Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Book Review: Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

From the back of the book: When Isabelle Poole meets Dr. Preston Grind, she’s fresh out of high school, pregnant with her art teacher's baby, and totally on her own. Izzy knows she can be a good mother but without any money or relatives to help, she’s left searching.

Dr. Grind, an awkwardly charming child psychologist, has spent his life studying family, even after tragedy struck his own.  Now, with the help of an eccentric billionaire, he has the chance to create a “perfect little world”—to study what would happen when ten children are raised collectively, without knowing who their biological parents are.  He calls it The Infinite Family Project and he wants Izzy and her son to join.

This attempt at a utopian ideal starts off promising, but soon the gentle equilibrium among the families disintegrates: unspoken resentments between the couples begin to fester; the project's funding becomes tenuous; and Izzy’s growing feelings for Dr. Grind make her question her participation in this strange experiment in the first place.


Recently, I joined Book of the Month Club (that's an affiliate link, FYI). Mostly, I've stuck to their recommendations for my monthly selection, but this time I eschewed their recommendation because as much as I enjoy dystopian literature, this time I thought reading about a utopia actually sounded pretty nice.

After reading the synopsis, I almost anticipated that this novel would be narrated from the points of view of different members of the Infinite Family Project, but it was actually confined to just two perspectives--Izzy and Dr. Grind. I understand that choice and ultimately think it was a smart one, though I do wish as the reader we'd gotten to know some of the other adults a bit more intimately than we did. Still, I really enjoyed this one overall. I thought that the characters were strong, the concept was strong, and the book was resolved appropriately in a way that felt like it rang true with my experiences of how dynamics can evolve and change within extended families.

I almost never say this, but I actually thought this particular book would have benefited from being a bit longer because it would have allowed for more character development and more in depth examination of the "experiment" and its consequences, both good and bad. I feel like I saw where Perfect Little World could have gone, and it made it 9/10ths of the way there. It ended in a perfectly acceptable way, and I enjoyed the journey there very much. But I can't help but think that if the author had pushed himself for just that extra little bit, he would have arrived at a destination that was even more spectacular than where he landed. The only way that I can think to explain it is that the sunset when you've hiked and *almost* reached the top of a mountain is beautiful, but the sunset when you *have* reached the top of a mountain is breathtaking. Perfect Little World reached beautiful, but it didn't quite reach breathtaking.

I also feel it's worth mentioning that I've seen many reviews compare Perfect Little World to Kevin Wilson's other novel, The Family Fang. I haven't read The Family Fang, so I don't have that bit of context to offer as part of my review, but all on its own, I definitely think Perfect Little World is worth a read!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

From the back of the book: Bellwether Prize winner Hillary Jordan’s provocative new novel, When She Woke, tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed―their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes―and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder.

In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

So. This book was published in 2011, but it's pretty on the nose in terms of the current political climate. A new political party called the Trinitarian Party has taken power, and the separation between church and state has been completely dissolved and Roe v. Wade overturned. As the book opens, we learn that Hannah has discovered as she wakes up that her skin has been turned red, which publicly designates her as a murderer. In this case, she has had an abortion and has refused to publicly identify the baby's father. 

Because "chromes"--those whose skin has been changed colors in accordance with their crimes--have a difficult time surviving in the real world, Hannah goes to a halfway house run by a very fundamentalist religious group, who seems intent on shaming Hannah in order to get her to "walk the narrow path", and I'd argue that her experience there was filled with really disturbing mental and emotional abuse. Later, she ends up connected with a group of militant feminists who are attempting to help Hannah escape to Canada to have her chroming reversed.

Regardless of your politics, the first half of the book is a strong dystopian novel that's reminiscent of both The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid's Tale. However, the second half of the book missed the mark for me--it felt cliche, designed almost entirely to give women in book clubs something to talk about. Click the Show/Hide button below if you don't mind a few spoilers that describe what I'm talking about more specifically.

It wasn't a *bad* book, it was just off to such a strong dystopian start that the second half really felt that much more cliche and awful. So, while the first part of the book started out as a 5 star book for me (you all KNOW I love dystopian lit), by the end I was feeling much more like:

Just read The Handmaid's Tale instead. For real.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

From the back of the book: In the tradition of Out of My Mind, Wonder, and Mockingbird, this is an intensely moving middle grade novel about being an outsider, coping with loss, and discovering the true meaning of family.

Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now.

Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.

Let's just get one thing out of the way--this is a book written for kids somewhere between the ages of 8-12. I didn't buy this book to read with Lizzy (more on that later), I bought it just for myself because sometimes I think children's books are honest and refreshing in a different way than books written for adults often are. 

This was a quick read, and also a really enjoyable one for me. Yes, many of the circumstances that Willow finds herself in are improbable and totally unlikely to ever happen in the "real world". Still, if you can suspend that bit of skepticism for just a bit, there's a really endearing story that's NOT just for middle schoolers about grief, loss, family, and hope. I really do recommend this one to people of all ages--it's worth your time. 

Now, more on reading this one with kids. Lizzy is 7. She reads pretty well for her age, and I think that in terms of reading level alone, she could read this one with minimal help. It's clean in terms of language, and overall, I think it's a really solid book for kids in probably 4th-8th grade. That said, this book also centers around the death of both of Willow's parents, and subsequently deals with the realities of trying to place a 12-year old in foster care. At one point, another character quips something like, "Once all your baby teeth are gone, no one wants to adopt you." 
I think that right now, those types of issues are a little too emotionally advanced for Lizzy. For example, she doesn't really have a problem with the original Cinderella movie knowing that Cinderella's mom died, but she had a harder time with the more recent re-make where you really get to know Cinderella's mom before her death. In this case, you're told about the death(s) right up front, but then you circle back and get to know Willow's relationship with her parents, and I think that overall, that sort of dynamic would just result in more anxiety, tears, and emotional distress than I'm ready to handle right now. I think in a year or two, she'd be able to read it and see the hope past the tragedy, but right now, she'd only see the tragedy. So when it comes to "can my kid handle this book?"...you know your kids best. You know whether this is something that they're able to handle emotionally or whether it's not. Trust your gut. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Book Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

From the book jacket:

Lib Wright, a young English nurse trained by the legendary Florence Nightingale, arrives in an impoverished Irish village with a strange mission. Eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell is said to have eaten nothing for four months. With tourists thronging to see the child, as the press sowing doubt, the baffled community looks to an outsider to bring the truth to light. Lib's job is simple: to stay in the girl's bare room at all hours, watching her.

An educated skeptic repelled by what she sees as ignorance and superstition, Lib expects to expose the fast as hoax within days. But the long hours she spends with Anna begin to erode all her assumptions about the child, the Irish, and herself. Is Anna a fraud or simply a "living wonder"? Or is something more sinister unfolding right before Lib's eyes?


So. I found this book to be pretty engaging right from the beginning, despite it being a pretty slow moving plot--it was one of those books that I could sit down to read in the afternoon, and then look up to discover that the sun had set long ago. For most of the time that I was actually reading this book, I was pretty sure that this one would receive a 'must read now' rating from me. I liked the characters, I liked the story, I liked everything about it. However, somewhere in the second half of the book I found my opinion shifting slightly. Now that I'm finished, I think it's certainly worth reading...but I feel much less enthusiastic about it than I did initially. 

For me personally, I thought the romance that developed in the second half of the book was pretty unnecessary, and didn't really add anything to the plot. If Donoghue felt it was so necessary to include, then I wish she would have spent more time flushing it out in the conclusion. Instead, characters who hardly knew each other essentially sail away into the sunset for a "happily ever after" that didn't ring true for me given the circumstances.  

That said, I've heard a *lot* of people rave about this book, saying it was one of their favorites ever, and I don't want to discourage you from reading it, because you may feel the same. I thought it was a perfectly fine book, and definitely worth a read. It just fell a little flat right at the end for me. 


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