Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder  by R. J. Palacio is why I love books.  Books like this one really do have the power to make a difference in the world.  Wonder  is about a young boy named August who was born with severe facial abnormalities.  On the very first page, he puts it this way: "I won't describe what I look like.  Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."  That makes it sound pretty bad.  Throughout the novel the reader gets a few glimpses of August's appearance, but nothing concrete.  August has been home schooled due to all the surgeries he has needed, but he is now about to start fifth grade at a "real school."  He is confused about whether or not he wants to go to school, but feels angry that his mother is pushing him.  When he goes to tour his new school, he turns to give his mother an angry look, but then he notices that she looks even more afraid than he feels.  I can't imagine being in that mother's position.
Wonder  is told through the point of view of several people including August, his sister, some of the people he meets at his new school, and some of his sister's friends.  Unfortunately, the reality is that kids are cruel.  Sometimes they mean to be hurtful and other times their unkindness is accidental.  August meets all kinds.  The interesting thing is that August is new to his school, but he is not new to his face.  He knows what people think of him, he hears their whispers and sees their stares.  He knows what to expect and he does a pretty good job of pretending like it doesn't bother him even when it really does.
An interesting point of view was that of August's older sister, Olivia.  She is also beginning a new school as a freshman and is struggling in her own way.  Sadly, for Olivia sympathy is difficult to find.  She says, "My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has been through.  This isn't me being noble, by the way:  it's just the way I know it is."  I felt like the author did an excellent job of exploring the feelings and perspectives of the other people around August.
When I say that that books like this one have the power to change the world it is because of the opportunity the reader has to gain so much in the way of compassion and empathy.  The value of reading is in learning to see the world through someone else's eyes and that can easily be done here.  August's voice is clearly that of a ten-year-old boy.  Any young reader can feel what he feels and any older reader can remember that age and also knows that sometimes we all feel like a ten-year-old.

This book should be required reading for everyone, but especially for children entering their preteen years.  Cruelty can be so easy and kindness so hard sometimes, but it is always the right thing.  Quoting J. M. Barrie, one character, the school director says, "Shall we make a new rule of life...always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?"  The director then goes on to add, "If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder that is necessary- the world really would be a better place.  And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday , may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God."  Kindness is necessary.  Choose to be kinder.  

I applaud this book.  I give it a standing ovation.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole

If you have ever wanted to know what it is like to be a flight attendant, you should read Cruising Attitude  by Heather Poole.  She does an excellent job of describing all the good, bad and ugly of working a job nearly seven miles in the air.  Her subtitle really does describe it all:  Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 feet. 
And oh, what a walk down memory lane this was.  I was a flight attendant for three years from 1998 to 2001.  Reading this book really reminded me of all the things I loved about being a flight attendant and all the things I really don't miss.  Poole begins with an in-depth description of the training process.  It is an intense six to eight weeks and as she says, "What we were taught wasn't difficult, but the program had been specifically designed to wear us down.  The airline needed to know how we might react in a number of less-than-perfect scenarios in order to give us a taste of what flight would really be like...and also as a way to get rid of those who couldn't hack it."  It was so funny to read about the "charm farm", or training facility, and how strict some of the instructors could be (lipstick must be freshly applied at all times) and how appearance was as important as all the lifesaving skills being taught.
The book then follows Poole as she leaves training and becomes a full-fledged flight attendant.  She moves to New York City, finds a crash pad filled with other flight attendants she rarely sees more than once or twice and learns to navigate her new lifestyle.  She describes friends she makes, passengers she meets, and places she visits.  Being a flight attendant is hard work and, especially at the beginning, not highly lucrative.  She quotes one fellow flight attendant this way:  "If I made as much money as passengers thought I made, worked as little as my neighbors thought I did, or had as much fun on layovers as my friends think I do, I'd have one helluva a job!"  Poole does an excellent job of explaining all the ins and outs of flying the friendly skies including FAA requirements, working reserve, learning on the job, medical emergencies, difficult and sometimes crazy passengers, and she even covers turbulence for those of you who get a little shaky when the flight gets a little bumpy. 
Poole has flown for nearly twenty years and it is obvious she loves it.  It is not a job for everyone, but it can be pretty amazing.  Just at the end of the book, she briefly mentions the events of 9/11 and how that effected her.  I share this quote:
"Most people don't have to think about  [September 11th] every time they go to work the way I do.  From the moment I step out of my shoes to go through airport security until the aircraft slides into the gate, I think about what happened to those planes.  They were my planes.  My coworkers.  My passengers."
This book was fun to read and well written.  I also highly recommend her blog.  You can find it here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

You know that wiped-out feeling you get just after a good solid cry?  Yeah, that's what I'm feeling right now.  I just finished The Light Between Oceans  by M. L. Stedman.  In a word, heartbreaking.  This month's book club selection started off slowly for me.  I'll be interested to see how many of the ladies finished it.  I was a little worried I wouldn't make it myself, but once I was about a quarter of the way through, it really picked up speed.  I felt that the chapter transitions in particular made it difficult to put the book down. 
A couple living on a small isolated island one hundred miles from the Australian coast discover a boat washed ashore.  Inside it are a dead man and a crying infant.  The couple, Isabelle and Tom, could have signaled to shore and had someone come get the baby.  They could have reported this most unusual circumstance, but that is not what they did.  Isabelle yearns for a child of her own and so believes God has blessed her with one indirectly.  Convincing themselves that the child's mother must have died at sea, they keep the little girl and raise her themselves.  The trouble comes when it is discovered that the baby's mother is alive and has been looking for her all this time.
What do they do?  Turn their four-year-old child over to someone she doesn't even know?  Give up the family they have finally made together?  And what of their extended families?  How will this affect an entire town?  This is not a book with a clearly defined villain, a clean cut hero.  There are many, many shades of gray, but hardly anything seems to be black and white.  Who has suffered the most?  Who stands to continue to suffer?  Whose feelings are of the greatest importance?  The birth mother?  The adoptive mother and father who have cared for and loved the child?  Is it possible or right to consider the feelings of such a little girl?
While I thought I wasn't going to care for this book, I found myself flipping pages in a hurry to find out what would happen.  And it did come very highly recommended to me.  The writing is beautiful, if a little long winded in the beginning, and I felt I could place myself in nearly every character's shoes.  I think this will be a very interesting book club discussion. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beastly by Alex Flinn

The popular boy at school, the good-looking, rich boy that every girl is in love with, the conceited jerk that is cruel to everyone he deems unworthy- that is Kyle Kingsbury.  And one step too far demeaning Kendra in class sentences him to two years living as a beast.  He has two years to fall in love and to convince someone to fall in love with him.  If he fails, he will never be changed back to his former self.  Beastly by Alex Flinn is a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in high school. 
I was actually pleasantly surprised with this book.  Often I am disappointed with YA Fiction and it's inability to reach deeper levels, but this one was just what I had hoped it would be.  Granted, it was a fast, light read, but it was just want I needed at the time. 
Kyle is a horrible person, but he's been given the chance to become someone better.  Of course he doesn't see it as an opportunity at first, but as he grows, he learns.  I don't worry about giving away any spoilers.  We all know this story, but it is the details that make it fun.  I like the way Flinn arranged for Lindy (Belle, for those thinking of the Disney version of this story) to come and live with Kyle.  I like that she still made her a big reader.  You know how I love Smart Girls that Read.  And Lindy's favorite book is Jane Eyre !  And I also enjoyed the way she wrote the witch that cast the curse on Kyle.  She actually makes the witch an active part of the story. 
Included in the version that I read was Lindy's Diary, the story told from Lindy's point of view. 
Usually I enjoy extras, deleted scenes and different points of view, but this one seemed a little forced.  The reader does gain a few insights into the story, but it just felt a little silly.  One quote I did enjoy:
"I don't like to think I can be bought, but if I could, this guy definitely knew the currency.  Roses and books- I could survive in these rooms forever."
I also watched the film based on the book.

By and large, this was not a great movie.  It was made for teenagers and it was even sappier than the book.  It had a lot of changes from the book.  I did like the way the filmmakers interpreted the beast's appearance.  Rather than looking like a bear/wolf/monster, Kyle skin looks as though his veins are on the outside of his skin and like his face has been slashed multiple times.  Also, his eyebrows read "Embrace the Suck" if you look closely enough.  And Mary-Kate Olsen as the witch was fantastic.  This is a great book/movie combo if you are in need of a break.  I really did like the book.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

After seeing this book on several of the book blogs I follow, I quickly added Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl to my library reserve list.  If you enjoy Jane Austen, you will adore this romance set in the Regency period.  As a matter of fact, I saw elements from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, all three of which I greatly enjoyed.  It is a short novel and did only take me two days to read, but it was fun.  I have read that it can be considered "a gateway to more Jane Austen" for teens and I love the idea of any YA literature encouraging an appreciation for the classics.  The cover of the book also claims that those who liked I Capture the Castle will love this as well.  I didn't particularly care for that one as much as I had hoped I would, but this was wonderful.
A young woman of seventeen, Althea, lives in a poorly built castle with her mother, very young brother, and two horrible step-sisters.  The family is barely making ends meet and Althea has known for years the only possibility of saving her family from financial ruin is for her to marry well.  If she fails to find a wealthy husband, not only will her brother lose his only inheritance, the castle, but the servants and tenant farmers would be left with nothing as well.  Fortunately for Althea, she is a well-known beauty in her part of the country.  If only she could find the right man...
While some reviewers have objected to the idea of using one's beauty to secure a rich husband, the time in which this novel is set leaves our main character few other options.  I love the way the author handles the topic.  Love based on beauty is accepted, love based on wealth is not.  Or perhaps it is that a man may base his affections on shallow things, but a woman is expected to be accepting of whatever affections come her way.
"'So...' he thought this over.  'If I lost my money you wouldn't love me anymore?'
'If I became ill,' I countered, 'so that my hair fell out in clumps and my skin was covered with scabs and I limped, would you still love me?'
'Egad!' He stared at me, evidently attempting to picture this.  He turned a little green....
'It's not the same thing,' he said at last, looking sulky.  'Admiration of a woman's beauty in a man's spiritual.  It shows he has a soul....But,' he went on, withdrawing his gaze, 'any consideration of the contents of a man's purse by a lady he is courting is...mercenary and shows a cold heart.'"
Later in the book, I loved this quote:
"It never ceases to astound me how often an unattractive man like Mr. Godalming considers himself above marriage to an equally unattractive woman."
This was a fun, very quick read and I would recommend it to any Jane Austen fan.  It is even on my Christmas gift list for one or two of them!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Tale of Mally Biddle by M. L. LeGette

Mally Biddle is a young girl living on a farm with her widowed mother.  She spends most of her days chasing her goats and trying to convince them to come home.  It isn't an especially exciting life, but she is happy.  Well, happy if you don't count the bullying, thieving knights that come to collect "taxes" and threaten the people of her village.  Since the King of Lenzar was murdered many years before, the new king has allowed the knights to rule the country with cruelty and fear.  Mally feels powerless until she joins a band of rebels.  Their mission is to find out if the King's infant daughter really did die of a fever all those years ago, depriving the kingdom of it's rightful heir.  To do so, Mally is hired at the castle as a servant where she can learn more of the circumstances surrounding the princess's death.
This was a delightful book filled with excitement and more than a little espionage.  Mally is a bright, strong character that is far from happy playing the delicate victim.  She speaks up for herself and stands up for what is right, she doesn't hide her talents, but uses them to help those around her and she is loyal and protective of her friends and family.  While I admit it was a bit predictable, it was still a fun read.  This would be a fantastic book for a young girl and I think boys would enjoy the adventure in it as well.  I especially appreciate that it is a book I could recommend to a ten- or twelve-year-old and not worry about inappropriate content.  It is a very sweet book and very well written.  I really think you will enjoy it.