Feeds:
Posts
Comments

THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE

by Karen Cushman

Author’s Website: http://www.karencushmanbooks.com/

 

Newbery Medal-winning books are always a good place to look when in search of fabulous historical fiction, and The Midwife’s Apprentice is certainly no disappointment in this respect. Actually, Karen Cushman has written a number of YA historical novels set in Medieval England, but I think this one is probably her finest. A slim volume that weighs in at around 128 pages, this book might easily be written off due to its size; there is, however, no law that a book must be more than 150 pages in order to be funny, thought-provoking, educational, and enjoyable. Which, as it happens, is precisely what The Midwife’s Apprentice is.

Summary:

A nameless girl who knows nothing of the world except hunger, cold, and mistreatment finds herself taking advantage of the heat generated by a dung-heap one cold night, and it is there that she is discovered the next morning by the village midwife, Jane. Called “Beetle” and put to work by the sharp-tempered Jane in exchange for food and shelter, she begins to learn about the art of midwifery (although Jane refuses to teach her anything directly for fear of competition). Little by little, the meek (but intelligent) Beetle carves a place for herself in the world, making friends, learning a trade, and even giving herself a real name—Alyce. But life in Medieval England is full of challenges, and when Alyce encounters one she cannot face, she runs away. Can she muster the courage to face her fears and find what she has finally realized she wants: “a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world”?

I first read this book in middle school and was absolutely fascinated by the vivid picture that Ms. Cushman paints. Her Medieval village is dirty, smelly, and completely realistic, flying in the face of the romanticized image of castles and princesses. Even more impressive is the fact that her characters (in spite of the book’s shortness) are fully-fleshed and believable: Brat/Beetle/Alyce is a plucky, gawky, and endearing heroine, and her story is utterly compelling.

This book could easily be read by someone as young as 10, but the intended audience is probably more in the 12-14 age range. Of course, as with all books I recommend, this certainly does not mean readership should be limited to kids and young teens. And, once again, don’t be put off by the book’s length—128 pages is plenty of time for a fascinating story. I highly recommend this book!

Whew, my first November review! With any luck, I’ll find time for another one before the month is out, now that NaNoWriMo is winding down. In the meantime, keep reading, and if you have any suggestions for books you’d like me to review, just leave a comment. Thanks!

Best wishes, and as always, happy reading,

-Madeline

Hello!

Well, I’ve fallen a bit behind in my planned updates due to a wonderful little thing called National Novel Writing Month (affectionately nicknamed “NaNoWriMo” or just “NaNo”), which has cut into my reading and writing time pretty dramatically. Not that I’m complaining—NaNo is quite possibly one of the most fun writing projects I have ever been a part of! It just means that I haven’t been reviewing books much of late, since I’ve been prepping fro my novel-writing marathon and then writing the actual novel. But hopefully, one of these days, I will get a bit ahead in my wordcount and have some time to write another review. In the meantime, keep reading books, and feel free to leave a comment and a suggestion for a book you think I should take a look at. Thanks for reading!

Best wishes, as always,

-Madeline

THE LIGHTNING THIEF

by Rick Riordan

Author’s Website: http://www.rickriordan.com/

 

Some stories are powerful, and others are beautiful and haunting. Still others delight you with their wordplay or their humor, or their daring subject matter. The best part of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, however, is the snarky voice of the twelve-year old narrator and the whizzing plot that leaves you breathless and dying to read another chapter. I read this book aloud to my little sister, and both of us had the hardest time finding a good stopping place because the story is just So. Darn. Exciting. If you happen to be looking for a book to get a reluctant reader interested in YA literature, a good read-aloud book, or a “can’t-put-it-down” reading experience for yourself—check it out!

Summary:

Percy Jackson is a “problem child”, and has a history of being kicked out of boarding schools simply because strange, inexplicable things keep happening around him. But even with a history like his, Percy thinks he might finally be going crazy when his math teacher turns into a monster and tries to kill him on a school field-trip. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to the situation than Percy could ever have believed possible; for one thing, the gods of Greek mythology are alive and well and living 600 stories above Manhattan. For another thing, Percy may be the half-mortal son of one of them. Worst of all, Zeus’s most powerful weapon—the Master Bolt—has been stolen, and Percy is the suspected culprit. Now he and his friends have just over a week to prove Percy’s innocence and find the real thief before the gods move from squabbling to all-out war. 

Heros in literature have to have a weakness: Indiana Jones hates snakes, Superman weakens in the presence of kryptonite, etc. Like the best of all heros, Percy Jackson is saddled with a number of disadvantages right from the get-go: he has an awful stepfather who makes his home-life miserable; he struggles with ADHD and dyslexia; he is unmotivated in school and has almost no friends, making the story all that more enjoyable because we get to watch Percy overcome his handicaps and succeed anyways. One quick recommendation, though: a film version of The Lightning Thief is due to be released sometime early next year, and as a firm believer in the aphorism that “The book is always better than the movie,” I strongly suggest that you read this book sooner rather than later. There are a number of things about the trailer that I find disappointing (they changed the age of the characters to about 16, for one thing!), and while it might still end up being an entertaining film, I still think everyone ought to read the book first.

Kids as young as 10 years old could easily read and enjoy this book, but generally, I’d set the age range somewhere between 11 and 15. And as always, I would heartily encourage anyone to read this book to older/adult readers. It’s a rip-roaring story, and who doesn’t enjoy one of those?

Apologies for the delay on this one—I got a bit swamped with other work, but I’ll do my best to catch up and add some more reviews! Until next time…

Best wishes,

-Madeline

Banned Books Week review of:

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

by Katherine Patterson

Author’s Website: http://www.terabithia.com/

Once again, today’s review comes from the ranks of the Newbery Award-winners. Katherine Paterson’s wonderfully-crafted Bridge to Terabithia was (like so many YA books of late) recently made into a film version, which, rather surprisingly, was quite a faithful adaptation of the book. Nevertheless, I stand by my firm belief that, 99.9% of the time, the book is better than the movie, and this is no exception. Paterson’s story is thoughtfully and poignantly told, and the digital fantasy animation of the film just doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Leslie and Jess’s imaginations….

Summary:

Growing up in rural Virginia, Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest kid in the 5th grade. Jess’s life is not a happy one—he is mostly ignored at home, is bullied regularly at school, has few friends, and carefully conceals the fact that he loves art because of his reputation as “that crazy little kid that draws all the time”. All of this changes, however, when Leslie Burke comes to town. Leslie is unlike anybody else who has ever attended Lark Creek Elementary; she is tomboyish, talented, creative, and wise beyond her years. She is also faster than Jess, and beats him and every other boy in a playground foot-race on the first day of school. In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their relationship, the Leslie and Jess gradually become close friends, creating (with the aid of Leslie’s powerful imagination) the magical kingdom of Terabithia in the woods, where they reign as king and queen. One day, however, a terrible tragedy strikes out of the blue, and Jess must use everything he has learned from Leslie and Terabithia to come to terms with it.

I’m going to say it: this is the kind of book that can easily make you cry. This is not simply due to the aforementioned tragedy, but also because the entire story rings so true, and the ending of the book leaves you with a beautiful ringing that lingers long after you’ve closed it. I love this kind of resonance—it’s the feeling you get when you finish a book and know for sure that the author has done her job extremely well. The characters are wonderful, finely-wrought, and oh-so believable; trust me when I say that it is worth your time to read this book.

The main reasons this book has been banned so frequently are the use of “coarse language” by some characters and the devastating event that shapes the book’s ending so perfectly. Author Katherine Paterson explains the former thus:

“Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, [but] simply to care about them and understand them.”

Parents argued that the topic of death was inappropriate for middle-grade readers because it was not a topic kids should have to deal with. I could not disagree more—Jess’s experience, while hopefully one we would never wish on ourselves or our families, is as real as it is heart-achingly painful, and Jess’s reaction is utterly convincing (the story is actually based on the childhood of the author’s son, who, not coincidentally, wrote the screenplay). For kids who have experienced the tragedy of loss, this book is a confirmation that they are not alone in their feelings; for kids who have not, it is a window into that world. Finally, I have to emphasize that the book does have a positive ending, as the characters struggle and eventually come to terms with the event that has shaken their lives so deeply. Although Bridge to Terabithia is without doubt a sad book, it also offers the reader the gifts of courage, friendship, love, and hope.

I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up (but older readers and adults shouldn’t be put-off by the recommended age range or the age of the protagonists).

That’s it for Banned Books Week! I’ll be back soon to review some more great novels…in the meantime, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

-Noam Chomsky

Banned Books Week review of:

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (or, NORTHERN LIGHTS)

by Philip Pullman

Author’s Website: http://www.philip-pullman.com/

 

This is one of my favorite books. Ever. I’m just putting that out there before I do this review, because I don’t want anyone to get ridiculously high expectations about this book (only to be disappointed later). But I hope you’re not disappointed, because I think this is a truly spectacular piece of literature…

My first experience with this book was when I received it as a Christmas present from my aunt and uncle—I was twelve at the time. I had never heard of it, and was consequently a bit dubious about reading it. But several days after Christmas, when all of my other gifts had lost their novelty, I was bored. I wandered into my room and, seeing The Golden Compass lying on the floor just inside the door, sat down right then and there on the floor (in the doorway to my bedroom) and began to read. I wish I could say that I remembered more about that initial reading experience, but instead, I only seem to remember what I did after the first chapter—I walked into the dining room to eat dinner and gushed to my parents about this fascinating story of a girl who was sneaking around where she wasn’t supposed to with this shape-shifter called a “daymeon” (it’s “daemon”, and is pronounced like “demon”, but I didn’t know that at the time). It was completely and utterly unlike what I had expected, which turned out to basically be my experience of the entire book—it was never what I expected it to be, and every time I thought I had it pinned down, it took some twist or turn that made me completely reconsider what the story was actually about. I was hooked. 

Summary:

Eleven-year old Lyra Belacqua may be of noble birth and a resident of the prestigious Jordan College, but she is far happier running wild in the streets in the company of her daemon, Pantalaimon, tormenting scholars and waging war with the children of Oxford. But Lyra’s carefree life changes forever when she witnesses an assassination attempt against her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel, and in the process, overhears a discussion of something called “Dust”. Before they know it, Lyra and Pan are embroiled in an adventure beyond their wildest dreams, involving stolen children, benevolent witches, armored bears, and a rescue mission to the far north, all with the help of the Oxford gyptians and an alethiometer (a golden compass whose hands point not to north, but to truth itself). But the reality of what they face is far bigger than Lyra and Pan’s understanding of it, and the consequences far more devastating than they could ever imagine…

The Golden Compass has made the list of the top-ten most banned books in the US for several years now, due to its so-called “anti-religious” message, but it remains immensely popular nevertheless. While Philip Pullman has certainly declared himself an atheist and publicly stated his dislike of organized religion, those who criticize the books on these grounds obviously haven’t read them, or else read them looking for “anti-religious” stuff to point out. A quote from Pullman himself on the subject: 

“I think what I would say to the people who criticise me for besmirching their religion and telling children that they should all go out and be Satanists is simply this: what qualities in human beings does the story celebrate and what qualities does it condemn? And an honest reading of the story would have to admit that the qualities that the story celebrates and praises are love, kindness, tolerance, courage, open-heartedness; and the qualities that the story condemns are cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism. Well, who could quarrel with that?”

Yes, the Church in Pullman’s world is definitely a negative force, but a lot of people are missing the point that this is fiction. Does Philip Pullman actually believe that the modern Catholic Church is committing the kind of atrocities we read about in Lyra’s world? No, of course not. If you remain unconvinced, go here to read a very thoughtful review of the book (and the rest of the trilogy). There are some other specific religious “sticky points” mentioned by the book’s opponents, but I don’t really want to talk about them because a) they give away critical plot elements, and b) they take place later in the trilogy.

For my part, I completely, passionately, and unreservedly recommend this book. Pullman’s writing is graceful, but still occasionally surprising, and there are passages of text in this book that—as a writer—I find simply beautiful. Better yet, the plot and characters are fresh and gripping, and the settings, while fantastic, never lose the nitty-gritty realism that Pullman employs to keep us grounded. In spite of the protagonist’s age, this book is more than sophisticated enough to entertain a serious adult readership (and in fact, adults may even get more out of it than younger readers). Although there is some violence, none of it is particularly graphic, and language and sexual matters don’t really feature prominently. Generally, I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up. The trilogy as a whole is called, His Dark Materials (a quote from John Milton), and the other two books are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Pullman has also written two companion books to the series: Once Upon a Time in the North, and Lyra’s Oxford. The former fills in some backstory from the trilogy, and the latter is a bridge between the trilogy and the book he is currently working on, The Book of Dust.

Oh, and one final note: the audiobook versions of these books are WITHOUT DOUBT the best audiobooks I have ever heard. No joke. A full cast recording brings the characters to life, and Philip Pullman is a fabulous narrator—I can’t recommend it enough.

Last day of Banned Books week! I’ll have to get at least one more review in before it’s over…happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

 

“Did you ever hear anyone say, ‘That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?'”

-Joseph Henry Jackson

Banned Books Week review of:

THE GIVER

by Lois Lowry

Author’s Website: http://www.loislowry.com/books.html

 

Winning the Newbery Award is like the YA Fiction equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize, so books that do win have to be deserving of the attention they receive. One overwhelmingly worthy book of this description is The Giver, by Lois Lowry. When I recommend this book to people in passing, I sometimes jokingly refer to it as “dystopian literature for kids”, but if I’m being honest with myself, such an epithet truly does not do it justice. Yes, it does bear some resemblance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—but it really is a fabulous book in its own right. I’ll use the following anecdote to illustrate my point: my freshman-year roommate was a girl with whom I had almost nothing in common—she watched TV shows religiously and hated reading in general; I lived on books and was admittedly pop-culture illiterate. We were certainly an odd couple, but we ended up the best of friends by the end of the year. Our only real crossover as far as books went was The Giver, and one day when we were talking about it, she admitted that she had actually read it not once, but twice (remember, this is the girl who would probably be glad if she never had to pick up another book in her life). I’ve used this story many times to encourage people to read The Giver, and the feedback I get from these recommendations is overwhelmingly positive. I think sometimes people believe that a children’s book cannot possibly be described as “beautiful” (a word that seems reserved for classic literature and mainstream fiction in the public psyche), but I would venture to say that it is just the word to describe this novel.

Summary:

Jonas lives in a perfect world—a utopia in which pain and fear and illness have been banished and where difficult decisions are a thing of the past. Children are assigned at the age of 12 to a role in the community, and Jonas is given the position of “Receiver of Memory.” It is his job to receive the memories of the elderly “Giver”, who is the only member of the community who knows what the world was like before it was perfected; it is this knowledge that will change Jonas’s life—and the way he feels about it—forever.

My twelve-year old sister was recently required to read a Newbery Award-winning book for a school assignment, and asked me for a suggestion. The Giver was at the top of my list, but since another kid in her class was already reading it, she decided she would read something else. However, a couple days later, she came home with The Giver in hand and told me that the boy who had been reading it had picked another book and lent her his copy. She began to read and was absolutely riveted, declining to go out to dinner with the rest of the family in order to stay home and finish it, and afterwards declared it to be “really sad, but really, really good”. I concur. Of course, I don’t want to build up anyone’s expectations into thinking that this is the Holy Grail of YA literature—the book certainly has had its detractors and has been banned countless times for reasons that I would explain, but they would give away some critical plot points (but if you’re really curious, read this USA Today article). Nevertheless, it is well-worth reading.

More banned book reviews to come—for now, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

 

“Oh Harry, don’t you see? If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”

-Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

Banned Books Week review of:

LOOKING FOR ALASKA

by John Green

Author’s Website: www.sparksflyup.com

If you Google the name of author John Green, you will undoubtedly find myriad references to his first novel, Looking for Alaska, which won the Michael L. Printz Award, among numerous other accolades that I’m too lazy to mention (and the Printz is the one that matters because it’s the one that shows up with the big, shiny medal on the book’s cover). However, the book has also gained notoriety due to the controversy that arose when teachers at Depew High School in New York decided to teach the book as part of an 11th grade English class. If you’re curious about the details, I’ll let John explain them to you himself; suffice it to say that I am beginning my reviews with this book because it is a powerful story, and one told with amazing emotional honesty. I have a great deal of respect for John Green’s writing—his characters are funny, acerbic, silly, stupid, and so utterly believable that I have to love them because I honestly knew kids like that in high school. Unlike some YA authors (whose books you will never see reviewed here because they are not good books), Green does not condescend to teenagers, and manages to color them with all the foibles of adolescence while simultaneously giving them due credit for their perceptiveness and depth of feeling. Looking For Alaska, while not my favorite of his three books, is nevertheless well-worth reading (and I’ll get around to reviewing my favorite one soon, I promise!).

Summary:

Miles Halter’s life is utterly boring: he has no friends at school, and his only real interest in life is reading biographies and memorizing famous last words. Thus it is that, inspired by the final words of French writer François Rabelais (“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”), Miles finds himself heading off to the hallowed halls of Culver Creek Boarding School in search of something more. It is at Culver Creek that Miles meets the gorgeous, cheeky, brilliant, sexy, screwed-up, and fascinating Alaska Young who lives just down the hall. But Miles’ life at Culver Creek is a countdown to a terrible event that will turn this year of new experiences upside down, and afterwards, nothing will ever, ever be the same again.

I would recommend this book for readers 15 and up, mostly due to language and sexual content (the latter being the main reason it was objected to at Depew High School). However, I certainly would not discourage mature 13/14-year olds from reading it if they felt comfortable with the content—the characters are high-schoolers, and many of their antics and experiences are typical enough that most teens will be able to relate on some level.

If you have any questions about this book, feel free to post a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP. In the meantime, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
-George Bernard Shaw