The Chosen OneAlmost-fourteen-year-old Kyra lives on a polygamist compound with her father, his three wives, and twenty siblings. She sneaks out to get books from the Bookmobile from the nearest library that drives by once a week, secretly meets a boy her own age to steal kisses, and her mothers speak longingly of their own childhoods—when they were allowed to leave the compound freely and non-Bible books weren’t burned—but generally, her life is happy, surrounded by family she loves. Then the Prophet announces that she’s been Chosen as the seventh wife of her fifty-year-old uncle.

It’s a very short, very intense book. Kyra’s pain, confusion, and wavering determination are palpable in the first-person narration. The violence, manipulation, sexual violence, and misogyny inherent in this sort of fundamentalist compound life are vividly but simply portrayed, but it doesn’t make demons of everyone who lives there; Kyra’s family, though obedient believers, are loving, well-intentioned people who stand by each other and try to protect Kyra as far as they are able. If that isn’t nearly as far as we would like, the past trauma of Kyra’s parents—including her father’s other wives— helps explain why they have such limitations.

The narration suffers a bit from ill-defined flashbacks; it’s sometimes hard to keep track of whether you’re reading about now or then. The flashbacks establishing Kyra’s relationship with the Bookmobile and the man who drives it are compelling and help establish how Kyra has developed her worldview; those featuring her romance with a boy her own age are less compelling and less interesting. Happily, they’re short enough and few enough to be mere blips in an otherwise powerful novel.

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The Chosen One

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A Northern Light Book Cover by Jennifer DonnellyOne day in 1906, a guest staying at the hotel where Mattie works asks Mattie to burn a stack of letters. Then the young lady goes off boating, turning up twelve hours, dead. Mattie is left with the stack of letters, her promise to burn them, and many questions. Mattie pieces together what happened to the dead woman amidst her own indecision about the future: whether to follow her love of books and writing to Barnard College in New York City or whether to stay in the sleepy upstate New York farm community with her family, the neighbors she’s known all her life, and the boy she’s sweet on.

That boy, Royal, happens to be a royal ass. A pretty ass, and one who pays unprecedented attention to plain Mattie; it’s no mystery why she goes around with him. As an adult-type reading it, I didn’t have much patience for the elevated position Royal gets in Mattie’s indecision. You feel like you’d be betraying your dead mother by leaving your father and sisters to go to college? I still think you should go to college, but I can respect your inner conflict. You like snogging the jerk who doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t respect you, and is really mean to people you care about it? Dump him and go to college. You’ll find someone else to snog. Maybe someone you can have an actual conversation with, hm? Mattie’s desire to be happy with Royal is understandable and realistic, but it’s frustrating.

Despite the frustration, it’s a very good, and enjoyable book. Mattie has a nice balance of spunkiness and nervousness, intelligence and a hint of naivete. and the book is filled with rich detail on early twentieth century Adirondak life, complete with troublesome tourists, cattle disease, hard childbirth, hunger, small-town gossip, racism, and casual domestic violence. At times, Mattie’s earnest complaints that the lives of her neighbors are more interesting than the civil, stiff lives portrayed in Austen and Dickens, and that books don’t tell the truth, become tedious; firstly, we got the point the first time she said it, and secondly, we must agree with her to some extent or we would have picked up a different book. These small faults aside, it’s an absorbing book with a heroine it’s easy to root for, even when she’s being a bit daft.

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A Northern Light ~ Jennifer Donnelly

Peter and the Secret of Rundoon Book Review by Miriam NewmanYes, that Dave Barry. Teamed up with Ridley Pearson, whose daughter, some years back, responded to her father’s reading her Peter Pan by asking how Peter and Captain Hook first met.

Peter and the Secret of Rundoon is the third and final installment of the backstory they concocted. They manage to explain not just where Peter and Hook first met, but what Tinkerbell is, why Neverland is the way it is, how Peter can fly, the whole business with Peter’s shadow, and why he ends up in _that particular_ nursery when it comes time to take Wendy and her brothers off to Neverland. And as they’re doing it, they tell an excellent story. Now, it’s been a while since I read Peter Pan, but it seems to me that they captured the childlike wonder and sense of adventure, and it’s a delight to watch the familiar world slowly come into being around you.

The thing they didn’t catch is the sense of scale. Peter Pan, though it looms large in our imaginations, is a fairly small story: it deals with one family, and with one small, eminently self-contained island. The real world is far away, not just when the narrative are in Neverland but also when it is in London, with the Darling children sequestered away in their nursery while their parents, hazy ambassadors from the outside world, are scarcely seen and less often understood. Barry and Ridley’s Peter books, however, are on a global scale; it revolves around Peter, Molly, the Island, and a few others, certainly, but what happens to them is of worldwide consequence. Okay, it’s a little less satisfying, but I can deal.

Until, late in the third book, it turns out that everything is of _universal_ consequence! (I can’t bring myself to feel bad for that general a spoiler; if you feel your reading experience will be ruined, oops.)The big reveal, the explanation of what is really going on, comes, and I just rolled my eyes. It really is bigger than human comprehension, which, frankly, makes it hard for me to care.

Of course, the universe doesn’t end – it would be hard for these to act as prequels to Peter Pan if it did – and, happily, Barry and Pearson return to a human scale for a bit more adventure before signing off and waiting for J. M. Barrie to pick up the narrative.

Who knows, maybe I’ll go on and reread his Peter Pan.

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Dave Barry ~ Dave Barry’s Blog
Ridley Pearson ~ Ridley Pearson’s Blog
Peter and the Secret of Rundoon
Peter and the Shadow Thieves
Peter and the Starcatchers

Converting Kate is an excellent book about a girl’s discovery of a wider world than the one she’s known. Kate grew up in Idaho and Arizona, her life revolving around her mother’s church: praying each morning, adhering to strict rules of dress and behavior, learning a very circumscribed, religious-based homeschool curriculum, and fasting every Sunday for her nonbelieving father in the hope that he would be saved.

Now Kate is fifteen. Her father’s been dead for a year, she hasn’t been to church in nearly as long (Kate’s near-catatonic depression and grief helped her mother accept this; she wasn’t doing much of anything), she’s started reading her father’s worldly books, and has just moved with her mother to Maine, where they’re helping her father’s aunt run a bed and breakfast in a seacoast town. She’s going to the local public school and joining the track team and making friends who don’t go to her mother’s church. She has already lost her faith in her mother’s church; the book isn’t about her crisis of faith, it’s about what happens after, when she has to figure out how she wants to live her life without the strict guidelines of the church.

In an afterword, the author speaks of her own experience, much later in life, of leaving a highly restrictive church, which she does not name, and mentions that the Church of the Holy Divine, Kate’s mother’s church, is fictional. I can understand and appreciate this decision; it could add to the universality and lessen the risk of backlash from a specifically named church. At the same time, however, I found it frustrating; I found myself frequently distracted by the bits of theology and practice, because I was mentally matching them to religions I know, and being curious when pieces didn’t match my prior knowledge. Likewise, Kate spends some time attending a different, more liberal church, which is also unnamed, and again I was mentally solving a jigsaw of religion, without having enough pieces to finish the puzzle.

Of course, I also got distracted by her use of a translation I don’t like for a Biblical verse which is central to Kate’s religious journey,¹ so maybe I’m just a big religion nerd. Wait, did I say maybe?

Anyway, it’s an excellent book. Which may or may not leave you wanting to have a nice long chat about religion with the author.

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¹ She uses the King James Version for 1 Corinthians 13. Every time they say “charity,” substitute “love.” The Greek word being translated is agape, and yes, I checked my Greek/English interlinear translation to make sure. It means love, with lots of spiritual connotations.
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Beckie Weinheimer
Beckie Weinheimer’s Blog
Converting Kate

“Not all novelists are power-hungry madmen – some are power-hungry madwomen.”

So says the pseudonymous narrator of the novel The Name of this Book is Secretin one of his¹ understated moments of truth. These moments are the best snippets from the book, but he tries to hard; instead of a power-hungry madman, the narrator is merely desperate for approval – and as he tries so hard to be charming and clever, he slides further into annoyance.

Anyway, between narratarorial interruptions, two eleven-year-old misfits stumble across a mystery involving creepy, overly-perfect-looking adults and synesthesia. And the main character has gay grandpas! (Well, honorary grandpas.) They live together in an old firehouse which is now their antique store. This is pretty damn awesome. Another character is clearly more messed up by his parents staying together than he would be by them getting properly divorced and living apart. It’s actually fairly smart, masked by an overwhelming silliness. It’s an interesting combination, in which the intelligence sneaks up on you. The frequent narratorial interjections don’t help, but it’s still a very fun book.
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¹ The back flap uses “he” to refer to the unnamed author, so I’m following that in my use of the male pronoun.

The Book Thief is very, very good.

Narrated by death, it follows Liesel’s adolescence in a small town outside Munich. From January 1939 through October 1943. Good times to be a German, eh?

Not so much.

Death tries not to pay too much attention to the humans – we depress him – but even so, he noticed Liesel each of the three times he saw her over those four years. And the last time, he took a book. Her book.

Now, in a way, our book.

The original Australian publisher classified The Book Thief as general fiction; it was the American publisher who decided that it was YA. I’m reviewing it here, yes, but I think as a whole I agree with the original publisher. Not that I feel it’s in any way inappropriate for teens – not that there’s much I think is – but it has strangely few of the elements I’ve come to think of as signifiers of YA. Liesel’s self-discovery has little to do with her coming-of-age; school is at most tangential to the story; first love is only slightly more central and its position of ‘first’ is hardly under consideration; I could continue, but that would be boring. I’m not sure it’s even really Liesel’s story, so much as it is Germany’s story, and even death’s story.

Whatever you call it, it is an excellent book.

Not a great book, but not bad, either. It’s your standard child of a book collector finds something interesting and gets involved in something big and fantastical, all revolving around a book. (If you don’t think this is a trope, you’d don’t read the same books I do. Which, come to think of it, is probably why you’re reading this. Either that, or you’re my friend.)

Note that I’m not complaining about the trope – I love books about books – but it just was a fairly mediocre entry into the annals of the genre. The kids were okay – twins just turning thirteen, who don’t get along – but the adults were pretty flat, especially the overprotective best-friend-of-dead-mother. The plot does manage a few fun twists, one of which is actually fairly brilliant. Overall, it was a fun, quick read, but you probably don’t need to go out of your way to find it.