Tag Archives: book review

“Orphan Train” Book Review

Molly never expected to find any commonalities between her foster-child self and the ninety-one year old Vivian living in a mansion in Maine, but when Molly must complete community service or go to juvenile prison, she ends up helping Vivian clean out her attic. Except, what she discovers up there ties the two women together in a way neither of them could have imagined.5026748369_8700f4a169_b

Orphan Train covers a piece of history that very few people know about – a piece of history that is beyond unnerving, where orphans from overcrowded Eastern United States cities were packed onto trains and delivered to the rural Midwest. Families selected these orphans to take home with them. Some were lucky; they were adopted into loving homes. Most were not.

If you weren’t an infant, chances were you ended up as a farm hand, a servant- a child laborer. No adoption. No love. Only a means to an end.

This novel transitions between the modern day (2011) and the later 1920s to 1930s/early 40s. Readers learn about Molly’s life as a foster child, while also reading about Vivian’s childhood as an orphan train rider. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer how similar Molly and Vivian are, not only with their stories, but also with their personalities.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I thought Vivian’s storyline was much stronger than Molly’s. After reading the acknowledgements, I understand why. The author, Christine Baker Kline, did a lot of research into the orphan trains, even interviewing surviving members. However, it seems that she didn’t do the same level of research for the foster system, and that Molly was more of a vehicle for Vivian’s storyline than anything else.

Despite this issue, I found myself drawn into the story, and after I finished the novel, I researched orphan trains. I’m astonished that orphan trains aren’t mentioned as part of U.S. History, but as occurs most often with history, only bits and pieces of the truth are stitched together to give the appearance of a whole picture.

Orphan Train is worth reading, even if to only familiarize oneself with one of the darker aspects of American History.

(Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith.)

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“We Are the Ants” Book Review

“We Are the Ants” is a Young Adult semi-science fiction novel by Shaun David Hutchinson. I say semi-science fiction because the novel is more contemporary than Sci-Fi, and it deals with some very realistic and dark issues. However, if I rated this novel on a scale of 1-5, with five being I absolutely loved it, I’d try to cheat the system and give it a six.15785386571_4b0249c2ff_z

At first, I was put off by the amount of cursing within the opening chapters (heads up there’s several f-bombs), but I quickly became engrossed with the protagonist Henry’s personality, trauma, and, most importantly, story.

This novel engages readers, and forces them to witness bullying, mental illness, and come to understandings that they would normally otherwise rather not think about. Shaun David Hutchinson uses Henry to send some very important messages to readers: “Remember the past, live the present, write the future” and that we do matter; maybe not to the universe or in the grand scheme of things – all of us will be forgotten in time – but we do matter and because we live the present, we’ll keep on.

After all, we’re the ants. And what do ants do? They keep marching one by one.

There’s a deepness to this story that isn’t initially apparent, but then showcases itself brilliantly through the pain of loss, the presence of new love and the guilt and fear that sometimes accompany that love, and much more.

This novel begins with Henry telling readers about how he’s been abducted by aliens multiple times, and that they’ve now given him a choice: press the button and save Earth or don’t press the button and on 29 January 2016 the world is going to end. The question remains: will Henry press the button?

Though there is a love story within this book, this novel is so much more complex than a YA romance between Henry and Diego. Henry’s ex-boyfriend Jesse – the love of his life – committed suicide. Henry’s mother is a chain-smoking waitress, who cannot stand her one-time dream of being a chef because that dream reminds her too much of Henry’s dead-beat, door-slamming father, who abandoned them. Henry’s brother is a college dropout. The most popular boy in school alternates bullying and making out with Henry. Henry’s grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s. The list goes on, and it is dark and amazing and heartfelt, and at times when readers need it most, comical.

Insight abounds in this novel, and what’s more is that the insight is conceivable. Usually in YA books, the protagonist possesses an awareness other characters miss, and often that insight is too deep or advanced for that character. However, in this novel Henry struggles with the big life questions. He asks others for answers, and the answers they provide create a well-rounded and realistic picture, with each of their answers reflecting the events that have occurred in their lives and how those events have impacted them. This story and its characters are believable to the point I imagined it as real life. That’s a big part of what makes this novel so engrossing, and what had me smiling, crying, and feeling all the emotions throughout the tale.

This book left my mind reeling with thoughts long after I closed the back cover. Definitely take the time to read this.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Brace.)

“The 5th Wave” Review

8141392940_3f2b5cbeac_zI enjoyed The 5th Wave more than I thought I would. I’d had this book on my to-read list for a while and finally decided to read it with the movie about to come out. (Recently, its seems that many books are being turned into movies.)

From the start, this novel engaged me. Cassie Sullivan, one of the narrators, is intelligent, likeable, and determined. She faces immeasurable odds in her attempt to rescue her brother from the Others, the aliens who are systematically destroying humanity through a series of waves (only one of the waves is literal waves).

5694942227_409d457f75_zBen Parish and Evan Walker are two of the other narrators for this story. Each create new insights and twists to the novel, which bring to fruition the level of distrust that’s required to survive this apocalypse. More importantly, Ben and Evan serve as ways to push past the distrust, to force Cassie to go against what she has learned to do to survive, and in so going against what she’s learned, Cassie becomes more capable of accomplishing her goal of saving her brother.

This book isn’t very original. While reading there are strong hints of other young adult book series, TV shows, and movies incorporated. However, the waves was a refreshing notion to an alien invasion and I was still drawn into the story, especially Ben Parish’s voice. I enjoyed Cassie’s character, until she started falling for the mysterious Evan Walker. Then, she seemed to lose herself and the romance between these two characters felt very insta-love. I didn’t believe their love (all those “abs a-clenching, pecs a-popping” got my eyes rolling…yes, what’s in quotes was taken from the novel), which made that section of the book a slow read. In fact, I found the romance between Evan and Cassie creepy. (If the next book introduces a long triangle between Evan, Ben, and Cassie, I hope Cassie chooses Ben because he’s a much better fit for her and he’s a more developed character than Evan.)

15108436193_49b52bd6d0_zThe story could have done without the romance. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a huge fan of chocolate smelling breath (which is how Cassie describes Evan’s breath), of guys stalking girls as a form of courting (but it seems to be really popular among young adult novels), of guys being possessive to the point where I think they’d actually tie their love interest to a chair to keep her from leaving (which is an aspect often seen in young adult novels), or of blatant stereotypes, such as when Cassie thinks, “Time for the angrily-storming-out-of-the-room part of the argument, while the guy folds his arms over his manly chest and pouts” (I know multiple guys who storm out of the room when they get mad and many girls who would rather argue than leave the room. I also know people who would take a breath and then calmly discuss the issue. My point is don’t stereotype).23388773201_7dde0f699e_z

I was left with a lot of questions in terms of logical reasoning behind the plot, such as training children – some as young as five years old – to be soldiers while killing off the adults. (I won’t go into further detail on this because I don’t want to give anything away.) I pushed aside these questions and continued to enjoy the novel for what it was: a young adult book written for teenagers, and I reminded myself that there are numerous books on the market that contain plot holes, but were nonetheless enjoyable (like Divergent).

2634149864_4d576da2e0_zA lot of hype surrounded this novel. I understand where some of the excitement stems from, but I guessed the big reveals early on (partly because of the vast number of hints provided in the text; sometimes I felt that the hints were so strong I was getting bashed over the head with them). From reading other reviews, many people didn’t get what was really going on. If I hadn’t figured out the truth, the psychological aspect of this book would have been much stronger.

Either readers loved or hated this novel. Very few people had a meh response. For me, I’m glad I read this book. Give it a try.

(Photos courtesy of Several secondsWarren Antiola, Mary Shattock, Defence Images, and The U.S. Army.)

“Into Thin Air” Book Review

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Now that the 2015 movie “Everest” is out, I thought I’d post the review of the book the movie is based on.

4737596733_ff5798aef1_z“Into Thin Air” is a truthful account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, where many people lost their lives during one major storm that brewed overtop Everest. Told by Jon Krakauer, a journalist and mountaineer, he not only was on the expedition, and so experienced the majority of these events first hand, but he also spent countless hours interviewing those on his team and on other teams to bring this account to the page.

Into Thin Air shows how unforgiving nature can be, how easily human life can be extinguished, how human error can turn to tragedy, and how one misstep means death. It shows what the cost of accomplishing your dream means, what it takes to survive, and what it means to be a survivor, knowing teammates and friends lost their lives, and wondering if there was anything more you could have done to prevent that.

Exploring who and if anyone is to blame for this tragedy, Jon shows what a deadly place Mt. Everest is, especially after having entered the dead zone, where the air is so thin you can hardly eat or think without supplemental oxygen, where your brain cells are rapidly dying, and where wind and cold are relentless.

This story is more than about suffering and death. It’s about determination and will to survive. It’s about sacrifice, bravery, and endurance.624711184_91907356a1_z

This story will show you the truth behind what it takes to reach the summit of Everest, 29,028 feet above sea level. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not glorious and gleaming. There’s no brilliant epiphany, no spiritual awakening or deep insight into the meaning of life. In climbing Everest, you face death head on, but it’s not until Everest whips up a massive storm, where you can’t see your hand in front of your face or where if you stand up straight you get blown off into the night, that you realize the weight of facing death and the fragile nature of human life.

(Photos courtesy of Philip MilneJody McIntyre, and Didrik Johnck.)

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir Book Review

13643683595_fb282dfbf6_zWhat a phenomenal book. The Martian is so well written, realistic, and has such a fantastic voice that I was endeared to the story and, especially, to Mark Watney.

With the movie out, I told myself I wouldn’t see the movie until I read the book. So, I bought the novel and turned to the first page. Two days later, I’ve finished the novel and am processing the roller coaster of emotions I experienced, while being entertained by Watney’s sarcasm, humor, and MacGyver-esque abilities. (Let’s just say I was a bit more tired for work than usual.)

The biggest strength of this novel is Mark Watney. No matter how hard the Martian environment tries to kill him, Watney manages to be humorous. One of the my favorite pieces from the novel follows (don’t worry these few lines don’t spoil the story):

“What must it be like?” he pondered. “He’s [Mark Watney] stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61

How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

Mark Watney’s voice makes the story. Without it, this novel wouldn’t have been nearly as popular.

Why? (Besides missing Mark Watney.)

Because of how technical it is.

Which isn’t necessarily a negative. It wasn’t for me. Not because I understood everything. I’m not an astrophysicist. Nor have I studied orbital mechanics or relativistic physics (two of Weir’s hobbies), and I am far from any sort of engineer (Weir is a software engineer). But because Watney’s wisecrack comments after longer technical bits often clarified what he was doing, I was able to enjoy fundamental parts of the novel. Let’s face it, like how this book wouldn’t be the same without Watney, it wouldn’t work without being so realistic.

However, after reading multiple reviews of this novel on Goodreads, I noticed a pattern forming. Of those who didn’t enjoy the book as much (thus giving the novel three or less stars out of five stars), the major complaint seemed to be that this book had too much math. And because there was so much technical stuff, the tension slowed and people got bored.

I admit that there was a few times I skimmed over some of the more science heavy bits, but Watney is an astronaut. Science and math are necessaries for him. This book wouldn’t have been believable if Weir didn’t include all the science and math.

Watney’s strong narration and the Martian environment trying to kill him at every turn (not to intentionally personify Mars, but you get the point) balanced out the more science heavy sections.

When all is said and done, The Martian is a science fiction novel. It just happens to be one of the most realistic modern sci-fi books on the market.

Read the book. You’ll find yourself laughing at Watney’s dark humor and rooting for the astronaut who refuses to let a hostile, barren world kill him.

Human ingenuity, survival, and collaboration at its finest.

(Photo courtesy of Joel Tonyan.)

“Story of a Girl” Review

305379629_0cf039ac22_zIn high school, there’s always that one girl people whisper about, the one that has the reputation of “school slut.” Maybe she got that reputation from being caught on school grounds having sex with her boyfriend, or she’s the type of girl who steals other girls’ boyfriends. Or she could have been the girl that got knocked up and had an abortion. Perhaps she didn’t do any of those things.

It doesn’t really matter what she did or didn’t do. The gossip and labels her peers give her will define her.

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is a young adult story about Deanna Lambert, a girl who was caught, by her father, having sex with her brother’s seventeen-year-old friend, when she was only thirteen. Three years later, Deanna is labeled as the “school slut.” Suffering from low self-esteem, a poor and highly dysfunctional family, and crushing on her best friend’s boyfriend, Deanna is stuck within the past, unable to form any true relationships or move on and plan a future for herself.

By the end of the story, Deanna is able to move on. But how does she break free from her reputation? It’s not because the world she lives in changes. Everyone’s views of her remain the same. She’s still considered the school slut, but what does change is her. By learning to forgive others, she allows herself to be forgiven. By changing how she responds, she opens the doorway for hope and change: “Forgetting isn’t enough. You can paddle away from the memories and think they are gone. But they will keep floating back, again and again and again. They circle you, like sharks. And you are bleeding your fear into the sea, until, unless something. Someone? Can do more than just cover the wound.” (147)

From the beginning Deanna’s point of view is two-fold. Outwardly, she’s extremely tough, but, inwardly, she is a very vulnerable teenage girl. This vulnerability makes her highly self-protective. She’s haunted by a past action she wishes she could undo. This memory pains her every time it arises. Deanna has a realistic voice, full of self-doubt, loneliness, and most of all, a need to connect to others. To be needed and loved. By Zarr writing Story of a Girl through Deanna’s point of view, she is making Deanna an authentic teenage voice and relatable to readers, regardless of whether or not they’ve been caught having sex by their father. Because most people know what it’s like to be labeled and to have those labels stick, and to want to break away from what other people define you as.

In terms of plot, there isn’t any huge climatic ending. There isn’t a major dramatic scene anywhere within the novel. However, the story is powerful. Zarr uses quieter scenes to showcase Deanna slowly overcoming the “slut” label she’s been placed under, revealing a deeper and more accurate view of Deanna. This quiet growth allows for a truer version of Deanna to progress, and shows her maturing in a realistic way. By using subtler moments, Zarr allows for the universal themes of the story to shine: the unfairness of having false identities forced onto you, the ache of being unable to change past events, and the desperate need to belong to a group of people who will love you despite your flaws.

For most of the story, Deanna doesn’t have an accepting family, so she attempts to escape from herself. Zarr uses sub-chapters to weave a story within a story. These sub-chapters act as Deanna’s coping mechanism. In them, she is not Deanna Lambert, but the girl on the waves: “I’d already detached from the conversation. In my head I saw the girl on the waves, bobbing along, thinking my thoughts, feeling my feelings, swimming away.” (30) The girl on the waves acts as Deanna’s emotional buffer, but once Deanna begins to move on, the girl on the waves becomes less of a presence within the story, until she disappears and there’s only Deanna left. Zarr’s use of these sub-chapters gives readers an idea of how fragile Deanna’s internal state is and how lonely and isolated she is. Unable to confront her emotions on her past, Deanna hides behind the girl on the waves, until, finally, she is able to start to take back her emotions and her identity piece by piece.

Story of a Girl is not a happy story. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending. Deanna is not completely healed, but she’s in the process of healing. She’s hopeful and looking toward a future she didn’t conceive of before.

(Photo courtesy of Chris Weisberg.)

The Rules of Survival Book Review

I thought I’d try something different today and post a book review. Recently, I’ve been reading novels from the national book award list (both winners and finalists). The Rules of Survival is one I particularly liked. Hopefully, I’ll intrigue you enough to want to give the book a try.

(Warning: contains spoilers)

6807409194_b65885ecf3_zWhat would you do if you knew someone was being abused? What would you do if your mother were the abuser? Would you call the police, or tell someone? Would you pretend nothing was happening? Would you stop the abuse?

These are questions Matthew must face while living with his unpredictable and often violent mother, Nikki. In The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin, Matthew Walsh is a teenage boy trying to protect his younger sisters, and himself, from their abusive mother.

The story begins with Matthew writing to his youngest sister, Emmy, who is too young to understand all the events that occurred in their family’s past. He tells her that he’s writing everything down, so that one day she’ll be able to know what happened, while he, Emmy, and Callie, the middle sibling, lived with their mother.

Then, the introductory letter ends and the chronological story begins with Nikki leaving her children home alone, while she goes out to party. Matthew and Callie leave the house, and Emmy sleeping in it, to make a quick run to the Cumberland Farms store, where they meet Murdoch, who protects a kid from being abused.

Matthew and Callie set out to befriend Murdoch, hoping he’ll be able to free them from their mother, but Nikki catches on and begins to date Murdoch. Eventually, they break up. Nikki’s rage blossoms as she blames the break up on Murdoch and, as she spirals out of control, she begins to stalk, brutalize, and threaten him.

Soon, Matthew and his sisters fear for their lives, and Murdoch’s. Matthew approaches Murdoch and convinces him to help get rid of Nikki. Murdoch enlists Matthew’s aunt, estranged father, and a friend to antagonize Nikki, so that she’ll get herself in trouble and lose custody.

This works. She’s thrown in jail and loses custody, but once she’s free, she kidnaps Emmy. Matthew finds his sister, only to get caught by their mother. Matthew is about to kill Nikki, when Murdoch arrives and advises her to run away and never come back to Boston.

Years later, everyone is still receiving threatening letters from her, but they no longer open them. Matthew decides to never give what he’s written to Emmy, because this story wasn’t for her, but for him to understand what kind of person he’s become.

The Rules of Survival is a story of psychological, emotional, and physical child abuse. It is written in first person and in the form of a letter from Matthew to his youngest sister, Emmy: “But if you are reading this letter, that means you are about to find out everything I know. It means I will have decided to tell you—decided twice. Once, by writing it all down now. And then again, by giving this to you to read sometime in the future.”

By writing in the form of a letter, Werlin has made the story more personal. Readers feel the story more intensely because they are not only experiencing the story as a reader, but also as a five year old girl, which was Emmy’s age at the time of these events. Knowing that “you” are a young child constantly in danger heightens a reader’s emotions to a greater extent than the reader solely being an outside observer. Werlin forces readers into the story, into the center of the abuse, and makes sure that readers understand what it’s like to see no way out: “She had the big kitchen knife, and it was pressed to my throat. And as she laughed, I could feel it shake in her hands, and push against my skin. / She cut me that night. Just a little.” (9)

More than showcasing feelings of being trapped and hopelessness, at its core, this story is about acting in the face of injustice. It’s about not ignoring the suffering and maltreatment an individual inflicts on others, but doing something about it. It’s about helping and stepping up.

There are three adult figures that know about the abuse, but do nothing about it. Matthew must get them to act. These adults: Murdoch, Matthew’s father, and Matthew’s aunt, are all aware of how abusive Nikki is – Matthew’s aunt lives right downstairs, while Matthew’s father ran away from Nikki – but they continually make excuses as to why they can’t help. It’s only when Matthew convinces Murdoch that Nikki is spiraling out of control, and that she’s going to end up killing someone, that he takes control of the situation: “There’s so much I do not know about Murdoch, even now. He keeps secrets. But still, I think that was the moment. That was it. That was the very second when he—and this is an odd word, but the right one—engaged. I think that was the exact moment when he said yes to helping us.” (126)

Murdoch, and Matthew’s father and aunt, end up working together to rescue Matthew and his sisters. This message of helping to prevent injustice runs throughout the entire book. From the first moment Matthew met Murdoch to the end of the novel, when Murdoch tells Matthew that he suffered abuse from his father as a child, the idea that no one should stand passively by while abuse occurs is prevalent.

When Murdoch was being abused, no one helped him. The only reason he escaped his father was because he, a child, killed him. By stepping in to help Matthew, Murdoch prevented history from repeating itself. Matthew was about to kill his mother: “I could do anything that I had to do now. I knew it. I could even—I saw it suddenly—I could kill Nikki. I could. It would be easy. I would feel no remorse. She deserved death,” when Murdoch intervened. (241)

Killing his father irrevocably changed Murdoch. It ended his childhood. No adult was there to save him, but he arrived in time to make sure that Matthew never had to do what he did, that some part, even if it was just a sliver, of Matthew’s childhood remained. Werlin’s message shows that no matter how difficult helping seems, the alternative of ignoring an abusive relationship can lead to far worse outcomes.

Werlin’s realistic and easy-to-follow language, combined with her short chapters help make this message and the entirety of her novel accessible to readers. Her writing style involves readers and shows the story’s events, reactions, emotions, and reflections in a raw light: “The human instinct for self-preservation is strong. I know, because mine pulls at me, too, like the needle on a compass…everybody seems to agree that the instinct and responsibility of all humans is to take care of themselves first. You have the right to self-defense. You have the right to survive, if you can.” (73)

Werlin intersperses introspection, occasionally she includes very short, but entire chapters on Matthew’s insights, and interpretations into what’s occurring: “But how come there don’t seem to be any rules about when you ought to help others survive? Rules telling you when that’s worth some risk to yourself? Callie and I were working so hard for you, Emmy, but as far as I could see, nobody else cared at all. For any of us.” (73)

These moments of introspection show more of how Matthew interprets past events than simply retelling the story. These short chapters let his older voice shine through, giving readers insight into what type of man he’s become.

At the end of the story, when Matthew is writing his closing letter to Emmy, readers realize, as does Matthew, that this story wasn’t for Emmy, but for himself. All those moments of contemplation peppering the retelling were him trying to figure out the person he’s become: “So, Emmy. Little sister. You’re never going to read this, are you? I’m never going to give it to you…I wrote it to understand who I am, and how I ought to act in the world.”

Werlin creates a horrific and realistic picture of an abusive life and how it impacts people through Matthew’s eyes. She shows how the past, even if a person has escaped it, will forever form whom that person becomes. In the end, it’s the survivors who tell the story.

(Photo courtesy of Bjorn Bechstein.)