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!

 

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.

Review: Where She Went, Gayle Forman

Where She Went is the sequel to Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay. It picks up the story of Mia and Adam about three years after the events of the previous book. In the intervening time, Mia and Adam broke up and lived very separate lives. Mia went to Juilliard and pursued her dream of being a renowned cellist. Meanwhile, Adam channeled all his hurt and pain over Mia’s rejection into writing songs, and almost before he knew it, his band Shooting Star had a hit record, and he was a rock star, complete with an actress girlfriend and a jet set lifestyle. Inside, he feels hollow, and even music no longer means much to him. On his last night in New York before heading to London for a tour with his band, Adam is alone. He’s just flipped out in the middle of an interview, and his manager gives him the evening off to pull himself together. Wandering around New York, he finds himself at Carnegie Hall, and he is stunned to discover Mia is playing there, that night. He purchases a rush ticket and watches her concert. At the end, an usher approaches him and says that “Ms. Hall would like you to come backstage.” Mia takes Adam on a tour of her New York, and over the course of the evening, they say all the things they left unsaid when they parted.

Some reviewers claim that they like this book even better than the first, which is unusual, as sequels often don’t measure up to the promise of the first book in a series. In my own review of If I Stay, I mentioned that it would have been a book I’d have adored as a teenager—and I do mean it would have been one my absolute favorite books of all time if I had encountered it in high school. Adam would have been exactly the kind of boyfriend I’d have wanted in high school. By my mid-twenties, I had soured big time on that kind of guy because of the kind of person Adam became after his band made it big. The problem with so many of those types is that they never really mature out of their own selfishness. They’re terribly cool people, and they are interesting and artistic. But they are horrible to be in love with. The interesting thing about this book is that it exposes that side of rock musicians and also that it allows Adam a chance to grow out of it. This book is told from Adam’s point of view rather than Mia’s, and I found her to be very interesting in his head. As someone who has read the first book, I also have Mia’s own point of view, but Adam doesn’t have it. He is filled with insecurity and anxiety, but mostly he’s just numb and sort of sleepwalking through his life. I think I actually liked this book better, too. What happens to Mia in the first book is terrible—almost too terrible—but the horrible mundanity of a devastating breakup is something we can all relate to, and Forman captures the feeling so well. Mia and Adam are grown up now, too, and though they are young, they have lost that naivete and innocence they had in the first book. Well, they must. They’ve experienced a great deal of pain and growth. One has the sense at the end of Where She Went that they will be okay and will be able to handle whatever happens next, whether that means they will be together or not.

Rating: ★★★★★

Here’s the playlist, with one substitution unavailable in Spotify (Le Tigre’s “My My Metrocard” for “Deceptacon,” a track from the same album).

Review: If I Stay, Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay is the story of Mia, an accomplished cellist and senior in high school. Mia lives in Oregon, and when the schools close for a snow day (“I think the county overreacted,” Mia says), the family decides to make a day of it and visit friends, family, and the bookstore. In a split second, Mia’s entire life is shattered when her family’s car is hit by a pickup truck. Mia finds herself outside her body, watching as the ambulance arrives, watching as she is taken to Portland by medivac, and watching as she lies in a coma in the ICU. Mia realizes that she must make the decision: “I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard” (175).

I’m a little late with If I Stay. I think a lot of folks have read it already, so it might not be new to you. In fact, it’s been on my TBR list for years. This is exactly the kind of book I’d have been in love with as a teenager. I must have re-read Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes countless times. In many ways, Mia reminds me a bit of Davey in Blume’s book, though the tragedy she must cope with is much larger in scope and also involves her own personal fight for recovery. I think if this book had existed when I was in high school, I’d have re-read it as much as I re-read Tiger Eyes, and I can’t praise it much more highly than that. Adam is definitely the kind of boyfriend I’d have wanted in high school. Like Mia, I was a musician in high school with some starry-eyed dreams of actually being good enough to go to Juilliard. Unlike Mia, I knew I didn’t have the talent it would take to do it. The cello is, in fact, one of my favorite instruments, and my daughter played it in school. I think I would really have connected to this story if I’d read it in high school.

So what about adult me? Well, at this stage of my life, I recognize Adam is NOT the kind of guy I’d want to be with (nice enough, but the rock musician types are more cool on paper). I consider music important, but it doesn’t consume me as much as it did when I was in high school, and perhaps that is my loss. I have really wanted to get back into playing either the flute or the guitar (or both) again. I’m in a different place, which is as it should be, and it makes me a little sad this book wasn’t around when I was in high school (but I think Gayle Forman was probably in high school right then as well). It’s a great book. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve considered how much more I might have liked a book if I’d read it at a different time. As it is, it was well-written, but some of the cracks showed a bit more to adult me. They wouldn’t have bothered teenager me at all. In fact, I might not have seen them as cracks at all.

Still, I really enjoyed the book, and as for grabbing and keeping my attention, it absolutely did. I definitely want to read the sequel.

Rating: ★★★★½

I found this blog post on hosting the ultimate book group party for this book (very cool ideas). I also found an interesting Bustle post about the fictional band in the movie soundtrack. Speaking of the movie, some liberties were taken with the story, but f you have Amazon Prime, it’s free to watch with your membership. It wasn’t bad.

I made a Spotify playlist based on the music mentioned in the book, on Gayle Forman’s website, and the movie. Caveat: I couldn’t bring myself to include Bette Midler’s song “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (though it’s mentioned in the book), and I cut Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” as well. I don’t hate that song, but it doesn’t fit well with the rest of the punk/indie and classical tracks in the playlist. I guess Frank Sinatra doesn’t either, but he stayed in.

Review: All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven, narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers

I decided that I would listen to All the Bright Places after I finished We Were Liars, which was also read by Ariadne Meyers. She’s a really good interpreter for YA.

First all, if you read or listen to this book, be prepared to cry. Maybe especially if you listen to it, because Ariadne Meyers will make you cry at the end, and if she doesn’t, then Jennifer Niven will in her author’s note.

All the Bright Places is the story of Violet and Finch, who meet in the most improbable place: the bell tower at their high school. Both of them are contemplating suicide. Violet has sunk into depression after losing her sister in a car accident, while Finch’s problems are a bit more complicated—he has bipolar disorder, a disinterested family, an abusive father, and is bullied at school. Somehow, it’s not exactly clear who saves who, as the book’s description says, but soon they become friends and then something more as they work on a school assignment to explore the attractions of their home state of Indiana.

This is a great book, and the narration is particularly good. You are going to like it if you liked books like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park. In fact, I’ve seen some reviews that insinuate that this book is a bit derivative of similar books that preceded it. First of all, I don’t think that’s the case. The stories all deal with similar themes, but ultimately, this book is Jennifer Niven’s story. I felt her characters were very real and recognizable in some ways that perhaps John Green’s aren’t. I feel his characters are often a bit too precocious and quirky, whereas I feel I have known teenagers who are more like Violet and Finch.

The narration is great, the story is great (give it a chance; the comparisons to other YA books are inevitable, but I really think this one stands on its own), and it’s not a topic that is dealt with a lot in YA. If you’re a teacher, get a copy for your classroom library; it will not be on your shelves very often.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Some spoiler-y parts to follow, so fair warning. If you keep reading, it will help you understand how this book moved from four to five stars for me right at the end, but my assumption is that if you keep reading, then you are prepared to be spoiled because you either have already read this book and WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE FEELINGS or you don’t mind spoilers. You can still turn back if you are not sure.

 

Spoiler alert!

I had figured out that Theodore Finch was going to commit suicide well before he did. I mean, why else include the Help Line and Resource Guide, right? Plus, Finch is obsessed with suicide. He has researched the suicide methods of several famous people and recites them for the reader, and he actively tries to commit suicide at least once before he actually does. Then, he starts getting rid of his belongings and withdraws completely from everyone, even Violet. So I wasn’t surprised when he did it, and my eyes stayed pretty dry until the end when Ariadne Meyers read the last chapters when Violet found the note that Finch left her in one of the places they had planned to visit. Still, just a few sniffles really because, you know, fiction. I know, I know. I can bawl my eyes out knowing Catherine is going to die at the end of A Farewell to Arms (a book from which, aptly, Niven draws a line for her introduction), and I can’t shed a tear for Theodore Finch? Well, like Violet, I guess I was mad at him for not getting help (even though I knew he wouldn’t). I was furious with his parents for not caring enough for him to notice he was in real trouble. I don’t really know how I felt. However, Jennifer Niven explained that this book came from her own story in her author’s note. Her great-grandfather committed suicide, which was an event that left ripples through her family even to the present day.

The same thing happened in my family. My great-grandfather, Omar Gearhart, committed suicide on December 29, 1930. He had been battling some major problems, and I’m not clear what they were, except that later, my grandfather described his father as “crazy,” and his younger brother recalled hiding under the porch from my great-grandfather. There is a lot that I do not know. I know some of his children were taken away from the family and were adopted by other families before he died. I know that my grandfather was one of them. I know also that the children were told their father was murdered, which is something my grandfather’s sisters both confirmed. I guess somehow their mother thought it would be easier to hear, though I confess I’m not sure why, because then the children grew up thinking that their father had been murdered and nothing was ever done about it. I didn’t think that sounded right. More and more, I wondered if the official story was true, so I sent away for my great-grandfather’s death certificate—a matter of public record. And it said he died of a gunshot wound to the head, self-inflicted. Contributing cause was “despondency.” And still, to this day, I had family members whose first reaction when I told them was shame and secrecy.

People, shame and secrecy is not how we prevent suicide. It’s how we perpetuate the problem. We say that having a mental illness is something to be embarrassed about, hidden. Finch says, “Labels like ‘bipolar’ say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses.” He, too, is reluctant to connect himself with this label. Even though I didn’t know the truth about my great-grandfather until recently, his death did ripple across the generations.

Niven also shares the other personal connection she had to this story: she loved a boy when she was a teenager, and that boy committed suicide. And Jennifer found him. How devastating. I think, but I’m not sure, that my great-grandmother found my great-grandfather. My dad says he remembers her. He remembers visiting her. He told me that even when she smiled, she seemed sad. She lost several of her children for reasons I will probably never know, though she was allowed to visit them, and she lost her husband. She had a very sad life. And she was beautiful.

Omar Gearhart, Gertrude Perkins & John Douglas Gearhart
My great-grandfather Omar Gearhart, great-grandmother Gertrude Perkins Gearhart, and great -uncle John Douglas Gearhart, circa 1912

So, I don’t know, that personal connection somehow added a star to the book. I think books are sometimes mirrors for us, and I could see my own story in that book, in some way.

Spoiler over.

 

Review: We Were Liars, E. Lockhart, narrated by Ariadne Meyers

Wow. I’m going to try not to spoil anything for you because the less you really know about E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars going in, the more you are likely to enjoy it. Having said that, I know a little taste of the book is sometimes necessary for readers who might be on the fence about reading a book. Here goes.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman, known as Cady, is the granddaughter of the wealthy and WASPish Harris and Tipper Sinclair, who own a private island near Martha’s Vineyard complete with a full staff, a large manor house where Harris and Tipper live, and three houses for each of Harris and Tipper’s daughters: Carrie, Bess, and Penny. Carrie is the oldest and has two sons: Johnny and Will. They live in New York City. Bess, the middle daughter, lives in Cambridge with her four children: Mirren, twins Liberty and Bonnie, and Taft. The youngest daughter, Penny, is Cady’s mother. They live in Burlington, Vermont. Each summer the family gathers to spend their vacation on the private island, known as Beechwood Island.

We Are Sinclairs

Cady can’t remember much about the year fifteen summer due to an accident she had, and a shroud of secrecy surrounds the story. Her family does not speak to her about it. Cady is desperate to return to Beechwood Island and see her two cousins Johnny and Mirren along with Gat, nephew of the man Cady’s Aunt Carrie is living with. Gat has been visiting Beechwood Island as a guest of the Sinclairs for years, and over time, Cady has fallen in love with him. Together, they were the Liars, and they forged a close summer friendship that waned as they returned to home and school each year, but picked up right where it left off the following summer. But even the Liars are strangely silent and reluctant to talk about Cady’s accident.

I anticipate that some readers will have difficulty identifying with the privileged Sinclairs and their idyllic summers on their own private island. I admit it’s a barrier, but if you take a peek at the family dynamic, it’s a great deal easier to feel empathy for the family. They have a secretive, fractured family. One of my favorite aspects of the novel was its connection to King Lear and an assortment of fairy tales. In fact, I’m wondering if this book might not be a good one to bring into my AP Literature class, which will be reading both King Lear and Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation A Thousand Acres. I could see a small literature circle group really enjoying the connections between this novel and the other texts.

I understand that some readers don’t like the writer’s style. I listened to the audio book, and the narrator naturally had a great deal of influence over how the text was interpreted, so I can’t speak to those complaints except to say that if the style is bothering you, you might try listening to the book instead. I don’t think I have ever finished an audio book in one day before. I just wanted to find out what would happen. The suspense of not knowing what was going on with Cady’s family or her accident kept me up late until I finished the book some time after 1:00 A. M. Saturday night.

Silence

This was a perfect start-of-summer read, even if the story is a tough one. While it is YA, I would classify it as more mature YA—for high schoolers rather than middle schoolers, but it’s definitely appropriate for students in high school, whom I would imagine would really love it. I know this is the kind of book I would have inhaled had it existed when I was in high school.

Ariadne Meyers’s narration is perfect for the story. She emotes when necessary, and she pulls the cynical teenager when it’s called for. I liked her reading so much that I downloaded another book that I’ve been wanting to read that she also narrates through Audible.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Conversion, Katherine Howe, narrated by Khristine Hvam

My most recent audio book was Conversion by Katherine Howe and read by Khristine Hvam. Conversion alternates between two stories. Colleen Rowley is a high school senior at St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. She’s currently in a heated competition for school valedictorian and is stressed about getting into Harvard. Her classmates suddenly develop mysterious ailments—one girl has an apparent seizure, but soon another girl is losing her hair, while others develop tics and coughing fits. What is going on?

The other story is that of Ann Putnam, Jr., one of accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and a real historical figure who later confessed to being “deluded by Satan” and apologized for her role in the deaths. As she tells the story of her involvement in the trials to Reverend Green, it becomes increasingly clear she’s still disturbed (which might not be historically accurate, but it was fun). What exactly caused the girls of Salem Village to think they were bewitched in 1692? And what was wrong with the girls at St. Joan’s 320 years later?

When Colleen is given an extra credit assignment by her AP US History teacher to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and write a paper about why Miller changed the details connected to some of the girls—Ann Putnam in particular—she discovers an eerie connection between the events in the Witch Trials and the girls’ illnesses at St. Joan’s that no one else seems to have noticed.

Katherine Howe has written about Salem before, particularly in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which happens to be one of my favorite historical fiction novels). In fact, Deliverance Dane, her daughter Mercy, and her descendant Connie Goodwin all make cameo appearances in this novel (which I rather enjoyed). In this case, she was also inspired the the story of a mysterious illness that afflicted students at at high school in Le Roy, New York. The true cause of the “hysteria” in the Witch Trials has been debated, and we will likely never have an answer—just perhaps more plausible theories. In juxtaposing the events in modern-day Danvers (which used to be Salem Village) and Puritan Salem, Howe shows us it’s just possible that the girls were under a great deal of stress and that their treatment as girls and, in some cases, lower class servants, contributed to the deaths of innocent people when the witchcraft accusations began to fly. It’s certainly a plausible explanation and takes into account that perhaps the girls really were faking at first and later became caught up in a shared delusion.

Conversion is a highly enjoyable book that has a lot to say about the stress teenagers are under in today’s competition for grades and college spots and also the ways in which we discount teens’ voices. I should think that teenagers would find a lot to relate to, and at the same time, they would learn some interesting things about American history and literature.

The narrator, Khristine Hvam, did an excellent job not only capturing the voices of the teenaged girls, but also the old New England cadence of Ann Putnam’s speech. She was perfect for the novel, and she’s one of the better book narrators I’ve heard. I am really glad I listened to the audio book with the exception of one reason: the Author’s Note was not included in the reading, and it has some interesting information for readers. I had to track it down so I could read it.

I really liked this interview at Bustle and this other review at the Nerdy Book Club.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

(P. S.: Some of the novel is set in the past, but as the focus is more on the present, I have decided not to count it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.)

Review: Wonder, R. J. Palacio

WonderI read R. J. Palacio’s novel Wonder with my thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie. Strictly speaking, both of us might be a little older than the target age-range for this book, but I don’t believe in such nonsense, and it’s a good thing I don’t, or I might have missed out on a true treasure of a book.

Wonder is the story of a ten-year-old boy named August Pullman. He loves Star Wars and his dog, Daisy. He loves his sister Via. He’s worried about starting middle school, just like most kids starting middle school. The difference is that Auggie, as he is called by family and friends, has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a craniofacial deformity about which Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (3). But Auggie also says, “The only reason I’m not ordinary is no one else sees me that way” (3).

August has been homeschooled due to the many surgeries he has endured as a result of his condition. His parents discuss whether it might be time to send Auggie to school when fifth grade begins. Ultimately, the family decides to send Auggie to Beecher Prep, and Auggie has a difficult year, but in his quiet and ordinary way, he powers through the adversity and manages to earn the admiration of his teachers and his classmates.

Actually, it’s impossible to do this book justice in a review. So, I asked Maggie for some help. I interviewed her after we finished. Before I go on, I should explain she received the new publication of the book that includes “Julian’s Chapter,” which was originally published as an e-book, for Christmas. Palacio had said at one point that Julian didn’t get a chapter initially but she eventually changed her mind for reasons she explains in this interview with Slate. I think it was a good decision.

Me: What did you think [after finishing the book]?

Maggie: I think that book might be my favorite book of all time. I’m dead serious.

Me: What was your favorite part?

Maggie: SLIGHTLY SPOILERY ANSWER. YOU WERE WARNED! At the end of August’s last chapter where he received the award and got a standing ovation.

Me: Who were your favorite characters?

Maggie: My favorite characters were August, Via, and Summer. I also liked Miranda. The way August and Via got along is sweet and touching. And Summer, it was nice to find out she was a genuinely nice gal. It was nice that she wasn’t being friends with August because someone forced her or dared her.

Me: What else do you want to share?

Maggie: I was surprised when we read Julian’s chapter because I didn’t expect to feel sympathy or empathy for him after reading the rest of the book. I also really liked how the book was told in different points of views. You get to hear all sides of the story so you know what happened. It’s a creative way to tell a story. I really didn’t like Julian’s mother. I thought she was overprotective and mean about the whole situation and how she handed the whole August situation. She completely overreacted.

Maggie and I loved the book. We highly recommend it to everyone. We had a lot of good conversations that involved some soul searching. I told Maggie about being unkind to a girl when I was in sixth grade because the “cool” kids didn’t like the girl—for no good reason, really. I still feel bad about how I acted, and truthfully, I wasn’t terrible. I just wasn’t my normal self, and I didn’t treat her the way I wanted to treat her. I was unkind because of other kids. This book is probably the best book on the issue of bullying that I’ve ever read, and it’s the only one that includes the bully’s perspective. The end of Julian’s chapter is quite a tearjerker, and the window into the bully’s perspective was interesting. In fact, some people will say it goes a step too far perhaps, but Maggie and I happened to love it. You read it. You’ll see.

I don’t often say this about a book, but this is one I feel like everyone ought to read, whatever their age. When we were trying to figure out if Palacio had written other books so we could read them as well, we discovered Wonder is her first novel. As Maggie said, “That was her first try at a book?!” For what it is worth, we read maybe 20-30 pages at a time when we started, but the night we finished, we read the whole Julian chapter of 80+ pages in a gulp. Maggie has never read a book she couldn’t put down like that. If you have a middle schooler in your life, you should share this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your LifeI picked up Leila Sales’s novel This Song Will Save Your Life because it was recommended to folks who liked Eleanor & Park. It was a great little book, and I think especially music lovers would enjoy it.

This Song Will Save Your Life is the story of fifteen-year-old Elise Dembowski, a misfit who has never fit in at school. Her parents have been divorced for a long time, and she divides her time between her single father and her re-married mother and blended family. At the beginning of the school year, she cuts herself, not completely sure if she wants to commit suicide or not, and calls one of her classmates, who calls 911. After she returns to school, she finds it hard to sleep some nights, so she sneaks out of her house and walks the streets. By happenstance, one Thursday night she comes across a house party called Start. She becomes interested in learning to DJ (and in the DJ himself), and discovers a talent she didn’t know she had.

I found Elise’s character charming and winsome. I had a hard time understanding why it was hard for her to make friends. I’d have wanted to be her friend in a heartbeat. High school is really rough for some folks, however, and I don’t exclude myself from that description. In some ways, this book tackles bullying in high school almost as well as Judy Blume’s Blubber does for elementary school. Nowadays, kids cannot escape it even at home, and Elise becomes the target of a cyberbully who creates a blog using Elise’s name. However, when she goes to Start, she can be herself, and she makes friends who like her for who she is.

I enjoyed Elise’s voice in this story. She reminds me a bit of Holden Caulfield in the way in which her voice is captured, but I would say she has a higher probability of turning out all right, especially given she has a caring family. As a bonus, the book has a recommended listening list. However, not everything on the list appears in the story and not everything in the story is on the list, so you might want to take notes as you go. I have the beginnings of a Spotify playlist with all the songs and/or bands mentioned in the book.

Rating: ★★★★½

Review: Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

I just spent a weekend at an English teachers’ conference, and it made me remember how much I love reading YA fiction (which I haven’t done for a while), and also that Eleanor & Park was on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet.

I feel a little inadequate to the task of describing this book because there is a lot that a summary can’t capture. Eleanor & Park is the story of two tenth graders who meet on the school bus on Eleanor’s first day at North High School in Omaha, NE. Slowly, the two start to realize they have some things in common, and by Christmas, they’ve fallen hard for each other. Eleanor has a difficult home life, but she tells no one, not even Park. Her stepfather is an abusive alcoholic, and her father has almost no involvement in her life. Her mother is trapped. When Park asks Eleanor “Why doesn’t she leave?”, Eleanor can only reply “I don’t think she can… I don’t there’s enough of her left” (196). Eleanor had been kicked out of her mother and stepfather’s home for a year previously, and she knows her position in the house is precarious. Honestly, Eleanor will break your heart.

I knew I was going to connect to this book when I opened it and saw it began in August, 1986. I suppose that means this book is historical fiction, but to be honest, I can’t look at it that way, even if its intended audience includes people who were born more than a decade after 1986. August, 1986 was the year I started high school myself—coincidentally at a school named North High School (actually, Parkway North, to be more precise). I had just moved, and I was really nervous about school. I can recall the bus politics of worrying over where to sit quite well. I actually wonder if this book isn’t more appropriate for someone like me than for a teenager. I gulped it down in one evening, only putting it down to make up the dough for our Thanksgiving rolls. It’s a little hard not to fall in love with both Eleanor and Park.

One of the best things about the book is the music references. Rainbow Rowell made playlists, which you can find on her blog. Eleanor and Park connect over comic books and the music mix tapes Park shares with Eleanor. Remember mix tapes? They were magical. They took a long time to make, and there was hardly anything more you that you could give someone than a mix tape. I used to have quite a talent for making them, too. Spotify is awesome in many ways, one of which is that it takes the mix tape to the next level. It’s actually my favorite thing about Spotify. I feel like I make tons of “mix tapes.” But there is something about the dedication it used to take to sit down in front of the stereo, select the songs, and try to get them to fit without too much blank space on either side of the tape.

Actually, I pretty much loved everything about this book, and I can’t really do better than what YA author John Green had to say about the book: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”

Updated to add that Forever Young Adult made an excellent mix tape for the book:

Rating: ★★★★★