Genre: Death & Dying

Middle Grade Review: The Question of Miracles (2015) by Elana K. Arnold

Middle Grade Review: The Question of Miracles (2015) by Elana K. ArnoldThe Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 3rd 2015
Genres: Death & Dying, Family, Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Religious, Social Issues
Pages: 208
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Sixth-grader Iris Abernathy hates life in Corvallis, Oregon, where her family just moved. It’s always raining, and everything is so wet. Besides, nothing has felt right since Iris’s best friend, Sarah, died. When Iris meets Boris, an awkward mouth-breather with a know-it-all personality, she’s not looking to make a new friend, but it beats eating lunch alone. Then she learns that Boris’s very existence is a medical mystery, maybe even a miracle, and Iris starts to wonder why some people get miracles and others don’t. And if one miracle is possible, can another one be too? Can she possibly communicate with Sarah again?

“Bad things happen, Iris thought. People die. Eggs sometimes do not hatch. But miracles…they happen too.”

What I Loved:

Iris asks the Hard Questions: I think Iris is such a wonderful character. Even though she doesn’t understand something—why miracles happen for some people and not for others, she keeps asking and  wondering. She is determined and if there is a glimmer of hope for a miracle for herself (seeing her best friend again), she’s going to pursue that.

“…maybe there was another part to her—a soul—and maybe that part was still out there.”

“But what I want to know is, if there is a God…if divine intervention is possible…then why would miracles only happen sometimes? Wouldn’t it make more sense, if God could make good things happen, that miracles would happen all the time?”

The Treatment of Grief in the Narrative: Even though this is a Middle Grade story, with a sixth grade protagonist, the author doesn’t shy away from tough topics. I think the way grief was treated in the book was sensitive and honest. The fact is that Iris’s best friend was killed the previous school year, and though the family has moved from California to Oregon and Iris is seeing a counselor, that kind of traumatic event is certain to have effects on Iris. This is a slim book, but I felt that there was a satisfying resolution to Iris’s working through getting over the death of her friend (and saying goodbye). The metaphor of gardening represents another important aspect of the story and played into the overarching themes of the story. When Iris joins her father to help with his garden, it represents more than just an activity to get Iris thinking about something else.

The Spiritual Aspects of the Story: Whether it is Iris wondering if a miracle is possible to bring back her best friend, Sarah, or her realization that Sarah’s ghost may in fact be living in her house, Arnold’s narrative features several pretty explicit spiritual aspects. At one point, Iris leaves a gift for Sarah—Sarah’s favorite book, Anne of Green Gables. Iris’s mother realizes Iris has left the book for Sarah, and the resulting conversation isn’t patronizing or discouraging. I thought the presence of these aspects in the story added a rich dimension to a sensitive topic, and I was glad the author didn’t shy away from some of the more difficult questions her protagonist asks.

This leads directly into the next category….

Illuminations of Spirituality:

Because of Iris’s journey throughout the book, the story also positions the reader to ask these (spiritual) questions:

What happens to our family and friends when they die?

Is there any way to contact them after death?

Why do miracles happen for some people and not for others?

All of these are pretty serious questions, but the book is an excellent jumping off point for talking about some of these questions with the middle grade crowd (or older readers too).

Who Should Read This Book:

Fans of The Secret Hum of a Daisy and Counting by Sevens would see similar themes in this book, though it’s certainly unique on its own, and I loved these characters, including Iris’s parents. In some Middle Grade books, the parents aren’t major players, but I appreciated the roles Iris’s mother and father played in the story.

I loved this book and have already purchased it for my collection. A true gem of a debut for 2015!

The Final Illumination:

This debut is strong, refreshing, and unique. I loved The Question of Miracles, perhaps more so because of its unflinching spiritual dimensions, which I felt were treated sensitively and with grace. Though there are many Middle Grade stories (at least that I’ve been reading lately) treating the death of loved ones in the lives of young people, that doesn’t mean each doesn’t have a unique contribution to make about questions that young people deserve to voice.

**I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

four-half-stars
What Katie Read

ARC Review: The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver

ARC Review: The Secrets We Keep by Trisha LeaverThe Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver
Published by Macmillan on April 28th 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Death & Dying, Family, Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, Siblings, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 304
Goodreads
four-stars

Ella and Maddy Lawton are identical twins. Ella has spent her high school years living in popular Maddy's shadows, but she has never been envious of Maddy. In fact, she's chosen the quiet, safe confines of her sketchbook over the constant battle for attention that has defined Maddy's world.When--after a heated argument--Maddy and Ella get into a tragic accident that leaves her sister dead, Ella wakes up in the hospital surrounded by loved ones who believe she is Maddy. Feeling responsible for Maddy's death and everyone's grief, Ella makes a split-second decision to pretend to be Maddy. Soon, Ella realizes that Maddy's life was full of secrets. Caught in a web of lies, Ella is faced with two options--confess her deception or live her sister's life.

**I received this e-ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review of the book.

What I Loved:

The Plot: I was intrigued by this concept of a twin switching places with her sister the moment I read the blurb on Goodreads for The Secrets We Keep. This was a book that I knew I would get sucked into. And I did—you know I’m a fan of fantasy and science fiction, but I love a good realistic novel that reflects complex and well-developed characters facing issues that seem almost impossible to overcome. In many ways, the problems that Ella faced in this story were huge.

For how long can you live a life that isn’t yours?

The Relationship Between Ella & Josh: You’re going to love Josh! You can imagine he’s crushed when “Ella” dies, and I won’t give anything away, but you can imagine how difficult it would be for Ella to act like she doesn’t miss her friend. Since she “becomes” Maddy, she is forced to act differently around Josh, and this has its consequences.

The Pacing: The pacing of this story was spot on for me. I probably could have finished this book in a day, but wanted to stretch it out a bit, so read it over a week in January. Loved it!

jessica_fletcher

The Mystery: After assuming Maddy’s identity (and her boyfriend as well) Ella soon discovers that Maddy may have been harboring some secrets. Ella is determined to get to the bottom of what Maddy was hiding—very quickly you realize that Maddy’s boyfriend is determined to keep these secrets undercover. This aspect of the story kept me reading, and I was combing the pages closely, trying to figure out what Maddy had been involved in before she died…

Illuminations of Spirituality in The Secrets We Keep:

Of course, you know I would have to bring up potential spiritual aspects in the book, and I found several that could definitely lead into more extensive discussions.

The intense bond between sisters. Sometimes sisters can finish each other’s sentences or know what the other is thinking. Since Maddy dies, there obviously isn’t the opportunity for the two to have any interaction, but the fact that Ella is willing to sacrifice her own identity in order to allow Maddy to “live” points to something in her that is still deeply connected to her twin.

This leads me to another dimension—Ella denies herself in order to embody Maddy for those around her. Though in some cases, “denying oneself” from a spiritual perspective might be a positive thing, it’s not always good. And this is definitely one instance where Ella’s choice to do so was detrimental to her and other people (even though she thought she was atoning for what she had done). Ella is just as important and valued as Maddy and has every right to live her life as herself.

Seeking forgiveness. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is forgive ourselves. There can be a spiritual component to this because we often have to go beyond ourselves in order to do this. This is a challenge for Ella, and as I read the book, I remember thinking, “Come on, girl, you’ve got to forgive yourself! You and everyone around you will be happier once you’ve done this.” Of course, it’s not always easy. But I enjoyed reading about Ella’s journey in light of this.

Who Should Read This Book:

I couldn’t help but think of both Before I Fall and Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver after I read this. Yes, these books are quite different than Leaver’s, but they all treat tensions among friends and VG and TSWK both illuminate the strength of bonds between sisters. There have been a handful of YA titles that deal with the strong bond between sisters, and I don’t think I’ll get tired of them anytime soon. Even though one sister dies at the beginning of the book, the narrative illuminates a realistic relationship with all the ups and downs that a sisterly connection endures.

The Final Illumination:

One journey we all have to go on for ourselves is the journey of finding our identity—figuring out who we are. I was intrigued by the way this novel engaged with that idea, and no matter what your age, the issue of identity is a relevant one. Of course, this time of finding identity is especially significant for young adults, and the way that Ella comes to terms with her identity is beautifully drawn in The Secrets We Keep.

I’m definitely looking forward to more YA Contemporary from Trisha Leaver, but seeing as she writes other genres besides Contemporary, I’ll be certain to look out for any titles she writes in the future.

Also, I’m lucky enough to be in a writing critique group with Trisha, so you can bet I’ll be reading her future work!

celebrate

You can visit Trisha’s website here.

You can tell I loved this book! What about you? Have you read The Secrets We Keep? Or are you planning to?

four-stars
What Katie Read

ARC Review & Giveaway: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (2015) by Anne Blankman

ARC Review & Giveaway: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (2015) by Anne BlankmanConspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman
Published by Harper Collins on April 21st 2015
Genres: Death & Dying, Europe, Historical Fiction, Holocaust, People & Places, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 416
Goodreads
five-stars

Acclaimed author Anne Blankman returns to the shadowy and dangerous world of 1930s Germany in this thrilling sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog, perfect for fans of Code Name Verity.The girl known as Gretchen Whitestone has a secret: She used to be part of Adolf Hitler's inner circle. More than a year after she made an enemy of her old family friend and fled Munich, she lives in England, posing as an ordinary German immigrant, and is preparing to graduate from high school. Her love, Daniel, is a reporter in town. For the first time in her life, Gretchen is content.But then Daniel gets a telegram that sends him back to Germany, and Gretchen's world turns upside down. When she receives word that Daniel is wanted for murder, she has to face the danger she thought she'd escaped—and return to her homeland. Gretchen must do everything she can to avoid capture, even though saving Daniel will mean consorting with her former friends, the Nazi elite. And as they work to clear Daniel's name, Gretchen and Daniel discover a deadly conspiracy stretching from the slums of Berlin to the Reichstag itself. Can they dig up the explosive truth and get out in time—or will Hitler discover them first?

“Life is so short and so precious, and I don’t want to waste another second of it wondering how you feel about me or what’s going to become of us. I love you. If anything happened to you, the world would stop for me. I would want it to stop because I can’t go on without you.” (259-260)

What I Loved:

The History: Like Prisoner, Blankman researched A LOT for this sequel set in 1933. One thing I love about historical fiction is the history lesson that the reader receives while reading the book. This story was no exception, and though I read a lot of WWII-era books, this story is unique in that it is set in the 30s and is told from the perspective of a German who grew up in Hitler’s inner circle. That alone provides a fascinating dimension to the story, and I knew almost nothing about the real-life murder/conspiracy that Hitler’s thugs were involved with in Munich. The fact that I learned so much more about Hitler and this mysterious fire that actually happened drew me further into the book.

You don’t want to miss Blankman’s imagining of this “conspiracy” from Gretchen and Daniel’s perspectives. I also really enjoyed the inclusion of Winston Churchill in the story. This was a welcome addition to the narrative that solidified the fact that many individuals leading up to the war and during it, chose to take a stand for justice, even in the face of danger and death. Many of these individuals were honored for their roles (and books like this one as well as Code Name Verity have led me to acquire some nonfiction titles about those who played a role in the resistance during the war).

I loved that Blankman included an extensive afterword and shared info about what was real and what wasn’t. Extensive biographies in the back of books are my friends! I get very excited when I see these biographies. In my ARC, the biography begins on page 402 and continues to page 405.

Gretchen’s Bravery: German in the 1930s is a scary place for certain groups of people, especially someone that has defied Hitler and shared information about him that he never wanted revealed. That’s Gretchen Whitestone for you! Does that keep her from returning to German to follow he one she loves? Of course not! Gretchen’s bravery is revealed again and again in the story, and though I loved her as a character in Prisoner, that sentiment was only strengthened in the sequel.

I also appreciated watching Gretchen’s further working through of the tension between what she grew up hearing from Hitler about the Jews and Communists and what she thinks as an older and more experienced young woman.

Gretchen & Daniel: I appreciated the deeper glimpse into Daniel and Gretchen’s relationship—including its complexities and challenges. Things don’t always go well for them, and they have their ups and downs, like any relationship. However, they are brave enough to work through them, and as I mentioned earlier, Gretchen and Daniel will both go to great lengths for each other.

The Suspense: Just like Prisoner, Conspiracy featured several nail biting moments of suspense! This is one aspect of the book that kept me reading—there are definitely some moments in the book when you wonder, are these characters going to make it out of this? Though some readers might think it’s a little too providential that certain characters are saved, etc., the fact is that these kinds of providential situations did occur before, during, and after the war!

Who Should Read This Book:

If you read Prisoner of Night and Fog, you must make sure you’re in line to read the sequel. You won’t want to miss a moment of Gretchen and Daniels’ journey. By the end of Prisoner of Night and Fog, you assume everything will be fine—Gretchen and Daniel are together, and life can go on. But, you quickly realize that not all is as it should be in the beginning of Conspiracy, and once you start reading the book, be warned. You might not put it down until you discover how this new predicament of Gretchen and Daniel will work itself out.

Blankman provides flashbacks to remind readers of the first book, but I strongly recommend you read Prisoner first.

You know that I’m a great fan of historical fiction, especially Middle Grade, YA, and Adult fiction set during WWII. This is one of my new favorite YA series, and you’ll remember in my review of Prisoner of Night and Fog, that I read the first book in one afternoon for Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon. I remember being so excited about the release of Prisoner, so when I finally had my hands on a copy, I wanted to dive right in. Needless to say, Prisoner of Night and Fog was one of my favorite YA releases last year, and one of my favorite debuts.

When Danielle at Love at First Page offered to loan me her ARC, I was beyond excited and thankful! Later on, I received my own ARC of the book, which I so appreciated as this will be one I hang onto for a long time (Thank you, Heather Doss, of Harper!).

A Spiritual Illumination:

A clear desire for justice burns within Daniel—he makes it clear from the beginning of the book that he is willing to do almost anything to see justice win. Gretchen’s compassion and love for him also drives her to help him with this task of exonerating himself. To me, this was a clear spiritual aspect of the book—the desire for justice that is reflected in both Daniel and Gretchen. But also, there’s this idea of making sacrifices for love, and this is another spiritual aspect that stuck out to me in the book.

I loved the sequel to Prisoner of Night and Fog! What about you? Have you read it or are you planning to read it?

If you don’t have it yet, you can enter my giveaway to win a copy (US Only)!

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five-stars
What Katie Read
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