The Hate U Give

Book: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Date Read: February 8 to 14, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I read this book back in February to fill the prompt of a book that was recommended to me. Of course, this is one that I had heard about from multiple sources—and I suspect one I would have ended up reading without a specific friend recommendation.

I schedule my blog posts in advance, putting each book I read on the calendar shortly after I finish reading. Originally, I had scheduled this post for the third week in April, which happened to be the week when jury deliberations began in Derek Chauvin’s trial. Although the content was certainly relevant to the time, I did not think it was appropriate to put this particular review out in to the world then.

This is a book that I am not sure I can do justice to with my own words—I will give some, but keep it brief. At its heart, this is a coming of age story, although perhaps in a slightly different than what is traditionally put in that category. Starr’s voice is one that we all need to hear. She offers a perspective on life that is both outside the mainstream and familiar. On the one hand, she is just an ordinary teenage girl, dealing with typical teenage dramas: friends, school, family. At the same time, she is faced with issues of finding her own identity while juggling the complexities of race, violence, and societal expectations. I believe I have said this here before, but will reiterate again: having diverse voices in literature is important for everyone. The sole purpose of diversity is not that minorities can see themselves represented—we all need to hear these perspectives too.

Aside from the important themes and perspective provided here, this story in itself is pretty spectacular. The writing is engrossing, the characters feel so real, and the story is poignant and authentic. Taken as a whole, this is a huge triumph of a story, and absolutely deserving of every bit of hype that it has received.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I agree that it is weird when people treat dogs like kids. Everyone knows that’s only cats. 4 paws!”

The Outsiders

img_5950Book: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Date Read: January 4 to 7, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

A few months ago, I wrote a post about revisiting previous reads through audio. This was my first audio book of the year. It is one that I had been sure that I had read before, although I do not own and it was long enough ago that I never had it listed in my logs. I feel like I normally have a pretty good memory for books, but as I was listening to this one, I started to question whether or not I really had read it before. Even after reaching the end, I am not entirely sure. One of the biggest factors in my uncertainty is a feeling that if I had read this years ago, I feel like it is one that would have stuck with me more. There are parts that were familiar to me: meeting the girls at the movie theater, hiding out in a church, even reading Gone With the Wind. At the same time, there were major events that I did not remember or anticipate at all.

I suppose all that is to say that this is an unusual one for me: a book that I am not sure I have ever physically read but finished on audio at the beginning of the year. There were so many things about this book that I really loved—and I have to say that some of the things that it did not fully resonate with me enough to get 5 stars probably has to do with me reading it now as an adult rather than when I was younger. In some ways, I think this might be the perfect book for its target demographic. While some aspects of it may be dated, Hinton does an excellent job of capturing how it feels to be a teenager even now—a weird mix of feeling like everything in the world is against you, but in some small way tuning in to the fact that others’ struggles may not be that different from your own. And, of course, feeling at the same time like everyone else’s struggles could not possibly be anything like your own personal experience.

Of course, the experiences of relayed by Ponyboy Curtis certainly fall outside the norm for the typical teenager—most readers probably find themselves somewhere in the middle between the two groups described in the book, although nonetheless feeling like they are also an outsider. I really enjoyed the voice of Ponyboy. He is introspective enough to add some depth to the character, but not so reflective and self-aware as to become unbelievable as a real teenage boy. This is a great book for middle school and high school age students, who may need the reminder that their thoughts and feelings are valid and shared. It’s also a great book for adults who may need a bit of a reminder about how hard it can feel to be a teenager.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I still don’t understand how you read with these. Where are the words? Where was the snuggles? Is it really a book if it did not involve cat snuggles?”

Turtles All The Way Down

img_7411Book: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Date Read: December 27 to 29, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I read this at the end of the year, as I was trying to squeeze in a few more books to round things out to an even 50 (although my goal for the year had only been 30). This was my last book of the year, as I decided that I did not want a book that was going to span the year mark. I know it’s an arbitrary technicality, but I like my data clean—something that I think the main character, Aza, would appreciate.

Supposedly this book is about a missing billionaire, and the “adventure” that ensues when two teenage friends begin an investigation hoping for some reward money. While I will say that this is something that happens in the book, I would definitely not say that this is what the book is about. To be honest, the underlying sad love story that is typical of Green’s work is merely an undercurrent here to a much more interesting story about mental health. This is a first person account of a girl who is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

While Aza is dealing with some unusual circumstances related to her childhood friend’s missing billionaire father, most of it is an account of her every day life. Her mental state impacts every aspect of her life, and she seems only semi-aware of how it impacts those around her as well. I thought it was interesting that she is able to see how her illness effected her developing relationship with an old friend turned love interest, but did not realize the influence on her relationship with her best friend. I suppose this is part of the nature of mental illness: even when you know you are unwell, you do not realize its extent.

As Aza’s internal thoughts spiral out of control, her behavior also becomes increasingly concerning. Her fear of germs turns from excessive hand washing and sanitizing to trying to sanitize her internal organs as well. Seeing the underlying thought processes here was somewhat disturbing, as it is pretty clear how this obviously destructive and dangerous behavior seemed perfectly logical to Aza. I liked that Aza was connected to the help that she needed, without minimizing the hard work that she had ahead of her.

While I was reading, I was impressed with the handling of Aza’s illness. Although I am very interested in mental health, I am sometimes put-off by depictions in media. It was not until much later (actually, part way through writing this review) that I realized that Green also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, making this an “our voices” novel on mental illness. Although I know there is plenty of legitimate criticism of the repetitive themes in Green’s books, I think this one was very well done and worth the read.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Where are the turtles? I was misled! 1 paw.”

Midnight Sun & Twilight

img_7155Book: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Date Read: December 10 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars; 3 (of 5) stars

Like most everyone else who read these, I found Twilight in the middle of the hype in 2008. The series was complete, and the movie would be coming out soon. My sister, who was not a big reader, was interested in the series, and we decided to split the cost of the boxed set of books. I loved the idea of encouraging her to read, and figured that I would get around to them eventually; but when her and my mom both finished it and started to get excited for the movie release, I caved so that I could join them.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider Twilight, or any of the remaining books, as high quality literature. I take them at face value and consider them for what they are: quick entertainment romance novels aimed at a younger demographic. As that, they succeed spectacularly. (I suppose I should note that, at the time, I was probably just on the cusp of this ideal demographic, having graduated high school a couple years before the first book was released.) Along with that, I have to give Stephenie Meyer credit with perfect timing in the release of Midnight Sun, coming long enough after the initial series that those who read the first can look back with enough nostalgia to not cringe too much.

Knowing that Midnight Sun was coming soon, and with my new habit of rereading via audio book, I decided to revisit Twilight over the summer. I like to be prepared when reading something from a series. It was definitely an interesting look back. While the story was much as I remembered, the writing was a bit worse than my memory. Bella is more irritating of a character than I recalled—although this may be somewhat biased from reading the other books. I do remember liking her more in the later books of series, so perhaps taking that development backward clouded my view. I will say, however, that the narrator for the audio book was matched well, and I do like listening to audio books written in first person.

All things considered, I think this was a better story from Edward’s perspective. Perhaps some of this is improvement in writing over time, but I also think that part of that relates to the difference in the voice of who is telling the story. Sure, Edward comes across pretty arrogant much of the time, but he is also more reflective, and, well, does not talk like a teenage girl. Being familiar with the story from Bella’s view, and the more neutral view from the movie, it was interesting to see things from the other side. There is certainly more brought in regarding the other members of the Cullen family, which makes for a richer story with a bit more depth. I particularly liked filling in the pieces toward the end of the story, when Bella is in the hospital.

The switched viewpoint also allows for more insight into the actions of Edward and several other characters, given the “talent” of mind reading that Meyer has endowed him. It was good to piece together the motivations of him and others, which also shed some new light on some of the events from the original book. Edward’s view of himself was also different that I was expecting—although he often has a superior attitude, he very truly believes himself to be something terrible and unworthy of good things. His reminders to Bella that he is “not good for her” are much deeper than the obvious consideration for her safety. Turns out, Edward’s head is a pretty dark place to be, but of course, why didn’t I see that coming?

Minka’s Thoughts: “This book is so big. Almost me-sized. Do you think it wants to play?”

City of Ember

img_6662Book: City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Read: March 2016

One of the kids that I buy books for each Christmas is good about giving me requests. I usually do not even need to ask—he will find me at one of our fall get-togethers to let me know what he is interested in right now, or sometimes even to request a specific book. He started middle school this year, and told me that he is looking for something new. He asked if I knew about any books that are “kind of like Harry Potter, but not really because magic and stuff like that isn’t important.” Sounded like a bit of a tall order to me, but I told him I would think about it.

So, the first step for me was thinking about what is important about Harry Potter when you take out the “magic and stuff”—friendship, choosing your path, fighting for what’s right, working together to make a difference, and, of course, at least a little adventure. Some of these are common elements in much intermediate and young adult fiction, so my challenge was to find an appropriate combination in a story that will grab his interest. Nothing came to mind outright, so I decided to look for inspiration in the substantive children’s section at one of my local bookstores. I found the answer there when I spotted a book from a series that I read a few years ago from my school’s library.

This is the first book in a “trilogy plus prequel” series, but I think works well as a standalone novel as well. The story centers on Lina and Doon, two 12-year-old acquaintances with a vision of saving their struggling city, and to a lesser extent Lina’s younger sister Poppy. I would call this light science fiction and semi-dystopian—the world built here is not tremendously different than our own, although it is in much more unusual circumstances. In Ember, there is no natural light. The city runs on electricity, but the citizens are beginning to have increasing difficulty keeping things running smoothly.

Doon is interested in the generators and finding a way to save the town—Lina is concerned, but not so sure about what can be done. When Lina finds part of a document that appears to be left by the builders of the city, the two begin an investigation that may lead to a solution for their town. Of course, along the way they encounter the number one obstacle of all young protagonists: adults who are concerned with their own agenda, or fear the change that is suggested by the younger generation.

Boris’s Thoughts: “No lights? No sunny spot on the couch to sit in? This is not going to work for me. 1 paw.”

Speak

img_6765Book: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Date Read: Various

I read Speak for the first time when I was in high school—not for a class, but at the recommendation of an English teacher. She said that it is a book she thinks every high school student should read. Since then, I have picked up many other works from Laurie Halse Anderson, but there is something special about Speak that keeps bringing me back.

My continuous impulse to reread this one has earned it a spot on my list of favorites. Despite this distinction, I have a hard time articulating what exactly it is that draws me to this book, beyond the fact that I agree with my English teacher that it should be required reading in high school. The story follows Melinda, who enters high school as a selective mute after an incident at a party over the summer. Although she is mute to those around her, the reader gets an inside view to her thoughts, where they find the authentic voice of a cynical teenage girl. Melinda has much to say, about her school, peers, teachers, and experiences—she just does not know how to say it to others. While Melinda’s silence is linked directly to the trauma she experienced, the story of her search for her voice may relate to a broader audience.

I have not always been good about tracking my reading, although I would estimate that I have read this one around 5 or 6 times. Most recently, I revisited it as an audio book, which is a new trend for me. The narrator’s voice was matched well to the character of Melinda, and it’s first person format works well for the format. Hearing Melinda’s thoughts spoken aloud adds an interesting element, turning it from a sort of journal to an inner monologue.

Minka’s Thoughts: “This one is too big for my tent. Can I try the headphones again? I won’t chew on the cord this time.”

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

img_6189Book: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Date Read: September 10 to 29, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Why did I decide to revisit The Hunger Games recently? Because I needed to prepare myself for the prequel that came out this year, of course.

Although the book is technically a prequel, I think it may be more aptly described as a sort of character study. This is not a story to try to redeem President Snow (of course not, how can you be redeemed by something that happened before the acts you need to be redeemed from?). However, there is definitely some interesting insight into his motives during the primary trilogy, as it seems that Katniss Everdeen has been tailor made to push every single one of his buttons.

We meet Coriolanus Snow as an ambitious, but desperate, teenager. Despite coming from a prominent family, the war was difficult for them and they are still trying to recover 10 years later. He is in his final year of what seems to be the equivalent of high school, with hopes of a scholarship to the university. Of course, his methods of seeking that scholarship are different than normal circumstances: he is part of a new program where Capitol children will be mentoring the tributes from the Districts. The Hunger Games are entering their tenth year, and are not the popular spectacle that readers know from Katniss’s story. They are a grim affair, with limited interest in the Capitol and nearly none in the districts after the day of the reaping.

As this new version of the Hunger Games comes underway, Coriolanus finds himself not only as a mentor of a tribute, but also as the reluctant mentee of Dr. Gaul, who seems to take a special interest in him. Although he sees much of her behavior as twisted or sadistic, he also seems to have an understanding of her motives that begins to frighten him. He finds himself playing a larger role in the reimagining of the games than he had anticipated, and has occasion to believe that he has gotten himself in too deeply.

As for his assigned tribute, there are a few immediate things that call Katniss to mind: primarily, that he is assigned the female tribute from District 12. His tribute, Lucy Gray Baird, creates a bit of a spectacle at the reaping with a snake and a song, setting the stage for her peculiar entrance into his life. Lucy Gray is a performer, but also a survivor. Over the course of their mentorship, a bond forms between the two, leading Coriolanus to take some exceptional risks to help her; and landing him some time spent in District 12 after the conclusion of the games. He struggles throughout the events, with an ever looming question: was he taking risks for the sake of Lucy Gray, or out of desperation for his own personal circumstances and gain? At the same time, I am not quite sure which of those he considered to be the “right answer.”

It was interesting to see some history of things that featured in the trilogy, and to see them in a different light. Some of these were overt, like the Hob, the meadow in District 12, and the lake that Katniss liked to visit: all places that Coriolanus got a glimpse of in his youth. There were a few more subtle items that may or may not have a connection: is the penthouse apartment with a rooftop garden where Coriolanus grew up, the same penthouse apartment and rooftop garden where the District 12 tributes are housed in the Capitol?

There are also a few other ties to the future Hunger Games trilogy, starting with some Capitol names that carry over between the books, although generally not the same characters: Heavensbee, Crane, and Flickerman, to name a few. Another obvious connection is in the music: Lucy Gray sings some of the same songs that appear in Katniss’s repertoire, including having composed the song about the Hanging Tree. And of course, the title creatures cannot be forgotten: songbirds and snakes. We see the first evidence of the mockingjay birds, for which Coriolanus finds he has a particular disdain. Although snakes do not have as direct of a link to the original books, I thought it was interesting that Katniss viewed President Snow as snake-like. More important, however, is part of what the snakes represent: poison.

In the third book of the trilogy, Finnick Odair calls out Snow based on the rumor that poison played an important role in his rise to power. While there is little evidence for a clear accusation, there are certainly some peculiar circumstances that make this a viable conclusion. Here we see the beginnings of that: influenced and inspired by Lucy Gray and her affinity for snakes.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Is this a book of things I can chase? Those birds outside have been looking awfully suspicious lately.”

Bridge to Terabithia

img_0492Date Read: May 28 to June 1, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those classic children’s novels that I somehow never read when I was a kid. Even as an adult reading it, I was quickly drawn in to the story. Jess is a boy that feels himself on the fringes of society. He does not quite fit in with his family, and does not quite fit in with the kids at school either. What seems to start off rocky with a new girl at school develops into the most meaningful friendship of his life. Jess finds a refuge in his friendship with Leslie, and their made up world of Terabithia.

While I was able to avoid direct spoilers for this one, I had been forewarned that it was sad and dealt with loss. Even knowing that, this one hit me harder than I was expecting. This is not merely a sad story, it is the kind of sad that I want to tell everyone I know that they need to read this book—but I also do not want to pass this profound sadness on to others. I usually try to avoid major spoilers when writing, but I do not know how I can give this book justice without them. Stop here if you do not want to know. Leslie dies, unexpectedly and tragically. Jess is away, having a “perfect day,” when this happens. The later chapters, as Jess begins to process and accept what has happened, are full of so many things that are difficult but so important.

Stepping away from the book for a moment, I need to talk about Samantha. Samantha was one of my closest friends in high school. She was fun, she was sweet, and she was one of those people that you knew you could always count on to be on your side when you needed her. We created cartoon characters to draw in each other’s notebooks, and talked about all of the things that we would do after high school. I was a few years older, and we started to see less of each other after I graduated. Despite ending up at the same college a few years later, we only saw each other occasionally. Although we were no longer every day friends, each time we saw each other, it was as if no time had passed. She was still my friend that would always be there—until she wasn’t. Samantha died unexpectedly at 22.

I don’t know if it’s fair to generalize the loss of a friend as a young adult to the loss of a friend as a child—but I do know that many of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of Jess after losing Leslie reflected my own experience. Paterson perfectly captures the essence of a great loss, and Jess’s reaction to his loss is so genuine that I grieved for him as well as Leslie. Every new piece hit home for me, starting from the initial shock and unreality, the sorrow of the loss itself, and then adding on secondary pain caused by the reactions of others, or even your own thoughts.

In the end, Jess does begin to see hope in a future without Leslie—while he misses her terribly, he recognizes the impact that she made on him, and uses that to move forward. I still think about Samantha often. I cannot say what path our friendship would have taken if she were still here, but I can say with certainty that I am fortunate to have known her. There are bits of her in many of the things that I do and think every day. I remember a gift she gave me for my birthday one year—a necklace and a pair of flashy earrings that I had admired at the store, but decided not to buy. She told me she knew I thought they were impractical, but that I needed them: it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks if I like them, and there’s never a good excuse not to wear hot pink. What an attitude to have.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think I would have liked her. 4 paws.”

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

img_9277Book: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

Date Read: February 24 to March 3, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was the 2019 selection for “One Book, One City” in Grand Rapids. (For more information about One Book One City, please see my post about last year’s book, One Crazy Summer, which also includes a description of the program.)

There are so many topics covered here, that it is hard to know where to begin– family, culture, food, community, first love, and how hard it can be to deal with all of those things as an adolescent. I definitely understand why this was chosen as a book for this project. Cartaya nailed it here with the voice of Arturo: he comes off as genuine and sincere in his telling of his story, but all the awkwardness of being a thirteen year old boy searching for himself shines through. I love how Arturo is willing to listen to the stories from his family to guide him, to help him decide what is the right thing to do. The use of Spanish throughout is fitting and interesting, although a little confusing at times. Most often there is enough context to get the idea, but I feel like knowing more Spanish would have added to the experience of the book as a whole.

Another theme that I did not directly mention above, but many of the students I work with recognized, was the impact gentrification. In the story, Arturo is fighting for the survival of his family’s restaurant, against a real estate developer whose interest obviously lies in his own profit rather than the betterment of the community. While it comes off as a fairly clear good vs. evil here, many of our students were able to point to parallels within our own community, and in the real world it is not quite so cut and dry. Where is the line between “gentrification” with its often negative connotation, and general improvements to a community that is in need of help? Although we have not had to deal with established and successful businesses being pushed out (as is dealt with in this book), there are definite and noticeable changes happening within the community where our school resides. Many of these are seen as positive, but there have also been some repercussions for families (such as higher rent). This is a bit of a bigger topic than I am prepared to deal with here, but it was definitely a good conversation starter for our kids, and an opportunity to evaluate and form their own opinions.

Gone, Part 3

Book: Gone (Series) by Michael Grant

Date Read: June 13 to October 26, 2018

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Fearimg_7940

There is a bit of a jump from the end of Plague to the beginning of this one, so it allows for a bit of time for things to settle. It is a time of relative calm, with separate settlements at the Lake with Sam and Caine reigning as the self-proclaimed King of Perdido Beach. Diana separates herself from Caine at the end of Plague, and Astrid has gone off the grid. It’s good to see Astrid on her own, relying on her own intelligence to survive rather than looking for someone to “save” her. It was also nice to see life outside of the FAYZ.

This was a pretty eventful book, which did keep it interesting and moving along, although I found some of the middle sections a tad overwhelming. There was so much going on simultaneously, with shifts in perspective, which sometimes made it a bit hard to follow. I liked the new perspective gained with Little Pete as still alive, but without physical presence.

img_8184Light

Unlike most of the other books, there is a minimal time gap going into Light. The FAYZ has gone clear, giving the children of the FAYZ their first glimpse into the outside world– and, of course, the world’s first glimpse into the horror of the FAYZ. I thought this was good in putting the whole arch of the story into perspective. Obviously after being cut off from the world for over a year, the mindset of those inside has changed dramatically. Normal life in the FAYZ is far from normal. This is, of course, an obvious observation. However, five books into a series that technically takes place in the “real world,” it’s nice to get that reminder. Grant does well in imagining how this change will play out in the minds of different characters– Brianna, who is younger, takes this as an opportunity for notoriety, bragging about her heroic deeds that horrify the outside world; some of the older characters– Sam, Caine, Astrid– are a bit more realistic about the consequences they may face with an end to the FAYZ.

Overall, I would say this is a solid wrap up to the series. The “end game” unfolds bit by bit, we get to see the demise and redemption of the main characters from throughout the series. My only complaint here would be that the final battle scene was a bit anticlimactic– we certainly have a big build up to this point, but the actual battle is over within about a paragraph. The only real surprise here is the revelation of who Little Pete has chosen to battle with. I also liked that there wasn’t a simple wrap up with the FAYZ wall coming down– there is a fallout, and we get to see how this plays out for most of the main characters.

Series

As a whole, this was a well written and well developed series. There is a good mix of action and the sometimes dull reality between, which helps to build the world of the phase. My only real issue with the series as a whole, is what I addressed specifically in the first book– the content seems a bit mismatched with the Fourth Grade reading level of the books. I can certainly see children that age enjoying parts of these novels, but there are some pretty graphic descriptions of the horrors of the FAYZ, as well as some elements that I would be a difficult discussion with that age group. I don’t just mean violence (although there is plenty of that)– I mean description of intense violence including mass murder, cannibalism, people being eaten alive from the inside by parasites, and issues related to sexuality, suicide, and religion. While I would agree that all of these fit in and have a place in the story (remember, we are focused on a group of children forced into adult roles by the situation), it just seems to be aimed at a bit more mature of a group than the reading level would suggest. I would consider this more appropriately as a young adult read than a novel for the middle grades.

Date Read: June 2018 to October 2018

My rating: 4 (of 5 stars)

Boris’s thoughts: “This is all a bit too intense for me. I think I need a nap. 2 paws.”