In the meantime, I hope you are all reading some lovely things. I hope to be back soon.
Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo
Rating: PG; 3 stars
Summary: Heaven is For Real is the story of a little boy, Colton Burpo, who, after nearly dying in the hospital, started telling his parents things about God and heaven that a four-year-old shouldn't have known. Although at first his parents wrote him off as just telling stories, after several repeat incidences, they began to believe him. The book describes this journey starting from before the hospital and ending with how the family decided to deal with what seemed like a gift from God.
Opinions: I want to make it very clear that my opinions on this book do not stem from whether or not I believe Colton's account. I picked up this book because I curious as to how much I would find believable. After reading it, there were some things that I did believe, and some things that I didn't.
My disappointment with this book lie in the writing style. While I appreciate the need for Colton's father to write this story because of how young Colton was, I think that he occasionally lost sight of what the book was about. In particular, I thought there was too much focus on the father: his thoughts, feelings, and motives. I got the book expecting to read a story about Colton, and instead what I got was a story about how Todd dealt with Colton.
Now don't get me wrong, there are times when Todd's perspective really did improve the book. I really liked the parts about how both parents dealt with Colton talking about the holes in Jesus' hands, a grandfather he never met, and other things that were just unbelievable. These were moments that were really crucial to hear from the parents' perspectives. However, I felt that the parents' perspectives were used too much. I don't think that I need to know all of Todd's thoughts and emotions step-by-step when Colton is in the hospital. However, maybe I would think differently if I was a parent.
I think that in general, this book was misrepresented. I expected a story about a boy's cohesive narrative of heaven, and that's not what the majority of the book was about. However, I do think this is a worthwhile read if you like spiritual nonfiction. I don't think that you have to completely believe everything in it to enjoy it, however I do think it becomes more enjoyable if you keep an open mind while reading it. Because of the subject matter of the book, the Burpo family's religious ideals and interpretations are quite out in the open. It is quite likely that many readers don't see eye-to-eye with their views. I approached this book with an open curiosity, and that's the attitude that I recommend.
I gave this book 3 stars for writing style, perspective, and misrepresentation. However, I still did enjoy this book. I read almost all of it in one sitting. The tone makes it very easy to read. This isn't a book for everyone, but I think those with an open mind will definitely find some things to think about in reading it.
An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor
Rating: G; 4 stars
Summary: An Altar in the World is a book celebrating religion and spirituality for the rest of us. In short chapters, it discusses how the divine can be encountered everywhere in life, from prayer, to Sabbath, to pain, to work. Taylor makes use of both personal anecdotes and cultural expectations to get her point across. She focuses on details and paying attention to the world around us, and shows that little things can achieve big results.
Opinions: So I had to read this book for a class I took this past January, called “Spirituality for Busy People.” The goal of the class was very similar to the goal of this book: to find the spiritual in all aspects of life, and to learn to take the time to notice the divine in the world around us. I feel that this book is the perfect companion to the that class and to trying to live a more spiritual life in general.
Something that really appealed to me about this book was the intimate nature of it. An Altar in the World read like a combination between a memoir and a self-help book. It had the personal examples and anecdotes of memoir, but also still had the intimacy and personalization of a self-help book.
I'm going to come right out and say that I didn't agree with everything Taylor said in this book. Some of it just didn't seem to ring true for me. However, Taylor writes in such a way that even when I disagree, I can definitely see and appreciate where she's coming from. Spirituality is a deeply personal thing, and so it's inevitable that not everything will work for everyone. I think Taylor did an excellent job in mixing general and specific topics and examples so that so much of it can be true for different people in different ways. Based on class discussions, I'd say that the majority of the students in my class found truth within this book, but I bet that if you polled students on how it affected them, there would be an incredibly wide variety of responses.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in religion or spirituality, but I think it is especially suited to those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” In my opinion, An Altar in the World bridges that gap quite nicely. This is a nice, easy read that promotes some soul-searching, but only in a good way. The book inspired me to take some action back in January, and perhaps it is time for me to re-read it, so that I can add some energy to my spiritual side.
The Maid by Kimberly Cutter
Rating: R; 4 1/2 stars
Summary: The Maid is the story of St. Joan of Arc, told from the time she first heard the saints talking to her until her death at the hands of the English. The book moves back in forth in time, as Joan (or Jehanne, as she's called in this book) recounts her story to a priest that visits her in her cell before her execution. The Maid makes no qualms about showing the darker side of Joan's personality and her life. It tracks her journey from discovering her duty in the small French village of Lorraine, to recruiting soldiers and nobles to her cause, through the war, and up to her death. Along the way, the book introduces questions of duty, motive, and means to an end.
Opinions: Joan of Arc is my favorite saint. She has been for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember liking the fact that she actually went out and did something. When I made my Confirmation (the Catholic coming-of-age sacrament), I took Joan as my Confirmation name (traditionally, one chooses the name of a saint). The Wishbone episode with Joan of Arc was one of my favorites. So yeah. I may be a bit biased, because when this book came out, I saw it and thought OMG Joan of Arc novel! Yeah.
Bias aside, this novel did not disappoint. I felt that historical details were memorable and accurate, and the dialogue was both period accurate and entertaining. I felt that this novel was incredibly well-written, and in fact, I read the first 200 pages of the book without stopping, simply because I enjoyed it so much.
I felt that The Maid was incredibly well-researched. In the author's note at the back of the book, Cutter wrote about how meticulously she researched Joan of Arc. Even the most unbelievable scene in the book is entirely based in fact (that is the scene in which Joan leaps from the top of a tower. According to records, she hit the ground without so much as a sprained ankle).
I think my favorite thing about the book was how well it characterized Joan. Joan of Arc is the sort of historical figure that, in my experience, is thought of only in relation to her actions. By contrast, The Maid presented Joan as a human being, with interests and flaws and feelings. I felt that her emotions in particular were very realistic and increased both my respect for her as a Saint and my appreciation for her as a human being. Scenes that are standing out to me are those when she overhears a sexual encounter, when she realizes she might be falling in love, and when she stops hearing from the saints. Those moments in particular seemed very human to me, nothing more, nothing less.
I gave this book an R rating for violence, language, and (oddly enough) sexual content. I gave it 4 1/2 stars because it was an incredibly enjoyable book. It was compelling, well-written, and well-researched. My only complaint with it was how quickly the ending came on. I just felt like the pacing was a little off as the book ended. However, this is still a fantastic book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it. In short, The Maid is an excellent read for lovers of history, France, saints, or Joan of Arc in particular.
Crossed by Ally Condie
Rating: PG-13; 4 1/2 stars
Summary: Cassia is determined to be reunited with Ky, no matter what it takes. After working in various camps with Aberrants, Cassia may be close to finding Ky. That is, if Ky is still alive and hasn't run away...which he has. Oops. That won't deter Cassia, however, and she is determined to follow his trail into the wilderness, perhaps locating the legendary Rising along the way.
Opinions: Perhaps you will recall the tail end of 2010 when I reviewed Matched, the first book in this trilogy. As good as Matched was, Crossed did not disappoint. I read the entire book in just two sittings, and for the most time was riveted. I found myself alternately laughing and gasping aloud, and when my friends assured me they didn't mind spoilers, I began ranting about the stupidity of various characters. One of my big pet peeves is when characters are obstinate, even though I know it's for the sake of the story, and it usually drives me to read more.
One of the big things that I liked about Matched was the fact that Cassia was not working to save her dystopian society. She was simply trying to live her life the way she wanted to. It was a refreshing change from the standard convention. Crossed follows in much the same way. Cassia is trying to reunite with Ky. Along the way, she learns of an underground rebellion, and she wants to join, but her priority is finding Ky.
I would have liked to see more of Xander, but since the book is from Cassia and Ky's perspective, I understand that why his presence was limited. Still, I really like his character, especially after learning certain things about him in this book. I can only hope that he will once more become a major player in book three, which is slated for release late this year.
I have to say, something that I continue to love about this series is the repeated use of older poetry, particularly Tennyson, because I'm a Tennyson nut. I've also become incredibly fond of Dylan Thomas' “Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” which I believe is a villanelle...Sorry, that's the English major in me coming out.
Middle books in a trilogy are hard to write. They usually both pick up and end at a bit of a downswing, tension-wise. However, Crossed does not seem to suffer from middle-book-blues. Yes, the ending is not as satisfying as I wanted it to be. However, it tied up many loose ends, while still indicating that more was to come. It did not end on a cliffhanger, which I personally like. Others will disagree.
I gave this book a PG-13 for violence, as there is quite a bit at certain points. I don't recall any swearing, but that doesn't mean there isn't any. I gave it 4 1/2 stars for being an awesome book, but still missing that final, almost indescribable, “oomph” that puts it into the 5 star range.
I recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed Matched. If you haven't read the first book, but you enjoy dystopian fiction, give this trilogy a read. So far, I've enjoyed it immensely.
The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker
Rating: PG; 4 stars
Summary: Function words, the little words that our eyes glaze over when we read, are more than they appear to be. In The Secret Life of Pronouns, author James Pennebaker reveals exactly what the title suggests: the hidden meanings and uses of words like pronouns that we use every day without even thinking. The book is divided into ten chapters, and although each discusses a different aspect of function words and psychology, there is, understandably, a lot of overlap. The book utilizes psychology and statistics to track how people use function words in various situations, and what that might reveal about their personality and motives.
Opinions: Overall, I really, really enjoyed this book. Then again, that shouldn't be surprising; I am an English and French double major who formerly considered going into linguistics. In short, I am a word nerd. I thought that this book provided some really interesting insights into the way language is used in culture today. I was absolutely fascinated by the examples pulled from fiction, perhaps because I am a creative writer.
I was a bit disappointed by the lack of definitive results in much of the research discussed in the book. Then again, in my experience with psychology, research is rarely definitive. I am glad that Pennebaker admitted to the gaps in the research and didn't try to cover them up or even lie about them. It makes the book (and him!) seem more credible and reliable.
I was a little frustrated with the overlap in topics of each of the chapters, but at the same time, I was also grateful for it. There was a lot of information being thrown at me, so the reminder was a good thing. I wish there was a way to keep the information fresh without having to rehash it all.
Still, despite my few complaints (or, in some cases, wishful thinking), I really did enjoy this book. The ideas it presented were really fascinating, and they were presented in a very engaging manner. Not once did I feel like I was reading a dry textbook, although someone who is not as interested by words as I am might disagree. By the time I finished the book, my sister was sick of hearing me talk about function words.
I have to say, it's interesting to write a review on a book about function words, because it really makes me wonder how I'm using function words in this review, and whether they are revealing anything about my personality...hmm...
I gave this book four stars because it really was enjoyable. I had a few complaints, but I still fully enjoyed the book. I gave it a PG simply because reading level. I really can't see anyone younger than high school reading this and understanding it in a meaningful way; some of the vocabulary related to statistics and psychology is a bit advanced, and there are some cultural references that children might not get. I just think that a kid would probably lose interest.
In general, I think that people who love words will enjoy this book. I also recommend it to writers, because it sheds some interesting light on writing fiction. This isn't a book for everyone; many people are bored reading about words. I, however, found it fascinating, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver
Rating: G; 5 stars
Summary: Liesl's world is dark and gray, literally. The sun hasn't shown in years; Liesl's father has recently died; Liesl hasn't seen the world outside of her attic bedroom in months. Then, Po turns up. Po is a ghost, neither male nor female. Po is unfamiliar with the world of the living. It has been on the Other Side so long that things like manners and lying are forgotten. When Will, the apprentice to the local alchemist makes a late-night mistake, both Liesl and Po's world will be turned upside-down, for the better.
Opinions: This was not a book that I thought would make me cry, yet it did just that. Liesl and Po reads like all of my favorite middle grade novels, including The Tale of Despereaux, Tuesdays at the Castle, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and The Castle Corona. There is a certain magic to book like these. A younger audience is clearly defined, but nowhere did I feel talked down to. The concept and characters contain a liveliness that I don't often seen in books written for older audiences. It's hard to put words to it, but there's an atmosphere where every word has an energy to it.
For anyone who has read Lauren Oliver before, this isn't like what she normally writes. At least, it isn't like Delirium; I haven't actually read Before I Fall. However, she has attested in the back of Liesl and Po that it is different from everything else she's written, both in the content and the process. I won't say anymore, because I believe her message at the end should be read in full and not paraphrased. In any case, Liesl and Po has a vastly different feel from Delirium, and whether you loved or hated Delirium, I believe Liesl and Po should be given a chance.
But what made it so good? So, so many things. The concept was a big part of how much I enjoyed this book. Oliver's fleshing out of the Other Side was very believable. The magic worked in flawlessly to the rest of the plot. Along with concept, I felt that the role each of the characters played was well-defined. I did feel that there were almost too many characters present in the climax, but they all did play an important role, and all of their story-lines did need to be wrapped up, so I can definitely see why Oliver made that choice.
Also character-wise, I felt that Oliver did a really good job pulling off the idea of introducing random characters, only to make them important later. This is something that I first saw used in The Tale of Despereaux. I loved it in Liesl and Po as much as I loved it in Despereaux, and Oliver uses it to her advantage.
Plot-wise, Liesl and Po twisted and turned in ways that I didn't expect. Simple elements that I didn't expect to be important ended up bearing a ton of significance. Oliver really wove together a detailed, tight plot.
In general, I absolutely loved this book. There was a magic to it that I don't often find in books. I think it is absolutely appropriate for middle-schoolers, and younger children will probably enjoy it too, although they may need someone to read it to them. This is a wonderful book. It's a quick read, and it definitely worth the time it takes to read it.
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
Rating: PG; 5 stars
Summary: Castle Glower is not an ordinary castle. Every Tuesday, it grows and changes, sometimes adding adding rooms, sometimes a whole wing! Celie, the smallest of the royal children, is the only person who has ever tried to map Castle Glower. Unknown to Celie and almost everyone else in the castle, her detailed knowledge of the castle's layout will soon become important to the survival of Castle Glower!
Opinions: This book was nothing like the blurb said it would be. To start, it was a lot darker. When you *SPOILER ALERT* kill off the beloved King and Queen (Dad and Mom, to our young protagonists) in chapter 4 *END SPOILER*, things are going to be a little darker than your average middle-grade novel. I got the impression, based on the blurb, that this book was going to be more about how no one understands Celie's interest in how the castle grows and changes. This impression was...rather off. BUT. Do not let that deter you from reading Tuesdays at the Castle. This is an excellent book.
The writing style in Tuesdays at the Castle reminded me a bit of The Tale of Despereaux; it contained that same magic that makes Despereaux so loved. I dunno what it is, but I'm suddenly finding a whole slew of fantastic middle-grade books that are all written with this same magic. I don't know if it's the audience, or the genre, or what, but I like it!
I found the characters in Tuesdays at the Castle to be well developed. I was consistently surprised by how they reacted to different things, but not in a bad way. The book is pretty short, so there wasn't really a lot of room for character back-story. Still, George managed to write logical character responses that still managed to surprise, which is no small feat.
I loved the twists and turns of the plot. At times, I felt that I was actually in Castle Glower, because the plot took me in so many interesting directions that I never would have suspected. I suppose this is in part because of how I misunderstood what the book was about, but I do think that the majority of it was simply a very skillfully handled plot.
I gave this book a PG rating because it is a little bit dark. There's a bit of violence and general darkness that really small kids might not be able to handle very well. However, I firmly believe that any child who is old enough to read chapter books would fare fine with Tuesdays at the Castle. I would recommend not reading it to a three-year-old. I gave it 5 stars because I really and truly enjoyed this book. I read it essentially in one sitting, and I enjoyed every page of it. This is a wonderful book, and I think it would make an especially good family read. If you like fantasy for children, Tuesdays at the Castle is a lovely, fun little book.
Hey, hey, I'm back! Yay! I read like a fiend over break, so I'm going to write reviews and try to get back on the weekly posting schedule! I've missed blogging. :) So without further ado, the review:
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: PG-13; 5 stars
Summary: Imagine a circus that only opens at night, with monochrome tents that belie the colorful performances within. Inside the tents—feats you never thought possible: a garden made of ice, a labyrinth of clouds, magicians, fortune tellers. Welcome to that circus; welcome to Le Cirque Des Rêves. Within this circus, meet two dueling magicians, each vying for the upper hand in magnificent feats. Meet the only people born within the circus: Poppet and Widget. Meet the enigmatic masterminds behind the whole affair. And stay awhile, enjoy yourself. You don't know when the circus will be in town again.
While you're here, though, pay no attention to details that don't really seem to fit. After all, the competition fueling this circus is really none of your concern...oops, guess the cat's out of the bag, now. :P
Opinions: Good God, I loved this book. By the time I was twenty pages in, I was recommending it to friends. It is so different from almost everything else I've read. There is a certain magic contained in the prose itself that makes what it describes seem all the more real. This is Morgenstern's first book, and after The Night Circus, I can't wait to see what else she comes up with.
I think one of the things I really liked was the shifting perspective in the book. The book shifts between the stories of various circus people and second person accounts of the reader in the circus. I think those little bits are my favorite. They really drew me into the world that the book created. Similarly, Morgenstern deftly manages a large cast of characters without confusing the reader (or at least, she didn't confuse me). Even though the story jumps around a bit with characters, I didn't find myself lost (especially once I started paying attention to the dates at the top of the chapters. They're kind of important). I found myself caring about nearly all the characters (though I will admit that Poppet and Widget were my favorites)
I love Morgenstern's genre-bending: The Night Circus is a fantasy novel that reads like literary fiction. Or you could say that it's a literary novel with a little magic (for lack of a better term) thrown in. The writing style is definitely more literary in nature, but the book does throw fantasy around quite a bit, and I don't think it would be far off to think of it in part as historical fiction. After all, time and period is quite important to the plot.
If I thought I loved this book while I was still reading it, the ending completely blew my mind. I so wasn't expecting what happened. I think that anyone, even if they aren't particularly enjoying the book, will really appreciate the final twist.
So...ratings, ratings, ratings! Clearly I loved this book, so the 5-star rating is not unexpected at all. However, I do have a feeling that this is one of those books you either love or hate, so fair warning there. As for the PG-13, there is a bit of violence in this book. There's also some sensuality. I also think that a reader under 13 (and many readers under 16 or 17) would have a very hard time getting through the writing itself; Morgenstern clearly appreciates the craft of writing, and the descriptions can make things a little slow going at times.
In short, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I will say that some people won't like it. And if you don't like incredibly detailed and poetic prose, this probably isn't the book for you. However, I especially recommend this for readers of commercial fantasy, because I found this to be a very interesting bridge between literary and genre fiction. This book was highly enjoyable, and is easily one of my top books of the year.