Classic Review: The Ashwater Experiment

I thought I’d look back at an old review this week, and found this one on a very good YA book I ought to reread!  A fascinating premise with such good characters, I’ve read it several times and always found it engaging!

Have you ever felt that you’re not quite like anyone else around you?  I’m guessing most people have felt that way at some time or another–and that feeling is at the center of The Ashwater Experiment by Amy Goldman Koss.

Hillary wonders if she’s the only person who’s real.  You can hardly blame her for feeling disconnected from the people around her.  She and her parents wander the country in their RV, selling trinkets at craft fairs and never staying anywhere long.  By seventh grade, Hillary has been to seventeen different schools and is firmly settled in her pattern of never making ties to anyone.  So when she finds out her parents plan to stay in Ashwater for nine months–longer than they’ve ever stayed anywhere–Hillary feels trapped.  That’s when she comes up with the Watchers.

What if she’s really the center of an experiment?  Part holodeck and part Truman Show, she imagines that the world she experiences is really created just for her, with nothing existing outside of what she can see in that moment.  At first it’s easy to imagine–everywhere she goes has always seemed to have a pattern, with the same kind of people at every school.  As she stays longer in Ashwater, though, people start to seem more real than ever.

I’ve read this book before, and in the past I think it was Hillary’s imaginary (but sometimes so real-feeling) game about the Watchers that struck me.  This time, that seemed more like a sidenote.  It’s a very interesting sidenote–but the heart of the story for me on this read was Hillary’s feeling of being different, and of her gradually increasing understanding for the people around her.

When she first meets the kids at her school, she easily classifies them and easily sees them as stock characters.  As she gets to know them, she finds unexpected depth to Cassie the bookworm, Serena the society queen, and Brian the class clown.  Even the more minor characters, like Serena’s mother or Cassie’s grandmother, the nasty girl who resents Hillary and even Hillary’s own parents and grandparents, are eventually revealed to have their own problems and motives and complexities.  No one is simple.  And we all feel different sometimes–paradoxically, it’s a feeling we often have in common.

This is another one of those books that reminds me just how good and how deep a YA book can be.  It definitely is YA (or even Juvenile), appropriate for young readers and focused on young adults.  Hillary is in seventh grade, and she has seventh grader concerns: whether the girls at school like her, how well she’ll do on the math competition, whether her parents are weird.  But the larger feelings Hillary struggles with are really universal, and there’s a depth that makes this appealing–even though seventh grade was a long time ago for me.

Author’s Site: http://www.amygoldmankoss.net/

Book Review: Cold Summer

I love a good time-travel novel, especially because people have come up with so many different ways time-travel can work, and so many different challenges that arise.  Cold Summer by Gwen Cole was not the most unusual, but it had an interesting premise.

Kale has always disappeared–his friends and family have simply treated it as his way, to apparently go off for a few days at a time.  But at seventeen, the disappearances are happening more and more frequently, and only a trusted few understand why.  Kale is a time-traveler, unable to control his slips back into the past.  To make matters worse, for the past six months Kale has only gone back to one place: World War II, as a soldier on the front lines.  In the present he’s suffering from PTSD and a growing estrangement from his life.  Meanwhile, next door neighbor and childhood friend Harper has recently moved back to town, dealing with her own family crises.  Something begins to kindle between Harper and Kale, even while Kale’s time-travel threatens to tear him out of his present-day life for good.

This was a little bit like The Time-Traveler’s Wife-light (with 100% less nudity!)  Kale slips through time suddenly, uncontrollably and apparently randomly, until his recent ongoing secondary life in World War II.  The challenge of living two parallel lives was intriguing, especially with one as intense as the front lines of a war. Continue reading “Book Review: Cold Summer”

Classic Review: Emily of New Moon

Emily of New MoonHaving just finished rereading the Anne of Green Gables series, I’m about to reread L. M. Montgomery’s other most famous heroine’s trilogy, starting with Emily of New Moon.  I thought it would be fun to look back at what I had to say last time I reread!

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It’s been far too long since I read Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery–ten years, I think, since I took the trilogy with me on a school trip to England.  In fact, I found a customs form tucked into my book!

Emily is a lovely and beautiful tale of an imaginative girl who dreams of being a writer–of climbing the Alpine Path to success.  She lives with relatives at New Moon farm, and runs about with her devoted friends, Ilse, Teddy and Perry.

The book sounds at a glance like it’s an opposite number to Anne of Green Gables, and there are certainly overlaps–kind yet not quite understanding guardians, the beautiful expanses of nature in Prince Edward Island, the bosom friends, flights of imagination and inevitable scrapes.  But from the very beginning, when Emily learns in devastating fashion that her beloved father is dying, there’s a tragic strain here that gives a different color to the entire trilogy.

The difference is visually clear, looking at Emily’s midnight hair versus Anne’s fiery red locks, but it goes much deeper than that.  Emily seems to feel things more deeply than Anne (despite all her drama)–both joys and sorrows.

The book also touches (with extreme discretion, of course!) on more mature subjects.  There’s Mr. Carpenter, Emily’s irascible teacher, who drinks on weekends because he feels his life has been a failure.  And there’s Ilse’s mother, who gossip has it left her husband and baby to run off with a sea captain.  Anyone who thinks Montgomery only wrote gauzy fairy tales with no shadows is wrong.

However–don’t come to the conclusion that the book is dark or morbid or depressing!  It’s still Montgomery–and it’s still Prince Edward Island–and there’s still more beauty than sadness.  Emily has her trials and her sorrows but she is also surrounded by love and buoyed up by her dreams, her joy in the beauties of nature and her passion for writing.  And while it’s been some time, I don’t remember being strongly conscious of the darker undertones when I read this at a younger age.

It’s fascinating to read this after all my reading of Montgomery’s journal.  There are strong autobiographical strands, especially in Emily’s writing goals and experiences.  I get a fun little moment of recognition every time I spot something from her real life–like when Emily’s aunt describes her blank verse poem as “very blank” (LMM’s father said the same once) or when Emily mentions a compact with a friend to never say good-bye (LMM had such an agreement with her beloved cousin, Frede).

You know I’m always going to recommend Montgomery books.  🙂  Emily of New Moon is a beautiful novel with an appealing heroine–and for adult readers, more depth and maturity than you might expect.

Other reviews:
Reading the End
Books4Fun
Bookshelves of Doom
Anyone else?

Buy it here: Emily of New Moon

Book Review: Anne of Ingleside

I’ve recently been rereading the eight-book Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery, for the fourth (fifth? sixth?) time.  As always with Montgomery’s work, I love reading her fiction as informed by her journals (and her journals as informed by her fiction…it’s cyclical).  I recently finished book six, Anne of Ingleside, and had…a LOT of thoughts.  I reread Montgomery’s journals quite recently, and there was a lot that came to bear in this book.

The last time I read Anne of Ingleside, it was my favorite of the series, though I couldn’t have told you why.  On this read, I’m not sure it still is—but I know why it was.  This changed significantly in the several years since I last visited it.

Anne has grown up by now, and is the happy mistress of gracious Ingleside, with her successful doctor husband Gilbert, five children (number six on the way at the beginning), faithful maid (and surrogate co-parent) Susan Baker, and a respected place in society.  The stories mostly revolve around Anne’s children, their little adventures and childhood heartbreaks.

I realized for the first time in this reread that two completely different worldviews are at odds in this book.  The setting and framework is optimistic and idyllic; the episodic stories are grim and disillusioned. Even though this is book six of eight, this is the very last novel Montgomery ever wrote, and her later journals show her deeply struggling with depression and dissatisfaction with aspects of her life.  Anne of Ingleside is a war between Montgomery’s optimism and pessimism. Continue reading “Book Review: Anne of Ingleside”

Book Review: Holding Up the Universe

I don’t find very many books at random anymore—I’ve become a “request and pick up” reader rather than a library browser, mostly.  But…sometimes I’m short on books and that requesting does take time.  And sometimes I find a gem just by picking it up.  Such is how I found Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven, a troubled teen story with teens with unusual troubles.

Jack has face-blindness—he can’t recognize anyone, even his mother or two brothers.  He navigates through life by remembering key details (his brother is skinny with big ears, his girlfriend has a very helpful fake beauty mark), hiding his challenge from everyone.  Libby went viral in an online video in the worst possible way—as a morbidly obese teen who had to be cut out of her house.  Since then she’s lost weight but remains large (and feels comfortable at her current size), and is now facing a return to high school.  When the two end up thrown together, they each see the other in unique ways.

This was a fascinating book.  I don’t like troubled teen books as a rule, but this was not your run-of-the-mill troubles.  I’m so intrigued by Jack’s face-blindness.  His particular situation is extreme, but it’s a real thing that a surprising number of people have (and surprising people: Jane Goodall!  Brad Pitt!)  The book is in alternating POV, and I loved seeing the world through Jack’s eyes as he navigates a world that is always full of strangers.

Libby may be a contender in nine months for my favorite character of the year.  She’s done a lot of hard work in the last few years, losing weight of course but also (and more to the point) work on self-image and self-confidence.  Her over-eating was brought on by her mother’s death and bullying, so that’s hard issues right there.  As she returns to high school, she is simultaneously totally confident in herself, and totally afraid of trying to be that self out in the world. Continue reading “Book Review: Holding Up the Universe”

Book Review: Kira-Kira

Continuing the pattern of last year, I’m making a good run through the Newbery winners.  I picked Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata in part because it also serves my diversity challenge, centering on a Japanese-American family living in Georgia in the 1950s.  There was some exploration of that dynamic…but it was also the most unrelentingly depressing Newbery I’ve read yet!

The narrator is Katie Takeshima, but the story really centers around her beloved older sister Lynn.  Lynn is brilliant, loving, a force in the family and full of dreams for her future.  You can already see where this is going, can’t you?  Lynn is one of those too good to live characters, and sure enough—as the book goes on Lynn is vaguely and sporadically ill…then less sporadically…then fatally.

I don’t like stories about children dying.  I’m just going to put that out there, and admit that this makes it harder for me to judge if this was a good story about a child (well, teenager) dying.  I especially hate stories about children dying in slow, lingering ways, which this definitely was.  I love The Bridge to Terabithia, but that’s not a book about death—it’s a book that contains a death.  Kira-Kira is largely focused on Lynn’s slow decline and death, and how Katie handles it. Continue reading “Book Review: Kira-Kira”

Book Review: Crossover

I finished out last year’s Newbery reading by reading the (almost) most recent book on the list.  The 2015 winner, Crossover by Kwame Alexander, sat at the top of the list all year, until I finally added 2016’s winner in December.  A basketball story, I had some doubts about this one—and if I’d realized the format, I would have had more!  But it was surprisingly enjoyable.

Josh and Jordan Bell are twin brothers and high school basketball stars, cheered on by their father Chuck, retired professional basketball player.  Josh is our narrator, telling the story through poetry.   He uses poems to express his doubts and fears as his father begins having health problems, and his confusion and jealousy when he and his brother both develop crushes on the same girl—who seems to prefer his twin.

So the whole book is poems.  Mostly blank verse and other experimental types, which is not even the kind of poetry I like, when I (rarely) read poetry.  And yet, it actually worked.  Alexander did a compelling job telling a narrative and exploring characters through this highly unusual format.  I’m sure there are those who really loved the format and I might not go that far—but it was interesting and didn’t present the barrier I expected at all. Continue reading “Book Review: Crossover”