Book Review: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

The Basics: 

Clocking in at a whopping 587 pages, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is a multi-layered book that is hard to categorize, but will easily win your heart. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, the book centers around a harmonica and a prophesy that three sisters lend to a boy lost in the woods. This frame narrative holds together the three successive stories, which culminate in a literary crescendo. The harmonica finds its way to those who need it, starting with a birthmarked boy in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, two orphaned boys in Philadelphia during the Great Depression, and a Mexican-American girl in California during the era of American’s Japanese internment camps. Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy all share a special connection to music that helps them through their various hardships…. Which sounds vague, but I can’t give too much away. The wonder is in the mystery, and no synopsis will do it justice!

What I Liked About It: 

There is an element of mystery in the book from the start. Three sisters trapped by a witch in the woods? Music as the uniting factor? All of these different storylines? That all end in cliffhangers?! My main concern throughout the book was “how does this all come together?!” and it kept me reading feverishly. I love books that have that effect on me. I have to admit, though, I once flipped to the back pages and read the ending before I was even halfway done with the book. Luckily, it didn’t make sense to me at that moment, so I just sped up my reading until I could fully enjoy the natural journey of the book.

And enjoy it I did. The three major story sections are so well written that you really fall for the characters -Friedrich and Ivy’s stories were my favorites – and when each section ends in a cliffhanger, it’s maddening beyond belief (in the best way possible)! But each time a story ended, I knew the next tale would be just as riveting. As you continue to become emotionally invested in the next character, and the next, and after entering three different worlds spanning three contentious, important historical moments, the book rewards you with the MOST AMAZING ENDING EVER. What I mean is, the ending is worth the wait, if you can stick out 500 pages to get to a good ending.

The Downside: It’s long. It’s meant for middle grades readers (and up, of course), but I don’t know a ton of 9-12 year olds (or… me) who have the patience to wait for the ending to come together without peeking.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Why I’d Recommend This Book: 

Even if you’re not the type of reader to tackle a book this large, you HAVE to read Friedrich’s story. This section of the book goes on my required reading list! It’s so good because, though I’ve read pretty much every book about WWII that has ever existed (I had an obsession for a while, okay?), the context here was so different and new. Friedrich and his family are not Jewish. Friedrich has a birthmark that makes him the object of teasing, but he has a very loving family in his father and older sister, who have always taken care of him. His love for music shines throughout the story. Then, while his sister is away at nursing school, she becomes a member of the Hitler Youth, throwing Friedrich and his father into turmoil – especially when it is no longer accepted to be neutral in Hitler’s Germany, or have a birthmark. This take on family dynamics in Germany was so fresh, and so compelling. A must-read!

BOOK REVIEW: The Dry by Jane Harper

This is a beautiful book. I say that for a couple of reasons.

One, I love reading books that seem familiar, linguistically speaking. Though I also like literature that is more “high brow”, or rather, complicated or formal, I love love love literature that is written like the common man speaks. This is how “The Dry” was written, and it made the reading pleasurable.

Two, as a person raised in a small town, I love a good book that exposes the idiosyncrasies of small towns (I could definitely write a whole separate post for my thoughts on best small town books I’ve read). In “The Dry”, Jane Harper sets up the town of Kiewarra as a realistic place (narrowly avoiding some cliches, as is custom in writing about small towns), but then artfully teases out the true colors of the town, and the effect it can have on its residents. Namely, the traps a small town community sets for its less suspecting or less malicious residents. And Harper, she evokes them in an honest way that doesn’t seem contrived, unlike the Hallmark movies you’ve been stuck watching at your parents’ house (or is that just my small town roots showing?).

Three, I loved “The Dry” because it’s a satisfying mystery. As you wade deeper into the book, you collect more questions, more possibilities, and more ways that these storylines could all be played out. Harper’s writing keeps you in suspense, and I love how engaged that edge-of-your-seat, leading language makes a reader. I literally couldn’t put the book down after I got done with work today, and spent maybe three solid hours reading the last half of the book. Yes, it’s that engaging.

Last but not least, I was curious about what I’d find in a book about an Australian small town. After reading, I realized that there must be something similar about all small communities, because the truths I found in the book were core truths I also felt deeply when I was growing up.

Above all, this book yanks you in, keeps you in its pull, and doesn’t let go – much like small communities themselves. This is Jane Harper’s first novel, but I love her already. Please write more books, Jane!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

This week my 6th grade students and I finished our read aloud book: Ghost by Jason Reynolds. I found the book on Amazon, and, seeing that it was a National Book Award finalist, I bought it. I then proceeded to do the thing teachers know they never should: start reading something with a class that you haven’t pre-screened. (I hate reading things first, though, because it just takes the excitement out of it!) Thank goodness there wasn’t anything too jarring lurking in the pages.

Ghost also caught my attention as a book because it has a cast of all black characters, and is written by a black author. I teach at a really diverse school, and as a white woman, feel like I need to infuse my curriculum with perspectives other than my own at every turn, so my kids can easily see people who look like them in what we learn.

Now for some summary: Ghost follows the story of a kid whose world was rocked by a violent episode with his alcoholic father. His dad now in jail, Ghost lives with his mom, gets bullied at school, stands up for himself only to get suspended… he’s just “got a lot of scream inside”, as his character narrates. The things that keep him going are sunflower seeds from Mr. Charles’ store, his book of World Records, and big dreams of playing basketball with the guys at the neighborhood courts.

Then Ghost walks by a track practice. His sense of competition gets the better of him, and he crashes the practice and runs a sprint next to one of the fastest kids on the team – and, he holds his own. The coach sees it go down, and wants Ghost to be on the team. But can Ghost get around that “scream” inside of him… and stop running from his problems instead of confronting them?

This is a book that hooked my students from the first day, when we hear about this normal kid’s big problem – his dad. It keeps kids hooked because, chapter after chapter, Ghost keeps making bad decision after bad decision – and it seems like he’s running out of people to save him. Yet, at the same time, his resolve to become a team member on the new track team seems to be pulling him in a different direction. We can’t help but love Ghost, and therefore be frustrated by him all the more.

I had a lot of students see bits of themselves in Ghost’s character, especially since he’s the type of anti-hero we don’t often read about in classrooms. But Ghost’s story bas been teaching my kids a lot. It teaches about bullying and its effects on the psyche, it teaches about the gaps privilege create, it teaches about perspective and it teaches about letting other people in. It teaches about addiction, and how its various forms can destroy lives and families. It teaches about taking responsibility for your actions, and overcoming adversity that has irrevocably changed the course of your life.

The sensitive issues in the book require you to have a good relationship with – or at least know a little about the lives of – your students going into the reading of Ghost. I had one student talk to me after class on the first day with this book, and tell me that maybe she’d like to sit outside during the read aloud – the situation with Ghost’s dad was too similar to one she’d personally experienced, and was striking a chord. I welcomed her to do so, if she felt that was what she needed, but also gave her a heads-up that the next chapter would only be about “track stuff”, so if she wanted to sit in just one more day, I’d like her to try that if she could. In the end, the book hooked her and she never did leave the room. In addition, the book has a pretty heavy moment near the end of the book, in which (spoiler alert!!!) Coach tells a story about his own dad chipping Coach’s tooth with a punch to the face, selling his Olympic gold medal for drug money, and dying of overdose (told more tastefully than my retelling here). My students were all very respectful of that moment in the book, but were also shocked, and full of questions, and so we set aside the curriculum and took the rest of the period to talk about this stuff – what addiction is, how it can change the way a person’s brain works and change the type of person they are, and how it’s hard to get help sometimes. And, of course, to process why people might do it in the first place, and how it can affect loved ones. The kids really handled this well, I can’t stress that enough. If it hadn’t I wouldn’t be writing this glowing review of the read aloud experience. And I know, many people could argue that these topics could be too much for 6th graders’ sensibilities, but with a guided conversation based on facts (and not judging the decisions of any characters in the book), it was an experience that they could learn from. This was an especially important day for us, as I know some kids have situations similar to these going on at home, and I sought to lead the conversation toward understanding and empathy, not condemnation of people going down the wrong path. But I think that’s a general understanding that this book generates so naturally – an affection for Ghost, who himself is a flawed character, many of these flaws set upon him by the decisions of others, and by his own loneliness. And kids get that, and root for Ghost anyway.

Our last day, when we finished reading, we took the rest of the period to analyze that last chapter of Ghost, the one where all of those themes I listed above came to fruition, as the conflicts came to a close. After taking the time to discuss the nuances we’d read, and the conclusions they could bring to us, both mine and my students’ appreciation of the book deepened. I’m not sure if they’ve ever analyzed a book before, but talking about this stuff as a class really brought out a serious side to my kids, and they left the room that day better for reading the book.

Plus, the overwhelming majority of them rated it a 10/10, which is pretty spectacular when I think about how defiant those kids are becoming… Sixth grade, am I right?

And the best part about the book? It’s the first in a series, the second of which is set to come out in August 2017… and get this, it’s called Patina, which is the name of Ghost’s fellow “newbie” teammate on the track team. If you’ve read Ghost, you know how exciting this is – and, my theory is, Jason Reynolds is going to make 4 books total, each in a different newbie’s perspective, based on the secrets each kid is carrying with him/her, just like Ghost (Again, makes sense it you’ve read the book). I can’t wait to read Patina! (And neither can my kids – “can we have a book club in the summer? Or next year?” YES!)

BOOK REVIEW: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This wisp of a novel is not for the faint of heart. Set in South Korea in what must be modern (ish) times, Han Kang’s novel is at once grotesque and beautiful, jarring and soothing, and a provocateur of the status quo. Let me break down my thoughts by section.

1: The Vegetarian

This section is told in the first person by the main character’s husband. We soon realize that, as far as husbands go, this one is machismo, an awful kind of insensitive, and very traditional. This section is an excellent window into South Korean culture, as the story winds its way through topics of family, marriage, food, and social expectations. Last year, I taught a Multicultural Literature class for grades 11 and 12, and this section would be something I’d consider adding to that curriculum.

It was also in this section that I began to notice that the “vegetarianism” the main character is converting to (and what her family is so dreadfully concerned about) could, in fact, be a code word, standing in for “liberated woman”. Consider her husband’s indignancy to it, her father’s violence, and the disappointment and revulsion all characters voice at the main character’s lack of obedience both to direct orders from her husband and father, and to societal norms.

2: Mongolian Mark

This section is like a trippy, art-driven sex dream, told from the perspective of the main character’s brother-in-law, who is an artist. Think Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama combined. Not to give anything away, but this section, if I’m using my feminist lens correctly, examines the use of women as objects for art and pleasure, and assuming we know what they want, even without explicit permission.

3: Flaming Trees

I was a little bit bored with this chapter. Like the slow Book 3 of 1Q84, Flaming Trees focused heavily on scenes from a hospital, which, in comparison to the scandal and beauty of the previous chapter, felt a little too dry. This chapter is told from the perspective of the main character’s sister, and nicely adds context from when the girls were younger, namely times when the older sister failed to stand up for the younger main character. The feminist lens here guides readers examine the issue of women not standing up for other women when it counts – perhaps because of the oppressive expectations women all endure at all times. Because of the memories moving with the present, this part also felt quite fragmented to me. But perhaps it was just my reading of it.

All in all, I’d call this an edgy book for advocates of women everywhere. The book is not really about going vegetarian at all. It is, however, the perfect premise for examining the treatment of women in so many different contexts and perspectives, and is a cautionary tale of how much we can take before we break. At least I think so.

BOOK REVIEW: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Finishing a 1157 page book was never on my to-do list. I mean, sure, I’ve wanted to read Anna Karenina, as all English majors’ souls surely require of them, but the Modern Library Classics edition I bought at my university’s bookstore is a mere 923 pages. And to be honest, I abandoned Tolstoy after 155 pages of forgetting which name belonged to which character. However, Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece (yes, I said it, masterpiece!), 1Q84, grabbed my attention from the beginning and held it hostage for the entire month it took me to finish it.

Published in 2011 and translated from its original Japanese, I found 1Q84 on Overdrive and recognized the name as a recommendation from two trusted literary friends – one a study abroad friend who is now in the publishing business, and the second, Hippy Max, a high school friend of my partner’s whose taste in books is both edgy and classic. I had to test it out. Luckily, I since I had checked it out as an ebook, I had no idea how long it really was until I was hooked on the story… which was probably for the better. I would have been too intimidated otherwise. Only after reading all of Book 1 (clocking in at a hefty 387 pages) did I purchase the hard copy of the book (more on why I buy books here), waiting to pull the trigger because I was just too intimidated.

Plot in Review:

This two-inch novel is part mystery, part morality barometer, and part fantasy. The mystery part becomes abundantly clear in Book One, where we meet the first of our two narrators, Aomame (yes, that’s the Japanese word for “green peas”), on a bizarre cab ride before beginning a very mysterious mission. One of the many things Murakami does so well in his novel is setting up over 1,000 pages of page-turning intrigue, a journey for the reader to embark upon alongside the characters in which we are just one step ahead of them in terms of understanding their world and their purpose there.

Book One is amazing – it packs a punch with a mysterious cab ride, and steamy memories of a baby watching his mother bearing her breasts to a man that is not the baby’s father, and a lesbian love scene. You’re intrigued now, right? Even if you’re a prude like me, these topics are written in an artful manner, one that is more likely to prompt you to ask questions than to be turned off by the nature of the scenes. They exist as clues, not just for shock value (although that always helps when you’re just getting into a book, right?).

Another driving force behind this narration is that 1Q84 is told from multiple perspectives. Books like this can annoy me if I feel they’re moving too slowly, but Murakami nails it. Moving between two characters who, at the beginning, appear to have no connection to each other whatsoever, upholds the “reader as detective” element. It’s not until Book 3 that the circles these characters run really start to get close enough to overlap with that sticky potential to bore.

In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll just mention that Book Two is where the fantasy element really kicks in. At first I was a little turned off by this switch, but a few chapters in I realized just how much better the book had suddenly become. There are suddenly so many new pieces to the puzzle… and we realize that things are so much more complicated than we first thought.

Book Three, like I alluded to earlier, is the only section with the potential to bore. It has an added bonus of a new narrator (a totally despicable narrator, which adds its own element of fun), but the pace of the novel really begins to slow. True, the pace reflects what the characters are going through in that section (which, you know, is artistic and stuff), but I found myself wanting to give up 900 pages in. Luckily, my students talked me down from it!

Good books, in my opinion, let you get so wrapped up in the world of the book that you seek to keep reading as an utter escape, or to find out if the clues you’ve been gathering will pan out the way you think. This book did both of those things for me, so I’d classify it as a great, recommendation-worthy book. Age rec: Great for college students and up, or perhaps a mature high school student. Also, if anyone claims to be “only into the classic canon” (cough my bougie partner cough), you need to convince them to read this (and also get their head out of canon-think). Am I saying that this book the Anna Karenina of our generation? I think maybe.

So what’s next for me, now that I’ve conquered the longest book of my life? Infinite Jest? A Brief History of Seven Killings? Or am I finally ready for my next (and perhaps final) round with Anna Karenina? I guess we’ll both have to wait and see….