Book Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale
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How I came by this book: majority rules, and while I’m not a huge historical fiction junkie (and by no means a romance novel addict) most of the members of my Tarpon Springs book club are apparently, because The Nightingale had the most votes for our September book choice.

Let me start by saying that historical fiction and nonfiction novels are so important. It’s necessary that we remember our history, both as a nation and a global community. If the topic is high-interest, and the book is well-written, you can occasionally catch me enjoying a historical fiction novel. Refugee by Alan Gratz and Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood are in my top 10 favorite middle grade reads (but maybe that’s my problem, they weren’t written for adults, and so they were much easier to consume). But I don’t usually go out of my way to read historical fiction; I’d much rather get caught up in a twisty, turny mystery/thriller or allow myself the nostalgia of returning to a dramatic young adult read. So maybe my bias towards historical fiction novels (which I’m working on) made it difficult from the first page to really get into this one.

Luckily for me, we’re hosting our German exchange student, Maria, and so I had the added enjoyment of discussing the history with her and asking for help on German word meanings (as well as generally butchering the pronunciation of said words). She also made the chore of reading a little lighter, telling me when she had to do homework that it was my time to do homework, as well. Knowing she was waiting to hear what I thought of the story may have been the only thing that kept me going!

Because, did I mention? This novel is 563 pages. But let’s start with what I enjoyed most about this story before I get to the gritty details of how painful it was for me to read.

This story was beautifully written. The language was appropriate for the time period and there was a good balance of the present (1995 present anyway) and the past. Writing in third person omniscient was necessary to follow the journeys of the two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, and each of their stories were seat-gripping and heart-shattering all at the same time. In the beginning, I was more attached to Isabelle’s plight and she felt like the more important character but the events of the story later changed my mind, making Vianne just as noble and important as circumstances in her life changed with the war. There were many instances where I was brought to tears, more so than any other fiction novel because this one was based on real events, real trials and tribulations that people actually went through during the second World War. It was devastating, heartbreaking, a tear-jerker, and whatever other synonyms you could use to describe a novel that steals a piece of your soul as you read it. This is a heavy story, albeit a tragically beautiful one, so mentally prepare yourself before starting on the girls’ journey.

What ruined this book for me I think was truly the sheer volume of it. 563 pages is a loooooot of pages for one book, unless it’s Harry Potter (and mind you, I’m also reading a book with my students, coincidentally another World War II story, and I usually read one or two for myself, so I had two other books going at the time that I was trying to conquer this beast of a book). To me, the length was overwhelming and felt unnecessary. I wasn’t truly invested in the story until I was about two-thirds of the way in (so about 375 pages) and to me that felt like a chore, forcing myself to read a book I wasn’t interested in. It literally goes against everything I tell my students when reading for pleasure; if you aren’t interested, it’s okay to abandon the book and find one you’d rather read. So I was set up for failure from the start, feeling like it was going to be my Everest, a really painful task that I had to force myself to do, to keep going (and I had to keep going because, book club). I realize World War II was a long, painful journey for those who lived through it, and I jokingly told my family that maybe the author was trying to put us through the same feeling with how long the book was, but it probably just comes down to how much information she needed to give us. As a writer, I’ll never discount another writer’s intentions for writing, and I know there’s always a purpose for what they write. To me, I felt the first hundred pages or so could have been summed up, and we could have jumped right into the heart of the war, the meat of the story that made it more interesting. But again, it wouldn’t be the same story if Hannah had done that, so I really can’t fault her for doing things the way she did, for telling every detail, however minute, so we’d fully understand what these characters, and the real people they’re created from, truly had to deal with during this time in our world’s history.

I want to give this book 4 out of 5 stars but I can’t forgive how overwhelmingly long it was, so for that I give it 3. I recommend it to any World War II buffs, anyone who enjoys historical fiction in general, and who doesn’t mind a good cry along the way. Get the tissues ready and enjoy this beautifully crafted tale.

Book Review: Best Nerds Forever

Hands down one of the best middle grade novels I've read in awhile! Thank you @JP_Books for writing this wholly entertaining novel.
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How I came by this book: one of my sixth grade students recommended Best Nerds Forever, and even gave me his copy to borrow (he was clearly very excited for me to read it). After doing his assigned summer reading of The Honest Truth, he decided to read this one as his choice book, given its similar themes (y’know, dying, dead boys, death, etc.). I must say I’m so glad he recommended this book to me, because I. LOVED. IT.

As the middle grade author of the I Funny and Middle School series, James Patterson books have adorned my class library bookshelves for many years. I’ve also seen his books for adults on many Barnes & Noble bookshelves (especially when I worked there in college). So the name was familiar, and I guessed his stories were good based on their popularity, but up until this point, I had read neither his books for children or books for adults. Assuming an author is a good one just because they’re famous is usually a surefire way to be disappointed if, in fact, the writing style isn’t to your liking or the book is famous for something other than the author’s actual ability to craft a well-written story. So I went into this one without expectations, even though in the back of my mind I assumed it would be good, as I said, simply because of who penned it (at least, one half of who penned it; sorry, Chris Grabenstein, I hadn’t heard of you before). But let me tell you, it was a million times better than I could have ever imagined.

From the first chapter, I knew I was going to enjoy this story. Really, from the first few lines: “Great. You’re here. I might as well get this whole messed-up story off my chest.” The story’s narrator, Finn, has a voice that is so genuine and so perfectly attuned with who he is as a character, and it’s apparent from page one. I could already tell the kind of boy he is (or was, I suppose, since he’s dead) from the get-go, and Patterson does a phenomenal job of keeping that voice intact until the last page. (I guess I really shouldn’t be so surprised, since he is a famous author and all; it’s kind of his job to write good novels). I honestly think Finn’s narration was my favorite part of the entire story, because it was just so good (shocking, I know, I thought the whole ‘being a ghost’ thing would be my absolute favorite part- we’ll just call it second favorite then).

One part fantasy, one part mystery mix together in this novel for an overall adventure for main characters Finn and Isabella, an adventure of trying to tie up loose ends and finish some very important unfinished business before moving on to the afterlife. The blend of the two genres was seamless, and the topic of death never once felt overwhelming or sad (except maybe at the very end, where I most definitely cried). I actually felt weird enjoying the story so much from the start, because I felt bad that I didn’t feel bad when Finn died- it’s kind of the whole premise of the story, after all. It’s important to have stories portraying real-life topics, especially heavy ones such as the death of a loved one, and this novel tackled that tough topic in such a beautiful way. The characters and their individual quirks were so well-developed, and I became invested in both Finn and Isabella’s stories immediately. The short chapters definitely helped propel me onward, telling myself “the chapters are short, just one more before I put it down and take a break.” The story was just that good, and I found myself disappointed whenever I’d have to take a break from reading it, looking forward to my next free moment to pick it back up again.

The only thing I’m not entirely sure how I feel about (and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers here, but no promises) was the ending. On one hand, I think the story could have wrapped up perfectly at the end of the final chapter, before the epilogue. It was heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time (and the part where I cried, of course), and just felt like such an appropriate end to the story. Part of me likes to pretend that was where the book stopped. Part of me is okay with going on to the epilogue, because that final piece was unexpected and beautiful in its own way (and made me cry, too). It also had such an important life lesson tied to it (although, in the final chapter’s defense, it too had a great moral). I can’t decide which ending I’d prefer, so I’ll leave it up to you, reader, to make your own decision.

Because the next middle grade book I hope every reader, young or old, picks up is this book.

Yes. It was that good.

Book Review: Here There Are Monsters

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How I came by this book: Here There Are Monsters has been sitting in my Amazon cart for about two years, since I first heard of it when one of my former sixth graders was reading it (although I wouldn’t recommend it to just any sixth grader, only more advanced readers, due to swearing and some mature content). Since I can’t read all the books I’m interested in at once, whenever I’m interested in a book, I toss it in my “save for later” section of my Amazon cart and eventually get around to ordering it or checking the book out from the public library. Knowing it wouldn’t be appropriate for my own class library, and being inundated with other books for the book club I host with my students, and the book club I host for adults in my local community (not to mention all the books I’ve been reading as research for my own novel writing, and just in general for my own pleasure and love of reading) this book sat in my cart for two years, off my radar in general. So when my eight grade students in August’s book club decided they wanted to do a more mature book, and decided on horror as the genre, I suggested this one. It sounded interesting to everyone, so we agreed, and off we went on our independent reading journey, to come back together at the end of the month to discuss our thoughts on the book, just like a traditional book club.

I had really high hopes for this book and I wanted to love it based on the synopsis, the title and the cover image (all of the things that I use to determine if a book is interesting enough to make me want to read in the first place). Unfortunately, I really only ended up just liking this book somewhat. It was just OK. It was very slow getting started, and that’s usually the easiest way to lose my interest in a book. If it takes me halfway or more than halfway through the book to actually feel like the story is starting, you can almost guarantee that, even though I’ll finish reading the book to the end, I’m not going to be very happy about it. And this book was no exception; it did exactly that. The synopsis tells us that Skye’s sister Deirdre goes missing, and alludes to the fact that she is in fact taken by these monsters or creatures of the forest, so that part doesn’t really require much explanation because that’s the whole premise of the story. At first it was unclear to me if her sister is missing because she actually ran away because she feels like an outcast, or is missing because she actually is kidnapped (the tagline on the cover implies the latter, but there were moments where I was unsure, which I guess added some mystery). I didn’t mind that there was a little bit of uncertainty in regards to why Deirdre was actually gone but I feel like more than half of the book was just exposition setting up the idea of these monsters in the woods, and there was actually very little interaction with the monsters themselves. Not every book hast to jump into the action from page one (like Karin Slaughter’s The Good Daughter), and in the author’s defense, it’s really hard to write good, scary horror novels (both within YA and adult genres), but I do appreciate when the authors, especially authors of thriller/mystery/horror genres, get to the good part, the meat of the story, fairly early on, otherwise I just lose interest. It doesn’t even have to be super scary, just make it interesting earlier.

Additionally, once the story actually got to the meat of the plot and more interesting stuff started happening, it really wasn’t all that scary. Creepy, yes, but scary? No, not really. So that was a bit of a disappointment, and maybe that’s my own fault for having expectations of the book that maybe I shouldn’t have, or just hoping for something that maybe was never intended by the author in the first place. It definitely felt more supernatural than spooky.

As for character development, we do get a bit of background into the relationship between the two sisters, about how close they used to be and how Skye, as the older sister, has now moved on and grown up from the world of make-believe in which her sister still resides. I would have liked a little more for both, Deirdre especially, since I didn’t totally buy into the fact that someone so needy and incapable of being independent was supposedly in 8th grade (so about 13 or 14 years old). Why was she this needy, freaky girl? Was there more to her backstory that we just didn’t get from the author? As a teacher of middle school students, it wasn’t exactly believable that someone as old as Deirdre was would behave in such an immature way (I actually kept forgetting she was supposed to be that age unless it was explicitly stated, always slipping into the notion that she was surely much younger based on her childish, irrational behavior). And maybe the author never intended her to actually come across as needy but rather someone who just loved and worshipped their sister and wanted her to be a central part of their life. If that was the true intention for this character on the part of the author, that notion was lost on me as the reader. While Skye was a more believable character, I never understood the build-up to the big reveal of her secret; I was expecting to find out that she killed someone (intentional or accidental, either way would have worked), but there was a bit of letdown when she finally comes out with it. I really liked her character trait of having the green thumb, and hoped it would come back up later in the story as a means of defeating the forest monsters, but it never did, it was just a random personality trait thrown in seemingly at random.

Lastly, I was definitely disappointed with the ending and felt like I was left wanting more. It’s unclear whether that’s how the author wants you to feel, the emotions she wants to leave you with (which seems likely based on everything else in the story) but as the reader, I wanted more from the ending that I just didn’t get. It was definitely an interesting ending though, and after reading the whole story and knowing everything about the characters that I do, it does make sense to end it the way she did. As a writer myself, I can definitely appreciate the direction the author took for her ending. Instead of giving us what we might expect, she went with the more unexpected direction. Though, as my husband always says when we watch a scary movie, the main characters always seem to sacrifice everyone and anyone just to save one person, so why bother?! The sacrifices of others didn’t seem worth it to me in the end, and I personally just felt frustrated and annoyed on Skye’s behalf, so maybe that’s why I wasn’t totally satisfied with the ending, even though it was well written and creative.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars, due to the lack of clarity or believability, as well as the misconception regarding the genre. From a writing standpoint, it was well written, I didn’t find any grammatical errors, the style and voice of Skye as our first-person narrator was on point, and the content was original. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, but I might forewarn anyone interested to go in with an open mind and zero expectations regarding the genre, and to be patient with the pacing of the plot; maybe if I had gone into this book in this way, I’d have enjoyed it more.

Book Review: Good Enough

Good Enough
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This book was so good I gobbled it up in just a few days (no pun intended). Though it’s a fictionalized account of a young girl during rehabilitation from her eating disorder, the author herself struggled with the same issues, which gave me a stronger sense of buy-in as a reader. While I don’t necessarily enjoy memoirs of someone’s firsthand account, I do enjoy when authors weave their real-life experiences into their characters’ (much like I do with my own writing).

Riley was a very dynamic character who came off the page right away. You immediately feel a connection to her, and want to follow her story, hoping you know the outcome it leads to. I thought the other characters in the story were also well-developed (at least as well developed as they can be, considering the whole limited first-person POV thing). I think a lot of that is a testament to Petro-Roy’s own experiences, as well as just really good writing. For example, in the beginning, Riley built her younger sister, Julia, up to be the golden child, making me assume that, once we finally meet her in person, Julia would be snarky and conceited, and would look down on her older sister as being weak, and not as good as her. But when that moment finally arrived, we see Julia is actually really supportive of her sister, and is the only one in her family that tries to act normal and treat her sister like a person, not just someone who is sick and will never get better. The fact that Riley eventually sees that sisterly love for herself made my heart smile even more.

Additionally, Petro-Roy does a great job at developing Riley’s friends, taking them from what feels like a sunny-day friend who can’t (or isn’t willing to) see their friend for who she is past her disease to the type of friend who openly supports Riley on her journey to recovery. At first, Riley’s friends almost come off as the type of friend who would rather pretend you don’t exist than have to acknowledge the hard times you’re going through, but after some time to consider that maybe they are just having their own hard time dealing with their friend being sick, Petro-Roy shows us what good, supportive friends they actually are. Even the new friends Riley makes in the hospital (with Ali being the only exception) all seem to lift Riley up, even as they deal with their own diseases. Much like real life, it’s apparent that they see everyone around them as perfect just the way they are- “I wish they didn’t hate themselves so much. They’re all pretty. Their bodies don’t matter to me. Their bodies don’t matter. Mine does, though.” as Riley says at one point- and the only one who actually judges them the harshest is themselves. This feeling couldn’t have been more true for most of us when we were at that tender age of twelve (and even sometimes as an adult), so whether it was something the author herself felt at the time when dealing with her disease, or just something she was perceptive enough to pick up on, it serves to strengthen all of the characters as they battle for their lives.

The format of this novel, written as if it were Riley’s diary, is perfectly suited for the type of story Petro-Roy is telling. In fact, I don’t think any other style would have worked as well, because much of Riley’s daily struggles, aside from the whole not eating thing, come from the torrent of thoughts and feelings that she has about her eating at any given moment. The story really needs that first-person narration, and since it’s supposed to be her diary, we get that somewhat unreliable narrator aspect, the one that allows her to vent and whine and be nervous and anxious and unrealistic and illogical and still tell a great story, because it’s her story. And while I’m not familiar with what it’s like to deal with an eating disorder, I do have experience with similar struggles which warrant such negative, tug-of-war thinking, so it was a very relatable story in that aspect. Riley tries hard to explain it to her mother, saying ‘”Stuff happened.” It wasn’t much of an answer, but it was the only one I had. My parents didn’t cause my eating disorder. My friends or Ali or running or the media didn’t, either. I got sick because of a whole list of ingredients poured into a pot. Sometimes I can taste one ingredient more than another, but everything contributes, along with a few extra ingredients I can’t quite identify.”‘ And she’s right. I don’t get having an eating disorder but I 100% get having those thoughts about yourself, about your worth and whether you’re good enough, and wondering what made you like that in the first place. Because, really, we’ve all had “stuff happen” to us in our lives at some point or another, dark stuff or simply just stuff that wasn’t nice or what we expected or hoped for, stuff that made us question ourselves enough to decide to be unhappy for a period of time in our life. So, while every reader might not connect with the story of her recovery from an eating disorder, I think almost every reader will connect with the struggles she goes through to get out the other side, to stay positive, to be strong enough to overcome the darkness that tries to pull her down every single day. Couple that with writing that just flows, and you’ve got a great novel. Hands down 5 out of 5 stars. Couldn’t read it fast enough.

Book Review: A Danger to Herself and Others

Amazon.com: A Danger to Herself and Others (9781492667247): Sheinmel,  Alyssa: Books
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A Danger to Herself and Others wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, in a good way. When MC Hannah is institutionalized, I expected there to be more focus on the reason why, the before, but that wasn’t the point of the story, not really. What landed her there was just the catalyst needed to help the author dissect Hannah’s character and prove her unreliability, for reasons that are detailed as the story unfolds.

I thought the decision to make Hannah an only child from a wealthy Manhattan family was a decidedly good one, to help show that no one, regardless of economic status or privilege, is safe from the issues that plague Hannah throughout the story. Being an only child was also an important factor that made Hannah’s constant plight to find a best friend more meaningful, with her parents behavior from the time she was small to the time they reenter the story at the end solidifying the necessity of that plight tenfold. Though there isn’t much character development for any other character aside from Hannah, it works for a novel like this, and was likely intentionally on the part of Sheinmel. We don’t really need to know more about the other characters, and how Hannah portrays them is enough to satisfy the story.

Initially, I’m just as frustrated for Hannah as she is, exasperated with the doctors and the court for locking her away so quickly after what seems like a mere accident. The author does a great job of creating Dr. Lightfoot out to be someone you hate right along with Hannah in the beginning, at times wanting to go right into the story and shake her and tell her how wrong she is for putting Hannah through this. By the end, though, I empathized with Hannah and actually thanked Lightfoot for everything she had done and said all along. It’s a sign of decent writing that you can go from hating a character so much to actually appreciating them.

All of that being said, for whatever reason I wasn’t blown away by the writing, and I spent much of the story waiting for something to feel like it was actually happening. The first half of the story felt mostly like exposition, like it was just setting the scene, but I can’t tell if that was the fault of the writing or my own, for misunderstanding the book jacket synopsis and assuming I was going to get something out of the story that was never intended. While I felt like it was slow-going for awhile, there was enough to pull me in and make me interested, to keep coming back and picking up the book to read and find out more. And I will admit that when the “big reveal” was finally, well, revealed, I wasn’t really expecting it. I knew there was something “sinister” about Hannah overall (for lack of a better word, or at least one that doesn’t provide too much of a spoiler) but it wasn’t what I was expecting. So I’m always pleased with a book when it’s able to throw me off guard with a twist I hadn’t seen coming. Though I enjoyed Sheinmel’s “R.I.P. Eliza Hart” much more than this one, it was still a good read, and overall, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars.