A Town Like Alice

aliceI keep saying I’m done reading about World War II, but this month one of my book clubs chose A Town Like Alice and although I missed the meeting (I’m turning into That Person Who Always Misses Book Club…) I really enjoyed the book.

The book follows a remarkably resilient girl through an amazing (and based on a true story) survival in World War II Malaya, to her attempt at a post-war life in England, and finally her likewise amazing adulthood as a pioneer of sorts in the Australian bush. The author did a great job with the settings, so that I wished I could visit each of them, especially Australia, cat-eating-spiders notwithstanding.

The only issue I had with the book was a sort of shaky narrator–I wish Shute had settled on a slightly different frame and/or had been more consistent with the point of view. However, the book is still great and I’d recommend it, whether or not you like World War II stories or tales about Australia.

 

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The Island of the World

islandThe Island of the World is like a fantastic book combined with a so-so book, resulting in a four-star book that is about 300 pages too long.

Allow me to explain.

I am not against books that top out over 900 pages, but you have to earn that length. At points, this book is exceptional.  As a piece of historical fiction about the Balkans, and as a lyrically written story of how a boy’s life is irrevocably impacted by the circumstance of his birth in that region in the 1900s. I thought the story was amazing, with exceptional attention to detail that never felt overwhelming.

However.

The book also contains vast passages of didactic conversations that don’t advance the plot, minor characters that don’t really go anywhere, and meandering subplots that don’t serve the story. The book would have been much, much better without those sections.

That said, I really did enjoy The Island of the World, and would recommend it if you don’t mind plodding through or skimming the unnecessary portions. I especially recommend it if you are interested in the Balkans or don’t know much about that part of the world. This book greatly expanded my understanding of that region.

 

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Warriors of the Storm

Warriors of the Storm HB.inddIf you like Bernard Cornwell novels, you will love Warriors of the Storm, because….

…wait for it…

…it’s a Bernard Cornwell novel.

And oh, is there ever a formula for these.

It’s a good formula. But after reading several of the books in the Saxon series, I kind of feel like if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

I’ll keep reading the series because at SOME POINT Uhtred will finally either win or lose at his ultimate goal, but I wish Cornwell would hurry up!

I don’t mean to pan Cornwell overall. He writes excellent battle scenes and I think he does a great job of capturing the somewhat more murky periods of British history.

Do you usually stick with a series, even if it gets a little drawn out or starts to disappoint?

 

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Read-alouds for China, Afghanistan, and Grammar

red scarf girlRed Scarf Girl is a memoir of a young girl growing up under Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. There are some difficult parts and some profanity, so I’d recommend reading it aloud so you can skip over what you need to, or stop to discuss it with your kids. We had good discussions on how you can know if your government is just or tyrannical, when and why it might be advisable to resist tyranny, and why people don’t speak out or flee when they are persecuted or see others persecuted. Because we study history chronologically, we could also contrast the book with other similar cultural moments. If you’re studying this time period, I think Red Scarf Girl is a good choice, but it might not be one I’d pick up just for fun bedtime reading. If you do pick it up, be aware that you’ll probably want to talk over the themes and issues with your kids–that can be really fruitful, even with younger elementary kids!

breadwinnerSet in Afghanistan just as the Taliban took over, The Breadwinner follows an eleven-year-old girl who must resort to a disguise when her family is devastated by loss. While the subject matter is difficult–Parvana’s father is dragged off to prison, her mother struggles with debilitating depression, the family is in constant danger of starvation or worse–the tone stays hopeful and the setting emphasizes the resilience and humanity of the Afghan people.

The Breadwinner is the first book in a series, but Hannah read the second one and from talking to her I think it might be thematically too much for a ten-year-old, so we skipped the other books.  Again, if you use this as a read-aloud you’ll have more insight into whether your kids are ready for it or if it might be too much.

Book-Cover-the-phantom-tollbooth-1342828-311-475And now for some lighter fare! The Phantom Tollbooth is a funny story built around the humor of language. If your kids are familiar with homophones and can appreciate the hilarity of misused turns of phrase, this book will be a hit.  We used it as a read-aloud, but at times I thought it might have been better as a read-alone, because I had to stop and make a note of it when the jokes were based on spelling. Then again, I also reformatted some words as I read (no real reason to interchange the terms “demon” and “monster” in my mind, so we went with monster, etc).

Still, The Phantom Tollbooth was a fun and silly book that we all liked very much. It would be a good one to put on your summer reading list if you haven’t read it already!

Are you starting your summer reading lists yet? If so, what are you planning to read with or to your kids this summer?

 

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Hannah Reads: Marie Antoinette

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From Hannah, our resident ten-year-old:

Personally, I do not keep a diary, but I have always wanted to do that. I’ve tried before, but I couldn’t keep up with it. My days are often the same old routine, so it turns into writing the same thing over and over again. Also, what I do doesn’t seem that interesting to me–can you imagine if I wrote down the step-by-step way I unload the dishwasher? BORING!

However, I do enjoy reading other people’s diaries in books. You can come to understand their feelings, even if they are really a stinker! That happens a lot in books, that someone seems like a stinker, but then you understand their feelings and then you can start to take their side.

For example, lots of people think that Marie Antoinette was mean to her subjects and cared only for pleasure. However, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles gives a whole different look at her character and personality. The book is fiction, but written as if it was Marie Antoinette’s diary. I think the author did that so readers might change their minds about Marie Antoinette.

I, for one, sympathized with Marie Antoinette from early on in the book. She had almost no friends in her life, and her mother was busy being an empress rather than taking the time to get to know her children. So I felt bad for her because that seems like a dreadful life. She was also forced to marry a French guy she didn’t know!  And he was fat! She was very disappointed when she saw him. If she had gotten to know him first, she might have come to like him in spite of his fatness and the fact that he did not even know how to make a snowball, if you can imagine that!  Personally, I would rather marry someone who knows how to make snowballs even if he is fat, because I would like to have snowball fights be a part of my life! Or, if I live where there is no snow, perhaps sock ball fights!

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles is a fascinating book to read, full of interesting facts about French etiquette, not to mention details about fine dresses. If you like historical fiction, I would recommend it.

Hannah’s questions for kids (and adults):

  • Have you ever wanted to be part of a royal family?
  • Do you keep a diary?
  • Would you let other people read your diary?

 

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The Measure of Success

TheMeasureOfSuccess_CVR-1In The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, author Carolyn McCulley interacts with secular and biblical arguments and proposed solutions to questions about gender roles and what it means to be a woman and successful.

I thought the author made strong points about life being a series of phases, rather than one brief shot at Doing It All all at once.  She also had good insight into a Christian perspective on ambition and how that can play out in different ways during different seasons of life.

I wouldn’t say that The Measure of Success is a drop-everything-and-read-it-now book. While it’s not ultimately very prescriptive (and that’s part of the point), the book does form an interesting addition to the broader dialog about womanhood. If you’re interested in that conversation, you might find the book worthwhile.

 

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Rest Assured

Rest-Assured-CoverIf you’re coming from a place of extreme busyness and you feel that your online life is out of control, you might find good food for thought in Rest Assured: A Recovery Plan for Weary Souls. But if you’ve already thought a lot about this topic and have made good progress in living your priorities, this may not be as rich of a resource.

The author clearly calls out social media use and online time wastage in general, which may be startling for 20-30 somethings. While I thought some of her points came across as biased toward life before ubiquitous internet-enabled devices, she did make a strong case for the fact that thoughtful technology use is now counter-cultural.

Of course, just because something is counter-cultural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. While I personally have cut back substantially on social media and non-work internet use this year, I see that as something I’ve done for my own season of life and out of a need to honestly live my priorities, not a moral imperative others need to follow.

It is interesting to think about how we could develop a coherent theology of technology use, but I think this might be one of those areas where lack of deep thought leads people to take their own methods and try to apply them as universal standards. I think with technology especially there is a lot of grey space where we have to know ourselves and our attitudes and callings and honestly evaluate it for ourselves.  That takes a lot of work, and a checklist would be easier!  I do think this book offers some good points to think about, as long as you can approach them with an eye toward filtering the author’s conclusions through the lens of your own tendencies and personality and situation.

There were a few drawbacks to the book. I had a problem with the tone in several places.  In what seemed like an attempt to be funny the author often put others down in a way that was not actually humorous–it was needlessly mean and catty.  In other places, the author wrote in a way that made suggestions seem like imperatives and it took away from her points.

There is a lot of good material in Rest Assured, so depending on your interest level you might find it worth a read, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite book in this topic area.

 

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Hannah Reads: The Lightening Thief

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A review from Hannah, our resident 10-year-old:

Mythology, as you may know, is not made up of things that actually happened. When I think of mythology, I think it’s like fairy stories–not true but they often end with a good moral of the story. If you’re interested in Greek mythology, I think you might find The Lightning Thief enjoyable.

lightning-thief1The book is about Percy Jackson, who is used to bullies calling him names and treating him horribly. He’s also prone to crazy freak accidents. But when he visits a museum of ancient Greek history, and has a run-in with a creature from mythology, things start getting weird. It turns out that Percy is the son of Poseidon! When Zeus’s master bolt is stolen and he blames Percy, Percy has to go on a quest to find it and is in very great danger.

The Lightning Thief, as you can tell, combines everyday life with Greek mythology. That’s very unusual and interesting to think about! You might find yourself wishing you were part of the story too, except for the part about possibly dying an extremely painful death. You might find this scary depending on your personality. Some people may be afraid of the monsters in the book, although I personally do not have that problem since I know mythology isn’t real.

Hannah’s questions for kids (and adults):

  • Have you ever wanted to be part of Greek mythology stories?
  • Have you ever imagined yourself in the story of a book you were reading?
  • Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? How did you handle it?

 

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A few more read-alouds set in Asia

We are wrapping up our study of the 20th century (and I can’t decide if we should start the ancient world again after spring break, or just do lots of random literature read-alouds until August? Thoughts?) and read several more good books set in Asia.  If you’re interested in the area or are studying the Korean and/or Vietnam Wars, these might be good choices.

inside outHannah (10) and I previously decided we didn’t really like verse novels, but Sarah (7) read Inside Out and Back Again and kept telling us how fantastic it is, so finally I read it and yes, it is fantastic!  Hannah grudgingly agreed that it was all right, because she liked the author’s second book (below) better, but we all enjoyed talking about Inside Out.

The book tells the story of a girl whose family has to leave Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War. Emigrating to the US, the little girl faces all kind of challenges–language, customs, bullies–and yet bravely learns to stand up for herself.  These are such great topics for elementary school kids, both in how to treat others who are different and how to behave when you yourself are different.

Even if you think you don’t like verse novels, I highly recommend you give Inside Out and Back Again a try.

listen slowly

Naturally, we wanted to read Thanha Lai’s second book, Listen, Slowly. The book is a novel rather than a verse novel (I think it was a sound move for Lai to branch out, but also brave since her verse novel won awards and it probably would have been easy to let herself be pigeonholed in that genre) and it is set in Vietnam, so you get more details about the country.  I’m not sure which book I liked most.

Listen, Slowly follows two girls–one born in America to parents who fled Vietnam as children during the war, and one her cousin who grew up in Vietnam.  As they come to understand each other, the reader learns a lot about Vietnamese culture and also gets an outside-in view of some of the silly parts of American tween culture in the process.

The book had some great discussion topics like how we can view our own culture, how to figure out if someone is really a true friend, why we respect our elders, and the like.

One caveat for younger readers: There is an episode in Listen, Slowly when the American tween advises the Vietnamese cousins that they should convert their underwear to thongs.  I wound up having to explain to Hannah what thongs were, which is fine but I wasn’t expecting the question!  She declared the whole idea “completely ridiculous” and later in the book the American tween character does too, but I thought I’d mention it as a heads up.

seesaw girlSeesaw Girl was our read-aloud choice about Korea. Although it’s set in the 1600s, there were a lot of great cultural references that I thought helped round out our understanding.  We read other picture books and shorter chapter books set in Korea too, but really enjoyed Linda Sue Park’s story.

I loved the setting details Park included–sometimes children’s books are light there but Park did a great job of evoking both the historical and geographical settings.

The kids read several other books by Park and enjoyed them all. Jack (8) tried to teach himself Korean from some YouTube videos.  Hannah asked for a hanbok for her birthday. We briefly looked up airfare to Korea (my family lived there when I was in 7th and 8th grades and I would love to visit again) but, to paraphrase Kermit the Frog from a non-Korea-related movie quote, “that would cost as much as an Oldsmobile” so we had to settle for going out to dinner at a Korean restaurant.

water-buffalo-days-cover1To be honest, Water Buffalo Days was a kind of disappointing read-aloud. I think it was partially because the kids had already read The Land I Lost by the same author so they knew more stories and details and they thought this was “a little kid version” and were not super enthused.  As the person reading aloud, I wished the book would have had more setting details.

We didn’t hate it, but the consensus among the kids was that you should read The Land I Lost instead of Water Buffalo Days.

 

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A classic mystery (and some alternatives)

rebecca1Rebecca, the classic mystery by Daphne Du Maurier, is billed as the best mystery book of the 20th century, but…eh.  It’s fine as mysteries go, but it didn’t really grab me or strike me as terribly important. The book suffers from two-dimensional characters and it was hard for me to get past that.

As I read, I was reminded of two other books: Jane Eyre and The Little Stranger.

Rebecca borrows certain imagery and plot elements from Jane Eyre, but overlooks the likeable heroine and character development that make Jane Eyre a great novel (and one of my favorites).

If you’ve read The Little Stranger you’ll notice some parallels there too. I looked it up and Sarah Waters did list Daphne Du Maurier among her influences. The Little Stranger uses some of the same setting details and narrator qualities found in Rebecca, but boasts a better story line and more complex mystery (although a similarly disappointing ending).

If your time is limited and you don’t have much of an interest in the classic status of Rebecca but you still want a good mystery, I’d recommend Kate Morton’s books instead.

Have you read Rebecca? What did you think of it?

 

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