The True Gift: A Christmas Story by Patricia MacLachlan (J)

The True Gift

The True Gift: A Christmas Story    

Patricia MacLachlan (Juvenile Fiction)

Lily and Liam are off to Grandpa and Gran’s farm for Christmas.  They always go in December and then wait for Mama and Papa to join them on Christmas Day.  Lily likes the sameness that this time of year brings:  the walks into town, the trip to the lilac library, and helping Gran make cookies.  But when her brother spots a white cow standing alone in a snowy meadow, Lily’s predictable holiday is suddenly threatened.  “Do we know if she’s lonely?” Liam asks his sister.  “She’s a cow,” replies Lily.  “Cows don’t care.”  But Liam cares and because of this, Lily knows that White Cow is bound to ruin everything…especially Christmas.

From the author who delighted us with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan gives readers another book filled with compassion, love, and family.  She introduces us to Lily, a young girl who finds herself angered by her brother’s selfless desire to help a creature that finds itself quite alone on Christmas.  Fortunately, Liam’s determined desire to bring comfort to this lonely creature is enough to eventually whittle down Lily’s stubborn defenses until at last, she surprises herself by whispering to White Cow one night, “Don’t worry.  We’ll take care of you.”  Those few words set in motion a turning of Lily’s heart, as well as the fate of another soul in need of rescuing.

The True Gift shows us that any small act of kindness isn’t truly small at all.  By giving us a simple story of a young girl, a small boy, and a lonely white cow, MacLachlan reminds us that Christmas is about giving from the heart and that the act of bestowing even the slightest bit of charity to another being is perhaps one of the truest gifts of all.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/4/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

The Reader

Bernhard Schlink

While on his way home from school, 15-year old Michael Berg falls ill.  Sick with hepatitis, he is found by a kind stranger who cares for him then walks him home.  His benefactor is 36-year old Hanna Schmitz and that chance encounter sets in motion a series of events that eventually leads to their unlikely and indecent love affair.  Throughout their relationship, Hanna is secretive and keeps her past private.  All Michael knows is that she grew up in a German community in Rumania, served in the army at 21, and held various jobs following the end of the war.  Hanna’s silence is off-putting yet intriguing, and the mystery surrounding her only increases with her abrupt disappearance from their town and his life.  Years later, all of Michael’s unanswered questions about Hanna’s past are revealed when he sees her in a courtroom standing trial.  Hanna’s shrouded past is a secret no longer.

The Reader is divided into three parts:  the first deals with Michael and Hanna’s meeting and growing relationship while the second and third focus on Hanna’s trial and the events following her verdict.  The latter two parts deal with weightier issues and make for a more interesting and faster-paced story.  Early on, Hanna is portrayed as a detached lover actively avoiding any kind of emotional commitment.  She has no need for our sympathy and we, the reader, duly deny her of it.   However, as Schlink sheds light on Hanna’s past and we begin to fully understand her moral makeup, our apathy slowly and willingly gives way to pity.  The author doesn’t allow our feelings to develop much further beyond this given Hanna’s tragic and unsympathetic backstory.  At this point, most authors would attempt to force a more intimate connection with one of his main characters, but Schlink seems satisfied in allowing us to remain unemotional bystanders and we do so without guilt or regret.

Bernhard Schlink gives us an unforgettable story of love, betrayal, secrets, and sacrifices.  What surprised and impressed me most about this novel is the number of thought-provoking and provocative questions he poses:  Is being right or honest worth the price of freedom?  Can you recognize atonement without granting absolution?  Is it ever too late to change?  Questions such as these not only offer us a more in-depth view into Michael’s internal thoughts and struggles, but they also force us to examine our own moral convictions.  The Reader is one of those rare books that not only entertains and educates, but also challenges the way we think and feel while encouraging us to be better versions of ourselves.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (J)

The Incredible Journey

The Incredible Journey    

Sheila Burnford (Juvenile Fiction)

How far would you travel and what would you be willing to endure just to be home again?  Three animals—a Siamese cat, a bull terrier, and a Labrador retriever—travel nearly 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness and battle fatigue, hunger, wild animals, cold, and sickness in order to be reunited with their beloved family again.

Burnford gives us a story of loyalty, inclusivity, diversity, and empathy.  This is not a warm and fuzzy tale of three pets and their charming and delightful antics throughout the frontiers of Canada.  This is a harsh and brutally honest story of survival, death, pain, and endurance.  There is plenty of bone crunching and flesh tearing to remind young readers that this isn’t just another cutesy animal story, but this should not deter them in the slightest from reading this book.  The Incredible Journey is an exquisite story of love and friendship.  Each animal must depend on one another for survival while proving their own unique worth at pivotal parts of the story.

This is one of those rare books that is so captivating, you almost forget (and really don’t miss) the fact that a majority of the story lacks dialogue.  Through Burnford’s adept and masterful storytelling, we understand the language “spoken” between the three companions through their actions, reactions, hisses, and howls.  A flick of the tail or drawing down of the ears convey more emotion and drama under Burnford’s nuanced pen than pages and pages of dialogue ever could.  Serving as a brilliant complement to Burnford’s words are the beautiful and rich illustrations by Carl Burger.  The two combined give readers an emotional, exhilarating, unforgettable, and one incredible journey.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman (YA Horror)

Coraline.jpg

Coraline   

Neil Gaiman (Young Adult Fiction)

Coraline (not Caroline) Jones lives in a rather large house with her mother and father.  Because the house is much too big for just one family, she shares it with Misses Spink and Forcible (they live in the flat below) and the crazy old man with a big mustache (who lives in the flat above).  The day after she moves in, Coraline goes exploring.  She IS an explorer after all and exploring is what she does.  She explores the gardens, the tennis court, and even the old well (which is very dangerous so it’s best to stay away from it).  Soon, she begins exploring her house, which leads her to a door (which is kept locked), which opens up to a brick wall.  But one day, the brick wall isn’t there and Coraline decides to go through the door, because that is what explorers do.  It’s not long before Coraline realizes that she should have listened to the mice (in the flat above) and NOT have gone through the door.  Mice are smart.  At least they pronounce her name correctly.

Coraline is a wonderfully spooky and thrilling tale of a young girl who is clever, brave, and kind.  Her curiosity tends to get her into mischief, but a level head and a compassionate heart always seem to allow this little explorer to come out on top.

In his book, Neil Gaiman shows us different kinds of love.  There’s the I-love-yellow-Wellington-boots-in-the-shape-of-frogs love and the I’d-love-for-you-to-go-away-so-I-can-work love and then the I-love-you-so-much-that-I-will-give-you-everything-so-you’ll-love-me-too kind of love.  Throughout our story, Coraline deals with all of these:  her own love for quirky things; the love from her parents who often don’t seem to notice her; and the demanding love from a strange being that will go to any length in order to acquire and keep it.  The Ancient Greeks identified eight kinds of love.  Psychologists state there are seven.  For Coraline, there is only one kind of love and that is the love she has for her mother and father.  It is this love that gives her the will and the strength to fight against seemingly overwhelming odds and terrifying beings in order to find her way home again…and back to love.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 10/2/2018

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (J)

The Underneath

The Underneath  

Kathi Appelt (Juvenile Fiction)

This is a tale of two love stories separated by one thousand years.  The first is of a possessive, jealous, and cruel love.  It is about an enchantress, a king, and a family of three.  The second tale tells of a selfless, devoted, and pure love.  It is about a brave mother, a set of twins, and a gifted but abused blues singer.  But like so many tales, these two worlds eventually collide and when they do, which love will prove to be the strongest?

Appelt offers up a modern-day fairytale that gives readers heroes, villains, magic, mystery, and danger.  Like most fairytales, we can count on the villain getting his comeuppance, the misguided antagonist having a change of heart, and the power of true love winning in the end.  The book has very short chapters and makes for an easy read for younger readers (or an ideal bedtime book to be shared and read aloud).  The story has some instances of animal cruelty, so parents of sensitive readers should be warned.  Also, although Appelt gives us a truly suspenseful tale, it does stall near the middle and needlessly prolongs the action.  At just over 300 pages, this may frustrate some readers, but perseverance has its rewards and a satisfying ending awaits the patient reader.

Time and time again our little protagonists are told to “Stay in the Underneath.  You’ll be safe in the Underneath.”  And true enough, safely tucked underneath this dust jacket is a wonderful tale of devotion, friendship, family, and the importance of a promise kept.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

A Virtuous Woman

A Virtuous Woman  

Kaye Gibbons (Adult Fiction)

Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes is forty when he marries Ruby Pitt Woodrow.  Jack is twice Ruby’s age, skinny, and homely, but despite his drawbacks, he loves Ruby unconditionally and promises to take care of her.  After suffering a tormented marriage to a brutal drifter, Ruby longs for stability and security and accepts Jack’s proposal of marriage.  Such is the story of two very different people who transcend both economic worth and social status in order to make a marriage work.

Gibbons gives us a simple story about a man and a woman whose devotion for one another is uncomplicated, unwavering, and unbounded.  Jack and Ruby’s love is quiet and kind and both derive a satisfying and greatly needed comfort from their marriage.  A Virtuous Woman is a pleasant read and flows along at a relaxed pace—alternating narration between Jack and Ruby.  Sadly, this book barely breaks the surface and fails to give the reader an opportunity to emotionally bond with either the story or to its characters.  Gibbons succeeds in providing a big-picture view of a bittersweet relationship between two broken people, but the story could have been far richer had Gibbons further fleshed out the complicated feelings and effects associated with infertility, terminal illness, and bereavement.

Jack and Ruby’s unlikely relationship reminds us that love need not be complicated or blind.  Sometimes, just having someone there offering you acceptance, kindness, and peace is enough.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

The Decoding of Lana Morris by Laura & Tom McNeal (YA)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

The Decoding of Lana Morris.jpg

The Decoding of Lana Morris  

Laura & Tom McNeal (Young Adult Fiction)

If you had one wish…just one…what would it be?

Sixteen-year old Lana Morris lives in a two-storied foster home that she shares with four special needs kids (Snicks for short) and her foster parents, Whit and Veronica.  Lana wishes for a different foster mother; she wishes to fit in with the cool kids; she wishes she didn’t have to live in Snick House; and she wishes she understood her feelings for Whit better.  Lana wishes for a lot of things and soon, after she visits Miss Hekkity’s Oddments & Antiques, she’ll have not just one wish, but 13.

First, I want to focus on the positive aspects of this book, which is the attention the McNeals devote to young people with special needs.  They give us insight into their daily lives and allow us to understand their challenges and individuality.  Too often society judges these amazing people by their outward appearance or behavior alone.  It is also heartwarming to see Lana’s role evolve from disparager to defender as she connects with her housemates and appreciates their uniqueness.

Unfortunately, the negative aspects of this book vastly outweigh the positives.  The McNeals make Veronica excessively cruel and evil for no apparent reason.  Her treatment of Lana is childish, snippy, and incredibly mean-spirited.  The authors provide no insight as to why this kind of person possesses such disdain and disregard for the children in her care.  We find out late in the book that she is unable to have children of her own.  So, are we then to assume that these children are somehow meant to fill a personal void or is she putting her own feelings aside and doing it out of selfless love for Whit?  Surely, she can’t be putting herself and these children through such torment for just a monthly stipend.

Additionally, and more disturbingly, is how the authors portray Whit.  Before Lana gains access to her “wishes”, Whit is a beloved, meek, and kind foster father.  The children adore him and Lana views him as a father (although her affections often overlap between familial and hormonal).  After her visit to Miss Hekkity’s, Whit inexplicably becomes increasingly salacious and lecherous toward Lana.  As a lonely teenage girl in want of a father figure, Lana is naturally drawn to Whit, but Whit’s reciprocation, and even encouragement, of her interest cross a very distinct line which is both disturbing and unsettling.  If the authors merely did this to shock their teen readers with provocative and edgy content, they handedly hit their mark.  What is supposedly a book about a teenage girl desperately trying to find love and acceptance dives abruptly into a world filled with infidelity, child exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

If I had one wish…just one…it would be that the McNeals had stayed a little truer to their book’s proposed purpose.  Unfortunately, the strong and encouraging themes of love, acceptance, and friendship are overshadowed by hate, jealousy, and lust and no amount of wishes can overcome that.

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com