Bridge to Terabitha

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_9277Date 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

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.”

Gone, Part 2

Liesimg_7907

I found this next novel in the Gone series to be a bit more interesting than the previous, Hunger. As in the previous books, there are multiple simultaneous plot lines, all of which seem to move at a fairly quick pace. We get to see a new side of Astrid as the town leader. I was excited for this development, but felt that she became an unlikable character very quickly– many of the minor flaws from the previous books came to the forefront– although I do feel there is some redemption for her in the end.

There are developments in knowledge about the “Darkness” (now being referred to as the Gaiaphage), and the FAYZ in general. Most intriguing, I felt, was some blurring of lines to go along with this. We learn more about the Gaiaphage as a force against the children of the FAYZ, but see some overlap and connection between the Gaiaphage and Little Pete. We also get a brief glimpse into the world outside the phase, although there is some ambiguity about how much of this is reality.

One thing I started to notice and appreciate in this book is the balance of good and evil, and wins and losses. Astrid and Orsay are set at odds with each other over the truth of Orsay’s “prophecies,” although it’s not clear which side is the actual truth. There are two major culminating “battles” of sorts– Zil’s chaos with the Human Crew, and Mary’s eventual meltdown as she reaches the age of 15. While both of these could be considered overall victories for Perdido Beach, they are also mental losses: Zil is taken down as a leader, but much of the town is destroyed; the risk and danger to the young children is averted at the last second, but Mary, who has been an important figure up to this point, is lost when she chooses to “step out.”

img_7916Plague

Plague starts with a time of relative calm in the FAYZ. Some systems have been agreed upon and instituted, and things seem to be running smoothly. With the calm in Perdido Beach, it seems reasonable when Sam is sent to find a new source for water. This sets up an interesting dynamic for most of the novel: for the most part, Sam is on a hopeful and fruitful journey; by contrast, the sickness and danger begin to grow in Perdido Beach in his absence. While this is happening, there are also further developments related to the Gaiaphage, which really sets that stage for the remainder of the series. Drake/Brittney return in service of the Gaiaphage, and although lines are drawn between Sam and Caine, they both return as major players with some semblance of peace between them.

One thing I loved in this book is the inclusion of Little Pete’s perspective. He has autism, is nonverbal, and tends to tune out from the rest of the world. Up to this point, Little Pete has been portrayed as an important person in the FAYZ, but we do not really get a good picture of his experience. When we get to see the world from his eyes, it is a scary place of sensory overload. While it’s accuracy can obviously not be certain, I felt that Grant handled the task well.

Gone, Part 1

This summer, I started reading this young adult series, that I have heard was popular. To be honest, I did not know much about it, but had heard some positive feedback. With so many other things going on this summer, it turned into a bit of an undertaking. I decided that a single post would not be sufficient to address a whole series, but a post for each book also seems just a bit excessive. I’m trying something new here, so let’s see how this goes!

img_6422Gone

A solid start to the series. One day, in the middle of a high school class, the teacher suddenly disappears. It is soon discovered that it was not just the teacher– everyone over the age of 15 has “poofed.” They soon discover that they have been trapped in some sort of dome, deemed the FAYZ, Fallout Alley Youth Zone, due to their vicinity to the nuclear plant and lack of adults. We get an introduction to most of the main players of the FAYZ here– Sam, Astrid, Caine, Diana, Lana, Edilio, Albert, Quinn, Orc, Drake, and Little Pete. I thought this was done well, in that we get to see pieces of each of them, although it is not quite clear if or why these individuals are important. The plot was fairly straightforward Good vs. Evil, although I appreciated that it definitely showed some gray areas. I thought Grant did a good job in imagining the actions of young people in the absence of adults: most aren’t quite sure what to do, and so they indulge themselves in junk food and laziness; those that recognize that they should be doing something are still not quite sure what that is. I also thought the discovery and development of the mutant powers was done well. Several characters start to show powers, but most seem to be uncertain about them. I also liked that many of the main characters do not have any special power, but still are able to find their place.

The early parts of the book left a bit to be desired as far as writing– I wouldn’t call it bad, but it certainly was not great. I felt like this improved later in the book. I did, however, have some issues with the book in general. The story is pretty intense, and there is some fairly graphic violence. While this does not bother me on principle, I find it a bit mismatched with the Fourth Grade reading level of the book. Also not a fan of the liberal use of the word “retard” in describing Little Pete. While it does address this as problematic, I feel like it could have been toned down quite a bit without losing the intent.

Hungerimg_7718

After the final battle in Gone, we have a 3 month time jump to Hunger. The kids in the FAYZ are beginning to realize that things cannot be maintained long term. Food supplies are running short, and the mysterious “Darkness” is starting to create influence in some of the teens. Much of this book felt slower, and a bit less connected than “Gone.” While it did come together in the end, I felt like it took a long time to get there. Sam, as the main character and leader, is in an obvious slump. I can admit this could be realistic, but to me he mostly came off as whiny and annoying.

We do see some good character development in this novel, although I was not a big fan of the female characterization. The three main female characters at this point are Astrid, Diana, and Lana. Astrid and Diana are claimed to be independent and strong women, but really seem to just be sidekicks for their male counterparts. Astrid is somewhat manipulative of Sam, but this is not for some bigger ambition, it’s her survival mechanism, as she does not seem to think she can do so on her own. Diana claims to be independent and in everything for herself, but her actions are primarily as a pawn for Caine. Lana appears to be different– she is strong, she has an attitude, and she is not afraid to take matters into her own hands. However, her encounter with the Darkness in the latter half of the novel leaves her broken and weak.

There is also the introduction of a new character, Zil, whom I find to be extremely unlikable, although interesting. Zil wants to be important, but has always been someone on a lower rung of the social ladder. He wants the prestige of being a leader, but does not really want the responsibility that goes along with leadership. It appears that he is somewhat jealous of those developing powers, but also mostly wants to save face when he is “shown up” by them. He feeds into fears, and seems to bring out the worst in those around him.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

img_7411Date Read: July 12 to July 16, 2018

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Love, love, love this book. It’s a cute and sweet book, and a not-quite-love story, but also so much more than that. I suppose it could be best described as a sort of coming of age story, but that does not quite encompass the full scope either.

I really enjoyed the cultural aspects of growing up for both Ari and Dante, framing each of their experiences differently (and from a different perspective than my own). Dante is quite clear in conveying that he does not feel like he is a “real Mexican,” but is also clearly worried about not living up to his parents expectations. Ari’s narration of the story is interesting in that he can be quite introspective, but also quite clueless regarding his own thoughts and actions.

The dynamics within each of the families is another intriguing layer. Ari is fairly straightforward about feeling that his family is “broken.” He struggles to relate to his father, wants to talk about his brother but feels like he can’t, and seems to be a bit resistant in his relationship with his mother. He sees Dante’s family as completely different– they seem open, close, get along, and Dante freely admits that he is “crazy about” his parents. Of course, this is all from the perspective of a teenager, so perhaps Ari is not the most reliable. This plays out with a bit of a switch in the end, with a surprise for Dante’s parents, and the realization for Ari that his parents know him better than he thought.

Of course, all of this is outside the main story of Aristotle and Dante. I loved getting to know each of these characters. There are no illusions of perfection, just some messy and honest reality of adolescence. I found myself jotting down several quotes or passages as I read, partially because I felt they were so fitting for the time of life for these characters, but also because I can still relate to those feelings now. Definitely keeping this one around for future reads.

Boris’s thoughts: “Yeah, yeah, I can see why you like it. But really, why did Ari have to get a DOG? 3 paws.”

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

img_6295Date Read: November 28 to December 4, 2015

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I wanted to love this book. I really wanted to love this book. I felt like there was potential for a good story here, but it fell way short of my expectations.

I have read a lot of comments on the book that the pictures were the best part… But I can only partially agree with that. The pictures were interesting. I like the concept of incorporating the pictures into the story. However, beyond the introduction of the characters in the earlier portions of the book, the inclusion really seemed forced – as if the author just added in little bits of unnecessary information just so that a picture could be inserted. Once the plot started to actually move, the pictures didn’t really seem to fit anymore.

Before going any further, I am issuing a major SPOILER ALERT. I try not to give away too much when I write reviews, but the nature of this next point makes it impossible. Plot holes. Plot holes left and right. If you want skip the potential spoilers, just go to the bottom of the numbered list.

1. How can Emma make a light underwater at the shipwreck, but not be able to make one in the rain?
2. How can Bronwyn carry a large metal door to use as a shield, and also swim in open water? Okay, so she has super-human strength… but she still needs to stay afloat!
3. The children are stuck in a loop. Only peculiars can enter loops. Why do some of the children have doubts that Jacob is peculiar after he has entered a loop?
4. If only peculiars can enter loops, why can wights enter loops? It explicitly says that wights are common, but also that they can (presumably) live for thousands of years. So which is it?
5. Why are the children in the loop only safe if they stay on the island? Because of the dangers off the island when the loop was created? If duplicates of those dangers still exist inside the loop, why don’t duplicates of the children also exist inside the loop?
6. I don’t even want to start with the time travel issues. So if the loop closes and the children are now in 1940, does that change the course of history for the “real” world? Are there now parallel universes operating? And that’s only the tip of the potential time travel iceberg!

And my final issue? The ending of the book was written in a way that almost requires a sequel. While I don’t mean to say that sequels are a bad thing, I think there is a difference between potential (somewhere for the story to go from here) and need (little or no resolution). I can also understand that sometimes an author just has more to say, and they plan for a book or idea to be a series. However, in this case, this timing seems off. The original book was published in 2011, and the next two released in quick succession in 2014 and 2015. That just seems like poor planning if this was always intended to be a trilogy. It feels more like the author decided that he wanted to make sure he could write a second book in case it became popular, but he didn’t really have an idea of what he could actually write about. But let’s just throw in a sort of cliffhanger, just in case.

Despite all my negative comments, I did not hate this book. I do not regret reading this book. Do I intend to continue reading the series? No.

As a final note, despite being disappointed by this book, I decided to watch the movie. Although I’m often skeptical of book to film adaptations, I will typically watch them. This one was interesting. It was true to the general story, but many of the details were adjusted. While this would normally frustrate me, I appreciated it this case. The adapters took some liberties and closed (or left out) some of those annoying plot holes! They even fixed the ending! I felt much more satisfied at the end of the film than I was expecting.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I suppose I can be on board with a book that has a bird lady in the title. 3 paws.”