The Spy

The SpyThe Spy by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men.

But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested and accused of espionage. Told in Mata Hari’s voice through her final letter, The Spy is the story of a woman who dared to defy convention and who paid the ultimate price.

My Review

I couldn’t get very far into this one before the details of rape and abuse were just too much. I picked The Spy up because I really enjoyed Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I thought with the uplifting and even Christian theme in that book certainly Coelho could tell the life story of a prostitute convicted of treason with some class and delicacy. Unfortunately, for me the first chapters of The Spy felt more like an excuse to romanticize sexual abuse rather than an effort to present truth, fact, or history.

“A Novel” is clearly printed on the front cover so I should have been expecting this to read like fiction, but because it’s main subject is the life of a real person I was expecting a more biographical feel.

The narrator in the introduction of the book sets up Mata Hari as a hero. Then in the first chapter Coelho begins to tell the story through Mata Hari’s own voice; unfortunately with the voice he gives her she comes off as completely selfish, even narcissistic. She certainly was a “broken” person which is understandable given the abuses she endured, but Coelho’s choice in presentation of her life events and her reactions to them left me unimpressed and sad. I didn’t feel like cheering for her as a hero; I felt pity that a traumatized woman didn’t get the help she deserved.

Through Coelho’s characterization of her, Mata Hari says, “My only crime was to be an independent woman.” I find it sad that Coelho would equate self-destructive choices from a victim of abuse with independence and heroism. Since I didn’t actually finish the book I guess it’s possible that the author actually finds her heroic for other reasons, but based on the first few chapters I was pretty sure his ideas of heroism and mine are very different. I don’t know much about Mata Hari (I had hoped this book would help me learn more), so I can’t really say whether she was heroic or not, selfish or not, but I don’t think Coelho’s book is going to give me an accurate picture of this complicated woman.

Age Recommendation: With the sexual content I would say this for mature adult readers.

Appropriateness: I found the author’s choice of how to present the sexual content very inappropriate and I would not recommend this book.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Mata Hari’s story I have found several nonfiction options on Goodreads that you should try before picking up this book. I am interested in reading Mata Hari: The Controversial Life and Legacy of World War I’s Most Famous Spy  by Charles Rivers Editors.

If you are interested in historical (or historically based) heroism I recommend The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, or Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

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Atlantia

AtlantiaAtlantia by Ally Condie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

For as long as she can remember, Rio has dreamed of the sand and sky Above—of life beyond her underwater city of Atlantia. But in a single moment, all Rio’s hopes for the future are shattered when her twin sister, Bay, makes an unexpected choice, stranding Rio Below. Alone, ripped away from the last person who knew Rio’s true self—and the powerful siren voice she has long silenced—she has nothing left to lose.

Guided by a dangerous and unlikely mentor, Rio formulates a plan that leads to increasingly treacherous questions about her mother’s death, her own destiny, and the corrupted system constructed to govern the Divide between land and sea. Her life and her city depend on Rio to listen to the voices of the past and to speak long-hidden truths.

My Review

I didn’t love Matched by Ally Condie so I’m not sure why I decided to pick up Atlantia. Maybe because I thought there were a few redeeming qualities in Matched, at least enough for me to give Condie a second chance. The plot also intrigued me, and I was looking for something easy to read and entertaining to read over the holidays.

Well, Atlantia certainly fit the bill for easy to read and it was entertaining enough that I finished it. However, it had many of the same disappointments that I found in Matched. It’s difficult not to compare the two books because they are both dystopian fiction for teens, written by the same author.

In both books I was quickly drawn in to the premise, the excitement of exploring a new world, and the anticipation of how the story and characters could develop within the rules of the new world. I think the author did a better job of creating a believable world for Atlantia than she did with Matched. I didn’t find myself questioning so much whether the human responses were plausible given the circumstances. I was actually quite impressed by the beginning of the book. I loved how Condie “showed” me the rules of the world she had created rather than “told.” The pacing was quick and engaging, and the world itself was interesting and had some unique aspects. Through the first quarter of the book I had high hopes that it was going to succeed where Matched had failed me.

At the halfway mark, unfortunately, my hopes crumbled. The book centers around conflict between the world Below (the city Atlantia which was built in a “bubble” on the ocean floor) and the world Above (the world we inhabit). The main characters and the storytelling begins Below, but it’s clear early on that the story will, at some point, have to continue Above. I was disappointed and bored to get halfway through and still be building to the point where the action would switch to Above. I knew at that point that there was going to be rushed action to the climax and rushed resolution in order to wrap up the story in the number of pages left.

I was right. I didn’t get nearly the feel or Above that I needed to balance the care that had been taken to show me Below. The characters Above were weak without the needed development and I didn’t care for them like I needed to in order to really care about the plot. In the world Below the author used mystery and the characters’ gradual discovery of important information to build tension. A little over halfway through that method completely broke down and information just starts getting handed out left and right. It felt like the author knew how she wanted to wrap it all up, but she didn’t have a great grasp on the steps needed to get there. She spent an overly long time building up which could have been ok if the same care had been taken in the action and resolution. But instead it just fell flat and became forgettable.

I debated on whether to give 2 or 3 stars. I settled on 3 because I respect the potential of the author’s ideas. I even liked the poetic style she tried to give her prose. I felt like it fit the idea of an underwater civilization that worships “the Gods.” Had she just been able to balance the story elements better it would have been a satisfying entertainment escape.

Age Recommendation: Because of the dystopian elements as well as some teen romance this book would be enjoyed best by 14 and older.

Appropriateness: There is no swearing, no graphic violence or gory descriptions. Some kissing but not overly descriptive. Pretty squeaky clean in my book.

Other Book Recommendations: If Atlantia interests you, you might also like Matched by Ally Condie, Until We Meet Again , Remember me Always, or Relic, all by Renee Collins, An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, or The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.

Without You There is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields – except for the 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic where letters are read by censors, every conversation is listened to, and a communist regime controls behavior, belief, and fairly successfully even thoughts. To the students, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Suki is unnerved by their obedience to the regime and the ease with which they lie. Still, she cannot help but love them – their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”

My Review

Fascinating is the best the word I can think of to describe this book. I didn’t know much about North Korea before reading/listening, other than the basics such as it’s a communist country with a preoccupation with nuclear weapons, it and South Korea were separated at some point after some war in the past, Japan had invaded Korea at one point, and North Korea was very much closed to the rest of the world. I wouldn’t say that this book is a great textbook for learning the history or political movements of North Korea, but for someone with decent logic and reasoning skills, and a pretty good grasp of world history this was a very engaging way to get a glimpse into the role North Korea has played and currently plays on the international stage.

The book is categorized as a memoir which I would say is accurate, but it felt like a memoir ensconced in truth and important perspective. As a South Korean who immigrated to the United States the author has a very unique context from which to view the events and ideas she experienced in North Korea. Because the book is written from her experience and with her own reflection on that experience it does fit the memoir mold. However, as a reader I trusted her reflections because of her own past and culture. She could see things in a way that others without her kind of love for Korea would not. Which was kind of the point of her efforts. I appreciated not only her interpretation of reactions, ideas, and events based on her personal ties to the country and people, but also her sharing the insight and identity she gained and lost through her experience.

If the book were just Suki Kim’s musings about Korea, war, communism, religion, loyalty, truth, and education then it would be interesting but it may not be as important as it felt to me. Kim is a journalist, one who had followed stories in North Korea before her time as a teacher there. Her perspective from that role gives the book an element of reporting that left me feeling I did understand historical events and international relations better.

I loved how the combination of memoir and journalism gave me interesting facts but also affected me emotionally. There were times as I listened that I was caught up purely intellectually in the picture of North Korea that the author was painting for me. It’s a country so removed from me with so many secrets that it was just mesmerizing to hear what being there, living there would be like. But then I would slowly transport myself and start imagining what it would really feel like to be there. The author would share a scene where the restrictions, regulation, and control were no longer just interesting facts, but the realities of people’s lives, and I would feel such sorrow and hurt for the Korean people and any others living always as prisoners.

My emotions yo-yoed right along with the author’s as she described her love/hate relationship with her job, with her students and coworkers, and with the culture she was proud of, but had also rejected in some senses. In an effort to educate myself more about North Korea I read some newspaper articles after finishing the book. I hated how the articles painted all North Koreans as our enemies. Kim’s writing, on the other hand, reveals the humanity of the people, the ways in which we are all the same, while also clearly broadcasting the naivety and even the threat that the North Korean people’s beliefs and choices hold for anyone they deem their enemy (or that their leaders deem their enemy). However, I didn’t come away feeling endangered or afraid. I felt pity. How can I hate a people who have lived for generations under the brainwashing effect of propaganda and lies? I worry FOR them, just as Suki Kim does, but not ABOUT them; they are not my enemy.

Ironically, Kim is clearly not a Christian or a believer, but I found her approach of love, patience, and correction so Christ-like. She compares the belief and faith in God that her Christian coworkers have to the faith and belief that the North Koreans have in their “great leader” and their communist party. From her experience, I can’t deny the grains of truth in her comparison. But I also empathized with the emotion that one coworker expressed or almost expressed when Kim confronted her about the hypocrisy she saw in the coworker’s religious beliefs. It seemed to me that the coworker at that moment was blessed with a Christ-like love for Kim, despite the confrontation Kim had just initiated.
The coworker emoted mostly with her face, a desire to share some eternal truth that she knew, but that she wasn’t sure Kim was ready for yet. Interestingly, since Kim is the one narrating the experience, I think she must have seen her coworker’s emotion too, otherwise she could not have described it in a way that would allow me as the reader to pick up on it.

I think Kim believed her Christian coworker’s good intentions even if she didn’t completely agree with them. I read a blog post from the author where she talks about the backlash she has received since publishing the book from readers who don’t agree with her actions either. But I feel gratitude for Suki Kim and her good intentions. I think, despite her unbelief, her work and writing will open hearts and minds so that God can work with us all as our world gets smaller through technology and more dangerous if small-mindedness is encouraged. I hope, as the author does, that North Koreans will gain freedom and that the world will be ready to receive and help them when they do. I hope that the good that is ingrained in their culture will be appreciated and magnified, not suppressed or wiped out by our often egotistical and overbearing western culture. This is where history can be our best teacher if we will learn from our mistakes of the past to guide our future.

My husband is a geographer so maps are always an interesting source of information in our lives. He found this data image for me that shows light for areas where navigation data is used and shared. This image shows South and North Korea and China. The darkness of North Korea sums up the country fairly well. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say.

IMG-1700

P.S. Listening to this book was a good choice for me. I loved hearing the reader pronounce the Korean names and words that I would have had no idea on had I been reading.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. To appreciate the implications of and information in this book requires some understanding of history, culture, and politics that I think generally comes only with adulthood.

Appropriateness: Harsh realities of communism, tyranny, poverty, and prejudice are a constant presence in this book, but I didn’t find any of it to be sensational or gory. It can certainly be depressing at times, but mostly I was fascinated. The author does use the term “lover” to describe an old flame, but there is no description of romantic relationships.

I read this because it was selected for book club and I am looking forward to the discussion that will be possible.  This is a perfect book club read.

Other book recommendations: If Without You There is No Us is of interest to you then I think you would also enjoy So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr,  Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

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.

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.”

nativity-scene-mary-joseph-baby-jesus-1326846-print

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

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 2.07.45 PM

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.