Brief thoughts on books you may or may not want to explore on your own.
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I teased a friend of mine recently when I noticed she had put this novel on her “to-read” list in Goodreads at pretty much the same time that I put in on reserve at the library. The reason? Author John Green touted it as one of the very best novels he’s ever read. If you keep up with my blog at all – especially these Reads and Recs ones – then you know how much I idolize, fangirl, respect him, so it seemed natural to add this book immediately to my list with his endorsement. (My friend loves Green, too – hence why I teased both of us for our knee-jerk reactions. Haha.)
This story maps the experiences of a North Korean man who, because of his orphan status (although, it turns out, he isn’t technically an orphan), ends up having to do many odd and unsavory jobs. In the second half of the book, he takes on a new persona of the Ministor of Prison Mines, Commander Ga, who is both a rival and a comrade of Kim Jong Il. It is in this persona that he attempts to help Commander Ga’s wife and children defect to the U.S.
I really wasn’t sure about this novel at first. In fact, most of the book jacket summary covers only the first 10 pages, so that sort of irritated me and the first 5 pages are confusing and ultimately unnecessary. I almost gave up on this book because for most of Part I, I couldn’t really understand the purpose or where the plot was headed. While Part II pulls those threads from Part I and weaves them into place, I still found that parts of the plot felt off, although I was hooked into the storytelling of the main character’s actions and consequences in his replacement role and the description of North Korean lifestyles under Kim Jong Il’s rule is fascinating. If you know that you don’t really need to understand what’s going on in the opening pages and trust that much of what you’re reading in the latter half of the first part will matter in the second part, then you’ll immerse yourself more readily with this story.
I’ve mentioned before when I’ve reviewed romances how there are romance novels and then there are smartly written ones. Drake is one that falls in the latter category. She brings in real emotion and tough issues rather than simply having characters that have been in “bad relationships”. In this novel, a motorcycle accident straps Samantha – Sam – in a small town in California. Her bike needs serious repair and as a construction contractor, decides to take on a remodel while waiting. While the endgame of the story is the relationship that Sam develops with the mechanic who has her motorcycle, Nick, there’s a lot more story in Sam’s history and the new people around her.
Like Drake’s first novel, The Sweet Spot, I felt that the sections that held Nick’s point of view unnecessary. In the romances I’ve read, I’ve generally seen an equal amount of time given to each side of a relationship. In Drake’s novels, the point of view is weighed far more heavily on a single main character, and because of that, I think that is why I find the counterpart perspective almost a distraction. I suppose the idea is to reassure the reader right away that the relationship will work out, which is not something that is guaranteed in other kinds of fiction. Probably I am imposing my favoritism for Drake’s female characters, who are strong and relatable over all else. Though I am not a hard-hitting romance reader, I am a sucker for a love story and Drake’s novels lean enough this way such that I will continue to read her work.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
So many people (especially so many that I admire and respect their opinion on books) told me about how wonderful this book is that I can’t believe I hadn’t ever read it until now. They were not wrong, it is a beautiful novel. And because I only just read it recently, I will probably do better to wait on watching the movie that is now out based upon it because movies so rarely are able to do a book justice, I don’t want to be disappointed.
The title is more poignant than telling except although ultimately, the theme of words comes through loud and clear. I didn’t feel this theme very early on; it takes a bit for it to root in, but once there I could feel it hum. Set in a small town outside of Munich, Germany at the start of World War II, Liesel is a young girl who is being sent to that small town as a foster child. Her brother was supposed to join her, but he died along the way, setting a sad scene already. At his funeral, a cemetery worker drops a book, which Liesel picks up, the trend to start her as a “book thief”. Her foster father teaches Liesel to read and to develop a passion for it and compassion for the people around her as they are not 100% on board with Hitler’s vision for Germany.
It takes a little bit to adjust to the narrative style as it is written from the point of view of “Death”, who both deliberately foreshadows at times and also interjects mini-reflections or observations. However, once you get past that, the story takes you along on an emotional journey of authentic characterization and plot.
This is the third book in Roth’s Divergent trilogy, one which covers a dystopian world where society is divided into factions according to tests that determine where your strengths lie. If you haven’t read the other two and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. This book picks up where Insurgent left off, with the discovery that the city/world the characters live in was created specifically to hopefully help the larger society outside of its walls. One of the factionless leaders has taken over the interior and Tris, the main character, who is divergent (ie: hidden talent to be able to have chosen more than one faction), helps lead an expedition beyond the walls to see the greater society. What they discover is an interesting concept on DNA experimentation, and while the stakes were compelling, the timeline and some of the execution of the resolution fell a bit flat for me.
With how Insurgent ended, I knew I was uncertain with how this final installment would go, and unfortunately, it met my expectations, which disappointed me. I had hoped I would be wrong and was ready to be wrong. However, while the first two novels are told in first person through Tris’ eyes, this last one has alternating points of view between Tris and her counterpart, Tobias. Tobias is a pretty interesting character, but his voice was lost in this novel as each perspective sounded too much the same. Frequently I had to double back to remind myself of whose head I was in during a chapter. I assumed there would be a purpose for the alternating perspectives, and without giving away anything, I can see where Roth might have gone with that purpose, but I don’t think it was necessary. I did not like one particular path of the resolution, finding it unnecessary. What I still liked was Tris, the potential backlash of the DNA project, and the development of some of the peripheral characters.
Divergent still remains as the strongest of the trilogy and the movie will be coming out next year.
MIDDLE GRADE FICTION:
This story is of Hazel, an 11-year old girl who is best friends with Jack. Jack’s friendship is probably the only thing that is helping Hazel get through school, as the rest of her experience there has been one of feeling as “other”. She is more creative and imaginative and previously she had attended a school that better celebrated this. However, with divorce, Hazel has had to transition in more ways than one.
Her immersion in fantasy helps her recognize when something goes wrong with Jack and he disappears in a sudden and mysterious manner, though the adults in her world do not see anything amiss. In fact, he has been infected with a piece of glass that has made his heart frozen, and as such, he willingly follows a Snow Queen into a land only recognizable in fairy tales. I enjoyed this story for the authentic view that Hazel has of her world through an 11-year old’s eyes in pain. Hazel goes to save her friend, and shows that in spite of her fractured life, she is strong of mind and heart, which will help her be successful.
Uru’s most recent novel, The Real Boy, made it to the long list for the National Book Award, and having tried this one out, I will read that one and others of hers.
Bottom-line recs of “must-reads”: The Book Thief
Currently I am reading We Were Here, by Matt de la Peña
More importantly: what are YOU reading? What should I be reading next? Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Leave a comment or send me a shout out on Twitter – let’s chat!