Arc of the Scythe Series (books 1 and 2)

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and takes great risk so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?

My Review

This is one of those series that enveloped me immediately and I didn’t want to put down until I’d read every last word. Having to wait for the third book is torturous. I found the portrayal of human nature in this fictional case study intriguing, disturbing, frustrating at times, and just a great read. The author suspended my disbelief well, creating a world and scenario that felt plausible and the character’s actions and reactions fit too. Despite the amount of death and killing I did not find the descriptions to be gory or gratuitous with violence. If you liked The Hunger Games definitely give these books a try.

Age Recommendation: Some pretty heavy philosophical ideas and situations centered around death, immortality, perfection, and murder that make this book for mature readers.  I would say 16 and older.

Appropriateness: The author is skilled at telling this story fraught with moral dilemma and murder in a way that evokes deep thoughts and emotions without just being gross or praising corruption.

Book Club or Classroom Use: It would be fascinating to see the discussion that these books would spur in a book club or high school English class setting. The story would be an interesting sociology read as well.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Arc of the Scythe series interests you then I think you would also enjoy The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins, The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield, Eruption and Reclamation by Adrienne Quintana, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and The Winner Series by Marie Rutkoski.

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The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

An epic novel of love and war, spanning from the 1940s to the present day, and the secret lives of those who live in a small French town. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.

My Review

I read this book at the wrong time. I should have loved it. It’s historical fiction, set in France, with romance. But it’s also heavy World War II terrible stuff and in the few months before picking up this one I had only read other heavy subject matter books.

It didn’t start out too heavy though. I actually first listened to the audio book and then switched to ebook. I was completely caught up throughout part 1 in the French language and culture and description of the scenery, the family relationships, and romance. I enjoyed the poetic language that was so fitting for the time and place. Though I did find the detailed descriptions of clothing and food a little too frequent and over the top.

Then the Nazi’s invaded France in the book and turmoil and trauma invaded my La Vie en Rose experience. I just wasn’t prepared for it like I thought. After having recently read so many books about our current and real world tribulation I realized that I really wanted a little “fluff” to read.

I was interested in the characters though so I kept pushing through until I could see the writing on the wall that things were only going to get more “real” and I wasn’t even halfway through the book. I just couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the emotional stamina.

But I still wanted to find out what would happen to these characters, and I had to know who the elderly lady narrator really was. So I skipped to the end and skimmed backwards until I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the major events. What I found out made me glad I stopped where I did, but I feel sad that at another time, in a little different mood, I could have really enjoyed the depth of character and plot.

Age Recommendation: 18 and older. This is a war story and also a romance. Readers should be mature enough and knowledgeable enough about WWII to follow characters through horrible trauma and deprivation,  but also find purpose and joy in love.

Appropriateness: There is sexual content, both between married and unmarried characters as well consensual and not. There is war related violence and injustice. I didn’t read the whole book, but from what I did read some of it was more graphically described than what I was up for at the time, but it may not bother other readers. Had I been in more of a mood for something deep and epic it may not have bothered me either.

This book would provide plenty of discussion material for book club in regards to are historical and cultural factors, family relationships, communication, how best to stand up for truth and morality, what is most important in war or where their is injustice.

Other Book Recommendations: If The Nightingale is of interest to you then you should also try The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Zion Covenant series by Bodie Thoene, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski, Cash Valley by Ryan K. Nelson, or Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

 

 

I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. At 15 years old she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

My Review

When I started listening to the audio book I think I was expecting a fairly short recap of a girls life leading up to how and why she got shot. I mean, she was just a teenager after all so how much of her life could there be to tell? I chose the book because it was readily available, and while I had heard about Malala I didn’t really know much about her, and she seems like the kind of person I should know about in order to be up on the current issues.

I was surprised when the book started right off with the day of the shooting. I realized this was not going to be the book I was expecting, but I was ok with that because I was only more intrigued by the “why” after hearing about the “how” of the shooting.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn about the history and culture of Pakistan and Islam. I’m not the most well-informed world citizen, but I ain’t totally ignorant either, so this was a great format for me to gain a broader perspective of the intricate and interconnected workings of our modern world. I was fascinated by the history of Malala’s family and how it connected to the broader national and religious history. The descriptions of the Swat Valley left me hoping I could someday visit Pakistan to see it for myself.

I watched “The Viceroy’s House” on Netflix after finishing the book; it is a movie about the time surrounding Pakistan’s birth. While it may not be the most accurate portrayal of history, it did teach me much more than I had known before about that time in history. It also furthered my interest in learning more about Pakistan and Afghanistan so I can better understand current events.

Malala’s teenage voice and perspective were fun and refreshing through a tale of hardship and danger. But she also has a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. It was joyful to hear that a girl who is willing to stand up to gangs and murderers for the right to go to school also was obsessed with Twilight and dreamed of being a vampire.

I respect Malala and her family not only for their work to provide educational opportunities for girls, even at the risk of their own lives, but also because they are good. They are devoted to their God and to each other. They show patience and understanding for differences in people. There is no self-righteousness nor self-deprecation when describing the wonders and problems in their country and religion. Malala’s voice keeps a neutrality even when describing the ways in which the Western world wronged or betrayed her country. There is acceptance of the good, the bad, and the ugly in all of us, but with a hope and striving for the best. More empathy in this world could make all the difference.

Age Recommendation: 16 and older. Malala is a teenager herself and is relatable as such, but the issues in the book and her experiences require some scope of world understanding.

Appropriateness: Some readers may be disturbed by the violent and unjust events in the book, but I didn’t find any of the description offensive.

I gained a lot of perspective of my place in the world and felt a bit humbled by it. This would be a perfect book club choice.

Other Book Recommendations: If you are interested in I Am Malala then you might also enjoy When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, and Without You there is No Us by Suki Kim.

 

Without You There is No Us

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

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

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

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

My Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG-1700

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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…

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.

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.

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