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: The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

I picked up Tim O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel/short story collection yesterday while trying to think of something to write for the blog challenge I’m participating in on my education blog. I have been wanting to read it for a long time, and I purchased it so long ago that I can count it for both the #ShelfLove and Mount TBR challenges, but I struggled with whether to count it as historical fiction. It blurs the lines between memoir and fiction perhaps a bit too much for me. In the end, though, Tim O’Brien says it is a novel, and I shouldn’t argue, but if you’ve read it, perhaps you will understand.

The Things They Carried is a collection of vignettes or chapters, some might say individual short stories—and most chapters certainly have a full story arc—based on Tim O’Brien’s time serving in the Vietnam War. Many of the stories were previously published. The stories are not arranged chronologically. For instance, “On the Rainy River” takes place before O’Brien goes to Vietnam as he is contemplating going to Canada to avoid the draft, while the few stories preceding it all take place during the war. Three post-war stories are interspersed throughout the remainder of the narrative as well.

I’m fairly certain I read “Speaking of Courage” in another form in college. The other stories were all new to me. I’m finding it hard figuring out what to write in this review because it’s hard to review books like this book. What can you say, aside from that the stories and writing are fantastic, and everyone should go out and read it? As I grew up, the country was still processing how it felt about this war, and in many ways, it still is. I couldn’t believe, for instance, that this novel was published in 1990. I felt sure it had been around longer than that. It’s a book I feel like I’ve been hearing about for much longer than that.

You know, Westmoreland visited my high school. I remember it. I didn’t really know or understand who he was, but I distinctly remember feeling like he expected us to be hostile. But maybe that was the teachers. I am still baffled as to why he came. We were all born during the war. Our fathers may have served in it, but beyond that, what connections did we have? And yet I still remember how his back was up as he spoke to us. He was very defensive. I can no longer remember anything he said—just how defensive he was.

When I was young, I remember the controversy over the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. I remember hearing stories about vets in the news. That war was all around me in media when I was young. I always had this powerful sort of personal connection to it because I knew my dad had been there when I was born, and I had been told the story of how he missed the first six months of my life because he was in Vietnam. He must have been there about a year. He was in the Air Force, so he was not out on patrols, in the thick of the most danger. Still, he was in a war zone, and it was all, more or less, dangerous.

O’Brien’s spare stories remind me a great deal of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I find “Speaking of Courage” to be a descendant, of sorts, of Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” Of the stories included in the novel, I think “The Things They Carried,” “On the Rainy River,” and “Speaking of Courage” were my three favorites, but the stories do speak to each other and weave together. I think one of my favorite aspects of the book is O’Brien’s awareness of the importance of telling stories. O’Brien writes the reader into that time and that place. It seems effortless, like the best art is, and the reader is unaware of the stagecraft at play until the next chapter, when O’Brien uncovers it. I’ve not quite read anything like it. I was reading a Buzzfeed article the other day about a list of books you wish you could read again for the first time. I know that feeling of envy—the desire to have that wonderful book in front of you again for the first time. Someone had put this book on the list. I don’t necessarily agree with all the choices other readers made for the list—I do agree with many of them—but I can see why this book made someone’s list. I gulped it down in a day. It was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read for a while.

Rating: ★★★★★

I requested this book via PaperBack Swap in June of last year. I don’t believe I’ll be putting it back into the pool. I want to keep it. It’s been on my to-read list for a lot longer, however.

2016 HF Reading Challenge Button 2

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Sunday Post #44: No Snow

Sunday Post
Last year I installed a plugin that makes it snow. I can enable it whenever I like, so I let it snow on my blog most of the winter because that’s usually what it’s doing here in Worcester. This winter has been sort of mild, however, and it hasn’t even been that cold with the exception of Valentine’s Day weekend. I’m turning off the snow today until next year. I’m not sure winter is really done with us because March is typically an iffy month around here, but the weather usually calms down by April.

I can’t believe I opened with the weather.

I’ve been reading up on the French Revolution for a while now. I admit to being a bit scared to take on Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety because it is over 750 pages long, but I do love Hilary Mantel, and I imagine it’s a pretty good book. Having just finished Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette this week, I dove back into Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and it’s so long and daunting that I really wish I could read it on Kindle. I find with e-books that I don’t feel quite so intimidated by long books, not to mention they’re easier to hold up when I’m reading in bed. This book is seriously not easy to read. Interesting so far, however.

My book club is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. We meet Wednesday, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be finished with the book by then, but I’m going to keep at it because I am really enjoying it. I wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, but people I respect recommended it so highly that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Brown is a good writer, and heart and humanity with which he imbues the subject of the book is a master class in how to write compelling narrative nonfiction.

Now seems like a good time to check in on my reading challenges, too. I’m on track to finish 55 books this year so far. I have completed nine books. I haven’t done much with a few of the challenges, so I need to get going. I have made little progress on the Reading England Challenge (which is very unusual for me, as I typically read quite a lot of books set in England—though this ninth book I mentioned a moment ago is book number one for this challenge). I have made zero progress with the Reading New England Challenge.

On the other hand, I’m doing well with both the #ShelfLove Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m showing my shelves and TBR pile some love so far. Some small progress on the Historical Fiction Challenge, but as it’s my favorite genre, I’m not worried yet. I’m sure I’ll read more.

That ninth book I mentioned before I should go ahead and write about. It’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I had first read it some years ago. I am not really sure how long now, so it was a re-read. I always forget how many of Wilde’s bon mots come from his writing rather than some quip he made in his travels. He’s extremely funny. Probably one of the funniest writers I’ve read. I find it so tragic the way he was treated toward the end of his life. I’m not sure he was exactly the nicest person. It’s hard to tell when someone is as sarcastic as he is exactly what they might really have been like. It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have liked him if he’s as catty as he comes across, but since I don’t have to be tested by actually knowing the guy, I can declare I adore him absolutely. If you haven’t read any Wilde, this play is a wonderful place to start because it’s short, hilarious, and absolutely wonderful. It’s a great send-up of Victorian mores and frivolity (Rating: ★★★★★).

Here is hoping I can catch up a bit now that some duties at work will lighten a bit starting this week. How has your reading week been?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

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Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father Thomas died in the 9/11 attacks. One day Oskar finds a mysterious key inside an envelope inside a vase. The envelope says the word “Black” on the outside, and Oskar goes on a quest to find out what the key opens and why his father has it. Thinking the word might be the last name “Black,” Oskar does some research and determines the addresses of all the people in New York City with the surname Black. One by one, he begins visiting them to see if he can find out more about the key. He meets interesting people and leaves an imprint on all the people he touches. Interspersed throughout Oskar’s story is the story of his grandparents and their strange, fraught relationship.

I wanted to like this book a little more than I did. I think Oskar, and possibly his grandfather, are supposed to be autistic, and because of my own children, I do find books about characters with autism interesting. I did like Oskar, though I found his mother strangely unconcerned about letting her son roam all over New York City. I guess you could argue she knew he was going to what he was going to do anyway, but her absence, even if you try to explain it away by pointing out she was grieving, was deeply troubling to me. Oskar’s grandfather abandoned his pregnant wife and did not know his son. One of the reasons I didn’t quite like this book were the portions dealing with Oskar’s grandfather. I found him to be a deeply unsympathetic character, even if I took into account his troubled past and the things he had dealt with. I know some people are better at dealing with grief, and for that matter life, than others, but part of what I think made his story less sympathetic was Foer’s postmodern experiments in his storyline. My least favorite, for example, were pages in which the letters seemed to bleed together, almost falling into a puddle on the bottom of the page, until the page filled up. Rather than interesting, I found these experiments deeply annoying. I found rather than being emotionally affected by Oskar’s story (and that of his grandfather), I really felt more like the story was manipulative and self-indulgent. Not to say I totally hated it. I didn’t. I can’t even say I didn’t like it. I’ll just say it was not a hit for me because of the gimmicky postmodern style. The parts I liked, I really liked, but I did find myself in the midst of a new chapter on Oskar’s grandparents and saying, “Oh, here’s one I need to slog through to get to a good one on Oskar.” I don’t want to feel like that reading a book. Because half the book was pretty good, I can’t give it one or two stars, but because about half the book wasn’t, and also because I found the ending unsatisfying, I can’t give it four or five stars either.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge.
 

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Review: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

I can’t believe it took me this long to finally pick up Between the World and Me. I’ve wanted to read it for months. I finally purchased it for my Kindle back in November, and it sat there on my Kindle for two months before I finally read it today.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t explain what this book is about because I feel like the last person to have read it, but in the event I’m not, and in the event you haven’t bumped into this book yet, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his teenage son, but beyond that, it is a meditation on the history of race relations in America, a stark condemnation of the American Dream, and a powerful narrative of the current (and historical) climate of police brutality. In the Goodreads description:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I don’t often say this about a book because I think reading is often intensely personal, and what we like and don’t like doesn’t always translate to others, but I think everyone should read this book. They probably won’t. In fact, the people who most need to read this book probably won’t read it. I’m intensely glad that I did. I learned a lot, and this book has made me think more than most of the books I’ve read. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waking up to some hard truths about the world and specifically about America, and as a teacher, I feel responsible for my role in helping students make sense of the world around them. One feeling I had as I finished this book is a sense of failure. I know, especially early in my career, that I was not a good teacher (because I was green, mainly), but more specifically, I was a terrible teacher for the young black students in my classes because I didn’t know and didn’t understand so much.

Of this book, Toni Morrison, a writer I respect a great deal, says:

I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.

I can’t make a stronger point than Toni Morrison. If you haven’t read this book, you should, but be prepared to have your world shaken. It is one of those books that might make you measure your life in terms of before you read it and after you read it. It is beautifully written essential reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m chipping away at both of these challenges at a clip. I may need to up my participation level. It’s been good motivation to clear out some items on my TBR list and my shelves.
 

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Review: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

Hillary Jordan’s novel When She Woke is frequently described as a mashup of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale (review). I wouldn’t disagree with that characterization, and it seems clear that Jordan was attempting to evoke comparisons to both books. The novel’s protagonist, Hannah Payne, lives in a dystopian near-future after which a terrorist bombing has nearly obliterated Los Angeles and a horrible new sexually transmitted disease rendered many women infertile until a cure was found. Seizing the fears of the populace, the Religious Right convinces many that the natural disasters, wars, and disease are the judgment of God against America. Out of concern for the sanctity of life after so many threats to its existence, the evangelical Trinity Party is able to pass new laws all over America condemning adultery and “fornication” and outlawing abortion. In Hannah’s America, criminals undergo a process called melachroming. They are injected with a virus that turns their skin different colors based on the severity of their crimes. Hannah’s crime is that she had an abortion, rather than expose her minister as the baby’s father and subject him to the punishment their society would mete out. Abortion is considered to be murder, and Hannah is ordered to be melachromed. When she awakens from the procedure, she is red.

Jordan is not exactly a match for Nathaniel Hawthorne or Margaret Atwood, but few writers are, and what she does manage in this book is an intriguing and quite plausible story—all the more plausible during this election season if you listen to the rhetoric of some of the politicians running for president. Hannah takes some time to discover herself, and she begins to doubt much of the religious teaching she has heard all of her life. Do I believe that some people would find the idea of melachroming people as punishment for crime plausible? Jordan’s idea is all too believable and brings Nathaniel Hawthorne’s punishment of wearing a scarlet letter to a horrifying evolution. It makes a lot of sense to me that “chromes,” as they are known in the novel, would become the targets of discrimination and all manner of ill treatment, from assault and rape to murder.

It would be easy for some to dismiss this novel as alarmist and far-fetched. However, we do engage in public shaming (think about how quickly we embarrass those who transgress on social media). Magdalene Houses bear an eerie resemblance to the halfway house where Hannah stays after she is released from the Chrome Ward—there is even a picture of Mary Magdalene in the Straight Path Center. There are always individuals who, in pretending to offer help to the downtrodden, actually victimize them further because society cares so little about them. The novel also includes a note of caution about the increasingly wired lives we are living. Chromes (and really everyone else) are all trackable; hiding is impossible, and running away is fatal. Money exists almost solely on a NIC card, and a port (a futuristic smart phone) is a lifeline to the world, but Hannah will risk immediate detection if she tries to use either device. Ultimately, this novel is all too easy to believe. However, in the end, like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a thoughtful meditation on forgiveness and the true nature of God.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I received this book free via a Goodreads giveaway (full FTC disclosure) a very long time ago, and I am embarrassed it took me so long to read and review. It’s been on my Goodreads shelf since October 8, 2011, and I imagine it’s been in my TBR pile almost that long. I’m glad I finally read it. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge because of how long it’s been on my shelf and in my TBR list.
 

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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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2016 Reading Challenges

I love to do reading challenges! I will probably sign up for a few more if I find some that interest me.

This year, I want to try to focus on addressing the long list of books I have wanted to read for a while and books I already have on my shelves (I’m sure that will make my husband happy). To that end, I’m going to do the 2016 Mount TBR Challenge and the Shelf Love Challenge 2016.

I like to give myself some wiggle room, and it’s hard for me to commit when I’m not sure what awesome books I might come across that are either not already on my TBR list or shelves, so I’m going with 12 books, Pike’s Peak level, for the Mount TBR Challenge and 11-20 books (“pat your shelves on the back”) for the Shelf Love Challenge.

I live in New England and love to read books set in my adopted home, so I was excited to find the Reading New England 2016 Challenge. I think I’ll try for the Six-State Challenge of 6+ books set in New England, at least one for each state.

Finally, I’m also signing up again for the Reading England Challenge, though I’m pulling back a notch from this year because I think I should branch out and try to read books set in other places. I read a lot of books set in England. I think I’ll commit to Level 2, 4-6 counties.

Stay tuned. Are you participating in any fun and interesting challenges? Please share!

Update 1/1/16

2016 HF Reading Challenge Button 2I am pleased to find that Passages to the Past is running the Historical Fiction Challenge again this year. I love this challenge. Historical fiction is my favorite genre. I am signing up for the Medieval Level of 15 books. I was able to achieve Medieval Level in 2015, but I didn’t quite make Ancient History Level at 25 books. If it looks like I might be able to do that after all, I may change my goal, but for right now, I wanted to make sure my goal was reachable.

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A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly

[amazon_image id=”B0006BD9BK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]A Northern Light[/amazon_image]Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel [amazon_link id=”B0006BD9BK” target=”_blank” ]A Northern Light[/amazon_link] is based, in part, on the same crime that inspired Theodore Dreiser to write [amazon_link id=”0451531558″ target=”_blank” ]An American Tragedy[/amazon_link]: Chester Gillette’s murder of Grace Brown in the Adirondacks in 1906. The novel’s protagonist, Mattie Gokey, is the teenage daughter of a poor farmer in the North Woods. Mattie’s mother died not too long before the events in the book start. Before she dies, Mattie’s mother extracts a promise from Mattie that she will stay to help take care of her siblings. Mattie’s older brother Lawton left home after a fight with their father, and Mattie is responsible for her three younger sisters. Mattie, however, dreams of going to college. Her teacher, Miss Wilcox, encourages Mattie, who she believes has a gift for writing. Mattie’s friend Weaver Smith has dreams of attending Columbia University, and Miss Wilcox encourages both of them. They both take jobs at the Glenmore Inn, where Grace Brown and Chester Gillette come to stay. Before Grace is murdered, she entrusts Mattie with her letters and asks Mattie to burn them. After Grace’s body is found and Mattie finds herself unable to dispose of the letters as Grace asked, she reads them instead, and she uncovers a motive for Gillette’s murder of Grace as well as motivation to follow her own dreams.

Jennifer Donnelly’s books are all good. This particular novel’s narrative flashes backward and forward in time, but the plot is not difficult to follow, and in the end, Donnelly’s reasons for telling the story in this less linear fashion are clear. Mattie is an engaging heroine, representative of so many girls of her age who were expected to marry, often without love, and raise a family. Weaver is an interesting character too. His father was killed in a racial hate crime, but rather than making Weaver fearful of whites, it instead empowered him to stand up for himself when he encounters racism. Like Mattie, the reader can have no doubt that Weaver will go to Columbia and become a fine lawyer despite the odds. Donnelly’s setting is vividly painted for the reader, both in time and place—which is a particular gift of Donnelly’s and something I have enjoyed about all of her books.

I would recommend this book even to readers who aren’t necessarily fans of YA, mainly because I think readers will enjoy learning about this time and place and will like Mattie and her friends and family (except, of course, for those we aren’t supposed to like). Grace Brown’s murder is more or less incidental to the plot, as the main story is Mattie’s coming of age.

Rating: ★★★★½

I thought about counting this book as a crime/mystery book as part of the Mixing it Up Challenge, but I ultimately decided not to because the crime is not the center of the novel.

Full disclosure: I obtained this book via PaperBackSwap.

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