Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins

One of my coworkers really enjoyed the Upside-Down Magic series and recommended, as a former teacher who worked with students with unique learning needs, I would appreciate it as well, and she was right!

Synopsis

It’s never easy when your magic goes wonky. For Nory, this means that instead of being able to turn into a dragon or a kitten, she turns into both of them at the same time — a dritten. For Elliott, the simple act of conjuring fire from his fingertips turns into a fully frozen failure. For Andres, wonky magic means he’s always floating in the air, bouncing off the walls, or sitting on the ceiling. For Bax, a bad moment of magic will turn him into a… actually, he’d rather not talk about that.

Nory, Elliott, Andres, and Bax are just four of the students in Dunwiddle Magic School’s Upside-Down Magic class. In their classroom, lessons are unconventional, students are unpredictable, and magic has a tendency to turn wonky at the worst possible moments. Because it’s always amazing, the trouble a little wonky magic can cause…

A brief social commentary before my review

When looking at the kid’s literature available to me as a child, it is safe to say that the characters were not diverse, not in their skin color, gender identity, or abilities. They were pretty much all white, slightly above average, blond, white girls. And when I was a kid, I didn’t take any notice because, as my German grandmother put it, had I been alive in 1939 like her, I would have been the poster child for the Aryan race. Blond hair, blue grey eyes, ethnically German, slightly above average height and intelligence. It is something that I find I now hate about myself, especially ass I find myself listening to speeches from of the members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I constantly want to apologize for continuing to fuel the problem, I write characters like me, the characters that they have been rally against, because they’re just like me.

I never realized the lack of diverse books because I could relate to pretty much every main character I came across. Shortly after returning home after BookCon last year, I asked my fiance, who’s heritage is primarily Chinese and English, if he ever came across human characters he identified with as a child. His answer? His favorite books were Redwall and Watership Down. The only characters he identified with were animals, because they only had emotional descriptions and those he could relate to. He understood their feelings and with race out of the picture, he felt like he could understand their motivations because they were all inherently different than the mainstream characters, simply by being animals.

And it is because of these reasons and so many others, the Upside-Down Magic should be required reading for all elementary school students.

Review

As someone who has worked in special education and with children of multiple ethnicities, I immediately read deeper into Upside-Down Magic than most people. Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins are mad brilliant. They took a girl’s worries about being different and forced her to accept them instead of following the typical narrative of self-discovery and being mainstreamed and everyone liking her, they were much more realistic with how they handled the politics of education and the fact that all students’ needs are different, whether it be in learning math or magic. They also incorporated the fact that most minority and special needs student are often taught by a white, female teacher that the students have difficulty relating to. And while the teacher may have people in her life that have unique needs, rarely did/does the teacher.

​I recommend Upside-Down Magic to children at the store that feel like they don’t really fit in or who really like magic stories, but I also recommend it to each and every teacher that walks through the bookstore doors because, whether the authors intended or not, they have written a brilliant piece of social commentary on our education system in the United States and how imperative it is to teach every child in a manner that best fits their unique needs and style.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780545800464 • 208 pages • originally published September 2015, this edition published August 2016 by Scholastic Inc. • average Goodreads rating 4.1 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Sarah Mlynowski’s Website

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Upside-Down Magic

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finally realized why I read so many books about young women during World War II. My grandmother grew up in Nürnberg during this time and she has never spoken about her childhood. From what my father has told me about her experiences, I wouldn’t talk about it either. I read so many books because I wonder – is this her story? Liesel Meminger’s tale is probably closest I’ll get to the unknown story of my grandmother’s childhood in Germany.

Synopsis

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed.

Review

The Book Thief is an extraordinary book. Narrated by Death, it chronicles Liesel Meminger’s life from 1939 to 1943 – the time in which she lived with her foster family, the Hubermanns, in Molching, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Liesel is not Jewish, but an incredibly reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Her daily life, at the start of the war, continues in much the same way as life before and after the war. She plays soccer on the streets with her friends, she attends school, she reads books, and she delivers laundry for her foster mother. But as the war progresses, her life changes in the ways one would expect a young German girl’s life to change due to war – rationing, air raids, knowing people who have been drafted into the army, etc.

However, Liesel’s story is not the typical WWII era narrative as it is, on the surface, the tale of the ordinary German, not very sensational or particularly moving. But Liesel is a literary powerhouse of a protagonist. Her brother dies, and she copes by stealing a book – a book from which she learns to read. And learning to read, that changes the course of her entire life.

It was an interesting choice, on Markus Zusak’s part, to have Death narrate the book – it adds a sense of foreboding but also a tone of almost “hyper-reality” – giving a voice to the one fact that we all know but don’t like to confront – everyone dies. Death is exhausted by World War II, between the soldiers, the Jews, and the civilians, he’s exhausted. But Death is touched by Liesel, the girl who seems to see him and a girl he encounters more times than he believes he should (I use “he” because I listened to The Book Thief and the reader is male).

Personifying Death takes away the fear, Death narrates the book like Liesel’s old friend, not as an inevitable outcome and I believe that makes Liesel’s tale more profound and moving. My words are inadequate in describing the suffering Liesel endures but Markus Zusak does so with a great love for her, for all his characters. Throughout The Book Thief, Liesel is moved herself by the power of words and though she starts as an illiterate child, she quickly becomes a voracious reader. She recognizes the power words have, the words that stay with us long after they are spoken or read, and she learns some valuable life lessons from her words and the words of others. Death reveals the outcome of the book long before the final pages but that doesn’t make the end any easier to accept. While not a direct story about the Holocaust or a novel of expected and imminent danger, the outcome is heartbreaking and completely, harshly real to Liesel and the reader.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375842207 • 552 pages • first published March 2006, this edition published September 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in May 2015

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Book Thief

Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Millennials, my generation, are defined in some small part by their relationship with Harry Potter. Almost all of us have a story about when we were first introduced the the boy wizard who changed our reading lives. I was 10 years old, in 5th grade, and it was shortly before Thanksgiving when my friend Brendan brought a book and a letter into school. He had found this book and had liked it so much, he wrote a letter to the author, and SHE WROTE BACK. He shared the letter with the class, and asked if the book could be our next classroom read aloud. Needless to say, Mrs. Kluck agreed, and when we left for Thanksgiving break, I made my mom hunt down a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Synopsis

Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley – a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry – and anyone who reads about him – will find unforgettable. For it’s there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… if Harry can survive the encounter.

Series Review

This is a difficult review to write as I grew up with the Harry Potter books and characters. I was 10 years old when I was introduced to 10-year-olds Harry, Hermione, and Ron. When I was 10, my life was challenging – my parents were getting divorced and I just wanted an escape and the wizarding world presented itself to me at the perfect time. I would spend hours reading and rereading the books in my bedroom, trying not to think about the challenges of my young life. Because of this association, the tales of Harry Potter and his friends’ adventures will always hold a special place in my heart, but it was only for Harry’s friends that I finished the series.

As I grew up, I wanted Harry and his friends to grow up with me. I camped out at midnight for books 5 through 7, I dressed up as Hermione for more Halloweens than I care to admit, but the moment I was waiting for never really came. Harry never convincingly grew up with me. We were both supposed to be 17 when the final book was released – I had just graduated from high school and was excited to see Harry finish school and get excited for life after the final battle with Voldemort. However, while I was ecstatic for the next chapter in my life, Harry doesn’t have goals, he doesn’t have any direction in his life. Now granted, his primary focus was survival so that pushed some other dreams and ambitions out of focus, but I would have latched on to them – I would have latched on to my hopes of the future, for a world without Voldemort.

At 10, Harry and I had so much in common. At 13, this was still the case, but at some point, during the fifteenth year of my life/the fifth book, our paths completely diverged. I quickly grew to loathe Harry and his whiny, moody tendencies. While Harry “grows,” he doesn’t ever mature and that made it exceedingly difficult to remain engaged with the stories for any length of time after I finished reading them initially. By the time the seventh movie (split into two) came out, I was so disenchanted with Harry and his misanthropic tendencies that I didn’t even want to see it in theaters. I wanted to see an older Harry, a Harry that I could relate to, instead of a character that was stuck in middle school, stuck at thirteen so that he would be more accessible for later generations. In a way, this makes sense, no other generation will be waiting for years between books – years in which they grow up and expect Harry to grow up as well. Is it fair to tell my 10-year-old step-brother he must wait until he’s 17 to finish the series? No. But I feel like it pulled my fellow millennials away from Harry. It led some of us to abandon him in the dark basement of our minds because he didn’t keep up. Like Peter Pan, he didn’t grow up.

Hermione, on the other hand, was always the brains of the operation, the logically minded one keeping Harry and Ron on track and explaining the ways of the world, and girls, to them, as they remained stuck in their world of perpetual early adolescence. Hermione and her books and knowledge and love of school helped me express my own love of intelligence and learning. Hermione ensured that the stories of Harry Potter would be relatable for boys and girls. And that is, to me, the real magic of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. He brought so many kids into the magical world of reading and books and that, regardless of the quality of the books being read, is always a good thing. Reading the adventures of Harry will always be a rite of passage. If I ever have kids of my own, I will read them the stories of Harry Potter as my mother and teacher did for me. And I will be incredibly offended if they dislike them, but will be equally offended if they obsess over them blindly and refuse to read anything else as I had done.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780590353427 • 312 pages • originally published 1997, this edition published 1999 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in January 2000

J. K. Rowling’s Website

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Harry Potter (2)

Essays, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Short Stories

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Fantasy author Brian Staveley once told me he was haunted by the yellow coat on the cover of The Opposite of Loneliness, and for good reason – he was one of Marina Keegan’s high school teachers. He knew her before the rest of the world knew her. The Opposite of Loneliness would never had been published had Marina Keegan not been killed in a car accident shortly after her college graduation. But because she did, we, the world, and specifically millennials, have a tome of her works to pour over and continually hypothesize about what could have been.

Synopsis

An affecting and hope-filled posthumous collection of essays and stories from the talented Yale graduate whose title essay captured the worlds’ attention in 2012 and turned her into an icon for her generation.

Review

The Opposite of Loneliness is a book that should not exist. The Opposite of Loneliness is the book that I’m glad I didn’t write. These two statements may sound contradictory and my logic and reasoning are complex and circular to say the least. But most importantly, damn can Marina Keegan write. Could. Marina Keegan could write.

Marina Keegan is the new enigma and “could have, would have, should have world of possibilities” now haunting my mind. Her fiction is the writing of a slightly angsty, yearning-to-be-edgy college student exploring the themes of young love, changing families and drug use. She explores complex themes and extended metaphors that a fellow millennial can relate to. Her work, though, sadly leaves so much room for more. There is always room for more to the story. Her work doesn’t end neatly and cleanly wrapped up with a bow on top but open-ended and messy. By all accounts, her life was stereotypical in many ways, her experiences perfectly relatable which leads her fiction into a trap. She doesn’t have the life experience to make it credible.

Following the dozen or so fiction stories come some hard hitting and brainy non-fiction works, including the one about the artichokes that set Wall Street and the world of post-graduate consulting firms and hedge funds on edge. But my favorite, is “Stability in Motion,” Marina Keegan’s ode to her car. There’s a special bond that a teenage girl forges with her car and everything Marina said rang true of my experience as well. I think it’s funny that of all the pieces included, it was that one that stood out to me most. Marina’s writing is sarcastic and sharp, a literature or English professor’s dream. Unfortunately, she’ll never have the chance to grow, to evolve. She will always be a good college writer but held to the standards of what she could have been. The Opposite of Loneliness is worth a read for millennials, but I fear others just might not “get it.”

Marina Keegan, author of The Opposite of Loneliness, and I were born 39 days and 400 miles apart (I was first and further south). By a stroke of luck and the persistence of my mother, I wound up in the graduating college class of 2011 and Marina in the class of 2012. I went to the University of Pittsburgh, Marina to Yale (though I applied, I didn’t have the necessary background and stature required for admission as Marina did). I moved to southeastern Pennsylvania 5 days after my college graduation on May 1, 2011. A year later, five days after her own graduation, Marina died in a car accident.

I don’t know what I was doing on May 26, 2012 – it was the Saturday before Memorial Day, odds are I was shopping or possibly helping my grandmother get ready for her annual picnic to be held that Monday. I didn’t feel any great cosmic shift in the universe, I just went about my business on a typical, hopefully warm, May Saturday. But on that day, Marina Keegan died. And my millennial generation lost a giant that we weren’t even aware of, a literary giant who had spent the last two years of her life sitting in the hallowed halls of my dream school, doing what I love to do more than anything – writing. Writing stories, essays, everything. Marina put a voice to the generation who isn’t sure what they want to do with their lives but is sure of one thing – we wish to make a difference.

I’m heartbroken that Marina’s death is what brought her work to the masses, I’m heartbroken that I can never stand in line at Book Con or an NYC Barnes & Noble hopping up and down excitedly on the balls of my feet, anxiously waiting to meet her and ask her to sign my book. Anxiously waiting to tell her how much I identify with her writing and then getting tongue tied when the moment arrives (invariably this happens to me anytime I meet anyone I really respect in the literary world).

I flew through The Opposite of Loneliness and it was like reading a letter from a long-distance friend. I realized, while reading, that Marina said all the things I was never brave enough to say in college and that the way her professors described her is probably very similar to how mine would have described me. Would Marina and I have been friends if I went to Yale? Probably not – we seem to be too similar – but we would have respected each other, of this I am certain.

Marina’s path represents, to me, one of my many paths not taken. I’ve been writing like a fiend since I was 12, but never thought to do so as a career except for a marvelous three months while studying film at Pitt and indulging in my screenwriting passion and then realizing that I’d never take a screenwriting class at Pitt (long story…) – I wasn’t heartbroken, I moved on to history and theater and political science and studio arts – my interests were (and still are) quite varied. But there is always a thought that strikes me every time I start teaching a new writing class – I absolutely cannot imagine a world without writing. I cannot imagine not having the opportunity to put pen to paper and tell a story or share my thoughts. Such a world is incomprehensible and I’d rather, well, I don’t know what I’d rather, but I refuse to bear witness to such an atrocity as the world without writing.

And that brings me to my ever-eventual point of tying everything in my life back to education. Without writing, without a strong literary culture, the world would have never cultivated the great mind and talent of Marina Keegan. So, I plead with schools, never forsake the written word. Never give up on teaching 2nd graders the importance of writing.

Rating: Essays 8 out of 10 stars, Short Stories 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.00 • 9781476753911 • 256 pages • first published April 2014, this edition published April 2015 by Scribner Book Company • average Goodreads rating 3.82 • read in May 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness Website

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Opposite of Loneliness

Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

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Magicians

Contemporary, Fiction, Young Adult

Paper Towns by John Green

When I was student teaching, my sixth grade students raved about John Green. Around that time, The Fault in Our Stars was blowing up and the movie was expected to do well as well. Given how much they raved about him, I figured I might as well read one of his books, especially given how many webisodes of Crash Course I’d been watching. 

Synopsis

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So, when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.

Review

*I originally wrote the review below in April 2014, and the more I think about this book over the years, the more I dislike it. But these are my thoughts from immediately after reading Paper Towns.*

Paper Towns is a book full of adventure and follows the theme of overcoming personal fears to do something “heroic” and selfless for someone else. I put “heroic” in quotations because the main character, Q (Quentin), has no idea that he is acting heroic, nor does he know that he is, in fact, a hero.

Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose full name is used to capture her complete Margo-ness, has been Q’s next-door neighbor for his entire life. As children, they were best mates until one morning when they discover the body of a man who committed suicide in their subdivision/development’s park. This affects them both on different levels for the next ten years as they go through school. And for much of that decade, Q and Margo barely speak. Until one night in May, when Margo shows up at Q’s window, and cue the synopsis above.

Quentin goes through the process of getting to know Margo without the benefit of having her around and the things he learns after she leaves frighten him a bit. His quest to find her is a hopeful one, though it is not a happy one. The story, first person in Q’s point of view, follows him and his friends, as well as one of Margo’s friends, as they encounter odd and seemingly meaningless clues about Margo’s possible location.

It is an interesting perspective as it is Margo who drives the plot despite only being physically present for a short period of time. Margo is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and Q and company’s attempts to solve that mystery are painstakingly realistic, their fear for Margo’s well being is their constant companion. And [spoiler alert!] when they do find her, things aren’t resolve in a nice neat way which I appreciated greatly.

It’s a relatable tale and many of Quentin’s thoughts on how well we can truly know a person are eerily like thoughts I had myself while going through high school and college and attempting to understand the motives behind others’ actions. Paper Towns is incredibly well written, and I want to read more of John Green’s works – it was hard to pick just one of the many intriguing stories by John Green. Overall, it is an intriguing tale and Quentin has a clear voice throughout.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142414934 • 305 pages • first published October 2008, this edition published September 2009 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 3.88 out of 5 • read in April 2014

John Green’s Website

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Paper Towns

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis had been on my TBR list for a very long time, probably since I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen) at an art theater in the town I grew up in. When Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, decided to make it a selection for her Goodreads’ Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, I decided to make it a pick for my book club, The Modern Readers, as well.

2 - January 2016 - Persepolis

Synopsis

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming – both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of  girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her county yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Review

Persepolis sheds a great deal of light on a time and place with which most Americans are terribly unfamiliar. Satrapi’s memoir makes the situation more relatable for international audiences through her use of comic strips and content material relating to her childhood and the challenges facing every young girl trying to grow up. Her journey into adulthood is one is equal parts familiar – the desire to listen to music, hang posters in one’s room and have space of their own – and unfamiliar – family members are taken by the revolutionaries, having to live a completely different life with family and in public, and fearing for one’s life on a daily basis.

Overall, the content material was very eye-opening, not just in regards to what life was like in the 1980s in Iran, but also in regards to the role that Iran has played in recent world history both before and after the revolution. We had a very lively discussion at our book club meeting about the difference between a true revolution and a devolution masquerading as a revolution and came to the conclusion that the latter was a more apt description of the situation in Iran described by Satrapi. It is not difficult to understand why both the book and film has become staples of modern world history classes in high school and college alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $24.95 • 9780375714832 • 341 pages • published October 2007 by Pantheon Books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in January 2016

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Persepolis

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

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Gemma Doyle - Great and Terrible Beauty

Biography, Childrens, Non-Fiction, Picture Book

She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton

Growing up, I loved any and all books about women who did amazing things. It’s not often, now in my adult years, that I go through the picture book section of the bookstore, but with lots of young ones joining my family (not my own, but nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.), I want to be sure that I give them books as they grow up the inspire them to be thoughtful and persistent young people.

Synopsis

Throughout American history, there have always been women who have spoken out for what’s right, even when they had to fight to be heard. In early 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced in the Senate inspired a spontaneous celebration of women who persevered in the face of adversity. In this book, Chelsea Clinton celebrates thirteen American women who helped shape our country through their tenacity – sometimes through speaking out, sometimes by captivating an audience. They all certainly persisted.

She Persisted is for everyone who has ever wanted to speak up but has been told to quiet down, for everyone who has ever tried to reach for the stars but was told to sit down, and for everyone who has even been made to feel unworthy or unimportant or small.

Review

The bookstore that I work at is in a republican stronghold. Despite Philadelphia’s perpetual blue status, the suburbs are usually blood red. While I try to keep politics out of my reviews, I did decide that the first review on here, ever, would be Pantsuit Nation, so my inclusion of a book by Chelsea Clinton should not come as any surprise.

This year, a young female family member is turning five years old – the perfect age for picture books and she devours them. As I thought about which book to pick out for her for her birthday, only one came to mind – She Persisted. She has terrific parents who have read probably every book under the sun to her already, and I know they want her to know that regardless of any adversity she might face, she will always find the strength within herself to persist until she achieves every goal she sets for herself.

She Persisted includes both well- and little-known women in America’s history. Clinton forgoes including Rosa Parks and instead includes her predecessor, Claudette Colvin. She chooses Clara Lemlich over Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Chase Smith over any other female politician. Her choices are diverse and inclusive, not just in terms of heritage and skin color, but also in occupation and the obstacles the women had to overcome. I adore each and every women included, particularly the inclusion of Sonia Sotomayor over Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Sandra Day O’Connor.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781524741723 • 32 pages • published May 2017 by Philomel Books • average Goodreads rating 4.48 out of 5 • read in July 2017

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She Persisted

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

It’s been nearly two years since I read my first Leigh Bardugo book, Shadow & Bone, and was introduced to the Grishaverse. I enjoyed it greatly, but when I was reading it, everyone was talking about her newest book, Six of Crows, and how spectacular it was going to be. Well, two years later, I finally made it to Six of Crows on my lengthy TBR (to-be-read) list and I’m so happy I did because… 

Leigh Bardugo

I got to meet Leigh Bardugo! And I completely flipped out. It happened, I was sooooo excited! I promised myself I wasn’t going to freak out, but as soon as I realized there was a chance it might happen, I started freaking out. And I’m just so glad that Six of Crows lived up to the expectations I had for it.

Synopsis

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price – and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge; a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction – if they don’t kill each other first.

Review

If Wonder Woman: Warbringer was a disappointment to me, Six of Crows is a redemption. I have now read three Leigh Bardugo books, Shadow and Bone, her first (review to come in a few weeks) novel and the first in the Grishaverse, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, and now Six of Crows, also set in the Grishaverse established in Shadow and Bone. And I know I read the second two a bit backwards (Wonder Woman isn’t even available to the general public yet), so it was incredibly refreshing to return to a world of Leigh’s own creation.

Leigh Bardugo’s writing is funny, insightful and full of surprising little twists that make every page fly by. Her characters are rich and well developed with enough backstory and interesting plot lines to make any of them seem like the main character. Told in 5 alternating perspectives – I can’t wait to find out her reasoning for excluding on of the 6 from having POV chapters – each chapter leaves you wanting more. Additionally, each of the characters’ motivations for participating in the heist are clear and they make a very dynamic group of players.

The plot is complicated, but not to the point that it becomes difficult to follow. It is easy to track and remember what is going on, even if you have to step away from the world of Leigh has created for a few hours. It ends with a mix of conclusion and cliffhanger – I cannot wait to start reading Crooked Kingdom!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9781627792127 • 480 pages • published September 2015 by Henry Holt & Company • average Goodreads rating 4.46 out of 5 • read in August 2017

Leigh Bardugo’s Website

Six of Crows‘ Website

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Six of Crows