Book Review – Nyxia

I haven’t taken any time to review books in a long time, but recently came across a Y.A. (young adult) sci-fi book that looked so promising, I had to grab the ARC copy. I’m SO glad I did, because Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is one of the best YA sci-fi books I’ve read in a long time. It features a host of multi-cultural characters (which is unusual!), unexpected twists, great pacing, and some unique sci-fi elements that were a joy to read for the geeky girl inside me. 😉 I devoured it in 2 days and am chomping at the bit to get the other 2 books in the series (which are, as yet, unpublished)! It reminds me of a mix of Hunger Games, The Maze, and maybe a smattering of Red Rising – and yet it’s quite original.

Here’s the book’s description, and then I’ll add my comments:

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.

Forever.

Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.

But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.

There’s a bit of mystery swirling throughout the entire book. The author only hints at bits and pieces about the Babel Corporation – letting you know there is something more going on, but not unraveling what that something is. It’s clear Babel is the most powerful corporation on Earth, and it’s clear they aren’t upfront with their recruits. That’s about all that’s clear! They aren’t telling them something about the mysterious and most valuable material ever found – Nyxia, or the circumstances surrounding their trip to Eden. Babel is lying about… something. Babel is hiding…something, not only from the recruits, but from those left behind on Earth. That thread winds itself through the novel, leaving tantalizing clues, but never giving any concrete answers.

There is also something about Nyxia itself that is almost frightening. From it, Babel has achieved unheard of technological advances. It’s a material that can be manipulated into almost anything, and yet you wonder, is the material itself doing the manipulating?

Then, there is the mystery surrounding the Adamaites, the native inhabitants of Eden who are more technologically advanced and powerful then we are. There is something that has gone wrong with the Adamites and it seems they are unable to reproduce. The youngest Adamite is in his 50’s and for some reason it appears that there are no more females. They treasure and adore children…which is why these 10 teens are hurtling through space on their way to Eden. Only children will be allowed on the planet to mine Nyxia and a competition ensues. Out of the 10 recruits, only 8 will be chosen.

The children chosen are from poverty stricken backgrounds, all of them with a huge and desperate needs. Babel exploits those needs in what becomes a brutal competition.  The losing 2 will get a small amount of money, but the winners will get everything beyond their wildest dreams, not only for themselves, but for their families. For Emmett it means saving his mother from the cancer that’s killing her. If he loses the competition, he could very well lose her. This isn’t just about being rich (and famous), it’s about life and death.  That makes some interesting moral situations that don’t always have an easy answer. The desperation all of the recruits face is also something that makes it easier for them to ignore the undercurrent that something isn’t quite right.

I loved the character development throughout the book as these teens are stretched to their limits – both physically and sometimes morally. The adults in the book are also multi-layered. No one is purely black or white as far as good and evil and the struggles the characters go through are thought-provoking. I loved the honest approach to these struggles. It wasn’t always clear what a character would do in different situations, and the author didn’t shy away from allowing even Emmett to have flaws that he had to work and sometimes fight through. You grow to love him and other characters and you also can’t help but hate some as well, and yet nothing is ever totally set in stone in that regard. Even the hated characters have their reasons for being the way they are and because of the depth of the character development and the complexity of the situations, it’s not always totally clear who you want to win, or who you want to lose…

As a parent, I can say that this books is quite CLEAN and promotes morality – but in an honest and non-preachy way. The characters have their struggles, but it’s refreshing to see some take the higher path, even if it could turn out to be a sacrifice. Emmett’s background is also positive. He comes from a rough neighborhood, but he’s stayed away from drugs and other negative lifestyle choices. He loves and honors his parents, and their relationship is touching. There is a little bit of “boy likes girl” with a scene of holding hands and a non-descriptive kiss. The way it’s handled is pretty wholesome and doesn’t seem contrived or out of place, nor is it “obsessive.”

Another thing I noticed is that there are multiple minor religious references. At first I wasn’t sure if they were underhanded digs toward Christians, but over time figured out that the author is coming from a Christian background and drops little tidbits here and there that aren’t proselytizing, but appear as the main character struggles to understand things or in reference to Babel. They won’t offend a secular reader, and they are refreshing to a Christian reader. I get tired of YA books with anti-Christian agendas. This isn’t one of them.

There is a LOT of violence in this book,

***spoiler alert***

including a death that was a bit unexpected (think: a Game of Thrones killing that gets rid of a character you LIKE).

***end of spoiler alert***

The violence is probably at the level of Hunger Games. I recall only one incident of very minor cursing (the word hell).

The “about the author” note states: Scott Reintgen has spent his career as a teacher of English and creative writing in diverse urban communities in North Carolina. The hardest lesson he learned was that inspiration isn’t equally accessible for everyone. So he set out to write a novel for the front-row sleepers and back-row dreamers of his classrooms. He hopes that his former students see themselves, vibrant and on the page, in characters like Emmett.

I think he’s done a tremendous job in creating a page-turning novel that does exactly what he was trying to do. It’s very difficult to find any worthwhile sci-fi that is accessible to teens (and adults who like YA novels!!). Nyxia does a terrific job not only as a sci-fi novel, but also as something that tackles tough issues and brings to life a multitude of cultures in a fresh and exciting way. If you have a teen who loves sci-fi or you want to encourage a student to dip his/her feet into that genre, Nyxia definitely fills a YA sci-fi void! I can’t wait for the next two books to come out!!

Book Review: Indian Captive

Indian Captive

The first Lois Lenski book I ever read was Strawberry Girl. I was instantly enamored with it and went looking to see what other books Lois had written. Lois Lenski wrote a host of old-fashioned, wholesome books and illustrated some of the Betsy-Tacy books.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison is a wonderful addition to Lenski’s historical novels – a story about the real life of Mary Jemison who was captured on an Indian raid and raised among the Senecas.

In the early days of American, many children were captured by Indians. Some of these children chose not to return to white families when later given the choice. Mary (nicknamed Molly) was one of those children. Her capture occurred in 1758, right in the middle of the French and Indian War. Except for two older brothers who escaped, her family was massacred. Molly was adopted by the Indians and ended up living the rest of her life with them.

The book changes a few of Molly’s circumstances for younger readers, but is otherwise true to the original story. Lenski has done her research and it shows. She not only accurately captures life with the Seneca (and Iroquois tribe), but also successfully portrays the inner struggle in Molly’s heart and mind as she adjusts to her new life. Molly struggles to not forget her family and hangs on with a fierce tenacity to their memories. She clings to what her mother and father told her before being separated and repeats their names to keep them fresh in her mind. After finding out they’ve been killed, Molly has to deal with the dichotomy of knowing that the Indians who killed her family are also the people who have grown to love and care for her. It’s a warfare in her heart as she struggles to come to grips with these realities.

Once she’s given a chance to go back to white “civilization”, Molly finds she has a final choice to make that will forever seal her fate as one thing or another. Is she white? Is she an Indian?

Indian Captive has a satisfying end. After getting there, you can understand why Molly makes the decision she does, whether you agree with it or not. Besides a great opportunity to learn some real history, the book is a terrific window into Indian culture. The Indians are not portrayed as evil or wonderful. They are a range of everything in between, as all human beings are – with some characters more sympathetic than the rest. Indian Captive made a great addition to our homeschool for the mid 1700’s as we learned about the French and Indian War. I read it out loud to my two older kids and was delighted to be given the opportunity to review the Kindle edition. Besides a complex and emotional story, the illustrations by Lenski are a visual treat.

 

Christian parents, there is some mention of Indian spirituality with mentions of the “Great Spirit”.

I also think this story will appeal more to girls than boys, although both my daughter and son enjoyed it when I read it to them years ago.

If you are looking for a book to delve into Iroquois Indian culture or to illustrate the effects of the French and Indian War on both sides, Indian Captive is a great addition to homeschool history studies. It’s also just a good adventure book that explores a little bit of psychological complexities and makes for some good discussion.

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*I recieved this book for free in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Book Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back

Tiger Babies Strike Back Review

Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised by a Tiger Mom but Could Not Be Turned to the Dark Side

I am a big fan of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of a mother with an unflinching look at her extreme parenting based on the “Chinese” way of raising super-kids. Though I don’t agree with most of Amy’s draconian ways of raising her two girls, I still found her book secretly admirable in parts, though flawed.

Tiger Babies Strike back is Kim Wong’s answer to Battle Hymn. It’s her own personal look at Chinese parenting and the toll it takes as well as her personal decision not to follow in the Chinese Tiger Mother footsteps. Her book is a humorous foray into Chinese-American culture as she shares her stories of growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown  Her message: “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be robots.”

Kim has a rambling sort of way of writing. She jumps between history and culture lessons about the Chinese to first hand experiences from her childhood up to her parenting her own daughter. She shares all sorts of stories illustrating the damage done from such a harsh version of Chinese parenting and delves off into rabbit trails about other Chinese cultural bits and pieces with a playful and humorous style that is sometimes tinged with a cutting edge of bitterness.

Kim is sassy, astute and also unapologetic for the message behind her book. She says,

“Tiger Parents, you may be asking yourselves, “What is the point of this book?”

“Love your babies, and show your babies that you love them. Withholding your acceptance and praise while pushing your children into achievement might yield certain results, but that kind of pressure stifles other aspects of growing up.”

While I enjoyed getting to peek into the ever fascinating world of Chinese-American parenting, I never felt the book was completely coherent and totally focused on its message. Kim wanders all over the landscape of her upbringing, often popping into the present and delving deeper into the murkiness of history. She is funny, but sometimes I wasn’t totally sure of who her intended audience was. Was she speaking to all parents? Just Chinese-American parents? Tiger Moms? I felt like an outsider peeking into someone’s life with whatever message she was trying to convey slipping past me, a white woman of European ancestry, as I didn’t fit the mold of whomever she seemed to be speaking to, mainly (it appears) those caught between two cultures as she herself is.

Still, despite its faults, I enjoyed learning a great deal about Chinese-American culture and appreciated Kim’s crusade to persuade Tiger Mom’s to put away their claws when it comes to their children. Compared to Chua’s book I think it fell a little flat, but was still an enjoyable and worthwhile read for the cultural aspects.

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*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Book Review: The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin

secret of the sealed room

The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin (Click here to see the book on Amazon.)

I got this book to use in our homeschool and was disappointed by a subtle anti-Christian feel throughout. Normally this wouldn’t deter us from reading a book, if it has a purpose – but I just didn’t feel it was necessary or appropriate in the The Secret of the Sealed Room. Besides that issue, the main character, Patience is a much too modern feeling for the time period – enough to probably appeal to readers but not faithful to the historical period. Although there is a lot of little historical tidbits scattered throughout the text and a mystery to keep readers guessing, the whole thing fell flat for me with very little positive character traits emulated by the main characters and a very strong “girl power” message sprinkled throughout as the adult characters put down females through cutting comments all of the time and of course our “heroine” proves them all wrong. I have nothing at all wrong with a strong, historical female heroine (see my review for Madeleine Takes Command), but Patience was just too 21st century.

The novel starts out with Patience who was sold as an indentured servant at her mother’s death. During her indenture, her father dies and she’s left in the care of Mrs. Worth. Patience isn’t happy with her lot in life – Mrs. Worth isn’t very kind, has a complaining, criticizing spirit and is harsh and miserly. Expecting her first child, one evening she has Patience fetch the midwife Moll Bacon. Moll comes and administers some herbs to relieve Mrs. Worth’s discomfort. The next morning Mrs. Worth (and her unborn baby) are dead in a vomit filled room and the doctor pronounces the cause of death as poison by arsenic. When Patience finds out that Mr. Richardson, Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law is going to sell her indenture for pennies, she runs away.

The “adventure” and mystery start at that point and it’s mainly centered around “who killed Mrs. Worth” and where did her strongbox of money disappear to? The midwife Moll Bacon is accused of poisoning the now dead woman and Patience gets accused of stealing the box of money. Patience gets wrapped up in trying to solve the mystery (and clear her name along with Moll’s) with her new, young friend Benjamin Franklin.

I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to read it, so I’ll stop here with the description of the plot. Instead, I’ll focus on the things I personally found irritating.

First: The modern girl plopped down into history issue…

Patience is a very “modern” feeling girl. She chafes against the strong religious views of the time in subtle ways as well as her “station” as a girl and as an indentured servant. There are many references in the book about her being vexed at how girls were looked at or thought about or treated at the time – an opinion I think doesn’t really fit in the way it was presented. I’ve read historical fiction about strong girls that felt real. Patience felt totally contrived with an agenda pushed by the author. So many stereotypes were thrown around by the males in the book. I got really tired of it really fast.

A few quotes: “Well, you’re only a girl, and girls love to weep, so-”

Wilkes flapped his hand. “A weak girl could never hope to break into so sturdy a box, my boy…twas foolish of the wench to steal only the box and not the key as well, but there you are! Girls are not very strong, and they certainly are not very bright.”

“Do you talk back to me, you saucy young hussy?”

There are other instances like the above. Since I was reading the hardback version (and not the Kindle) I didn’t take notes on each and every one, as I usually do when reviewing a book.

Second: The very subtle anti-christian “feel” to the book…

Throughout the book there is a very subtle (and won’t be obvious to children) anti-christian feel that is wrapped up in some of the character’s portrayals as well as Patience’s attitude.
The very first part of the book starts out with, “My name is Patience, but I have little of that with all those in Boston who keep telling me what a bad girl I am. When I learned my letters, the very first sentences I could read proved a harsh and scolding one: In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look.”

A little bit later you are introduced to Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law who is portrayed as a Christian but is nearly evil and certainly very unchristian-like. He is sour and stern and accuses the midwife of witchcraft. Then there is the mention of Cotton Mather who Mrs. Worth think is not “much inferior to an angel” and yet it’s clear he was instrumental in the Salem witch trials so he’s just another idiot, evil Christian (and yes, I think the Salem trials were a terrible tragedy, but just as some like to point to the Crusaders as evidence for Christianity’s stupidity, I believe the author is using Mather to do the same thing). Patience thinks to herself, “It seemed to me that if people like Mr. Richardson had their way, such cruelty would still be going on in Massachusetts.” (That’s in regard to her reading from Mather’s book “The Wonders of the Invisible World” which is about witchcraft.)

Patience mentions how she is reading The Pilgrim’s Progress but doesn’t like it (but hey, at least it has pictures). Anyone who knows about the Pilgrim’s Progress and how influential a (and truly wonderful classic) book it was in Christian households can see the little subtle “dig”. I say that only because of the context of the entire book and all the other “little instances” piled together – NOT because she doesn’t like a particular book. If it was the only instance I would chalk it up to the character’s personal preference. However, taken as a whole, I think it’s the author’s preference shining through, not Patience’s. Hopefully that makes sense.

Another potentially interesting comment that some Christians may take odds with is(interpret it as you will): “Though I do not believe in any kind of magic, I do think we have odd talents that we never or only rarely use. I have a gift of sensing time fairly accurately…” Again, this is just taken in the context of the whole book. There are too many little things like this that pile up and thus gain greater meaning. Another example of that type of thing is a clear stone the midwife leaves on Mrs. Worth’s hearth while she tells he she can “watch her through it”. The midwife then tells Patience it’s not really magic, but hey, if it makes Mrs. Worth feel better there’s no harm in the lie. What was the purpose of her pulling a stone out like that in the first place? How did it help the story? If you are a conservative Christian family, you’ll probably understand why I mention it.

There are plenty of other examples I could mention. Of course, if you are a secular family, this isn’t going to bother you and you can disregard all of the above. However, I wanted to mention it for Christian families who may be trying to decide if a book is appropriate for their family.

Besides all of the above, the characters have to resort to deceit throughout the book. Readers will justify it because of the circumstances, but I didn’t like how integrated into the story it was. At one point Patience chides Ben for lying, stating it’s a sin, and yet she herself resorts to it on numerous occasions.

At any rate, I really didn’t find much to redeem this book for our homeschool. There are plenty of other books that cover similar material with much better/stronger moral lessons interwoven or just plain, good old-fashioned adventure stories. I even liked The Witch of Blackbird Pond despite the “rebellious” and strong female character (with some hypocritical Christians abounding) because it felt so much more authentic and was more balanced and real for the time period. I felt that The Secret of the Sealed Room was too contrived (the convenient friendship with young Franklin) and had too many subtle agendas woven throughout.

However, having said that, for those of you who find the things I mentioned NOT an issue, young readers will probably enjoy the mystery aspect of the story and learn a lot of historical details that are sprinkled throughout the novel about Benjamin Franklin during his indenture to his brother, the Salem Witchcraft trials, books and papers circulating the colonial towns at that time, details about early Boston and so on. It just wasn’t a fit for MY family, at all.

*If my review was helpful, please vote “yes” for it on Amazon. 🙂

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Book Review of a Y.A. dystopian: The Ward

The Ward

The Ward (Click here to view the book on Amazon. It will be released on April 30, 2013.)

I LOVE dystopians and was totally intrigued by the cover of The Ward. It didn’t disappoint. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my heart was pounding while reading various sections and that NEVER happens. Needless to say I read it all in one sitting because I didn’t want to put it down.

The Ward is set in a futuristic Manhattan that is completely flooded. Only the tops of skyscrapers pierce through the water after a meteor collided with a glacier in the Antarctic sometime around 2048 causing high-temperature gases to be released which caused a rise in the sea level. As the Ocean levels rose, fresh ground water was contaminated and the landscape totally changed. Instead of asphalt roads, canals thread their ways through the upper stories of remaining buildings. Boardwalks and suspension bridges stretch from area to area and instead of cars, there are water vehicles.

“Upstate” NY is its own country and, after a conflict with New York City in 2054, they embargoed access to fresh water. New York City is now separated into two areas: the West Isle and The Ward. When the government closed access in and out of the Ward, everyone who was there was stuck for good, even if they lived and commuted from the West Isle. World building is released in little bits of information here and there and while you understand what’s going on in the NY area, very little if anything is said or described about the rest of the world or what happened to the United States. Still, it’s enough information to set the stage and satisfy.

The West Isle is filled with the upper class who have relatively easy lives with plenty of access to water despite the embargo while the Ward is cordoned off to contain people infected with the deadly HBNC virus and is more like a slum with little access to life-giving water. The residents of the Ward filter their rainwater but it’s always a struggle. From the book: “…and (I) look down into the murky water. To think – people used to fill toilet bowls with fresh. Pissing into a pot you can drink out of. Unbelievable.”

It’s a crime to transmit the HBNC virus and roving bands of enforcers test residents to see if they are contagious. Test positive and you’ll be arrested. Those that live in the Ward live in constant fear of either contracting the disease, if they don’t already have it, being arrested if they do or dying if they’ve been infected and can no longer transmit the virus. It’s an ugly world where the dying scrape together money for injections to relieve the pain and the healthy are just surviving.

Sixteen year old Ren lives in this world and struggles to take care of her younger sister Aven (actually a friend who grew up in the same orphanage) who is infected with the HBNC virus, but no longer contagious. A tumor bulges out from the base of her skull. She’s dying and Ren races to earn money to take care of Aven and buy the meds that give her temporary relief from the excruciating and debilitating pain she suffers. Through Aven you get to see a very tender side of Ren underneath the tough exterior. She truly loves this fragile girl who has become her only family.

Ren has a secret; she’s working for the hated enforcers to earn extra money for Aven, looking for a freshwater source during the races. What she finds under the water’s surface will be the beginning of a dangerous journey where age-old mysteries are unraveled (along with a little bit of a fantasy element). Ren finds water, but it isn’t just any water…and what it can do is the catalyst behind a world-rocking change and plenty of personal imperilment.

To say The Ward is riveting is an understatement. Besides the intriguing premise, it delivers with rich characters, plenty of twists and plenty of heart-pounding action. There were some underwater scenes where I was nearly gritting my teeth. You know the kind where a vehicle plunges into the water and water starts rushing in and someone is trapped and gulping air and….yeah…that kind. Definitely intense.

I loved it that the characters in The Ward are fully fleshed out. Ren is completely likable as well as genuinely funny. The novel is told in first person from her perspective but there is plenty of world detail along with her humorous insights. Thankfully The Ward is lacking the usual sickly-sweet love triangle Y.A. dystopian novel focus. There is a little bit of a love interest but it’s such a mild sub-plot that it doesn’t steal from the show.

The racing part of the story (Ren races some sort of water vehicle that skips across the top of the water and skids across the sides of partially submerged buildings) is NOT my usual fare, however I found myself enjoying it. It’s a technical, sci-fi type of racing that would make a terrific action scene in a movie. Ren is struggling to make it in what is apparently a male-dominated venue but her tenacity and raw skill earn her reluctant respect. As the story progresses, the racing takes a back seat to the plot twists surrounding Ren’s discovery and the revelation that everyone isn’t who they appear to be as the story unfolds. I don’t want to share anymore because part of the fun is seeing how the story unravels and twists as you read along.

Now for the Mom part of the review: I would rate The Ward PG-13. The Ward is definitely a gritty novel that doesn’t shy away from Ren’s inner dialogue or violent events. There are several instances of instances of cursing (or “near” cursing) like: hell, dam*it, effed up, brack (I guess it’s the Ward’s version of a cuss word), bada$$ery, slut, a couple mentions of giving the finger and so on. There is no s*x, although this topic exists in various venues, such as the time when Ren is naked in front of one of the guy characters at one point and there is a kiss and Ren gets distracted by a young man’s hands lifting her by her armpits (“dangerously close to other places”) and other similar instances. There is also mention of two dragster “girlfriends” (apparently homos*xual although no further details are fleshed out) and Ren talks about her breasts and backside (but not in detail, just in the context of an outfit). There is some underage drinking, although it doesn’t play a big part and Ren herself doesn’t like it but “takes a sip” to be “polite”.

I would say The Ward is more appropriate for older teens vs. the younger crowd and it definitely has an adult edge to it mixed with a strong “teen flavor”. Ren is a strong character leading an adult life despite her age. Conservative Christian families will probably not feel comfortable with some of the situations she finds herself in, even though The Ward is a bit more tame than other novels in this genre with less specific “adult” material. Ren has a crush and she’s in adult situations, but it’s straight forward and there isn’t much, if any, fluff. The focus is on the action, not on a love story or a heavy does of s*xual tension as Y.A. novels sometimes tend to lean towards.

I read other reviews of The Ward written by teens and apparently many of them were kind of “lost”  or not drawn into the story as frequently and easily as I’ve seen for other titles. The Ward is more subtle in letting you know what’s going on as far as world building goes and how it describes the past. I’ve summed it all up in the beginning of my review, but that info was gleaned from multiple areas in the book. I think the fact that the racing scenes were described but the reader is not told the “hows” behind it was probably a bit mildly disconcerting to some readers as well. The thing I read over and over was how the readers enjoyed the main character Ren and I have to agree she’s the one that anchors the book as a whole. While I would have liked more background or world building, Ren kept me from caring too much about whatever might be lacking as the action barely ever let up from start to finish.

Quick Summary:

I found The Ward to be a refreshing entry into the dystopian genre and even though it’s a Y.A. novel, as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ren is such a strong character that she manages to pull the book through any potential weak spots. The action swept me along and I’m looking forward to the next book. Even though the ending was wrapped up nicely, there were a few big elements where you are left hanging and hungry to read more. I can’t wait for book #2 and recommend The Ward to anyone who likes either dystopians, a bit of modern/futuristic worlds with a fantasy/mild sci-fi twist or just a good action story.

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Book Review: Madeleine Takes Command

Madeleine Takes Command Book Review

I just finished reading Madeleine Takes Command to Otter for history. He really enjoyed this adventurous tale set in the 17th century.

Otter’s rating: 5 stars

Madeleine Takes Command was originally written in 1946 and is based on the true story about a 14 year old girl and her two younger brothers as they defend their family fort on the St. Lawrence River against an attack by the Iroquois.

The story starts out in the fall of 1692 with Madeleine’s father away in Quebec and her mother leaving to conduct business in Montreal. Madeleine is left in charge of her family’s seigneury. A seigneury was a piece of land given in New France – Canada – belonging to the French King and managed by landlords. Tenant farmers called habitants farmed the land and paid taxes to the seigneur (landlord) assigned to each parcel. As Madeleine’s mother states when embarking on a canoe to leave, “…one cannot put much trust in strange soldiers…That’s why there must always be some member of the family left in charge.” Even though Madeleine is only 14, as the eldest child of the seigneur, she needs to remain behind to keep an eye on things. Her two younger brothers, 12 and 10 years old, stay with her. One thing that struck me about this book was the level of responsibility put on the shoulders of such young children, and yet they were fully capable and trustworthy.

Madeleine was left in charge of 10 militiamen as well as the seigneury’s habitants. When the Iroquois attack and kidnap or kill all but two of the militiamen, Madeleine is left with her two brothers, an 80 year old retired soldier who is her family’s servant and the two remaining soldiers to guard the remaining women, children and the fort itself. The two soldiers turn out to be cowards who threaten to blow up the fort rather than be taken alive by the Mohawk Indians. Madeleine now not only has to manage the fort’s defense, she also has to manage these two men who are a liability and unable to be fully trusted. Eventually she is joined by an additional man and his family who narrowly escape capture as they arrive via their canoes on the river.

Over the course of a week, the small band manages to keep the Indians at bay through a combination of sheer determination, wits and teamwork. Staying up for days on end with only short naps, the group makes it seem as if the fort is well guarded and filled with many more people than it really is. Madeleine proves to be a resourceful commander and is obeyed without question, despite her youth or the fact that she is a young woman (I say woman because she is most definitely not a child). Even her ten year old brother has an important part to play in the fort’s defense and turns out to be a better man than the two adult soldiers who are nearly useless.

Madeleine and her brothers were portrayed very realistically. They were afraid and yet brave. Certainly not perfect, you can see them struggling in various areas. Madeleine is a good leader. She isn’t some super hero. Instead, she relies on those around her and very capably assigns them duties based on their various temperaments and abilities. Her quick thinking and devotion to do the right thing is the reason for her success, not her physical strength. The others around her all show different strengths and weaknesses. There is the wife of Monsieur Fontaine who lies around crying in the blockhouse all day and solid, dependable Nanette who makes sure the fort’s defenders are well-fed with a hearty stew and yet doesn’t question or argue with Madeleine when told NOT to come out at night, even though she wants to help. She sets an example for the other women and children. There is Louis who, though he disagrees with Madeleine at times, bends to her will even when conflicted. Little Alexander, who is scared out of his wits and honestly admits it, manages to hang on through the long nights, exhausted but courageous and determined to help in any way he can. There are also the adults who obey Madeleine’s commands. Recognizing that there can only be one leader, they LET her lead. Any conflict in this area could mean the forfeit of all of their lives. They follow the chain of command, even when it would be easy to take it over themselves.

I scheduled this book in our history studies (using the Awesome History Timeline Schedule) and learned a bit about French Canada and the dangers faced by colonists during this time period. The book also briefly mentions William of Orange, King of England and the conflict between England and France which was played out in the colonies as well. The Indians are portrayed as savages, however the Christian mission Indians turn out to be the saviors of many of the fort’s captured farmers. This is not an overtly Christian book, even though it’s published by Bethlehem Books. It does mention prayer as well as Madeleine finding brief comfort in her fort’s chapel. It’s clear that Madeleine’s family are Catholic as there is mention once of thanking the “Virgin” or something along those lines. The book also portrays how things were run in New France and what steps were taken to fight the Indians in order to secure the colonist’s land. It’s clearly presented from the European side, with very little sympathy towards the Indians.

The book itself has 18 pen and ink illustrations that are old-fashioned and perfect accompaniments to the story. My favorite is on page 175 where it shows Madeleine resting her head on her arms on a table and sound asleep, when all she meant to do was get a quick bite to eat. The rest show pictures of things like the Indians, the colonists running into the fort, etc.

While the book isn’t my favorite writing style, my son found it to be engaging and looked forward my reading it out loud each night. While so many modern books have heroes with characteristics I would NOT want my son to emulate, I didn’t find that to be the case in Madeleine Takes Command. This was a great choice for our history studies with a good dose of character training to boot. Madeleine Takes Command does this double duty with a heavy splash of adventure and a generous telling of history. It’s a perfect book to read when studying the late 17th century and I highly recommend it for either homeschool studies, or just for your child’s home library.

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Little Pilgrim’s Progress

Little Pilgrim's Progress

Little Pilgrim’s Progress: From John Bunyan’s Classic

Fifty-five years ago, Helen L. Taylor took John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and simplified the vocabulary and concepts for young readers, while keeping the story line intact. The result was a classic in itself, which has now sold over 600,000 copies. It’s both a simple adventure story and a profound allegory of the Christian journey through life, a delightful read with a message kids ages 6 to 12 can understand and remember. A new look and fresh illustrations for today’s children enlivens the journey to the Celestial City.

While recently studying John Bunyan, a Christian preacher from the 17th century and the famous author of The Pilgrim’s Progress – a widely read book in Christian households for several centuries, we decided to take a small break from the historical fiction novels that accompany our history studies and turn to a literature selection for a week or so. John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in two parts in 1678 and 1684. In it, while telling a tale of a heroic, medieval style quest & pilgrimage, he communicates to his readers the struggles, temptations, challenges and ultimately the redemption of the Christian choosing to follow the straight and narrow path through life.

Instead of reading the actual Pilgrim’s Progress, which would probably be a bit dry for Otter’s taste, I decided to read Little Pilgrim’s Progress instead. It was a HUGE hit (thanks Mom for giving us our first copy!). Even though Otter is older than the suggested age range, he (and I!!) had a wonderful time picking apart and discussing all of the Christian allegory, while enjoying a good, old-fashioned tale of adventure.

Little Pilgrim’s Progress perfectly adapts The Pilgrim’s Progress for a younger audience but stays fairly true to the original story. It covers two main stories: the journey of Christian, a boy from the City of Destruction and his journey to the Celestial City and then, later, the story of Christiana, a young girl who, afterwards, follows the same road at a more leisurely pace on the path forged by Christian.

This is NOT a watered down story that side-steps ugliness. There is plenty of fighting (complete with swords and armor), nasty creatures set on killing unsuspecting travelers, temptations, traps, cruelty and even death. Though the book doesn’t shy from these types of situations, I still think it appropriate for all ages, except the VERY young (4 or 5) who might be upset or scared by some of the circumstances the young travelers find themselves in.

Christian meets Worldly in the Little Pilgrim's Progress

Christian meets Worldly in the Little Pilgrim’s Progress

As Christian and his counterparts travel the path to the Celestial Kingdom, various virtues and vices are highlighted in different characters and settings. The children encounter a variety of places that correspond to different stops along the real road of life such as the Slough of Despond (depression), The Valley of Humiliation, The Hill of Difficulty, and others such as the City of Vanity Fair.

Vanity Fair is described as follows in the book,

“The Wicked Prince…had built this city, which was called Vanity Fair, just beyond the Dark Valley and the wilderness, because he knew that when the pilgrims reached its gates they would be feeling tired and faint, and he hoped that it would then be easy to persuade them to stay there, instead of going farther on the Way of the King.

 

So he filled the great city with everything that was pleasant and beautiful… and the Wicked Prince took care to give them plenty of things to enjoy so that they might never have a moment to spare in which to think of the King whom they had forsaken.”

 

Wow. That could have been written about TODAY!

Even though this book is a bit old-fashioned and based on a 17th century classic, the messages and lessons sprinkled liberally in The Little Pilgrim’s Progress are timeless and applicable to every Christian’s life. I highly recommend it. Even if you are a secular family, picking apart the allegory wrapped up in this enjoyable story is a worthwhile enterprise.

Also, there is an “Adventure Guide” available that will help you discover the Biblical themes and literature concepts while reading the story. I wish I would have known about this when we read it:

“The Guide breaks the novel down into two parts – Christian’s journey and Christiana’s journey.  Each journey is separated into four reading sections.  These reading sections include vocabulary, questions, allegorical interpretations, literature elements, Bible application, character charts and character matching.  A Parent/Teacher Helps section is also included which offers detailed suggestions regarding story charts. In addition, a mapping bulletin board that can also be used as a game is included.  Finally, this section includes several art and literature extensions.” quote from Amazon

In this 60th anniversary edition of Little Pilgrim’s Progress, each chapter has been enhanced with attractive chapter headings. Older illustrations are featured throughout the story that feel old-fashioned and are pen and ink drawings. The cover is beautiful and shows Christian fighting Giant Despair. This is a book to read to your children and save for your grandchildren! I wish I had read Little Pilgrim’s Progress to my older children. I’m just really glad I pulled it off the shelf to read to Otter.  It’s no wonder the original story has been treasured for hundreds of years and we will both remember it for the rest of our lives.

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Book Review: Madman’s Daughter

The Madman's Daughter

The Madman’s Daughter is a Y.A. (young adult) novel inspired by H. G. Well’s classic The Island of Dr. Moreau. I’m not usually a fan of Gothic fiction. The last I read a Gothic novel was twenty years ago when I was in college and forced to read assigned  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I remember cringing when we were assigned that title, but was pleasantly surprised. The classic story of an unorthodox scientific experiment and the sad, rejected monster created by it turned out to be an interesting narrative that held my attention and stayed with me for a long time. It was certainly better than my first taste of this genre which I didn’t like one bit. That disaster of a book was Wuthering Heights and I wish I had never picked it up. I hated it. Fortunately, I ‘m adding The Madman’s Daughter to my short list of Gothic successes. After wading through the very first part set in London (I almost stopped reading the book), it totally captured my interest and held it until the surprising cliffhanger ending.

The Madman’s Daughter is the quintessential Gothic story full of dark, lush landscapes with a good dose of  preternatural events and mystery. For those of you unfamiliar with the elements of a Gothic story, they are as follows:

  • An atmosphere of fear and suspense / mystery
  • High, overwrought emotion
  • Supernatural or inexplicable events
  • A woman in distress (a lonely, wistful, oppressed heroine)
  • An ominous building and/or wild landscape
  • Element of romance, often with rivals or multiple suitors
  • The dark side of human nature is explored
  • Protagonists are often isolated or alone or in circumstances outside of his/her control
  • A heightened sense of drama

Megan Shepherd takes these elements and wraps them into an attention keeping story about sixteen-year-old Juliet, daughter of Dr. Henry Moreau.

Juliet is struggling to survive in London after a scandal brought about by rumors of her father’s experiments. When she runs into a former servant named Montgomery (now a young gentleman) she finds out her father is alive and living on a tropical island. Juliet insists on accompanying Montgomery back to the island and while traveling on the ship to be reunited with her father, she meets Edward – a mysterious young man who is the only survivor of a shipwreck. Edward is harboring secrets of his past and Juliet slowly finds herself drawn to him, despite the childhood affection for Montgomery that has begun to blossom into something more.

On the island Juliet discovers just how depraved and yet brilliant her father really is. The natives of the island aren’t really natives at all, but rather humans her father has created from creatures. While the creatures are gentle and child-like, there is something out in the jungle that’s not. As the body count starts rising, Juliet realizes that she needs to get off the island before it’s too late.

Throughout the story she is torn between horror of her father’s actions and experiments and pride at his brilliance. There is a huge conflict in her heart over the loving father she remembers as a child and the one she discovers as a young adult. Mimicking this conflict there is the tension she feels as she vacillates between her affection with Montgomery and her growing, inexplicable bond with Edward. As she discovers more about the two young men, her choice becomes clouded from secrets both of them harbor. No one is who they seem to be, not even Juliet herself.

I’ll stop here with the plot so I don’t ruin the twists and surprises, because there are several and a couple of them completely astonished me! I’m usually good at figuring out these types of things, but the revelations in The Madman’s Daughter were unexpected.

Reading my review, I probably wouldn’t be tempted to pick up the Madman’s Daughter, but despite the creepiness, it really was a worthwhile book that examines the thought of what it really means to be human (not unlike Shelley’s Frankenstein) and the battle between darkness and light that occurs in all of us. I enjoyed the lush setting and the Victorian era accouterments, the mystery, suspense and the plot twists. The Madman’s Daughter is a fresh and different entry into a super-saturated Y.A. market that will likely be enjoyed by teens and adults alike.

Now for the MOM part of my review. Please note that there may be minor spoilers in the material below.

This is a dark book with adult themes. It has quite a few more than the norm of things I would consider possibly objectionable:

  • There is a near rape scene in the beginning that is perpetrated by a lecherous older man at Juliet’s employment. Juliet retaliates by hacking at his hand with a mortar scraper: “And my God, as wicked and wrong as it was, I liked it.”
  • There are approximately 21 incidences of some sort of s*xual tension or mention of that type of thing. Examples:
    •  “He took my wrist lightly. He kissed the soft, sensitive flesh, and then ran his finger up my arm. This is what people talk about, I thought, when they say they could die of pleasure.” (That is the most explicit scene in the book. It’s pretty tame and a little sophomoric but may be a bit much for younger teens.)
    • “I had a vague memory, more like a dream, of him wrapping his arms around me, breathing in the scent of my hair, muttering against my cheek. I could have stopped him. But I feigned sleep instead, and held him closer.” (This is when Juliet and one of the young men find themselves sleeping in a cave after a chase through the jungle by an unseen foe.)
    • It’s implied that Juliet’s mother, before she died, was someone’s mistress in exchange for money.
    • Juliet sees one of the young men bathe in the nude.
  • There is violence and cruelty to animals. A vivisection (live dissection) of a rabbit is described and there is screaming when other animal-humans are being created or experimented on.
  • There is drinking mentioned a couple times – in the beginning of the book a friend is tucked on a sofa between two young men with a half empty rum bottle dangling from her fingers. Juliet drinks Brandy but is reprimanded for it by her father who says its not for a lady. She replies, “Good. Then it’s perfect for me.”
  • There is some cursing such as d*mn, hell, g*dd*amn, bastard
  • Juliet’s father says that Christianity is a bunch of fairy tales

Because of the above, I don’t consider this acceptable reading for my 14 year old. In fact, The Madman’s Daughter almost felt more like a book for adults than the Y.A. market except for the “teen” triangle element. I think it will be a successful book but it will definitely take a lot of people out of their comfort zone. The WOW twists will bring readers back for the next in the trilogy.

The second book is going to be based on the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I have my own guesses as to which characters might return for the next installment and look forward reading more about the strong and lovely Juliet.

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Book Review: Amelia Bedelia Means Business

Amelia Bedelia Chapter Book #1: Amelia Bedelia Means Business Amelia Bedelia Chapter Book #1: Amelia Bedelia Means Business

Finally, a beginning chapter book for kids that is both fun AND wholesome! My kids loved the Amelia Bedelia series of books when they were beginning readers. Now there is an all new series featuring Amelia as a child. There are all the same mix-ups and misunderstandings the grown-up Amelia always has in her adventures, but now they are wrapped up in a sweet pint-sized package.

This first chapter book starts out with Amelia wanting to earn a bike and looking for jobs to make some money. She gets herself into all sorts of silly situations because she takes things so literally (just like the original series). Here are just a few examples:

  • When Amelia describes the bike of her dreams to her parents, they mention how it must cost an “arm and a leg”. There is an illustration in the book at this point showing an arm and leg with price tags hanging from them. Amelia exclaims that she would never pay that much (thinking they really meant a literal arm and leg)!
  • Pete from the diner asks Amelia if she can “cut the mustard”. She responds that she never tried that but she can sure squirt the ketchup.
  • A customer at the diner tells Amelia to bring him a piece of cherry pie and to “step on it!” because he’s in a hurry. Amelia did just as he asked and literally planted her foot right in the middle of it.
  • A woman at the park tells Amelia that her boss just gave her a pink slip (fired her). Amelia thinks she means a literal slip, like one you would put under a dress.

There are lots of silly mishaps and times when Amelia misconstrues the meaning of all sorts of things said and situations that add gentle humor to the story. These instances are also a great opportunity for young readers to learn how different sayings can have several meanings. The story usually makes it quite clear what the intended meaning is and also how Amelia understands it so readers don’t get lost themselves.  If you have an autistic or literal child, this is a perfect book to use as a learning tool to spark discussions about literal vs. figurative meanings. Regular kids can also benefit from the subtle lessons about language as well as the subtle undercurrent of morality and goodness.

One thing that I found extremely refreshing about Amelia Bedelia Means Business is that when Amelia inadvertently causes trouble, she always takes full responsibility for it with a sweet attitude, seeking forgiveness and making restitution. She has a wonderful relationship with her parents (no “dumb” or overbearing parents here, as in many children’s books) and there isn’t a single mean moment in the entire book. All of the humor is wholesome (no potty humor here!) and any potential misunderstandings are resolved with kindness.

A few additional thoughts about the book:

This isn’t a religious book, but Amelia and her parents say grace before a meal. That’s the only mention of any Christian type element. I think the book will appeal equally to secular or religious parents & kids. In the story, Amelia always tries to do the “right” thing. The book is set in modern times (with mentions of T.V., etc.) and there is, of course, a happy ending that should feel quite satisfying to young readers.

I think Amelia Bedelia Means Business will appeal to girls more than boys because of the main character (Amelia) as well as the light and cutesy illustrations (some complete with little hearts, etc.). However, some boys may enjoy the story because of the quest for a bike and the silly humor.

As for ease of reading, I think most good readers in the 1st or 2nd grade should be able to read this book. It does have a few “big” words like whispered, ingredients, embarrassed, etc. but shouldn’t be beyond kids just out of primer style books.

I think this is a great addition to children’s beginning chapter books and highly recommend it, if you want a DECENT, sweet book for your child or student(s).

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Book Review Blitz: Taken – A dystopian for teens

Taken book review

Taken will be released on April 16, 2013. I received an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion!

Taken is one of those books that grabs you from the beginning and never lets you go. Even at the end I was sitting there wanting the next book in the series NOW. I’m adult reader of Y.A. dystopian & sci-fi fiction and I can confidentially say that Taken is one of those books that successfully crosses the age barrier. It has a terrific premise, fleshes it out with great characters & situations along with twist and turns that leave you wanting to find out more.

I’m going to be careful about what I say in my review because part of the fun of Taken is NOT knowing what is going on and having it unravel for you thread by thread right along with the main characters. There is a feeling you get while reading the book – the same feeling the characters are experiencing…something isn’t quite right sprinkled liberally over a sense of unease. Just as a layer of one mystery is revealed, you still are left suspicious and wondering until yet ANOTHER layer is uncovered as it turns out that everything you thought you knew had another dimension to it – as lies are slowly peeled away and the truth begins to shine through.

Taken is told from a first person POV by Gray, a 17 year old in the village of Claysoot. His older brother Blaine is 18 and today is the last day Gray will spend with him because…there are no men in Claysoot. Every boy becomes a man at the age of 15 and then, at 18, they are all gone. Taken. They call it the Heist.  No one knows why it happens,  just that it always has.

There are other mysteries to the town. How it began, and why there is a wall that surrounds the countryside.

“When the Wall was discovered, Bo volunteered to go over first and scout things out, but he was unable to see what lay on the other side. The view from a large oak tree in the northern portion of the woods yielded nothing but pitch blackness beyond the Wall, and he deemed it unsafe. He tried to talk others out of climbing, but a few tried. Their bodies came back a charcoaled mess, burned and lifeless…”

After Blaine is taken by the Heist, Gray is left…alone as his mother died years ago. He discovers a note to his brother hidden behind a picture frame:

“And so I share this with you now, my son: You and your brother are not as I’ve raised you to believe, Gray is, in fact…”

…and then there is nothing more. The missing part of the note propels Gray to start searching for answers and what he finds just raises more questions. He discovers he’s not who he thought he was and that just might be the key to finding out about his town, his people’s origins and the Heist.

It’s no surprise that Gray makes it over the wall (as the book blurb states) but what he finds there is unlike anything he could have imagined. As answers to his world start pouring in, things get even more complicated and just when it looks like he finally understands what’s going on, there is yet another layer of truth to unravel.

I’m going to refrain from saying any more about the plot details, because as I stated before,  part of the fun of this book is discovering that what you thought you knew isn’t necessarily correct. Everything is revealed to you as it’s revealed to Gray. There are no obvious answers, just hints to keep you guessing.

I really enjoyed the world building in Taken. It was like a cross between Running Out of Time by Margaret Haddix (which is similar to the movie The Village) and Revolution 19 -only done RIGHT (because the characters move from a rustic world to an advanced one).  The book blurb compares it to The Maze Runner, but I have to disagree. Maze Runner felt a lot less sophisticated than this book and seemed like it was intended for younger teens. Taken is a much more mature novel.  Don’t think that Taken copies other dystopians because of the comparison to other books. I found it fresh and original in many ways.  It’s not just a dystopian though. There are also a few sci-fi elements, but these are understated and there’s nothing like aliens or anything like that.

As far as the world building goes, Erin Bowman paid attention to little details that made Gray’s observations very realistic. She takes a young man transported  from a rustic village to an entirely different type of world and makes it believable. Some of the history of the current world’s situation is glossed over, but you have enough information to securely know what’s going on (at least by the time you hit about 70% in the book).

I also think Bowman did well with the relationship building between the characters.  Nothing seemed forced or unrealistic. There is a love interest but it’s not the focus of the book and doesn’t drown the plot in teenage angst. I won’t write any details about it because there is a bit of a twist and surprise in this realm that I don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say that it contains a “triangle”, as most books seem to do, nowadays.

At the end of Taken (which I read in one sitting except for a necessary trip to the grocery store), I was sitting there thinking NOOOO… because I wanted more! It’s clear there is going to be a 2nd book and I can’t wait to read it! Taken is Erin Bowman’s first novel and I suspect she’s going to get a brand new legion of fans with this first foray into novel writing. I know I’m one!

Now, for the MOM part of my review. 😉

Because of some of the more mature themes that are implied at in the book, I wouldn’t recommend it to younger kids. Of course each family/individual will want to make the decision about whether it’s appropriate or not based on their family’s values and beliefs. Here are some possibly objectionable items:

The boys of Claysoot are slated to sleep with different girls with the intention of getting them pregnant (how else can the little town repopulate itself since men don’t exist?). There are several times where it’s made clear that teens are sleeping with other teens (or supposed to) but nothing is explicit. In the context of the world, the teens aren’t doing anything rebellious or bad.

There are a few moments where attention is drawn to a young woman’s curves or clinging undershirt and that type of thing (slight s*xual tension for the main character). You have descriptions like “lips taste like rain” and “Her limbs are long and lean, her curves itching to be touched.” The last quoted sentences is about the extent of it and there are about 11 instances of that type of thing in a book of approximately 247 pages. There is an incident where it’s mentioned that Gray and someone are stopping things from getting too “heated” because they don’t want to end up making a baby.

The characters drink alcohol and get drunk, act inappropriately (it’s clear that if he would have given in, a girl would have kissed Gray or perhaps more because she was intoxicated) and several have hangovers.

The characters play a drinking game called Little Lies where they have to pick out truth from lies and if they get it wrong they have to take a drink.

There is a minor amount of swearing, mainly the word d*mn , one incident of bullsh*t and the expletive “scr*w you”.

Summary: Taken is an engaging, interesting story with lots of twists and turns and a refreshing male POV. I think it will be well received by  Y.A.  readers and new fans will be clamoring for the sequel! It does, however, have some items of concern for younger teens and conservative families. Although I enjoyed the book, I’m not ready to hand it over to my 14 year old.  For me as an adult, it was quite tame compared to what you find in most contemporary novels, but it’s still a bit much, in my opinion, for a young teen.

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