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.

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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

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Touring with Safe House

Over the weekend I got to visit Indian Beach in Oregon. It was perfect timing for our excursion because I was completely wrapped up in a new book called Safe House  that actually takes place in a fictional town, but one that would be right around Indian Beach if it did exist. I’d never been to the Oregon coast before and it was so fun to read Shannon Symonds inspiring descriptions of the area and imagine them in my mind, then to actually go see them for myself.

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I finished the book after returning from our quick trip, and as I read about the forests and beaches I could picture them well. Events at the end of the book lead to a lot trees being toppled. when you know that the trees are as tall as these below it gives a whole different perspective as to what that would look like and the damage that could be done.

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But there is plenty of description in the book of the Oregon coast beauty as well and I can’t deny after visiting the location myself that the beauty is real and magnificent.

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While we were there we hiked a loop, started and ended at Indian Beach. We had 7 kids ranging in age from 3 to 14 and they all loved it. It took us through enchanted forests and to majestic viewpoints of the ocean and the abandoned lighthouse on the lone rock in the vast sea.  We even heard barking seals at one point while on the trail. IMG_1287

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Our troop of kids

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My 10 year old daughter and my sister-in-law enjoying one of the many awe-inspiring views.

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After the hike we spent many pleasant hours digging in the sand and cooling our feet in the ocean. I loved seeing the surfers. As we walked through the parking lot to the beach there they were, pulling on their wetsuits, just as they were described in the book.  And then when we got to the beach we could see dozens of them out in the water.

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At one point in the book characters meet on the beach for a bonfire.  I had to smile when I saw multiple rock outlined fire pits within only a few steps onto the sand. My only wish is that we had had more time. We will definitely be going back and exploring more of the surrounding area.

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Shannon Symonds book brings to life not only the beauties of the Oregon coast, but also the realities of domestic and sexual violence. Despite the seriousness and despair that such topics certainly hold, Symonds writes with hope and inspiration so the journey through tragedy ends up being a positive one. I can’t wait to share my full review with you as part of the blog tour for Safe House. Look for my full review and an interview with the author on Aug. 28th. I’m excited to do my very first giveaway too! Stay tuned!

P.S. My new dream is to visit the settings for every book that I like. I’m thinking maybe Hogwarts should be next…

And if you are looking for a good treat after a day at the beach the legendary chocolate shake at the Chocolate Cafe in Cannon Beach really was the quality that legends are made of. Took me back to the chocolate at the Chocobar in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Maybe I ought to add to my dream to have chocolate in each book location as well…

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.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

My Review

How did I go so many years as a book devourerer and not read this one until now? The forward by Anna Quidlen describes my thoughts and feelings about the book so well. It’s not one that you can easily sum up if asked “what is it about?” As Quidlen puts it, “It is a story about what it means to be human.”

The lives of the Nolans are full of hardship, poverty, hunger, uncertainty. Yet somehow the book is not depressing. I found myself feeling such gratitude for all I have and the things my children and I don’t have to face because we have money for food, clothes, and fun every month. But there was that small part of me that also admired the character of the family, of the children, that the developed because of their struggles. Francie and Neeley express that when thinking about their baby sister who will not have to collect junk to help the family get by. Lucky her they say, but she also won’t have the fun times they had either. And they feel sorry that she will miss out on that.

Certainly social issues are presented in this book, but I loved that they were not the main theme. They were there simply because it presented the scene for how these characters dealt with it. There is no preaching in the book’s pages about how poverty should or shouldn’t be dealt with. There is no cheering for “republicanism” or “democratism” while condemning the other side. It’s just showing that horrible things that are somewhat out of our control don’t have to make life worthless or unhappy for any of us. I loved Johnny Nolan’s simple explanation of what makes America a free country. He marvels at all the fancy carriages in the rich part of Brooklyn and at how anyone can ride in one of them provided they have the money. Francie asks how that’s different from the old countries to which Johnny replies that in the old countries even if you had enough money not everyone could ride in a carriage. Francie wonders wouldn’t it be better if everyone could ride in the carriages for free? And Johnny says that’s socialism “and we don’t want any of that here.”

Whether we struggle with poverty and alcoholism, or with depression, or with greed we can see ourselves in the Nolans and their reactions to the things that happen to them. Best of all, we see how they take control of what they can and work really hard so that things stop happening to them, and they start making things happen. But the Nolans also know that their survival is not only a result of their hard work. They recognize God’s hand in their lives and miracles occur.

This was a story that left me proud of those who came before me and worked so hard to make it possible for me to have the opportunities I have now. And I hope I can create an even richer future for my children. As Katie Nolan observes, the key is not money; it’s education. My children are warm in the winter and well-fed. They have toys to play with and a safe yard to run amok in and I wouldn’t trade that for anything, but I also hope that like Francie they can look at others with compassion and understanding. I hope they can value and appreciate what they have rather than judge those who have more or less. I hope they can recognize the value of hard-work and loyalty especially among family. I hope they will see their positions in life as a result of their own hard work and the support of so many around them. And then I hope they will help to lift and build others up.

The best way I can teach that is by example. Hopefully my children will learn from my good example and also my screw ups just as the Rommelys and Nolans did. I am grateful of the reminder from these characters of how precious life is. How happiness is made up in the small things. How hard work, independence, and selflessness are their own reward. And how it’s also fun to feel rich sometimes by throwing a little money around, but really the richness comes because of the memories created and the character that is built.

Age Recommendation: Experienced readers with a broader life experience will get the most from this book. I recommend for 17 and older.

Appropriateness: The lives of these characters are tough; reading this book means facing alcoholism, poverty, mental illness, social injustice, and bullying to name a few.  But on the flip side you experience triumph, courage, and hope. There is also swearing in the book frequently. It’s not for the faint of heart but for me, it’s totally worth the journey.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book or are interested in it you may also enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath.

 

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

My Review

This was really a 2.5 star book for me. If I had read it more regularly and not taken 3 months to finish, it may have earned a solid 3. It’s a good story. A sweet story. Humorous too. I appreciated the theme. I had difficulty relating to characters, however.

The whole point of the book is to show imperfect people, people with major differences, but they are still valuable in their own way and can even complete each other. A very nontraditional family is created throughout the book, one with struggles and mistakes, but also one with love. I appreciate that the love is created and shown through sacrifice, selflessness and acceptance.

But, many of the characters, particularly Ove, came off so dysfunctional that it was hard for me to believe that the relationships formed could really be as healthy as portrayed. While accepting others even with their flaws is certainly good and Christian, if I were to meet someone with the rudeness and anger management issues that Ove has I would be wary of getting too close. Part of the book’s message is of course giving Ove’s background to show why he is the way he is. While that helps me to understand his behavior it doesn’t make much of his treatment of others acceptable.

There certainly would be much to discuss in a book club about relationships, trials and how they affect us, how we can and should respond to difficult situations and people, the benefits of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and being careful with judgment – just to name a few topics for conversation.

The writing is enjoyable, easy to read but clever and interesting. The book as a whole was not interesting enough to draw me in to the point where I just couldn’t put it down. That likely stems a lot from not fully agreeing with Ove’s actions, no matter how his past seems to justify them. Characters play a big part in my enjoyment of a book, and since I was wary of the main character the entire time it was hard to be enthralled.

Age recommendation: Because of content and thematic elements I recommend this book to adults, at least 18 and older. Those with more life experience will likely appreciate it more.

Appropriateness: There is tragic content – accidents, death, fights, attempted suicide, anger. There are also adult topics like homosexuality, and there is a lot of swearing. None of it was so crude or graphic that I felt the need to stop reading but it certainly detracted from my enjoyment. As mentioned in my review, this really would provide a lot of material for book club discussion.

Other Book recommendations: If you liked this book or are interested in books with a similar theme you might enjoy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Time Key by Melanie Bateman, Rebecca by Daphnie Du Maurier, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Fault in our Stars by John Green, My Story by Elizabeth Smart, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

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.

Rat Tuesday

Rat TuesdayRat Tuesday by Adrienne Quintana

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads

When the neighborhood rat children meet at the park to play, they attempt a science experiment and disaster ensues.

My Review

Rat Tuesday is a different kind of children’s book. It’s not “cutesie” though it is cute. I didn’t really find a moral to the story, though it still teaches. There are aspects of wild imagination intertwined with reality.

On a first read, I was intrigued by the mystery of what these “rats” were up to, but to be honest, when I finished the book I felt like I didn’t really “get” the story. I had to ponder and read a few more times before it started to speak to me; and here is what I heard:

I connected with the curiosity of the kids. I teach 3rd grade and just last week we had a school wide STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) night. STEM is gaining in popularity across the nation as we try to inspire kids to see the fun in these subjects. Rat Tuesday is a book that would go well with this movement to interest children more in exploration and experimentation. Having recently helped 24 eight and nine year olds build engineering prototypes, I could relate to the crazy ideas and varied supplies that these rat children came up with for their experiment. I loved how a variety of ages work together in the scientific and engineering process.

I have to admit, that the whole rat aspect didn’t make sense to me at first, but I came to see how the contrast between the science the children were performing and the fantasy of being rats really encompassed what it means to be a kid. Imagination, creativity, and STEM really go hand in hand and Rat Tuesday highlighted that relationship for me.

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.

Cash Valley

Cash ValleyCash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

When FBI Agent Alex Travis receives an anonymous phone call one morning in 1954 with a tip concerning the now cold case of the Cache County Bank robbery, it has his undivided attention. The tip leads Travis to the top of the secluded Green canyon in Logan, Utah, where he meets a young man named Jack Pepper.  Jack’s story spans two years from the time of the robbery, and involves his girlfriend, Kate Austin, and the crime of the century for the Cache valley. Travis must decide if he is dealing with the suspects or the victims of one of the largest bank robberies in U.S. history.

To get the answers, it will take one more trip up the canyon, to the entrance of the Spring Hollow mine, where the daylight ends and the cold dark begins.

My Review

I very much enjoyed the setting and premise of Cash Valley. I have tried to fight my connection to the mountains at times in my life, but I have finally come to accept and relish the fact that my happiness and peace in life is tied to my landscape. And mountains reign supreme in my world. The characters in Cash Valley share my love of wilderness so they felt like pals right away. The Cache Valley area of Utah is particularly beautiful in its wildness and the author captures the feel of that place perfectly.

I was drawn in further by the history in the story. I enjoyed the tidbits of information the author gave about the time period and the location. And I just couldn’t pass up a plot involving a bank robbery in the wild west.

The characters are good people, heroic, but still flawed. I was rooting for the “star-crossed lovers.” The author’s voice is enjoyable. It is neither too flowery and puffed up, or too basic and juvenile. The author has several clever plays on words as well. His writing is perfect for this type of book – good, clean fun and excitement.

The only reason Cash Valley gets 3 stars instead of 4 is that I was disappointed in the method of storytelling use in the first half. For almost 100 pages the plot building and progression is done through characters telling other characters about events that happened in the past. It got a little old and was a little distracting because one of the characters told the events with much more detailed language than I think would be natural in that type of situation. The author also uses interruptions from the other character as a device to build suspense. It worked well the first few times, but after that I felt it distracted more from the flow and no longer achieved the purpose of suspense.

My wish is that the author had used more literary formats and devices than just a character retell and dialogue. Some flashbacks, maybe a written statement from characters, journal entries, or even just starting the story earlier in the events would have helped.

The pacing and flow definitely picked up after the character retelling was completed. It was a rush of excitement to the end.
Age Recommendation: I think ages 15 and up would enjoy and understand this book best.

Appropriateness: Fighting, gun-slinging bandits, thievery, and an intent to rape are part of the plot, but all is written tastefully with no crassness and no glorifying the violence and cruelty. I didn’t find anything offensive.

Other Book Recommendations: If Cash Valley interests you then you should also try Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Relic by Renee Collins, Enna Burning by Shannon Hale, Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, and Charlotte’s Rose by Ann Edwards Cannon.