Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review: Gathering Blue

After re-reading Lois Lowry's The Giver and reading her new release Son, I really wanted to re-read Gathering Blue and Messenger, which are both companion novels to The Giver.  I originally read them about a decade ago when they first came out (Gathering Blue in 2000 and Messenger in 2004).  During those original reads, I remember not liking Gathering Blue very much and feeling so-so about Messenger.

Well.  I was wrong.  I am SO glad that I re-read them.  My original frustration with Gathering Blue was largely because it was not the direct sequel to The Giver that I was craving.  Instead, it tells the parallel story of Kira, an orphan girl with a useless leg.  Her handicap makes her useless to her brutal,  primitive society, and therefore a group of citizens wants to leave her to the "beasts" to be devoured.  But Kira (like Jonas in The Giver) has a special gift.  Her gift is in her hands.  When she sews, something miraculous happens.  Her hands seem to move on their own, creating patterns that she was never taught.  So the Council of her society takes her to live in their Edifice.  Her first job is to repair the Singer's robe, which depicts the history of the world.  When that job is complete, she will then be tasked with filling in the blank spaces--in essence, creating the future.

The Council has also provided housing for Thomas, a skilled woodworker, and Jo, a tyke (toddler) with an incredible singing voice.  Their skills are also Gifts, and together, the three of them are called upon to recount the past.... and create the future.  But Kira comes to realize that the Council of Guardians is not just housing them, but rather imprisoning them.  And is it merely a coincidence that all the children with Gifts have been orphaned?

Kira is also mentored by an old woman named Annabella, who teaches her the art of dying thread.  Through talking to Annabella, Kira comes to realize that there is more to the world than she has ever known, and that many of the things she takes for granted may not be true at all.  Kira also has a special friendship with a young, wild boy named Matt, who eventually dares to leave the village and returns with knowledge that changes Kira's life forever.

Now that I can see how Gathering Blue weaves itself into the other three books in Lowry's collection, I am in awe of her masterful storytelling.  In Gathering Blue, Matt makes one brief reference to a man that he met in another villlage, saying that he has notable blue eyes.  This man later proves to be Jonas from The Giver.  In Messenger, the stories of Jonas, Kira, and Matt intertwine.

I did feel that Gathering Blue was definitely a darker story than The Giver.... or rather, it had a darker feel.  In The Giver, Jonas believes that he is living in a perfect society.  Everything is clean, well-ordered, and peaceful.... ultimately oppressive, of course, but serene upon first glance.  But the village of Gathering Blue is filthy, primitive, filled with pain, loss, and violence.  I wasn't expecting that on my first reading, but now that I see it in context of the full series, I find it fascinating.  These societies can then be contrasted with Village in Messenger and the seaside settlement in Son--all essentially post-apocolyptic, but all so very different.

So if Lowry drew you into her world with The Giver, definitely give Gathering Blue a chance.  It's a very different world, but one that is equally as fascinating.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book Review: Cold Tangerines

I recently finished Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist.  I had actually been reading it for quite a long time.  I read just one chapter (each an individual essay) a day, then thought about it for the rest of the day, sometimes thinking for more than just one day.  Because Cold Tangerines is that kind of a book: one that makes you think about every story and every gem of wisdom that it includes.

At its core, Cold Tangerines is a book about celebration.  Shauna Niequist set out to write a book about God's goodness and faithfulness and all the gifts He gives us to celebrate.  But while she was in the process of writing the book, Niequist went through some very difficult times in her own life, the most significant of which was losing her job in a church.  So the book ends up as this beautiful portrait about celebrating God's promises even when we can't see them, even when things look so dark that we don't know how we're going to make it through.  It's a book about choosing to live joyfully, even when we don't see anything in our lives to feel joyful about.  It is full of humor and wisdom and wonderful insights.  I highly, highly recommend it to everyone.

So many times when I was reading this book, I would stop and say, "YES.  That is EXACTLY how I feel.  Shauna Niequist, you really understand me.  Except that you are infinitely wiser and more articulate than I am."  I'm not sure if everyone who reads the book feels that way, or if maybe I'm just on the same wavelength as Shauna (while reading the book, I compiled quite a lot of similarities between the two of us).  So let me just leave you with a handful of my favorite pearls from this book:

From "Shalom":
"I have been surprised to find that I am given more life, more hope, moments of buoyancy and redemption, the more I give up.  The more I let go, do without, reduce, the more I feel rich.  The more I let people be who they are, instead of cramming them into what I need from them, the more surprised I am by their beauty and depth."

From "Blessings and Curses":
"Now we're talking about celebration.  Celebration when you think you're calling the shots?  Easy.  Celebration when your plan is working?  Anyone can do that.  But when you realize that the story of your life could be told a thousand different ways, that you could tell it over and over as a tragedy, but you choose to call it an epic, that's when you start to learn what celebration is.  When what you see in front of you is so far outside of what you dreamed, but you have the belief, the boldness, the courage to call it beautiful instead of calling it wrong, that's celebration."

Also from "Blessings and Curses":
"Nothing good comes easily.  You have to lose things you thought you loved, give up things you thought you needed.  You have to get over yourself, beyond your past, out from under the weight of your future.  The good stuff never comes when things are easy."

From "Writing in Pencil":
"I just turned thirty, and I'm finally willing to admit something about life, or at least about my life, and it's this: I should have written in pencil.  I should have viewed the trajectory of my life as a mystery or an unknown, like 'maybe' and 'possibly.'  Instead, every chance I got, I wrote in stone and Sharpie.  I stood on my future, on what I knew, on the certainty of what life would hold for me, as though it was rock.  What I know now is that instead of rock, it's more like a magic carpet, a lippy-slidy-wiggly thing, full of equal parts play and terror.  The ground beneath my feet is lurching and breaking, and making way for an entirely new thing every time I look down, susprised once again by a future I couldn't have predicted."

Also from "Writing in Pencil":
"Everything is interim.  Everything is a path or a preparation for the next thing, and we never know what the next thing is.  Life is like that, of course, twisty and surprising.  But life with God is like that exponentially.  We can dig in, make plans, write in stone, pretend we're not listening, but the voice of God has a way of being heard.  It seeps in like smoke or vapor even when we've barred the door against any last-minute changes, and it moves us to different countries and emotional territories and different ways of living.  It keeps us moving and dancing and watching, and never lets us drop down into a life set on cruise control or a life ruled by remote control.  Life with God is a daring dream, full of flashes and last-minute extras and generally all the things we've said we'll never do.  And with the surprises come great hope."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Review: I Hunt Killers

I recently read I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga.  This book is WAY out of my usual comfort zone.  I generally try to avoid anything that I think will give me bad dreams, and wow, this one had me utterly horrified even while I was awake.  But a group of YA afficionados through my library master's program read it and raved about it, and I've seen so many other blogs praising it as THE big thing right now, that I simply had to give it a try.

I Hunt Killers definitely did not disappoint.  The entire book was a little like watching a car accident--in the best possible way, meaning I simply could not force myself to look away, no matter how horrifying it was.

The premise of the book is this: 17-year-old Jasper "Jazz" Dent is a troubled young man.  Which is understandable, considering that he was raised by the world's most notorious serial killer--his father, Billy Dent.  During his "career," Billy killed over 120 people.  He also spent that timing grooming Jasper to carry on the "family business."  Jazz can remember being as young as 7 years old and being taken along to crime scenes with his father.  His father tutored him, in detail, on every aspect of murder, from selecting a "prospect," to breaking into their home, to torture and rape, to the actual killing, to how to cover it up afterwards.

When I Hunt Killers starts, Billy has been in prison for about four years, but he is still an ever-present voice in Jazz's mind.  Jazz struggles to be a "normal kid," whatever that means, but he can't seem to help seeing the world through Billy's eyes.  And then a dead body turns up in a field outside Jazz's town.  Jazz is convinced that it's the work of a serial killer, but the local police don't agree.  So Jazz launches his own investigation, hoping to prove to both himself and the people around him that he can use the skills that Billy taught him for good.

Reading this book was like being inside the head of a serial killer--because, after all, Jazz has all the same thoughts and skills as killers; he just hasn't killed anyone (yet).  It was very real and very, very scary.  At one point while I was reading it, I made a trip to the grocery store.  With every man that passed me in the aisles or made eye contact with me at all, I freaked out a little bit inside and thought, "Oh my gosh, what if he's a killer and regards me as a prospect?"  Scary, scary stuff.

In the end, I'm almost distressed to admit that I loved this book.  Immediately after finishing it, I went to Barry Lyga's website, where I was able to link to his prequel short story ("Career Day") and find out about the upcoming sequel, Game.  So while I Hunt Killers utterly terrified me, the character of Jasper himself was so likable, so fascinating, that I think I'm with this series for the long haul.  I Hunt Killers definitely isn't for everyone, but if you like scary books or psychological thrillers, definitely check it out.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Stacking the Shelves: November 15

Every week, Tynga's Reviews hosts Stacking the Shelves, where book bloggers share what books they've acquired this week. This year, Thursday is my designated "library day," so I'll be sharing my haul with you when time permits.
For me:
After re-reading Lois Lowry's The Giver and reading her new release, Son, I desperately wanted to go back and re-read the other two companion novels in this set.  I had Gathering Blue on my own shelf, but had to check Messenger out at the local library.
I've meant to read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho ever since a copy of it showed up at my parents' house when my brother was assigned to read it as an incoming college freshman.... way back in the fall of 2000.  Clearly this one has been on my "to read" list for WAY too long.  My motivation to finally pick it up came from my old book club (from before I moved, but I still like to read along with them whenever possible), which is reading it this month.
I've read tons of great reviews of David Levithan's newest release, Every Day, and have seen plenty of bloggers calling it "the best book of the year."  As if that wasn't intriguing enough, my dear friend Tracy also recommended it, and I'm always a fan of her recs.  I had to wait several weeks for my library to get it in, so I was thrilled to snatch it off the shelf this week!
I haven't acquired many books "for keeps" lately, but I'm thrilled to add these two to my collection.  My sweet sister-in-law Jill sent me copies of The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks and Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo for my birthday this week.  I've been wanting to read both of them and am excitedly adding them to my TBR pile.  Though I do hear that The Lucky One is kind of a gateway drug into Nicholas Sparks (who, shockingly, I have never read, though always meant to), so I'm anticipating a library run in the near future to check out more of his books!  (And, side note--do you have any idea how difficult it is to find an image of The Lucky One without Zac Efron's face plastered on it?)
For the kids:
A Child's Good Morning Book by Margaret Wise Brown, with illustrations by Karen Katz
A great author/illustrator combo!  Plus mornings have been pretty rough at our house lately, so I'm hoping this might make them a bit more cheery....
Goldilocks Returns by Lisa Campbell Ernst
My kids are big fans of fairy tales and also love to imagine the "what happened next?"
Cowboy Baby by Sue Heap
My little dude pulled this off the shelf at the library himself.
Velma Gratch & The Way Cool Butterfly by Alan Madison
My son has been very into "bubbaflies" lately, and this is a great story of a younger sibling coming into her own.
Peanut Butter and Homework Sandwiches by Lisa Broadie Cook
Very cute book for my first grader to log as her reading homework!
Our Library by Eve Bunting
Kids can achieve anything through the power of reading!
Owly & Wormy: Friends All Aflutter! by Andy Runton
Another nod to my son's recent love of "bubbaflies," this one is basically a graphic novel for kids.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: Son

When I used to teach The Giver in my high school English classes, I used to ask the students to project what might have happened to Jonas and Gabe after the end of the story.  My students generated all kinds of creative and fascinating scenarios for the pair.  But none of them came close to the story that Lois Lowry weaves in her long-awaited sequel.

Nineteen years after the original publication of The Giver, Lowry finally brings us its direct sequel, Son.  In the interim, she published both Gathering Blue and The Messenger, which are companion novels to The Giver, but neither answered the burning question of what happened to Jonas and Gabe (though The Messenger did indicate that they turned out okay).  To be honest, when I originally read Gathering Blue and The Messenger, I was disappointed by them.  Not because they weren't good stories in their own right, but because they only raised more questions for me, without answering the ones I had originally.

All of that changes with Son.  Finally, I can see how these three other stories weave together, creating a gorgeous and mysterious epic.  While I did re-read The Giver before reading Son, I did not re-read the others--but now I wish I had (and now have them both sitting on my bedside table).  While Son can be read and understood without have read these others, it is definitely enriched by their stories, and only together do they tell the whole story.

Son tells the story of Claire, who was Gabe's Birthmother.  Of course, in the society of The Giver, Birthmothers are never allowed to view (or have any kind of contact with) their Products.  But something goes wrong during Claire's delivery, and she is reassigned to a new career following her recovery.  During her dismissal as Birthmother, Claire learns her Product's number.  And even as she begins her new career, she feels something completely alien to her world blooming inside her: love.  It's not until later that she realizes that she is only capable of this emotion because in her reassignment, someone made an error and did not give her a prescription for the pills that stunt all emotions.

Fueled by this love, Claire finds ways to meet and interact with her Product--who turns out to be Gabe, the Newchild who is Nurtured by Jonas's father in The Giver.  When Jonas escapes the society, taking Gabe with him, Claire tries to follow, determined to be united with her son.  She quickly meets with a seafaring accident, though, and ends up in a community vastly different than the one she fled.

Son is divided into three parts, and each is essentially its own story.  In the first part ("Before"), Claire births her Product and watches the first year of his life from afar.  In the second part ("Between"), Claire is rescued from the sea by the people of a rural village.  She has lost her memory, and she seems to have never had any knowledge of things like colors, animals, or weather.  She slowly remembers her past and again becomes singleminded in her quest to find her son.  The only way out of the village is to scale an immense cliff wall, and she spends years training for the task.  In the third part ("Beyond"), Claire is transformed by a deal she strikes with the force of evil known only as Trademaster.  She finds her son, but only at a great price, and her identity remains unknown to Gabe.  This section tells of the society where Jonas once served as Leader (in The Messenger) and of Gabe's own quest.  Each section is beautifully written, and the complete work is a wonderful work of love, determination, and hope.

In short, you need to read this book.  If I haven't convinced you yet, check out these links:
* a review from The New York Times
* a Goodreads interview with Lois Lowry
* an interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: The Giver

I've read The Giver by Lois Lowry countless times over the years.  I read it first as a young teenager myself, then again when Lowry published Gathering Blue and then The Messenger, both of which are companion novels to The Giver.  I also had the joy of teaching this awesome book to my high school seniors.  In the district where I taught, the students originally read The Giver in sixth grade, and then we re-taught it in English 12.  The idea was to show students the joy of re-reading a good book, as well as showing them how one book can be read on so many different levels.  Most of my students told me that The Giver was their favorite book in all of English 12, and they were all shocked by how much was in it that they didn't understand when they read it as kids.

The Giver was THE first distinctive young adult (or some would say children's) dystopian novel, the yardstick by which all others are measured.  It is told from an innocent 12-year-old's point of view, and readers become so immersed in his voice that it's easy to miss the implications of the "pills," "release," and "Birthmothers."  What Lowry initially presents as the perfect society is slowly revealed to be oppressive.

In 12-year-old Jonas's world, there are no colors, no music, and no true emotions.  Family units are created when adults apply for a spouse and are assigned one by the Council of Elders.  Eventually, the Council will assign each family unit with one male and one female child.  When the children are grown and the children settled into careers of their own (also assigned by the Council), the parents then go to live with the other Childless Adults, and eventually on to the facility that cares for the Old.  Children have no contact with their parents after moving out of the homes in which they grew up.... but then again, "love" does not exist, so children really have no motivation to seek their parents out.  Every minute detail of the citizens' daily lives is determined for them, from how they spend their time to what they eat for each meal (delivered to their doors at prescribed times each day, with caloric content carefully figured for each person to keep all citizens at optimum weights).  When citizens become too Old, they are released to Elsewhere--a joyful ceremony, though no one seems to quite know where this "Elsewhere" is, as they are not permitted to travel outside their own community.

Then, at the Ceremony of Twelve, where all citizens (turning 12 years old) are assigned their future profession, Jonas is "selected" as the Receiver of Memory.  Neither he nor any of the other citizens really knows what that entails, just that it is a position of great honor that will set him apart from the rest of his community.  He begins lessons with an Elder who tells Jonas to call him "the Giver."  The Giver transmits memories of the past--the time before the community--to Jonas, thus teaching him about emotions, families, and colors.  And Jonas realizes that he can no longer be part of his society.  In the end, Jonas flees from the community--taking with him a Newchild named Gabriel who is scheduled for Release.

The end of The Giver is wide open for interpretation.  For years, I had great conversations about what might happen.  Do Jonas and Gabe make it to safety?  Or are the lights that he sees part of just another oppressive community?  Or is he imagining the lights, hallucinating as he freezes to death?  My only regret about the publication of Son, Lowry's long-awaited sequel, is that it eliminates some of the possibilities--but the story of Son itself definitely does not disappoint.

If you have not read The Giver, or if you haven't read it since you were a young teen yourself, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy.  It's a captivating read, each and every time.