Sunday, January 28, 2018

MMGM (1/28/2018): Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, & a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans

For MMGM, I am recommending Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, & a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans.

Here's the publisher's description:

Enter a wonderful world filled with real magic, mystery … and danger.

As if being small for his age and also having S. Horten as his name isn't bad enough, now 10-year-old Stuart is forced to move far away from all his friends. But on his very first day in his new home, Stuart's swept up in an extraordinary adventure: the quest to find his great-uncle Tony--a famous magician who literally disappeared off the face of the earth--and Tony's marvelous, long-lost workshop. Along the way, Stuart reluctantly accepts help from the annoying triplets next door… and encounters trouble from another magician who's also desperate to get hold of Tony's treasures.

A quirky, smart, charming page-turner, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms will enchant young readers--as well as teachers, librarians, and parents.

I really enjoyed this book! When I was browsing back through it today (I read it several years ago), I found myself completely absorbed in Stuart's mission to find the workshop. The plot is fast-paced, moving from place to place and from clue to clue, but with ample moments of calm, such as when Stuart talks to an old woman named Leonora who knew his great-uncle. The clues (consisting of various magic tricks and machines) that make up the mystery of the book are fascinating, and the final revelations of the book make the whole journey worthwhile. Readers will eventually grow to love Stuart's annoying neighbors, April, May, and June, especially April, who helps Stuart figure out the meaning of the later clues. Also, Stuart and April's struggles with their own physical flaws (Stuart is short as mentioned and will probably stay that way, while April sometimes makes mistakes due to her poor vision) help add in a bit of a moral, which is that people are not defined by these physical traits (as evidenced by Stuart's famed great-uncle also being very short). Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms is an excellent novel that any reader will zip through and thoroughly enjoy!

Friday, January 19, 2018

MMGM (1/19/2018): Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

I haven't had much time to read for the last few weeks, but I looked at the books I've been hoarding saving and found one which I remember finding unique. Therefore, I am reviewing Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.

Here's the publisher's description:

In her own singularly beautiful style, Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech intricately weaves together two tales, one funny, one bittersweet, to create a heartwarming, compelling, and utterly moving story of love, loss, and the complexity of human emotion. This Harper Classic edition features new back matter, including a teacher’s guide with discussion questions and exclusive information about the author.

Thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle, proud of her country roots and the "Indian-ness in her blood," travels from Ohio to Idaho with her eccentric grandparents. Along the way, she tells them of the story of Phoebe Winterbottom, who received mysterious messages, who met a "potential lunatic," and whose mother disappeared.

As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe's outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold—the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.

I have mixed feelings about this Newbery Medal-winning novel. Although the idea of a child with deceased family members may have been original back in 1994 when the book was published, it has become spectacularly overused in both MG and YA literature. There's nothing particularly offensive about the way this book portrays the situation (it actually captures the grief very well), but reading about all of the effects of grief that many people have already read about many times or even experienced gets exhausting quickly (and the death of a major character at the end of the book does not help). Also, there is something particularly poignant about the novel—I came out of it when I first read it for school in sixth grade with a feeling of inexplicable, unresolved sadness. However, Walk Two Moons has many good qualities. The way it alternates between Sal's present-day travels and the story she is telling keeps the novel interesting, and Creech puts in many interesting anecdotes about Sal's grandparents, family, and more that create a vivid backstory for the novel. Sal's story has many well-developed characters and an interesting aspect of mystery as well. Walk Two Moons is an imperfect novel, but many readers will enjoy it and recognize why it is the near-classic it is today.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

MMGM (1/14/2018): 5 MG Books to Read When You're Sick!

This week, with all of the flu and illness going around, I was planning to go back through my reviews and make a list of MG books that are great to read when you’re sick. I wasn’t really sure what made books better than others when one is sick, but now I know, since . . . I got sick! :( I realized that the best books for when someone is sick are those with rich description and something constantly happening, allowing readers to leave their own misery for a while. Therefore, here are my 5 top books to read when you’re sick!

Dumpling Days by Grace Lin
Click here for original review

This book (the third in a series based on the author's real life, although this novel can be read by itself) chronicles her trip to Taiwan as a child. As I read this novel, I felt like I was on a trip myself, getting to try new foods, learn about Taiwanese culture, and even see what the different cities of Taiwan are like! Pacy (or Grace in English) is kept busy throughout the trip, visiting new areas, taking classes, and seeing family. For anyone who wants to drop everything and travel but cannot do so practically, Dumpling Days is a perfect read!

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Click here for original review

This classic novel has been famous for its entire 107-year existence, and for good reason! Mary's new life with her uncle and his servants in England is full of discovery and nature as Mary begins to explore and warm up to England and mystery as she discovers the titular garden and other, stranger secrets as well. The Secret Garden could be thought of as a precursor to the many novels of today set in mysterious, old-fashioned homes. If you're looking for intrigue, nature, and a different time period, The Secret Garden is for you!

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Click here for original review

The Mysterious Benedict Society shows the at-times-delightful, at-times-suspenseful, and always-interesting adventures of four genius children (logical Reynie, fact-filled Sticky, resourceful Kate, and stubborn Constance) as they try to thwart evil by infiltrating a suspicious school. The interactions between the four main characters are often hilarious and sometimes sad, and interest is piqued as the kids discover just what the school owner, Mr. Curtain, is up to. The Mysterious Benedict Society is a great pick for a fast-paced, enjoyable read!
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Click here for original review

Greenglass House is a very unique mystery. In a part of the world filled with smugglers and thieves, Milo's parents run a small hotel, which fills up with five interesting characters during the winter holidays. Milo and his new friend Meddy are then forced to team up, adopt alter egos, and try to solve the suspicious crimes that keep occurring at the hotel. Learning the backstory and motives for each character will keep readers guessing until the end, and anyone can sink into the vivid setting! For anyone looking for a wonderful, unique mystery, Greenglass House is for you!

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur
Click here for original review

After her father and sister die in a car accident and her mother, consumed with guilt for driving the car, runs away and leaves her daughter alone, Aubrey ends up moving from Virginia to Vermont to live with her grandmother. In this new setting, she makes new friends and gets to know her grandmother, but she is also upset by her father's and sister's deaths. Aubrey's struggles are not overly upsetting, however, and readers will find themselves drawn into the novel. Love, Aubrey is perfect for anyone who prefers a more lifelike story that still sucks readers in.

If any of you get sick, I hope you get well soon and enjoy these picks! If you don't get sick, I hope you will consider reading these novels at some point, since they can be enjoyed at any time!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

MMGM (1/8/2017) Classic Critique: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

It’s time for another Classic Critique! I haven’t had much time recently to read new books, but, for school recently, I had to read A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Since I have already spent much time analyzing and studying it, I figured I might as well review it! (F.Y.I. I wouldn't be shocked if this review ends up working better as a commentary for people who have already read the novel, since it will probably turn most readers away from the book.)

Here's the publisher's description:

An American classic and great bestseller for over thirty years, A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to World War II.

Set at a boys' boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.

  • Each event is negative. I want to start this review with the cons and end with the pros. A Separate Peace is not supposed to be a happy story, as it represents a sad time in the U.S.’s history. However, most authors try to inject happiness somewhere in the story, which Knowles fails at. Every conversation that Gene has, every activity that Finny organizes, every outpouring of poeticism from a now-adult Gene (who seems incredibly pretentious, as I will mention next) fills the reader with emotions that range only from apathy to crushing sadness dulled by exasperation. Even times that are supposed to be happy and joyous, such as the Winter Carnival that Finny organizes, are tainted by the characters' constant meanness and inability to show any true happiness. This rant brings me to my next point:
  • The characters are awful in so many ways. I hate several characters in A Separate Peace, one of whom is unfortunately the main character and narrator, Gene. A line early in the novel which best represents the problem I have with Gene is when he criticizes his younger self for being sarcastic and now views sarcasm as “the protest of people who are weak.” The adult Gene and narrator has never overcome the pessimistic attitude of his younger self and forgiven child-Gene. He seems to have become one of those people who has unrealistic expectations for children and finds himself above them. Although this personality and how it has originated from his immense guilt as a child is interesting, it does make for an unpleasant narrator whose intelligent points I cannot help but think are pretentious and ignorant. Finny's naïveté and positivity are annoying and have a nearly-hidden hint of something unpleasant deeper within him, and other characters such as Brinker are just mean (I was upset when, after everything Brinker had done to both Gene himself and others, he still remains friends with him and his adult self makes no mention of it). A Separate Peace shows an interesting portrait of life at a boarding school amongst other boys who have no real direction from parents, but it makes a better case study than gripping read.

  • The depiction of the war is excellent. Knowles does an excellent job showing all of the shadows that World War II cast over America, as well as how it could seem potentially exciting to kids who want to enlist. Unlike a war of today, in which usually only those who join the armed forces of their own accord fight, WWII ended up requiring many people to be forced to join the army. The students at Devon School in A Separate Peace did not know if they would enter the army only to never have a day of fighting, or if they would take part in whatever horrendous battles were to come, and they also did not know which would be good and which would be bad. A Separate Peace makes me intrigued about the war's effects on ordinary people in America, as opposed to just soldiers and people where the war was fought. 
  • The way the novel and nature intertwine is incredible. Knowles clearly enjoys the outdoors. He is able to make nearly any scenery, such as the tree at the beginning, into a metaphor for the characters' experiences (I wrote an entire essay on how he uses weather this way), and his descriptions of the outdoors as Gene walks between buildings or plays outside are just lovely. If I could jump right into the scenery of this book, I definitely would! Even the characters love being outdoors: kids jump out of a tree, swim in the lake, visit the beach (against the rules), play a made-up game known as blitzball (named after the blitzkrieg of the war), or even ski. 

In writing this review, I came to an interesting conclusion: John Knowles should have been a poet instead of an author. He had incredible talent with regards to figuring out how people think and are affected by the events of their lives, and he was also excellent with metaphors and imagery. However, he had trouble creating characters that people could root for and designing a plot that people would race through (neither of which would have been a problem in the short-form art of poetry). All in all, Knowles was able to write a book which had many great qualities, helping to make it a classic, but several large missteps, which may be harder for future readers to overlook.