Sunday, May 01, 2016

Book Log: April 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

19) 4/3: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Here's a book I kept seeing mentioned. I could understand why people were enjoying it. It's a fun read (although the middle third was slower to get through, and the cultural references felt tedious at times).

First off, I need to give the disclaimer that I am not a video game aficionado; we didn't own a console growing up, so my only experience was when I was at friends' houses. I don't play online games, either, but I certainly knew a little about World of Warcraft. However, this lack of information didn't lesson my enjoyment. Also, the summary I give below is introduced quite early to set up the premise of the book - don't feel that these are spoilers, as you'd learn these details in the prologue.

Imagine the world in 2044. Many people are very into playing the massively multi-player online game OASIS. It's quite realistic and allows people to escape the drudgery of their daily lives, all the more important as recession is rampant; the real world's infrastructure is crumbling, so people avoid reality and retreat to OASIS. Interest is increased when the creator dies and, since he has no family, he reveals that he has hidden an Easter egg somewhere in OASIS. The one who discovers it wins his fortune. First, they must discover three keys that lead through three gates, at the end of which is the Easter egg. The creator was a huge 80's fan, so interest is revived in music, culture, and games from that decade, as many suspect they will help discover useful hints.

Five years pass, and no progress is made for the hunt. Then the protagonist, a senior in a virtual high school, discovers the first key. Interest is again revived, and this story covers the hunt for the fortune.

I was pretty good at suspending my disbelief, although periodically I felt like Wade had magical epiphanies to aid in his success that likely would have been found out sooner by the lackeys at IOI, the token evil corporation, with their limitless resources. All the same, the author does a decent job sharing the history of the hunt as well as realistically explaining how the world has changed. Certainly there are questions that arise regarding what is real and could hint at our own tech addictions.

It's not a must read, nor an important read, but it's an entertaining one if you need something light.

20) 4/4: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
I'd read this book when I was young, but I can't recall if I'd ever revisited it as an adult. My interest was revived when I realized how limited my memories of it were when I was reading When You Reach Me last month.

It was pleasant to reread. You get good versus evil, freedom versus conformity. You also see bravery in Meg, the flawed but faithful protagonist, as she travels to rescue her father with her human and otherworldly companions.

I enjoyed it, but I think I was expecting more, perhaps because I've read a lot of good literature influenced by L'Engle's transformative work - it's hard to hold up under such a legacy. Perhaps I expected it to be longer? It's certainly not a bad thing to be able to tell a story succinctly, though.

21) 4/11: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

As a teenager, I once attended a presentation where the speaker shared about different levels of communication: the most general is casual, superficial talk, and at the pinnacle is deeply personal information. He shared how infrequently people spend time at the deepest level; even within marriage, it's easy to get stuck with figuring out practical details, especially when children are present -- transportation logistics, schedules, house upkeep, work and school commitments, extracurricular activities. It's often a luxury to have deeply meaningful conversations.

In Tara Road, we see how the various characters get stuck in their routines and become blind to the reality around them. Binchy examines relationships and the lies we tell ourselves and others.  The focus is on friendships, both platonic and within marriage. If you're not taking the time to reflect or have honest conversations, you settle into believing everything is as you see it. This can lead to misunderstandings that grow into something that can no longer be ignored.

Like the first book of hers I read (in January), this one was a pleasant read; she crafts a good story. I don't often need or want a lot of excitement in my books. This one is a longer read (648 pages), but that allows much to be done with the characters. We get to see what drives them and what their faults are, and then when their world is unsettled, how they respond, either uncovering unknown strength and abilities or losing themselves as they realize they were never truly in control.

22) 4/18: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
A friend's daughter was devouring this audiobook series, so I looked into it. Reviews were strong, and it was a National Book Award winner, so I added it to my list. Such a charming read! It is a sweet and innocent story of four sisters and a widowed father. The father is loving but very much a peripheral character in this book. This book covers their time at a summer home for three weeks and their adventures there; each girl gets some attention from the author (their ages range from 4 to 12, and their personalities are distinct enough to tell them apart). I feel like it won't be much longer before I start reading this aloud to Brennan.

The children aren't perfect (which would make for a boring read), but while they can get into trouble, their hearts are in the right place and there is eventually resolution. Their relationships with each other is sweet as well; the sisters hold family meetings, either emergency or planned, to discuss events and make plans, and they swear each other to secrecy, citing Penderwick Family Honor (unless it seems harm could come to someone, then they are released from their bond).

23) 4/24: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
This was the second in the Penderwicks series. The family lives on Gardam Street, and this book picks up soon after their summer adventures conclude. School is in session and their Aunt Claire delivers a letter to their father that had been written by his wife shortly before her death four years earlier. The contents - that her husband should begin dating again - frame the storyline; the sisters decide to orchestrate horrible partners for him to date so that he will give up on the venture. There are also other plot lines taking place - Jane's deception surrounding a school play is a primary one, but the other sisters have their own issues they wrestle with.

This was published in 2008, but it has a timeless feel to it; I could easily see it becoming a classic. It doesn't quite seem contemporary given the freedom the girls have to wander on their own, but it embodies the innocence of childhood and I can just see my daughter getting caught up in the story and discussing all the details at length.

24) 4/25: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

I taught for two years in Minnesota in a suburb of the Twin Cities, beginning in the fall of 2004. This book, published in 2002, was already part of the curriculum in the ninth-grade class I taught. That was my initial introduction to the book; first I read it that summer to get a feel for it, then I re-read it when the unit came up.

I'm not sure that I had read it since then, but it is a powerful, thoughtful book, and I have found myself revisiting some old favorites again.

One reason I don't go into much plot detail for these accounts is that I worry I won't do the books justice - a list of some of the highlights might take away the power of the actual book, or it may make you avoid reading it if my description isn't your typical reading style. Plus, I'd rather go into a book or movie with little understanding of what to expect. This is one I went into blind, and after more than a decade had passed, the details had dimmed considerably. It was a pleasure to read this one again.

The narrator is Reuben, and the story takes place when he is eleven. It is clear he is reflecting on this account as an adult, but the foreshadowing hints at tragedy to come and uncertainty as to who else reaches adulthood with him. It is well done - Reuben doesn't sugarcoat events, even when the truth paints him in a poor light. My freshmen loved this book, as did I. Seriously a great read with great themes to reflect on.

25) 4/28: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
I first read this as a young student (possibly sixth grade?). It's another Newbery Award winner.

I noticed I've been reading a lot of children's literature this month - I like to read YA lit, but this has been more than normal. It's due to the fact that we've been reading chapter books to our oldest for a while now; as she is growing as a reader and as we work our way through other books, I'm keeping an eye out for what might be on the horizon.

The protagonist is a young boy who writes fan letters to his favorite author. It takes a while for the author to initially respond, but Mr Henshaw, through his responses, pushes Leigh, an aspiring author himself, to develop the skills that would help him to reach that end.

I found myself invested in Leigh. Here's a young boy coming to terms with his parents' divorce and the new home and school that results from it. Through writing (both to Mr Henshaw and the journal he begins to keep), he matures as a writer and as a person. All of the accounts are epistolary, and I'm a sucker for a well-done book in letters (for two great books in that style, see The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Where'd You Go, Bernadette).