The Shack

Image result for the shack bookFirst Lines: Who wouldn’t be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?  And this was the shack.

If it hadn’t been for the Great American Read, I wouldn’t have probably read this.  Or at the very least, I wouldn’t have read this this summer.  Of course, I’d heard about this and even saw the movie (which I will be reviewing very soon!!) so it wasn’t like I didn’t know exactly what it was about.  But…I was still interested.

Mackenzie “Mack” Philips’s daughter Missy was abducted and murdered during a weekend vacation, her body found in an abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness.  Four years later, while still suffering from guilt, Mack receives a letter apparently from God, inviting him to return to the shack for the weekend.  Against his better judgment, Mack goes to the shack to face his darkest nightmare once more.  What he finds there changes Mack forever.

Look, I’m the first person to tell you that I’m not exactly “religious”. My problem stems mostly from the organizations of religion rather than religion itself and this book–surprisingly–supported my thoughts on this topic. It’s not often I find a religion-based book that doesn’t make me roll my eyes or want to immediately put it down for all of the condescension.  (Hello, Catholicism, my old frenemy.)

Mack is suffering from a horrific trauma that no parent should have to go through (but unfortunately, some do). He’s a bit bitter, he’s lost, and he’s stuck in his life. He’s completely relateable. There’s a lot of empathy we as readers feel for him. We get it. We would probably feel the same way in his place.

But of course the real interesting characters are Papa, Jesus, and Saranyu. I don’t want to say too much if you truly don’t know what this story is about, but just suffice it to say they steal most scenes they’re in, especially when more than one of them are in the same scene.

The story is bittersweet, which is exactly what I was expecting. I was looking for a story about someone moving on from a tragedy. That in itself is always going to be bittersweet.

I do have two minor complaints about the book. The first is that no matter how many times I read certain passages, I just didn’t get them. It’s a lot of philosophy and sometimes, it just went way over my head. But that seemed to be what the characters (and by extension, the author) were going for. The other is that the emotions didn’t always feel real.  There were times in the book that felt a little…patronizing? At the very least, there was something awkward or forced about the emotions in just a couple of scenes. It just seemed awkward at times. Like I said, these are just minor complaints and really didn’t detract from my overall reading experience.

I do think it’s the kind of book that everyone should try once because there’s a lot of wisdom in it, even if you are’t particularly religious.  At its core (well, besides the religious core), it’s the story of a man dealing with an unimaginable loss and growing as a person.  This is also the kind of book I think I’ll be pulling out again from time to time when I’m at a crossroads. It’s just that kind of book.

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The Hearts We Sold

Image result for the hearts we soldFirst Lines: A demon was knitting outside the hospital.

I was going to put more about the first lines down, but I think this one is attention-getting.  It certainly got mine.  Now this was something I picked up on a whim at the library.  The title caught my attention and when I read the jacket and learned there were demons, I was in.

In Dee’s world, demons are a  part of life.  They offer deals in exchange for body parts.  When Dee makes a deal with a demon–her heart in exchange for escape from an awful home life–Dee suddenly learns the true cost of dealing with a demon.  And it’s much worse than she ever could have anticipated.  With her whole world turned upside-down, the only people who help keep Dee grounded are other deal-making teens in her same position, including the charming James Lancer.  Between the nightmares coming to life and the realities of her new life, Dee wonders if she can give her heart to someone when it isn’t hers to give.

WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN HIDING?  If it had not been for the chance encounter at the library, I probably never would’ve read this.

And boy, was it worth it. Dee is a quiet girl, just trying to survive at her boarding school when she finds out her scholarship is disappearing…and that would send her back to the home she’s desperate to leave. So she sells her heart to a demon to make sure that doesn’t happen.  It gave her an inner fortitude that it didn’t initially look like she had.  And I liked that.

This book was powerful. (I’ll admit, it took a little while to get that ball rolling, though.) There are so many angles that this story comes from. Sometimes it’s fantasy. Sometimes sci-fi. Sometimes contemporary romance. It’s all over the place, but everything’s woven together so well that you really don’t even mind.

From the beginning, it caught my attention. Then after the story got going, it felt like it was slowing down a bit. But by the middle of the book, I was so in. The plot is really interesting and will keep you on your toes. Even when I sort of knew what was coming, there were elements of it that I didn’t see.

The characters are really interesting as well. From Dee, the quiet and always fearful one to James, the artistic bohemian with a sense of humor to Gremma, Dee’s frightening but caring roommate and Daemon, the demon that Dee worked for who actually had some depth to him. The characters are why I kept reading.

But let’s not lie. This whole demons plot thing was excellent. It was interesting and the world building surrounding it was well done. I was invested in it and the consequences that came with even one foul step. It was just great.

Like I said earlier, this book is also powerful. It looks at themes of what it means to live, what makes a life worth living, and how far we’ll go to survive. It was really great.

The book wasn’t perfect (there are a few plot holes that never got properly explained, in my opinion), but it was so entertaining.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Between, #1)

Image result for between the devil and the deep blue seaFirst Lines: “You stop fearing the devil when you’re holding his hand.”  Freddie said this to me, when I was little.  Everyone called my grandmother by her nickname, even my parents, because, as she put it, Freddie, short for Fredrikke was her name.  Not Mother, or Grandmother.  Just Freddie.

I bought this a while ago from a dollar store, which is actually where I can find some nice books to take to school.  I just wanted to read this one first.  How could I not, with a title like that?

Nothing ever happens in Violet’s hometown.  Well, at least not until the day River West arrives and rents the guesthouse on Violet’s family’s estate.  At first, Violet’s enchanted by this stranger…and then weird, grim things start happening in town.  Then Violet begins to wonder who is this stranger she’s invited into her home?  Is he just a liar or something worse?  Violet’s grandmother used to warn her about the devil, but she never told Violet he’d be cute and want to kiss her.  What’s a girl to do when the boy she loves may just be evil?

Like I said, I bought this for super cheap and let it languish on my shelves.

Maybe it should have just stayed there.

Look, I liked the premise. I liked the idea of having a devil-esque character come to a town and create chaos. I liked that Violet was the one who really had to determine what to do about it.

I just never counted on the characters being so vastly unlikable. And while I know that’s entirely my opinion and a number of people think this is actually a quality of fantastic writing, I am not of that mind. I was so uncomfortable with the characters and Violet’s decisions that I felt physically sick at times.

Here’s why. I got that River was this “bad boy” type and that that’s attractive at first. But River’s not your leather jacket-wearing, tattoo-sporting, breaking-curfew type of bad boy. He’s more like murder-your-neighbors-and-laugh-about-it dangerous. When he did things that were bad (and I’m talking legitimately morally, criminally, and violently wrong), he was completely unrepentant. Psychopathic unrepentant. It was frigging scary, especially considering we’re seeing that kind of evil on TV every week now.

The worst part? Violet kept making excuses for his behavior. Within the same conversation–and this is not an exaggeration–she would hate him and fear for her life and want him to leave, but then when he’d ask to hold her or whatever, she would agree. WHAT THE FUDGE, GIRLFRIEND? It was infuriating and it also made me feel sick.  Having been in manipulative relationships before, this was a huge red flag.

The only thing I could think was that maybe the author was trying to show teens what addiction/emotionally abusive relationships look like, but that wasn’t addressed at all. (Addiction was, but from River’s perspective, which barely seemed to count.)

While I’m talking about characters, let’s talk about how unrealistic a number of them were. Besides Violet’s (and by extension, her twin brother Luke’s) lack of doing anything about the evil in their presence, the characters mostly act like they were all born in the 1940s. They watch Casablanca in the park (yes, even 12 year olds). They talk in ways that teenagers don’t talk, especially the 14 and under crowd. Violet and Luke, I let them have a little leeway because as you get older, sometimes you can be more in touch with the past. I certainly was. But there’s a 14 year old in the story who is the most utterly unrealistic character. Never in my life have I heard a 14 year old refer to anyone as “innocent as a day old colt” or use phrases like “morally ambiguous” with every other page referring to “whores.” It was unsettling, but also not something that an 8th grader would ever really be saying. (I teach 8th graders and most of what this kid said…most of my kids don’t even know what those words mean.)

And let’s face it, even factoring in the whole semi-magical Devil aspect of this story, the plot just seems completely unrealistic. Like no one in town is concerned about all of these awful things that are happening? Half of which would have made the national news? Also, parents that leave their children (even 17 year olds) alone for the better part of a year would wind up being arrested and the children put into protective services. They would not be able to live alone in a house with no money for food and with everyone in town knowing they were alone like that. Ugh. I just had a lot that didn’t sit right with me about this book.

So yeah, I didn’t particularly care for this book. I’m glad to be done with it.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly

Image result for the sacred lies of minnow blyFirst Lines: I am a blood-soaked girl.  Before me, a body.  Pulped.  My boots drenched with his blood.

This was a book that had on my to-read list for a number of years and only just put on hold to read.  Honestly, I didn’t even really remember what it was supposed to be about when I started reading it.

The Kevinian cult has taken everything from Minnow–her freedom, her education, and when she rebelled, her hands.  Now the Prophet is dead and the camp burned to the ground.  Minnow knows what happened–but she isn’t talking.  Left to languish in juvie, Minnow struggles to learn what “normal” looks like and adjust to life behind bars.  But when an FBI detective approaches Minnow with a possible deal, she sees she can have her freedom…if she’s willing to part with her darkest secrets.

This was different than I was expecting, from the very beginning. You read a lot of cult books that deal more with the mental anguish, the emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse that people deal with at the hands of the people in charge. It’s the same song and dance every time, just with someone else at the head proclaiming that they are holy and know best.  (I’m not trying to diminish what people actually go through in cults, just that story plots tend to focus on the same things book after book.)

And while this did delve into those issues, it did so in a different way than I expected: through flashbacks. Because Minnow has already escaped by the time this story starts. She’s just letting us (and the few she chooses to tell) relive it.

It can be brutal at times, there’s no denying it. But this story is also surprisingly hopeful. Minnow knows that things aren’t right at the Community and when she finally escapes, things go even more sideways. But though all of that (and as she starts to find her feet in this different world), she becomes pretty optimistic about what she can do with herself. She wants to acclimate to the normal world. She wants to learn about all these things she always had questions about but never had answers.

I thought it was interesting how the plot unfolded.  It was gripping, the way we only learned bits and pieces at a time.  But also because of the juvie angle.  There aren’t too many books I find that have characters actually in prison during the story.

A number of the characters actually sell this story, the top of the list being Minnow herself.  She comes alive through this story, in a way that some characters never do.  Even before you know her whole story, you come to understand her and why she does what she does.  You empathize with her.

It was a surprisingly sweet and insightful story. There’s a lot of depth to this story, in many unexpected ways. Of course, some of the story goes as you could predict, but enough elements are surprising that you stay pretty well hooked.

The Upside of Unrequited

5139zwihtyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_First Lines: I’m on the toilet at the 9:30 Club, and I’m wondering how mermaids pee.  This isn’t random.  There’s a mermaid Barbie attached to the door of the bathroom here.  Which is a pretty odd choice for a bathroom mascot.  If that’s even a thing.

Hey guys!  So I got this as an ARC ages ago and forgot I had it…(oops?)…but I did manage to finish it around the time it came out!  (It released yesterday.)  At least I’m timely!  Anyway, I had to give this book a try.

Molly knows all about crushes and unrequited love, since she’s had twenty-six crushes throughout her life.  And it doesn’t matter how many times her twin sister Cassie tells her to get out there because Molly can’t stand the idea of being rejected.  Fat girls never win the guy in movies.  When a cute girl comes into Cassie’s life, Molly finds herself suddenly alone and dealing with her sister’s love life.  Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend brings with her a cute hipster boy.  If Molly can win him over, he could be her first kiss.  The only problem is Reid, Molly’s chubby Tolkein-superfan coworker.  Because there’s no way Reid could be cuter than the hipster…right?

I was up and down with this book. There are some very intelligent observations in this book about family, relationships, and friends. I appreciated those. I also really liked its portrayal of love in all its forms. (We have lesbian parents, another couple involving one female who is gay and one female who is pansexual, and straight couples too.) I didn’t feel like it was trying to make a big flashy point like, “LOOK! WE HAVE A GAY COUPLE HERE! PRAISE ME FOR ADDING GAY CHARACTERS!” It felt more natural. No one questioned why anyone was gay or straight or anything else. It was just their normal.

I also liked the portrayal of those uncomfortable feelings, like being a third wheel or having an unconventional, politically-incorrect, probably racist grandmother making uncomfortable comments in front of other people. (As cringe-y as she was, I did like Grandma Betty.)  And the truths about dealing with misogyny, weight, social pressures, etc.  This book covered a lot of ground.

I liked that the main characters included so many diverse types. Molly is, by her own admission, a big girl. She has two moms, one white and one black. Her twin sister is gay. Molly’s friends include total nerds and hipsters. So it was cool to see how some of this played out throughout the story.  And, of course, I love people who are unapologetic nerds.  The ones who like what they like and everyone else can take it or leave it.  There are a few of those in this story too.

But there were also things I didn’t like. I didn’t like the constant (and I mean constant) profanity. And boy, do they get creative with it. I think every other page had some form of profanity on it. Yes, I know people curse, but this was prolific.

I also thought a lot of the dialogue was unnecessarily vulgar and forced. I have lived a quarter of a century and I have never had 60% of the conversations Molly and her friends have about female bodies, boys, sex, etc. Nor have I heard most of those conversations at any point. At first it felt fine, like it was a little bit of a shock factor but whatever. But the longer it kept going on, the more it sounded like that attention-grabbing student who blurts out dirty comments in order to get the class to pay attention to them. It was more annoying than anything.

It just all came across as kind of eh to me. I keep picking it up and then losing interest. Not that it wasn’t good in a lot of ways, but it just didn’t keep my attention.  But given its high rating on Goodreads, it’s working for a lot of people.  Just not me.

The Outlaws of Sherwood

51g4kt1rhxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_First Lines: A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way.

Hey guys!  So I grabbed this at the library because A) it’s Robin McKinley, who has written some of my favorite Beauty and the Beast retellings and B) I really do love me some Robin Hood.  I’m on a British/medieval kick right now (not really shocking, since I am about 60% of the time anyway), and this seemed like it would hit the spot.

Robin, a young forester, is weak.  Or at least that’s what the other foresters think.  As a target for their bullying, Robin does his best to stay out of their way.  But when one confrontation leaves a man dead, Robin knows his only option is to hide in Sherwood Forest.  With the help of a few friends, Robin manages to put together a small camp and recruit others who don’t fit in.  But creating a band of outlaws is the easy part…what happens when the Sheriff of Nottingham begins hunting for them?

I’m not really doing this book justice with that blurb, because it covers so much of the Robin story that it’s impossible to mention all of it, but it covers the big parts.

This was pretty well done. It does start off slow though, I will say. It took me a while to get into the story, but once I did, it was cute. There were a few twists I was not expecting, which says something for a legend I know as well as this one. I liked the changes that she made to the story (which every author does) and I thought it built well on the original legend.

The characters are all quite charming (well, besides the villains, obviously). They each have their quirks and I liked being introduced to each of them. I really liked Little John, who has been rapidly rising in my respect of his character the more I read these retellings.  And it has all the old favorites: Alan-a-dale, Much, Marian (who is a very strong and vivacious lead, certainly not a caricature), Will Scarlet, the Sheriff, King Richard, etc.  It also includes characters I was not familiar with.  A few I’m pretty sure were made up for this story (like the young Cecil, who becomes Little John’s boy), but others I think are in some of the older version of Robin Hood and have been dropped in more recent years.

Speaking of characters, as I mentioned with Marian, she is a female character worthy of admiration.  Most/all of the female characters were.  I absolutely loved that McKinley made it a point to show the strength of women, whether they were fighters, nobles, or simply the kitchen help.  Each one of them had a moment where you saw them as a person with fears and strengths rather than simply a shadowy, requisite female character.

The plot, after the beginning, can be quite exciting.  We cover so many of the stories surrounding Robin that we’re familiar with: Robin on the run, meeting Little John, Robin’s feelings for Marian, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, etc.  This story does make it more of an Us vs. Them story, with the Saxons (the original people of England) vs. the Norman invaders (those who came from France with William the Conqueror to take over and settle England, thus starting British history as we know it).  This was a point of real contention at this time, and it was a twist that I don’t usually see a lot in modern Robin Hood tales.

The ending is definitely worth it. It just takes a little while for this band of merry men (and women) to get going.

Romeo and What’s Her Name

28265679First Lines: “What’s so urgent?” my best friend Jillian Frankel called out as she made her way through the throngs of juniors clogging the halls of Shaker Heights High School.

Hey guys!  So I’m on Spring Break this week and incredibly hopeful that I’ll get a few more posts up than I have been lately!  (Also, I know it’s April Fools today, but let’s just ignore that.  Not really a fan of this “holiday” anyway.)  So this book was one that I wanted to read because of the Shakespeare connection.  And the acting.  You’ll see.

I’m just going to copy the actual jacket here, since it does a good job: Understudies never get to perform. . . which is why being Juliet’s understudy in the school’s yearly “Evening with Shakespeare” is the perfect role for Emily. She can earn some much-needed extra credit while pursuing her main goal of spending time with Wes, aka Romeo, aka the hottest, nicest guy in school (in her completely unbiased opinion). And she meant to learn her lines, really, it’s just:
a) Shakespeare is HARD,
b) Amanda, aka the “real” Juliet, makes her run errands instead of lines, and
c) there’s no point because Amanda would never miss the chance to be the star of the show.

Then, Amanda ends up in the hospital and Emily, as the (completely unprepared!) understudy, has to star opposite the guy of her dreams. Oops?

It was…sort of cute. If this was any Shakespearean work, it was A Comedy of Errors. Everything that our characters do is just one farce after another. Emily especially is basically a comedian in teenager form. Everything she touches turns into a clumsy accident. Which, while funny, gets incredibly old when she seems to be incompetent rather than simply an unfortunate girl.

It wasn’t until the second half of the book that I started getting more into it. I truly almost put it down in the beginning because I just couldn’t connect with anyone or anything. Even the Shakespeare sometimes made me cringe (especially Emily’s attempts at Shakespearean language). While I’m not a Shakespearean purist by any means, I do think it needs to be treated with respect. And I didn’t really feel like this book did that, so it was off-putting to me as an English teacher/nerd. For the normal reader? It’s probably not a huge deal.

The second half, as I mentioned, was better. I understood the friendships better and Emily was less of a Danger-Prone-Daphne. If only the Emily that existed there could have existed throughout most of the book.

I also struggled with some of the characters seeming like complete stereotypes. Amanda, Emily’s rival for the role of Juliet and Wes’s affections, is your textbook Queen Bee. Vicious, popular, manipulative, and nasty, Amanda is every Mean Girl we hated in school. But it’s completely a caricature rather than feeling like an actual character. It just wasn’t fun to read.

I think part of my problem was with the writing style.  It was very obvious.  I mean, you can tell so much information from the first sentence alone, like an info-dump there.  I’m not saying the whole book was an info-dump, but it was one of those where the surprises were never subtle.  It was one where Emily would say things like, “Why should I do that?  That’ll never happen.”  And then it does.  Like 10 times over.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  It’s only funny like twice.
But I did still kinda like it because it was still entertaining after I understood what was going on. It just wasn’t as great as I was hoping.