Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

img_0803The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

July’s prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was a book from a series on your shelf. I did not have a ton of options for this one, as I usually read series books all together and tend not to buy a ton of them– it’s hard to get your “to read” list down if you add whole series at a time. However, I happened to be gifted this one awhile back from a book swap, and never quite got around to it. So to stick to my usual reading patterns, I opted to take on the whole series (with a little boost by starting the first book at the end of June).

This was a solid start to a series that I did mostly enjoy. The first book gives a nice introduction to the group: four friends who have been together for their whole lives, preparing to spend their first summer apart. It sets up an interesting structure that continues throughout the series, with four mostly separate narratives that overlap, intertwine, and eventually come together in the end. The “magic” element of the pants seems a little gimmicky, but using pants as the collective reminder of friendship works in a way that other items would not. Since it is something that they wear, it is something they each take with them as they experience life, not something that they simply look to as a token.

I found it noteworthy that in a book dedicated to friendship, the title object it centers on is not wholly positive—the first experience each of the girls has with the pants is negative, but they are also later able to draw strength from the reminder of their friendships to help them get through the tough parts of their summer lives. Although not a completely happy ending, there are positive turns for each character at the end of the book: Carmen has begun to make amends with her father, Lena finally connects with Kostos, Tibby begins to accept the loss of Bailey, and although Bridget is feeling of lost, she has found some solace in her return to her friends.

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The Second Summer of the Sisterhood

Book two picks up at the beginning of the following summer, with minimal reference to the time between. As before, the girls are preparing for a summer spent at least partially apart, and lay out their plans for the pants. Each of them has another storyline with some room for and elements of growth, although I saw some drastic differences in the quality of each characters narrative.

Bridget is still struggling, but seems to be at least a bit more self-aware. She is spending the summer with her grandmother in an effort to learn more about her mother, albeit under an assumed name and deceptive guise. I liked the duality of her re-finding herself here between glimpses of her family and a reconnection to the sport that she loves. I was a little irritated by the unreality of extent of her lie to her grandmother, but thought this was tempered by the admission in the end that her grandmother was suspicious and playing along. I liked Tibby’s journey of discovering and aligning her priorities through the development of her documentary.

Honestly, I found Lena’s story a bit lackluster. I can see the appeal in her story of teenage romance, but just could not get excited for her. Carmen’s difficulty with her mother beginning to date seems like an understandable issue for a teenage daughter, but her story comes off as annoying and melodramatic. In the first book, Carmen seemed justifiably angry with her father and his failure to tell her about his life until she was shoved into the middle of it. This anger with her mother feels different, and petty. I had a hard time sympathizing with her, which took away from the book as a whole.

Gone, Part 3

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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

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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.

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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.

The Boy of a Thousand Faces

img_8077At 48 pages, this is not quite a children’s picture book, but not quite a novel either. Something in between: perhaps a children’s novella? I am a big fan of Brian Selznik. I love the style of his novels and the way he combines words with illustrations to tell a story. This is a little different than his longer works, in that he uses the pictures to supplement this story rather than to continue driving the plot. However, the pictures are no less essential here than in his novels.

Being born on Halloween, it is no surprise that Alonzo has a fascination with monsters. His love is fueled by the late-night horror film show hosted by Mr. Shadow, where he discovers the greatness of Lon Cheney. Alonzo is inspired by the films, which turns into a dream to become the “boy of a thousand faces.” I love that his character has a dream that is outside of what might be considered normal. Alonzo goes beyond “I want to be a movie star” to actually working on and creating something new. His goal is not to be famous, but in the creation of something to be enjoyed by others.

The reciprocal relationship between Alonzo and Mr. Shadow is interesting as well. Alonzo is inspired by Mr. Shadow and his show, reaching out to him when he is beginning to feel disillusioned with his dream. At the same time, Mr. Shadow believed that nobody was interested when his show ended, but was inspired by Alonzo to “bring back” something that he loved in a new way.

I love this as a tribute to traditional horror films, special effects, and Lon Cheney. I think it is also a great introduction to the horror genre. It is a bit creepy, but not something that would truly scare most children. It’s perfect for kids who might have an interest in things that are a bit dark seeming, that might seem a little weird to others.

Boris’s thoughts: “Hmmm… dark and weird… I approve. 3 paws.”

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.”

The Giver

Date Read: Variousimg_5854

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I can say without a doubt that there is no book that I have read as many times as The Giver. There is something about this book that brings me back, again and again. Despite that, this is a somewhat difficult post for me to write. I love this book, but I have a hard time putting my finger on what exactly it is that draws me in. I do not quite have the words to describe the feelings I have when reading it. On one of my re-reads of this book, I decided to keep a highlighter and pen nearby. Mark it up. Write it out. Really dig down into what it was about this book that has me so enthralled. I finished it without making a single mark in the book. I could not find a passage, or even a sentence, that captured the heart of this story.

My first encounter with this book was in middle school. I read it again for a project in high school. I read it a third time when my younger sister had to read it in high school. Shortly after that, I finally bought my own copy. Since then, I have re-read it every year or two. My most recent read was just this summer, where I for a second time did much of my reading with a notebook by my side. I still do not feel fully satisfied that I am writing a review that will truly capture what I have to say, but I will try.

The world that Lowry builds is sparse. We get a basic description of the things that can be found in the community, but little else. Very few details, not really enough to paint a clear picture.This is true not just for the setting, but also the characters of the novel. With an exception for the main characters, we do not get much depth. While I can see why some readers would find this annoying, I think it fits perfectly with the story. The world Jonas lives in is based on Sameness– those details that we are looking for are not important. I think that is part of the beauty of this book. There is a simplicity.

But then we add complexity. As Jonas learns of the world of the past, we get glimpses of the path that lead society to this state. While the general idea we get of the world is dystopian (perhaps disguised as a Utopia), the progression is seemingly logical to a point. No hunger? No war? Certainly, a world with more security would sound appealing to many. I suppose the question becomes where the line gets drawn between safety and freedom. Is it necessary to take away all freedoms to create the order needed to eliminate these problems? Does the ability to choose the color of your clothing really impact the world on a larger scale? Maybe. Is a world without pain worth giving up those things needed to create it? I suppose this comes down to the dichotomy of life– if we eliminate the risk of pain, is there a possibility for true pleasure? Which of those is the real purpose of living? To get through life unscathed, or to collect the bumps, bruises, and scars that lead to happiness? Obviously, I do not have answers to any of these, nor would I even attempt it.

Finally, of course, is the ambiguous ending. I feel somewhat differently about this each time that I read it. When I first read the book, I did not feel the ending to be ambiguous. I made my interpretation as I read, and that was good enough for me. In future readings, I realized that it could be open to additional interpretations. I find this an interesting aspect to the story, although I have always preferred by initial interpretation.

Boris’s thoughts: “I suppose if you like it that much, it can’t be bad… I guess… 3 paws.”