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Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

27 Feb

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  Riverhead Books, January 2015

  • ISBN-10: 1594633665
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594633669
  • Thriller, psychological thriller, mystery, suspense

The plot

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Rachel takes the same train each day on her commute to and from London.  Each day she looks out at the houses that parallel the train tracks.  She begins to actively observe the lives of a seemingly perfect couple who she sees as her daily train moves past their house.  One day while reading the newspaper, she discovers the woman she has been watching each day is missing.  Feeling as though she has a connection with the couple, Rachel decides to investigate the woman’s disappearance. She is quickly drawn into a complex web of conflict and deceit that she could not have imagined in her daily observations of the perfect couple whose life she watched as her daily trains trundled past their house.

Book Snitch’s thoughts

I honestly could not put this book down once I had read the opening chapter.  Whenever I take a train, I enjoyed spending time looking out of train windows and imagining the lives of the people whose houses I can see from the tracks.  Humans tend to be voyeuristic, and I have found we often tend to see the ‘flawless’ versions of people’s lives and we wonder what it would be like to live like someone else.  I think that Hawkins cleverly played on the idea that we like to observe others, so I enjoyed the premise of the flawed perception that Rachel has of the couple she watches.  Hawkins has alternating first person narratives, including the voice of the woman who goes missing, which has a similar feel to the style Gillian Flynn uses in Gone Girl.  She cleverly plants a lot of cryptic clues and a couple of false leads which kept me guessing throughout the novel until the finale.  Hawkins definitely manages to maintain suspense and a punchy pace throughout the narrative.  Rachel, the primary protagonist, is a flawed narrator with a drinking problem that results in only fragmented perceptions of events.  This was a clever gimmick which made the novel an nail-biting read.

 Who should read this?

I would recommend this to anyone looking for a page-turner, and more specifically fans of mystery or thrillers.  If you enjoyed the likes of Gillian Flynn’s contemporary psychological mysteries Gone Girl or Sharp Objects, this would also be a great choice.  My older students might enjoy this as a holiday read, and I will be recommending it to them for their Spring Break book list.

Book Snitch rating:  5/5 stars

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Book review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

8 Feb

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  St. Martin’s Press (Kindle edition sold by MacMillan CA) April 2010

Image courtesy of Goodreads

  • ISBN: 0312169787
  • Historical fiction

The plot

Diamant re imagines the story of Dinah, a character who is briefly mentioned in the Bible as having a tragic fate in the book of Genesis.  Dinah is the daughter of Jacob, whose story will probably be more familiar to readers of Genesis.  Dinah greets the reader as an old friend and shares the story of her life, starting before her birth with the arrival of the taciturn but strong Jacob in the land of the Canaanites.  Dinah reveals the complex dynamics of her large family, with the recurrent motif of the women’s respite in the novel’s namesake, the red tent.  Here, in a tent that is characterized by the colour of life, women gather to rest during their monthly cycles or give birth.  Dinah reveals the spiritual practices and physical rituals of the Canaanite women,and they endure joy, grief, jealousy, life and death.  Then Dinah comes of age, and their world is changed forever…

Book Snitch’s thoughts

I was initially curious about this novel, as I have taught The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and I recognized a link between Diamant’s story and one of the biblical allusions Atwood uses.  Atwood references the story of Rachel, Bilah and Jacob in her novel, specifically because one of the Genesis stories relates Rachel asking her husband, Jacob, to have children with her handmaiden Bilah as she is unable to conceive. In The Red Tent, Jacob is Dinah’s father and her mother, Leah, is sister to both Rachel and Bilah.  I wanted to see how this strange story of surrogacy and the brief but tragic mention of Dinah in the Bible played out in a novel, as I have found the brief references to tragic stories in the Bible a little unsatisfying as narratives.

I was quickly drawn into the complex dynamics of this family, particularly the primal desire of all of the sisters to have children.  The descriptions of childbirth in this biblical era were pretty captivating.  The narrative style, with Dinah as the narrator, was fine though predictable.  The plot itself in the first two thirds of the novel had a lot of momentum, but I felt like this waned in the close of the novel, and the resolution was anti-climatic.  This said, Diamant succeeded in creating a more tangible glimpse into the ancient past, and the alien customs of the Canaanites and Egyptians.

Who should read this?

I would recommend this to my female friends as a pretty interesting lens into the life of women in the biblical era.  Those who have an interest in historical fiction, or would like to further imagine the lives those depicted in Genesis might also enjoy The Red Tent.

Book Snitch Rating:  3/5 stars

 

Review – Rose Under Fire

21 Jun

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.  Disney Book Group, September 2013

Image courtesy of NetGalley

Image courtesy of NetGalley

The Plot

Rose Justice, a young American pilot, is captured by the German army during World War Two as she is returning from a mission and is sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Rose meets extraordinarily strong women in the camp, called “the Rabbits” who were used for medical experimentation by the Nazis.  Rose faces unimaginable horror in the camp, and learns the true meaning of hunger, desperation and the lengths to which the female prisoners will go to survive.

Book Snitch’s thoughts

Female prisoners during selection at Ravensbruck.  Image licensed under public domain via Wikimedia

Female prisoners during selection at Ravensbrück. Image licensed under public domain via Wikimedia

I read the pre-release version of Rose Under Fire after requesting it from NetGalley.  I was drawn to the premise of the novel, as I have previously taught World War II and Holocaust themed works through the novel by Joyn Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the non-fiction memoirs: Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, and Elie Wiezel’s Night.  I was drawn to Wein’s decision to portray the experience of concentration camp incarceration from a female perspective.  It is a powerful and challenging read which gives a unique view into the Holocaust by focusing on the merciless medical experiments performed on the female prisoners at Ravensbrück.

Wein uses Rose as the first person narrator, and structures a large portion of the novel as a series of Rose’s diary entries describing her experiences at the camp (both techniques which will appeal to young adult readers).  Though the narrative at times seemed repetitive and drawn-out, Wein arguably captures the experience of tediously enduring time, which Rose and her fellow prisoners face as they wait for death or liberation.

One of the key motifs throughout the narrative are the poems that Rose recites for the other prisoners in return for extra bread.  The poems accentuate the misery which Rose and her fellow prisoners and friends endure at Ravensbrück, as well as revealing the fragile beauty of life.

Wein is careful to balance the horror of Rose’s descriptions with the touching portrayal of friendships and loyalty that she experiences in Ravensbrück.  There are even moments of humour, where we are reminded that many of the young women in the concentration camp were only teenagers.

Who should read this?

I agree with NetGalley’s description that this is a novel for readers aged fourteen years and older.  Although this is a companion novel, it can be read as a stand-alone novel also.

Rose Under Fire certainly feminizes the theme of war, and reminds young readers that some of the greatest battles fought during World War II were personal ones, without physical weapons and soldiers.

4 stars

Review – Shades of Earth (Across the Universe trilogy)

6 Jun

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis.  Razorbill, 2013

Book cover courtesy of www.bethrevis.com

Book cover courtesy of www.bethrevis.com

Shades of Earth:

The plot

Part of Godspeed has finally landed on Centauri Earth, the new planet where the threat of the “monsters” revealed in book two (A Million Suns) becomes a frightening reality for Elder and Amy.

Despite being unnerved by the mysterious sounds of the unknown creatures outside of the ship, Elder resolves to bravely help his people to re-settle on Centauri Earth and begin a new colony.  Tensions arise when the “frozens” thaw out, and the Earth-born humans, including Amy’s parents, wake up from their frozen sleep and begin to initiate the military operation they were trained for, with no regard for Elder’s rule of the colony.  Distrust quickly builds between the Earth-born and the ship-born humans, but the biggest enemy for all of them lies beyind the walls of Godspeed.

Book Snitch’s thoughts

This book focuses on the moment that readers had been waiting for throughout the last two books in the trilogy; Amy’s arrival on the planet she had travelled across the universe to get to.  Revis doesn’t disappoint, and continues to build the sense of claustrophbia which we experienced when Elder and Amy were trapped on Godspeed in space.  Now though, the tension mounts from their being trapped on an unknown planet where there are more secrets and more threats to their survival.

Revis doesn’t miss a beat with keeping up the tension in Shades of Earth.  First, Elder and Amy have to land the shuttle in a white-knuckle ride where everything that could go wrong, does. Then they hear unfamiliar noises beyond the walls of the shuttle which signals the arrival of the “monsters” which were spotted on Centauri Earth.

The alternating narrative perspective between chapters gives readers a chance to see the conflicting problems which Elder and Amy experience.  Elder struggles with a sense of guilt about leaving behind half of his people on the orbiting part of Godspeed, and the introduction of Amy’s father as the leader of the frozen military personnel from Sol Earth makes things even more difficult for Elder.  Amy is caught between the Earth-born and the ship-born people, trying to unite them in their common purpose: to survive on their new hostile planet.

The final installement of the Across the Universe trilogy is a thrilling read, and Revis cleverly switches the setting and introduces new characters to keep the plot interesting and fresh.  Romance fans will be pleased about the increasingly feverous kisses between Elder and Amy.  Sci-Fi fans will enjoy the descriptions of Centauri Earth and the hints of the non-human life forms which remain largely hidden for the first half of the novel.  Mystery fans will relish the inexblicable clues which continue to point to that fact that Godspeed’s mission is certainly not all it seemed to be when Amy and her family were frozen and stored on the ship.

5 stars

 

Who should read this?

Book Snitch recommends this final installement for fans of the Across the Universe trilogy.  It doesn’t function well as a stand-alone read, as much of the plot is tied to events from the first two books in the series.

Notes for educators

This trilogy would work well for independent reading projects or student book clubs.  There are many activities which could stem from reading this trilogy, such as:

  • Creating map of Centauri Earth, adding quotations containing descriptions from the novel
  • Create a timeline of events in the novel using Timeglider, an interactive Edtech tool that allows students to create timelines, adding images, videos and URL links.  You could ask students to imagine what they think happens on Sol Earth between now and when Amy leaves on Godspeed, to her arrival on Centauri Earth.
  • Recording verbal ‘clues’ for Amy and Elder from the perspective of Orion or another character who lived on Godspeed and discovered some of the secrets of the ship.  Try recording students’ voices using Voicethread and sharing their recordings with other readers to get feedback on their clues.  Alternatively you could ask students to record a verbal book review and share these on your school library blog for other student readers.

Review: Skin

1 Jun

Skin by Donna Jo Napoli.  Amazon Children’s Publishing, August 2013

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

  • ISBN: 1480534986
  • ISBN13: 9781480534988
  • YA Lit

The Plot

Sixteen year old Guiseppia (who calls herself Sep) wakes up one morning with white lips. She decides to hide the strange discolouring with lipstick and goes to school, hoping her natural colour will return the following day. Only it doesn’t. Sep finds out that she has vitiligo, a skin condition which causes a loss of pigmentation in patches of skin over the body. It’s harmless to her health, but there is no cure for it. The doctor tells her it will inevtitably spread over her body, and she won’t be able to hide it with lipstick forever. Sep struggles to come to terms with her changing appearance, especially when Joshua Winer, captain of the football team, starts to flirt with her. Will Sep manage to hide her vitiligo from Joshua and the rest of the school?

Book Snitch’s thoughts

This novel is an easy read dealing with the insecurities of transitioning into being a young adult. The plot is fairly predictable but teen readers will like the romantic storyline, and will be able to relate to the importance of appearances in high school. The premise of the novel is sound, and it has the right ingredients for a YA read: family conflicts; self-identity; hormonal tantrums and lusty romance.  Napoli delivers a sound, realistic message about the difference between outer appearances and inner-identity.

Who should read this?

This would make a good independent summer read for students looking for a break from school curriculum prescribed texts.  There is some sexual content, so Book Snitch would recommend this to readers aged fifteen upwards.

3 stars

Review: Wintergirls

31 May

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Speak (2009), Viking (2009) Scholastic (2011)

  • ISBN-13: 978-0-14-241557-3
  • ISBN-10: 0-14-241557-X
  • YA fiction

“I     won’t     pollute      my       insides     with    Bluberridazzlepops or muffins or scritchscratchy shards of toast, either.  Yesterday’s dirt and mistakes have moved through me.  I am shiny and pink inside, clean.  Empty is good.  Empty is strong.”

Wintergirls, chapter 003.00

The Plot:

Eighteen year old Lia suddenly learns that her former best friend, Cassie, died alone in a motel room.  Cassie and Lia used to be inseperable, united in their life-threatening quest to both be size oo.  Haunted by the fact she didn’t answer Cassie’s calls on the night she died, Lia struggles to hide her deadly secret…her promise.  Lia is still determined to be the skinniest girl in school.

Book Snitch’s thoughts:

Narrated by Lia throughout, this novel squeezes your insides with horror from the opening chapter.  Anderson’s narrative style is constructed so that we see the frightening pathology of anorexia nervosa right from the second chapter where Lia makes excuses for not having any breakfast:

Beacuse I can’t let myself want them because I don’t need a muffin (410), I don’t want an orange (75) or toast (87), and waffles (180) make me gag.”

The power of the novel is delivered through Anderson’s vivid symbolism, which conveys the impact that anorexia has on Lia and her family.  Lia’s grossly distorted perceptions of herself are conveyed through her unforgiving stream of consiousness, and the chilling coldness motif  which shows her physical and emotional deterioration.  Anderson portrays Lia’s obsessions with weight in obvious and subtle ways, including writing the chapter numbers as though they are on a scale, and in Lia’s careful lists of food (with the calorie count always added in parentheses).

Who should read Wintergirls?

Book Snitch recommends this novel for mature YA readers.

Notes for educators

This novel doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of anorexia. The narrative is intense in several places, containing descriptions of death, physical and emotional self-harm and the supernatural.

This novel would work well as supplimentary independent reading in a unit based on the theme of identity.  Book Snitch would recommend responding to the text through activities related to imagery and symbolism in Wintergirls.

One possibility is to have students create their own book trailers using Creative Commons licensed images would be a great way to see if they have understood Anderson’s use of symbolism.  Alternatively, students could create their own films promoting awareness of anorexia, particularly the emotional impact it has on the sufferer and their friends and family.

More information about using iMovie and Creative Commons licensed images with your students is available on Resources and Teaching ideas page.

Review – The Skin I’m In

10 May

The Skin I’m In by Sharon G Flake, Hyperion 2007

  • ISBN-13: 978-1423103851
  • YA fiction; diversity; teenage conflict; discrimination

The Plot

Thirteen year old Maleeka Madison describes herself as “the darkest, worst-dressed thing in school”. Maleeka lives in a world where discrimination is an everyday occurance, and the way you look determines whether you fit in or not at McClenton Middle School.  When Ms. Saunders, the new English teacher with the unusual face, arrives at McClenton, Maleeka senses trouble ahead.  Ms. Saunders seems determined to challenge Maleeka’s low self-esteem and judgemental ways, but Maleeka has enough trouble to deal with: borrowing clothes to hide her own home-made ones, doing homework for other people, and ignoring the taunts from her peers about how dark she is.  The last thing Maleeka needs is a freaky teacher on a mission to teach her how to like herself, but Ms. Saunders is determined to get help Maleeka learn to live with the skin she’s in.

Book Snitch comments

The Skin I’m In is a story with universal messages that both young and adult readers can relate to. Sharon G. Flake offers the reader a realistic insight into the world of teenage politics and loyalties which conflict with being principled.  Maleeka’s struggle with her identity consumes young readers and has them eagerly turning the pages to discover the outcomes of the Maleeka’s tactics to survive; like creating an alliance with Charlese Jones, the toughest bully at McClenton.  Narrated through Maleeka’s eyes, readers are privy to Maleeka’s thoughts and feelings which reveal the psychological side of growing up and learning about who you are.  Maleeka’s sassy attitude will also make you smile, as she shares vivid descriptions of the host of characters at McClenton Middle School.  Flake also uses epistolary elements within the narrative through Maleeka’s diary entries where she imagines life for a fourteen year old slave girl in the seventeenth century, creating parallels to compliment the modern setting and encourage student inquiry into the history of discrimination.

Who should read this?

The Skin I’m In is a novel aimed at Middle Graders. Book Snitch recommends this novel for readers aged twelve upwards.  Contains themes of racism and diversity.

Note for educators

The Skin I’m In is a fantastic text which students wil enjoy reading.  It could be used in a transdisciplinary unit between English and Humanities and/or Homeroom focusing on topics such as discrimination, conflict or growing up.  There are a lot of rich opportunities for writing assignments based on the plot.  For example, Maleeka is given the assignment to write the diary of a slave girl for her English class which offers the opportunity to look at the history of slavery and oppression of African Americans.  Other writing ideas could include:

  • Writing sections of the story from an alternative character’s perspective
  • Newspaper reports promoting tolerance and respect in a student body
  • Developing the story of Akeelma (Maleeka’s character in her slave diary entries)
  • Writing Caleb’s love poems

See the Resources and ideas page for a lesson idea based on advisory writing to Maleeka.

4 stars