Tag Archives: Book Review

The Wrong Boy and his Words

Magic words The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill is essentially a fairy tale that combines multiple story lines, while tugging at your heart strings from the very first page.

The mischievous and happy twins, Ned and Tam build a make-shift raft that will take them from the Great River to the sea. “The sea, Tam…. the sea!”

Unfortunately, a raft built by 7 year-old boys can hardly be deemed sea-worthy…

“The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He kicked and swore, but as he reached one boy — the closer boy — his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. […]
‘We should have known he’d bungle it,’ they said.
‘He saved the wrong one.'”

And so Ned, the wrong boy, lived — while Tam, the smart one, was carried away by the current and drowned. But his mother, Sister Witch, could not bear that one of her sons had died, while the other lay struggling for his life… so she did something she shouldn’t have: she used the magic kept under her care to keep her child alive.

Saving Ned’s life came at a cost to him — he barely grew, he was small and quiet, he stuttered:

“Words were his enemies. They rattled in his mouth like broken teeth, or tumbled off the page like scattered dust after a sneeze.”

… he also forgot how to read:

“There was a time when he could read. Both he and his brother could. Before. But then everything changed. Now, whenever Ned looked at the sign (or any writing for that matter), the letters seemed to wobble, shift, and scramble themselves. They wriggled like snakes and swarmed like locusts.”

The townspeople think him dim-witted… they are unkind. However, larger events come into play as the Queen comes to this little village while visiting different towns throughout her realm. Her family — the Queen’s nephew in particular — would love to see her dead. Fortunately, Sister Witch is able to save the Queen’s life… and is then invited to visit the castle. Using magic is exhausting for Sister Witch, and so she leaves the magic at home, safe within its little jar, and asks Ned to look after it. Unfortunately, the Bandit King comes along with his band of ruffians to take the magic — he is consumed by greed and power, and even threatens to kill Ned’s father to force Ned out of his home along with the jar of magic. But Ned discovers he can be brave… he cannot let his father die… he opens the jar, and the magic melds within his skin, burning, and itching, and causing so much pain. But it does not kill him. The real adventure begins!

The magic within Ned is volatile — constantly causing him to war within himself: Will he do what is right? Will he do what is selfish? Will he do what is best? Will he be merciful? Will he give into the power within him? Ned’s family has been keeping the magic good for generations… can he do the same? The magic requires a strong will to be kept in its place — it requires strong commanding words:

“A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed. And Ned was not a powerful boy.”

As he runs through the woods to escape the bandits, the Bandit King plots with the over-indulgent and power-hungry King Ott of a nearby kingdom against the Ned’s small village. He convinces King Ott to attack — now Ned has an even greater task ahead: he needs to save himself, and warn his people.

While lost in the woods, he meets a wolf… and Áine – the Bandit King’s daughter. Upon her death bed, Áine’s mother told her, “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his. And the wolf –” Well, she’d have to guess about the wolf.

Together, this trio runs through the woods, escaping bandits, making some difficult decisions, and taking care of one another. They learn to trust, they learn to care, and most of all, they learn about true friendship and sacrifices.

It is difficult to choose only one theme within this lovely tale of good versus evil. It is about friendship, it is about greed, it is about making the difficult choices, it is about forgiveness, and it is about accepting loss…

The Witch’s Boy is poetic in it’s repetition, melodic in it’s tone, and deep in it’s message. Ned undergoes many different transformations throughout the story: a mischievous boy, a mourning twin, a scared kidnapping victim, a commanding magician, a caring friend, a self-sacrificing person, an imposing kidnapper, a normal villager, and an adventurous wanderer….

After all, how else could the story end? “The sea, Tam… the sea!”

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction

Stranded and Tortured… But Never Broken

dignity - hillenbrandUnbroken by Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of Louie Zamperini — it is the beautifully recounted and well-researched biography of a very brave man, who not only survived unimaginable ordeals, but learned to live beyond survival, and truly carved a meaningful life for himself afterwards.

Louis Zamperini grew up as a poor Italian boy who stole, misbehaved, and got into way too much trouble… until his older brother decided he needed to channel his little brother’s talent for running away into something a bit more worthwhile: he trained him to run track. Louie was a natural, and his desire to take on challenges made him push himself until he achieved something he never would’ve thought possible: to race in the Olympics.

Unfortunately, World War II came along to draft most (if not quite all) young men in the country, Louie included. Hillenbrand recounts the statistics of men who lost their lives, not only in combat, but also due to all kinds of accidents, technical failures, and training errors — they are a sobering number. Sadly, Louie and his crew were part of these men who became victims of their own plane: a faulty B-24 — The Green Hornet. The plane malfunctioned, and they crashed into the Pacific. Out of the eleven men on board, only 3 survived the crash — they spent 47 days adrift at sea, living off rain water, fish, and birds… mostly starving, dehydrating, fighting off sharks, and talking to each other to keep themselves from going insane. One of them didn’t quite make it (he lasted only 33 days) — what was to follow, would probably make the other two wish they hadn’t made it either.

After surviving their ordeal at sea, the men were captured by the Japanese. Louie and his friend, Phil, were mistreated, to say the least: they were separated, beaten, practically starved, denied proper medical attention, psychologically tormented, and worked half to death at prisoner-of-war camps. They endured this torture for over 2 years until the war ended in August of 1945.

“On Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive [the men] of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.

[…] Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”

Surviving on the life rafts while out in the open ocean was quite a challenge — yet when Phil and Louie lacked water, they waited for rain; when they were hungry, they ate whatever they could get their hands on: fish, bird, or shark; when they were too weak to do anything else, they would talk to anchor their minds to their bodies so that they could live to see another day as lucidly as possible. But once they were prisoners of war, the Japanese soldiers sought to degrade them, deprive them of every basic human right imaginable, and to crush their spirit. Yet the POW’s found ways to keep their hope and will to live alight within these camps through small acts of defiance, by finding even the slightest bit of joy in whatever was around them: a funny duck, stealing sugar, putting on a silly play… even in the worst imaginable circumstances, a person can find a reason to keep going.

Louie wrote to his greatest tormentor, Watanabe in letter (after the war):

“It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.

Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.”

And yet, he held on… he did indeed live to war’s end.

Louis Zamperini’s story is impressive not only because he survived, but because his perseverance allowed him to continue living after his survival. Once the POW’s were rescued at the end of the war, they came home as heroes… but broken in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally… and Louie was no exception. Fortunately, after a long time, he found a way to heal… to forgive… and to give back to his community: he founded a camp for troubled youths, the Victory Boys Camp.

Although this life-defining tragedy lasted over 2 years of Louis’ life, he lived to the age 97. He passed away on July 2, 2014.

He lived quite a full, inspiring, and resilient life.


Filed under Biography, Book Review

March Madness… but not the one you think.

March Reviews

March has been very hectic for me. It is simply an insane month — maybe it’s because the winter refuses to go away (seriously, it snowed on the first day of spring)… or maybe it’s because it’s pre-State Test time (which induces crying, sleeplessness, nausea… and the students’ fare no better than the teachers!) … or perhaps it just feels so much longer compared to February.

In any case, I was only able to squeeze a little reading in:

The Meteorite Chronicles: EarthUnder by Edwin Thompson — a science fiction story about a meteorite hunter who must enlighten the world about what they are doing to our planet and save humanity in the process. I think it’s pretty cool the author’s initials are E.T.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain — a romantic tale about two strangers. One is mugged and ends up in a coma. The other finds a bag in a trashcan and decides to solve the mystery of this purse, which holds within a red notebook full of personal thoughts, fears, ideas, and random musings. It’s also set in Paris… enough said!

Lastly, The Winter Sea by Di Morrissey — a story of wanderlust and starting over (two of my favorite topics). It’s about a woman who goes off to a sleepy seaside town in Australia to rethink her life, and in the process decides to open up a new business, meet wonderful people, and then receives an inheritance that throws everything off kilter and opens up a whole can of worms about her father’s past. It’s told in alternating perspectives of past and present… and it’s fantastic.

I am now trying to make my way through Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. (More on that later!)

But the above reviews will be in the San Francisco Book Review in April!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Musings

“Embrace the Wonder”

embrace the wonder

Akarnae by Lynette Noni is truly a wonderful young adult fantasy novel! I loved reading every minute it — especially since I was really in the mood for a story where I could lose myself and follow the characters’ journey wherever it happened to lead.

Alexandra Jennings is meant to go to a boring old boarding school while her parents are away for the school year to study with some famous archeologist — and Alex is not happy about it. But as she walks into the International Exchange Academy to hand in her paperwork, she opens a door that leads into a whole new world! And although the first person she meets in Medora is a complete creep, the next two turn out to be her best buds and the perfect Akarnae Academy tour guides. Alex, Jordan, and Bear become fast friends and mischievous adventure seekers.

As she soon discovers, Akarnae is a special school for gifted students — other than being from another world (Freya), Alex isn’t quite sure what her gift is yet… but considering all of the extremely difficult and advanced classes she’s signed up for, we can be sure it’s bound to be a good one. In the meantime, there’s the sentient library with secret levels, hidden rooms, and a million doorways to keep Alex busy enough and provide her with more adventures than she bargains for.

Akarnae is a wonderfully enjoyable read not only because it takes place in an amazing world with highly advanced technology — which Alex aptly describes as something very close to magic — but also because the characters are the kind of people you definitely want to be around. Alex adapts impressively well to being stuck in a different world, trying to learn things she’s never heard of, and surviving her combat class (with some very hot guys who could pretty much crush her), all while maintaining her sense of humor and sarcastic wit. Meanwhile, Jordan and Bear are her hilarious and caring sidekicks — they know when it’s time to look for trouble, make inappropriate comments, or regale us with their charming banter.

I am really looking forward to reading the next installment of The Medoran Chronicles, since I have a lot more questions about Jordan’s strange parentage, Bear’s lovely family, the whereabouts of creepy Aven, and Lady Mystique… oh, and I’d like to know more about Kaiden and his beautiful smile!

You just can’t go wrong with a library that literally tells you to “embrace the wonder.” I can hardly wait to see what awaits Alex and her friends next!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Young Adult

Kane Chronicles & Percy Jackson: WIN!

son of sobek

So I finally had some time to sit down and read The Son of Sobek and The Staff of Serapis. I just can’t get enough mythology… or Percy… or Annabeth…. or Kanes! These short stories are an excellent way to get a quick Rick Riordan fix while he writes… the millions books he seems to be working on simultaneously.

The Son on Sobek focuses on Percy and Carter as they battle this huge monster that’s been trampling a neighborhood on Long Island. The monstrous crocodile has been enchanted by an Egyptian amulet, but it’s on Percy’s turf — thus Greek and Egyptian mythology collide. Carter does his battle armor thing… Percy does his water thing… they’re both suspicious about each other, but they work so well together. It’s good fun!

The Staff of Serapis is about Annabeth and Sadie, who meet on the subway as a three-headed staff is in the midst of putting itself together and wreaking havoc during rush hour. This wolf/lion-plus-dog-monster, which is also stuck in some kind of cone, is making its way to its master: a god created by Alexander the Great– part Egyptian, part Greek… and completely insane. Annabeth and Sadie work really well together and become fast friends. Girls just work better!

I like that these stories seem like part of a greater mystery — someone is messing with Egyptian and Greek magic and is simply experimenting to see what happens when these characters come together. And I’m loving it!

Keep them coming, Mr. Riordan!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction, Mythology

Reviews, Reviews, Reviews!

March Books

I’m really enjoying book reviewing — it does mean that more often than not, my head is stuck in a book… which is wonderful. It also means that I’m reading all kinds of different books. This month I’m reading everything from historical fiction, to mysteries, to alternate worlds and dreams within dreams.

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is a historical fiction novel about Rembrandt’s painting by the same name, but it focuses on everything that goes on behind the painting… mainly the criminal who was used for this public dissection.

In the Shadow of Lies by M.A. Adler could also fall under historical fiction (it takes place during World War II) — but the most interesting part is the mystery surrounding the town of Richmond, California, and detective Oliver Wright, who needs to set things straight even though everything around him is falling apart. There are so many things going on — it kept me on my toes!

Lastly, The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson takes place during the 1960s, in a series of alternate dream sequences. In one instance, Kitty Miller is happily single and owns and bookstore… but in another instance, she’s Katharyn Anderson and is married to lovely man with children. It gets all mixed up, and she doesn’t know what’s real and what’s her dream-world. I liked her character!

And so now I have some time to catch up on some other books I’ve been meaning to read. However, these reviews should be in March’s San Francisco Book Review.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review

Live! (to tell the tale…)

vivir para contarla

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born in Columbia in 1927 and passed away just last year, on the 17th of April (2014). He was one of the most significant and inspiring Latin American authors of the 20th century, and was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. I finally got around to reading his autobiography Vivir Para Contarla (or in English, Living to Tell the Tale). It goes without saying, the man had a way with words…

His autobiography tells a lot not only about his upbringing, his family, and his friends… but also a lot about his way of looking at life — admitting that there is a fine line between fact and fiction, as “life is not what you live, but what you remember and how you remember it.” In other words, life is just a story we tell ourselves, and our memories are often altered by figments of our imagination.

Nonetheless, what strikes me most about his life as a writer is how deeply he was influenced by his thirst for books, and his well-read friends. They discussed authors, they discussed literature, they lived to talk about story-telling, and they were constantly striving to acquire more books they could share amongst themselves. Mr. Garcia Marquez indeed kept excellent company, in this sense. He even read the dictionary! … a gift from his grandfather — a man who loved words and loved learning about them — Garcia Marquez admits he read this dictionary as one reads a novel: in alphabetical order and barely understanding any of it. The man was a lover of words and stories in any shape or form: novels, news articles, tales among friends, movies … life. He claimed he knew he would be a writer even before learning how to write! He knew because of this irresistible urge to write so as not to die.

Garcia Marquez did not live a life of privilege. He was often destitute and broke, barely getting by with his ease for making new acquaintances despite his shyness (such as police officers who once found him sleeping on a park bench), or simply due to his friends’ kindness. Even when he was making some money, he was so immersed in his work that his only concern with it was making sure to send financial aid to his large family so as ensure they could make ends meet. He lived to party, to sing, to write, to read, to soak up as much of his surroundings as possible… the good, the bad, the painful, the beautiful, the ugly, and the devastating.

I was struck by his words, “The terror of writing can be as unbearable as that of not writing.” The need to write is strong… the fear of it being worthless is strong, too. Yet every story that demands to be told will take whatever form it may need… but in the end, it must make its way into the light. Fortunately, Garcia Marquez’s works live on despite his passing… and through his memoirs, he encourages us to live, so that one day we too can tell our tales.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Memoir

New Year… Lots of Books to Read!

Gideon and Gutenberg

Winter Break is just fantastic! And I will be making even more of an effort to read, read, read, and READ! Simply because… I genuinely was born with a book list I may never finish — but not for lack of trying.

I have spent some time on my latest book reviews, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett, Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie, and Wonderboy by Tom Conyers. Each story could not be more different: one is an exciting steampunk adventure (and I am really loving those!), another is the tale of an arduous task made even more challenging by a megalomaniacal genius, and the last, a coming of age story (that reminded me very much of Bridge to Terabithia) about a boy and his best friend.

These will all make their way into the San Francisco Book Review around February. In the mean time, I am off to do more reading!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review

Tuck Everlasting… What if you could live forever?

life's got to be lived

… What if you could live forever?

Natalie Babbitt raises some very interesting questions within this relatively simple story of Tuck Everlasting. Winnie Foster is a rich little girl who feels oppressively confined within the gates of her own home. Her mother and grandmother are constantly watching her… asking where she is… wondering what she is doing… it’s positively stifling! She dreams of running away… and even tells a little toad all about her wondrous plans of escape. But Winnie is a good little girl — she wouldn’t actually run away. Where would she run away to? Who will she run away with? So she just wanders into the woods near her home. Once there, she sees a boy sitting by a tree, and watches him sip some water from a spring. Soon, his mom and older brother join him — and they must explain to Winnie why she must never, ever drink from that spring or tell anyone about it!

The spring is magical. It allows those who drink from it the ability to live forever… unchanged. The Tucks discover this the hard way, over 8 decades ago. And while some might consider living forever a blessing — or a profitable business — most of the Tucks feel that this has caused them to lose far too much. Nonetheless, unsure about whether Winnie really believes them or not, the Tucks take her to their cottage to speak with the father… surely he can make sure she understands. Technically, this is kidnapping… but Winnie goes willingly. Finally, an adventure of her own! Unfortunately, an awful and greedy little man who has been looking for the Tucks and is curious about their secret, sees them taking Winnie… and hears their story. He runs right back to Winnie’s family hoping to coerce them into selling him the woods… and thereby, the magical spring.

There are opposing views about whether the spring is a blessing or a curse. The greedy little man sees it as a way to profit — he wants to be able to see the spring water to a select few people: only those he deems deserving of everlasting life. But should such a questionable character even be allowed to make that kind of judgment calls? Mae Tuck doesn’t seem to mind it much, so long as she can see her boys every so often. Miles, her older son, does mind a bit: he lost his wife and daughters once she noticed there was something odd about his inability to age. Jesse loves it — he can see that there is so much to do when you can live forever… and yet, he wants Winnie to drink from the spring, so she can join him on his adventures later on — clearly, even he is a bit lonely. Meanwhile, Angus — the father — sees the loss this has brought along with it; the life cycle has been disrupted, and he feels the Tucks are stuck… unable to pass on, but still unable to join life fully. They cannot be like regular families — makes people suspicious after a couple of years. They cannot ever die, but they must watch those around them age and die instead.

In the end, is the moral of the story that living forever is a curse? Seems to me the idea is that, as Mae cleverly states, “Life’s got to be lived, no matter how long or short.”


Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Middle Grade Fiction

Bridge to Terabithia: a Bridge of Tears and Courage


Bridge to Terabithia is the story of Jess and Leslie — the very bestest of friends. Jess is the only boy in his large family — way too many girls, he has tons of work to do around the farm, his dad works away from home for most of the week to make ends meet, his mom is busy keeping track of his millions sisters… life is tough for hard-working little Jess, who’s about to enter the 5th grade and wants to be the fastest kid around! But then he meets Leslie; she has just moved into town, her parents are writers… she calls them Bill and Judy — and even though she’s a girl, SHE’s the actual fastest kid in 5th grade. They don’t exactly hit it off right away… but then, they click… and they’re inseparable!

Leslie has a beautiful imagination fueled by the many stories she’s read, and her natural ability to create magical worlds with her words. Jess loves being around her, exploring the magic of friendship, and being away from his many daily chores and sisters. Out in the woods, and across a dry creek, they create a world of their own:

“‘We need a place,’ she said, ‘just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.’ Jess came swinging back and dragged his feet to stop. She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. ‘It might be a whole secret country,’ she continued, ‘and you and I would be the rulers of it.'”

… and so, Terabithia is born!

Life is great for Jess and Leslie for a good while… they tackle bullies at school, find the best of gifts to exchange, even visit Church on Easter. But as the rain beats down on their town, and the creek leading to Terabithia overflows, Jess’ fears begin to get the best of him. He’s afraid of the water —  the fear of drowning begins to be too much for him to venture any more visits to his kingdom until the waters recede. But how can he tell that to Leslie? How can he admit he’s scared? How do you simply lay your biggest secret out in the open… even to your best friend?

Unfortunately, a tragic event prevents Jess from ever telling Leslie his secret. Jess’ reaction (right after denial) is anger: “She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there — like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.”

Leslie changes Jess for the better. She expands his imagination, encourages his dreams and ideas to flourish, and even makes him king of their small little place in the woods. But then she’s gone… yet Jess is still changed. He is braver, he is kinder, and he is forever indebted to Leslie’s friendship for the gift of every day magic.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction, Realistic Fiction