Monday, August 28, 2017

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scythe, by Neal Shusterman, is a difficult book to place in a genre. It is Utopian, partially, but has a nasty dystopian streak running through it. This unique vision of the world's future depicts a humanity that has conquered disease, crime, and ultimately, death. There is no government but, instead, a beneficent, cognizant evolution of the internet called the "Thunderhead" makes sure that society has all of its needs met. The only problem is that, having conquered death, there would be no fail safe in place to handle overpopulation.

This is why the first immortal humans created the Scythedom.

Scythes are above the law and not subject to the power of the "Thunderhead." It is their duty to "glean" (which is a sugar-coated term for "kill") a certain number of people per year to keep the population down. Scythes are supposed to be incredibly moral, compassionate, and just. They are supposed to "glean" in the most humane way possible. However, without the "Thunderhead" keeping the Scythes in line, guiding them to make the right decisions, human nature is able take its normal course. There is corruption in the Scythedom. For some Scythes, "Gleaning" has become sport and a way to lord power over others.

The protagonists of this story are two high school kids who have been selected to be apprentices to a well-known Scythe. Ultimately, only one of them will be selected to serve as a Scythe, and the other one, they are told, will return to his/her normal life. However, political machinations infect what should be an amicable competition. The apprentices, Citra and Rowan, see that there are many dark secrets within the Scythedom. They have to choose between succumbing to the corruption or rebelling against it.

Shusterman has imagined an interesting take on the world's future. While I do see some holes in the concept, overall it works.

So far, the series is fine for ages 11+- however, be warned that it is gory and violent.
4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Written in poetic form, Brown Girl Dreaming is the memoir of Jacqueline Woodson, a writer whose childhood experiences were of two worlds- Greenville, SC and Brooklyn, NY.

Jacqueline was born during America's Civil Rights movement. As an African American girl with both a southern and northern parent, she experienced how geography played a markedly strong role in the treatment of people of color.

The anger and frustration she felt towards the inexcusable injustices happening around her, and the pride she felt towards the energy of the civil rights revolution were fuel for the words she had bubbling inside of her.

Far from the "smartest" child in her family, Jacqueline grew up doubting herself even when the words were dancing in her brain and spilling out of her pencil. Yet, with the encouragement of a few intuitive teachers, and the deep love from a tightly connected family, Jacqueline found a way to take her "dreams" and turn them into beautiful stories.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a lovely, emotive, and powerful true story of the life of an American child during the 1960 and 1970s. The audio book version is particularly poignant because it is read by Woodson herself.

Winner of the Newbery and other prestigious awards, this memoir is a must have in every middle school collection.

5 stars for ages 10+

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Silverback Gorilla is a GREAT Ape- a proud protector of his troop- a majestic creature. They belong in the wild- guarding the nests of their family- fathering their offspring- living with the natural world.

Ivan is a Silverback Gorilla who was stolen from his natural habitat to serve as an attraction in a mall. He was raised by humans but, although his memory is not as absolute as an elephants, he remembers the joy that he was taken from and the sorrows he has faced.

Ivan is also an artist. Give him any medium- mud, crayons, paint, magic markers- and he will draw his world for you.

Ivan has made the best of his captivity. He has true friends in a dog, elephant, and little girl.

It is only when he loses one of these friends that he begins to see his "domain" for what it really is- a cage.

Ivan has made a promise so nearly impossible that even a Silverback might not be able to keep it. But Ivan is more that just a Silverback. He is an artist.

Katherine Applegate has fictionalized the true account of an actual gorilla named Ivan, giving him a story to tell. Although this is a tale told from the perspective of animals- their "humanity" is just as valid as our own.

5 Stars for all ages

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. 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.