture is terrible but my phone and computer weren’t playing nicely. I have never read The Phantom Tollbooth but have always wanted to so here I go! I thought this would be a fun, more simple read since it’s geared toward a younger audience. (Not that I think that means it’s easy – just a good change of pace!)

From GoodReads:

Milo mopes in black ink sketches, until he assembles a tollbooth and drives through. He jumps to the island of Conclusions. But brothers King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis war over words and numbers. Joined by ticking watchdog Tock and adult-size Humbug, Milo rescues the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, and learns to enjoy life.

IMG_1946Saw Girls in White Dresses while doing my daily browse in the Paperback Store part of Barnes & Noble’s website. Into my cart it went, and into my reading pile it is.

From GoodReads:

Isabella, Mary, and Lauren feel like everyone they know is getting married. On Sunday after Sunday, at bridal shower after bridal shower, they coo over toasters, collect ribbons and wrapping paper, eat minuscule sandwiches and doll-sized cakes. They wear pastel dresses and drink champagne by the case, but amid the celebration these women have their own lives to contend with: Isabella is working at a mailing-list company, dizzy with the mixed signals of a boss who claims she’s on a diet but has Isabella file all morning if she forgets to bring her a chocolate muffin. Mary thinks she might cry with happiness when she finally meets a nice guy who loves his mother, only to realize he’ll never love Mary quite as much. And Lauren, a waitress at a Midtown bar, swears up and down she won’t fall for the sleazy bartender—a promise that his dirty blond curls and perfect vodka sodas make hard to keep.

IMG_1947It’s like they picked the most heart-breaking cover possible for Unsaid and placed it strategically at Target where they knew I’d see it. And since I can’t ever unsee it, I’ll read it.

From GoodReads:

As a veterinarian, Helena had mercifully escorted thousands of animals to the other side. Now, having died herself, she finds that it is not so easy to move on. She is terrified that her 37 years of life were meaningless, error-ridden, and forgettable. So Helena haunts– and is haunted by– the life she left behind. Meanwhile, David, her shattered attorney husband, struggles with grief and the demands of caring for her houseful of damaged and beloved animals. But it is her absence from her last project, Cindy– a chimpanzee who may unlock the mystery of communication and consciousness– that will have the greatest impact on all of them.

When Cindy is scheduled for a research experiment that will undoubtedly take her life, David must call upon everything he has learned from Helena to save her. In the explosive courtroom drama that follows, all the threads of Helena’s life entwine and tear as Helena and David confront their mistakes, grief, and loss, and discover the only way to save Cindy is to understand what it really means to be human.

IMG_1948I am a giant fan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I bought Joy in the Morning not long after I finished it. For the last week I’ve been calling this ATGIB‘s sequel, but it’s not – it’s a book independent of the other’s plot. I’m really excited to make good headway into it this weekend!

From GoodReads:

In Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, Carl Brown and Annie McGairy meet and fall in love. Though only eighteen, Annie travels alone to the Midwestern university where Carl is studying law to marry him. Little did they know how difficult their first year of marriage would be, in a faraway place with little money and few friends. But Carl and Annie come to realize that the struggles and uncertainty of poverty and hardship can be overcome by the strength of a loving, loyal relationship.

IMG_1949I am a huge Flannery O’Connor fan and this collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, has two of my favorites: the title story and “The River.” All so sad, which is kind of why I love her writing.

From GoodReads:

This now-classic book revealed Flannery O’Connor to be one of the most original and provocative writers to emerge from the South. Her apocalyptic vision of life is expressed through grotesque, often comic, situations in which the principal character faces a problem of salvation: the grandmother, in the title story, confronting the murderous Misfit; a neglected four-year-old boy looking for the Kingdom of Christ in the fast-flowing waters of the river; General Sash, about to meet the final enemy.
IMG_1950I’ll probably try to make Firefly Lane my first read because it’s the longest and Picoult’s writing is beautiful but tends to change POVs often so I’ll need fresh eyes and a rested brain to keep track of what I’m reading! There’s a sequel to this that I accidentally bought, not knowing it had a book before it, and I have purposefully waited to read it until reading this first. So here I go!
From GoodReads:
In the turbulent summer of 1974, Kate Mularkey has accepted her place at the bottom of the eighth-grade social food chain. Then, to her amazement, the “coolest girl in the world” moves in across the street and wants to be her friend. Tully Hart seems to have it all—beauty, brains, ambition. On the surface they are as opposite as two people can be: Kate, doomed to be forever uncool, with a loving family who mortifies her at every turn. Tully, steeped in glamour and mystery, but with a secret that is destroying her. They make a pact to be best friends forever; by summer’s end they’ve become TullyandKate. Inseparable.So begins Kristin Hannah’s magnificent new novel. Spanning more than three decades and playing out across the ever-changing face of the Pacific Northwest, Firefly Lane is the poignant, powerful story of two women and the friendship that becomes the bulkhead of their lives.

From the beginning, Tully is desperate to prove her worth to the world. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, she longs to be loved unconditionally. In the glittering, big-hair era of the eighties, she looks to men to fill the void in her soul. But in the buttoned-down nineties, it is television news that captivates her. She will follow her own blind ambition to New York and around the globe, finding fame and success . . . and loneliness.

Kate knows early on that her life will be nothing special. Throughout college, she pretends to be driven by a need for success, but all she really wants is to fall in love and have children and live an ordinary life. In her own quiet way, Kate is as driven as Tully. What she doesn’t know is how being a wife and mother will change her . . . how she’ll lose sight of who she once was, and what she once wanted. And how much she’ll envy her famous best friend. . . .

For thirty years, Tully and Kate buoy each other through life, weathering the storms of friendship—jealousy, anger, hurt, resentment. They think they’ve survived it all until a single act of betrayal tears them apart . . . and puts their courage and friendship to the ultimate test.

There you go! That’s my pile. Comment so I can check out yours!

IMG_1945

I’ll be going shopping for snacks soon (probably Wednesday), so expect that awesome update!

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Book Review: The Persimmon Tree, Byrce Courtenay

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As a high school senior, I was a very troubled kid. Not “doing drugs/breaking the law/wild and crazy” troubled — but I was living in a deep world of pain and hurt that stemmed from a lot of things and it was really hard for me. It made me feel isolated from my friends, who lives were much more average than mine. When I met this new, excited, young teacher from South Africa who had recently gotten married and was finally allowed to teach in the US, I knew my life would be forever changed.

During the spring semester of my senior year, she had an extra credit book club that met during lunch. While she was looking for a set of books in the library, she came across a novel that takes place in South Africa called The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. We read that book and discussed it, and although I didn’t need the extra credit, I went anyway because it was the one day each week where that dark, painful place I was in ceased to exist.

Over the years, that teacher (who I now call Mom) and I read more of Courtenay’s books: Whitethorn and April Fool’s Day and Tandia and the list goes on. Here’s the thing, though. Americans are kind of stupid about which books of foreign authors they let into this country. Despite the fact that Barnes and Noble consistently sells copies of The Power of One, they don’t stock Courtenay’s other novels, so my mom and I have been left to the mercy of her every-other-year trips home to stock up.

I recently discovered that Audible carries most of Courtenay’s titles in its library so I bought and listened to The Persimmon Tree. I was so happy to have it, but I have tell you, this review is incredibly hard for me to write. The man whose words helped change my life died of stomach cancer on November 22, 2012. I was at Thanksgiving with a friend and my mom as at a different house when she sent me a text: “Bryce Courtenay died today.” In the middle of a warm, happy room, I very nearly started crying. No one else seemed to understand the importance of losing an author whose words have inspired you, but when I told my mom later that night while we were at Black Friday, she got it — because she very nearly cried when she found out, too.

So it’s with a heavy, heavy heart I write this review.

The Persimmon Tree is Courtenay’s usual affair — it’s an epic story of love and loss that has you both cheering and yelling. In many ways, it reminds me so much of the first of Courtney’s books that I ever read, The Power of One. This book begins in 1942, in the middle of WWII, in the Dutch East Indies. Nick Duncan is a butterfly collector in search of one specific, exotic butterfly when he meets beautiful, young Ann van Heerden. The two both must escape as the Japanese come to capture the island, and although they plan to unite in Australia, things don’t go as planned and it is many, many years before they meet again.

Courtenay’s characters in The Persimmon Tree are beautiful created. I think it helped tremendously that I listened to the audiobook version of this book and the reader, Humphrey Bower, is an incredible reader. Every character came to life before me and I felt myself finding reasons to keep listening. Had I been reading this book, the story would have kept me up during the dark hours of the night. Although certain parts of it were formulaic – as I mentioned, it reminds me a lot of The Power of Oneright down to the underdog named Til who Nick befriends (the equivalent of Geel Piet in The Power of One) – it still captivated me. Coutenary’s characters feel like old friends and his settings feel like places I know intimately.

If you are a fan of books that take you around the world, I highly recommend The Persimmon Tree. Its intriguing characters (including a teenage butterfly collector!), strong sense of place, and constant “will they reunite or won’t they?” make it a book that will not leave your mind for a long time. (And if you enjoy in, which I hope you do, there is a sequel called Fishing for Stars).

Most of Courtenary’s books that aren’t available in the United States (at the time I’m posting this, the only one that is readily available at any US bookstore is The Power of One) but are easily obtained using The Book Depository, which has free worldwide shipping.

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Book Review: The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

Oh man. It’s been almost a year since I’ve reviewed a book, but man… I’m missing out on it! So, without further adieu, here I am – reviewing with no strings attached!

The StorytellerJodi Picoult has been one of my favorite authors since I first read My Sister’s Keeper years ago. Her last few books, however, have been too predictable for me. Last year, when I reviewed Lone Wolf, I wrote “This is a pretty average novel… the relationships between everyone didn’t stand out to me in any special way… this book tends to fall into Picoult’s usual plot formula.” Likewise, when I reviewed Sing You Home in 2011, I noted something similar: “[H]er books are becoming somewhat predictable. The plots are certainly still intriguing, but the execution is pretty mundane and predictable. Sadly, Sing You Home, the story of a couple broken up by Zoe’s desire to have a baby, and Max’s heartbreak at tying again, falls into this disappointing “predictable” category.” When I preordered The Storyteller, I was expecting the same predictability but…

I could not have been MORE surprised.

The plot of The Storyteller is one of Picoult’s classic hot-topic, controversial nail-biters. Goodreads describes the plot:

Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all – if Sage even considers his request – is it murder, or justice?

It’s not a well-known fact, but in middle school and early in high school I was obsessed with books about the Holocaust. I think it’s because I was deeply interested in knowing the roots of my maternal great-grandparents, both of whom came from Germany or whose parents came to the US from Germany. Less than 100 years ago, part of my ancestors lived in a country so torn by genocide. I believe this is why such a deeply ugly time in human history has fascinated me – because it’s my family’s history. That said, I knew right away that this Picoult book had a plot that would intrigue me, and it absolutely did. I quite literally could not put The Storyteller down.

The structure, while similar to most of Picoult’s book in that it alternates between the points of view of several characters, is unique in its middle portion. For a large period of time, the POV shifts to Sage’s grandmother and her story of living in the ghetto simply because she was born into a Jewish family. I stayed up late into the night reading this section, weeping as I turned the pages. I think it’s easy to cry over stories that detail the horrors of the Holocaust, but because of how realistically Minka (Sage’s grandmother) is depicted, the pain on these pages takes on new life and meaning. Woven in with her story was the allegorical tale of a vampire, which takes on new meaning in light of Minka’s story (and Joseph’s story).

Minka is not the only character who seems very real and alive. Picoult creates characters who are human and flawed, yet compelling and likeable – even the former Nazi Joseph. You find his acts deplorable, but you see a man who is seeking absolution and you can’t help but be drawn toward him. Even Sage, with her scarred face and sullen spirit, grows on you and you root for her. I felt like the characters in The Storyteller were real and my friends, which I don’t always feel as I read. Having characters this strong helps when writing a book about such a difficult subject, and in this case aids in having a compelling plot.

One last comment: twisty plots and surprise endings are Picoult’s calling card, and the plot twist at the end of this novel… OH BOY. I did not see it coming, and my jaw literally dropped. I had to reread to make sure I read right the first time. That, plus Minka’s story, were totally worth the read!

I absolutely loved this book. It’s Picoult at her best, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who don’t normally read her work.

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