Review: The One Safe Place

onesafeplacecover

Title: The One Safe Place

Author: Tania Unsworth

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Publication Date: April 29, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

This was another find from my library’s ebook catalogue. The brief introduction piqued my interest and Unsworth’s captivating story kept my interest throughout the entire book.

A brief summary, from the author’s website:

Devin doesn’t remember life before the world got hot; he has grown up farming the scorched earth with his grandfather in their remote valley. When his grandfather dies, Devin heads for the city. Once there, among the stark glass buildings, he finds scores of children, just like him, living alone on the streets. They tell him rumors of a place for abandoned children, with unlimited food and toys and the hope of finding a new family. But only the luckiest get there.

An act of kindness earns Devin an invitation to the home, but it’s soon clear that it’s no paradise. As Devin investigates the intimidating administrator and the zombie-like sickness that afflicts some children, he discovers the home’s horrific true mission. The only real hope is escape, but the place is as secure as a fortress.

The One Safe Place was a chilling read. Dystopian novels have been so “in” lately that I’ve forgotten how truly haunting they can be. Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the plot without completely spoiling the book. What I can say is that at the beginning of the novel, it seems as though nothing is amiss. But as Devin, the main character, ventures outside of his farm to the city to find help after his grandfather passes away, it quickly becomes clear that this is not the world that we know today. Unsworth gives us hints of a future where global warming has become a major problem and the class system has become even more segregated without shouting in the reader’s face about how this is a futuristic dystopia.

The real meat of the novel comes when Devin and his new ally, Kit, are convinced to come to a home for orphaned children, where they’ll be protected from the rough and tough life on the streets that they have no choice but to live. As you might guess, the place where they go hoping to find safety is more sinister than they would ever believe. And that’s all I’ll say on that subject.

The One Safe Place is reminiscent of The Giver in some ways, and in other ways is more like The Hunger Games, but whatever similarities it might have with earlier dystopian fiction, it certainly has a song of its own. For plot alone, I’d give it 5 out of 5 stars. The only thing lacking was the novel’s voice – it’s written in third person, and there isn’t much variance in sentence structure. This may have been a deliberate choice on the part of the author to keep the writing simplistic, but it was more annoying to me than anything. Perhaps its because I’m so used to reading first-person novels, but the style also made me feel disconnected with the characters at times. I didn’t care about them as much as I wanted to.

Still, the ingenuity of the story made it definitely worth my while. This book would be great for anyone ages 8 to 88 (or older). Its reading level is simple enough for younger readers to comprehend, but the story’s meaning transcends age. It’s a book that left me thinking, and those are great for every reader.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

 

Review: #16thingsithoughtweretrue

16thingscover

Title: #16thingsithoughtweretrue

Author: Janet Gurtler

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Publication Date: March 4, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

Book reviews need to be relevant and up-to-date, in my opinion, which is why I’ve been consistently trying to review books that have only been published in the last few months or so. Fewer people will have reviewed them, I think, so my opinions hold more weight. At least, that’s what I’m going with.

But as I don’t have unlimited funds for purchasing new books, I have had to become more creative about where I get my materials. I discovered that my public library allows me to search for ebooks by their publication date – so I downloaded a few that looked interesting and were published recently. That’s how I ended up enjoying #16thingsithoughtweretrue by the lakeside over Memorial Day weekend.

A brief summary from the author’s website:

Heart attacks happen to other people #thingsIthoughtweretrue

When Morgan’s mom gets sick, it’s hard not to panic. Without her mother, she would have no one—until she finds out the dad who walked out on her as a baby isn’t as far away as she thought…

Adam is a stuck-up, uptight jerk #thingsIthoughtweretrue

Now that they have a summer job together, Morgan’s getting to know the real Adam, and he’s actually pretty sweet…in a nerdy-hot kind of way. He even offers to go with her to find her dad. Road trip, anyone?

5000 Twitter followers are all the friends I need #thingsIthoughtweretrue

With Adam in the back seat, a hyper chatterbox named Amy behind the wheel, and plenty of Cheetos to fuel their trip, Morgan feels ready for anything. She’s not expecting a flat tire, a missed ferry, a fake girlfriend…and that these two people she barely knew before the summer started will become the people she can’t imagine living without.

Morgan, the main character of the book, is caught up in the Twitterverse, which I think is something many of us in the current day and age can relate to. But this book is, at it’s core, about how she managed to branch out from her corner of the internet and make live human connections. Her emotions and concerns about her ailing mother and her unknown father felt real to me, but the story really got going once she took off on a road trip to Canada with her boss Adam and her coworker Amy in order to find that previously unknown father.

Road trip novels can be hit or miss for me, and this one was definitely a hit. All three characters were funny and engaging, and their escapades were ridiculous but not beyond the point of believability. In truth, I fell completely in love with Amy’s character. She stole the show for me, and I actually found her much more likable than Morgan. And there’s one plot twist – well, you’ll see if you read the book.

The most disconcerting thing about the book, however, is its intense shifts in tone, from comedy to grief to romance to comedy again. I felt like it was trying to pull me in too many directions and couldn’t decide what kind of book it wanted to be. While this can be reflective of life, it made digesting the story difficult at times.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read, if an emotional rollercoaster. The characters shone brightly and I think the novel has a great heart. If you like road trip books with substance, this one’s a winner.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Strange Sweet Song

strangesweetsongcover

Title: Strange Sweet Song

Author: Adi Rule

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

Publication date: March 11, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I bought this book on a whim after it came highly recommended by my friend Holly. I am learning that I should automatically read everything she suggests, because all of her recommendations have been fabulous. I am a big fan of fantasy novels, and this book sounded vaguely magic-related, so I gave it a shot. It was worth it.

There are no spoilers in this review, because I think the plot twists are impressive and I don’t want to put them to waste.

A quick summary from the author’s website:

Music flows in Sing Da Navelli’s blood. When she enrolls at a prestigious conservatory, her first opera audition is for the role of her dreams. But this leading role is the last Sing’s mother ever sang, before her controversial career, and her life, were cut tragically short.

As Sing struggles to escape her mother’s shadow and prove her own worth, she is drawn to the conservatory’s icy forest, a place steeped in history, magic, and danger. She soon realizes there is more to her new school than the artistry and politics of classical music.

With the help of a dark-eyed apprentice who has secrets of his own, Sing must unravel the story of the conservatory’s dark forest and the strange creature who lives there — and find her own voice.

I was confused when I first began this book, because I wasn’t sure when it was set. It seemed much more gothic – the setting, and the lyrical prose, the whole feeling of the novel. But surprisingly, the book is contemporary. There are sections that are set in the near past (though again, I thought they were set hundreds of years in the past, until I finally figured out the timeline) – and it is easy to tell when the story switches to flashback, because these are set in the past tense while the bulk of the book is in the present.

There are magical elements of the book, but the characters don’t really seem to question the magic or the logistics of what occurs, which reminded me quite a bit of magical realism. This is rare in YA books, I think, which made me cherish the story even more. Additionally, the magical elements don’t overpower the heart of the book, which focuses on Sing’s character development.

Sing (which is a strange name, but I soon got over it, and I did appreciate the symbolism and the repetition of the meaning that was discussed throughout) faced plenty of issues that weren’t magical-related. She struggled with making and keeping friends, with balancing her father’s high demands and her own career aspirations, and with living in the shadow of her deceased mother. These are all highly relevant contemporary problems, and the way Sing’s personality and beliefs shift throughout the book made her a supremely relatable character.

I pride myself on being able to spot twists and turns in the plot, but there are surprises in this book that I never saw coming. One in particular is a clearly orchestrated deception that the author pulls off perfectly – just as I thought I had something figured out, I found out that I was completely turned around. The whole last third of the book, too, moved at a breakneck pace, which was slightly disconcerting at first but which I enjoyed overall.

Also, if you’re familiar with the plot of the Japanese movie Hidamari no Kanojo (which was based on a book, though it was never translated into English) you might find similarities in story. I just watched that movie over the weekend, and I was stunned at how much the stories resembled each other. But while the same thing happens near the end, this novel’s conclusion is much more satisfying.

If you like fantasy or magical realism combined with a contemporary YA novel, this is the book for you. Also, if you’re a music lover, you’ll find the magic in this book. A love of opera and concertos isn’t a requirement to understand this book, of course, but you’ll appreciate it even more. Finally, if you love books that are beautifully written, you should give this one a try.

I’m looking forward to Adi Rule’s next book.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Shakespeare, my one true love.

I know I’ve been posting quite a few reviews lately, but I also want this blog to be a place where I can reflect on my life and my thoughts. So today, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about one of the people in this world who’ve completely altered the trajectory of my life: William Shakespeare.

When I first read Romeo and Juliet in my ninth grade English classroom, I was underwhelmed with the story. Star-crossed lovers, blah, blah, blah. But I was completely taken with the language, with the way that Shakespeare told that underwhelming story. The rhyme, the imagery, the creation of the characters just through the dialogue they said – all of it was astounding to me. I still wasn’t to the point where I wanted to pursue Shakespeare outside of the confines of the classroom, though. I think I was too overwhelmed to try reading it on my own – when his words were so brilliant, if I tried to read it by myself, I’d surely miss out on everything of importance. And where would the point be in that?

Macbeth and Hamlet were the next plays that I read – in AP lit, in eleventh grade, though I don’t remember which play came first. I do remember, however, that Hamlet spoke to me on a profoundly emotional level. His character – a young man in a complex relationship with the world around him but who was bound by his own melancholic state – is one that resonated with me then, and still does today. Thankfully, high school wasn’t the end of my Shakespearean studies. I read Othello in one of my honors humanities courses at Ball State, and it was a privilege to discuss that play with college students who – let’s be honest, were of a bit higher caliber than the kids at my high school. But I considered myself to be only a casual fan of Shakespeare up until the summer of 2012. Well, maybe slightly more than casual. But “casual” in terms of the fact that Shakespeare was a playwright I loved, but he hadn’t taken over my life. Yet.

Everything changed when the fire nation attacked.

That was a joke (it’s actually a Last Airbender reference, for the information of those who are less inclined towards pop culture).

In actuality, everything changed when I applied for the US-UK Fulbright Summer Institute to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. A full scholarship to the Globe for three weeks, for three lucky American students – and I decided to apply. I knew, of course, that it was just a pipe dream, and that I had no chance whatsoever. I almost gave up on my application, too, because it was so much work getting it into shape. But I finished it, and I submitted it, and I expected nothing to come of it.

To my surprise and delight, I was chosen for a phone interview (to which I wore my lucky green pants, which I still cherish to this day) – and the next day, I got the email telling me that I won. I won the scholarship. I would be spending three weeks at the Globe.

I won’t blather on too much about my time at Shakespeare’s Globe, because everyone who knows me knows that I will not shut up about it once I get going. But I do want to say that the three weeks I studied in London completely changed my life. Obviously, the cultural experiences and adventures I got to have changed who I was personally. But as a lover of Shakespeare, nothing could have stimulated my obsession further than being given the opportunity to study Shakespearean text analysis with Giles Block, movement with Glynn MacDonald, voice with Martin McKellan… and beyond those classes, we studied and practiced Shakespearean music and dance, learned how to properly stage fight with rapiers and daggers, discovered how sets and costumes were designed for Shakespearean productions. As an English major who has harbored a love of theatre for her entire life, our classes and workshops were a dream come true.

Beyond that, we got to perform. Directed by accomplished actor Philip Bird, we put on an abridged version of The Taming of the Shrew, in which I played Petruchio in one act and Bianca in another. And of course, we got to see professional shows performed, which was even better. The Globe put on Taming that summer, as well as Henry V and HamletHamlet was another dream come true, as it was my favorite Shakespearean play and the first one I had gotten to see on stage, ever. And Henry V was – and this is no exaggeration – a life-changing experience. I can’t put into words what that play meant to me. We saw it twice, and would have seen it again. I would have gone to see it every day if I had the chance.

My experiences at the Globe will forever be the most cherished memories I hold. I actually wrote a memoir about them, entitled London Above, London Below (the title an allusion to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, one of my favorite books and one which I had the great pleasure of re-reading while taking the Underground to class each day), for my senior English capstone course at Ball State last year. The Globe helped me to grow as a person, as an actor, as a scholar, and most importantly, as a lover of Shakespeare.

When I returned to Fort Wayne, it seemed as though I had been marooned in a desert with no culture whatsoever. But I was hopeful that I could find some oasis to depend on for my Shakespearean needs. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a non-profit group in Fort Wayne called “Shakespeare from the Heart,” which was holding auditions for their summer production of Romeo and Juliet. Each summer they put on a show outdoors for free – and any donations from the audience are given directly to the charity for the year. I wasn’t able to audition, as I was going to be in Oregon for the week of the show – but they gladly took me on as an assistant, and since then I’ve risen to the status of executive board member, acting as the fundraising coordinator for the company. This summer, we’re doing Midsummer, and I hope to get a part; even if it’s just two lines, I’ll still be happy (auditions are tomorrow – please hope I break both legs).

I also landed an honors fellowship position as a research assistant for the “What Middletown Read” project as a result of my Fulbright summer. In essence, I was paid to read and take notes on Muncie newspapers in the 1890s, as the two professors heading the project – Dr. Frank Felsenstein and Dr. James Connolly – were working on editing the draft of their book about Muncie’s reading habits during that time period. I’ll definitely spend a whole post later talking about the project, because it’s a fascinating one.

But where this ties into Shakespeare is that for my honors thesis – the one I was procrastinating on when I wrote my first post on this blog – I decided to use my research notes from my fellowship as a starting point to do an in-depth analysis of Shakespeare in Muncie in the 1890s, specifically. I compared my findings from the newspapers and library records with scholarly research about Shakespeare in America during that period to discover whether or not Shakespeare’s position in the cultural hierarchy was established in the typical American town by then or not.

My thesis advisor (and former boss  – Dr. Felsenstein) thinks that with some cleaning up – and shortening, as it’s currently 95 pages long – my thesis would be a prime candidate for publishing in a periodical like Shakespeare Quarterly.

I took a Shakespeare colloquium from the honors college and studied As You Like It in my literature and gender class, with the added benefit of having seen the play performed in Covent Garden while I was in London. I took a trip to Illinois for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last summer in order to see Comedy of Errors and Macbeth, and I’ve seen every local Shakespearean production performed in about a sixty mile radius of Fort Wayne. I’m well on my way to finishing reading Shakespeare’s complete works. This blog is titled according to one of my favorite Shakespearean quotations. I applied for a full Fulbright to get my Master’s in Shakespearean Studies at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon – which, no surprise, I didn’t get. But like I’ve said before in previous posts, just because I’ve left the world of academia doesn’t mean the world of academia has left me.

Shakespeare has, it is safe to say, taken over my life. And I have absolutely no complaints. I can’t wait to see where my love (read: obsession) takes me next – but I’m sure it will be somewhere I never expected. I certainly never expected when I was sitting in my ninth grade English class, drawing a life-sized outline of Friar Lawrence, hating the fact that I had to work in a group, wondering how drawing a fat friar had anything to do with literary analysis, that my life would eventually lead me here, unemployed and rambling about Shakespeare’s impact on my life. Yet here we are! And I still have no complaints (although the “unemployed” thing could change, I’d be okay with that).

Tara

Review: Love and Other Foreign Words

loveforeigncover

Title: Love and Other Foreign Words

Author: Erin McCahan

Publisher: Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group

Publication date: May 1, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I checked this book out from my local library yesterday after I noticed it displayed on the “New in YA” shelf. I’m actually surprised that it’s such a new book, as books usually don’t trickle down to my branch of the library until they’re months old. But I picked it up and found that it was a nice, easy read for a rainy afternoon like today.

A summary of the book, from McCahan’s website:

Sixteen-year-old Josie lives her life in translation. She speaks High School, College, Friends, Boyfriends, Break-ups, and even the language of Beautiful Girls. But none of these is her native tongue–the only people who speak that are her best friend Stu and her sister Kate. So when Kate gets engaged to an epically insufferable guy, how can Josie see it as anything but the mistake of a lifetime? Kate is determined to bend Josie to her will for the wedding; Josie is determined to break Kate and her fiancé up. As battles are waged over secrets and semantics, Josie is forced to examine her feelings for the boyfriend who says he loves her, the sister she loves but doesn’t always like, and the best friend who hasn’t said a word—at least not in a language Josie understands.

What I liked about this book was that the main relationship was between Josie and her sister Kate. In fact, their entire family dynamic, even the antagonism between Josie and Kate’s obnoxious fiancé, Geoff, is supremely entertaining. When I read the title Love and Other Foreign Words, I assumed that the focus of the book would be romantic love. I was pleasantly surprised to find that instead, the intricacies of familial love and sisterly love took the center stage. I think these types of love are often overlooked, so I was happy because of this development.

What I didn’t like about the book was that the romantic relationship between Josie and her significant other at the end (no spoilers, so I won’t mention the name) was obvious and super, super cliché. I also felt like most of the other characters outside of Josie’s family and her best friend, Stu, fell flat. Her entire group of friends – Jen, Ellie, Sophie, whatever their names were – were all one-dimensional and interchangeable. I think that the minor characters in a book are just as important as the main characters, and the minor characters in this book were a disappointment. 

A side note: one other thing that was slightly off-putting was the quote on McCahan’s website saying the book is “Perfect for fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.” This isn’t the author’s fault, and doesn’t impact my rating of the book, but I’m sick of John Green (and as of late, Rainbow Rowell) being held up as the standard of YA literature, something to aspire to, a buzz-name to immediately garner attention. Yes, I think people who like John Green books would like this book, because it is quirky and comedic and intends to be meaningful. But the implication that anything with John Green’s name associated with it will sell is getting tired. End side note.

Overall, Love and Other Foreign Words was fairly funny, and as a quick read, it was enjoyable. It’s not a book that I would recommend to my friends, but if you want to read about types of love beyond the romantic, or if you simply want a good laugh and some fun fluff, give it a try.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Love Letters to the Dead

loveletterscover

Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Publication date: April 1, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

As immature as it sounds, I genuinely picked up this book because I loved the colors of the cover and the font of the title. I can’t resist a good font. But this is another book that my friend Holly recommended as well – though I don’t remember if she had said she read it or not. So I bought it (hardcover again – I need to restrain myself when it comes to buying new books or soon I’ll really be both broke and unemployed) and hoped for the best.

*minor plot spoilers to follow*

A short summary from the author’s website:

It begins as an assignment for English class: write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to the dead. People like Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, and Amy Winehouse—though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating the choppy waters of new friendships, learning to live with her splintering family, falling in love for the first time, and most importantly, trying to grieve for May. But how do you mourn someone when you haven’t forgiven them? And how do you find your true identity when so much of who you were died with the person you loved? It’s not until Laurel has written the truth about what happened to herself can she finally begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was—lovely and amazing and deeply flawed—can she truly begin to discover her own path.

The entire book is written in letters to the dead (thus, the title). As readers, then, we live very much in Laurel’s head as she struggles to deal with becoming a high schooler and facing what happened to her sister, something that we only get hints of throughout the book until it is finally revealed.

The style of the book was reminiscent of Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was one of the most life-defining books to me when I was a sad, lonely adolescent. The incredibly lyrical prose of the story is similar, which added to the magic, for me. One of my favorite examples from the book is this excerpt:

I have found that sometimes, moments get stuck in your body. They are there, lodged under your skin like hard seed-stones of wonder or sadness or fear, everything else growing up around them. And if you turn a certain way, if you fall, one of them could get free. It might dissolve in your blood, or it might spring up a whole tree. Sometimes, once one of them gets out, they all start to go.

Like Chbosky, the way that Dellaira crafts Laurel’s words is so honest and so real that I can’t help but feel them on a deeply emotional level. Also, like Perks’ Charlie, Laurel writes letters to someone from whom she’ll never hear back – but she manages to find support through the connections she makes with her special group of friends. Natalie, Hannah, Kristen, Tristan, and even Sky, Laurel’s love interest – they each serve a role in helping Laurel navigate the stormy waters of both high school and her past.

Natalie and Hannah help to carry the story in particular. They each have distinct personalities of their own, and I think that Laurel’s problems balancing their issues with her own is very accurate in terms of how most teens have to both support their friends and also deal with their own concerns. Natalie and Hannah also act as a great example of a realistic queer relationship. They have their struggles, but ultimately, together they serve as a fantastic reminder of just how important portrayals of LGBTQA+ relationships are in YA fiction. Natalie is also Mexican, which is explicitly mentioned about halfway through the book and which makes me very happy as a reader who knows how important diversity is, in all forms, to the YA genre.

This book is definitely a heavy read. I could almost tangibly feel the grief emanating from Laurel’s words, because her sense of loss – of her family’s structure, her sister’s life, her own innocence, her understanding of who she is – is ever-present. Dellaira tackles not just one tough topic but a smorgasbord: divorce, death, suicide, drug use, child abuse, sexual assault, and more. But throughout, she deals with each of these topics in a complex and multi-faceted way, and she includes them in a way that doesn’t feel forced or overdone. These issues are ones that teens today do face, and to pretend otherwise or to say that this is an over-dramatization would be supremely unfair. And at the end of the book, there is still a pervading sense of hope – one which left me truly satisfied and also reflective of my own life and experiences.

Love Letters to the Dead is a book that made me feel. I would highly recommend this to anyone who reads young adult literature, especially those who love “tough texts.” As a future educator (hopefully), I know that this is a book I’m going to want to include in my classroom library, because I think it can prove a valuable novel for my future students.

5 out of 5 stars.

And if you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll have noticed that this is the third book in a row I’ve given 5 stars. I really don’t care. I’m not going to knock a book just because I’ve read too many good ones before it – this book deserves 5 stars, and if I could give it more, I would. This is a book that will stay with me, and I know that it’s going to touch young adults in the same special way that the books of my generation touched me.

Tara

Review: Prisoner of Night and Fog

Image

Title: Prisoner of Night and Fog

Author: Anne Blankman

Publisher: Balzar & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins

Publication date: April 22, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

This book was actually recommended to me by a friend, Holly, who runs her own book blog. She had heard it was good, and knew it was WWII-related, but hadn’t yet read it – so I decided to take on the task. Little did I realize how hard it would be to do anything else but read it once I had started. I had a to-do list a mile long today and finished approximately zero items because I was too enthralled with this story to get things done.

*minor plot spoilers to follow*

From Anne Blankman’s website, here’s a quick rundown of the story:

In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her “uncle” Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf’s, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet. Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler… and Gretchen follows his every command… until she meets a fearless and handsome young Jewish reporter named Daniel Cohen. Gretchen should despise Daniel, yet she can’t stop herself from listening to his story: that her father, the adored Nazi martyr, was actually murdered by an unknown comrade. She also can’t help the fierce attraction brewing between them, despite everything she’s been taught to believe about Jews. As Gretchen investigates the very people she’s always considered friends, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Will she choose the safety of her former life as a Nazi darling, or will she dare to dig up the truth—even if it could get her and Daniel killed?

I’m a sucker for historical fiction, especially anything set in this particular part of history. I think it can be hard to find a book that captures the feeling of the World War II era but also has a genuine emotional depth to the story and a storyline that brings something new to the genre. Prisoner of Night and Fog delivers on all accounts.

This book did remind me a bit of The Book Thief, with how the main character in each is a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany just before World War II. I admit that The Book Thief holds a special place in my heart – however, one thing that Prisoner of Night and Fog does better is maneuvering the moral minefield of a character who believes wholeheartedly in the National Socialist Party at first – and then begins to change her mind. Where Liesel from The Book Thief is always skeptical and disapproving of the Nazi Party’s actions and teachings, mostly due to the influence of her foster parents, and easily befriends the Jewish Max when he appears in their home, Gretchen from Prisoner of Night and Fog has a far more difficult time coming to terms with Hitler’s plan for Germany. She is truly uncomfortable with the Jewish people she encounters, at least at the beginning of the story, and she genuinely struggles with turning away from everything she’s always heard and believed.

Her slow understanding of the horrors of the Party she’s followed and trusted for so long was incredibly believable and moving. Even though she loves and respects Hitler as an uncle/father figure, I never once hated her as a character, because I could see how she had been manipulated and how, to her, following Hitler was the only option that ever made sense. As a character, Gretchen proves that people can change. Following her investigation into her father’s death, and with the help of the Jewish reporter Daniel, she evolves into a person more critical of the world around her, and that’s something to be applauded.

Additionally, I’m never a fan of forced love stories, or love interests fostered on the main characters just for the sake of romance. However, the relationship between Gretchen and Daniel grows slowly and naturally. It doesn’t feel rushed and never made me question its validity or its place in the story. In fact, it actually adds to the overall emotional impact of the book, and in a big way. According to Goodreads, this is just the first book in a series, so I hope we get to see more of these two stellar characters – and their continued relationship – in the next book.

Anyone who loves a good historical fiction – read this book. Anyone who is interested in World War II, or Germany, or the Holocaust – read this book. Anyone who enjoys a fantastic YA romance – read this book. Really, just to cover all bases, everyone – read this book.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

vpcover

Title: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

Author: Kate Hattemer

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books

Publication date: April 8, 2014

Goodreads / Author’s blog / Author’s twitter

 

I was pumped when I saw this book on the shelf at my local library. I had seen it at Barnes and Noble earlier this month and was tempted to buy it, despite my firm belief in waiting to purchase books until they come out in paperback.

I’d normally summarize the story myself to give a little context, but why not let the author do it? A brief summary of the book, from Kate Hattemer’s blog:

“We have to do something!”  That’s what Luke Weston keeps telling his friends.  Selwyn Academy has been hijacked by For Art’s Sake, a sleazy reality television show, and Luke’s fed up.  Ethan Andrezejczak, Luke’s henchman and best friend, shrugs and nods along.  He doesn’t really mind the show.  It lets him stare at ballerina Maura Heldsman without being creepy.  And he’s fine with his life:  teaching circus tricks to his beloved gerbil Baconnaise, teasing his four-year-old triplet sisters, and hanging out with his friends, Luke and nerdily brilliant Jackson and smart, sharp, neon-garbed Elizabeth.

Nonetheless, he’ll go along with Luke.  He always does.  In the tradition of Ezra Pound, the foursome secretly writes and distributes a long poem to protest the show.  They’re thrilled to have started a budding rebellion.

But the forces behind For Art’s Sake are craftier than they seem.  The web of betrayal stretches farther than Ethan could have ever imagined.  It’s up to him, his friends, and maybe even Baconnaise to save Selwyn.

An art school viciously infiltrated by the horrific influence of reality television – but only Ethan and his friends understand the full implications of For Art’s Sake‘s take over. The show, which is filmed at school and whose contestants come from the talented school population, is not what it seems. As the characters so appropriately reference Hippocrates aphorism “ars longa, vita brevis” (“art is long, but life is short”), they have to work together to make sure that it’s real art that lasts, not just the premise of art existing through a sleasy corporate enterprise. Ethan and his friends Jacskon and Elizabeth hop on board Luke’s plan to create an underground movement to try to bring to light the realities of the school’s investment in the show. Together, they work to create Contracantos, a continuing poem that harkens back to the age of Ezra Pound and his Cantos, illegally printed and distributed to create a stir throughout Selwyn. Unfortunately, things don’t work out as they planned – when do they ever?

This book explores the power of the press, the influence of the media, and what happens when a group of rag-tag students try to subvert popular culture for the sake of real art and literature. The relationships between the friends are both funny and real. Too often, YA literature follows groups of people that seem either too perfect, too warped, or too fake – but Hettemer gets these friends just right. It’s believable, and throughout the book I found myself groaning, cheering, and biting my nails at their antics. Their Contracantos were thoroughly entertaining as well – their inclusion at the beginning of each chapter actually had me laughing out loud at times.

The one complaint that I have is that some parts of the book seem just a little too… pretentious. Ezra Pound is a focus – which called to my own heart, as an English major – but for readers who couldn’t care less about expatriate writers or the impact of literature or the meaning of poetry, I think parts of the book might loose their interest. There were references throughout the book that would also fly right over less educated readers’ heads. At one point, a code name is “Avogadro,” for someone who’s a mole; luckily, I took chemistry in high school, so I caught the connection to Avogradro’s number, the mol (which is, for those curious, 6.o2 x 10^23 – though what it’s used for, I can’t begin to remember). I caught these sorts of things throughout, but younger readers, or readers who didn’t pay as much attention in school, might get lost in the myriad of intellectual references and allusions.

But overall, I genuinely enjoyed reading The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. It was witty, it was real, and the ideas at its heart mattered. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good realistic fiction read, as well as anyone who has a love for literature, poetry, and art. I’m also planning on buying a copy for my personal library in the near future – once it comes out in paperback, if I can wait that long. Thanks for the great read, Kate Hattemer.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Let the book reviews begin.

As I’ve previously mentioned, now that I’m finished with school and I haven’t found employment yet, I have quite a bit of free time on my hands. Fortunately, this means that I’ve had plenty of time to read – for fun. While I’m not doing anything else, I figure now would be a great time to start posting book reviews again. I used to post them on the tumblr book blog I co-run with a friend from across the pond. It’s been a while since I’ve written a review – my old ones can be found here – but it’s never too late to hop back on the bicycle.

So while I’m catching up on my summer reading, I’ll be sharing my thoughts here! Fair warning: most of the books I’ll be reviewing are YA fiction. I hope to land a teaching job one day, and YA fiction is what the majority of my students read/will be reading, which is why it interests me most. Also, YA is just fun! It’s entertaining, enlightening, and thoroughly enjoyable. If YA isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to search elsewhere for your book-reviewing needs.

I’ve got my first review coming up, so be sure to look out for it. And while we’re at it, don’t be afraid to creep on my Goodreads profile or check out my library catalogue. If you’re interested in any of the books that I’ve read or that I own, drop me a comment and I can tell you whether it’s worth your while. Unless you don’t care about my opinion, which is cool too, I guess. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s books. Trust me.

Tara

Stepping into the “Real World”

Well, I’m finished. I am officially a college graduate. Everyone keeps asking me, “how does it feel?” I wish I could say that it feels AWESOME; I wish I could say I feel accomplished or ready to take on the world. In all actuality, it makes me feel lost. I feel a bit like I’ve been helicopter-dropped into a desert in the middle of nowhere with a backpack of “supplies” meant to help me when in reality, the backpack has a padlock on it and they didn’t give me the combination.

For the entirety of my life, I’ve been a student. From preschool twenty years ago until just four days ago, being a student was all I knew how to be. And yes, throughout my college years, I’ve learned plenty about life and critical thinking and problem solving – I’ve had a fabulously well-rounded education, focused on practical elements as well as the liberal arts. But at the same time, I don’t know how to put those skills into application. Mostly because I am currently unemployed and lying in bed in a different pair of pajamas than I wore all day yesterday, with nothing to do but kill time and apply for jobs, hoping that one day the employment gods will smile down upon me and bless me with a paycheck.

So while it’s nice to be finished with all of the excessive schoolwork that’s been hanging over my head for the past twenty years – my senior thesis is finally completed and turned in, by the way, which is an accomplishment in and of itself – it’s also strange to be lacking that near-constant part of my life. I don’t know what to do now that I don’t have papers to write and projects to do, classmates to work with and books to research.

I think what I’m going to have to do, at least until a job does drop into my lap, is take it upon myself to continue my education. I’ve always wanted to learn about art history – why not check out a book and take my own notes and write my own papers? Who says that I can’t continue studying Shakespeare and editing my thesis to make it even better? Why can’t I decide to explore 1920s American literature even further than I did in my undergrad classes? It’s going to take much more work than just showing up to class two or three times a week to listen to the professor lecture. I’ll have to decide what avenues to explore, what deserves time and attention, what kinds of things I can do to keep practicing my literary analysis skills. But that also gives me a bit of freedom that I’ve never had before. And if I’m my own director, at least I won’t have to stress about deadlines.

The thing is that the “real world” that I’ve been told to prepare for throughout my entire life is just this: doing whatever I want. Once I become employed, of course, I’ll have responsibilities to complete and colleagues to collaborate with and everything else I expect from a Grown-up Job. But the real world for me, right now, in this moment, is whatever I want it to be. My to-do list consists of “do laundry” and “read those library books” and “work on writing short story” and “go outside and get some sun, you ghost-person.” So if I want to choose to make my own real world an extension of school, no one can tell me no. I could get used to having that kind of power.

Tara