Short reviews from 2013: Twisted, The Shoemaker’s Wife and Steve Jobs

In celebration of my 7-year blogging anniversary, here are three short reviews of books I read in 2013.


Twisted
by
Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is a little bit like a modern Catcher in the Rye and I liked it for that reason. Twisted was on our school district’s summer reading list for rising ninth graders a couple years ago. There is some mature language and content, but I think it is realistic. I think kids want to read something contemporary that has an edge to it and Anderson understands how to incorporate this element into quality writing.

In Twisted, Tyler returns to his senior year of high school, after being punished during the summer for vandalizing the school. He struggles with a poor self-image and how others, most importantly his father, perceive him. Tyler navigates through adolescence and important relationships and, like many coming-of-age stories, learns the true meaning of family and friendship.

Final scenes with his family are raw and emotional and show Anderson at her best.


The Shoemaker’s Wife
by
Adriana Trigiani

I liked this family saga of immigration, near-misses in love and brushes with greatness, with the appropriate doses of disappointment and sadness. It is a light and entertaining read. I enjoyed reading about Italy at the turn of the century and life in the Italian Alps. The author does a nice job bringing the main characters to life.

I think the author’s strengths lie in the story’s initial setting and characters. Her early descriptions of Ciro, Eduardo and their mother are moving. In addition, Trigiani’s descriptions of the Ravanelli family show warmth and devotion. It is the foundation of a really great story.

Ciro’s success as a shoemaker and his assimilation into New York life move at a believable pace. I enjoyed this part of the story much more. Despite the unlikely nature of meeting Enza on her wedding day, we all know it is coming and accept the feel-good moment.

Some other parts I like include Ciro’s relationship with Sister Teresa at the San Nicola Convent. I also like how Ciro is accepted for who he is at the convent, and how the nuns do not force him to be a believer.

An entertaining read and a great way to escape to another time and place!


Steve Jobs
by
Walter Isaacson

This biography gives us the full picture of Steve Jobs, good and bad. It is a detailed history of Jobs, his life and his creations at Apple, NeXT, Pixar and Apple again. And it’s a look at the impatient frustrations of a perfectionist who, with the genius of vision and presentation, liked to distort reality, had poor people skills and thought no rules applied to him.

I don’t know what to think of Steve Jobs. He derived his happiness from creating and was driven to do so. Isaacson shows a man who manipulated people, berated them, and often ignored his wife and children. He regularly took credit for ideas that came from his creative team and rearranged facts to benefit his point, all with no regrets. But time and again he enabled people to achieve the impossible by refusing to believe that something could not be done.  The combination of persistence and genius made him a remarkable man.

AND…Steve Jobs gave us the Mac, fonts, graphics and desktop publishing. Then he gave us the iPhone, the iPod, iTunes and music. He allowed us to re-experience the feelings we used to have in record stores as we excitedly flipped through albums and heard new music on the store speakers. Then he gave us the iPad, movies and books all with a touchscreen. He knew what we wanted, just as he said, before we knew what we wanted.

This was a very interesting read. My only negative comment is that it was sometimes repetitive, particularly on the subjects of distorted reality and Jobs’ belief in closed-end product design. I also thought the author often portrayed Jobs as too much of a beloved hero in the second half of the book, once Jobs returned to Apple. But then again, that’s when we got all these great products. And I don’t think I could live without them.

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Audiobook Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On
by
Rainbow Rowell

Rating:

Here’s an example of how my reading tastes may get in the way of a proper review. I downloaded this book on a whim. I knew it was Young Adult, a genre I usually like, but I didn’t read about what Carry On was about ahead of time.

Carry On is a teen love story that takes place at a magic school outside of London. The magic people are at war because the Insidious Humdrum is eating holes into the atmosphere. If the Humdrum goes unstopped, the world of magic will disappear.

Simon Snow is in his last year at Watford School of Magiks and he is the chosen one, the only mage who has a chance of defeating the Humdrum. He’s an orphan and is under the tutelage of the school’s director, The Mage. But Simon is clearly not ready to take on his predetermined role in defeating the Humdrum. He is often clueless and his spells need work. At Watford, he has a girlfriend, Agatha, a best friend, Penny and his nemesis roommate, Baz, is a vampire. Despite their magic, the four are typical teenagers with the usual problems and angst.

The story begins in the fall of the kids’ last year at Watford. Simon is glad to be back after a summer with the Normals. When Baz is late returning to school, Simon is both relieved, but strangely worried. It’s the first sign that something is going terribly wrong at Watford. Will Simon and Baz be able to get past their problems and will the friends be able to stop the Humdrum? Can they count on The Mage, who’s often away, to help them?

I don’t want to spoil the story for fans of this type of book. Rainbow Rowell is a popular writer in this genre. Simon is also a character in another one of her books, Fan Girl, a fanfiction story. But Carry On is written in the first-person point of view of each character, so it’s a separate story. I must also mention the obvious similarity to Harry Potter. There are heated debates about whether this is okay. I’m not at all into Harry Potter (I know, sorry…) or fanfiction, so I will only just mention it. I also found the audiobook a little confusing because the subtle changes in the narrator’s voice made it hard to know who was talking.

But I thought the story was well developed, with good building tension in the plot. There are clear good guys, villains, some I was unsure about and plenty of lesser characters that make important appearances later on. For me, the plot was a little too crazy and the finish was really out there. Fans are guaranteed lots of magic and vampire stuff, plenty of romantic twists and an action-packed conclusion. I thought the wrap-up was good because it gave me a clear view of how the characters will move on with their lives in the second book of the Simon Snow series, Wayward Son.

So for me, just okay, but I’m clearly not the designated reader. I was glad to learn more about the genre, however, and think those who like books about magic and vampires would enjoy Carry On.

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Short reviews from 2013: The Cay, The Giver and Orphan Train

As I approach my 7-year blogging anniversary, I’ve been looking at some of the old reviews I posted. A lot of them are pretty short, with limited plot descriptions, and mostly my opnions. I’d love to go back and beef them up a bit, but I think I’d have to re-read the books before I did that. So today I’m just going to share three short reviews of books I liked, but didn’t say too much about!


The Cay
by
Theodore Taylor

Rating:

This is a touching coming-of-age story about eleven-year-old Phillip Enright, an American boy living on the island of Curaçao during World War II. When Phillip and his mother leave the island to escape the dangers of the war, their boat is hit and sunk by a German U-boat. Phillip is struck in the head and thrown into the water and he wakes to find himself on a raft with Timothy, a large, old, black man from the West Indies. The blow to Phillip’s head causes him to lose his sight as the two of them float aimlessly in the Caribbean.

This unlikely pair struggles to survive first on the water, and later on a tiny uninhabited island. But the biggest struggle is within Phillip, whose preconceived ideas about a black man run counter to what we see in Timothy. Timothy pushes Phillip to learn how to fish, climb trees and find his way around the island on his own, without his sight. Timothy is both kind and patient and through his wisdom, Phillip learns the true meaning of friendship and sacrifice.

I think this story does a great job showing how an eleven-year-old boy thinks and feels, from selfish, angry and scared to generous and caring.


The Giver
by
Lois Lowry

Rating:

The Giver is a terrific read for anyone, but it’s perfect for middle school students because it is so thought provoking. It is the story of a controlled society in which there are no choices or conflict. When Jonas turns twelve, he must train with The Giver and prepare to receive all the memories of love, happiness, war and pain. During his training, Jonas learns the hard truth about his community and its rules and knows he must act decisively to bring about change.

The best part about this book is that every word counts. Lois Lowry is great at describing her characters and their community. She includes meaningful foreshadowing that leads the reader through a gradual understanding of what might initially seem like an acceptable way to live. She accomplishes this by revealing just enough details and we realize the facts just as Jonas does.

The Giver ends just as you want to learn more. And thankfully, there is more to the story in Messenger, Gathering Blue and Lowry’s newest, Son.


Orphan Train
by
Christina Baker Kline

Rating:

I liked this book that parallels the story of a young girl sent west on an orphan train from New York City in 1929 and a present-day Native American teenage girl who has struggled in the modern foster care system. I think Kline does an excellent job showing us how Niamh Power and these destitute orphaned children, both numb and frightened, must have felt as they traveled and met up with their matches, which were often far from perfect. Molly Ayer’s present-day story of a rebellious, Goth girl whose father has died and whose mother is addicted to drugs is somehow less powerful, but provides a necessary structure to the story. Molly meets ninety-one year-old Niamh, now named Vivian, when she is assigned to a community service punishment for stealing a book. The two form a friendship as Molly helps Vivian sort through her attic and together they relive Vivian’s story.

I liked Vivian’s story very much. I think Kline is great when she describes Vivian’s feelings and her desperate situation. It is very easy to imagine these children and their simple desire to live in a home where they are wanted, or at least fed and clothed and treated kindly. It’s somehow both shocking and understood that these orphans don’t always get that.

I enjoyed the book. It’s a look into a time that, because of the changes and struggles in those years, is full of stories.

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee
by
Alan Gratz

Rating:

I don’t know where to begin in gushing about this Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life.

Josef is twelve years old in 1938, living in Berlin, Germany. Hitler is driving Jewish families like his out of the country. To escape, he and his family leave their home and board the St. Louis for Cuba, where they hope to find safety.

Isabel is eleven in Havana, Cuba when her family climbs into a makeshift boat and heads for Miami, Florida. Extreme poverty and dangerous riots have left them no choice. The year is 1994 and Fidel Castro has just announced that anyone who wants to leave is free to go. But will they be welcomed in Miami?

Mahmoud is twelve, living in Aleppo, Syria. It is 2015 and his home has just been destroyed, the result of an ongoing vicious civil war. He and his family take what they can and depart for Turkey, the first of many stops, hoping to make their way to safety in Germany.

In alternating stories, Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud face unpredictable danger and catastrophe as they desperately try to keep their families together. They learn hard lessons on how to choose between being visible and invisible. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Not knowing when to hide and when to speak out, Mahmoud realizes, “good and bad things happened either way.”

All three children are forced to act as leaders, when family members are hurt or weakened. Gratz describes these heartbreaking transformations in which each understands that they must choose, often quickly, and act on their new-adult instincts in order to save their loved ones.

Although the children are from different times, Gratz has connected their stories through the shared experiences and emotions of leaving their homelands and traveling by boat and foot. Surprise connections make this story even more meaningful.

Refugee was published in 2017 and has gained momentum to be included in many middle and high school curriculums. It is a New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year. Although it is a Young Adult book, I highly recommend it for all readers because it shows, for all of us, the importance of understanding the desperate plights that refugees have suffered.

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Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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From the archives: The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien

the silver crown picThe Silver Crown
by
Robert C. O’Brien

Rating:

I really enjoyed this children’s book. My sixth-grader was reading it in school and I decided to read it too.

It’s a story of 10-year-old Ellen who, on her birthday, wakes up to find a jeweled crown on her pillow. Before her family wakes up, Ellen puts the crown in her purse and sneaks out of her house to walk to a nearby park. Soon after, she hears sirens and discovers that her house has burned to the ground and her family is nowhere to be found. And thus begins her journey to find her Aunt Sarah and escape the mysterious people who are chasing her.

Ellen meets many during her time on the run. Some are good and some are evil. Ellen develops a strong bond with 8-year-old Otto, a young boy living in a house in the woods with an old woman he calls his mother. This book has an edge to it that younger kids’ books don’t. There are frightening characters and scary situations and difficult good-byes between Ellen and the people she meets. Despite these losses, many are turned around at the end. I think this book is perfect for a middle school student. The fantasy element allows the reader to experience danger, fright, bravery and loss, with a comfortable ending.

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Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down
by
Jason Reynolds

Rating:

Will knows what he has to do when his older brother is shot dead because, in his neighborhood, the only rules are don’t cry, don’t snitch and get revenge. Less than twenty-four hours after Shawn is killed, Will sets out to take care of the guy he’s sure pulled the trigger.

But at fifteen, Will has never had to step up like this. He’s never even touched a gun. Can he do what the rules say? In a one-minute ride down the elevator of his building, Will is visited by the ghosts of friends and family who have died by gun violence, all part of a senseless cycle of lost futures. He must decide what to do when he reaches the lobby, follow the only rules he knows or break the pattern.

Reynolds tells this excellent story in verse. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by the author, and followed along with the print copy. Seeing the specially formatted words on the page and hearing the author’s narration was a great combination. Reynolds explains in an interview at the end of the audiobook how he wanted to narrate his story to make sure his words were emphasized in way he intended.

Long Way Down has received much deserved praise. It’s a Newberry Medal Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Printz Honor Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner for Young Adult Literature. It was also longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in addition to receiving numerous other awards.

Long Way Down is a short read and listen. The audio is a little more than ninety minutes, including the interview at the end in which Reynolds tells of his own loss, his experiences in detention centers and his conversations with others caught in the trap of gun violence. It’s a short and powerful story, one that the author hopes will make readers empathize with other people’s situations. I recommend it for both Young Adult and adult readers.

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Audiobook: Dear Martin by Nic Stone, narrated by Dion Graham

Audiobook: Dear Martin
by Nic Stone, narrated by Dion Graham

Rating:

Here’s a really great Young Adult audiobook about the complicated dynamic of American race relations and its impact on high school senior, Justyce McAllister, an African Amercian student on scholarship at an elite school in Atlanta.

Justyce has thrived in the protected environment of his private prep school and is looking forward to a successful Ivy League future. But everything turns inside out when he’s wrongfully arrested for trying to help his drunk, ex-girlfriend get home. Until his arrest, Justyce didn’t think racial profiling was something that could happen to him. But the sting of this treatment begins to open his eyes to the more subtle prejudices expressed by some of his classmates. Even his best friend, Manny, who is black, but has grown up in privilege, disappoints Justyce.

To make sense of these feelings, Justyce begins a Dear Martin project, writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Be like Martin,” he tells himself. The letters help at first, but events soon go out of control. Justyce faces racial tension on many sides: from his classmates, from his mother, and from the kids in his Atlanta neighborhood who live to survive.

In addition to the injustice of racial profiling, Nic Stone does a terrific job showing the many sides of this sensitive issue, including questions of privilege, affirmative action, the use of violence as well as acceptance and forgiveness. She also ties Justyce’s experiences to recent racial profiling cases, showing how even a young black man in a prep school is not protected from this dangerous thinking.

Conflict builds to frightening levels and violence results in a heartbreaking loss for the students at his school. As Justyce prepares for college, he will need to take these events with him and decide how to carry himself in a world that may never be completely free of prejudice.

I particularly enjoyed the audiobook presentation. Dion Graham is an excellent narrator, taking on a wide range of characters and telling an important story that is also entertaining and has feel-good charm. Stone tackles a complicated subject and helps explain the many sides in a way that I think teenagers can understand.

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Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry
by
Neal Shusterman
Jarrod Shusterman

Rating:

For sixteen-year-old Alyssa and her family, the drought in southern California was nothing new. It meant conserving water, as in shorter showers and no watering the lawns. Life went on otherwise and no one was thinking disaster. No one except the McCrackens. But they were the strange, reclusive neighbors across the street who had taken their survivalist hobby to the extreme. No one to take seriously.

Now what the news channels had been calling a flow crisis is a sudden Tap-Out. No water. And in a matter of days, throughout the region, civilized communities become desperate rioting mobs, with no way to get out. When Alyssa and her younger brother, Garrett are separated from their parents, it’s up to the kids to survive on their own. But how and for how long? With a hurricane occupying the rest of the nation’s attention, does anyone outside of southern California know how bad it is?

It’s anything goes as friends and neighbors face the grim truth and Alyssa and Garrett must ask themselves how far they will go to survive, whom they will trust and just how much they will help others.

In Neal Shusterman’s brand new book (published 10/2/18), he teams with his son, Jarrod to write a fantastic Young Adult study of climate change and human behavior under extreme stress. They offer a mix of realistic characters with emerging traits of leadership and changing degrees of moral standards, selfishness and violence. Told in the present tense, in varying points of view, Dry is an intense, consuming story that will make readers ask themselves, “What would I do?”

I recommend Dry to readers who enjoy fast-paced action stories that look into how people react to threats and danger.

For another story about the effects of a drought on a town, check out:

The Dry by Jane Harper

And if you like apocalyptic/dystopian survival stories, you may also like:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Book Talk – The Impact of Female Authors on Young Adult Literature

Welcome to Book Talk, an occasional feature on Book Club Mom, home to quick previews of new and not-so-new books that catch my eye and other bookish discussions.

Today I’m going to highlight five female Young Adult authors and talk about an upcoming discussion on their role in literature, but before I do that, a little history on the genre.

Young Adult literature first came to the reading world in the 1960s and has been evolving ever since. What these books have in common is that they are much more realistic than what adolescents traditionally read before. The genre came to be as authors began to write about modern and grittier problems and themes, unique to teenagers.

But did you know that the term “teenagers” didn’t emerge until the 1940s? It first appeared in a 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly. Before that, the American population was divided into two groups: adults and children. You were an adult if you were in the workforce and a child if you were in school. Things began to change during the Great Depression because there were fewer jobs for Americans of all ages. So many more adolescents were enrolled in high school, not working a job.

Librarians were the first to call teenagers “young adults,” in the 1940s, a term that was made official in 1957 by the American Library Association.

I found this information in a great May 2018 article from Smithsonian.com, entitled “How ‘Young Adult’ Fiction Blossomed With Teenage Culture in America.” You can read it here.


The following female authors write about modern teenagers and offer a nice variety of Young Adult literature.

Odd One Out by Nic Stone


The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk


Far from the Tree by Robin Benway


Before the Devil Breaks You (The Diviners) by Libba Bray


I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman

(All author and book cover images are from Amazon.com.)

On Saturday, October 13, this group will convene at the Westport Library in Westport, Connecticut, to discuss their audiences, intentions, and themes in the YA genre. These women will specifically focus on their beliefs about the role of a female author writing about young adults in the current climate of teens today. This discussion is part of the library’s Saugatuck StoryFest Events and, if you live in the area, you can check out the details here.

I enjoy reading YA books, even though I’m long past the target reading age, because I like to understand what themes are interesting and important to teenage readers. Are you a YA fan? What are your favorite YA books?

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