Book Review: Toward a Secret Sky

Angels are sworn to protect humans. To do that, they must stay objective. Enhanced emotions can compromise the safety of the very people they were created to save. Loving you could kill him, get you killed, or worse.

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This was a really creative, twisting, turning adventure! I’m teetering between four and five stars, but will give it four in hopes of the next one being better. I hope there’s a next book. Please let there be a next book!

In Toward a Secret Sky by Heather Maclean, we follow seventeen-year-old Maren Hamilton as she is uprooted from her USA home and forced to live with her estranged grandparents in the Scottish Highlands. She is torn to pieces after losing her mother in an accident. Haunted by eerie dreams of death, she has no hope of rebuilding her life. But soon enough, her carefree, bubbly neighbor, Jo, helps lifts Maren out of depression. And then there’s sweet, charming, Graham, who seems to be interested in Maren. On top of that, ruggedly handsome, mysterious Gavin keeps showing up around town, telling Maren to stay away from him. Maren gets up the strength to open her mothers’ belongings, but at first glance they are just a bunch of old papers with cryptic messages scrawled on them. Digging deeper, she finds a Tudor rose necklace and a journal that contains maps of large buildings. At the local church, Maren meets orphan Hunter, who tells Maren about a secret society of humans and angels called the Abbey. The necklace denotes Abbey membership, and Maren is wearing it. Maren is dumbstruck. Her mother was in computers, right?

Maren’s life begins to unravel again, but this time she is armed with the people and knowledge to stop if from crumbling altogether. Add that to a forbidden love with an angel and running from demons around London, and you’ve got yourself one unforgettable adventure!

I really enjoyed this book. It was unlike anything I’ve read before. I was intrigued at the author’s depiction of angels and demons. I loved the settings of Scotland and London, which were described perfectly. The infusion of a Christian message was present but not overbearing. This book can be fun and light-hearted, but at the same time deals with dark and difficult topics. The cliffhanger ending left me wanting for more!

Have you read this book? Let me know your thoughts!

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Book Review: Forever Doon

Forever Doon by Carey Corp and Lorie Langdon.  The cover spreads out to form a cohesive image – the broken Brig o’ Doon!

Veronica Welling and Mackenna Reid – two American teenagers who were given a chance at a happy ever after in the Scottish kingdom of Doon, a mythical land hidden from the modern realm. But something always seems to keep the happiness at bay – whether drama with their royal boyfriends, inner demons of self-doubt, or a curse plaguing their city. Now, the heart-thumping conclusion (or hopefully not…) to the Doon series, the best friends must confront evil incarnate and her army of the undead. In the last book, the girls learned that the banished witch of Doon – Adelaide Blackmore Cadell – had snuck back into the Kingdom under the guise of Queen Veronica’s sweet assistant, Emily. She forced many citizens to turn against the rightful queen and pledge allegiance to Addie. Miraculously spared from the gallows, the witch holds future king Jamie McCrae prisoner, which may prove a worse fate than his scheduled hanging. Can he withstand the torture, even when the witch can morph into any human she wants? Veronica believes him dead, which strikes her harder than any physical blow. Can she turn her sorrow into determination and rise up to be the queen that Doon needs? Meanwhile, Mackenna and Duncan are trapped in modern-day Alloway with Fiona and other Doonians. Mysterious people from around the world begin to arrive, feeling Called to a purpose. But is the ragtag group of travelers enough to raise an army to defeat evil itself? And what happens when Duncan turns into a ruthless drill sergeant when Kenna wants to fight? Told from all four main characters’ perspectives, Forever Doon takes readers far from the petty dramas of the previous stories and onto the bloody battlefields, into the torture chamber, and into four hearts grappling with faith in each other and the Protector.

Wow. Never when I picked up this series did I believe it would take hold of me like it has. Fresh off the plane from Scotland, I wanted to read fiction books about Scotland to continue my visit to the picturesque land, if only in my mind. What I got was so much more! The Doon series continues to weigh on my mind and heart. It’s one of the best series I have read in a long time. The characters are funny, compelling, and experience believable growth. In this book especially, I got to see Vee and Kenna do things that they never would have in earlier books, like throw axes, wield swords, throw grenades, lead an army, and more. I got to see kilt-wearing princes make Lord of the Rings references. (Actually, no kilts were worn in the fourth book. Sad face). I got to watch lonely, abandoned girls come to faith in God. My faith was strengthened through reading this series, which I can rarely say about fiction.

To Quote from the Acknowledgements: “That out words can enable someone to be braver or kinder, inspire them to create instead of tear down, or persuade then to love when others would hate is humbling. If even one person is challenged to make the world a little bit better because of something they read, that is magic, indeed.” The authors have done this for me. Oh and if you write more Doon novels – keep up the 4 different perspectives! I loved it.

If you like YA, Scotland, or fantasy, please read this book and immerse yourself in the Dooniverse – you’ll never want to go home.

Review: The Amber Spyglass

***Contains spoilers***

Crazy. Insane. Odd. Epic. These are all adjectives that have gone through my head while reading this book. I can’t settle on one way to describe it because the worlds were so intricate. However, with so many complicated realms, the author has the responsibility to keep everything consistent and appropriate to each world. He does this masterfully while weaving an exciting, dramatic journey for our protagonists, 12-year olds Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry.

When the novel opens, Lyra is being forced to remain asleep by her mother, Mrs. Coulter, who deludedly believes this is the only way to keep her daughter safe. Meanwhile, a Church bureau sends an agent (a priest) to kill Lyra. While asleep, Lyra talks to Roger, her best friend who was killed in book 1, and find out that he is trapped in the world of the dead. Will finds Lyra and frees her from the induced sleep. Upon waking, Lyra is determined to rescue Roger make things right. But Will and Lyra are on the run from many different authorities pursuing them, and find unlikely companions in some of them. They are also aided by Iorek Byrnison, in an unexpected but welcome return appearance. Using the subtle knife from the previous novel, Will cuts into the world of the dead. In order to get to Roger and the others, Lyra and Will must part achingly from their daemons. They cut out of the world of the dead with the subtle knife, into a lush area of vegetation where Dr. Mary Malone has been residing for some time. There, she has fashioned a relationship with a group of sentient beings called mulefa.

We also hear the story of some supporting characters, such as Lyra’s parents, Lord Astiel and Mrs. Coulter. As the two join forces to battle the Authority, they turn around from being indifferent and even hostile towards their daughter. We also get introduced to some other types of characters, such as angels and small people known as Gallivespians. These characters are evidence of a whole lot of thought and creativity that went into this series.

The entire series has been about a people’s quest to uncover the nature of elementary particles (“Dust”) and how to destroy them forever. These particles gather around a person when he/she becomes self-aware. The Church believes that these particles are evidence of Original Sin and want to get rid of them. But our protagonists Lyra and Will find out that Dust is not bad, like the Church thinks, but it is actually beautiful and necessary for survival. When they encounter Mary and the mulefa, they see Dust in its natural state, golden and shimmering, evidence of love and wisdom.

This book was at times drawn out and sometimes confusing, and left me with a few unanswered questions. But I’d much prefer that than a book where you don’t have to think, a book that is tied up at the end with a neat little bow. This book did not end with a bow, but with a shatter. It ended as realistically as a fantasy novel can.

Thanks to Ed for the recommendation to read this series. 🙂

Catching Fire Review

 

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My awesome “propaganda” edition of Catching Fire, available only through the Scholastic UK market.

*Contains Spoilers*

Great book. That’s exactly what went through my head when read the last page of Catching Fire for the second time. In fact, it’s more than great. It’s easily the best in the trilogy and one of my favorite books of all time.

 

We like to see ourselves reflected in fictional characters. And I heavily identify with Katniss in the second book especially. Peeta is the hero that I look up to the most for his extreme selflessness and dedication, and I sometimes even see bits of myself in him, or who I want to be, at least. The world-building supporting characters in this book continue to be strong and make the second Quarter Quell unforgettable. And, of course, the writing. Collins’ fast-paced style keeps readers on edge while Katniss’ voice keeps them invested.

 

I dog-eared a page every time a line or paragraph really struck me (meaning, I was thinking about it so much after the fact):

 

1.) p. 38: When Katniss’ aristocratic Capitol stylists earnestly watcher her mother do an intricate braid out of respect:

 

“In fact, all three are so readily respectful and nice to my mother that I feel bad about how I go around feeling so superior to them. Who knows who I would be or what I would talk about if I’d been raised in the Capitol?”

 

It’s really nice to see Katniss trying to put herself in other people’s shoes, even seemingly vain Capitol citizens who seem only to care about the latest fashions. She later discovers her stylists do have hearts and truly care about her. This is a “there but for the grace” moment and I love it. She does this a few more times in later situations.

 

2.) p. 59: When Peeta gives Thresh and Rue’s families one month of their winnings for a year:

 

I look at Peeta and he gives me a sad smile. I hear Haymitch’s voice. ‘You could do a lot worse.’ At this moment, it’s impossible to imagine how I could do any better. This gift…it is perfect. So when I rise up on tiptoe to kiss him, it doesn’t seem forced at all.”

 

What can I say? This is a fantastic Peeta and Katniss character-building moment. Him showing solidarity towards people he “beat” in the arena, and her appreciating it.

 

3.) p. 111: When Mrs. Everdeen tends to a maimed Gale:

 

“I am filled with awe, as I always am, as I watch her transform from a woman who calls me to kill a spider to a woman immune to fear. When a sick or dying person in brought to her…this is the only time I think my mother knows who she is.”

 

I know the feeling, the envy, and the wonder of seeing someone in action who is so made for their vocation. I love how Katniss describes it.

 

4.) p. 118: When Katniss contemplates her decision with the nightlock in the first Games:

The berries. I realize the answer to who I am lies in that handful of poisonous fruit. If I held them out to save Peeta because I knew I would be shunned if I came back without him, when I am despicable. If I held them out because I loved him, I am still self-centered, although forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, then I am someone of worth. The trouble is, I don’t know exactly what was going on inside me at that moment.”

 

This paragraph of introspection, I think, is the point of the whole novel and the next one. Katniss has to decide whose team she is going to fight for: only herself, her loved ones, or the Rebellion as a whole. And does being the mockingjay really make her a person of character, or just a player in someone else’s games?

 

5.) p. 161: When Peeta sketches the plants for Katniss’ guidebook.
“His usual easy expression is replaced by something more intense and removed that suggests and entire world locked away inside him. I’ve seen flashes of this before: in the arena, or when he speaks to a crowd, or that time he shoved the Peacekeepers’ guns away from me in District 11.”

 

Like Mrs. Everdeen with healing, Peeta is in his element when he paints and sketches; though typically laid back, he gives certain seriousness to the things he cares about. I also see this quality in myself. This remark from Katniss shows that even the humblest, most easygoing people like Peeta have a breaking point.

 

6.) p. 216: Peeta and Katniss talking after Finnick and Johanna tease Katniss at the Opening Ceremony:

 

“‘They’re playing with you because you’re so…you know.’

‘No, I don’t know,’ I say. And I really have no idea what he’s talking about.

‘It’s like when you wouldn’t look at me naked in the arena even though I was half dead. You’re so…pure,’ he says finally.

‘I am not!’ I say.”

 

This is not really an arena-shattering quote, but I just found myself identifying with it a lot. People once make fun of me in the same way, for being too serious or innocent.

 

7.) p. 260: Haymitch’s last words of advice:

 

‘You just remember who the enemy is.’

A line that packs a punch. You can take it any way you like, but this is a powerful statement for the series and for our lives.

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5/5 stars

 

What did you think of Catching Fire? Do any passages stand out to you?

Review: The Hunger Games (Round 2)

This week I am stepping into the YA genre with a review of a modern classic – The Hunger Games!

The awesome “propaganda edition” covers, available through Scholastic UK!  

**Spoilers ahead, but I’m pretty sure most people know what this book is about already.

I just read The Hunger Games a second time. I didn’t think it was possible, but I love it even more than after the first read. Here’s why:

Characters:

Katniss’s voice is amazing and fits her character! Her words reveal a deep, confused, yet focused young girl who was forced to grow up as a young child. She is confused about boys, which fits the mind of a 16 year old. Yet she makes choices based on functionality and survival, which fits her role as family provider. Oh, and I love 1st person present tense!

Peeta Mellark is the best character ever! I like his dialogue a lot. I found him outgoing and snarky this time around when I remember him as shy. But it’s pretty funny how much he loves putting on the love “act” for the cameras.

My third favorite character is Rue! She is beautifully written, though her part is small. Haymitch is hilarious, with his hints to Katniss in the arena and his sarcasm. Effie and Cinna are classics. Prim is sweet and makes me cry.

World:

The world building through Katniss’s eyes and experiences is wonderfully detailed. All three settings are utterly immersive: District 12, The Capitol, and the Arena.

It’s so much better to hear Katniss’s stories of District 12 (the Hob, starving, Prim’s goat) than to have a narrator say: “District 12 is poor”, etc. And I liked how all her anecdotes about her home and past are spread out throughout the book.

In the Capitol, I scrunch my nose at the strange fashions with Katniss. I smell the aromas of the decadent foods and my stomach rumbles.

In the arena, I hear the mockingjays, trackerjackers, and the deafening explosions along with Katniss. I feel the sting of her burns and the relief of medicine. I cower with her at knife wounds and cry with her during broken alliances. The forest envelops me as I read. Trees and streams become my friends. The dank walls of a hidden cave feel safe (as long as a shirtless Peeta is there :D)

Message:

Aside from a heart-thumping plot, clever world, and great characters, the novel has a significant message. Katniss acts tough, but she is really a softie. She loves Prim so much that she sacrificed herself for her, something that siblings rarely do at the reaping. Her heart softens to care about Peeta and human life in general, eventually turning her disgust on the Capital, not the other tributes.

The Hunger Games is one of my favorite books! The odds are that I will be reading it a third time in the future:)

I give this book 5/5 stars.

 

What about you? What did you like about The Hunger Games?

 

Book Review: The Golden Compass

Lyra Belacqua is an orphaned eleven-year-old who lives at Jordan College. She is adventurous and never hesitates to make mischief with her best friend, Roger. In her universe, everyone has a daemon, an animal representation of a human soul. One day, a mysterious group called the Gobblers show up in England, luring children away by deceiving them and bringing them to the Far North to do experiments. Soon, Roger gets taken and Lyra finds herself bound for the Far North on a quest to save her best friend and find her uncle, Lord Astiel. Along the way she meets allies and enemies, learns to love, to lie, and to trust.

I couldn’t put this book down. Lyra’s universe is such a gripping fantasy world, once you get into it. Talking armored polar bears with last names? Yes, please! I enjoyed seeing Lyra’s character grow from an immature youngster to a courageous and cunning young woman. I loved her relationships with the other characters, and her inner feelings about them, especially her bond with Iorek Byrnison. I loved her connection to her daemon, Pantalaimon. And most of all, I loved Pullman’s writing style. The colorful descriptions and figurative language were spectacular. I don’t think I would have appreciated these things as a middle schooler, so I’m happy to have read the book for the first time now.

In the first book alone, I couldn’t really see too much of an anti-Christian message. Lyra befriends outcasts (the gyptians), helps defend children from harm, and tricks the untrickable in attempt to help a king claim the rightful throne. I know that Pullman is an outspoken atheist, but really everyone should be free to interpret the book in their own way, if only as an epic fantasy adventure. The ideas explored at the end of the book are fascinating, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

5/5 stars

Book Review: One Amazing Elephant

Jess’s Review:

Lily Pruitt is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in West Virginia on an amusement park property, where her father is the groundskeeper.  Her mother, Trullia, left the family when Lily was three to go work in a traveling circus.  Lily’s Grandpa Bill is the mahout (trainer) and best friend of his elephant, Queenie Grace, whom Lily is afraid of.  Lily remembers that Queenie Grace tried to hurt her when she was a little girl.  Queenie Grace is given a first-person voice every other chapter.

When Grandpa Bill dies of a sudden heart attack, Lily travels to Florida to attend his funeral. She stays with her Grandma Violet, her mom (whom she calls ‘Trullia’), and Trullia’s boyfriend, who is cruel to Queenie Grace.  She gets more than she bargained for with much excitement surrounding Queenie Grace, who is also grieving her beloved mahout. Lily meets and becomes fast friends with my favorite character in this book, Henry Jack, a circus boy with wrinkly skin known as “Alligator Boy.” He is an overall fun kid and great role model of positivity, optimism, and faith.  He does not let his skin disease or other setbacks hold him back from living life to the fullest.

Slowly, Lily begins to feel closer to and less frightened of Queenie Grace.  Some bad men conspire to try and sell the elephant behind Grandma Violet’s back.  On top of that, Grandpa Bill’s funeral puts everyone in a sour mood.  Lily and Trullia have a strained relationship, and Lily is angry at her mother for leaving the family many years ago.  Working together, can Lily and Henry Jack stop the plan, and will Lily reconcile with her mom?

One Amazing Elephant by Linda Oatman High is a book that I would highly recommend to students in grades 3-6.  Lily is a relatable protagonist, with relatable insecurities and real family troubles.  High’s writing style is crisp and readable.  I loved the themes explored in this book including faith, hope, love, forgiveness, and family relationships. Giving the elephant a voice drove home the point about elephants having feelings, but I did feel Queenie Grace was being a bit too overdramatic at some points. I also felt Lily was a little bit too mature for a 12.5 year old in some instances, and a little too immature in some places. But these are minor grievances, and I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend this novel.

Ms. High, thank you for writing this story that clearly needed to be told and enlightening readers about the inner lives of elephants.

Out of 5 stars, I give this book:

Mr. E’s Review:

Queenie Grace is a middle aged (she is in her fifties), sad elephant.  She just lost her trainer, her best friend, her mahout, as they say in India.  His name was Bill, and he rescued her from bad men who beat her and took away her baby, Little Grey, many years ago.  Now she has no one, except for Violet and Trullia, who don’t understand her.

Then Bill’s granddaughter comes to visit.  Queenie Grace senses that Lily does not want to be her friend.  But she can’t understand why.  Queenie Grace tried to save a three-year-old Lily when she fell off her bike.

One day, Queenie Grace smashes a window to get some peanuts on the ledge (who could blame her? The smell of peanuts can travel for miles!) She gets chained by Trullia’s evil boyfriend.  Queenie Grace feels down and rejected.

Over the next few days, Henry Jack, who works in the circus, visits Queenie Grace with Lily.  Queenie Grace listens to Henry Jack because they have known each other since Henry Jack was born.  Lily starts to warm up to Queenie Grace, and they become friends after all.

But then, some people threaten Queenie Grace.  Can Henry Jack and Lily stop them?  Will Queenie Grace ever live in peace? Read One Amazing Elephant to find out! 4 Peanuts!

Have YOU read this book? Let us know what you thought in the comments!