The Whizbang Machine

I saw a post on my local city’s Facebook page a few months ago about an author and fellow resident who was having a book signing at our local Half-Price Books. I was really excited to meet her because supporting local authors is a great way to expand my reading horizons and also to give them support and help get the word out about their writing. When I met Danielle A Vann, I was immediately taken with how friendly she was. She was dressed professionally, had her family with her, and chatted with me for a bit. After purchasing two of her books, I wanted to read them, but I decided to get other copies, since she had signed mine. I wanted to leave them up on the shelf in perfect condition. Thankfully, her first book in the series, The Whizbang Machine, was available on the Kindle for a pretty reasonable price, so I bought that one. For the 2018 book challenge, I have to read a book by a local author, so, of course, I chose  The Whizbang Machine.

When we first enter teenage Elizabeth’s world, her grandfather, Jack, is returning to NYC after being on an eight year world hopping adventure. He returns with hugs and packages and surprises. He gives Elizabeth a typewriter, but it isn’t just any typewriter. It doesn’t make the usual clicks and whirs, but rather bangs and whizzes, hence the name. It also sparks and electrocutes people, so there’s that. Needless to say, the mystery behind this machine is one Jack and Elizabeth vow to uncover.

Their search for answers takes them locally to the NY Public Library, then across the ocean to The Netherlands. I don’t want to say much about the plot because it unravels with one mystery answered, yet another one springs up just as quickly behind it. Jack and Elizabeth have to do some breaking and entering, plenty of lying, and more research and critical thinking than you can imagine. This book was just layer upon layer of mystery and intrigue. And just go ahead and get the second book, because you won’t want to be left hanging at the end of the first one 😉

I’m so glad I stumbled upon that Facebook post months ago, because it brought me to this ridiculously fun read. Sure it’s a young adult book, but Elizabeth isn’t an annoying whiny teenager (okay, she has her moments, as do all teens, but overall she is a great character) and Jack is just as mischievous as a good grandfather with a twinkle in his eye should be. I definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick, well-written mystery.

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Everything I Never Told You

For the 2018 book challenge, I need a book that is set in the decade I was born. I scrolled through a vast list of every book set in the 1970s and stumbled upon this one. I had it on my Kindle already and had heard so many great things about it. So I was really excited to get to this one, even though I had no idea what it was about.

And here we are with another family drama. The very first line in the book is Lydia is dead. Lydia being the teenage and middle child of James and Marilyn. James is Chinese, Marilyn is not. But they fall in love, get married, and have a family. Back in school, Marilyn dreamed of being a doctor, but when she gets pregnant, her dream is put on hold. Then comes another child (Lydia) and the dream gets further pushed away. Marilyn’s mother was a home economics teacher who preached day in and day out about keeping a good home, a good family, and a good husband, none of which Marilyn wants. So when she marries outside her race, her mother is so appalled that they never speak again.

Through a variety of situations, Marilyn decides to push Lydia the direction she, herself, was never allowed to go- to medicine. Marilyn makes sure Lydia has books, knowledge, and support to become the doctor she wants. Marilyn never stops to check what Lydia wants though. Such is being a parent. Parents want their child to be happy and successful, but not all are willing to let their child find his or her own path. How many parents push their kids into sports, or music, or drama, etc just because it is what they think is best, rather than what the child wants. Lydia is a victim of this very thing. So when she ends up dead, her parents are left wondering what happened and why.

This book broke my heart, in the best way possible, because it was so true. The microaggressions against Asians depicted in the book are still occurring today. The need for parents to push their children hasn’t changed. My kids are still young and want to be marine biologists, zookeepers, race car drivers, etc and that’s just fine with me.  But one of the most important things we can do is support, guide, and love our children without pushing them in the wrong direction. It’s a fine line, but one that must be negotiated carefully.

The Hate U Give

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Dear Martin. The other book along the same thematic lines was The Hate U Give (or THUG… and yes, the acronym is intentional and explained in the book). Both of these books touch on several topics facing our world today: racism, police brutality, white privilege, and being a teenager in a divided society, just to name a few. DM and THUG are two sides of the same coin, honestly. Both characters witness an event that changes them forever, both go to a predominantly white private school to get the best education they can, and both leave part of themselves at home while in the school. One main difference between Starr (in THUG) and Justyce (in DM) is their home lives. Starr lives with her still married hard working mother and father. Justyce doesn’t have much support at home and has to find it elsewhere.

I really can’t emphasize how important these books are. I apologize to keep lumping them together, but you really can’t go wrong reading either one. THUG is longer and more detailed, giving more depth to some characters. The author, Angie Thomas, does an excellent job creating Starr’s world in an authentic and realistic way. I usually think pop culture references can date a book, but in books like this, it is an important way to get readers in Starr’s mind and world. Starr loves the NBA, The Fresh Prince Bel-Air, dances the latest dances (which I have no idea what they are……I’m so out of touch, LOL), and uses modern slang (I did have to look a couple up on urban dictionary). In other words, Starr is today. She relevant. She is authentic. She is real. And, more importantly, her experiences are real.

I’m so glad these amazing women, Nic Stone and Angie Thomas, wrote these books. They are, of course, getting banned and backlash, because they are SO TRUE. Some people just can’t face the world we actually live in and want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is fine. Which is why we must be reading these books. And authors must keep writing them. Thank you for your voices, ladies. I’m so thankful for them and for you.

A Friend of the Family

I’m not a big fan of family drama books. Jonathan Franzen books come to mind here. Dull and boring. Well-written, but not my thing. However, this one sounded interesting in a review I read (I forget where) so I bought it at some point and Kindle lottery selected it for me to read. And even though it really is just about two families and some events that happen between them, it felt more original than others I’ve read.

The story is told from the patriarch of the Dizinoff family, Pete. Pete has a wife and a college dropout wanna be artist son, Alec. They are a white Jewish family; Pete’s a doctor, and life is good. When Alec was a kid, the daughter, Laura, of Pete’s best friend committed a heinous act, was placed in a juvenile home (or some such, I forget the details) and upon her release, she wandered the world for a decade. Upon her return, Laura and Alec get together. Yes, I mean in that sense. Alec falls deeply in love with her. But Pete refuses to see the relationship as a true one.

What I appreciated most about this book was seeing it through Pete’s eyes, rather than Alec’s. A simple shift in narrator and you would have a whiny kid talking about how his parents don’t understand him. We have TONS of those books and simply don’t need anymore. And as a parent of young kids, I know how lucky I am that my kids are still young and love me. Because as they get older, it will get tougher to let them go. Such is a parent’s life. Part of Pete’s dismay is losing his son to college, then as a drop out, never fully understanding who Alec is. But he is also upset that he loses Alec to HER. H. E. R. Her. He knows Laura. He sees Laura for what she did. He can’t forgive. And that’s harder than just about anything for him.

Killing Hemingway

Back when I was teaching, my primary focus was on gifted and talented students. I taught grades 6, 7, 8, and 10, depending on the year. I had some students just once, but some I had 3 or 4 years. I understood those kids. I was well aware that they were, for the most part, smarter that I was. Maybe not wiser, but they definitely knew more about most subjects, especially ones I didn’t teach, like math and science. But when it came to literature, I could usually handle my own in our Socratic seminars. Anytime I stumble upon a book about gifted kids, I’m both excited and leery. So many authors get these kids wrong. They only write them as “smart” kids without any kind of dimension, flaws, or emotions. Anyone who knows anything about gifted kids knows that their dimensions, flaws, and emotions are just as important a characteristic as the intelligence aspect. I’m pleased to say this book gets it all right.

Teddy is a precocious 6-year-old when we first meet him. He’s in 1st grade and his teacher is fed up with him. Nearing retirement, the teacher thinks Teddy needs to keep his smart mouth shut and sends him to the principal for discipline. The principal quickly realizes Teddy is simply bored and needs to be mentally challenged, so he moves Teddy up to 3rd grade. Making friends is difficult for Teddy (such a GT problem), but he finds one friend this year.

Fast forward to high school. Teddy is 12, but has already skipped 4 grades. He also has a handful of friends, but realizes he will never fully understand the dynamics of high school popularity. He gets involved in computer programming, but things go awry, to put it mildly.

Fast forward to college. Teddy has already graduated from MIT and, at 18, is going for his PhD, but Teddy realizes he has missed being average. He spent his 4 years at MIT in his room, alone, studying, cramming his brain full of knowledge. He vows to enjoy life this time around. His roommate is on the baseball team and vows to show Teddy the time of his life, beer, girls, and parties.

We get glimpses into Teddy’s life in these three stages to see how his life evolves. Teddy longs to be normal at just about every moment in his life. Although he is happy doing math problems, programming computers, and reading books, the social aspect is tricky to navigate for him most of the time. I really enjoyed seeing how Teddy changed from child to adult. I taught some kids in 6th grade and through social media, have been able to follow their lives: degrees, marriages, babies, jobs, etc. It was wonderful to do the same with Teddy.

The Ninth Circle

I have read and taught Dante’s Inferno several times. I’ve dug deep into the story, the language, and the history behind it. So when I stumble across a variation of the story, I will make a point to read it. I got The Ninth Circle for free on the kindle a few years ago, and the Kindle lottery system I use put this one as my next read. It took me only a few hours to read it, but I can’t say I recommend it.

The story follows Dan as he runs away from home to join the circus. I don’t mind coming-of-age stories, but I really couldn’t relate to Dan. I didn’t like him as a person. And most of the circus people weren’t fleshed out enough. They were thinly written, and I didn’t really care about most of them. Some had sad backstories, but as Dan travels through the circles of Hell (more on that later) we didn’t spend enough time with the characters to really connect with them. By the time I was nearing the end, I realized that I could have not finished and been just fine never knowing what happened. I just wasn’t into the book.

And although this is connected to Inferno, it really isn’t as well tied as I had hoped. Yes, Dan travels through circles, as indicated by the chapter titles, and in each circle we meet a new circus performer who is in his or her own version of hell. But even without this link to Inferno, the story would have been just as thin. The author, Brendan Deneen, is known for his comic books, and I have actually read a few of them and really enjoyed them, but this book just wasn’t for me.

Chaos Walking

I love this series. Let me just say this from the get go. This was my second time to read it all the way through without reading other books in between, and it is just as great as the last time I read it. Of all the YA dystopian series I have read this is one of the top few I’ve read. For the record, The Hunger Games, Legend series, and Red Rising are the others.

This story is one of the most creative I’ve come across. Instead of humans being the victims of a society disaster, they are the perpetrators. Convoys of ships landed decades ago on an uninhabited planet. They settlers were supposed to start building cities, farming, making life sustainable for other settlers. Much to their surprise, the planet did have life in the form of Spackle. Think people, but bigger and more reptilian like. The war against the native creatures began and the Spackle were destroyed. Another big surprise was that all the mens’ thoughts were heard by everyone else. So whatever thought a man had, every other man and woman in his proximity could hear it. The “Noise” was unexpected and very difficult to deal with.

Our main character, Todd, lives in Prentisstown with his adopted fathers Ben and Cillian. Todd’s mother died after he was born, committing suicide like all the other women in the town. The 100+ men left in the town are the only remaining settlers on the planet. With no way to reproduce, they are facing imminent demise. Then, Todd finds a crashed ship and a girl and quickly learns that all he has been told might not be exactly true. This is simply the first few chapters of the first book. The entire trilogy continues much more into Todd’s revelations, the girl, and the truth about the settlers and Spackle.

I really can’t recommend this series enough. There is a movie coming out in 2019 (I think) with Tom Holland (Spiderman) and Daisy Ridley (Rey) as Todd and the girl. I CANNOT wait to see how they film the Noise and how far into the series this movie goes. There’s plenty of time to read the series before the movie comes out.