Dear Martin

I’ve been a fan of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy since the beginning. And while I’ve missed an episode or two throughout the 15 seasons, it never fails to make me laugh and cry and have lots of “feels.” One of the scenes that touched me the most was in last year’s “Personal Jesus” episode in which Dr. Bailey and her husband Ben give their son Tuck “the talk” about how to act if he’s ever approached by police. Since he’s black, his mom tells him, “Your only goal is to get home safely.” He “can’t climb through windows, throw rocks, play with toy guns and never, ever run.” It was an emotional conversation and illustrated the point that for people of color, it’s not a given that their children will return home safely or that police officers are there to protect them. Grey’s Anatomy was bigger than a television show on that night, and fiction can work in the same way. I think books provide a great way for us to learn and empathize with lives that are different from our own. After reading The Hate U Give last year, I kept seeing Dear Martin as recommended reading, so it seemed like another good opportunity to learn about the reality of race in America. 

Goodreads Blurb:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

I really wanted to like this book. It discusses real-life, important issues. It had such great reviews and hype. But…it just wasn’t done very well.

Dear Martin tells the story of Justyce McAllister, high school senior, as he questions what it means to be a young black man in a world where it’s always trying to bring you down. He might be from a rough part of town, but he’s going to make something of himself. He attends a fancy, mostly-white school and is Ivy-League bound. But week after week, he hears about kids who look just like him who are gunned down by police officers, and even experiences a run in with police himself. He starts writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way to channel his anger and become more aware.

Early on, I realized that this is one YA book that actually feels young adult. There’s no subtlety or layers. The author leads us right to the point rather than allowing the reader to formulate questions and opinions. On top of that, nothing new is really brought to the table. It’s a collection of thoughts and arguments – that we’ve all heard before – with a loose story attached. I was quite unimpressed, but figured at only 200 pages, it was still worth it to power through. I’m glad I did because halfway through the story, the writing – or at least, the storytelling – gets much better. There’s a cohesive plot and the reader develops actual feelings for the characters. Basically, the second half of the book feels completely different than the first half.

At the end of the book, the author notes that she was interested in “examin[ing] current affairs through the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings,” however, I’m not sure how successful she was in this because she shares hardly any details about MLK. Where were the stories and speeches and examples of what he did? This would have been really useful considering the main character is writing to “Martin” and asking for his advice. Even the main character questions why he bothered to write to him: “What was my goal with the Be Like Martin thing? Was I trying to get more respect? (Fail.) Was I trying to be ‘more acceptable’? (Fail.) Did I think it would keep me out of trouble? (Epic fail.) Really, what was the purpose?” That was my question, too. The letter writing was a gimmick that didn’t really serve a purpose.

Despite my criticism of the book, I do think it could be important for a younger audience who may be new to thinking about race issues. For more experienced readers, I think there are better books to read about this topic.


The Finisher

My third book of the year wasn’t one I picked out on my own. Instead, it was a birthday present from my Aunt Shannon. She sent me the first and second book in the Vega Jane series, and while at first I was reluctant – the blurb reminded me too much of The Giver, one of my favorite books – I quickly realized that while there are hints of other books, The Finisher is its own thing. Dystopian, yes, but also fantasy – and since those are some of my favorite genres, I ended up really enjoying this book and I look forward to reading more of the series.    

Goodreads Blurb:

Welcome to Wormwood: a place where curiosity is discouraged and no one has ever left.

Until one girl, Vega Jane, discovers a map that suggests a mysterious world beyond the walls. A world with possibilities and creatures beyond her imagining.

But she will be forced to fight for her freedom. And unravelling the truth may cost Vega her life.

With (alleged) dangers encroaching on their village, the government council declares that a wall must be built to provide protection. While this seems absurd to many people in the village, the council insists that foreigners “outliers” – which they know absolutely nothing about – are out to get them. This frightens the majority of people so badly that the wall gets built in a hurry.

Vega Jane, almost 15 sessions old, realizes this for the sham it is. She goes off in search of answers, discovering that her village of Wormwood holds many secrets and lies.

If it wasn’t for all the magic – fantastic and terrifying creatures, objects with special powers, hidden rooms, and cryptic messages – one might think this story was politically motivated. This book was published in 2014, so I’ll give Baldacci the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard not to read through our current lens in 2019.

This YA fantasy – a first for author David Baldacci – hits on a lot things right:

– Tough, cool heroine who is insanely brave ✔

– Characters with moral ambiguity: are they good? bad? I can’t decide yet ✔

– Tons of magical twists and turns and suspense ✔

– A quest that seems daunting to complete ✔

There were just a few cons for me:

1) The people of Wormwood – called Wugmorts, or Wugs – think they’re the only village and only people. Really? How do any of them believe this? Their history has a lot of holes. How can Vega be the first to question this?

2) The creatures are so terrifying, but also, incredibly difficult to picture. I couldn’t quite “suspend my disbelief” for some reason. They felt forced and too over-the-top.

3) Vega never gets an answer about anything. Just riddles or more questions. This makes for frustrating reading. I hope the next book will provide more explanation (but I’m worried that it won’t).

Overall, this was a fun and fresh read. While it will remind readers of other books they’ve read, it holds its own because it sort of combines the feel of a dystopian book – teenage rebel on a mission to learn the truth and overthrow the status quo – with fantasy elements.

Also, it may seem like I’m rating all the books the same…but that is a coincidence! I’ve been lucky so far this year to be reading books that are pleasantly enjoyable. I promise that not every book I read gets a 4 star rating!

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

From teenagers in a high-tech skyscraper to a father who was shot twelve times – my reading choices for the first two books of the year couldn’t be more different! That’s what happens when your book selection relies on the OverDrive app, though, waiting for holds to come in. My second read of 2019 was The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.

Goodreads Blurb:

A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.

Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

I chose to read this book after hearing about it on NPR. But by the time my hold came in, I had forgotten what the book was about and what I was intrigued by! As I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What is the point of all this? What am I supposed to get out of it? Where is this book going?” At times, the pacing was slow, but then there were moments of extreme action. Even though its plot and purpose meander, I still ended up enjoying this book.

The book follows Loo and her father, Samuel Hawley, as they move to be closer to Loo’s maternal grandmother. Loo has a tough time fitting in at school, partly because her father gets a bad reputation after beating up some fishermen, and partly because there are some real jerks in her class. When Loo is a teenager, she finally realizes that her dad might not be the best guy. She starts to wonder why he has so many guns, why he’s so paranoid, and why they’ve had to pick up and leave so often and so suddenly. In between Loo’s chapters, there is a chapter detailing each of the twelve times Hawley has been shot. These chapters are ridiculous – from a shoot-out in a diner, to a man shooting his own wife, to a near-drowning after a whale almost topples their boat, to accidentally shooting himself – Hawley has had a life like no other. It’s no surprise, then, that Loo doesn’t know how to blend in at school. While Loo and her father struggle to understand each other, their relationship gets tested in a dramatic final chapter called “Everything That’s Happened & Is Happening & Is Going to Happen.”

While many reviews I’ve seen online have expressed displeasure at the amount of violence in the book and the lack of sympathy they felt for the title character, I found it really interesting that I was rooting for Hawley and his daughter in spite of their obvious flaws. It’s true: Hawley has done a lot of bad things in his life. He deserves to go to jail. He never seems remorseful about the terrible things he’s done. Even so, I wanted him to escape, to live, to get away with his crimes! I could easily see this book turned into a movie or HBO miniseries. The alternating flashback chapters, rooting for the underdog, and the author’s descriptions make the novel very cinematic. I was also hooked by the two mysteries that are woven through the novel: how did Loo’s mother, Lily, (Hawley’s one-true-love) die, and is anyone really out to get Hawley? We gather bits and pieces as the book sprawls on, and my predictions kept changing as I read. In all, I’m glad I stuck with this book and gave it a chance, and I’d definitely consider reading another book by Hannah Tinti.

The Towering Sky

Two posts already this month?! It’s not November, is it?! Shocking, I know. But this year, I’d like to post more throughout the year. I think the best way for me to do that is to share what I’ve been reading. This year, I set my Goodreads goal at 52 books. If you’re joining in on the Goodreads challenge, I’d love to hear about your goal in the comments. The first book I completed this year was The Towering Sky, which is the third book in Katharine McGee’s The Thousandth Floor YA series.

Goodreads Blurb:

Welcome back to New York, 2119. A skyscraper city, fueled by impossible dreams, where the lives of five teenagers have become intertwined in ways that no one could have imagined.

Leda just wants to move on from what happened in Dubai. Until a new investigation forces her to seek help—from the person she’s spent all year trying to forget.

Rylin is back in her old life, reunited with an old flame. But when she starts seeing Cord again, she finds herself torn: between two worlds, and two very different boys.

Calliope feels trapped, playing a long con that costs more than she bargained for. What happens when all her lies catch up with her?

Watt is still desperately in love with Leda. He’ll do anything to win her back—even dig up secrets that are better left buried.

And now that Avery is home from England—with a new boyfriend, Max—her life seems more picture-perfect than ever. So why does she feel like she would rather be anything but perfect?

In this breathtaking finale to The Thousandth Floor trilogy, Katharine McGee returns to her vision of 22nd-century New York: a world of startling glamour, dazzling technology, and unthinkable secrets. After all, when you have everything… you have everything to lose.

Instead of including extra novellas and sneak peeks at the end of books, wouldn’t it be nice if publishers included recaps so you could catch up on the previous book before starting the new one? Just throwing that idea out there!

I struggled a bit at the beginning of this book because I couldn’t remember where all of the characters’ story lines left off. I couldn’t remember what we knew, and what we thought we knew, and which characters knew what. I went online in search of a recap of The Dazzling Heights, but any mention of the book’s plot was annoyingly vague! I guess that should motivate me to take better notes the next time I’m reading a series.

This third book started a little slow, but that’s probably because there were so many characters to catch up on and new conflicts to set up. However, most of the conflict was the same things we’ve been dealing with in the previous books (*WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead, as this is the third book in the series*):

  • Avery: Will she ever get over her brother, Atlas?
  • Leda: Will she face consequences for how Eris really died?
  • Watt: Will he get caught for having a quantum computer…in his head?
  • Rylin: Will she recognize her true potential and stay away from trouble?
  • Calliope: Will she be able to keep up the charade as a pious philanthropist so her mom can remain happily married, or will they get recognized as the con-women they are?

While each character gets another layer added to their story line (usually dealing with a romantic relationship), this book wasn’t as fresh and exhilarating as the past books. I could predict things that were going to happen well before they did. The book finally gets more dramatic around 70% of the way through, and then the ending is the most exciting part. The ending wraps up each of the subplots and is mostly satisfying.

I can tell that this review doesn’t provide the most obvious praise, but this really was a fun series to read. I was impressed with the author’s use of technology. While many of the technologies seem to be far-fetched, after listening to a future technologies podcast with my husband, the author seems to really know what she’s writing about! A “holography” class may not be too far off in the future. I also liked how each of the characters reads very differently. They each have different personalities and worries and I never got their chapters mixed up, even though there were many points of view to keep track of.

I would recommend this to readers who typically enjoy YA series, but I’d especially recommend this to readers who are in a bit of a reading slump and just need something a little different. Teen drama amidst cool technology and high stakes makes The Thousandth Floor series a fun read.

My 5 Star Books of 2018

We’re already 18 days into 2019, but I still wanted to share some of the best books I read last year. I hope you’ll be inspired to add them to your TBR lists if you haven’t read them yet. Out of 59 books, I gave 13 books a 5 star rating on Goodreads. The chart below talks about 10 of these titles. While most of the titles are YA, I find it interesting that there are two graphic novels listed and a nonfiction book. Neither have appeared in my previous “Five Star” posts (check out my lists for 2015, 2016, and 2017). A tip: click on the infographic below so you can zoom in and actually read the text!

Honorable Mentions:

  • Becky Albertalli’s books:
    • Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (and the adorable film adaptation, Love, Simon)
    • Leah on the Offbeat 
    • The Upside of Unrequited 
  • Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
  • One Dark Throne and Two Dark Reigns by Kendare Blake
  • The Thousandth Floor series by Katharine McGee
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  • Ten Thousand Skies Above You (Firebird #2) by Claudia Gray

Did any of the above books make it onto your favorites list? What were your favorite books of the year?

Exploring Uxmal

We are visiting my husband’s family in Mexico this week, so today we went exploring the Mayan ruins in Uxmal. I’ve been to the ruins in Chichén Itzá and Tulum, but the ruins at Uxmal may be my favorite. This may be because it wasn’t nearly as crowded, sandy, touristy, and involved much less walking. It may also be because you could climb many of the structures – including some very steep steps – and walk inside the different rooms and buildings. My daughter had fun imagining what the rooms might have been used for. She walked out of one small room off the main plaza and said, “I think that’s the place for dance.” This was another good moment:

Me: People made these buildings without construction trucks or equipment – can you believe that? How do you think they made these buildings?

C: *looks at the nearby temple* With rocks.

Well, I guess you’re right! Even though she was dealing with a cold and some itchy mosquito bites from the day before, she was a trooper in the heat. The other great thing about the ruins at Uxmal is the beautiful views. Just look at that blue sky and the white clouds. That isn’t a picture from online – I took it myself on an iPhone. This archaeological site is cared for and maintained nicely. I know Chichén Itzá is more famous, but I would personally recommend Uxmal. While we only stayed as long as a four-year-old can handle at a place like this, it was definitely worth the sweat!

Since we had about an hour drive to the ruins and back, I managed to squeeze in a bit of reading. My current read is Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. It’s a Young Adult Fantasy novel, and while I was annoyed by some of the flowery language and (too) fancy word choices at the beginning, I’m appreciating it more now. The book is magical and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Here’s the Goodreads blurb about Strange the Dreamer:

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

Powerful Graphic Novels

Last year during NaBloPoMo, I posted about feeling a bit lost when it came to the graphic novel genre. I’m intrigued by graphic novels. I want to like them. But I hadn’t really found a graphic novel that felt like it fit me.

So I kept trying.

I finally found several graphic novels that impressed me, so much so, in fact, that I now own a box set! And I would like to own a copy of the other great book, too.

Powerful Graphic Novels to Add to your TBR:

March, three book series by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

John Lewis – yes, the congressman from Georgia – shares his story of how he became a key figure in the civil rights movement. Book One covers John Lewis’s early life and how he became involved in the movement, including his meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. The novel shows how the student movement began as they carried out nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins. While Lewis reflects back on how the movement began and changes he helped bring about, he’s also preparing for the inauguration of history-making President Barack Obama. Book Two is a bit darker, following Lewis as he and the Freedom Riders board a bus headed to the deep south. The riders are faced with violence, imprisonment, and arson. Book Three covers the Birmingham Church Bombing and how activists attempting a nonviolent march across a bridge in Selma were beaten by state state troopers.

  • March is a powerful series that should be read by everyone. The Civil Rights Movement often gets boiled down to the basics in school, but I learned so much about other important leaders and organizations during the 1960s, what went into the planning of the March on Washington, and how dangerous it was for people to protest – even peacefully – and especially in the south. John Lewis is incredible and, as he points out near the end of the book, is the only one left of the “Big Six.” At only 23 years old, Lewis participated in sit-ins and peaceful protests, was a freedom rider, witnessed police brutality, endured jail time, met with President Kennedy to discuss the Civil Rights Bill, and spoke at the March on Washington before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. We could all use a refresher on our recent past, and this book provides that information in a very accessible way. The comic book format makes it more dynamic and emotional than a history book. Great storytelling and great illustrations. I read March: Book One on my kindle fire and really liked how I could double-tap on a picture and the frame would enlarge on the screen. Then, by swiping, it would switch to the next frame in a really cool way. By double-tapping again, it would zoom out so I could see what the entire page looked like. I sometimes find reading graphic novels a bit confusing, so this feature was really great. The next book, I checked out from our library, and by the time I got to the third book, my husband bought me the three-book series because I talked about how well-done this series was. I’m glad that I own these. They are worth rereading. Five stars and beyond!

Speak: The Graphic Novel, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll 

Melinda is just starting her freshman year of high school and she’s already an outcast. That’s because she called the cops on the big end-of-summer party – though no one is interested in her reasons for doing this. Struggling through a rough school year without her friends, parents who don’t pay attention, and teachers who are clueless, Melinda turns inward and mostly silent. Thanks to a passionate art teacher, time, and a need to protect others, Melinda finally reveals that she was raped by an upperclassman from her school.

  • If you see this book in the library or at a bookstore, pick it up because you need to read it. Laurie Halse Anderson’s original novel Speak is the quintessential text on sexual assault for teens and young adults. It is a must-read because it’s so honest and real and poignant. Melinda’s voice – though she doesn’t say much – has so much to tell the reader. And in this version, what she doesn’t say is filled in by the expressive illustrations. This graphic novel, published almost 20 years after the original book, is a refreshing and relevant update, and just as important now as it was then. It’s not just important for teenage girls either – it is important for teen boys, college-age students, teachers, and parents. And even if you haven’t experienced sexual assault or harassment yourself, there is something for everyone to gain, whether it’s simply awareness or empathy. I don’t think you can walk away from this book without feeling something. Emily Carroll’s illustrations match perfectly with the text – it’s almost like they were always meant to be this way. I loved how the images stirred up feelings of sympathy, frustration, anger, and hope even though there’s not as much text to read as a full novel. Every few pages I found myself going “mmmm” – which meant, “Wow, Laurie and Emily, you just made an amazing point.” Even though I’ve read the original book multiple times and watched the movie, this still left an impression on me. Until women’s voices and victim’s voices are believed, until there’s no longer a need for #metoo and #timesup movements, until there is a belief that women’s rights are human rights, Speak will continue to be a necessary text. So read it. You won’t regret it.

Have you read any graphic novels this year? Tell me about them!