Thursday, January 30, 2014


I seem to have jumped into the dystopian stream with both feet lately.  I am already formulating a post discussing the current trend in post-apocalyptic literature, but I want to read some more first.  It's very popular among YA readers these days.  THG opened the floodgates, and now all dystopian novels, before Katniss and after, are prominent in libraries.  Personally I enjoy a good journey into the "what-if," so I don't mind reading what my students are reading.  (But no vampire books.  I draw the line at vampires.)

Today's book, Matched, is definitely in the same vein as THG and Divergent, but it has its own refreshing take on the questions of the post-WWIII world.  Instead of being focused on guns, violence, and brute force, it takes a softer, more philosophical approach.  The Society in which Cassia Reyes and her family live is very ordered, very neat, very bright and very clean.  Everything appears to run smoothly.  You almost start to think that this world really wouldn't be so bad after all.  After all, there's no poverty, no violence, everyone gets along and has what they need - really, what is so bad about all that?  What if we had a society where everyone just did what they were supposed to and got along fine without possessions and money?  But just about the time you start to get as comfortable as Cassia is in her cocoon of a world, the underbelly of such a culture starts to be exposed, and as Cassia does, you start to question whether or not things are what they seem, and whether or not any of this is a good idea.  About a third of the way through the novel, an important person in Cassia's life tells her "it's ok to wonder."  From that moment on, Cassia does wonder, about many things she has always accepted without question, and the reader begins to wonder as well. 

One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel is its examination of the importance of creativity.  In the ordered world of the Society, all literature has been boiled down to the Hundreds - the Hundred Songs, the Hundred Poems, the Hundred Stories, etc.  The powers the be decided that their culture was just too cluttered, so they decided what were the most important pieces of art, and they eliminated the rest.  What's more, no one is allowed to add to them.  No one writes songs, or poetry, or books.  In fact, no one knows how to write at all.  Oh, they can type on a touch screen, but no one knows how to pick up a pen and write something longhand.*  It opens up the question of how important such things are.  Is it important to keep imagining?  To keep creating?  What happens to a society when no one creates anything new any longer?  How does that cut off the life of a people?  The storyline about the act of writing intrigued me, because I have had this discussion with other educators.  More and more handwriting is being discarded as a part of the curriculum in favor of typing and technological ways of communication.  Does that matter?  Should people be able to form letters with their hands?  What importance does that have to a person?  To a group?  To a society? 

Interwoven with these themes of wonder and creativity is a lovely little love story that turns Cassia's ordered world upside down.  There is no "team this" or "team that."  You realize fairly early on just who Cassia needs to be with and what that is going to mean for her life and the life of her family.  It's an intense (but clean!) love affair that helps Cassia sees more of who she is and who she could be.  It's a beautiful storyline that promises to carry us into the second and third books. 

Overall, Matched is a nice addition to the dystopian world.  It asks different questions than have been asked before and takes the reader to important places in their minds.  I'm excited to read its sequels and bring more reviews on the series, just as I hope to bring about Insurgent and Allegiant as soon as I track down copies of those and get them read.  In the meantime, I definitely recommend Matched to anyone looking around for a good read and who enjoys this line of fiction.


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Reading now: A Higher Call by Adam Makos

1. Crossed by Ally Condie
2. Multiply by Francis Chan
3. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
4. Four Blood Moons by John Hagee
5. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Lightning Thief

I'm on a kick lately of reading some of the popular YA fiction out there, as you can tell from my most recent posts.  As a teacher, this is advantageous because I know what the kids are filling their heads with, and I am also able to make good recommendations to kids who can't find anything to read.  However, let's be's really just an excuse to read more books.  Truth be told, I enjoy YA fiction, and I love that it's part of my job to read it! 

This week I finished a book I've been wanting to read for a while, Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book One: The Lightning Thief.  Percy is pretty popular with my students these days, and I have seen the movie, so I have been anxious to read the stories and find out what all the hype is about.  What I found was a really interesting take on ancient stories and way to make kids interested in classic literature. 

The Lightning Thief centers around Percy Jackson, a troubled kid from new York that never quite fits in anywhere.  He has ADHD and is dyslexic, and for some reason, disaster just seems to follow him wherever he goes.  One minute he's minding his own business, and the next minute he's being attacked by a giant monster in the middle of a museum.  What's a boy to do?  As it turns out, there's much for him to do, for Percy is none other than Perseus, son of Poseidon the ancient Greek god of the sea, a half-blood of both mortal and immortal stock.  The revelation in Percy's life brings him to Half-Blood Hill where there is a camp for others like him, children of the gods who have hooked up with mortals.  At camp Percy learns that he is actually the center of attention of a war brewing between his father and uncles, and he must go on a quest in an effort to save civilization from mass destruction.  Oh, and maybe save his mom along the way.

Rick Riordan started writing this book based off of stories he told his second-grade son, another student who struggled in school due to ADHD and dyslexia.  As middle school literature teacher, he knew the stories of the Greek myths, and he started creating stories about a boy named Percy who turns out to be the modern-day son of Poseidon.  His son asked him to write down his stories about Percy traveling across America to find Zeus's lightning bolt, and the Percy Jackson series was born.  

Riordan obviously knows his Greek mythology in and out, and he does a masterful job of weaving the old tales into new adventures for today's audience.  It was fun to read the stories and make the connections between the modern-day versions of the monsters and the ancient stories I have heard throughout my schooling. Greek mythology is a huge part of our culture whether we realize it or not.  So many modern-day books and movies make references to these ancient myths, and yet it can be so difficult to make students care about learning them - you get a lot of "this is stupid, why do we need to learn this?"  Riordan has found a way to show modern audiences the impact of these stories and hook them in to want to learn more.

The book is well-written and fast-paced with plenty of action to keep the average middle school reader enthralled...or the average 30-something reader.  Percy is a great character, a not-so-perfect teenage boy who is trying to find his place in the world.  Many readers can identify with that.  Most of these readers will NOT find out they are a half-blood son of an ancient god, but that's where fact and fantasy meet.  The themes of heroism, perseverance, and loyalty will also capture the heart of many readers.  We all have a desire in us to do something heroic.  Watching Percy learn how to be a hero strikes a chord in all of us as we look for our own opportunities for heroism. 

I will say this.  It should be pretty obvious to anyone who has read this blog that I am a Christian and that my spiritual beliefs are very important to me.  Reading about "gods and goddesses", then, did bother me, even as a fantasy idea.   They do mention God at one point and acknowledge His existence with the hint that He is something more than Zeus and his family, and that made me feel better.  I don't regret reading the book, and I plan to read the rest of the series.  I do believe it presents the opportunity to have discussions about real and not real.  I don't think we have to avoid everything that is fantasy because it contradicts what I know to be True.  Reading books like this solidifies my own beliefs even further and can lead to discussions about beliefs and truths.  No one believes in these myths any more, but they did once, and I want to acknowledge the importance of teaching at least my own children that while these are myths and not true, there are powerful spiritual forces in the world that are absolutely real and that do have control in our lives.  Thankfully, however, the real God of the universe is not selfish, petty or paranoid, and He does not use us as pawns in power games.  He doesn't have to.  If you have real power, then you don't have to be in constant fear of losing it.  These are the discussions I would like to have with readers of the book series.  Jesus walked the earth in the time when people believed these tales - what was the good news that He brought that broke the chains of belief about these mythological creatures?  What freedom that must have brought to the early Gentiles! 

So.  Anyway.  This was a good read, and I am glad to be more up on what the cool kids are reading these days.  Gotta stay hip, ya know!

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Next up: Matched by Ally Condie
1. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
2. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
3. A Higher Call by Adam Makos
4. Multiply by Francis Chan
5. Four Blood Moons by John Hagee

Monday, January 20, 2014


Sooo...crazy month around here.  Super crazy.  Like, what-happened-to-the-last-four-weeks-of-my-life crazy.

First we bought a house.  Then we prepped a house for move-in. 
And then...we didn't get to move in due to the weather.

Then, we moved in, and promptly didn't have Internet for three weeks. 

Somewhere in there we celebrated Jesus' birthday at least five times. 

At last, we came home.  Time to get back to real life! 

Then we had a snow/ice/cold storm - the "polar vortex."  Have you ever tried to write a blog when three house-bound children are on their 17TH DAY OF WINTER VACATION?! 

Yeah...that wasn't going to work.

So then we all went back to school and work.  Routine was coming back.  All was well.

And then my mother landed herself in the ICU for a week with a walloping case of pneumonia.

See what I mean?  CRAZY!

However, life around here has settled to a dull roar, and I am anxious to re-enter the world of reading and blogging.  So fear not friends - for I am back!

I will be kicking of 2014 with the book I read while my mother was in the hospital.  If you're going to be spending a week sitting around an ICU hospital room, it is imperative to have a new book to read.  Something that can grab your attention and give you some needed distraction from the ventilator through which your mother is trying to breathe.  These books are often best chosen either 1) in the hospital gift shop or 2) on a 10pm trip to Wal-Mart.  (Target is also acceptable, but they closed at 10!)  Today's review comes from one of those 10pm trips to Wally-World.  Sometimes the best books are found that way.  

So without further adieu, I bring you...Divergent.

Post-apocalyptic books are very in right now.  Call it The Hunger Games effect or whatever.  I'm not knocking The Hunger Games - they were pretty good books.  I almost said excellent but...I downgraded it to pretty good.  They are good, fun, fast reads that give you lots to think about and foster enjoyment of reading in young readers.  That's a win-win-win. 

A whole genre of what-if dystopian novels have sprung up since then, and like all genres, some of them are great, and some of them are not so great.  I am happy to say that Divergent falls firmly into the great category.  To be honest, I thought it was a better book than THG!

Divergent tells the story of Beatrice, a sixteen-year old girl living in what used to be the city of Chicago in a society that had decided to eliminate conflict by dividing everyone into five factions according to their natural aptitude and inclinations.  Beatrice soon finds out that she is Divergent, meaning she doesn't fall into any specific category.  She is warned several times to keep this a secret because her society views divergence as a dangerous anomaly that must be eliminated.  She hides her true self and joins Dauntless, a faction devoted to being brave and, quite often, brazenly risky.  From there Beatrice, or Tris as she becomes known, begins to learn what it means to be Divergent, and she discovers that behind her seemingly smooth-running society lies a myriad of secrets and plots that she and others like her must uncover and fight back if they are  going to survive. 

Like THG, the plot is written in present-tense, which gives the novel a breathless, up-to-the minute feel.  These are not Beatrice's memoirs.  You experience her life as she experiences, one death-defying moment at a time.  It's well written and moves right along, and at some point comes that all-night stride when you stay up till 1am because you just HAVE TO FINISH THIS BOOK AND FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS RIGHT NOW.

I love those moments.

Beatrice is a great heroine.  It is wonderful to read a novel with such a strong female lead.  She is uncertain and vulnerable, and yet there is a steel and a hardness to her that tells the reader that she's not going to be beaten down.  It's quite easy to root for Beatrice - as a woman, it's easy to identify with her, and she will appeal to young teenage girls who are also looking for their place in the world, even if it's not so starkly defined as in Beatrice's world. 

The book also raises good thought-provoking questions.  Would a world like this work?  What are the pros and cons of each faction?  What does it really mean to be brave?  Is bravery the absence of fear or simply the overcoming of it?  Can anyone be truly and completely selfless?  And ultimately - don't we divide ourselves into similar groups today?  We might not define it by law, but how do we treat people that are "divergent" from our own norms? 

As a teacher, I can see a plethora of ways to use this book in a reading class to start open-ended discussions and trigger new ways of thinking in students.  As a sci-fi fan, I enjoyed the story.  As a reader, it's intriguing to stay in the story and find out what happens to the characters.  As a woman, it's fun to cheer for Beatrice as she takes on the world.  As a member of the human race, it's interesting to read and consider what could be, what might be, and what is. 

And finally...there's a love interest.  A really, really good love interest.  None of this "team whoever" crap.  Love triangles are annoying.  Beatrice and her guy are not perfect...but they are a lovely addition to the storyline.

Overall, Divergent is a fun ride.  Head to Wal-Mart for a 10pm trip and pick yourself up a copy - quick, before the movie comes out!

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
What I'm Reading Now:
1. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
2. Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples by Francis Chan
3. A Higher Call by Adam Makos and and Larry Alexander
4. Four Blood Moons by John Hagee
5. Insurgent by Veronica Roth...oh yeah, did I mention it's a trilogy?!