Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Prophet of Yonwood, Jeanne DuPrau

The 3rd Book of Ember.

To be honest, I was not as crazy about this book as I was about the other two. Props to the author for making her narrators, Nickie and Grover quite different in feel to Lina and Doon, although the characters do have some paralells (Nickie and Lina both are VERY curious people and quite concerned with being able to know right from wrong).

As I said in my last post, I wasn't quite sure where the author was going with the topic of religion and God. After the fact, I think she did all right not overtly criticizing any specific belief set. But I'm wondering if the author herself has a personal belief in a God or not.

In Yonwood, North Carolina, Nickie spends a few weeks with her aunt Crystal at her great-grandfather's estate whom Crystal and Nickie's mother, Rachel, inherited. The idea is to fix up the estate and sell it, splitting the profit for inheritance. One thing I absolutely LOVED about this book is the feeling that Nickie gets in her need to know who her Great-Grandfather was and who the people who used to live with were and her intense curiosity to know their stories. She finds a notebook that belonged to her Great-grandfather with notes in it in his final lucid days before his passing.

I couldn't quite tell what year it was supposed to be. There was an insane amount of technology, everyone had a DATT phone device, Do A Thousand Things, which is reminiscent of a smart phone, yet the President of the United States repeatedly tells the people to "Pray to God for our cause" to paraphrase it. Certainly that doesn't jive with the leadership since such technology, with separation of Church and State and all. Nickie wonders a LOT about God, because what if your enemies were also praying to God? Were there many God's? Was there a "right" God? How would you know? There was an instance where the Phalanx Nations (the enemy to the US) held hostages and wouldn't let them go unless they converted to the "true faith" whatever that may be (it made me think of early Christian Crusades or present day demands of Islamic Extremists). The "Prophet" is a woman-Althea Towers-who out of the blue had a vision of mass destruction where everything on Earth was obliterated with fire and war. One lady, Mrs. Beeson decided the vision was from God, and because Althea was so incredibly shocked by her vision she was altogether mentally unwell. Mrs. Beeson has become "interpreter" for what Althea says and calls her a Prophet and tells the town that they have been blessed to have a Prophet in her midst and if they do what she says, and love God, they will be all right. Now, I'm a religious person and in the Bible it does teach that if you serve God you have no need to fear. But in this book, the people interpreted that to mean that there MIGHT be a war, but THEY wouldn't be affected by it. In MY religion's interpretation it means that regardless of what DOES happen to you on Earth (and it could be bad) if you live a good life, you don't need to fear death.

The other thing was that so many people, while worried about conflict, were very self absorbed, as if they were too tired, too busy, or too distracted to think of war as something that might actually happen to THEM. I wonder if that was meant to signify how self-absorbed we've become? I mean, there was a volcanic eruption somewhere and we have pictures of it because people who saw it happen were taking pictures and tweeting them instead of getting the H-E-double hockey sticks away from a dangerous situation!

Towards the end I was getting very confused and impatient to get to HOW this story connected to the City of Ember. I had some notions, but they were not addressed until the final chapter. So don't expect answers to come in bits and pieces-it all comes out in the end.

Nickie grapples with right and wrong. Is a certain thing wrong in and of itself, or only wrong up to a certain age? If you don't feel good about something, does that mean that it's wrong? Does that make a person a sinner? How do you tell good from bad? These are definitely good conversation points to have with a middle reader.

One thing I didn't like was the suggestion that people's faith is blind. Of course, for some people it is, and that kind of faith can be dangerous. As it states a couple times, when you believe in something so much, you are willing to do anything, ANYTHING, for that belief. We have seen that in many different ways. But it felt like the book was suggesting that ALL faith was like that. When things go back to "normal" in one area, they "go back to following regular laws made by people rather than commands that might or might not come from God." Another thing was a bit unsure about was that as part of the plot, Mrs. Beeson has asked people to "give up" certain things (giving things up in the name of a greater cause makes you feel strong-and while it had the slight feeling of mockery in the story, I don't feel it's bad to give up a vice for something better. I mean, there's Ramadan and Lent and other things that aren't fanatical in religions that required a sacrifice of some sort and it can make a person better, not just a lemming) and one character gives up romance books. Nickie (who has 3 goals at age 11, one of which is to fall in love) gets curious (as she does about EVERYTHING) picks up one of those books and there are a couple excerpts out of them. Nothing is explicit in the "excerpts" but I worry slightly that since those parts "weren't that bad"  or give it that appeal that it was something someone had to "give up" in order to be good, that some young reader will unsuspectingly pick up an actual romance novel and be exposed to things a young reader REALLY shouldn't be exposed to.

In this story, war is averted, but really it's just postponed. The root of the conflict was that people could not co-exist along side each other and live different belief systems. Each side insisted that their faith was the ONLY right one and that it had to be enforced by force. It seems to me, that if there's a lesson to be learned from this book, it could be found in the 11th Article of Faith from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: "We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscious and allow all men the same privilege. Let them worship how, where or what they may." We feel strongly that we need to tell everyone about our beliefs and our faith, in order that everyone has the chance to make a educated decision on whether to accept or reject it, but we do NOT believe in force. In fact, at the very root of our religion is the ability to have Agency to choose for ourselves. But we DO have religious extremists who are bent on exterminating anyone who believes differently from them and refuses to convert. And one cause of destruction is not just war, but that as a result of this behavior and mind set, diseases that had never before been seen or diseases that used to be isolated are now cropping up and spreading globally. This book was published in 2006.

The people of Yonwood were obsessed with being good, creating a "shield of good" to protect them. It is not enough to just be good. You have to look for real solutions to conflict as well. The more we can teach our kids about conflict resolution, the better. The more we can teach that people can live peaceable lives side by side while believing different things, the better. And teach that people who are "different" can still be "good" people. And teach that there are so, SO many things on this Earth to spend your time and effort on that could benefit ALL of mankind, we don't need to be caught up in petty differences or things of little consequence. Some things matter and some things don't. Learn how to tell the difference!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The People of Sparks, Jeanne DuPrau

I absolutely LOVED this Second book of Ember. Doon and Lina's adventure continues above ground when they come upon the City of Sparks. Of course, the people of Sparks feel obligated to help, even though the people of Ember more than double their population and they are some of the few survivors of the Disaster (which had both a war aspect and natural disaster aspect, reminiscent for me of The Testing and it's '7 stages of war, 4 wars and 3 huge Earth calamities, I think that was the book with that).

It's interesting how almost immediately, the two groups begin to compare ways of life....much technology has been lost and there is no electricity in Sparks, but they had electricity in Ember, different foods are available above than below, there are animals and weather conditions (Ember's climate was always the same) and much plant life that Emberites never knew. It's also interesting to note how quickly one person's unhappiness and wanting to blame someone else (scapegoat), and another's quest for power/control can escalate into an all out war. Misunderstandings get outrageous and no one seems to be willing to listen to another. Of course, innocent children are able to help.

There is one really quiet, wise adult figure who is not from either group. She explains to Lina about conflict and war. It's very matter of fact and not in a condemning sort of way, but in a "this is human nature" way, I felt.

There is also an emotionally charged scene in which Lina wants to make the right choice, but no one else is making the right choice and she is afraid to do it on her own, but as soon as she does, pretty much the entire community follows suit. Often it only takes one person to be courageous enough to do the right thing. We can't always wait for someone else to do it. Even children can be examples for adults. Sometimes as adults we are even more hindered in our minds than we would be as children.

Can't say enough good about this book!!!

**I have to say that I am partially into Book 3 which is actually a prequel, and I am honestly not quite sure what to think of it, as I am not sure of the author's intent on the way she is treating religion in Book 3. I will withhold final judgement on it until I finish and hopefully see what her point is, but just know that if you are religious, you may feel put out with her treatment of her characters and how they view faith, religion, God and love of God and what it will "do" for you.

Friday, October 10, 2014

City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau

This book I picked up because my 4th grader's teacher is reading it aloud to the class. As my daughter was describing this book, it seemed like some sort of futuristic dystopian or alternate universe type of society. Naturally, I was curious, and naturally, I was slightly concerned having read an abundance in this genre and worried about the content and it's appropriateness for her age group. Her current teacher is an exchange teacher from Australia, but the regular classroom teacher (who will return after the Christmas break) had copies of The Hunger Games in his room, which I do NOT feel are appropriate for 4th graders! That was the whole reason I was a bit cautious.

But I was pleasantly surprised! The main characters are 12, getting their job assignments as they join the adults in the workforce of society. (Seriously, WHAT is with the age of 12 that is SO significant that MANY dystopian societies have some sort of ritual at the age of 12. If it's not 12 it's 16). The jobs are chosen by pulling out a strip of paper out of a bag. So the technology isn't very great. It's also very dark where they live. There is no natural source of light. Their civilization has been in existence for over 200 years but somehow the storehouses are running low. They were supposed to never run out. The Builders built their city. At the very beginning you learn that the builders also included a box with a timed lock that was to open on its own when the time was right. It was to be passed down from mayor to mayor. However, an epidemic sweeps through the population, a coughing sickness, and one mayor, desperate for relief from the sickness thinks the box might contain the answers, but try as he might, he couldn't get it open. Then instead of passing it down to the next mayor, it gets put in a closet and open on its own when the time came.

Lina is the protagonist along with her friend Doon. They each draw a job the other wants, so they trade (I kept waiting for them to get in trouble for trading, but it never happens; I guess they don't care WHO is doing each job just so long as the jobs get done). They together find things that no one else is looking for, and are concerned with finding solutions for the increasing black outs their city experiences. They are becoming more frequent and more lengthy.

Another topic this book approaches is when adults make wrong decisions. Lina and Doon are trusting of adults, and when they have vital information, their first thought is to take it to the adults in charge. They assume that the adults will do the right thing. But of course, this current mayor is corrupt (that isn't a giveaway, you get that idea from the first chapter), but the idea that it never occurred to the children I think is identifiable in most kids who would be reading this book. There ARE times when adults don't make the right decisions. And it's important not for kids to be wary of the adults in their lives, but to learn how to read a person's character and listen to their inner voice that will warn them of shady people who would do them harm. I think this is a topic that could be discussed in broader terms to relate to life experiences that might occur in our world today.

I can't say much more without giving away too much, but it was very clever, very age appropriate, good paced, entertaining and though provoking. It is part of a series of books, referred to as The Books of Ember. There are 4 books, and a review says The conclusion is everything a series closer should be, satisfying but provocative. —Horn Book Magazine 

The first book has been made into a movie as well. My daughter read the Graphic Novel, but I'm going to make her wait till her class finishes the book before checking the movie out from the library. Purist that I am :-)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Michael Vey Battle of the Ampere, Richard Paul Evans

Book 3 in the series. Did NOT disappoint! New twists, new people, first death in the Electroclan.....many victories.

Same fast pace you're used to from the first two books. I'm starting to wish for a few slower parts to allow for more character development because I feel like they are always so busy with the next plan or the next step or defending themselves again that they aren't truly sure of who they are and what they're made of. You get really, REALLY awesome glimpses, but nothing concrete. However, they ARE just teenagers, and what teenager knows what they're made of, right?

Even though predicaments come up often, it doesn't seem abrupt, the flow is very good, and it wasn't melodramatic either (as in, I didn't think "seriously, not AGAIN", but maybe that's because you EXPECT things to keep happening to them).

I still get VERY uncomfortable with the level of evil Dr. Hatch is capable of-with not even a smidgen of a hint of remorse for his actions. He is truly a sociopath of the WORST kind....maybe like Hitler? Or whoever was the leader in Japan at the time of WWII?

Now to wait for the library to get me #4......

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Michael Vey, the Prisoner of Cell 25 and Michael Vey Rise of the Elgan, Richard Paul Evans

I read both of these SO fast that I'm just going to review them together.

Wow. SO INCREDIBLY fast paced. It's a real page turner. It's nice, because some of the chapters are pretty short, so you can read it in whatever bits and pieces you can steal throughout the day (which is how I sometimes have to read being a mom and all).

After the first one, I was tempted to have my 9 year old read them....but after the 2nd, I have decided to wait. You see, the evil guy, Dr. Hatch, is REALLY evil. Remember Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini who was a Japanese POW and all the horrible, degrading, sadistic things that happened to him? Yeah. What Dr. Hatch does gives me flashbacks of THAT. He is a mastermind at brainwashing and a mastermind of torture, both psychological and physical. He is the epitome of a mad scientist.

Of course, Michael Vey and his friends always come out on top against all odds-totally reminding me of Percy Jackson. But hopefully the eventual ban of evil in the name of good will come about at the end...I have no idea how many books this series will have. I know there's 4, but I don't know it well enough to know if #4 is the final one. I also just started book 3 and have 4 "In transit" from my hold request at the library :-)

Anyhow, Michael has electric powers. He's always thought he's the only one, but turns out, he's not. And when he meets and joins up with some of them who are likeminded and not brainwashed by Hatch along with a couple of unexpected bullies-turned best allies-and his super smart best friend Ostin (ironically named after the city in TX, Austen) who seems to know EVERYTHING-except how to be socially normal around girls :-) All of the best qualities of everyone together creates kind of a club, the Electroclan, and when the bad guys kidnap Michael's mom-that's when the Electroclan starts to show its power.

I'm a big fan of these books now, although like I said, the level of dark evil that Dr. Hatch is, is pretty gruesome, and made me a little squeamish at times. I think at times I had less trouble stomaching The Hunger Games. I'm really, really looking forward to the eventual downfall of Dr. Hatch and I hope it's big! These books also open up a big potential discussion about brainwashing and what it is and how it happens. It might help kids be aware of what people do to try to manipulate them to do certain things, not to extent of what Dr. Hatch does, but there are similarities. For instance, Dr. Hatch gives the electric kids on his side anything they want, but in return asks them to do things for him "displays of loyalty" he calls them. This book also explores the complex that permeated Japanese culture for a LONG time, and also in Nazi Germany, that there are races of people who are superior to others. Dr. Hatch convinces the electric kids (or Glows) that they are eagles among chickens, that they are worth infinitely more than regular people. When Taylor (a girl Michael knew from high school) was asked to give a display of loyalty that could have had a negative impact on a person, she refused. Another Glow couldn't understand her hesitation saying "They're only people, Taylor!" Which could lead to a great conversation of how so many people could have been convinced that killing 6 million Jews was somehow OK. Obviously, not EVERYONE was brainwashed, but some were probably simply too afraid of what would happen to THEM if they showed loyalties anywhere else. It could also be the start of a discussion of how the Japanese tried various times to overrule the Koreans because of their belief of superiority (which also fueled their interest in WWII). So as you can see, it's not just a sci-fi action adventure novel, but also a starting point for very serious, non-fiction discussions.