Book Club: The Westing Game

westing game.jpgThe Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is a brilliant junior fiction mystery. It is one of my personal all-time favorite novels, and I have never met anyone who read it and didn’t like it. In my opinion, it is one of the most rewarding rereads of all time. In other words, if you haven’t read it you should do so immediately. If you have, please enjoy these discussion starters. Spoilers, obviously.

  1. Who are the heirs? Briefly discuss each heir (and the mistake), making sure to address their connection to Westing as well as their role in Sunset Towers, their relationships with the other characters, and their dreams.
  2. At the beginning of the novel, Raskin anonymously introduces the tenants of Sunset Towers as “mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake” (5). In Westing’s will, he writes that “It will be up to the other players to discover who you really are” (32). Throughout the novel, the characters also define themselves with their “position” (fired, person, victim, heiress, standing or sitting when not lying down, etc.) What do you think of these brief, (generally) one-word descriptions? How accurate are they? Do they tell the whole story? What word might you use to describe various characters? What word might you use to describe yourself?
  3. Discuss Samuel Westing. What does the reader know about Westing? What information does the reader get from the heirs about him? How biased is it? What is your impression of Westing as a man? How do you reconcile the picture of Westing provided by the heirs with the personas (Sandy McSouthers, Barney Northrup, Julian R. Eastman) that the reader experiences firsthand?
  4. What do you think of the Wexler family dynamics? Does Angela or Turtle benefit more from Grace’s pronounced preference for Angela? Which sister’s perspective is given more often? Why does Turtle envy Angela? Why does Angela envy Turtle? Discuss the sisters’ relationship apart from their parents (Turtle stages a bombing to cover for Angela; only Angela can get away with pulling Turtle’s braid; Angela takes a bomb to the face to protect Turtle; “Now Angela had to love her forever” (140)).
  5. Discuss race relations in the novel. Consider the fact that Judge Ford is “the first black, the first woman, to have been elected to a judgeship in the state” (13). Consider Ford’s observation that Theo’s “Greek skin was darker than her ‘black’ skin” (26). Also discuss Grace’s casual racism
    1. Grace “arranged for little Madame Hoo to serve in one of those slinky Chinese gowns… a tight-fitting silk gown slit high up to her thigh, a costume as old-fashioned and impractical as bound feet” (61, 94).
    2. Grace: “I say that Shin Hoo’s sounds like every other Chinese restaurant to English-speaking ears” (91).
    3. “Proud of her liberalism, Grace Windsor Wexler stood and leaned over the table to shake the black woman’s hand” (25).
  6. Discuss Angela Wexler. How is she seen by the other characters? Why do so many of the other characters (Crow, Chris, Baba, etc.) feel compelled to share their clues with her? Were you surprised when it was revealed that Angela was the bomber? Do you understand why she did it? Is it justified? Consider the following:
    1. “She was not fine. Why did they ask about Denton all the time, as though she was nobody without him?” (58)
    2. Sydelle’s reaction to the bomber reveal: “Well, what do you know! Her sweet, saintly partner was the bomber. Good for her!” (99)
    3. Ford’s reaction to the bomber reveal: “Angela could not be the bomber, not that sweet, pretty thing. Thing? Is that how she regarded that young woman, as a thing? And what had she ever said to her except ‘I hear you’re getting married, Angela’ or ‘How pretty you look, Angela.’ Had anyone asked her about her ideas, her hopes, her plans?” (128)
    4. Angela: “ ‘I went to college for a year. I wanted to be a doctor, but, well, we don’t have as much money as my mother pretends. Dad said he could manage if that’s what I really wanted, but my mother said it was too difficult for a woman to get into medical school.’” (74)
  7. Various characters share their clues with Angela. Theo suggests multiple times that the whole group pool their clues. Turtle is so stingy with her clues that she swallows them lest anyone see them. What does the willingness (or lack thereof) to share clues say about the characters?
  8. The opening of the novel reveals that nothing will be as it appears: The sun sets in the west… but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange! … the letters were signed Barney Northrup. The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup” (1). How did this prepare you for reading the book? Did it prepare you for the various multiple identities and disguises (Crow is Mrs. Westing; Sandy is Barney Northrup, Julian Eastman, and Sam Westing; Otis Amber is not an idiot delivery boy; etc.)
  9. Discuss the heirs’ answers to the Westing Game. What do their answers reveal about their characters? Specifically consider Theo’s decision not to provide an answer, Angela and Sydelle’s song, Crow’s fascination with motherhood, and Sandy and Ford’s plan.
    1. Chris answers that “I think Mr. Westing is a g-good man… I think his last wish was to do g-good deeds. He g-gave me a p-partner who helped me. He g-gave everybody a p-perfect p-partner to m-make friends” (143). Discuss the partnerships. In what ways were the partnerships perfect? Do you agree that Westing paired everyone up perfectly?
  10. Do you think that Turtle won the Westing Game fairly? Did her friendship with Sandy give her an edge? Did she win because she deserved to win, or did she win because her friend Sandy wanted her to win? Consider dead Sandy’s wink and his reassurance that “the game’s not over yet… you can still win. I hope you do” (149)
  11. How did Westing pick his heirs? Why do you think D. Denton Deere was an heir? Why are Chris and Theo, rather than their parents, heirs? How was the game affected by the accidental substitution of Sydelle Pulaski for Sybil Pulaski?
  12. Turtle accuses Sydelle of hiding behind her crutches. Angela explains, “people are so afraid of revealing their true selves, they have to hide behind some sort of prop” (70) and explains that Turtle’s crutch is her braid. What characters aside from Turtle and Sydelle hide behind crutches? What are their crutches?
  13. In his will, Westing writes that “Death is senseless yet makes way for the living. Life, too, is senseless unless you know who you are, what you want, and which way the wind blows” (38-39). What is meant by ‘death is senseless?’ Do you agree that life is senseless if you don’t know who you are and what you want? Which characters do know what they want and who they are? Which don’t? Does playing the Westing Game help some of the heirs give their lives meaning? Which ones?
  14. Why do you think that Westing set up the Westing Game? Various characters put forth various theories. Do you think Westing meant it as revenge against Crow for killing Violet? Do you think that he meant to help everyone, as Chris suggested? Why was it necessary for Westing to stage his own death so many times?
  15. Turtle claims that “I know how [Grace] thinks. I know what everybody thinks. Grown-ups are so obvious” (70). What do you think of this claim? Is Turtle the most perceptive of the characters? Is this why she wins the Westing Game? If Turtle had not won, who do you think would have?
  16. How does each character go about solving their clues? Which methods are the most/least effective? Which are the most unusual? Before the ending was revealed, who did you think would win? Who did you think the murderer was?
  17. i did not see that comingDiscuss the clues themselves, particularly the ones that seem obvious on a second reading (north, west, south, east, the words to the America song, Sandy’s lies about Mrs. Westing, the missing word in the will, the lack of the word ‘murder’ to describe Westing’s end, etc.) Does this enhance your opinion of the book, that clues could be hidden so cleverly in plain sight? Which clues did you see before the reveal? Were you surprised by the ending?
  18. Discuss the characters’ endings, as revealed in the final chapter. Are they satisfying/characteristic endings for each character? Why does Turtle never tell anyone about Sandy?

 

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 3×03 Review (Josh is a Liar)

crazy-ex-girlfriendYes, I’m a few days late on this review. I seriously doubt that anyone actually cares, but on the off chance that someone does… sorry. I’ll try to be more punctual next time.

“Josh is a Liar” picks up only shortly after “To Josh, With Love” left off, with Rebecca freaking out because she told Josh about all her antics. She’s terrified that he’ll rat her out to everyone else, so she concocts a plan to ruin his reputation:

REBECCA: He’s a liar and anything that comes out of his mouth is a lie because he’s a lying liar-man.

Despite what Paula says, Rebecca is no role model. She is in particularly terrible form this episode. Spreading horrible rumors about Josh—including that he’s a racist, homophobic Holocaust denier, among other things—is the worst thing she does, but she also crushes Paula’s self-confidence in an ultimately-abandoned plot to drop the case against Josh by telling Paula that her work is shoddy and not worthy of being submitted.

trentJosh officially quits priest school (not preschool) and tells his buddies about Rebecca’s insanity. Unfortunately for him, the boys—including Chris and Kevin, who we haven’t seen in approximately a million years—have already read the article Rebecca got published. Because Josh’s friends are all idiots, they believe the article, because Rebecca is a respected lawyer, and Josh turns to the file that Trent gave him last season.

JOSH (about Trent): Weird guy. He always wears turtlenecks.

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Book Club: Gathering Blue

Please feel free to use my discussion questions for Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry. Please be aware that there are spoilers. If you would like to read my traditional review, click here.

  1. gathering blueHow does the society in Gathering Blue determine a person’s value? Are people valued for individuality? Capability? Intelligence? Age? Sex? Physical capability? Something else? Discuss the ways in which the status of different characters comes into play. Consider Thomas’ assessment of why the guardians would not have captured Matt: “they wouldn’t want Matt, I’m afraid. They only want us for our skills, and he hasn’t any” (184). What makes one character skilled and another useless in the eyes of society? Also consider the use of words like “unflawed,” “inadequate,” and “broken” to describe characters.
    1. Discuss the sexism in Kira’s world. How are men and women treated differently? Consider the fact that men are permitted to read but women are not (98-99), that “men paid no attention to the work of women” (40), that children are removed from a family when the mother dies but not when the father does, that Matt claims not to like girl tykes (138), etc.
    2. Discuss the ableism in Kira’s world. What does it take for someone to be considered broken and worthless? Consider Kira’s twisted leg and Christopher’s blindness. Why doesn’t anyone (aside from Matt) take the time and effort to heal others? At what point does a person’s value drop? Why is the status of the body more important than anything else? Consider the woman who was sent to the field for a broken arm (61). Consider Vandara’s scar. What differentiates an excusable flaw from an inexcusable one? How does this tie into the veneration for the elderly?
    3. Discuss the tradition of naming someone based upon their age. What does this indicate about what society deems valuable? Why is age so venerated in this community? Why might four-syllable people be so rare? Consider the rumor that Vandara killed her own child (44). Consider Thomas’ remark about dangers facing children: “They’re only tykes. There are too many of them anyway” (110). Why does value increase as a person ages?
  2. Lowry describes fear: “Fear was always a part of life for the people. Because of fear, they made shelter and found food and grew things. For the same reason, weapons were stored, waiting. There was fear of cold, of sickness and hunger. There was fear of beasts” (3). Discuss the role of fear in the novel. How does the Council of Guardians use fear to control the society? Discuss the beasts, which do not actually exist. How has the fabrication of these beasts contributed to the power wielded by the Council? Why does Annabella knowledge of the farce destabilize the Council to the point that she must be killed? Why is fear such an effective means of control? Is it significant that the guardians encourage fear of made-up beasts and covers up their own duplicitousness rather than simply allowing the public to fear them directly?
  3. There are many obvious signs that the Council and Jamison are not what they appear to be. Kira’s mother’s sickness was unlike the other sicknesses the community has known. Thomas’ parents were killed simultaneously in unlikely circumstances. So were Jo’s. During Kira’s trial, Jamison demonstrates specific knowledge of Kira and her life that he has no real reason to possess. Shortly after Kira tells Jamison that Annabella told her that there are no beasts, Annabella is found dead. Why, then, does Kira remain so ignorant for so long? Why does she have to meet her supposedly dead father in order to realize that Jamison is not a friend to her? What have the guardians done to make Kira ignorant of their deviousness? Why is Kira predisposed to accept the Council at its word? Consider also Kira’s reaction to learning to read: “She turned her eyes away quickly so that she would not learn it, would not be guilty of something clearly forbidden to her. But it made her smile, to see it, to see how the pen formed the shapes and the shapes told the story of a name” (99). How much of the Council’s control comes from the citizens internalizing their rules and enforcing them on themselves?
  4. Kira, Thomas, and Jo are all artists. “The guardians with their stern faces had no creative power. But they had strength and cunning, and they had found a way to steal and harness other people’s powers for their own needs” (238). In what way is creativity a power? Why do the guardians need Kira, Thomas, and Jo? Why does Kira feel that she has the power to destabilize the Council if she stays and works against them? What about her weaving is so powerful? What do you think of the fact that the artists’ powers have a mythical, “magical” quality to them (74)? Is creativity powerful on its own, or does it need to be augmented by supernatural power? Why do you think Lowry chose to include this fantastic element? How would the story change if Kira were simply creative and skilled rather than actually magical?
  5. When confronted with the knowledge that she might be left in the Field because of her crippled leg, Kira realizes that “It was terrifying, almost unbelievable, the casualness of the cruelty” (12). Discuss this quote. Does the casualty of the cruelty make the cruelty crueler? Why or why not? Discuss institutional discrimination and its relevance to Gathering Blue.
  6. katnissGathering Blue is a dystopian novel. What are some common elements in dystopian novels? What kind of protagonists are there? Who are the villains? What is used to oppress people? What is the technology like? What are the people like? The setting? Etc. Compare Gathering Blue to other dystopias you have read. What sets Gathering Blue apart? To get you started, The Giver [side note: Gathering Blue is a companion to The Giver, but not a traditional sequel], The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, Uglies, and Unwind are all examples of fairly well-known and widely read dystopian novels.
  7. Kira, Jo, and Thomas all begin to lose the love of their craft under the guardians’ care: “Suddenly Kira knew that although her door was unlocked, she was not really free. Her life was limited to these things and this work. She was losing the joy she had once felt when the bright-colored threads took shape in her hands, when the patterns came to her and were her own. The robe did not belong to her… it was not what her hands or heart yearned to do” (171). Thomas and Jo feel that they are losing their freedom and even their ability to be creative. How can creativity be harnessed? How can someone be free to create and yet still complete an assigned task? Or is that possible? Which is more powerful, creativity or the attempts made to stifle it? How is creative freedom tied to literal freedom in the novel? Consider Jo’s locked door and the Singer’s chained legs.
  8. Discuss the disparity between the guardians’ wealth and the village’s poverty. When Kira is brought to her new home, she is given food that seems a feast to her, and she is bewildered by the idea of water indoors. She and Thomas are given tools that are far better and more advanced than anything they had before. What else do the guardians restrict?
  9. Jamison tells Kira that the guardians have “waited a long time for you” (193). Consider the implications of this statement. Does Jamison mean Kira specifically, or simply someone with her abilities? Was Kira fated to have her gift? Does destiny play a role? If the guardians were so desperate to have someone with Kira’s creative powers, why does their society punish anyone who does not fit the norm? How long have the guardians been aware of Kira? How long have they been watching her and preparing her for this role?
  10. Why is the novel called Gathering Blue? What does the color blue represent? What is it literally? Discuss Kira’s journey towards learning to dye. Why is it important? What do you think of Annabella’s gift for colors? Is the fact that disgusting elements—like old urine—are used to create beautiful dye significant? Consider that Matt is the one who literally gathers the blue.
  11. Discuss Kira’s relationships. Why do characters like Vandara hate her? Why can characters like Matt and Thomas see past her leg when others can’t? How does Kira see Jamison? Also discuss Annabella’s role as Kira’s mentor.
  12. What do you think might happen after the events of the novel? Do you think that Kira will manage to defeat (or de-corrupt) the Council of Guardians? How might she do that? What might her society look like out from under the control of the Council? How rapidly could a society recover after a reign like that of the guardians? Do you think Kira would ever join her father in the village of healing? What do you think might happen to Thomas? To Jo? To Matt? To Jamison? Skip this question if you have read subsequent novels in the series.

 

Gathering Blue (Book Review)

gathering blueGathering Blue by Lois Lowry is another one that I read for the kids’ book club (for discussion questions, go here). To be totally honest, I was kind of dreading this one for a number of reasons. Gathering Blue is apparently a companion to The Giver. I read The Giver a long time, and remember essentially nothing from it, except that the hero escapes to an uncertain future at the end. I also remember disliking it, though admittedly I was pretty young when I read it, so it’s possible that I just didn’t understand it. I had a period of life when my level one reading surpassed my emotional maturity by a fairly wide margin; I ended up reading a large swath of books that deserved better from me. I spend the next few years in a state of confusion as I reread everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to Flipped and just couldn’t understand why I’d hated it the first time around. The point is, I may have read The Giver in the hated-it-because-I-didn’t-get-it era.

Thankfully, Gathering Blue does not require any recollection of The Giver. Also thankfully, it is a very good book.

What’s it about?

Gathering Blue is the story of a disabled girl living in a dystopian village. Upon Kira’s mother’s death, villagers want to kick Kira out of the village to be eaten by the mysterious beasts that lurk nearby; Kira, with her twisted leg, does not meet the standard that the town requires. However, rather than being exiled, Kira is given a new role. She is put in charge of repairing a ceremonial robe because her talent with thread is almost magical. Of course, things aren’t what they seem.

What’d I think?

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Supernatural 13×03 Review (Patience)

spn 13If you need to catch up, take a moment to read my previous Supernatural recaps: 13×01 13×02

thenThe most underrated member of the Supernatural staff is whoever puts together the recaps. I love watching the THEN segments, particularly when they have to reach very far back to set up the current episode. We haven’t seen Sam in the clutches of demon-blood-drinking addiction in a while, so that was cool. And the choice to highlight Dean’s grief over Cas rather than anything about Mary was interesting and thematically important. The best part of the recap, though, was the fact that it included absolutely nothing of Missouri. Missouri last appeared in 1×09. She also first appeared in 1×09. We are now on 13×03.

DEAN: “What’s it been? Like, a decade?”

SAM: “More.”

Not only has no one forgotten her, but the showrunners and writers aren’t even remotely worried about the fact that someone might have. The Supernatural fandom is amazing, y’all.

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Book Club: Tuck Everlasting

tuck everlastingPlease feel free to use my discussion starters if you ever find yourself in the situation where they’d be useful. As always, these questions do include spoilers. If you would like to read a more straightforward review of Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, you can do that here.

  1. This is a very morally ambiguous novel. Discuss the fact that the Tuck family (who are the title characters, are beloved by the protagonist, and are presented as the novel’s heroes) are kidnappers and murderers. The villain of the book, the man in the yellow suit, is an unscrupulous businessman and a blackmailer. How did Babbitt manage to get her readers to root for the Tucks? What signals them as the heroes of the piece, and vice versa what marks the man in the yellow suit as the villain? What do you think of the fact that the Tucks are all relatively well-developed characters and the man in the yellow suit does not even have a name? Consider their ages and physical appearances. How is the larger question of what to do with the immortality water tied to the respective positions in the novel? Does the Tuck family’s supposed moral high ground justify their other behavior? Should the Tuck’s be punished for kidnapping Winnie? Should Mae be punished for killing the man in the yellow suit? Should Winnie and the Tucks be punished for breaking Mae out of prison? Why are the Tucks, by virtue of their family secret, exempt from retribution? Or are they?
  2. Discuss the differing levels of education and decorum between the Tucks and the other characters in the novel. The man in the yellow suit calls the Tucks “illiterates” (74); Miles cites his lack of schooling as a reason why he does not know how to do something useful in the world (87); the man in the yellow suit is extremely well studied, having gone to the university to study philosophy, metaphysics, and medicine (95). What sort of a statement is Babbitt making about education? Why do you think it is that the Tucks, with their lack of education, are wiser than the man in yellow is despite his scholarly pursuits? What is the difference between education and wisdom? Consider: “and the cows, through some wisdom they were not wise enough to know that they possessed, were very wise indeed” (8). Also discuss Winnie’s reaction to the Tuck’s disorderly home: “It was a whole new idea to her that people could live in such disarray, but at the same time she was charmed. It was… comfortable” (52). Later, the narrator observes that Winnie’s mother and grandmother’s behavior in the heat “was totally unlike them, this lapse from gentility, and it made them much more interesting” (116). What do you think is the purpose of the binaries that Babbitt establishes (educated vs. ignorant, wise vs. unwise, genteel vs. casual)? What other binaries are present in the novel?
  3. Discuss the various members of the Tuck family. How has immortality affected each of them differently? Compare Jesse’s cavalier attitude about enjoying life to Angus and Miles’ more subdued understandings of immortality. Which Tuck do you think has the most complete idea of what it means to be immortal? Why do you think that each character responded to it the way that he or she did? What about Miles’ now-grown family makes him different than the rest of the Tucks? Which age do you think more relevant for the Tucks: the age they actually are, or the age they appear to be?
  4. Discuss Winnie’s relationship with Jesse. Ten-year-old Winnie is immediately attracted to Jesse, who is either one hundred four or seventeen, depending on your perspective. Jesse seems to be Winnie’s favorite member of the Tuck family, and he seems to like her as well; on several occasions he asks her to drink the water when she turns seventeen so that they can get married and travel the world together. What do you think about this offer? Do you support the quasi-romance between the two of them? Is it meant to be something to root for, or something unnatural and inappropriate? Why do you think that Jesse would make such advances towards such a young girl? As a modern reader, does it make Jesse seem predatory? How might it appear to a reader in 1975 (Age of consent laws did exist)? Why do you think Babbitt chose to include this relationship? How might the novel as a whole been different without it?
  5. The main idea in Tuck Everlasting is immortality. What does it mean to be immortal? What does it mean to die? Is immortality something to be desired? Once had, is it worth it? Different characters approach the question of immortality in different ways. Angus Tuck believes that “You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be like rocks beside the road” (64). He would give up immortality in an instant if he could. Miles believes that the immortality must be used for some good end because “People got to do something useful if they’re going to take up space in the world” (87). Because he lives so long, he’ll have to do “something important” (86). Jesse is more optimistic and more selfish about living forever: “life’s to enjoy yourself, isn’t it? What else is it good for? That’s what I say… we could have a good time that never, never stopped. Wouldn’t that be something?” (72). The main in the yellow suit, of course, sees immortality as something to be desired, something to be deserved, and something that is worth immense riches: he wants to sell the water “only to certain people, people who deserve it. And it will be very, very expensive. But who wouldn’t give a fortune to live forever?” (97-98). With whose philosophy does the novel as a whole seem to align with the most closely? Is immortality a blessing or a curse? Both? Neither? Would you like to be immortal? Defend your position. If immortality existed, what sort of person should be immortal? How many? Is immortality sustainable?
  6. Discuss Winnie’s toad. The toad appears at various times in the novel, most notably when Winnie uses it to spur her decision to run away and when Winnie empties Jesse’s vial of water over it. In what ways is the toad linked narratively to the Tuck family? Is it a symbol? If so, for what? Is it important that the toad is made immortal? Is it important that toads do not drink water? Discuss both the textual and the subtextual purposes of the toad.
  7. Discuss Winnie’s relationship with the Tucks. Does she believe their story? How do your opinions of her actions change depending on whether or not she believes in their immortality? Consider that just before going to break Mae out of prison, Winnie reflects that the Tucks “were probably crazy after all. But she loved them anyway” (119). Is love enough of a motivating factor? What do you think about the fact that Winnie is not punished for her actions because of her age and because her family—not knowing the whole story—defends her? Why does Winnie become so attached to the Tuck family so quickly?
  8. Why do you think that Miles and Jesse choose to live apart from the family, only returning once a decade or so? Do you think that would make their lives more or less lonely? Consider the fact that the family cannot stay in one place too long or make any meaningful relationships with mortals without being accused of witchcraft.
  9. What did you think of the response to the murder? Were you disturbed by the seeming lack of regard for human life? How else might this situation have been resolved? Is it difficult for you to root for a character who commits a calculated murder? Discuss the fact that it is Mae—rather than one of the other, better developed Tucks—who delivers the fatal blow. What details change the way that the murder comes across? What if the man in the yellow suit had been more sympathetic? What if Mae had shot the man rather than hitting him with the butt end of the gun? Does it strike you as odd that Mae would choose to kill using brute strength rather than by firing the gun? Discuss also the fact that Winnie’s family low-key hopes for the man in the yellow suit’s death in order to escape their deal to sell the woods to him.
  10. Discuss the end. Why do you think that Winnie ultimately decided not to join the Tucks? Is this a happy ending or not? What do you think of the way that the end of the novel is written? Babbitt speeds past the moment when Winnie is found in the cell only to reflect back on it without the immediacy, and Winnie’s death is likewise revealed after the fact: the Tuck family sees her grave two years after her passing. Is this a good end for the novel? How might it have been different if Winnie had continued to be the POV character? Do you wish that we had seen the aftermath of Mae’s escape in more detail? What, ultimately, do you think led to Winnie deciding against drinking the water? Also discuss the deus ex machina of the magical tree’s random destruction.

 

 

Tuck Everlasting (Book Review)

tuck everlastingI read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt in order to run my 4th/5th grade book club. It is not a book that I would have picked for myself. While I do admit that there are some things in it worth discussing, as a whole I think that there are a lot of better books out there. You can read my discussion questions here.

What’s it about?

Tuck Everlasting is about Winnie, a young girl who stumbles across the Tuck family, regular people who became immortal by drinking from a pool of water in the middle of the woods Winnie’s family owns. Frightened that their family secret will get out, the Tucks kidnap Winnie to try to make her understand their situation and why she must never reveal their immortality to anyone. The Tucks are stalked by a man who wishes to sell the magical water, which of course leads to some interesting questions about the nature of life, death, and immortality.

What’d I think?

The problem with the book is that it gets so bogged down by the question of immortality that not much else happens. Winnie sits with every (male) character as he tells her what immortality has meant to him. The takes on immortality vary from very negative to mostly positive, with the most nuanced perspectives coming from the older Tucks. While I liked the philosophical questions, I expected a book about immortality, kidnapping, and murder to be a bit more… exciting. That is even more true when I remember who it is marketed to. There are lots of smart elementary schoolers out there, but as a group they’re not generally known for reading books that skimp on plot in favor of reflections on death.

There’s also a supremely creepy subplot in which the youngest Tuck, the “seventeen-year-old” Jesse (he’s actually 104) suggests that ten-year-old Winnie she wait six years, drink the immortal water, and then marry him. Spoiler Even though Winnie ultimately rejects the offer by choosing not to drink the water (while taking notes for discussion questions, I denoted Winnie’s decision by simply writing “THANK GOODNESS” in all capitals), the whole thing is so, so skeevy. It is now safe to read. For the life of me I can’t decide why Babbitt decided to include the subplot. It’s not necessary, and her “heroes” are already kidnappers and murderers. Babbitt does a pretty good job of keeping the Tucks sympathetic despite that (though whether or not they should be sympathetic despite all that is another question entirely), but a quasi-romantic plotline between a seventeen-year-old man and a ten-year-old girl is, for me, unpardonable.

What’s the verdict?

I personally did not care for Tuck Everlasting. I haven’t actually hosted the book club meeting yet, though, and I’m really interested to know what the kids will think. Despite the fact that I’m still very immature, I have actually aged out of (most) junior fiction and therefore no longer approach it the way the intended audience would. I guess this is just one of those books to chalk down to “It wasn’t written for me.”

intended audience

 

 

 

 

 

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (Book Review)

octavian nothingAfter slogging through it for what feels like forever, I finally finished The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. 1: the Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. In case you’re wondering, no, I have no idea if that is punctuated correctly. You might also be wondering if it counts as a whole book read if it is technically just volume one. My answer to that is that yes, it does because a) volume two is bound in its own book b) this is my review and I do what I want and c) I can’t read volume two.

I mean, yeah, I could read it. It’s at the library. But I can’t bring myself to do it. It took me the better part of an uneventful week to plod through Octavian Nothing, and it’s only 351 pages. Octavian Nothing is a National Book Award Winner, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it recommended places before, but I found it painfully dull. Maybe it’s me.

What’s it about?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a YA historical fiction novel set in the Revolutionary War era. It follows a young slave who is part of an elaborate experiment that basically boils down to trying to prove that blacks are inferior to whites. The boy, Octavian, and his mother Cassiopeia live at the College of Lucidity, where Octavian receives a good education but also takes part in bizarre studies, such as measuring his feces on a golden plate. The first part of the novel follows Octavian’s upbringing in the College, chronicling his treatment as the college falls under different (and increasingly terrible) hands. Later, Octavian finds himself outside the college and involved in the war.

What’d I think?

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 3×02 Review (To Josh, With Love)

crazy-ex-girlfriendIn a stunning turn of events that literally no one saw coming, Josh has decided that maybe being a priest is not for him. Wait a minute. That’s not right. Someone saw it coming. Oh, right. Everyone saw it coming. There was not a single person who thought this was a good idea, except Josh. Besides,

PAULA: “He’s such a loser anyway.”

Since Josh only decided to be a priest to absolve himself of the guilt of dumping Rebecca at the altar, he really has no idea about what it means to be a priest. When he finds out, he’s really not pleased.

JOSH: Dear God, I have to read all this religion and Bible stuff and I don’t understand any of it. And it doesn’t interest me at all.

Hector and White Josh (yay, Hector and White Josh; those two need more screen time) are just as bewildered by Josh’s choices as anyone else, and even more so when they realize that Josh hasn’t made any contact with Rebecca aside from an email draft.

HECTOR: Are you really going to become a priest so you can ignore an awkward conversation?

Something’s messed up if Hector is calling you on your bullshit.

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Noteworthy (Book Review)

noteworthyNoteworthy by Riley Redgate is an unexpectedly good novel. That’s kind of a weird thing to say. No one picks up a book thinking it’s going to be bad. I was pressed for time while looking for books, and Noteworthy was sitting on an endcap. It looked cute and easy. I assumed it would be a fluffy, brain-off kind of read, enjoyable but not mentally stimulating. And, yes, it is kind of fluffy. But it is also a lot smarter and more nuanced than the cover led me to believe.

What’s it about?

Noteworthy follows Jordan Sun, a junior at a boarding school for the arts. She is a musical actress with one major failing: her voice is just too low. Musicals are full of roles for sopranos, and Jordan is a contralto. In somewhat of a snap decision, Jordan decides to audition for the Sharpshooters, an all-male a capella group. She then tries to navigate life as a boy (called Julian), which involves cutthroat rivalry between singing groups and figuring out how to fit into a group of boys. Strangely, it’s not just being a boy that’s confusing to Jordan. Experiencing the other side of the gender divide also affects Jordan’s relationship with being a girl: she becomes more aware of gendered expectations and frustrated with the limitations they place upon people.

What did I think?

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Supernatural 13×02 Review (The Rising Son)

spn 13After last week’s mostly quiet reflection on grief, this week’s The Rising Son feels more like traditional Supernatural. Honestly, I think last week’s episode was better—for the most part, the weird and atypical episodes are what attract me to this show—but this one was good as well. So far, season thirteen is off to a good start.

Sam and Dean are still arguing about Jack. Sam is convinced that he can be raised to be good and Dean is convinced that murdering him is the best course of action. I’m not convinced either one of them is totally right. In defense of Sam’s position, Jack legitimately seems like a nice kid. He tries his best to figure out the world by innocently mimicking Dean and his gut reaction is to protect his friends. He’s afraid about what he is and what he might do to people, so much so that he seems relieved when Dean promises to kill him if he goes dark side. In defense of Dean’s position, though, Jack is definitely dangerous. He is simply too powerful. We were informed this episode that he’ll be more powerful than his father, and since we also witnessed his father take down a whole group of angels simply by snapping his fingers, that’s not a good sign. Clearly, though, the danger is going to come more from how gullible Jack is than how evil. He got tricked into releasing a group of creatures so evil they’re apparently not allowed to see the light of day, and only stopped because he got distracted. Not that those creatures aren’t coming out later. I mean, obviously they’re going to. It’s just a matter of time.

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The Alchemyst (Book Review)

alchemystIt took me a long freaking time to finish The Alchemyst by Michael Scott. I never got into it. I keep trying and trying to find a new series that I’m as excited about as I was Harry Potter. The Mortal Instruments has been the closest. Percy Jackson is up there, probably. It’s likely because I grew up in the Harry Potter generation that I’ve always had a fantasy series that I absolutely adored. Like, I have no memory before having read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (I’m American, so I read Sorcerer, not Philosopher; I know that annoys some people), and I still remember the constant, intense anticipation for the next book. I mean, there’s a reason everything tries to be the next Harry Potter. There’s nothing like it, and even if something does match the content someday, the experience is not replicable. But despite that, I keep looking and keep looking and keep looking for another series that will suck me in completely, the kind of story that you sit down to and then look up to realize that two days have passed and you’re a thousand pages deep. The point is, I didn’t really have high hopes for The

michael scott

Alchemyst, but I’ll read book one of pretty much any YA fantasy series in the hopes that I’ll find something I love. I may or may not have mentioned before that I’m irritated by unnecessarily pedantic spelling (I really liked the Magyk series by Angie Sage when I was younger, but even though I still have fond memories of it I cringe at the spellings). The Alchemyst is not the worst thing I’ve ever read, but it did not catch my attention at all and I found the writing to be painful.

What’s it about?

The actual story feels like it should have been more interesting. It takes on the story of Nicholas Flamel (another reason why Harry Potter was on my mind while reading). In Michael Scott’s version of the tale, Flamel is the guardian of a mystical book with the secrets to immortal life. One day, another long-living magician—Dr. John Dee—steals the book from him and kidnaps Flamel’s wife Perenelle. Luckily, Dee didn’t get the whole book; two pages at the back were preserved. Along with Sophie and Josh—twins who were either in the wrong place at the wrong time or fated to be there—and Scathach—a “Next Generation” warrior vampire—Flamel flees from Dee and attempts to retrieve the book and his wife.

Why didn’t I like it?

UntitledI had three major issues with the book. One: the writing. It’s not good. Scott inexplicably feels the need to use surnames at least once per chapter. I know that Sophie and Josh’s last name is Newman. It’s not like there are multiple Sophies that I have to keep up with. It’s not like Josh is a new character that is being introduced every time he reappears. It’s not like the family name is important to the story. It was off-putting. Then there’s the repetition of information, which is always delivered via awkwardly placed info-drops. We learn multiple times that the Newman parents are archaeologists, and what that means for the twins. Perenelle’s sorcery is introduced three or four times as well. So is Scathach’s past. And the twins’ bond. Anything that’s even peripherally important to the story will be repeated at least twice, so readers really don’t have to worry about missing anything. It’s almost as if Scott doesn’t trust his readers to remember anything that happened even one chapter earlier.

Two: the magic is too easy. The characters repeat over and over again that learning the magic takes decades and that it can kill you and blah blah blah it is so difficult and dangerous and time-consuming. Oh, but wait. There’s a second way that only takes, like, an hour. You don’t have to learn the magic yourself. You can just get wrapped up mummy-style in someone else’s magic and you’re good to go. Yeah, I get that Sophie has a really bright and powerful aura or whatever. But don’t say something takes sixty years if your character is going to manage it in one day. That’s just lazy. If it’s going to take the main character one day, admit it will only take a day.

Three: urgh. The ending. Mild spoilers this paragraph only. I understand that the first book in a series has to do a lot of work to set up what comes later. However, individual books in a series (and particularly book one) need to be able to mostly stand-alone. If there are three major plotlines, resolve two and leave one open. Don’t leave them all open. Something needs to be resolved. Not everything. But something. There should be some feeling of accomplishment or finality. The end point of The Alchemyst is no more conclusive than any other point in the novel. The Alchemyst doesn’t feel like book one. It feels like the first half of an incomplete novel.

What’s the verdict?

I don’t think this is a terrible book. It just hit a lot of my personal pet peeves. I think that it would be perfectly enjoyable for someone who just wants an easy adventure story. It’s perfectly fine for that, but it is a very frustrating read for people who care deeply about the words themselves, and not just the story they tell.

 

 

 

Never Always Sometimes (Book Review)

never always sometimesNever Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid is a frustrating book both to read and to write about because pretty much the only parts of it that are interesting and worth discussing come at the very end. I didn’t care for the characters. I wasn’t invested in the plotline. I found the writing to be clumsy in places. The end, though, was interesting. I really liked aspects of it but really disliked other aspects of it. So there will be a spoilery section in this review, but there will be a very obvious header and no overflow spoilers. So here we go.

What’s it about?

Never Always Sometimes is about Julia and Dave, two hipsters who are about to graduate high school. At the end of middle school, they wrote a list of high school clichés that they would make sure to avoid. Dave finds the list and Julia decides that it might be fun to go through it to see how the other side lives.

Let’s talk about Julia. Specifically, how awful she is.

The main problem is Julia. I absolutely despised her. She is the absolute worst. Dave isn’t bad, but he is joined-at-the-hip-besties with Julia (and also in love with her), so he looks bad by association. Everything about Julia is obnoxious. I think she’s supposed to be the

like other girls
The best part of the book is when Julia gets called out for being a cliché and an asshole.

manic pixie dreamgirl type, but she’s no dreamgirl. Her jokes are unfunny at best and cruel at worst. She prides herself on being better than everyone else in the school just because she doesn’t engage in the same activities. She is convinced that she knows how everyone thinks and that their thinking is subpar. It is her idea to go through the Never list to shake up the end of senior year (it stems from mommy issues, which I guess is supposed to make her more sympathetic; it didn’t work for me since she has two clearly loving and supportive dads, which is more than most fictional characters have), but despite that she judges Dave for enjoying the people he meets through it.

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Turtles All the Way Down (Book Review)

turtlesI finally got a copy of Turtles All the Way Down by John Green! John Green is one of my favorite authors, so I was incredibly excited to read it. Of course, I was also a little nervous. There’s nothing worse than being disappointed by your favorite authors (this is hyperbolic, of course; there are lots of things worse than being disappointed by a book, but if you’re reading this you care enough about books to know what I mean). Happily, I wasn’t at all disappointed. I loved it. I just finished the book, so I’ll have to give it a few days to fully sink in, but at this point I’m tempted to say it may be my new favorite John Green book. It’s certainly up there with my other two favorites (An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns, in case you care), but I think it is too soon to say that it’s surpassed them. It may have, though.

What’s it about?

Turtles All the Way Down is about Aza Holmes, a high school girl with anxiety and OCD. She also happens to have been childhood friends with Davis Pickett, the son of a billionaire who vanished a few days before being arrested. The story is about Aza and her best friend Daisy trying to find Davis’ father, but more than that it’s about Aza struggling to live with her mental illness and convince herself that she’s real.

What’d I think?

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 3×01 Review (Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Wants Revenge)

crazy-ex-girlfriendCrazy Ex-Girlfriend is a criminally underrated show. It’s smart and funny, and deals deftly with tropes. There’s not much like it out there, which of course means that not enough people watch it. I got into it when season one got put on Netflix, mostly because I’d seen commercials for it while watching Supernatural and I adore musicals. Seriously, musicals are the best. (On that note, Galavant, another meta and genre-savvy musical TV show, is also criminally underrated, so go watch that, too). Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Wants Revenge is not the best episode the show has to offer, but it’s still solid.

After getting left at the altar by Josh Chan in the finale of last season, Rebecca comes out of her funk vowing revenge. Because she’s Rebecca, all of her revenge plans are terrible. Everyone acts like getting dumped has sent Rebecca over the bad-plan ledge, but never forget the time she decided that the best way to avoid an awkward interaction was to break into Josh’s house, pretend that she’d had a break in, and get Paula to throw a rock through her back door. Yes, sending Josh poop cupcakes à la The Help is stupid. Yes, hiring a Josh lookalike to film a fake sex scene to humiliate Josh is stupid. But it’s coming from a long history of Josh-induced stupidity. Elsewhere in the episode, Paula reconnects with her husband Scott after his infidelity, and Darryl and White Josh launch a protein bar company amidst a tiff about Darryl’s obsession with having children (there’s an anteater costume involved, in case you were wondering).

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