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?

Wrapping up November

Thanks so much for stopping by my little corner of the web this month. I’ve gained new followers and found new blogs to follow myself. I’ve blogged from my cell phone – new for me – and blogged from an airport and a different country. While NaBloPoMo can be stressful as I put pressure on myself to churn out way more content than usual, I’m always glad that I participated.

Other November Stats:

  • Read 3 books:
    • Juliet Takes a Breath
    • Holding up the Universe
    • From Twinkle, With Love
  • Started 3 other books (but their lending periods ended before I could complete them):
    • They Both Die at the End
    • The Ensemble
    • Strange the Dreamer
  • Gained 16 new followers
  • Had web visitors from 38 different countries
  • My post “Casting To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” continues to be my most popular post, with 97 views this month alone
  • 14,577 words published in November
  • Saw Hanson’s String Theory concert in Minneapolis
  • Threw a Wonder Woman themed 4th birthday party
  • Spent a week in Mexico

Not too shabby for 30 days! Hope your month was productive and fulfilling, and that we continue to see each other around the blogosphere.

May your holiday season be filled with lots of books and blessings.

Library Fun: Second Edition

We came back home to snow when we flew from Mexico to Wisconsin today. While I’m excited to get started on our Christmas decorating this weekend (an excellent way to procrastinate the unpacking of our suitcases!), I’m not ready to return to the cold. Luckily, even when the weather is yucky, we can still enjoy a day of fun at our local libraries. Here’s some more library fun from this summer:

We built towers and tracks with big blue blocks at my parent’s library. These blocks are fun to play with – but I’m glad I don’t have to store these huge things at my house! My daughter loved the veterinarian clinic that was set up at another library near our house. There were lots of stuffed animals to take care of, clipboards with checklists to give your pet a check-up, x-ray scans, and plenty of medical tools and grooming tools to get the job done. My kid especially loved taking care of the snake and the parrot. Creepy. Sometimes she does not seem like my child! At the same library, they had another corner set up as a campsite. There was a tent with camp chairs, a fire, lantern, and woodland animals. There was also a nearby “pond” where kids could reel in fish thanks to some magnets. While my daughter gets shy around other kids, she made several friends while playing at the library in these fun play stations.

Another play area was full of construction items like a wheelbarrow, blocks, a workbench with tools, brooms, and a construction worker outfit. My daughter liked loading up the wheelbarrow. At the library closest to our house, the children’s area is smaller, but still provides some room for play. My daughter took up the whole kid’s table with this giant book of The Wheels on the Bus. Luckily, she was happy enough to flip the pages by herself so I didn’t have to embarrass either of us with my terrible singing!

Before entering the children’s library, there is a statue of some children reading a book. My kid sat down and said, “Take a picture of me!” She fit right in. Another library offers a spacious area to build your own wooden train track. I know this is common at many libraries, but what I like about this set-up is that you don’t have to make your track fit on a train table. A big floor rug gives you more room to play. When we visited a new library this summer, we found lots of puppets. While I was personally a bit grossed out thinking about how many kids have put their hands inside all the puppets, my daughter joyfully explored them! Bring on the hand sanitizer!

Since we’ve been on vacation, we’ll be back at the library soon to check out new materials. Hope you are utilizing your local libraries too!