Monday, July 24, 2017

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


So many Americans take for granted the food in our pantries, the electricity running through our homes, clean water, and relative safety. More than that, we take for granted that parents want these things for their children. To go without these things, in America, one would think, would be the result of desperation, deep poverty, and a complete lack of advanced education. Certainly no one would choose to live this way, if they had a way out...would they?

The Glass Castle is a memoir about a selfishness so intense that two educated adults delude themselves into thinking that their gross neglect of their 4 children is actually some kind of liberated, free-spirited lifestyle. Rex and Rose Mary Walls are two of the most self-indulgent, self-centered, self-deluding, and negligent parents I have ever read about. Hiding behind the mask of "sticking it to the system" and "living off the grid," these parents placed their children in mortal danger and destitution, despite having the means to do otherwise.

Rex Walls was a genius, a con artist, a gambler, and an alcoholic. Rose Mary Walls was an artist who only wanted children in order to have people to love her. She felt NO compulsion to actually take care of them. She'd rather paint and write novels and let them fend for themselves.

Rose Mary inherited enough from her parents to give her children a wonderful life, but through mismanagement, addiction, and apathy she and her alcoholic husband pilfered it away. As a result of financial and physical neglect, Rex and Rose Mary's children suffered burns, broken bones, starvation, sexual molestation, filth, and ridicule. The only things Rex and Rose Mary did give their children was a strong appreciation of learning, and a twisted sort of love.

This memoir was gorgeously written and captivating. It makes you feel so many things- disgust, fear, hope, and resignation. The Glass Castle demonstrates how children can love their parents through the worst but do not come out unscathed. Some may escape and turn their destiny around, while others succumb to pain. This is a story worth reading.

Ages 13+ for content.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I may have enjoyed this book more than The Girl on the Train...probably because it deals with the struggle between strong women and the misogynistic culture that tries to keep them down.

"The Drowning Pool" is an infamous spot in the river that flows along the town of Beckford, England. Over the centuries, "troublesome" women have met their end there. Some of the deaths were ruled suicides, but were they?

Nel Abbott and Jules Abbott are estranged sisters- forced apart by jealousy and misunderstandings. When Jules is notified that Nel has died- jumped from the cliffs to her death in the river- Jules is forced to return to Beckford and face her past.

Nel isn't the only one to have perished in the river lately. A 15 year old girl named Katie has also inexplicably jumped into its depths to embrace death.

So, what about this river seduces women to end their lives there? Are they all really jumping or is something far more nefarious at work?

Why is it that strong women- the kind who know their own minds- are the ones who wind up dead?

This novel left me guessing until the end. Not all of the questions are answered. This is the kind of book you should read twice just to enjoy the epiphanies that come from knowing the ending and seeing all the clues the author left along the way.

Recommended for ages 15+ because of content.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel made me squirm.

It wasn't the suspense. It wasn't the darkness. It was the characters.

Oh- they are some of the crappiest people you will ever meet.

When the weak-willed, self-loathing alcoholic is actually the most redeemable character in a novel- it puts into perspective how low the others truly are. Their negative traits range from mild self-absorption, and superficiality, to complete narcissistic sociopathy.

That being said- I LOVED this book. I was never bored. The writing is well done. The story has just enough intrigue that it took me an acceptable amount of time before I figured out the "whodunit."

I love how Hawkins made me despise some characters and then, eventually, love and sympathize with them.

So, the gist. I cannot tell you much without spoiling things. The story takes place in modern day England- not too far from London. A woman, named Rachel, spends every morning and evening riding the train commuting to and from London. Part of the route takes her past a house with a married couple that Rachel fantasizes are the most perfect, loving, couple possible. This route also takes her past her former home- where her ex-husband now lives with his new wife.

Rachel is NOT over her husband. She is basically wrecked over the affair which ended her marriage.
So, to cope, Rachel's spends a lot of time wondering about the wonderful life of the couple she sees from the train. She voyueristically obsesses over them- until the day she sees the wife kissing another man. Shortly after that, the wife goes missing.

What Rachel doesn't know is how intertwined all the players in this story actually are and how little her fantasies reflect reality.

She also doesn't realize how crappy people can be.

This story has various love triangles which sort of morph into indescribable shapes. Blame is suspected from many corners until it becomes frighteningly clear. Hawkins really keeps you guessing for a bit.

This was a great read!
Ages 15+ for content.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 Ages 9+

Wonder by R.J. Palacio should be required reading for every student the summer before they begin middle school. All children approaching the threshold between childhood and adolescence can relate to the emotions, fears, and hopes in this story of growing up and growing stronger.

Wonder teaches us that real friendship is something that is born not only from mutual interests, and similar values, but from the desire to raise each other up when the world tries to bring us down.

August Pullman is a 10-year-old boy who lives in Manhattan. He is obsessed with Star Wars, loves his dog, and has a deeply loving family. He is an ordinary boy in almost every way…except for the way that he isn’t.

August (Auggie) has never gone to a regular school. This is because he spent much of his childhood in and out of hospitals undergoing and recovering from Cranial-facial surgeries.
Auggie, in a one-in-4-million-chance occurrence, was born with Mandibulofacial Dysostosis and a Cleft Palette- which means his face doesn’t have all the bones necessary to keep it in the shape people are used to. His eyes are asymmetrically placed and very low on his face; his cheeks are sunken in; his mouth cannot turn up on the sides; and he does not have fully formed ears. Unlike the almost adorable depiction of August Pullman that Hollywood has decided to use in the upcoming movie version of Wonder, Auggie looks markedly different than most children, and for this he has been surreptitiously stared and gawked at all his life.

August’s parents love their son immensely and want him to have the most normal life he possibly can, despite his abnormal appearance. So, they ask Auggie if he would be interested, now that he doesn’t need as many surgeries, in entering Beecher Prep Middle School in the fall.
At first, August is adamantly opposed to this idea- fearing the ridicule and attention- but he eventually relents.

Auggie’s first year in Middle School contains everything he'd hoped and feared: ridicule, cruelty, conflict, friends, loyalty, fun. Auggie has to face, for the first time, the real world, without the protection of his family to shield him from the hurt. He is severely ostracized, at first, but, slowly, the charm and goodness that is August Pullman envelops the school.

Wonder is a tale of triumph. August’s story teaches us that who we are in word and deed will reveal more of our truth than ever the reflection in the mirror. It also shows us that we can evolve and choose the right path, even when we’ve strayed from it for a while. Wonder sheds light on both the worst and best of human nature and reminds us that it is our choices that make us who we are.

Every middle school student should have to read this novel as part of their character education, and to enjoy the story of a boy who learns to face the world while teaching the world that he is more than his face.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Watership Down

Watership Down (Watership Down #1)Watership Down by Richard Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Watership Down was originally published in 1972 by British author, Richard Adams. You must take this publication date into account when you read this book- although it does not excuse its issues.

Watership Down is a long-winded story that, if it had been published today, would probably have been divided up and made into a series. It is the story of a group of rabbits who bravely face the dangers and challenges of the wild world in order to eke out a life for themselves that they can all feel proud of.

It begins with a clairvoyant rabbit who sees an impending disaster for his warren and convinces his brother, a natural leader, that they must flee. That flight takes the two brothers, and a handful of other open-minded rabbits, on an adventure of epic proportions.

This book is a wonderful tale of bravery, faith, friendship, determination, and morality. There is only one major flaw with the novel and that is that it can be, at times, infuriatingly sexist.

The female rabbits in this story are not very well-developed characters. The bucks (male rabbits) view them as a commodity to the warren and a means of perpetuating the lineage. The females are meant to dig warrens, produce litters, and care for the young. The bucks aren't overtly dominating over the females- they just don't really consider them as equals. Though the females are consistently brave enough to challenge fascism and rally against oppression in the story-they get little credit for it.

The irony of this sexism is that Adams wrote this story for his daughters. It was their bedtime story, their car ride story, their quality time with dad story. They are the ones who convinced Adams to write the story down and publish it. So, why does Adams give the bucks such well-developed personalities while the does play such a secondary role in the story? It is true the bucks risk their lives to bring the does into the warren- but it is only so that they may mate, have litters, and have females to dig more runs in the burrow. The female characters are utilitarian in this story and it is a major flaw.

I give Watership Down 4 stars because it is a beautifully written adventure story that can be appreciated by all ages. I cannot give the novel 5 stars because the understated role of the female characters detracts from the beauty and power of the story.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Inquisitor's Tale

The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy DogThe Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book was a joyful, cleansing experience. As we currently live in a time of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, hate-speech, that is clogging our governmental system and society, reading The Inquisitor's Tale was a refreshing reminder that love, acceptance, and kindness are the real reasons we exist.

Set in the 1200s, this is the story of three children (and a dog) from completely different races, cultures, and experiences. Jeanne is a Christian Peasant, William is a biracial oblate monk (orphan given to a monastery), and Jacob is a Jew. Each of them has a quality that makes them easily despised in medieval times: Jeanne, for her poverty, William, for his mother's Muslim blood, and Jacob, for refusing to believe in the divinity of Christ. Yet, by the grace of the Judeo-Christian God, they each have been given a miraculous gift and can perform miracles. This is both their blessing and curse as they live in a time of superstitious ignorance.

The story begins in a medieval inn with a group of people drinking ale and relating to the narrator the various origin stories of the three children, and their dog.  They tell that the group is being hunted by King Louis the 9th for acts of Heresy. The stories they tell convince some that the children (and dog) are Saints, while others condemn them as devils for being "magical." All, however, are completely engrossed in the tale and want to hear more.

The children are set on their path because they have all been turned out of their homes for various reasons.  Jeanne's town fears she may be a witch.  William is too outspoken and strong to obey his closed-minded superiors in the monastery.  Jacob is burned out of his village.  Through Providence, the children meet, and decide to travel together.  

Because of their divine gifts, every place that is touched by the children experiences some kind of miracle.  Jeanne has visions of the future, William possesses super-human strength, and Jacob can heal mortal wounds.  Every time their lives are in peril, the holy power of their goodness somehow transforms their adversaries into better people.  

Eventually, their wandering becomes a quest to protect the knowledge and wisdom of the Jews, which is what brings the wrath of Louis the 9th upon them.

This is a tale of the Judeo-Christian God's love for His people and the many misinterpretations of how that love is expressed. It is a tale of misguided piety, and the hubris of believing that people have the right to judge others in their God's name. But mostly, this is a story of three wonderful children (and their dog) who bring hope, friendship, and meaning to the lives of many through their unique connection to their God.

Highly recommended to ages 12+ because of content. Contains an annotated list of sources, and an explanation for the historical characters and events that inspired this work of fiction.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long

The Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King and a Pickpocket SquirrelThe Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King and a Pickpocket Squirrel by Susan Hill Long

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Magic Mirror, by Susan Hill Long, is written in a style that makes me think of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, if it had been written for children. This is a questing tale full of mystery, villainy, comedy, piety, and mistaken identity.

Maggie the Crutch, a crippled, foundling girl has been raised by Minka, a widowed ale-brewer, and has no idea of her parentage or history. She knows only that she was found in a church, as a small child, wearing a velvet green dress, and with an irrevocably damaged leg.

Maggie is raised with clothes on her back and food in her belly but not an abundance of love and affection. Minka isn't cruel but she isn't loving either. Minka is selfish and stern and overly practical. When Minka tells Maggie that she has promised her to marry a hunchbacked wool-monger, Maggie is distraught.

In town, while running her errands, Maggie meets a merchant named Bilious. Bilious tries to interest Maggie in some items and shows her a mirror that allows the viewer to behold their heart's desire. In this mirror, Maggie sees a wild-eyed old man, and Maggie just knows this man is the key to her destiny. She decides to journey towards this destiny and away from her fate as a wool-mongers wife. She abandons her life with Minka in the night, and stows away on a cart traveling West.

Maggie's quest introduces her to a cast of interesting characters. She meets a dangerous thief and his men, a monk and his bag-pipe playing nephew, a princess and her controlling father, a pick-pocketing squirrel and a mysterious street urchin. Through pure serendipity, each person Maggie encounters has played a role in the mystery of her destiny. But so many questions remain unanswered until the very end...

Who is the wild-eyed man? Why does she feel so called to him? What is her true identity? It seems that only the Magic Mirror knows.

This is a fun tale told in a medieval world of suspicion and schemes. Though slow-moving at first, The Magic Mirror is a delightful story which will appeal to a wide audience.

Ages 10+