Review of The Underground Railroad

I just finished Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Before I give my review, I would like to take a moment to speak to the fact that this book won The National Book Award. That is no small feat. Coleson Whitehead is a gifted writer and he crafts what he says deliberately and does not waste words. And, while his writing, for lack of a better term, is beautiful it is not excessive and self-indulgent.

So…a brief synopsis…

Cora, a slave on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia, is a head-strong and capable young woman who endures countless atrocities at the hands of her owner and her fellow slaves. Cora and her quest to be free is the focal point of the novel. When Cora meets Caesar a new arrival to the Randall plantation, and he asks her to join him on an escape attempt, she agrees. The rest of the narrative follows her state by state quest for freedom.  In order to move from state to state, Cora utilizes the Underground Railroad which Whitehead reimagines as an actual system of conductors, railcars and stops that transports slaves from one destination to another. Along the way she encounters and is both helped, hindered, and abused by different characters. Whitehead is thorough in fleshing out the backstories of many of these characters. One such character is Ridgeway, a notorious slave catcher who prides himself on hunting down runaways and returning them to their owners. He is in pursuit of Cora for a majority of the novel.

I found this novel heartbreaking at points, and Whitehead’s descriptions of slave life and the treatment of the black population are harrowing and inexcusable. However, throughout the novel there are perspective shifts and time jumps that made it hard for me to stay invested in the heart of the story. The component of magical realism (the underground railroad being an actual train with no history or background to explain it) present in the novel will appeal to the taste of some readers, but it did not to mine. For me, I wish the focus would have remained on Cora and her journey. While reading, I was incredibly impacted by individual scenes, but not the over-arching story, which can be attributed (for me) to the time/perspective shifts throughout the narrative. I would never discourage a reader from this ambitious novel, because it is eye-opening and unique. However, there were a few narrative choices that I could just not get past which tarnished my reading experience.

That being said, I did love Cora and all she represented, and I rooted for her throughout the duration of the novel.

Bottom Line: This novel is an important look at slave life and is worth the investment in time it takes to read it, if only for Whitehead’s spectacular command of the written word. For me, there were issues in several of the narrative choices which affected my overall enjoyment and rating of the novel. My rating is a 3.5/5.

Review of Caraval

Okay, time for some honest talk. I have been reading some heavier books lately, and I just needed a YA fantasy book to cleanse my palate and gear me up for more heavy reading I have coming up in the near future. YA fantasy books are my absolute favorite for a good reading “palate cleanse.”

Caraval by Stephanie Garber did not disappoint. It was exactly the read I was looking for to whisk me a away to somewhere fantastical, whimsical, and intriguing. It hit all the right notes for me.

The story is centered around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella (Tella) who live with their controlling, horrible, abusive father, the governor of the fictional, Conquered Isle of Trisda. Caraval is five night magical, mysterious, and adventurous game hosted by the elusive Legend.  Scarlett writes to Legend for many years asking for tickets for herself and Tella in hopes of attending and participating in this mysterious game. Days before Scarlett is scheduled to be married to a man her father has promised her to, she receives a letter from Legend granting her request with three tickets for entry into Caraval, one for her sister, one for her, and one for her fiance, who she has never met and whose name she does not know.

Scarlett is the main protagonist throughout the course of the novel, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It becomes clear that Caraval is a place where reality blends with magic, and it is difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the game.

There is love (what is a YA fantasy without some angst and love?), there is suspense, there is a magical darkness that felt unique to me compared with other fantasy I have read. I hesitate to say more about this book, because spoilers would be the worst for this story, and it is difficult to say more without spoilers.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you enjoy YA fantasy, it is an interesting story with a dark element that I didn’t anticipate, but enjoyed. The writing is solid, and at times, the descriptions of the world of Caraval are stellar. I like the way the author plays with the time period in this book. Since time is described in ways such as “Year 55, Elantine Dynasty,” the time period is unknown. It feels like the past to me, because of the way the clothing is described and Scarlett’s mannerisms. But that is the beauty of fantasy–time period does not have to be defined. I also really love the way the love between the two sisters is established and developed within the story.

If I could change one thing about the book it is that the characters felt flat and it would have been nice to know a little bit more about some of the major characters to better understand their motivations (again, I don’t want to name character names because EEK! spoilers), but overall Caraval is an engaging read that I would recommend to other fantasy enthusiasts. It is propelled more by its intriguing plot than by its characters, but that is okay with me for this type of story. If I still had my own classroom, I would snap this up in a second, because this is a book that teenage fantasy fans will love (think fans of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Sarah J. Maas’s series). And there are characters that teens will love and root for.

Bottom Line: I give it a solid 4/5 (mostly for the unique (to me) storyline). For middle grades, be aware that while there is no cursing and no sexually explicit scenes, there are a few scenes with sexual overtones, but nothing too racy. There are also a couple of scenes that contain violence which may be disturbing for younger readers.

 

Review of How To Disappear

How To Disappear is a YA novel that focuses on social anxiety in a world where social media and popularity are king. Bravo to Sharon Huss Roat for tackling this tough and multi-faceted issue. I haven’t read a book that addresses this particular issue in this way. While Roat could have easily made this an “issues” book, she instead creates a relatable character and a setting that is familiar to most teenagers.

Vicky Decker is a high school student who suffers from severe social anxiety, which is amplified after her lifelong best friend, Jenna, moves away. She is incredibly self-aware; however, she is unable to control the panic she feels in social situations. Enter Vicurious, an Instagram persona that Vicky creates to connect with other people online to avoid connecting in real life. As Vicurious’s fan following grows,Vicky is faced with living in two worlds–her actual life in high school, and the one that is playing out on Instagram.

What I loved about this book is the acknowledgement that social anxiety is a real and debilitating aspect of life for some teens. I also appreciated the social media tie-in, because fan following and ‘likes’ have become such an integral part of daily life for kids (and let’s be honest, sometimes adults). The characters are relatable and believable, and as I read, I didn’t feel like I was reading an “issues” book, or being preached at about the dangers of social media or the perils of social anxiety. The narrative felt authentic which I appreciated.

As the book neared its conclusion, I did feel like Vicky’s social anxiety issues seemed to clear up quickly and that her saving grace was the attention of a love interest, Lipton Gregory. Lipton’s character is likable and quirky, but his relationship with Vicky seemed to help her social anxiety issues a little too quickly which seemed implausible to me. The last third of the book had some inconsistencies that bothered me, one being the storyline between Vicky and her best friend, Jenna (the one that moved away at the beginning of the story.) Without giving spoilers, I would just say that the first two-thirds of the book were excellent; whereas, the last one-third left me scratching my head a bit. The ending seemed rushed and unrealistic to the rest of the story.

Still, I appreciate that there are authors who are willing to tackle this complex issue. Our kids are subjected to similar social situations in real life and on social media and it is important to be aware of this. Readers of YA will like How To Disappear for its fast-paced story and its look into the overlooked issue of social anxiety. Parents will like it for a glimpse into the world their kids are likely a part of in their everyday lives.

Bottom Line: How To Disappear is worth a read by YA enthusiasts and by parents. In general it gives an interesting perspective on social anxiety and the lives of our kids on social media. This book is appropriate for high school AND middle school students. My rating is a 4/5.

Review of The Confusion of Languages

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon is a pick for one of my IRL (In Real Life) book clubs. I have to say I was SO excited to read this one. I was the one who nominated the book, and my excitement to read it was palpable.

The premise is so interesting. Cassie, an ex-pat living in Jordan with her husband who is in the armed forces, befriends Margaret, a fellow ex-pat, new to Jordan, in a similar situation. The two foster an initially, co-dependent friendship wherein Cassie attempts to teach Margaret the ins and outs of living in Jordan. However, Cassie soon realizes that Margaret has her own ideas about living in Jordan and how to conduct herself within the culture. The heart of the story lies in the fact that Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor traffic accident. Margaret leaves her young son in Cassie’s care in order to take care of the traffic infraction, but never returns.

The narrative alternates between Cassie’s real time thoughts about what is happening and Margaret’s journal that Cassie uncovers in the hours that Margaret is missing. I really enjoyed this part of the story, especially the parts that helped to shed light on Margaret’s motivations based on her history with her own mother and her life before her marriage.

I would like to say that I did not hate this book. It was compelling, and at times, I felt like I couldn’t put it down. That being said, I did find that there were some issues with the overall narrative. First, I felt like many of the characters played into stereotypes. For example, Crick, Margaret’s husband, is a character driven solely by ego. Crick, along with several other characters, felt one-dimensional. Margaret and Crick have a complex past; however, the way Crick is portrayed in the book, leaves the reader to believe he is only motivated by strokes to his ego. By the conclusion of the book, this does not seem to be accurate; however there is no connection between how we get from Crick, the ego maniac, to the Crick at the end of the book. This is also the case with Saleh, the house manager where Margaret and her family reside. I did not like how one dimensional Saleh seemed in the story, and the path that his relationship with Margaret took during the story.

In addition, it is hard for me to love, or even like, a book where there is no character that I am rooting for. In this book, Hassan, an embassy guard who Margaret befriends, is my favorite character, but he is in the story so briefly, that he could not redeem my overall feelings about the book as a whole.

Again, I have to say, I SO wanted to love this book. The story had so much potential, but ultimately, I felt like it fell flat and was disappointing. By the end, I just didn’t care enough about either of the main characters (Cassie and Margaret) to care where their story ended. And I hate that. I am a reader who loves to get totally and completely absorbed in a story and root for the characters within. It just didn’t happen with this one for me.

I did feel sorry for Hassan and how his friendship with Margaret unfolds; but, really, I just felt let down by both Margaret and Cassie. They both felt really selfish and clueless, and I just wasn’t vested in their story.

This was an ambitious outing for Sibohan Fallon, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is a gifted writer. I just felt like a few character and plot points fell short for me. I would definitely read something from her again. And this is not to say that others would not enjoy this book. For me, it just didn’t live up to the hype I heard about it before I read it. That being said, I am in awe of Fallon’s bravery in tackling a tough subject matter and being able to craft a narrative that is both compelling and thought-provoking. I think this book would be a great choice for a book club because it offers ample material to discuss and contemplate.

Bottom Line: This is a compelling premise, but for me, there were some shortcomings in the narrative and the characters that I just couldn’t get over. I give it a 3/5. I do think this would be a great choice for a book club for its discussion merit.

 

 

Review of The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is a timely and necessary debut novel by Angie Thomas. Starr, the 16 year old protagonist, is with her friend Khalil when he is pulled over and killed by a police officer. The narrative follows Starr as she deals with the tragedy of losing her friend, the injustice of the shooting, and her journey into activism and finding her voice.

Starr and her family live in Garden Heights where her father runs a neighborhood store and her mother is a nurse who works in the community’s clinic. Her older brother, Seven, and her younger brother Sekani round out the family. Starr and her brothers attend a largely white private school, away from their neighborhood, where both Starr and Seven excel. At the beginning of the book, Starr keeps her Garden Heights life completely separate from her life at school and has a version of herself for each of these lives. As the story progresses, Starr has difficulty continuing to keep her two lives separate, as the truth about Khalil’s death becomes national news and the ramifications for his death are played out in her neighborhood.

Thomas’s book hooked me from the beginning and never let me go. This story is so important at any time, but especially in 2017, as we continually hear stories similar to Khalil’s in the news. The Hate U Give sheds light on issues that need to talked about. Most importantly, this book provides an opportunity to start a difficult conversation, to practice empathy for each other, and for us to examine our reactions to stories we hear in the media.

I have to say, for me personally, this book was an eye-opener. It allowed me to take a step back and examine my own reactions to news stories and to the media’s portrayal of events. In addition, the book provided insights into activism, speaking up, and choosing the more difficult path because it’s right. I could not love this book more.

What I loved about Starr is that even though the outcomes to the conflicts in the story are not what she wants, there is still a thread of hope throughout the novel. I know that no matter what, Starr will not give up on fighting, trying to make a difference, and ensuring that her voice is heard. And she will not give up on the hope that things will change. I love her for that.

Bottom Line: I would recommend this book to high school students and adults alike. (There is some language, domestic violence, and sexual references in the book. All of this is authentic to the story and not gratuitous; however, for middle school readers, just be aware.) Even if YA is not usually your thing, give this book a try. I think everyone has something to gain from reading it. My rating is a no-brainer–5/5.