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.”

The Hunger Games

img_6217Book: The Hunger Games (Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I recently revisited The Hunger Games, after having read the trilogy quite a few years back—about a year after the final book was published. I remember enjoying the series quite a bit, but many of the details of why have become rather fuzzy over the years. I remember the general plot of each book, many of the major events, and feeling invested in Katniss and her revolution. Beyond that, many of the particularities of the series have faded into a broader feeling of “I am glad I read that, and I would read it again.”

Well, as I said in my last post, I have always been a re-reader. While I do not re-read as often as I would like, there are a handful of books that I have read at least a dozen times. Reading the next new thing on the shelf is certainly exciting, but there is a thrill that comes with re-reading a good book that cannot be replicated. The story, vaguely familiar, comes into sharper focus. Details that seemed insignificant the first time through suddenly jump out with meaning. It is been quite some time since I have done any re-reading, and I am so happy that I chose to start here.

This series were the first books that I chose to re-read via audio book. The format is well suited for the first person narrator, and it was really interesting to actually hear the story in Katniss’s voice. It kind of felt like something somewhere between a book and a movie—there is a liveliness added to the story when hearing a character relay their first hand experience, but we are still able to hear the thoughts and emotions that can get lost in a movie adaptation.

The first thing that stuck out to me this time around was the wealth of rich details in the text. Katniss has a unique set of survival mechanisms that lead her to be very in tune with her surroundings, especially in the forest. This makes the details in her descriptions fit with her as a character, adding a nice balance to the scene setting. For me, the scene setting often feels forced with the first person narrative. Everyone notices their surroundings, but it’s not a typical line of thought to describe them in great detail. This all helps to make her story feel grounded in reality, despite the extreme differences in her world.

While I say extreme differences, I suppose I should also comment that there were a few moments that felt a little too real to me. I could not help but twinge a little as some of the characters were voicing their concerns about their government—on both sides. At the same time, I think this could be a fair introduction to some of the realities of politics and war, especially since this is aimed toward young adults. While the first book seems to pretty clearly align the sides of Districts versus Capitol as Good versus Bad, this becomes increasingly blurred coming into the end of the series. Life is complicated, just as their war is complicated. There are good and bad people on both sides; no system or side in disagreement is perfect.

Lastly, I noticed much more depth in the character of Katniss than in my initial read. She is a more powerful, yet damaged character than I remember. One thing that really impressed—and frustrated—me about her portrayal is how very clear it was that she was experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, this makes perfect sense: she had a history of trauma even before being thrown into the Hunger Games, and then a series of continuing traumatic experiences after. I felt that Collins did an excellent job of depicting this, both in Katniss’s behavior and her thoughts at trying to cover for herself. The frustrating aspect for me was how every single other character seemed completely unaware of the extent of her struggles, perhaps with the exception of Peeta. Even those who appeared to understand that she was not well also seemed to brush off the severity, or act as if circumstances make it unimportant. I suppose, while frustrating, this may be an accurate representation of what many experience when dealing with similar mental health issues. While certainly not the main focus of the book, I think this aspect of the story provides a good glimpse at the thought processes behind such an illness. Perhaps there is room for some to find some understanding of others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “If you listened to these books instead of reading them, how did I still end up in a pile of them?”

Dead is the New Black

img_4346Book: Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez

Date Read: December 9 to 17, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I read this back in December, as part of a mad rush to finish as many books as possible by the end of the year. This was a book that I had gotten as a daily deal on Kindle quite some time ago, and it was the perfect fit for a reading spree: short and something that does not require a ton of mental energy.

This supernatural detective novel is written as if it were realistic fiction. There is no real world building here—this book takes place in a normal town in California, just with the understanding that fictional creatures like werewolves and vampires are real. Our protagonist, Daisy Giordano, is the daughter of a psychic who is known to assist the local police. Her sisters have similar abilities, but Daisy reports herself to be a “normal.” Daisy is determined to help her mother solve a case that she is stuck on: all while navigating life as a high school student. There is high school romance, girl drama, cheerleaders, and every other young adult cliché you can think of.

Despite the clichés, I thought this was well done for what it is. The story was interesting, the writing reasonable. There were a few predictable developments, but also some surprises along the way. I discovered while reading that this is the first book in a series, and while I did enjoy this first book, it is not something that I feel I need to run out and read the rest. That said, I am happy to report that this was serviceable as a standalone novel. I can definitely see where there is room left open for further development with the characters, but the main plot of the story is wrapped up well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Cheerleaders and girl drama? Can’t you make the new cat read these ones from now on? 1 paw.”

Harbor Me

img_3633Book: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Date Read: March 19 to 21, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Every year, I make an effort to read the book that is chosen for the One Book, One City program in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Library partner on the project that provides a copy of the book to all 5th grade students in the city, as well as classroom resources for teachers and an online community for students to participate in. The program makes an effort to choose diverse books, and books that lend themselves to engagement and discussion from students. Honestly, they have outdone themselves with their choice for 2020.

Unlike previous years, I almost missed my opportunity to read this book. In the past, we have received at least one additional copy of the book that I have been able to borrow from the librarian. However, this year we only received exactly the number we needed for students and classroom staff. I was disappointed, but heard talk around the school: this was shaping up to be the best year yet for the program. Students were connecting with the book in ways that they have not in the past; classrooms were having open and honest discussions about real issues, initiated and lead by students. And then—COVID-19 reached our state. Within days, schools were shut down and teachers were left lamenting the cancellation of their wonderful plans. Me being the optimist, I am trying to be grateful for the fact that the school closures landed an abandoned copy of the book in my hands before I headed home.

The story focuses on six students from different backgrounds, who are all in the same small class at school. One Friday afternoon, their teacher takes them to an empty classroom, and leaves them to use the space to talk to each other without direction or interference from adults. Over time, each of the students opens up to their friends, as they start to recognize that although they are each living their own stories, their lives overlap with the stories of others. Although there are a couple ongoing storylines, this book is not heavily plot driven—the focus is more on the feeling and memories associated with a group of friends.

While I think I would have enjoyed this one any time, I think the time that this book fell into my hands amplified how I felt about it. There is an immense sense of community here; a sense of recognizing oneself as a part of something larger. At the same time, there is a recognition of each individual’s one story: a realization that everyone around us is living a life full of its own complications, and while we may be center stage in our own minds, we may only be a background character in the life of someone else. In a time of solidarity through solitude, I find something comforting about this.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I’m center stage in your mind though, right? 3 paws.”

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.

img_0817

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

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.”

Gone, Part 2

Book: Gone (Series) by Michael Grant

Date Read: June 13 to October 26, 2018

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

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.