Review: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

Review: Long Way Down, Jason ReynoldsLong Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books ISBN: 1481438255
on October 24th 2017
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 320
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five-stars

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer.
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Long Way Down was all the talk of the recent National Council of Teachers of English Conference I attended right before Thanksgiving, and for good reason. Written entirely in verse, the whole book takes place in the course of 60 seconds as Will rides down the elevator with his brother Shawn’s gun tucked into his waistband and revenge on his mind. Reynolds captures the voice of his character with clarity and honesty.

The only thing I can say about this book is read it. It’s an experience. You won’t be able to put it down until you finish. Maybe not even then. Not a word feels out of place in this compelling story about the “rules” we force others to follow. I didn’t come up with this line, but a fellow reviewer on Goodreads remarked that Reynolds “doesn’t use the device of verse as a crutch; he wields it like a weapon.” It’s incredible what Reynolds can do with his spare free verse poetry. This is definitely one elevator ride you will not want to miss.

Jason Reynolds is an author to watch. Full disclosure: I met Jason Reynolds in 2016 at the NCTE conference. I was at a roundtable discussion, and he discussed rewriting Shakespeare’s sonnets in other idioms as a fun way to engage students. He demonstrated with his rendition of Sonnet 138, and it was incredible. He often discusses not being a reader when he was a teenager, which is one reason he has been moved to write the books he wanted to read when he was young.

five-stars

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Review: The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

I bought Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give last March, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. It was published at the end of February last year, and the buzz around this novel has been incredible. The buzz is completely justified. This book tells an important story.

Starr Carter lives between two worlds. She goes mostly-white Williamson Prep, but she lives in Garden Heights, a neighborhood in the crosshairs of gang violence and drug abuse. Her parents send her to Williamson after one of her childhood best friends, Natasha, is killed in a drive-by shooting. As the story begins, Starr has agreed to go to a neighborhood party with her friend Kenya. She catches up with her other childhood best friend Khalil, whom she hasn’t seen in months. A fight erupts at the party, and Starr and Khalil flee the party after hearing shots. After a few moments in the car, they see the blue lights of a police car behind them. In an echo of the story that has become a refrain, the officer kills Khalil. Starr must decide how and when to speak up.

This novel is the book we need to document this moment. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a novel that captured the times we live in so well. Of course, Angie Thomas makes the point that violence against African-Americans has existed always, but what is new is the documentation of it and the awareness we see among people who were previously blind to what was happening right in front of them.

The Hate U Give

This book is wake-up call to America’s conscience. I think everyone should read it. I’d like to think we could read it again in ten or twenty years and think about the distance we have come. Like Starr, I’m not sure when things will change, but I have hope they will. I sense they will. I know I’m sometimes accused of being overly optimistic, but what does it say about us if we don’t have hope that we can change? That things can be better? For the first time, it seems like people can see and hear each other. Not everyone, but a critical mass that didn’t seem to exist before. People are not forgetting. People are remembering the names. People are using their words. Not everyone sees and hears. Yet. But books like The Hate U Give help. One thing I plan to do as a teacher is put this book into as many hands as I can.

Rating: ★★★★★

Beat the BacklistWhile this book was not on my backlist when I started the Beat the Backlist reading challenge, it has been on my backlist for a while. I’m counting it anyway—I’m not in any danger of completing the challenge with the boost this single book will give me.

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Review: The Hearts We Sold, Emily Lloyd-Jones

Emily Lloyd-Jones’s novel The Hearts We Sold is probably not a book I’d have picked up on my own, but it shipped in my last Owl Crate. I read the book’s cover blurb and realized it would be perfect for theR. I. P. Challenge, so I dove in.

The Hearts We Sold is the story of Dee Moreno, a student at a boarding school in Portland, Oregon. Dee discovers that the school doesn’t have the funds to continue her scholarship, and knowing her parents, abusive and neglectful alcoholics, will never give her the money she needs to keep attending school, she finds herself willing to try something desperate. So she makes a deal with a demon. She trades her heart to him for two years in exchange for money to attend school. But her deal comes with a price—she must help him wage a war against strange monsters appearing in voids. Dee befriends the other members of the demon’s other “heartless” gang, but she quickly realizes that she has chosen a dangerous path, and she might have more to lose than her heart.

This book kept me turning pages. I think it’s intended teen audience would enjoy it. It’s honest, and it includes some diversity in its cast, including a lesbian character and a transgender character; however, they aren’t exactly major characters. Dee shows strength in dealing with her family’s problems, but her parents are bit one-dimensional, and it bugged me for some reason that the author referred to them, when she named them, as Mr. Moreno and Mrs. Moreno. It felt like they didn’t have any identities. I think I would even have preferred something like “her father” or “her mother.” Probably it wouldn’t bother most people. I’m noticing a trend in YA fiction in which it seems secondary characters (at least, usually secondary) have to be quirky in ways that don’t seem important or maybe don’t make sense. For example, Dee’s roommate not only has the odd name Gremma, but she also vivisects her teddy bears because she’s interested in medicine. That makes no sense to me because vivisecting teddy bears won’t help anyone learn anything about anatomy. I could see it if she were dissecting animals or something, but perhaps that was a bit too gross. I guess this trend just reminds me too much of the “manic pixie dream girl” thing that ran rampant in movies a few years back. I do like the fairy tale allusions and there were some other fun surprises along the way, too. The book was a fun diversion, though, and if anyone’s looking for something new to read for the R. I. P. Challenge, you might check it out.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I am counting this book as my second selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge.

R. I. P. XII

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Review: Heartless, Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer’s novel Heartless tells the story of how the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland became the heartless monarch Alice encounters after falling down the rabbit hole. Meyer’s Queen of Hearts is Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove in the Kingdom of Hearts. More than anything, Cath wants to be a baker, and she dreams of opening a bakery with her maid, Mary Ann. Cath’s parents, however, have other plans. When the King of Hearts sets his heart on marrying Cath, she can’t figure out how to make her dream come true without disappointing her parents. Meanwhile, a court joker named Jest shows up at the palace and is employed by the King. Cath finds herself strangely drawn to Jest. The kingdom has bigger problems as a Jabberwock, a beast not seen in Hearts for centuries, returns and wreaks havoc on the kingdom. Cath’s dreams slip further and further from her grasp as she is drawn towards her inevitable fate to be the notorious villain we first meet in Alice in Wonderland.

I have to admit this book surprised me by the end. Partway through it, I was having trouble keeping going with it because I really wasn’t all that interested in Cath’s burgeoning interest in Jest. He’s your classic YA-novel charmer, and if I’m being honest, I’m bored with that guy. I assume the book’s audience (teenage girls) would find that part of the story more interesting than I did. However, after Cath bakes a pumpkin cake to enter into a baking contest with some devastating results for a new turtle friend of hers, the story grows more interesting. Cath is drawn to travel to the neighboring (and mythical) land of Chess to help Jest and Hatta (the Mad Hatter) in their quest, and she meets her fate precisely because of her heart—her inability to be heartless and put her mission before her loved ones. At that point in the story, I found it more difficult to put down and finished the book in one gulp. I admit this book was sitting on three stars for me until the last half, so my advice is if the premise intrigues you, but you are not digging it yet after 50 pages or so, maybe give this one longer.

I think I would have enjoyed the story even more had I re-read Alice in Wonderland first. Meyer brought in all the important characters and elements from that book and also explained the origins of few of those beloved characters as well. I know some of the references went over my head because it’s been too long since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland.

Meyer says this book began when she wished aloud to her agents for Gregory Maguire to “write the origin story for the Queen of Hearts.” Her foreign rights agent Cheryl Pientka replied, “Marissa, why don’t you write it” (453). I think some of the best books are born when writers wish the story existed, and because it didn’t, they decided to create it.

I haven’t read any of Meyer’s other YA books, though I understand they are popular, and she has sold film rights to the first of her Lunar Chronicles, Cinder. YA books certainly have become hot Hollywood properties lately. I am not sure if I’ll read Meyer’s other books. I might not have read this one had it not arrived in my Owl Crate box with a special edition just jacket just for Owl Crate subscribers back in November of last year. My copy is going right into my classroom library, where I know some of my students who like fantasy may enjoy it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Because this book’s been on my backlist since it arrived in November, I’m counting it for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

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Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Library of Souls, Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls is the third novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. At the end of the previous novel, Hollow City, Jacob Portman has discovered that he not only has the power to see and fight hollowgasts, but he can also control them. He is going to need this power as he travels to the Devil’s Acre, a corrupted loop in the cesspool of Victorian London controlled by wights, to rescue all his peculiar friends and their guardian, Miss Peregrine, along with other ymbrynes.

Emma and Jacob encounter Sharon, who says he can take them to Devil’s Acre, near the docks in London. They set off with Addison the dog for the most dangerous adventure they will yet experience—right into the fortress of the wights itself. The fate of all peculiardom rests on their shoulders.

Library of Souls introduces what I think is probably one of the best secondary characters in the series—the boatman Sharon (think Charon). His dark sense of humor is fun, and he’s interesting to watch—can he be trusted? Jacob and Emma also learn a lot more about the seedier side of peculiardom, including the horrible accident in Siberia (we know it as the Tunguska event) that created hollowgasts, and therefore, also created wights—a scourge peculiars have been hiding from for about 100 years.

As Jacob and Emma learn more, the mythos of peculiardom is fleshed out, and there are ample opportunities for Riggs to continue the series, focusing on new adventures. This particular volume of the series was hard to put down. I think it had perhaps a little bit less of the humor (thought it still retains plenty of funny moments), which makes sense due to the seriousness of the situation in which Jacob and Emma find themselves. I read nearly all of the last half of the book in one big gulp today. It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book so good I didn’t want to put it down.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book made for a great creepy read for the R. I. P. Challenge, and I’m counting it also for the Reading England Challenge, as Devil’s Acre is the worst of Victorian London. However, I am not counting for other challenges. I just bought the book in September, and it hasn’t been on my TBR list long. It’s not exactly historical fiction either—more of a fantasy.

RIP Eleven

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Review: Hollow City, Ransom Riggs

When Hollow City, the second novel in the Miss Peregrine series, came out a few years ago, I bought it immediately. I also started reading it right away. But for some reason, I set it aside after maybe the first chapter or so, and I didn’t pick it up again until recently. I just can’t imagine now how I ever put it down! The book is nonstop action pretty much from start to finish. One of my students who had read the series last year said that I would want to start the third book immediately after finishing this one, and he was right.

Hollow City picks up right where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children leaves off, as Jacob and the other peculiars escape their island with the injured and “stuck” Miss Peregrine. Be warned: this book does not fill in the gaps for anyone who hasn’t read the first book. You are going to have to start with the first book if you want to follow the story. I had a bit of trouble because it had been a long time since I read Miss Peregrine. In this second book, the peculiars go in search of an ymbryne who can help Miss Peregrine return to her human form. They search for and find a time loops run by an ymbryne named Miss Wren, but they learn Miss Wren is missing. She is the only known ymbryne who has not been captured by wights, so the peculiars set off to London in search of her.

Riggs writes good dialogue, and his characters are well-drawn, particularly his secondary characters like Olive, Millard, Addison the dog, and Enoch. I admit I found the “romance” between Jacob and Emma to be a bit wooden and pat, but the story itself was interesting, and the ending was an excellent surprise. The images are amazing. Do yourself a favor and read this one on paper and not on an e-reader or audiobook. You will get a lot more out of the images if you can savor them and flip through the book.

In all, I definitely recommend the book. It’s a great choice for the R. I. P. Challenge.

Rating: ★★★★½

Because I’ve had this book on my shelf and TBR (or really, a to-be finished) pile for a long time, I’m glad to be able to count it for my Shelf Love and Mount TBR Challenges. I’m also counting this book for both the Reading England 2016 and R. I. P. Challenges.

RIP Eleven

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Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger’s novel American Girls will be released next month on June 7, but I received an ARC at an English teacher’s conference in November. I hadn’t picked it up until recently. April and May were busy and stressful at work, and I’m afraid my reading life took a bit of a backseat. I share books I think my students will like each class period because they are doing independent reading, and I know hearing about a book that sounds intriguing will encourage them to pick up books to read. Book talks make all the difference in helping students select books to read. I shared this book a couple of weeks ago and found myself rather intrigued by the book’s premise, so I picked it up instead of putting it back on the shelf for my students.

Fifteen-year-old Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the vague notion of visiting her sister, who is trying to make it as an actress. As the story unfolds, it is clear Anna is running from a fairly dysfunctional family. She feels sidelined and ignored by both her mother and her father, and her best friend Doon talked her into bullying a classmate of Doon’s. Anna’s mother agrees to let Anna stay in Los Angeles for the summer, but she needs to work to earn back the money to repay her stepmother. Delia, Anna’s sister, manages to find Anna a job researching the Manson Family for creepy film director Roger, Delia ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Delia also arranges for Anna to stay with Delia’s current boyfriend Dex on the set of the TV show for which he writes, Chips Ahoy, a ridiculous and terrible show starring the Taylor twins, Josh and Jeremy, the younger brothers of washed-up superstar actress and pop singer, Olivia Taylor. Anna spends her summer hanging around the D-list, immersing herself in the history of the Manson Family, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the Manson “girls,” Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Squeaky Fromme. Ultimately, what this book really explores is the way in which American society crushes its girls and women, particularly in Los Angeles, where “pretty winds up looking like a hundred girls who look like a hundred other girls who are all trying to look like the same person,” and “after a while, pretty doesn’t even register” (263).

This is an interesting book, and not only because it’s probably the first YA novel I’ve ever seen to explore the Manson Family. Anna’s voice is whipsmart and sarcastic. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she has pretty good reasons. Even with its sometimes dark subject matter, there is plenty of humor in this book, courtesy of the strong first-person narration of Anna. She is realistically drawn and easy to sympathize with. The book skewers the Disney child-star road to ruination quite effectively. We should all be praying for those kids with Disney shows. Olivia Taylor is clearly similar to Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears, and the Taylor twins (and even their TV show) make one think of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose TV show The Suite Life on Deck sounds remarkably similar to Chips Ahoy. Though it should be said, the real-life Sprouse twins don’t seem to have as many issues as the Taylor twins, and they have even taken time away from Hollywood to go to college. Olivia, Josh, and Jeremy’s mother could be Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell—she was a groupie whose children are the results of relationships with rock stars. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olivia Taylor’s name is so similar to that of Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and groupie Bebe Buell.

One thing the book captures really well is the disposable way in which young women in Southern California are treated. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school, and if there is any place in the country that is the absolute worst for sexualizing teenage girls and taking their identities away and replacing them with these plastic veneers—all facelifts, capped teeth, and anorexia—I can’t think of one. One scene stands out vividly in my mind. I was in marching band, and the girls in the flag corps were running some drills or practicing or maybe getting ready—that part is actually fuzzy—but I clearly remember their coach saying, “Be sexy! Be sexy!” They were fifteen and sixteen. I could tell you about worse, but I don’t really want to put it on a blog. Suffice it to say I don’t think teenage girls grow up in Southern California unscathed. This book really exposes what it’s like. A couple of passages that particularly resonated:

But If I had to write a memo to America, on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. (262)

Later, Anna connects her understanding of what she has seen in Los Angeles to the American Dream of Jay Gatsby:

Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch. (284)

Anna thinks a great deal about the Manson girls and what led them to follow Charles Manson’s orders to kill. Ultimately, her conclusions should make all of us shudder. I thought this book was different from most YA I have read, and I would highly recommend it. The gritty picture it paints of American girls will trouble you, but it’s all the more troubling that the picture is real.

Rating: ★★★★½

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free at the NCTE annual convention. I was not asked to write a review in exchange.

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Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon’s novel The Rock and the River is the story of Sam, son of a civil rights leader named Roland Childs, who is a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and a leading voice of the Movement. Sam and his older brother Steven, whom Sam calls “Stick,” find themselves increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress they see. When they are attacked at one of their father’s rallies, they fight back, and Stick winds up in the hospital. Some time later, Sam and his friend Maxie witness the brutal beating and false arrest of one of their friends. Sam finds Black Panther literature in his brother’s things. Though he knows involvement in the Black Panther Party would disappoint his father, Sam finds himself drawn to the group, especially the political education classes, free breakfast program, and the promise of a free clinic. At the same time, he is also attracted to the Black Panther Party’s more militant ideals, especially after the Movement loses Dr. King to an assassin’s bullet, and Sam’s own experiences with police lead him to question whether his father’s way will really bring about change or if there is a another way.

The Rock and the River is an intriguing coming-of-age story. I can’t recall that I’ve ever read any historical fiction, or even memoir/nonfiction about the Black Panther Party (aside from Wikipedia). Most of the focus of the Civil Rights Movement is on nonviolent social protest and leaders like King. Given the attention police violence against the black community has received over the last couple of years, many young adults will find Sam’s story interesting in offering a historical perspective. After a fashion, the Black Panther Party is one of the first #blacklivesmatter organizations. Some of the good they did for their communities is obscured by violence perpetuated by some individuals in the Black Panther Party. As shown in Magoon’s novel, the Panthers did institute free breakfast programs, legal counsel, and clinics in underserved and forgotten communities. Magoon does not flinch from showing the Panthers’ tensions with the police, either. I found the book to be an honest and balanced portrayal of the group (based on my own research). I plan to recommend the book for my students and get a copy for my own classroom library.

Something I have been thinking about a great deal, as it has come up both in my teaching and in my own thinking, is that we need everyone’s stories. All of us have stories. I know for a long time I heard one story about the Black Panther Party, and it wasn’t a very nuanced one. I think I started digging into my own albeit somewhat cursory research around the time I started reading and later watching Aaron McGruder’s comic/TV show, The Boondocks. The strip’s main character, Huey Freeman, is named after Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. This connection prompted me to read a little bit more about Newton and the Black Panthers. Magoon’s book is the first novel I’ve seen about the group, however. I particularly appreciated the novel’s nuanced portrayal of the Black Panthers. It was an intriguing book and told a story that I haven’t seen told before. There is a danger in hearing only one story or one side. People, and by extension groups of people, are rarely all good or all bad or all black or all white. For that reason, I think it’s important that we hear as many stories as we can and make it our business to listen to one another. I’m glad that Magoon told this story.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set in 1968 Chicago, this book was published in 2009. I purchased it for my Kindle in 2010, but I hadn’t read it until now. Picking it up enabled me to address a book that’s been on my reader library and in my TBR pile for quite some time. A good start for three challenges in the first week and a half of January!

 

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Review: Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly, narrated by Emily Janice Card and Emma Bering

I believe I’ve just finished reading my last book of 2015, and it was a re-read of one of my favorites, Jennifer Donnelly’s novel Revolution. This time, I listened to the audio book. I have this book in hardcover, Kindle, and audio book, but I hadn’t listened to it until this week. It was even better on a re-read than it was the first time I read it.

Since I reviewed the book last time I read it, this time, I really want to mention a couple of things that struck me. First, this book is tightly written. It all works. I picked up on so many things I missed on a first reading. The sections of Dante’s poetry correspond well to Andi’s descent into darkness and her literal descent into hell in the catacombs, where she is, naturally, accompanied by Virgil. I was so swept away with the plot the first time I read that I missed some of the artistry of the writing. Equally impressive is Donnelly’s research. She fictionalizes some details. Andi’s thesis focus, the composer Amadé Mahlerbeau, is fictional, as are her Nobel-prize winning father and his historian friend G. However, they all have their basis in historical or contemporary figures who do similar work. Another thing I noticed about Donnelly’s writing is that she allows the reader to be creative and connect the dots. She doesn’t knock you over the head with the connections. She wants you to do the work. She wants you to do some digging and find out what she has learned.

I also noticed how well Donnelly pulls off the twinning. Maximilien Robespierre and the schizophrenic Maximilien R. Peters, who is responsible for the death of Andi’s brother Truman, work very well in a pair and serve as an interesting symbol of the brutality and stupidity of the world and the cyclical nature of history’s desperate individuals. It’s almost not too hard to believe that Alex might reach across history, 200 years in the future, to save Andi and let her know that just because the world goes on, stupid and brutal, it doesn’t mean that she has to—she can be a positive force for good in the world. She can make people happy. The world can be a scary, crazy place. Particularly today, we see a lot of stories in the news that make us despair and make us want to give up. Perhaps in the end, all we have left to do is to do the good that we can. We don’t have to participate in the world’s brutality and stupidity.

Donnelly said in an interview that “a good story with a compelling character that’s well written should appeal to anybody.” I think that’s why this book is so good. Andi may be a teenager, but the fact that she is a young protagonist doesn’t make her story any less applicable or interesting. This book really makes me want to write, and that’s always the sign of a really good book to me—the ones that make me want to write.

Emily Janice Card narrated most of the book, while Emma Bering narrated Alex’s diary entries. Both narrators were brilliant. Card especially does a brilliant job bringing Andi’s sarcastic and hard edge to life. You can hear the chip on her shoulder. Card happens to be the daughter of Orson Scott Card. I read that she was named for two of my favorite writers (and Orson Scott Card’s, apparently): Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë. I really didn’t want to stop listening to this book. I have to be doing something mindless while I listen to audio books or else I get distracted from the story. When I didn’t have anything mindless to occupy me while listening to this book, I pulled my hardcover off the shelf and read along with the narrators. I need to go back and re-read a few favorite passages.

Last time I read this book, I was craving more books just like it, but I’m afraid there probably aren’t any. It’s brilliant.

Keep scrolling for the book’s playlist. You don’t want to miss it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

The playlist for this particular book is massive and varied, as Andi is one of those folks who loves music. All kinds. I suspect it needs a bit of revision because there are musical references on just about every page of the book. That’s another thing I love about it. The music.

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