Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

My Review

This is a really difficult book to review for me. It is an important book for our time. It contains hard truths, but truths nonetheless. It was an uncomfortable and terribly sad read, sometimes even traumatic. I learned things about our justice system that are extremely disheartening. I was presented with narratives of mankind at our very worst and our very best. This book pushed me to consider perspectives I never would have considered on my own. I will be thinking about it for a long time, and I can say that I am glad I read it.

However, I didn’t really like it. Part of my dislike is related to the content, not because I disapprove or disagree. The book presents the realities of injustice, discrimination, bias, corruption, the workings of our country’s justice system, and life and death in prison. It’s harsh and disturbing, and while the realities of life are not always pretty, it was hard for me to take more than just a little of the story at a time. Sometimes I could read only a few pages before I just felt sick about what was being described and had to put it down. However, I did keep coming back and eventually finished it. I had to respect such an important topic, and I needed to know that I had read the whole thing so I wouldn’t misunderstand the author’s purpose. I recognize that it’s ok for me to be disturbed and uncomfortable. In fact, that’s a good thing in some instances because it can evoke change. But I still can’t say that I enjoyed the feeling or experience.

The format of the book also played a part in my dislike. It’s really just a collection of cases that the author has worked on throughout his career, but there is one particular death row case that Stevenson stretches through the entire book while to try to tie it all together, to keep a flow going, and also to provide suspense. This main case is interrupted by tellings of other cases and experiences. I found that format confusing and sometimes abrupt. It was harder for me to keep track of a timeline and order of each case when they were all mixed around main story which was only important to me because the author also describes history, changes, and developments in our justice system that either affected one of his cases or that one of his cases catalyzed. It would have been easier for me to keep track of the causes and effects with a more linear time format. It was hard for me to keep the names and details of each case straight.

I was also turned off by some of the writing. I got tired of the detailed descriptions of every courthouse and prison that the author visited. They didn’t really add to the impact of the case he was describing. The details of the crimes or innocence of his clients packed enough punch all on their own. Repeated description of how different buildings were positioned within a town or how the rooms were laid didn’t help me understand any of his points better.

The author had a tendency to “beat a dead horse” with some of his points as well. I felt bogged down reading so many statistics or examples that supported a conclusion Stevenson was drawing for me. After just a few of his given examples I was on board with him; I believed that is was right in what he was wanting to convince readers of. But then I would get several more examples to really pound it in. At one point I made note that the author had gone on for another 1 1/2 pages pounding the same point after I was already sufficiently convinced.

It was impossible to not feel the author’s passion for his work and I greatly respect him for what he does. We all have our own life experiences or our own “broken-ness” as the author calls it, that affect our choices, behaviors, and even views. I am grateful for a look into Stevenson’s experience and views that opened my mind and heart. However, I also found myself pondering the one-sided-ness of the experience that he presents. It would be an interesting exercise to be able to read from a criminal prosector’s perspective, or a law enforcement perspective on trying to bring full justice to victims after having read a criminal defense attorney’s perspective on trying to bring “just mercy” to broken criminals.

I have no experience in law (unless competing in “Mock Trial” in junior high counts), but I would think this book should be required reading for any law student. Would I say it should be required reading for anyone? I don’t think so. But if it sparks your curiosity at all, or if you are one who likes to be stretched in your thinking, to be informed on all sides of multi-faceted issues, then sure give this one a try. You probably won’t regret it. But then again you might. You definitely will never be the same.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older.  The detailed descriptions of prison conditions, crimes, abuse, prejudice, and injustice are not for the faint of heart or unprepared mind.

Appropriateness: There is description of murder, rape, adultery, capital punishment, stealing, drug use, racial discrimination, corruption in law enforcement and the justice system. However, it is not gratuitous.  There is a overarching moral purpose for presenting such distasteful circumstances.

This would be a great choice for book club.  So much discussion material, but make sure all members of the group are willing and able to handle the subject matter.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Just Mercy then you might also like Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

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A stable – Christmas thoughts

Two years ago I shared the song “I Believe in Santa Claus” and how it reminded me of thoughts and feelings I have had while a reading a certain part in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  (You can read my full post and find the song linked below if you want.)

So I found it ironic that I found myself this Christmas season thinking again about C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. This year though I been thinking about a part in the last book of the series.

In The Last Battle all of the great kings and queens and friends of Narnia have been brought together to defend the land they love from invaders and traitors. The battle converges around a stable in which the heroes of our story believe they will meet the terrifying God of their enemies.  But instead, upon entering they find they have been magically transported to another world.

One characters comments, “It seems then…that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places.”

“Yes,” replies Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”

Then Queen Lucy adds, “Yes, in our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

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Obviously, Queen Lucy is referring to the stable in which the Savior of our world was born; and His presence there, His mission to atone for the sins and heartache of the world was much bigger, more eternal, more important, more divine, and more beautiful than the size and appearance of that basic enclosure for animals. That really was the point. Jesus Christ’s birth in a lowly stable set the stage for the rest of His life and for the faith required to receive Him and be saved.

Isaiah explains it best –

“For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” – Isaiah 53:2-5

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Even Had Christ been born in a lavishly adorned palace, or some other place deemed more suitable to a person of His importance and divinity, He still would have been “bigger” than that structure.  Which makes the meekness of His birth all the more humbling and impactful.  The event was heralded grandly by angels and a new star in the heavens; yet, it was the meek and humble who heard and saw and were called to come and see the sacredness of that place. The place and manner of His birth show his divinity as God’s beloved Son, as well as His mission as the Son of man, our brother, our advocate with the Father, our friend. “He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:6).

We too, like the stable, have much more on the inside than what is outwardly visible. We have divine potential as children of our Heavenly Father; because of the gift of a Savior our potential can be realized as we follow Him and learn and grow line upon line. As we partake of the power of Christ’s atonement through repentance, faith, charity, and good works, we become more, become better, become bigger than what we can ever be on our own. One of the great beauties of the Christmas season is how much more we all look for and see “the stable” in others, which inspires us to behave with more kindness, patience, and love toward them as well.

It may seem at times that our lives resemble the stable because we feel unexceptional or even unclean.  Perhaps circumstances or events outside of our control are as unpleasant as the smell of livestock.  But I think it’s comforting to know that Jesus Christ wasn’t born in a stable by mistake. It was fulfillment of prophecy and God’s plan. From the outside His birthplace seems at odds with his divine heritage; in fact, from an outsiders perspective Christ’s entire life was lacking the prestige and luxury that would normally be attributed to a great leader, king, and savior.

But when we look beyond the outward appearance, when we act in faith and enter “the stable,” from the inside we can see with different eyes. The Lord’s message and purpose becomes clearer, and our lives hold greater meaning and joy.

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“Christ hath said: If ye will have faith in me ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me. And he hath said: Repent all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, and have faith in me, that ye may be saved.

Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope. And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.

If a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity.

And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all…Charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.” (selected verses from Moroni chapter 7.)

 I love how the light, joy, and love of the Christmas season helps me to see better and focus more on the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.  In this world full of uncertainty, suffering, and sin a humble “stable” is often overlooked or ridiculed; it’s lack of status and beauty may be seen as a sign of weakness, naivety, or stupidity. But just like all those thousands of years ago I know the Savior is inside that stable waiting and wanting to receive all of God’s children. His invitation is still current and it is addressed to us all: “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Luke 11:9) Once we enter we will find more than we could have imagined, something “bigger than our whole world.” Almost another world entirely.

Everything on a Waffle – for teachers

Everything on a Waffle (Coal Harbour #1)Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

When Primrose’s parents both disappear at sea in the middle of a vicious storm, she is forced into a new life which includes a new home, new friends, new conflicts and adventures, new insights, and new recipes. It really does take a village in this case to take care of 11-year old Primrose. Some of the townspeople thinkthey know best, like the snobbish and socially awkward school counselor Miss Honeycut. While others truly are just what Primrose needs to keep her hope alive, like her impulsive Uncle Jack, and Kate Bowzer, the owner of the local restaurant where all the food is served on a waffle. But the true joy in this story is how Primrose and her hope is just what the town, and all of us, need to approach the world and all of its challenges with courage, wit, kindness, fun, and love.

Teaching Resources

I read this book for a fourth time recently for book club. I already reviewed this book here and included some book club discussion questions in that review. But reading the book this time I thought about more from an elementary school teaching perspective and thought about how I would use it as a read-aloud or small group book. Here are some questions and activities I came up with for using Everything on a Waffle in the classroom.

Read aloud or small group questions:

These can be found in a worksheet format here.

chapters 1-2

1. How would feel if you were Primrose and both your parents had just disappeared? Does Primrose seem upset?

2. How would you describe Miss Perfidy? Do you think Primrose likes her? How do you know?

3. Do you like Miss Honeycut so far? How does Miss Honeycut feel about Uncle Jack? How do you know? 

4. Why is her mother’s memo pad so important to Primrose? How do you know it is important to her?

5. Do you think Uncle Jack will be a good guardian for Primrose? Why or why not?

6. Why do the girls at school tease Primrose?

7. The townspeople think Primrose’s mother made a reckless and bad decision to go after her husband. What does Miss Bowzer think about it? With whom do you agree?

8. What kinds of things have you had on waffles? Would you want to try any of things from the Girl on the Red Swing’s menu? 

9. What does it mean to be a pacifist?

chapters 3-4

10. Why is Miss Honeycut taking such an interest in Primrose? Have you ever known anyone like Miss Honeycut?

11. What do you think of Uncle Jack’s job as a developer? How do the people of Coal Harbor feel about it? What does it mean to be a developer?

12. Why is Primrose writing down all of these recipes? How do you think she chooses the recipes she wants to write?

13. Do you think Primrose’s parents are dead? Why or Why not?

14. What does Primrose mean when she says, “Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better but in doing so you lose what was so wonderful to being with.” 

chapters 5-6

15. Do you think Uncle Jack could have had a special reason for getting Primrose a dog? 

16. Do you think there are really ghosts playing hockey? What else could it be?

17. Why did Lena go so crazy over boiled potatoes? What does that have to do with Primrose helping Uncle Jack?

18. Why doesn’t Miss Bowzer like Uncle Jack?

19. Have you ever had an experience like Miss Bowzer’s with the whaling ship? 

chapters 7-8

20. What is happening to Miss Perfidy’s memory? 

21. Why do you think Primrose’s sweaters are so important to her? What do you think happened to them?

22. Chapter 8 is called “I lose a toe.” How do you predict that will happen?

23. What does Primrose mean about Miss Honeycut’s relationship with her sister when she says, “THAT’S the type of thing I’m talking about!”

24. Why does Miss Honeycut tell such long and uninteresting stories over and over?

25. How would you feel if some many people didn’t believe you, like how the townspeople don’t believe Primrose when she says her parents are coming back or that she didn’t try to kill herself?

26. Have you ever felt an unexplainable joy or peace like Primrose at the end of chapter 8?

chapters 9-11

27. Why does Primrose keep talking about a solarium?

28. How do you think Primrose feels about the boys getting another goalie?

29. What does Miss Honeycut think about Primrose’s behavior in the rain and also of her cutting the guinea pig’s hair?

30. Why does Uncle Jack not like The Girl on the Red Swing?

31. Why does Uncle Jack start talking to Miss Honeycut about a new townhome in the restaurant?

32. Why does Uncle Jack tell Primrose about the boys who catch fish and sell them?

33. How do you think Uncle Jack’s idea lands Primrose in a foster home?

chapters 12-14

34. Chapter 12 is called “I lose another digit.” What is a “digit?” Which one do you think Primrose loses? How do you think it happens?

35. What do you think of Evie and Bert? How would you describe them?

36. In this chapter Primrose admits to crying for the first time.  Why does she cry now and not at any other time in the book?

37. Are there “good guys” and “bad guys” in this book? If so, who are the good and who are the bad?

38. How is Uncle Jack a hero? Why are the townspeople angry with him?

39. Why does Miss Bowzer cut the vegetables into small bits “BAM BAM BAM” whenever Primrose mentions Miss Honeycut’s name? 

40. How do Evie and Bert feel about the fire? 

41. How does Miss Perfidy dying in the middle of Primrose’s sentence relate to the rest of the book? 

chapter 15

42. What of your predictions turned out to be correct? 

43. Were the characters happy in the end? Why or why not?

44. Have you ever known something in your heart without knowing why?

45. Which of the recipes in the book would you want to try? 

46. What kind of “important things” happen in the “smallest places?” 

Activities:

1. Have a waffle party. Make the recipe from the book or bring in Eggo waffles and a variety of toppings to try.

2. As a science project try making boiled potatoes or cinnamon rolls and experiment with yeast.

3. Study seals and Orcas. Study about tourism in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.  Make travel brochures.

4. Make a travel brochure as as a book report. Have a section for characters, events, recipes, and the book’s theme.

5. Make a menu for The Girl on the Red Swing. Come up with as many interesting waffle combinations as possible.

6. Research development in your own city or town. Has there been opposition like in Coal Harbor? Come up with a plan that might make both sides of the issue happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relic

RelicRelic by Renee Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

After a raging fire consumes her town and kills her parents, Maggie Davis is on her own to protect her younger sister and survive best she can in the Colorado town of Burning Mesa. In Maggie’s world, the bones of long-extinct magical creatures such as dragons and sirens are mined and traded for their residual magical elements, and harnessing these relics’ powers allows the user to wield fire, turn invisible, or heal even the worst of injuries.

When she proves to have a particular skill at harnessing the relics’ powers, Maggie is whisked away to the glamorous hacienda of Álvar Castilla, the wealthy young relic baron When mysterious fires burn neighboring towns, Maggie must discover who is channeling relic magic for evil before it’s too late.

My Review

A fast-paced adventure with all of the classic elements of the wild west along with the unexpected element of magic and creatures of fantasy. I was caught up in the storytelling and the mystery immediately. The characters are interesting and lovable and human with faults and redeeming qualities. The world is inviting and easy to picture with great description. The writing is well done and perfect for the genre.

When I started the book I thought it was going to be a 4 star read because it was such a unique setting. I really liked aspects of the book, but in the end it also felt incomplete. Part of that, I’m sure, comes from that the author must have planned more books for this story, but for whatever reason they haven’t been published. There were just way to many unresolved issues for there not to be more. Knowing that I may never get the full story makes it hard to be in love with the book.

But, even if there were to be more books written there were holes in this story that I would have liked to see better addressed. More information about Maggie’s parents would have been helpful. I didn’t feel like I got a complete picture of her relationship with them. I also had questions about the history of the world in the book especially in relation to the relics. It seemed that with such magic and power available throughout the book’s world that problems with the misuse of that power would be common. I wondered what kind of structure or government was in play to prevent such lack of control, or if there wasn’t any such structure or government what other serious tragedies occurred in the history of the world? There would have had to be some. I also wanted more info on the historical dealings between the Apache’s and the townsfolk.

The other aspect of the book that didn’t work for me was Maggie’s realization/change of mindset when she was at rock bottom. She comes to the conclusion that she needs to stop running from or avoiding the problems in her life. From my perspective, she never was running from her problems. She took responsibility when needed, she jumped in and stood up for her truth, she helped others, and she was constantly being brave and taking chances to try to deal with her problems. I didn’t really see a transformation of her character through the book; she simply gained more information. I don’t think Maggie necessarily needed to transform. She was a pretty strong and likable character, so there just needed to be a different instrument for pushing the action forward.

None of my critques take away from how entertained I was throughout the book. It was a perfect read to just get carried away in a good story for a little while. I think the changes and additions that I would like to see would just make it a very memorable read and more impactful. The creativity of the world provides so much potential.

Age Recommendation: This is a young adult fiction and is perfect for young adults. I’d say as young as 14 could enjoy it.

Appropriateness: Saloon girls are a big part of the story and there is definite mention of whores and prostitution. There is attempted seduction as well, but none of it is described graphically. It could bother some readers, but because it wasn’t glorified or overly descriptive it didn’t bother me.

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in Relic you might also enjoy The Time Key by Melanie Bateman, The Winner’s trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, and Until We Meet Again also by Renee Collins.

Remember Me Always

Remember Me AlwaysRemember Me Always by Renee Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Shelby is nervous to start her senior year after spending the whole summer away from home. After all, it’s hard to be carefree when you’re trying to protect a secret.

Shelby was in a devastating car accident, and everyone in town thinks that she was undergoing more physical therapy in Denver. Instead, Shelby’s mother enrolled her in a clinical program to stop the panic attacks that started after the crash. The treatment erased Shelby’s memory of the accident, but she can’t help feeling as if a piece of herself is missing, that the treatment took more than the doctors claimed.

So when Shelby starts hallucinating a boy with dark and mysterious eyes, she knows it must be a side-effect of the clinical program. Except you can’t kiss hallucinations. And this boy insists that they know each other and are in love…

My Review

This was the perfect read for me. After finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I was looking for something modern and a little less heavy. A good YA romance was just the ticket.

Remember Me Always fits in the YA romance genre perfectly, but it still has a uniqueness in the plot. The idea of technology that can erase traumatic memories was interesting and believable in the presentation. I was drawn in immediately by the mystery surrounding the need for the memory treatment as well as by the intrigue of how it was all going to work out. The writing is easy to read and follow, but with engaging character voice and smart use of language and sentence structure.

I would say that the ending doesn’t fit a traditional “happily ever after” format, but I appreciated it. I was glad to see characters acknowledge their young age and how that should be considered along with feelings of love or passion.

The author lives in a town where I lived for about 4 years and I loved seeing bits and pieces of the town show up in the book’s fictional setting. There were names of people and streets that I recognized. Some of the descriptions of fictional Orchardview brought to mind so clearly places in the real Colorado town.

The book drew me in quickly and was entertaining all the way through  to the end.

Age Recommendation: I think the character’s motivations and the events of the book would be best understood by ages 14 and older.  A 12 year old mature reader would likely enjoy the book as well.

Appropriateness: There is some trauma relating to Shelby’s accident, but descriptions aren’t graphic. There is kissing and physical aspects of a romantic relationship but no specific descriptions or anything that would inappropriate for most YA readers.

Other Book Recommendations: Other books like Remember Me Always include Until We Meet Again also by Renee Collins, Safe House by Shannon Symonds, The Unicorn Hunter by Rachel Kirkaldie, The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle, Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares.

 

From Dark to Light

From Dark to LightFrom Dark to Light by Isabella Murphy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary

Readers meet Pumpker, a little boy pumpkin, when he is just a slim white seed being planted along with his sisters.  Follow his journey of hopes and dreams as he grows to a pumpkin.

My Review

My favorite part of this book was the illustrations. They capture the whimsy of a pumpkin longing for a place to belong and to bring happiness to the world while also capturing the color and feel of autumn and the childhood excitement of Halloween.

The idea of this book is very cute. I was interested in seeing how a young 5th grade author would personify a pumpkin and portray his “life’s journey.” I was impressed by the author’s descriptive writing. However, there were too many words on each page for a picture book. Even as an adult I felt bogged down, so I think young readers will find it difficult to get through the words on each page.

Even with all of the words I didn’t feel completely satisfied in the little pumpkin’s journey. I couldn’t really latch on to a theme or purpose for the story. There wasn’t any one element that tied the stages of development of this pumpkin together so it felt too random. The pumpkin’s character traits weren’t consistent, so the story lacked cohesiveness for me. But the author is young; I have no doubt that with time and more writing she will gain more skill in story building and fleshing out plots and characters. She already possesses a true talent with words so I look forward to seeing more work from her in the future.

While I don’t think young readers will necessarily enjoy this story as much reading it on their own, I do think it has great value as a read-aloud and could be used in so many ways in an elementary school classroom. As a read-aloud you could easily skip some of the overlong text and summarize more quickly the main idea. The illustrations will definitely be able to keep children’s interest.

In the classroom I would love to use this book as an introduction to a creative writing assignment in which students would be required to personify an inanimate object, or to write from a unique perspective. The pumpkin’s journey to find his purpose in life would be a great way to get students’ creative juices flowing.

You could take it a step further even and add a social studies or science correlation. From Dark to Light provides a basic and entertaining view of the stages in seed growth. It also gives some material for the study of communities, occupations, and goods and services. You have the farmer who plants the seed, takes care of and grows the plant, then the consumer who buys and uses it. It would be valuable to read this book and then have students come up with their own story about the stages in seed growth about another type of plant. Or, they could take some other product and write a story to show how it is produced and then used in a community.

With Halloween just around the corner, the most obvious use of this book would be just pure fun and getting kids excited about holiday traditions. From Dark to Light definitely got me thinking about just how I want to carve the perfectly orange pumpkin currently sitting on my front porch.

Age Recommendation: This book is written for young readers and I think ages 3-8 would enjoy it most. However, because there are so many words on each page there may need to be some editing and summarizing to make it more in sync with their attention spans.

Appropriateness: Perfectly clean book with a feel-good ending.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in From Dark to Light then you might also enjoy Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman, The Biggest, Best Snowman by Margery Cuyler, Zombelina by Kristyn Crow, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams, and Snowmen at Night by Caralyn Buehner.

Frankenstein

FrankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

At once a Gothic thriller, a romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. It was an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres. It not only tells a disturbing story, but also raises profound questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos.

My Review

I am a Halloween Scrooge. There. I said it. I despise the gruesome, gory, bloody, and scary. I hate haunted houses. The idea of putting out so much effort, walking around for hours in the cold, just to trade candy around the neighborhood never really made sense to me. I do like dressing up, but that’s the only aspect of Halloween that holds any appeal.

Which is probably why I never even considered reading Frankenstein until just a few weeks ago. I consider myself a fan of classic literature. I’ve read my fair share, most of it even by choice and not because of English class assignments. In my wanderings at Barnes and Noble I had noticed Frankenstein in the Classics section plenty of times, but I was not interested enough to even pick it up. I believed the pop culture version of Frankenstein and was just sure this “horror” story would have nothing to offer a detester of Halloween such as myself.

About 2 months ago I joined a book club and one of the members chose Frankenstein as the read for the month of October. Several members talked about how they remembered loving it in their high school English classes, but I was skeptical. Another member told about how Mary Shelley had come up with the story and that piqued my interest. Finding a copy for free on iBooks was a perk. I decided to have an open mind give the book a try.

Boy was it a whole lot different than what I thought it would be. First off I was immediately drawn in by the language. Such beauty and intelligence! There were words I had never heard or seen before and I enjoyed looking them up and expanding my vocabulary. I loved the imagery, depth of meaning, and perfect poetic word choice.

The references to ancient classic literature, history, and geography expanded my knowledge on interests as well. I found myself wishing I knew more about Milton’s Paradise Lost, the alchemists Victor studies, and Prometheus. A deeper understanding of these and the other literary and historical works and figures Shelley references would only heighten my appreciation of her book. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence, and her descriptions of Europe, particularly the lakes and mountains of the Alps had me ready to hop the next plane over the Atlantic.

As far as theme goes, Frankenstein couldn’t be further from a “horror” story. It truly is a study of humanity through tragic heroes and villains; in fact, the main characters fulfill both roles at various times. As a reader who appreciates and connects with characters first and foremost, this book spoke to my soul.

The book illuminates so many philosophical and moral questions: What makes someone or something a monster? How should we deal with the consequences of our actions? When does passion become obsession? When does it become dangerous? How should we balance the security and happiness of one or the few with the security and happiness of the many? What moral limitations should there be on discovery and science? I loved that Shelley poses these questions not through a sermon but only through presentation; which means she doesn’t provide an answer to any of the questions, just the food for thought.

I will admit that there were times when the introspection of all 3 of the narrators got a little long even for me who loves character insight. I was ready for the actual plot and mystery to move a little more quickly, but that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of this beautiful and tragic piece of true literature.

Age Recommendation: This one with the subject matter and classic prose is definitely better suited for mature readers.  18 and older would be my suggestion though 16 and 17 year olds with practice in the classics would appreciate it as well.

Appropriateness: Frankenstein is full of mental illness, murder, revenge, cruelty, and obsession, but none of that is glorified. These follies of natural man are used to educate and entertain combined with superb voice and skill with words make this completely appropriate for mature readers and an ideal choice for book clubs.  There is so much discussion material (see my review above for question ideas). Just reading other reviews on Goodreads and Amazon I could see the wide range of opinions about the characters and themes. I’m looking forward to discussing with my book club next week.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Frankenstein then I think you would also enjoy Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphne Du Maurier, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

 

Frogkisser

Frogkisser!Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Poor Princess Anya. Forced to live with her evil stepmother’s new husband, her evil stepstepfather. Forced to go on the run when her stepstepfather decides to make the kingdom entirely his own.

Aided by a loyal talking dog, a boy thief trapped in the body of a newt, and some extraordinarily mischievous wizards, Anya sets off on a Quest that, if she plays it right, will ultimately free her land—and teach her a thing or two about the use of power, the effectiveness of a well-placed pucker, and the finding of friends in places both high and low.

My Review

I really thought I would love this book after reading the first chapter. It was witty and smart, and the characters were humorous and engaging with their quirks. The first chapter was so clever, in fact, that I decided to try it as a read-aloud in my 3rd grade class. I could tell, however, after reading the first chapter to them that the prose, witticism, and irony was too complex for 8 and 9 year olds. This one is probably better suited for 5 and 6 graders.

I was caught up in the wit, however, so it was easy to read the next couple of chapters on my own. I didn’t get too much further into the book before I began to lose interest. The progress of the storyline just felt slow. A lot of little details were given about this journey the princess and her loyal dog companion are forced to go on to save her little kingdom, details that didn’t seem to help move the story along or aid in character development. They seemed meaningless, aimless, and the book became boring.

I think I had also expected a little more from the princess. I had expected a little more courage and selflessness from the main character. In the first chapter she seemed to be smart and capable, but as the book continued she came across as whiny, naive, and selfish. The development for the supporting characters was lacking so I didn’t really care much about any of them either. Wading through gratuitous detail to find out what happens to shallow characters became a chore, not a pleasure.

I actually put this book down for several months before finishing it because I got busy with moving and other books came my way that I was more interested in reading. I picked the book up again though because one of my students had given it to me and I felt like I should finish it as a matter of principle. And memories of the fun first chapter gave me hope that it might improve.

So I trudged on. The pace picked up slightly in the second half of the book which made it a little easier to read on, but I never felt fully invested in the characters or the problem. Taking a break for several months probably didn’t help in that regard.

Eventually I finished and I can say that it was a unique and interesting adventure with some clever storytelling, like the connections to classic fairytale characters. But overall it moved too slowly and didn’t provide much continuity between events or characters to truly provide satisfying entertainment. Nor was it deep enough in ideas or theme to be influential. It gets 3 stars for decent prose and because I’m sure some readers would love it, particularly younger readers who have interest in epic fantasy. They would likely appreciate all of the detail and the use of a journey that adds characters little by little as the plot progression tool. I am not an epic fantasy fan, so it didn’t do much for me, but I can see how it might for others.

Age Recommendation: The writing was clearly too boring for my third graders, even my advanced readers in the class. So I recommend this for ages 11 to 14, particularly fans of fantasy, or as an introduction to fantasy.

Appropriateness: Totally clean book; nothing to worry about in the content. There is a cruel and ruthless villain but his actions and the description of his actions are appropriate for the age of the target audience.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in this book then you might also enjoy Golden, The Wild Orchid, and other fairy tale retellings by Cameron Dokey. You could also try The Unicorn Hunter by Rachel Kirkaldie, Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt, The Beyonders series by Brandon Mull, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.

Safe House

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Safe House

Safe House by Shannon Symonds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

As a victim’s advocate, Grace James is used to rushing into trouble to save her victims from abuse or assault. And with a handsome officer like Joe Hart at her side, Grace is sure there’s nothing she can’t do. But an ominous storm brewing on the Oregon horizon is about to change everything—and bring with it dangers and revelations Grace and Joe never expected.

Excerpt from the book

Grace drove up the winding road, high among large new homes. They sat along the edge of the lush Oregon forest on the Pacific Coast Range Mountains. She didn’t have to look too hard for the address. An ambulance and two lit up police cars, lights silently rotating, marked the last home at the top of the steep road. Light spilled from every window and the open front door. Ancient pines and a dark old growth forest swayed in the wind behind the house. On the front porch a woman was arguing with a medic, holding a bloody rag to her face…

…Making her way to the house, she walked between patrol cars and crossed the lawn. The ambulance driver had a clipboard and was trying to explain to Emily, the victim, that she needed to sign a waiver stating she was refusing services. Ignoring the ambulance driver and looking at Officer Hart, Emily was speaking and gesturing rapidly, demanding they leave her alone.

The officer she was spitting mad at was young and good-looking. Grace didn’t know how anyone could yell at Hart. His name was absolutely appropriate. Seeing Grace, he half-smiled, showing dimples, looking grateful for the interruption.

Flashing her own half-grin, her color rose. Looking down, she hoped he hadn’t noticed.

PROMO-she cradled her lost dream deep in her heart
My Review

I connected with this book. It reeled me in and kept me there with an intense and fast-moving plot. The emotional intensity was a unique aspect of this book for me. I had never read a book addressing domestic violence and abuse, and I found myself incapable of putting it down because I just couldn’t leave these characters in the unjust and demoralizing circumstances.

In addition to the captivating and entertaining plot, Safe House was an educational experience. Part of what was both enthralling and alarming as I read was knowing that the author has personal experience as an advocate for victims of domestic violence and abuse, so I could count on there being truth to the events and to the actions and reactions of the characters. I came away with better understanding of what victims are faced with and the complexity of their difficulties. I gained greater sympathy for their suffering, and more respect for their strength. The picture presented of victims and abusers led me to wonder who of my family and friends could silently be experiencing such heartache. I appreciated the subtle revelations of the abusers’ pasts that explain a lot of why they act in violence and abuse. It doesn’t justify or minimize the atrociousness of their actions, but it is enlightening to see what influenced them.

I also felt gratitude for those like the character Grace and like the author who sacrifice their time and comfort to help these victims. I was motivated to want to help too, even if it’s just by helping others gain the same understanding that Safe House brought me.

PROMO-they called her a victim but she was a survivor

While the subject matter is serious, difficult, and true to life, I also connected with the uplifting nature of the book. It’s not just about abuse and pain. It’s a story of healing, particularly healing with the help of family, friends, and professionals. Most importantly and most effectively, our Savior and Redeemer is part of the healing process. I thank my Heavenly Father that I don’t experience domestic violence or abuse, but I certainly have my own difficulties at times, and I use the same resources for help and healing. I felt like the author gave me an intimate look at a truly sacred process, one that is part of her reality as an advocate, so I felt I got a close look into her mind and heart as well. What I saw was so good, kind, and courageous. It was a privilege to work with her and get to know her better, particularly as she took the time to answer some interview questions. Check out my interview with her here.

I was also drawn in by the book’s setting. We recently moved to the Seattle area, so a book set in the Pacific Northwest was intriguing. Then we actually got to visit the area where the book takes place while was right in the middle of reading. Shannon Symond’s descriptions of the Seaside, Oregon area painted pictures of majestic and peaceful beauty. When I saw it all with my own eyes my thought was that she nailed the descriptions. See my trip report here to read more details about visiting the setting of Safe House.

I was emotionally and personally invested in the book, but I do have to say that intellectually the ending was not completely satisfying. Throughout the book you see some of the residents in a small coastal town become connected through good, bad, and ugly. They face an ultimate test at the end when mother nature adds her ferocity to their struggles; as a result, they become more closely connected. However, after it was all over I felt like I didn’t get enough insight into how the storm really affected or changed them or their relationships. I would have liked to be given a glimpse of them all a month or two down the road to really see what lasting effect the events and their connections had. The end climax didn’t have much meaning for me other than just excitement without more of an epilogue.

I wanted more time to celebrate with these characters I had come to care about. I felt I had come to know them as victims and also in the thick of the turning point. I wanted to be able to see them down the path of change a bit further.

PROMO-sometimes he answers our prayers with a storm

I especially felt there was a lot missing from Grace’s, the advocate, story. I was curious about her past that was really only hinted at. I expected when I started the book to read more about her than I did. But as I got further into the book I realized that it made sense that Grace’s story took more of a backseat to the other characters. While Grace is such an influential character, her job is to play a supporting role. I think her full story is probably the most interesting of all, but the book isn’t really about her except for her role as an advocate, just as a real domestic violence situation would not be about the advocate, no matter how heroic they are. It’s really about the victim(s) and making them safe. That oh-so-important-but-behind-the-scenes role of an advocate is clear through the character focuses in the book.

I was so happy to find out in my interview with Shannon Symonds that she has plans for another book with these characters!

There were a few small bumps in character development. There were a few times I was distracted from the story as I pondered whether a character’s actions or thoughts made sense based on my feel for them, but it was the excitement, uplifting experience, and learning opportunities of Safe House that shined forth to make it a good read.

Age Recommendation: With the adult subject matter I recommend this book for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: Domestic violence and sexual abuse are the main conflicts in the book so there is depiction of these horrid crimes. However, it’s all described tastefully without too much gore or graphic detail. But it is enough to evoke an emotional response. The message of overcoming such terrors makes the book a positive and happy one.

Book Club Suggestions: Safe House would provide great discussion material for a book club. Discussion topics could include
1. If you were put in a position where you were suddenly on your own to support yourself and family how would you do it? Would you be prepared right now?
2. What stigmas have you heard attributed to victims of domestic violence? Has your opinion changed at all after reading the book?
3. How would you deal with a job as stressful and emotional as Grace’s? What would you do to keep your work from taking over?
4. What support do you turn to in your times of need?
5. What do you think the future holds for these characters?
6. Do you feel any sympathy for the abusers? Why or Why not?

Other book recommendations: If you are interested in Safe House then you might also like Charly by Jack Weyland, Jennie by Susan Evans McCloud, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, My Story by Elizabeth Smart, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner.

First Giveaway!

One of the best parts about having a book review blog is that I get to read new books absolutely free! Well my friends, it’s your lucky day because you too can have the chance to read an inspiring new book for free.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Safe House by Shannon Symonds

Safe House

by Shannon Symonds

Giveaway endsSeptember 7, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Click the links above to enter the giveaway. If chosen, you will win a free copy of Safe House by Shannon Symonds.

I will be posting my full review on Aug. 28th as part of the Safe House blog tour, but if you want to get excited about the book before then check out my interview with the author, Shannon Symonds, here.

You can also get a sneak peek into the setting and plot of the book here.

PROMO-you are never alone