Genre: Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance

Mini Review: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly (2015) by Stephanie Oakes

Mini Review: The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly (2015) by Stephanie OakesThe Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
Published by Penguin on June 9th 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Social Issues, Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, Physical & Emotional Abuse, Religious
Pages: 400
Goodreads
five-stars

A hard-hitting and hopeful story about the dangers of blind faith—and the power of having faith in yourself The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust. And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too. Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it's clear that Minnow knows something—but she's not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.Gorgeously written, breathlessly page-turning and sprinkled with moments of unexpected humor, this harrowing debut is perfect for readers of Emily Murdoch's If You Find Me and Nova Ren Suma's The Walls Around Us, as well as for fans of Orange is the New Black.From the Hardcover edition.

This book is definitely one of my favorite reads for 2015 so far. It’s a gripping story about seventeen year-old Minnow Bly who has just emerged from a cult in the woods—the Kevinian cult (named after the Prophet who founded it, Kevin).

Minnow is in a juvenile detention center for attacking a boy she encountered after she left the cult. However, she is one of the only people who knows how the Prophet died and what happened that last night in the community (which burned to the ground).

That’s why an FBI agent begins visiting her, in an attempt to piece together what happened. But will Minnow reveal anything? That’s a question readers will be wondering about throughout the narrative, a story that is compelling, beautiful, and tragic, but ultimately hopeful. 

I read a huge chunk of this book on a plane journey, and it’s the perfect book for a long road or plane trip because you will want to keep reading in an attempt to find out what happened that last night with the community of the Kevinian cult.

A few things I loved about this book:

Stephanie Oakes, the Wordsmith: The prose of this novel is gorgeous! It’s no surprise to me that the author has an MFA in Poetry—you may find yourself re-reading passages, reflecting symbolic language that features gaps where meaning can be mined. Trust me—there are so many passages in this book you’ll want to highlight and return to later.

The Spirituality: So, it makes sense that a book focusing on a girl emerging from a cult would feature talk about spirituality and religion. It’s clear that the cult Minnow’s family was a part of was abusive and terrible in so many ways (let’s not talk about Minnow’s hands getting cut off—don’t get me started!) but that doesn’t mean that Minnow stops wondering about the existence of God and who made the stars and how God works. There are multiple points in the story where Minnow is talking to others or thinking about the big questions of meaning so many of us don’t ask or think about often enough.

The Hope: There are a lot of dark and sad events in this book—I won’t lie. That includes events that happen prior to the beginning of the book, and are featured through flashbacks of Minnow. Some majorly intense happenings took place within the cult community, and it might make you really mad. But in spite of the twisted beliefs and actions of those in the Kevinian cult, Minnow still manages to keep an open mind, and an underlying hope (as much as it sometimes doesn’t seem like she does). Minnow is coming to grips with the fact that the world may not look the way “The Prophet” said it did. God may be different than who he was constructed to be within the cult. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the narrative is seeped in hope, even in the midst of some very difficult circumstances for Minnow and others.

Quotes I Loved

“Everybody around me was in pain, I realize now, but none of them ever poured it out of themselves into another person. Jude taught me what love was: to be willing to hold on to another person’s pain. That’s it.”

“We have to be happy to keep searching and not knowing all the time.”

“If it’s possible to have a soul, mine was steel-plated and invincible that night, and I think that’s what love does, makes you strong. Makes you think nothing can bring you down.”

This books get all the stars—a solid 5. I’ve already recommended it to multiple readers, but what about you? Did you read Minnow Bly’s story? What did you think?
five-stars
What Katie Read

ARC Middle Grade Review: Extraordinary (2015) by Miriam Spitzer Franklin

ARC Middle Grade Review: Extraordinary (2015) by Miriam Spitzer FranklinExtraordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin
Published by Sky Pony Press on May 5th 2015
Genres: Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Self-Esteem & Self-Reliance, Social Issues, Special Needs
Pages: 256
Goodreads
four-stars

Last summer, Pansy chickened out on going to summer camp, even though she’d promised her best friend, Anna, she’d go. It was just like when they went to get their hair cut for Locks of Love; only one of them walked out with a new hairstyle, and it wasn’t Pansy. But Pansy never got the chance to make it up to Anna. While at camp, Anna contracted meningitis and a dangerously high fever, and she hasn’t been the same since. Now all Pansy wants is her best friend back—not the silent girl in the wheelchair who has to go to a special school and who can’t do all the things Pansy used to chicken out of doing. So when Pansy discovers that Anna is getting a surgery that might cure her, Pansy realizes this is her chance—she’ll become the friend she always should have been. She’ll become the best friend Anna’s ever had—even if it means taking risks, trying new things (like those scary roller skates), and running herself ragged in the process. Pansy’s chasing extraordinary, hoping she reaches it in time for her friend’s triumphant return. But what lies at the end of Pansy’s journey might not be exactly what she had expected—or wanted. Extraordinary is a heartfelt, occasionally funny, coming-of-age middle grade novel by debut author Miriam Spitzer Franklin. It’s sure to appeal to fans of Cynthia Lord’s Rules and will inspire young friends to cherish the times they spend together. Every day should be lived like it’s extraordinary.

What I Loved:

The book’s depiction of the ups and down, the trials and joys of life in the 5th grade: I know Spitzer Franklin has worked as a teacher, and that she drew on her own experiences as a teacher in the writing of this book. I appreciated the portrayal of life in the classroom for Pansy, and the way she navigated her friendships—both old and new.

The adventurous antics of Pansy: Pansy is a delightful character! You can’t help but cheer for her as she seeks to become “extraordinary” for her best friend, who is set to have surgery in the near future. Pansy is certain Anna will return to her normal self and they’ll be able to pick back up as the best friends they were before Anna became ill. Pansy is motivated to become the top reader in class, to become good at ice skating, and to be the best girl scout she can be—all for her dear friend Anna. Through each of these endeavors, Pansy learns valuable lessons, and she changes a bit too.

The role of Pansy’s parents: Pansy’s parents play a significant role in her life in the story, and you don’t always see this in Middle Grade Fiction. Pansy’s parents encourage her as she strives to become “extraordinary” and they comfort her as she faces the sadness about who Anna has become because of her illness.

Illuminations of Spirituality:

The Desire to Be a Better Person for Those Around Us: Pansy’s motivation to become extraordinary for her best friend, who has recently suffered brain damage, is inspiring and reflects the great value she places on her friendship with Anna. Even though there are things Pansy wants to attempt that are scary (ice skating lessons & rollerblading to school, for example) she perseveres because the goal of making her best friend proud is more important.

Hope: Even when the reality of what we see doesn’t match what we hope for, we still hope. Sometimes things change and sometimes they don’t. But the act of hoping is itself important.

Being Thankful for What You Have: It’s easy to take for granted all the things we have—and that includes friendships. Pansy’s friendship with Andy is extremely important, but there are times in the story when she definitely forgets this, and runs after other opportunities and friendships that detract from her relationship with Andy. It takes some time, but Pansy learns something important about being thankful for what’s right in front of us.

Who Should Read This Book:

Spitzer Franklin has written a character driven book featuring all things relevant to upper elementary students—school, friendships, and new opportunities (ice skating, girl scouts, classroom competitions!). There are certainly some sad parts—the fact is that Pansy’s best friend has suffered a major medical condition, and she is not the same girl Pansy was best friends with before she became ill. Certainly, children today might have to go through something like this, whether it’s a serious illness with a friend or a family member or the death of a loved one.

I won’t lie—this book does have its heartbreaking moments, but it’s ultimately a hopeful story that illuminates the importance of being comfortable with who you are, being thankful for the good in your life, and relying on the love and friendship of friends and family when things don’t go the way you want them to go.

Extraordinary really made my think of my own 5th grade experience–and how well I remember that desire to fit in and have friends, and yet there was the tug to be my own person and stand up for myself too. This book reminded me of the variety of kinds of kids in any 5th grade class–there are the kids who are “mean” sometimes, the kids who try to get others to follow them, and the ones who are appealing just because they were comfortable with being themselves.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, you know. You just have to do it on your own.”

The Final Illumination:

Extraordinary is a heartwarming and solid debut from Spitzer Franklin, reminding me of my own adventures in 5th grade and the tension between the balance you had to maintain between forming friendships and being your own person. I love that Pansy is not afraid of being unique—she’ll wear two different color shoes and she’ll risk falling down while rollerblading to school. She’s a good example for all of us who struggle with being confident in who we are, young and old.

**I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

**If you missed my interview with the author, you can find it here.

four-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
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