Monday, August 7, 2017

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

EchoEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author is not a powerful enough word to describe Pam Muñoz Ryan. Master Storyteller, Literary Sorceress, or Word Mage would be more appropriate. Echo is not just a book- it is an epic work of genius.

Historical Fiction and Faerie-Tale blend together in this gorgeous story of how one harmonica transforms and connects the lives of its owners.

Once upon a time, in a world that is somewhere else, a wicked king decides that his wife's first child must be male, to secure the lineage to the throne. When she gives birth to a girl, the king tells her the child died at birth. Three times this happens until, finally, her 4th pregnancy produces a boy. 

The Queen's midwife has been ordered to discard the female newborns in the forest to be devoured by animals but, being a kind soul, she cannot. Instead, she asks a nearby witch to raise the girls as her own. 

The girls grow to be hard working, kind, and very musically talented. In time, the witch grows very possessive of the girls, treating them as slaves, and eventually enchanting them to never be able to leave her.

However, every evil spell has a counterspell!

If the three hidden princesses could find a way to save the lives of others through their music, they could be freed from the wicked spell. But...how can they do this when they can never leave?

When a lost German boy named Otto, accidentally stumbles into their bewitched prison with a harmonica, the girls realize exactly how to send their musical spirit out into the world.

The harmonica begins its journey in Germany, right as Hitler comes to power. The insane prejudices of the Nazi party condemn anyone with what could be considered a "defect" and also place strict rules upon art and music. Friedrich, a German boy with a wine-stain birthmark on half of his face, falls under Nazi scrutiny along with his outspoken father. Their family is in danger of being separated and mistreated by the Nazis.  To survive, they must devise a desperate and dangerous plan.  The harmonica gives Friedrich courage in the face of a world gone mad.

The harmonica then finds its way to depression-era America- Pennsylvania, to be precise. There it falls into the hands of Mike Flannery, a recent orphan. Mike and his brother Frankie have been brought to a orphanage by their dying grandmother, who had been raising them since their parents died. She chooses this orphanage because it has a piano, and music is central to their family. She tells the boys that the right person will come along for them. Someone does come along, but her motives are questionable, and the boys aren't sure if life will be better or worse. They too, have to come up with a plan to secure their future.  The harmonica may just provide their only way out of a desperate situation.

Fast-forward to WWII and the harmonica is now in California. Ivy Lopez, a 5th grade Mexican-American girl, has been given the harmonica by her teacher, and falls in love with the music. With her brother serving in the Army, and her family running the farm of a Japanese family who has been forced into an internment camp, the harmonica brings her hope in a time of racism and fear. Eventually, the harmonica does far more than that.

In the end, all the lives that the harmonica has touched, are united in some way. Their fates are interwoven. Can all of the hope and salvation brought about by the harmonica be a strong enough magic to free the three imprisoned sisters? Can the Echo of their musical spirit save them? Will the harmonica complete its final task- to save a life?

The audio-book version of Echo is stunning. Each song is performed by a professional musician, bringing strong emotion to the narrative. Each child's story (Otto, Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy) is read by a different actor in the accent appropriate to the child's voice. The reading is emotive and captivating.

Echo can be enjoyed by readers of any age. However, it is probably best for strong readers who do not tire easily when reading long books. This is a perfect recommendation for a strong reader ages 11 and up.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare

Lord of Shadows (The Dark Artifices, #2)Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh no she didn't! ...oh, yes, she did.

Cassandra Clare is known for star-crossed love-affairs that have the entire universe working against them and this 2nd installment of the Dark Artifices series does not veer from that formula. Clare is also known for scenes that punch the reader right in the feels- taking the plot in a direction that is emotionally devastating. Cassandra Clare does not write easy, feel-good stories with minimal conflict, and minimal sorrow. She goes for it. She takes that leap. She does not rest until you cry!

The Lord of Shadows continues the story of the Blackthorn children and their lives in the wake of betrayal, and loss. For their safety, the family has to relocate to the London Institute, so much of the story takes place there (Yay!). This 2nd book in the series gives us a chaotic ride from danger to danger. Malcolm Fade is gone. Anbabel, the Lady Midnight, has been resurrected. The Black Volume is coveted by the Unseelie King. Julian and Emma are doomed by a curse that threatens their very sanity. The Cohort wants to spread bigotry against Downworlders similar to that of Hitler's Germany. The Blackthorn Family is being hunted. Things are NOT going well.

Then, just when things are coming to a head, Cassandra Clare brings down the hand of destiny and leaves us with a tragic, heart-wrenching, and infuriating ending (but she is not done yet!).

Once, I emailed Cassandra Clare and asked why she always makes it so hard for our protagonists to be happy. She replied that a good story has conflicts. Well, this certainly has that.

If you are a fan of the Shadowhunter books, you MUST read these. If you have never read any of the Shadowhunter books, read The Mortal Instruments series, then the Infernal Devices series and then start the Dark Artifices series. They make for delicious reading.

Ages 13+ for content.




Monday, July 24, 2017

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


*SPOILER WARNING*

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.