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

Author Interview – Shannon Symonds

SYMONDS ShannonCOVER Safe House I have felt so privileged to not only be introduced to the inspiring story and ideas in Safe House, but to also get to know the author, Shannon Symonds a little. She has been open and fun to work with. When I told her I would be visiting near Seaside, Oregon she was excited and kind enough to give me the 411 on all of the best places to go and best things to do .

She also took the time to answer some questions that I had after reading Safe House. Her words just give me more respect and admiration for the work that she does and for the person she is.  I could tell through the book that the events and message were something she truly knew about through experience, which makes the book so much more powerful and informative. The details that I learned through my interview with her help me appreciate her writing all the more. I hope you enjoy getting to know her a little better too. Check out the interview below and then check out Safe House. 

1. Do you plan to write any more books? Could there possibly be more to Grace’s story? (I’d read it!)

Thank you for asking! I would love you to review it.

I planned another story as I was writing this one. It has been taking shape for a while now. I have a working outline and can’t wait to get started! This autumn when the rain starts falling, it will be me, a fire in the fireplace and “Insert surprise name here.”

The next book will be in the same location, same characters with some new friends.

2. It really stood out to me in the book how all of the characters needed family and friends to help and support them.  Even Grace couldn’t do her work as an advocate without the help of her mom, siblings, and children. Do you find that same level of support is necessary for you to fulfill your work? Who has been a source of help for you?

I think this is a wonderful question! Connection is an important part of healing. I have been blessed with the gift of family and I would not be who I am today without my massive, loving extended family.

On one of the hardest days of my life, I chose to take my 5 children and leave my first marriage. I left home in a VW Van with a hundred dollars to my name. I remember pulling over to the side of the road, wondering if we would end up sleeping in the van or if my mother would let me come home. It was one of the toughest phone calls of my life.

Even though my mother was caring for her father and still had children at home, she answered my call and welcomed me home with open arms. I wasn’t there long, but I was grateful. Although I don’t share the reasons I left, I tell everyone I know how thankful I am for the support of my family.

Later, when I remarried we bought a house a block from the beach in our happy place, Seaside, Oregon. It was built in 1896 as a store with an attached residence. The store was large and empty. I offered the space to my parents who built an adorable in-law apartment in it, complete with a loft. Dad was a teacher and they spent summers with us in the house we all lovingly refer to as, “The Old Store.”

Our lives were very much like Grace and Mable’s. My husband did shift work for many years. When I had a crisis call, night or day, if he wasn’t here, they were my backup crew.

My parents have a 50 plus year marriage that reminds me happy endings are not only possible but a worthy goal. Their strength and gusto for life have been an example to me. My mother turns 80 this year. A few weeks ago she was outside painting our house in the summer sun.

One of the major red flags for an abusive relationship is isolation. Abusers go to great lengths to break connections survivors have with family and friends. This process can involve everything from checking all the survivor’s texts to moving them away from their support system.

On the other hand, we all thrive with connection and a sense of safety.. If you have a friend or family member In an abusive relationship, be there for them. Asking for help is often the first step to recovery and the hardest thing a survivor may have to do.

3. The setting is a driving force in the climax of the book and also an important part of the tone. I connected with it not only because I’m a newbie to the Pacific Northwest, but also because your love for the area shines through in the descriptions and detail. Any reader is going to want to see the beauties you describe if they haven’t already. What do you love most about where you live?

What I love most about living in the Pacific Northwest is the rugged beauty at every turn, rain or shine, and all the delicious fresh fish.

I am an outside girl. I have been known to take my laptop and hotspot to the oddest places. I love being able to walk out my front door and in a block hit the sand for a run or walk every day. When life is right, we spend Saturdays outside. Within 30 minutes of the house we can hike, kayak, spend a day on the sand or build a bonfire on the beach.

I found a new love later in life, fishing. Fishing is an excuse to get on a 40-foot boat, with an all-important bathroom, and spend the day on the ocean. We also crab and clam. There is nothing better in my world than catching my favorite food. Vegans… I apologize.


4. The location also is a “trap” for some of the characters and certainly becomes a problem for everyone near the end. Have you ever felt that way about your Oregon coast home? What’s the worst part of living there?

The worst part of living here is also the thing that can trap us here, and make living here wonderful. It is the weather. However, being a Coastie, I love the things that make other people crazy.  

For example, almost annually it rains enough that the only road in and out of the county flood both North and South. Locals learn quickly to read tide tables and gauge their travel during low tide, or when the water on the road is only a few inches deep. However, most of us have a secret love of driving through large puddles and have been known to post embarrassing FaceBook videos of our drive with hysterical laughter in the background.

The Pacific Northwest is supposed to be known for its mild weather, however periodically it snows and when it does, life comes to a halt. People in the Midwest may be driving through blizzards, but if there is a light dusting we call it a snow day and stay home to play. I love that! However, The mountains between the coast and major cities become deadly ice-skating rinks and we are definitely trapped, or stay home if we are wise.

When the wind is blowing sixty miles an hour in the winter, we don’t notice. When the wind is blowing  80 to a 100, it is a gale. But when it tops 100 sustained, our lights go out. Snow and ice also bring power outages. Every year or so we have a wind, ice-storm or snow storm and lose power for a day or five days, depending on the damage. But we are prepared! We have oil lamps, a fireplace, and stacks of books.

5. Have you ever experienced anything that comes close to the disasters at the end of the book?

Yes! Everything in the book, as far as the weather and storm, come from my experience or stories my friends told following the first hurricane north of the 45th parallel in 2007. It hit Seaside head on and cut us off from power, phones, and civilization for days.

image1

Three powerful storms came together to form one giant swirling hurricane that lasted well over 24-hours. Winds in seaside were clocked at over 129 mph.

I worked in our church women’s organization. Our little church spent days with chain saws cleaning up fallen trees, helping with animals and the elderly in our area. I was the only one with hot water and a working old fashioned telephone. People lined up to use our shower and a neighbor brought her dishes over in a wagon to wash them.

As life threatening as the storm felt, I experienced it as an affirmation of what a wonderful town and church I belonged to. Everyone pulled together, and even though we were without power, we were smiling.

6. You and Grace are similar in your work and in where you live. Do you share other similarities with Grace? Is there a character you relate to most?

Grace is probably a lot like I was at Grace’s age. Grace and I share similar hair issues. I have however, discovered something called a Brazilian Blowout and a hair straightener. Every day I beat my hair into submission and regularly the Oregon rain wets it down and the kinks and curls come back.

Her work is patterned after a job I did for 15 years, and continue to do part time. The major difference is in our area the domestic and sexual assault advocates work out of a small non-profit. There is no fancy office on the river  or nice furniture. There is a lot of shabby sheik thrift store furniture in an office without heat in the winter and without air in the summer. The other difference is Grace gets to focus on one job. In small non-profits, you fix the toilet, lead the support group, clean the shelter, meet with survivors and go home to take a call shift. I am proud to say, we made every dollar count!


7. Your book definitely helped me see aspects of domestic abuse that I had not considered before.  I understand better how it is something that has the potential to affect anyone in any walk of life. It makes me think I may know more people than I think who have to deal with this terror in their lives.  How can I help people in my life who may be victims of domestic or sexual abuse? Are their warning signs we can look for in our own relationships and in helping the people we care about?

1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of some sort of violence in their relationships, so there is a better than good chance you know someone, are related to someone or have had at least one experience with domestic abuse. Shame is just one of the things keeping us from talking to each other, and secrets perpetuate the abuse.

One of the best ways to help survivors is to trust they know their story and what they need better than anyone else. I keep the National Domestic Violence Hotline number (800-799-7233) on my blog. You can call them to ask questions about what you’re seeing, concerns about friends or your own relationships. You can also give their number to a survivor. But be careful. The abuser may be monitoring their texts and calls. I usually write down Mary Kay or something similar and the number on paper.

Some of the signs someone is in an abusive relationship include:
Controlling behavior. Everything from checking texts to controlling how a survivor spends money or who they talk to
Jealousy. Abusers may control who talks to a survivor or make their life miserable if they receive attention. Survivors sometimes change the way they dress or behave to avoid unwanted attention they know will upset the abuser.
Isolation. Abusers may sabotage family relationships, jobs and friendships until the survivor is isolated. They may tell the victim not to hang out with friends because they are bad for them, or they may even push the survivor to move far away.
Verbal/Emotional abuse. Survivors usually tell me the verbal and emotional abuse is worse than the physical. Bruises heal, but they have a hard time forgetting the threats and put downs.

When you begin dating and you wonder if someone may or may not be abusive, there are a few red flags or signs of potential abuse you can look for.
Quick involvement. Pushing you for a commitment and asking you not to talk to friends or family.
Jealousy. This can feel flattering at first, but it is actually a red flag for someone who may become increasingly controlling.
Controlling behavior. For example telling you they need to help you with your budget because you aren’t good with money and then gradually taking over control of your accounts.
Past history of abusing an intimate partner. We have all heard people complain about their exes and sometimes it is warranted, but a criminal history of domestic assault is a red flag.

We often blame someone’s abusive behavior on drugs and alcohol. While it is true, there are drugs which make people aggressive, domestic violence is a pattern of systematic power and control that includes physical abuse. Gas lighting or making someone feel crazy, name calling, and threats.

Survivors often blame themselves. You may not be perfect. You may be in a toxic relationship, but there is no excuse for physical or sexual abuse.

We often equate domestic violence with low-income or addiction. The truth is, if you have money and you are abusing your spouse, you can afford a house in an isolated location or an attorney if  you are arrested.

Walls in low income apartments are paper thin and in my opinion, that leads to more law enforcement involvement. When survivors are professionals, like counselors or lawyers, they are heavily invested in keeping their abuse a secret so it doesn’t impact their career.
PROMO-she thought she had lost it all
8. In your experience what is the major element in healing from abuse?

There are many different ways to heal. Survivors do many things to cope while they are being abused. They may drink for the first time, or they may develop an eating disorder, they may even do healthy low-cost things to cope like gardening. The problems arise when survivors begin using a high-cost method of coping like alcohol during the abuse, and after the abuse is over are still using it to cope with anxiety or stress.

It is normal to have anxiety and need time to heal after trauma. The important thing is to find a healthy coping mechanism like exercise or reading a good book to self-sooth while you work on recovery.

There are a lot of free trauma recovery groups available through domestic violence agencies. If you break your leg, you go to a doctor. If you break your heart, please see a counselor.

Recovery doesn’t require us to spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the experiences we had. Recovery happens when we find hope for our future, remember who we are, develop healthy boundaries, have self-compassion and healthy coping skills for anxiety or stress.

9.You are a woman of faith and the characters in your book also find strength through Jesus Christ and organized religion. How does your faith help you in your work? I’m sure talking religion with clients is a “no-no,” as it is in most fields, but do you find you are able to share your faith in any politically/socially acceptable ways?

When I am with a survivor I try to keep the focus on them. They will tell me if their religion is important to them or a resource that can help support them. Sadly, they will sometimes tell me their religion shuns them for leaving an abusive home. I encourage survivors to use what works for them, to comfort themselves, whatever that looks like. Spiritual healing is a powerful tool for many survivors. I had a great working relationship with our local Father Nick before he moved to another parish. He was a wonderful support for survivors in need if they were Catholic.

Interestingly, for many years I hid my religion from my employer. I would like to say that when I shared my religion, it was met with a positive response, but the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Several years into my job as an advocate I told my boss what church I went to, and her response was, “If I had known, I would never have hired you!” However, that was followed by a conversation in which she shared her respect for me and my lifestyle. She recognized she had some baggage around my religion. This wasn’t the first time an employer told me they wouldn’t have hired me if they knew what religion I belonged to.

Somewhere in that journey, I learned to own who I am, what I believe and to stop apologizing for my culture. But please! Don’t mistake me for perfect. I am a work in process, not an example of the best of my religion.

I chose to write about the culture I know, including my religion. When we write historical fictions about World War II we are often exposed to the Jewish culture, even if the focus of the story is an American Soldier. If I read stories about other cultures, they usually contain pieces of other religions. Stories like Dan Brown’s, “The Da Vinci Code,” or Jennifer Beckstrand’s book, “Sweet as Honey,” placed in the Amish community, expose us to other interesting and beautiful religions and cultures.   

10. With the personal and intense nature of the situations you deal with as an advocate, I know for me it would be so hard to separate myself from the emotions and worry once work was over. Is it difficult to keep your work at work? How do you keep that balance in your life? How do you keep hope and optimism alive when you deal with such tragedy in your work?

This is where my religion supports and sustains me. I have a little phrase I use to remind myself of my role as an advocate.

“I am not the Master Gardener.”

I remind myself that I believe in Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ, and their plan for us. I am not the Master Gardener, I simply go into the garden to tend, weed and plant seeds of hope. At the end of the day, I close the garden gate and I trust the Master Gardener  who has many other workers and ways to take care of the garden, and the survivors he loves and cherishes.

I have absolutely no balance in my life. The truth is, I run hard, I play hard, I write late at night and I work way too many hours. But when I sit with the bruised, battered and yes, even those who pass on, I never sit alone. I believe in what many call their higher power, because I have witnessed the miracle of survivorship and I have seen angels rise from the ashes.

PROMO-she was so much more than her scars

The Unicorn Hunter

Unicorn-Hunter-Tour-BannerThe Unicorn Hunter by Rachel Kirkaldie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was lucky enough to receive a digital copy of this book in return for my honest review. I am excited to be participating in the blog tour.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Princess Jessalyn’s betrothal is the talk of the realm, but all she cares about is escaping her family’s smelly fishing kingdom. As queen of Gontir, her life will finally be perfect. But her plans are shattered when she’s kidnapped in a plot to destroy Gontir. With her dreams in ruins, Jessalyn must decide if the life she’s always wanted is worth the price of her heart.

My Review

The Unicorn Hunter is a grand adventure through a fascinating world. The author took me on a journey of discovery as she revealed the principles of magic and history that rule the lands. The story moves quickly and every word helps to move it forward. I so enjoyed not being bogged down with long explanations and descriptions; instead the author develops the characters, setting, and conflict through the story progression. The fast pace and lack of distraction or disruption from the story was perfect for the genre. The author’s voice works perfectly with the story and genre as well. She’s not scholarly, flowery, or fancy; neither is she juvenile, crude, or flat. It’s just right for being pulled into the story quickly and being held there to the end. It doesn’t take too much work to follow. You just get in and enjoy the ride.

I loved that I didn’t love princess Jessalyn at the start. It was refreshing to read about a heroine who really doesn’t have much heroism to offer. I was intrigued as to how she would develop and become likable. I wondered what events could break through her vanity, cleanliness, and too perfect exterior? What could happen to add depth to her priorities that at the start were about as shallow as an empty yogurt cup? Then the “hero” of the story was introduced and he wasn’t much better with life motivations completely focused on wealth, and thievery being his method of achieving his desires.

But the author builds a plausible plot that believably reveals the redeeming qualities of a selfish princess and thief. She succeeds in getting readers to care about these characters and their world. The cast of supporting characters such as the royal family and the thieving band are shown more in glimpses, but those glimpses are so clear that you really get a strong feel for their motivations right away. I liked them immediately for their strengths and weaknesses and they provided a perfect contrast for the initial shallowness of the main characters.

My only complaint for the book is that I wanted more. By the end I was starting to see the main characters blossom, but I didn’t feel completely satisfied with their growth or with the plot reconciliation. In my opinion there was more to be told of this story. There is plenty of foreshadowing for sequels (and I am crossing my fingers that there is at least one more) but even for this portion of the story I think there was more to tell. More information about the villains would give a much more satisfying end. I wanted more story to show me where Jessalyn and the thief would go from there. I could see that their experiences had changed them, and I wanted to know how that would affect their goals and direction for the immediate future. But I was left hanging.

Without a sequel this story is definitely incomplete, and because I felt there should have been more to the ending I would really give the book 3.5 stars; but I rounded up to a 4 because it was such an enjoyable read. I just wanted more! So I’m crossing my fingers and wishing on stars that there will be a sequel. And soon!!

Age Recommendation: This book is ideal for 15 and older. I think girls would be more drawn to it.

Appropriateness: Very clean yet exciting. Lots of action, but nothing grossly descriptive about it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in The Unicorn Hunter I think you would also enjoy An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, The Winner’s Series by Marie Rutkoski, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt, The Princess Academy series by Shannon Hale, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Golden by Cameron Dokey, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and  Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

 

Goblins in the Castle

Goblins in the CastleGoblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Toad-in-a-Cage Castle was filled with secrets–secrets such as the hidden passages that led to every room, the long stairway that wound down to the dungeon, and the weird creature named Igor who lived there. William’s own past was mystery to even him, but it was the mysterious night noises that bothered William the most–the strange moans that drifted through the halls of the castle where he was raised.

He wanted to know what caused them.

Then one night they called his name….

My Review

My 4th grade teacher read this book to our class and I remember getting completely caught up in the story and the characters. It was one of the first books I read (or had read to me) that really had me on the edge of my seat.

So when it got to the point in the school year when I knew there would only be time to read one more book to my 3rd grade class I wanted it to be this one. I hadn’t read the book since hearing it for the first time at 10 years old, and I didn’t remember much of the details or the plot really; but with such fond memories of it I was confident none of us would be disappointed.

It turned out to be even better than I expected. It was the perfect read-aloud to end the year with. At the end of every chapter I would hear students either aloud or under the breath pleading, “Don’t stop! Please keep reading!” They (and me) couldn’t wait to unravel the mysteries of Toad-in-a-Cage castle. Bruce Coville has a real knack for humor but he also nailed the action and suspense-building in this one. It’s a quick and easy read, but not dumbed-down. It presents a well-rounded story arc with a variety of colorful characters which makes it so fun to actually read aloud.

There isn’t a lot of depth to the plot or character development that could lead to real analytical discussions, but this one is perfect for practicing the skill in the language arts curriculum of making and revising predictions. Lots of cliffhangers to provide text evidence with which to formulate predictions. You could also explore text structures throughout the book such as Problem and Solution, and Cause and Effect.

We finished the book on the 2nd to the last day of school, so we didn’t have time to do much else with it, but it would lend itself well to book reports and other projects like drawing or modeling what students imagine the goblins or their kingdom to look like. Students could write poetry or descriptive writing to articulate what they think it would have been like to be trapped in the tower like the goblins were.

But it’s important not to overanalyze or overthink this one. It really is just meant to entertain and excite, and it does a fabulous job of it.

Age Recommendation: It was perfect for 3rd graders and I loved it as a 4th grader. I think 5th and 6th graders would enjoy it too, so I’d say the ideal age would be 8-12. Girls and boys alike loved it in my class.

Appropriateness: If you are offended by a fart joke or practical jokes you might want to stay away from this one, but in my opinion it’s all humorous and harmless fun. Nothing offensive here.

Other book recommendations: If you like Goblins in the Castle you might also enjoy the Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda, Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage, Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Fudge series by Judy Blume, Skinnybones by Barbara Park, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer.

Classroom Use: Perfect read-aloud. Use it to practice making and revising predictions, identifying and mapping story elements, discussing problem and solution and cause and effect.

Among the Hidden

Among the Hidden (Shadow Children, #1)Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

Luke has never been to school. He’s never had a birthday party, or gone to a friend’s house for an overnight. In fact, Luke has never had a friend. Luke is one of the shadow children, a third child forbidden by the Population Police. He’s lived his entire life in hiding, and now, with a new housing development replacing the woods next to his family’s farm, he is no longer even allowed to go outside. Then, one day Luke sees a girl’s face in the window of a house where he knows two other children already live. Finally, he’s met a shadow child like himself. Jen is willing to risk everything to come out of the shadows — does Luke dare to become involved in her dangerous plan? Can he afford “not” to?

My Review

This was the perfect third grade read-aloud book. It had everyone (girls and boys) engaged from the first chapter, gave plenty of discussion material, and was completely age appropriate. The writing is easy to read without being dumbed down.

This is the one of the few dystopian fiction books I have read that is actually written for middle grade and younger. Most other books I have read from the genre are for young adults and older, but Among the Hidden breaks that mold and it does it perfectly.

When I first saw the book I was intrigued and excited about the idea of introducing my students to a new genre, but also a little concerned that it might get to intense or disturbing for 8 and 9 year olds. But after reading the first few chapters I was enthralled in the plot and certain that it would be just the right amount of dystopia to spur some new thoughts and ideas in my students without traumatizing them.

The world of the Shadow Children is full of injustice and unfairness. The government is corrupt and overly controlling. The main character, Luke, and his family have very little control in their lives as farmers, but Luke’s biggest problem is that he shouldn’t be alive in the first place, at least according to Population Law. Families are allowed to have 2 children, no more; and Luke is a third child. These are all pretty heavy issues, but the author presents them through the eyes of a child, a very sheltered and inexperienced one at that, so I found there was nothing inappropriate, nothing that I couldn’t read and discuss with 8 and 9 year-olds.

We had productive discussions on the role of government, the validity of information from certain sources, times when rules/laws should and shouldn’t be broken, and how to better appreciate the world we live in. We were also able to look at what ways our world might be similar to that of the book, and how we can avoid the problems getting worse.

Each time I closed the book at the end of read-aloud time there were groans of disappointment and displeasure. The author has a real knack for cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. My class is begging me to read book 2 in the series as our next read-aloud, but I want to introduce them to other genres this year, so the rest of this series will have to wait. I can assure you, however, that I will be picking up the other books in the series to satisfy my own curiosity and hunger to find out what happens next.

Age Recommendation: My third graders were at a perfect age to enjoy this book.  There is nothing that would be inappropriate for younger readers, but I’m not sure younger than 8 would understand the context fully. As an adult the plot and storyline was intriguing and I enjoyed the read, though the writing was more of a middle grade level.  I think readers from ages 8 to 14 would be the target audience.

Appropriateness: In reading this book you have to be prepared for pondering government corruption, the consequences of naivety, the idea of mass killing (though not described in any detail), and the general discomfort of a dystopian society. However, it is all told without profanity and with sensitivity for the ages for which this book is intended.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Among the Hidden you might also enjoy The Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda, Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling, Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Beyonders series by Brandon Mull, and the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage.

Classroom Use: As described in my review, there is a lot of class discussion material in the book.  Some applicable discussion questions could be

  1. What change causes Luke to finally feel dissatisfied with his life to the point that he risks be seen?
  2. How does the government control the people in Luke’s world?
  3. Do you think the books and media reports we read are always accurate?
  4. How would knowing the true facts of history help the people in Luke’s world to solve some of the problems with which they are faced?
  5. How are Luke and Jen alike? How are they different? How do their differences affect their reactions to their situations?
  6. What do you think of the laws in place in Luke’s world?
  7. The Barons seem to be able to break a lot of rules and laws. Is this fair? What about if the laws are unfair?
  8. What do you think would be the hardest part about being a shadow child?

We also used this book to practice writing book reviews. Students were required to state whether or not they liked the book and why.  They gave a basic summary, and then stated whether or not they would recommend the book to others and why. You could also integrate this book into science and social studies by studying renewable sources of energy and food, and finding ways students could help with hunger or injustice in today’s world.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Fudge, #1)Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Life with his little brother, Fudge, makes Peter Hatcher feel like a fourth grade nothing. Whether Fudge is throwing a temper tantrum in a shoe store, smearing mashed potatoes on the walls at Hamburger Heaven, or trying to fly, he’s never far from trouble. He’s an almost three-year-old terror who gets away with everything, and Peter’s had it up to here! How can he get his parents to pay attention to him for a change?

My Review

The escapades of Farley Drexel Hatcher (aka Fudge) never fail to entertain. Years ago I read SuperFudge, another book in this series, to my 2nd grade class. Today I just finished reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to my third grade class. Throughout both books, each classroom of students was riveted. Their eyes went wide in anticipation of every mischief that Fudge would cause. They gasped and groaned at each of Fudge’s bad choices. Most memorably, they laughed through it all.

As a mother of a two year old myself, this book felt as real as realistic fiction can get. The older brother, Peter, is an entertaining narrator. Even as an adult I can feel for him in his struggle to endure the trouble his little brother causes. The events in the story are pretty normal occurrences in most lives so readers can connect to the premise and plot easily. But despite the normalcy of the events Fudge keeps it interesting and hilarious.

The book was written 30+ years ago, but it’s not dated. Students in 2017 still relate. Boys and girls alike love these books.

It’s the perfect read-aloud with expressive dialogue and plenty of places to pause and breed the suspense. It was a classic when I was in third grade and it’s still a classic today.

Age Recommendation: The narrator is in fourth grade in this book, so obviously that would be an ideal age to read it, but my third grades devoured it, and 2nd graders loved another book in the series.  I think even as young as kindergarten would love this book as a read aloud.  The reading level is probably closer to third or fourth grade. As an adult it’s a joy to read as well, lots of nuances that only more mature readers will pick up on.

Appropriateness: There is some digestive talk, sibling rivalry, and even a case of cooties. It’s just all so true to life, but with a hilarious “glass half full” perspective.  No worries about content with this one. It is a perfect book to read aloud.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book you’d better read Superfudge , Fudge-a-Mania, and Double Fudge to finish of the series (both also by Judy Blume). You would probably also like the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, Skinnybones by Barbara Park, Holes by Louis Sachar, Frindle by Andrew Clements, The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.

Classroom Use: My students will be doing book reports on this book. There are many faceted and well rounded characters that would make for great study material, so for our book reports they will be making a “Me Bag” for one of the characters.  They will put 7 to 10 items into a bag that some how relate to or describe that character.  They will introduce the character to the class by telling why each item was included in the bag.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

Sadako and the Thousand Paper CranesSadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this one with the idea of using it for my high level reading groups in my third grade class, so I wasn’t just looking for good story and writing as I read. I was looking for content that could spark discussion and provide opportunities for really diving into comprehension on all levels of thinking. This telling of Sadako gives all of that and more.

The story is heartbreaking, particularly because it’s all true, but it’s told with sensitivity and perspective perfect for young minds. In the second paragraph of the prologue the author tells you that this story is about a girl who dies from radiation poisoning so right from the get-go you know this isn’t a “happily ever after story.” And it is so sad. The author highlights the tragedy of the whole situation, of a life taken long before it should be, but it’s done with a simplicity that keeps it from being traumatizing even for kids. And in the end there is a feeling of lightness, just like a paper crane hung on a string. It’s the example of Sadako’s child-like faith and hope despite terrible pain and injustice that leaves you motivated to see good and possibility in the world even with all the problems and uncertainties.

The book is short – 9 chapters and an epilogue. I finished it in less than an hour, but it still has plenty of depth. There is so much to ponder regarding war, death, responsibility, choice and consequences, faith, Japanese culture, family, and helping others. It opens the door to looking at our country’s actions in Hiroshima in WWII from many different perspectives.

This book will be perfect for my reading groups. I even created some worksheets with questions they can write responses to as they read to test their comprehension and to also prompt them to think more deeply. You can download them here: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

Feel free to use them in your classroom, book club, or anywhere else.

Age Recommendation: This book is easy to read, but the content is thought-provoking and a little heavy  so I would recommend it for 3rd grade and higher. It’s a great introduction to Sadako for adults. It makes me want to find out more.

Appropriateness: Despite the heavy subject matter there is nothing that would be inappropriate for children. This one leaves you better for having read it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in Sadako you should also read So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Teaching Resources: Here are the worksheets I created for my high level reading groups to answer questions about the book: sadakoandthethousandpapercranes

 

Skinny bones

SkinnybonesSkinnybones by Barbara Park

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

Alex Frankovitch is a little on the skinny side for his age and definitely on the uncoordinated side. He has extra talent, however, for making the people in his life (and readers) laugh. It’s this talent that helps him get through baseball season and life as the target for the school jock and bully.

My review 

I consider read aloud time in my third grade classroom to be sacred. Ok maybe not sacred, but pretty darn important. Kids need to be exposed to “good” literature, not just curriculum stories formulated to teach information or a concept. They need to know what it feels like and sounds like to read a story with an interesting and smart author voice, one in which all the story elements are present, consistent, and complete. They need to be exposed to different genres as well. This is how experienced readers can motivate those still learning to want to keep at it. A read aloud experience at home or the classroom can show kids the adventures that wait them when they can independently read.

So I take seriously the responsibility of choosing “good” books to read aloud to my class. The BFG was our first read aloud this year, and then The Magician’s Elephant. Both of these books were fantasy though with very different voices. But I decided we needed a realistic fiction for our third read aloud. I perused all kinds of library lists and blogs to get ideas. On one list I saw Skinnybones. The name sounded vaguely familiar so I looked it up on Goodreads. As soon as I saw the cover memories from 5th grade came flooding back. My teacher read it to my class that year and I suddenly remembered bunting in baseball being confused with vomiting and other hilarious antics from Alex Frankovitch (a.k.a. Skinny bones). I knew it had to be the next read aloud in my classroom.

I was certain boys and girls with love this book and that we would all have a good laugh. I was 100% right. Alex Frankovitch is definitely the class clown, but an often misunderstood one. He makes some pretty dumb choices that get him into trouble but never out of maliciousness. He just doesn’t always think through his decisions. And he loves to make people laugh. The result is a laugh out loud journey through the perils of being an uncoordinated 5th grade aspiring baseball player with a problem with the class bully. My students were literally on the edge of their seats at times as we waited to see what Alex would do or say next. Everyday there were groans of disappointment when read loud time was over.

I loved the trip down memory lane. There are so many times that I would read a line or turn a page and suddenly remember what was going to happen next despite it having been over 20 years since my teacher read the book to my class. Occasionally I would start laughing at just the memory of what was to come and then have the hardest time reading it out loud without laughing through it. The laughter was contagious and my students would start laughing along with me before they even knew what the funny part was. Some highlights of the book for me are the beginning with Kitty Fritters fiasco, Alex’s conversations with God, and of course “Ooga Booga” in the middle of a baseball game.

Alex is just a lovable character despite his trouble-making tendencies. He reminds me of a boy in my class actually. I love how his parents handle his personality with their own sense of humor. The writing is genius. Though it was originally published in 1982, but it could just as easily take place today. So much of the story telling is dialogue and Alex’s thoughts which made it extra fun to read aloud with different voices and expression.

If you are in the mood for a ROTFL read pick up Skinnybones. I’m looking forward to seeing how many of my students pick up the next books in the series when we go to the library.

Age Recommendation: My third graders were the perfect age for appreciating this book. 5th and 6th grades would love it as well. But this book isn’t just for kids. Adults will appreciate the story and especially the perspectives of Alex’s parents and teachers.

Appropriateness: I love that this book is relatable for girls and boys. There is vomit talk, as would be expected when entering the mind of a 5th grade boy. Alex also has conversations with God but not in relation to any specific religion or spirituality. It was interesting to watch my students’ faces as I read the word “God” over and over. I live in a very religious area and yet students are not used to “that word” coming up at school. I loved being able to show them that it’s not taboo in all forms and that God is a real part of life for some people and even characters in books. I found nothing offensive in this book and it made for a perfect classroom read aloud.

Discussion Material: In my classroom this book inspired discussion about how to handle bullying, how to make up for mistakes we make or trouble we might cause, and how to keep a positive attitude and to like yourself even when life isn’t perfect.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of Skinnybones I think you would also like Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath, The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, Holes by Louis Sachar, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

Reclamation

Reclamation (Eruption, #2)Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads):

Jace Vega wakes up three years after the eruption of Mount Hood where she and the man she loves, Corey Stein, tried to use time travel to release Victor Trent’s powerful hold on the world. But life is even greater turmoil. The future seems to be unchanged and Corey is missing. Nothing about her other relationships feel right.

As Victor Trent continues to amass power, using information terrorism Jace knows she doesn’t have much time if she’s going to stop him. Jace’s reawakening begins a race to the place where it all began: the Point of Origin. If she can only remember where it is.

My Review

I waited so long for the conclusion to this story and it was completely worth it. I actually re-read the first book in the series, Eruption, right before beginning Reclamation and that was a great choice. I enjoyed reliving the suspense of the events in Eruption, and the refresher on all of the details was helpful. Reclamation picks up exactly where Eruption ends, and I loved being able to put one book down and immediately pick up the next without interruption.

I love the smart prose, imagery, and powerful description in the writing. I am so impressed and fulfilled by the author’s ability to weave current events, social issues, social media and technology, psychological examination, and even spirituality into a seamless, colorful, and thoughful storytelling tapestry. And she does it without being preachy; rather her keen expression and description says just enough and leaves the intellectual work up to the reader. There is plenty of opportunity for that “aha” moment as you connect the text and characters to your own life, while at the same time the thrills and suspense of their lives keep you turning pages as fast as you can. The sequence of events flows naturally, and all of that is accomplished while presenting a complex science fiction plot involving volcanoes and time travel.

I loved the main character and narrator, Jace Vega, in the first book with her smarts and maturity and her flaws. She continues to evolve, learn, and change in Reclamation, but she stays consistent, believable, and lovable. I really grew to care about all of the characters and their relationships. Even the “villain” has a “human” side that makes him relatable in some sense.

For me, there is really a lot of pressure on the endings of books with complex and plots and deep characters such as in the Eruption series. Even when events and suspense are so well paced throughout a book, endings can ruin it all if they are rushed or do not tie up all the loose ends. But that was not a problem in Reclamation. The ending was timed well; I had no unanswered questions; it made sense within the flow and the events of the story, and most importantly it felt complete and good. Such a satisfying ending will keep me pondering these books and the layers of lessons and meanings for days to come.

If reading were a meal, Eruption and Reclamation would leave you full and satisfied, and dreaming about the next time you could savor those unique and perfect flavors.

Age Recommendation: The complicated plot and some of the themes will be best understood by mature readers, likely 16 and older.

Appropriateness: There is nothing objectionable in this series. Clean language and high moral standards along with plenty of excitement and tension. These books would give plenty of material for book club discussions regarding coping mechanisms, the purpose of tragedy and suffering, our reliance on technology, and the consequence of choices.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like the sound of Reclamation and Eruption I recommend you also read The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Graceling by Kristin Cashore,  The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale,  The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.