Review: Divergent

I saw the movie first, so that sort of colors things a little. It is not really the same story, although the bones are basically the same. 

This is a dystopian young adult novel, the first part of a trilogy, about a 16 year old girl named Beatrice Prior. It takes place in a post-war Chicago, where people are divided into 5 factions that all contribute to society in different ways. It’s like the McDonalds of society, where everyone has a narrowly defined place in the greater structure. At 16, each person chooses if they will stay in the faction they were born into or transfer to a new one. Beatrice begins in Abnegation, which is selfless yet in charge of governance. She chooses Dauntless, a wild and crazy bunch of pierced and tattooed soldiers who are trained to defend the city from threats. What threat there could be is never specified, and only briefly does Beatrice wonder what is “beyond” the fence.

Once at Dauntless headquarters, she is thrown into death defying stunts and training in order to prove herself. She slowly begins to uncover a plot from Dauntless, spearheaded by the brainiacs of the society – the Erudite faction – to overthrow Abnegation and take over governance. 

Oh, and to throw a wrench into the whole thing, Beatrice (or, as she renames herself once joining Dauntless, Tris) is something called Divergent. This concept is not really explained, mostly because we are on this ride with Tris herself, and no one has explained it to her yet. But she deduces that this is not a good thing and she is in mortal danger. 

I heard this series was great awhile ago, but was convinced not to read it but some that said it was a big ol’ meh. The movie did pique my interest, and I have to say, it has a lot of very interesting ideas in it. The world building is great, there are lots of asides that explain how things work within this society without being exposition heavy. 

One of the most interesting aspects to me about it is the sense that Tris has about her identity, and how she is conflicted about where she truly belongs. It’s something that she struggles with throughout the book, first that she doesn’t feel like she is selfless enough to be Abnegation, and later that she isn’t brave enough to be Dauntless, and so on. She goes back and forth, and her instructor/boyfriend Four expresses this out loud. He wants to be all the qualities that each faction espouses, not just one. Tris also talks about how she can trade one poor trait for another, when switching factions or loyalties. 

There are a lot of unanswered questions as the book ends, and I’m interested to see which way the story develops. I hear the ending of the third book is rubbish, but I’m in for the ride now.

4 stars (no pun intended)

This book completes the book made into a movie, written by someone under 30, one-word title, and set in the future requirements for the challenge.

Review: Soulmates

The final story in the original trilogy of the Kissed by an Angel series was good, although I have qualms. I’ll get to those.

First, the actual story was still good, in my opinion. The action ramps up very well, and it definitely gets to that white knuckled suspenseful climax. I felt like the motivation for Gregory was believable. Ivy reacts to the threats around her in very believable ways. For instance, near the end she finds some evidence that is very damning. She immediately brings it to the police station instead of hiding it somewhere in the house or in her pocket, where it could be snatched away at the last minute, putting her in even more peril. The threats were scary and well conceived. 

I do have a few nitpicks. I thought the love story between Ivy and Will was contrived. They start hinting at it very early on, possibly in the first book, but it feels so rushed. The 3rd book takes place somewhere in the vicinity of October, just a few months after the accident which killed Tristan. Ivy and Tristan were only dating a few months but were in L-O-V-E, and then before he’s even been gone 6 months she is already in love with someone else, all the while Tristan as an angel is still around? Much too fast, even for flaky teenagers.

I also didn’t like how insane Gregory became in the big scene on the railroad tracks at the climax. A couple lines about possible drug use could have explained it away, but he seemed really unhinged despite being a calm sociopath before that. I could also have done without the screaming demons in the background. It was a little over the top, even for a supernatural romance.

Otherwise, this was a great story, and I’m really excited about reading the next three books. I think it held up pretty well over the last 20 years. The second set of three were written in 2011 so it might have an entirely different feel to it, considering how technology has changed so much.

4 stars.

This book completes the mystery/thriller requirement for the challenge.

Review: The Power of Love

The second installment of the Kissed By An Angel trilogy was another quick read. The suspense begins to accelerate during this book as more of the pieces begin to come together.

The first book leaves off with Tristan remembering something weird about the brakes in his car, and how he wasn’t able to stop the car accident from happening. So this whole book deals with him learning how to utilize his angel powers in order to make contact with Ivy in order to warn her that her life may be in danger. The paranormal aspects were okay, nothing too bizarre. I was able to suspend my belief enough to accept them in the story, although there were things that I wondered about. For example, Tristan learns to harness his energy enough to materialize fingertips. But he doesn’t lock the door when Ivy forgets to, or go and read the police report he sees on Andrew’s (Ivy’s stepfather) desk. Minor complaints.

We begin to see a connection between the suicide of Gregory’s mother (Andrew’s first wife) and the car accident. Gregory’s friend Eric had some sort of drug addiction (although no specific drugs or types of drugs are ever named – just “pills”. Maybe pharmaceuticals?) and this is causing an issue between Eric, Gregory, Andrew, and Gregory’s late mother. 

Tristan attempts all kinds of ways to reach Ivy which mostly succeed only in freaking her out, as he speaks through her brother, her friend Beth, and new guy Will. He is able to push Will towards Ivy’s house when he suspects that she is in danger, and some unknown assailant has broken into the house and apparently cocked a gun to her head, and stop the attack.

Ivy still has no idea what is going on or that there is some sort of conspiracy, when, after a recurring nightmare, Gregory dopes her up with spiked tea and drags her off to train tracks, just in time to get bulldozed by the 2am train. Tristan is able to propel Phillip, Ivy’s 9 year old brother, out of bed and towards the train tracks to stop he tragedy from occurring. 

And then it ends. Stay tuned for the last book, suckers! 

It seems like the middle book in a trilogy always ends at a key point in the action, probably to get you hooked so you read the last book. I feel like these books are all so short, it really should be all in one. I wonder if there was some sort of page limit on young adult books in the mid-nineties. It doesn’t really work as a trilogy. 

I am both anticipating and dreading the final book because I know what happens to the cat (sad face), and I honestly can’t remember the motivations for the murders. I imagine I will complete it in a day or two.

I also discovered that the author has written THREE MORE INSTALLMENTS of this series and I’m kind of excited.

This book fulfills no requirements for the book challenge.

100 Picture Books: 95-91

No matter how many times you tell a kid not to draw on books from the library, it doesn’t seem to sink in. But I guess that’s a story for another day. Without further ado, here are another five picture books.

95. The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn

This book was published by a child welfare agency as a story to help kids when they have to be separated from their parents. The mommy raccoon plants a supernatural kiss on the kid raccoon’s paw so that it will glow whenever the kid raccoon misses his mommy. It’s a bit schmaltzy. Peanut liked it okay, but she didn’t really understand the point the book was trying to make. She didn’t request it much, not even the raccoons could draw her in.

I found a little bit of discrepancy as to the true inspiration of this story. On her website, the author states she saw an interaction between two raccoons in a park, but she is quoted in a few news stories as saying the raccoons were on train tracks. Strange. It’s also a bit controversial, as the School Library Journal (who published the list I’m working from) initially gave the book a poor review, saying it was propaganda for the Child Welfare Agency. It has continued to be popular, however, and has resulted in half a dozen or more sequels covering other big topics such as death, moving, and new siblings.

94. The Mitten by Jan Brett

This book is beautifully illustrated, but most of the details would go right over the head of a young listener. There are side panels showing what the boy is doing and what the next animal to burrow into the mitten are, but they are small and not super obvious. The story is also a little ridiculous. Those mittens would have to be very well made for a bear to squeeze in.

I tried looking up the original folk tale this story is based on, but all I found were a couple synopses of other English translations. It appears that Brett’s version is actually the least fantastical, as all the others feature talking animals with names and possibly evening attire. (It wasn’t clear, but I like to imagine a little rabbit hopping about in the snow wearing a tuxedo.) I do think Peanut would have been more interested in a fashionable talking rabbit though.

93. Traction Man Is Here! by Mini Grey

This book was really cute but it had a lot of visual gags that, again, would be glossed over by the young ones. Peanut did request this book a few times, I think she liked the adventures that Traction Man got up to, even if she didn’t understand the references and jokes. The premise is that a boy is playing with an action figure of a superhero, and using his imagination in a variety of common household environments. So the bathtub becomes an underwater adventure, etc. There are some asides to events happening outside the imaginative play world, but those are hard to insert into the story while reading aloud in a way that isn’t jarring.

There are two other Traction Man books that we could read, maybe when Peanut is a little older. The most interesting side note about this book and author is that the author was born in a car! Grey’s biography is on her website and it’s really cute. I was hoping for some additional information on the creation of the character, but didn’t see any. The website does feature full color previews of her books, which gives an idea of what to expect.

92. The Gardener by Sarah Stewart

This book was boring for both reader and listener in this case. It’s written as a series of letters from a girl to various addressees. She moves from wherever her parents are to a city with her aunt and uncle to run a store. She ends up growing a garden on the rooftop. That is really pretty much it. Peanut suffered through it two times and never asked for it after that.

I did learn that the book was more of a vehicle for the illustrator’s art, as his wife is the author, and she pretty much only writes books for him to illustrate. The art was beautiful, but it wasn’t enough to hold our attention.

91. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka

This book has a very unique and interesting idea, but the actual story is not so good. It’s a riff on the “updated fairy tale” schtick, but it’s poorly done. (The more I read these updated fairy tales, and the less I think people should bother trying.) The book is “narrated” by Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame), and he has brought a collection of “fairly stupid tales”. I can’t even describe the style choice of the stories, most of them just end. For example, in the “stupid” version of the Frog Prince, the frog is not a prince and so after the princess kisses him, he says “just kidding”, and hops away. And that is the end. Most of the other stories sort of go the same. The Little Red Hen is interspersed throughout the story randomly, but the story isn’t actually told. Peanut liked it enough to request it a few times, but I’m not sure she really made the connection that it was a parody of stories she had previously heard (and she was familiar with most of them).

Apparently my poor opinion of the book isn’t shared, as it won a bunch of awards and was adapted into a stage production. So there’s a play with someone dressed up as a Cheese Man out there.

You know what comes next! 90-86. Some mischievous characters are coming up!

Reading Challenge February Wrap Up

This month I read 3 more books, and checked off 7 more boxes on my list.

I started with A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard. I had two memoirs loaded on my Kindle already, this and The Glass House. In the (paraphrased) words of the Grail Knight from Indiana Jones, I chose poorly. I looked at the page numbers and went with the shortest one, and boy oh boy, that was a bad decision. I was reading others’ reviews afterwards, and it seemed to me that most of the high ratings were literally pity ratings. Yes, her story is sad, but it was not worthy of publication in this format.

Next, on the recommendation of my friend Alyssa, I read The Birth House by Ami McKay. I had seen some reviews of it while searching for my hometown choice, and it seemed like a good option. As my review states, I sort of liked it. It was set in Scots Bay, which I had never heard of, but is apparently near Kentville.

I spent some time deliberating my next choices after I finished The Birth House. I watched the movie Divergent, so thought I might read those, since I’m on the look out for a trilogy. Then I remembered this YA series I read long time ago, and thought, perfect! I’ll use that as my book from childhood AND a trilogy. I happened to find all three audiobooks from my library.

Then I came up as next in line for the ebook of Divergent from the library also. So I may end up reading two trilogies, since books 2 and 3 in the Divergent trilogy are over 500 pages. Also, the author is under 30. 

I finished the first book in the Kissed By An Angel Trilogy, aptly titled Kissed By an Angel, by Elizabeth Chandler. I also started Divergent.

I’m trying not to have too many books on the go at once, because I used to do that all the time and felt split too much and it took forever to finish a book since I was dividing my time. But the Angel series is on audio and the Divergent series is on my Kindle, so they have different times when I am more to read one or the other. I may fall behind a smidge on my podcasts while I listen to these.

I also almost began a book by Emily Giffin, whom I very much enjoy. It’s tucked into my purse right now, as it is a physical book, so I might begin that one soon too. It’s my “latest book by author I enjoy” book. 

After these, I may need to start on the book that is over 100 years old, because those tend to be a slog. I’ve got all of Jane Austen’s books, and I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park before. I might enjoy Emma or Sense and Sensibility. I also considered The Red and The Black by Stendahl, as I was supposed to read that in school and didn’t. Same with Frankenstein. So many choices!

If anyone is still doing a challenge, I would love to see how many boxes you’ve checked off.

Review: Kissed By An Angel

I can’t decide if I like this book because it tickles my nostalgia bone or because it is pretty good and has held up over time. I first read this book in 9th grade, and I loved it. I remember sitting in the youth center at church, devouring it. My copy had all three books in one volume, as pictured below.

Divorcing it from the other two books, however, this one is very much a prologue to the main story. I don’t really remember most of the story, other than Ivy’s boyfriend, Tristan, dies in a car crash, and later becomes an angel, and also that the cat, Ella, is a main plot point in the climax of the third book. 

It starts at the accident, then goes backwards and fills in all the context. Ivy’s mother has married a rich dude with a snotty son, and they and her younger brother Phillip go to live in their mansion. Ivy is terrified of water, and Tristan gives her swim lessons and they fall in love. There’s something fishy about her stepbrother, Gregory, and his friends. That is the entire novel. 

Actually, if this were the entire story, and not just a preamble to the following two books, this would be pretty terrible. But it does lay down some needed context, about Ivy’s family situation, her relationship with Tristan, her belief in angels, the suicide of Gregory’s mother, and of course, the cat. It just doesn’t work without the following two books, unlike many other trilogies.

This book alone only merits 2 stars, but I’ll wait to rate the entire trilogy.

This book fulfills the book from my childhood, and set in high school requirements for the challenge. 

Review: The Birth House

I began this book feeling excited. It was about midwifery, set in the province I grew up in. It had to be great! And the first 3/4ths were. But then, it was like a speeding train that half heartedly slipped off the tracks with a giant shrug.

The story begins with Dora Rare, with Mik’maq blood deep in the family’s past, the only daughter in a family tradition of sons. A little strange and “witchy”, she’s tormented by class mates and admonished by adults. Her father is uncomfortable with her burgeoning womanhood at 17, and ships her off to live with another witchy woman, Louisiana transplant Miss Marie Babineau, the local midwife.

After this is where things started going off for me, but I was willing to accept it, because it was still interesting. Dora is suddenly incredibly knowledgable and wise concerning midwifery in the span of about a year. Dr. Thomas comes into the picture, opening a “maternity home” for the “latest obstetrical advances” that directly competes with Miss B and Dora’s midwifery. Apparently all the expectant fathers are 100% into this new medical childbirth while the women are all nervous about it.

Then a confusing courtship begins between Dora and the eldest son of a rich widow, which seems completely out of left field as Dora is even more marginalized as a witchy midwife, despite her chastity. Apparently, Archer Bigelow would rather get it on with the local “loose” woman, but won’t get his inheritance if he marries her because she’s a tramp, or something. So Dora is the next best thing? She’s attracted to him, so she goes for it. But then her attraction is suddenly over once they marry, and she tries to avoid him at all costs. In return, he leaves for long periods.

The day of the wedding, Miss B mysteriously disappears, and is never heard from again. We are to assume she died, and found a way to make her body disappear. Or maybe she ascended to heaven, who knows.

Archer becomes a controlling jackass, and Dora has to hide her midwifery dabbling as neither he nor Dr Thomas approve (for someone who lives and works out of the area, the Dr seems to know everything), and paint her as a dangerous monster, intent on using backwards remedies and hocus pocus on the local women. She is at a birth at the maternity home and witnesses twilight sleep, and later the postpartum depression of the same mother. Archer conveniently drowns and is out of the picture.

Eventually, she is run out of town after she helps a woman have an late term abortion and the woman dies within 24 hours of visiting her. (But don’t worry, she was super conflicted about helping abort the baby.) She goes to stay with her brother in Boston, where he lives with a bunch of transient women who are suffragists, lesbians, artists, and more, across the alley from a brothel. Eventually, her name is cleared, as Abortion Woman’s husband is accused of pushing his wife down a flight of stairs (which killed her in her weakened state), and so Dora returns home.

In the last few short chapters, Dora and her newfound sass opens her home as a birth house, unceremoniously runs Dr Thomas out of town, and takes a lover in her deceased husband’s younger brother. And that’s it.

Sprinkled throughout are some random historical events, such as World War I and the Halifax Explosion.

My biggest problem with the book was how it didn’t connect the dots between all the plots. It was too ambitious, and it didn’t give enough time to develop any of the plot threads. It was like a fleshed out outline, not a novel. McKay could probably have skipped all of the Boston stuff, and elaborated more on the ousting of Dr Thomas. I didn’t feel like his departure was earned. Some criticisms of the book stem on the white hat/black hat nature of the conflict between Dora and Dr Thomas, and I can see that. He does seem a little overtly villainous. The historical elements are just thrown in, like checklist items that needed to be marked complete.

The ideas and promise were here in the book, but it just didn’t come together in a way that made the book anything above mediocre. I also would have liked a lengthy postscript about the historical things referenced in the book, like whether the Canning maternity home existed, if the Birth House was a real thing, and maybe some other tidbits about the Halifax explosion and other contextualizing details, rather than the first several chapters of her next novel.

3 stars.

This book fulfills the book set in a different country, book a friend recommended, and book that takes place in your hometown requirements.

Review: A Stolen Life

I don’t want to discount the real life experiences of Jaycee Dugard, who went through hell for 18 years after her abduction in 1991 and her slavery until she was recovered in 2009. But this book was awful. And I don’t just mean the events that it described.

Yes, there is an author’s note at the beginning that pretty much states that it’s poorly written, but she wanted control over telling her story and that is why it is how it is. That’s fine, but I’m honestly amazed the publisher went through and released it. I just read the entire book and I don’t really know what happened to her. I had to read the Wikipedia page just to get the skeleton of her story. She definitely should have had a co-writer, and saved this draft for her personal therapy. The story could have been amazing, heartfelt and fascinating, but instead it was like reading the diary of an 11 year old. It was stream-of-consciousness style all through, with too little editorializing to insert much needed context.

So if you are interested in the story of a young girl who was kidnapped at 11, look for a documentary or something. Because this was just awful. Actually, I recommend the Wikipedia article.

1 star.

This book fulfills the memoir requirement for the challenge.

Reading Challenge January Wrap Up

So I started my reading challenge this month, which you can read about here. This post will be a bit of an update on how things are going, and a little behind the scenes of how I am going about choosing books.
This month, I completed Think Like A Freak, BtVS: New Rules, and During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. One non-fiction, one graphic novel, and one fiction.

I LOVED New Rules, which may not be all that surprising to those of you who know how much I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but this one exceeded my expectations. I got that one for Christmas and was looking forward to reading it before knowing how awesome it was. I am super excited about the following books in this series, and am champing at the bit for the next one to come out.

I read Think Like A Freak because I had requested it several months ago from the library and my turn came up. Like I mentioned in my review, it was just a rehash of topics they’d covered in the podcast, so I felt like it was a waste of my time. I doubt I will read any other books they have put out. At least it was short.

I still have mixed feelings about During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. When choosing, I searched “best books of 1983” and I found an old New York Times Book Review article that had about ten books listed on it, and this was the most interesting sounding one. Now I feel bad for the other books on the list. Perhaps I should have read some reviews first? Although I also found glowing reviews from NPR and other places, so maybe I’m just too picky about silly things like plots.

I haven’t chosen the next book I’m going to read yet. I’ve been thinking about doing the 500+ pages one, the classic romance, or the one set in the place I was born. The latter is proving to be more difficult than I expected, and I didn’t even expect it to be easy. Most books are set in Cape Breton, which is technically Nova Scotia, but so far away from where I was born I don’t know how it would count. Many others are historical books about Halifax, in the time of the Halifax Explosion. Which could be cool. I found one that takes place in “rural Nova Scotia”, but doesn’t specify where exactly. Another takes place near Kejimkujik Park, which is fairly close but still not exactly it. There was a surprising amount of erotica that takes place in Halifax. So I haven’t quite decided yet. Part of it does depend on the availability of said book.

As far as 500+ paged books, I have a lot of choices. I’ve listed a few on my Goodreads shelf for this challenge, contenders that I’ve “bookmarked” for later reference. I had originally intended to read Outlander by Diane Gabaldon for this one, but 850 pages is quite the commitment! I would like to combine classic romance with this also, but I’m not sure I’m in the mood for Jane Eyre.

If you are doing a reading challenge, I’d love to hear an update on your progress!

Review: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

I don’t really know how to review this book because I don’t know how to evaluate it. For example, I can’t even really pinpoint the climax. Was it one of the several character deaths? When Gram sold the property? The attempted suicide? The fire? I really don’t know.

The story isn’t even linear. It begins after a major event, that is later retold about 3/4ths into the novel, then ends after the beginning. So the timeline is all over the place.

Was it interesting? Fairly. Some of the characters really came alive; the setting was vivid. Lots of interesting events happened. The writing was beautiful.

But what was the point of the novel?

The preamble before the book in my edition talks about the titular Queen of Persia (the matriarch grandmother) and also about the fever dream of childhood summers. I guess you could pinpoint those, but I didn’t really get much of a sense of either of those. The book is collectively narrated by 4 cousins, two sets of sisters, as the “we”. But not only do they describe things it was unlikely for them to know (for example, Gram’s early marriage to Grandad and their sex life), but they step back and describe some cousins as apart from and yet together with the “we”. If narrating as a collective, that collection should be fixed. Instead, the people in the “we” keep changing to suit the story.

Finally, the ending is pretty abrupt and unsatisfactory. Although since I can’t pinpoint a protagonist or a climax, I’m not sure what kind of ending could possibly work. The best way I can describe this novel is as a beautiful road to nowhere.

3 stars.

This book fulfills the female author, came out in the year you were born, and an author you’ve never read before requirements for the challenge.