Genre: Social Issues

Review: Belzhar (2014) by Meg Wolitzer

Review: Belzhar (2014) by Meg WolitzerBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Published by Penguin on September 30th 2014
Genres: Death & Dying, Depression & Mental Illness, Fantasy, Girls & Women, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 272
Goodreads
four-stars

Suggested age range: 14 and up

The Book: Jam has been sent away from home. She now temporarily lives at a boarding school known as The Wooden Barn, with other “troubled” teens. She is having trouble getting over the death of her boyfriend, Reeve, and her parents are desperate for her to get back to normal. So off she goes to rural Vermont, and though she doesn’t want to be there, at first, she is signed up for an invite only class known as Special Topics in English. The class turns out to be focused on Sylvia Plath, and each student receives a special journal in which they share their thoughts. What Jam quickly finds out is that the journal possesses a magical ability to transport her to a past where Reeve is still alive. What other secrets does this strange world of Belzhar hold and will it help her come to terms with Reeve’s absence?

Spirituality in Belzhar: Working through your issues. We all know what that’s like—in one way or another. This notion of being broken after losing a person is an aspect of the story that some readers could relate to, and there’s a spiritual element to the story here. Grief is natural, and people work through grief in different ways. Journaling as a therapeutic technique for Jam and her peers is explored in the story, and this made me think about how we can reveal more of ourselves through our creative output—whether that is through writing, artwork, dance, or music. Belzhar definitely made me think, and I’m fascinated by the wide range of responses this book attracted!

Who Should Read This Book: I haven’t read anything else of Wolitzer’s but after I heard her speak at the Boston Book Festival, I requested this book from the library. Now I’m planning to read some of her other fiction, and I know she is well-known for her adult literary fiction. If you’re looking for something a bit different, this may be a book for you—the premise was unique to me, and I really had no idea how things were going to turn out with Jam and Reeve and Belzhar. You’ll see from GoodReads that some readers really didn’t like this book for its lack of character development and neatly tied up ending. It may not be for everyone, but the premise and the situation Jam was going through were really interesting to me. I enjoyed it. It was a story I couldn’t put down, and though there were some eye rolling moments with Jam’s character, there were some issues that came up that I think would be relevant for teen readers.

The Final Word: Belzhar is a mysterious place, which intrigued me, and I loved the discussion of Plath and her works. Though the twist in the story may or may not work for you, I think this book is worth picking up.

 

 

four-stars
What Katie Read

The World of the “Possible”: The Fourteenth Goldfish (2014) by Jennifer L. Holm

The World of the “Possible”: The Fourteenth Goldfish (2014) by Jennifer L. HolmThe Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm
Published by Random House Children's Books on August 26th 2014
Genres: Death & Dying, Family, Fantasy & Magic, General, Middle Grade, Social Issues
Pages: 208
Goodreads
four-stars

Suggested age range: 10 and up

I received an e-ARC of this book from Net Galley & Random House Kids in exchange for an honest review.

The Book: Ellie is eleven and in middle school. Transition is difficult in itself but throw in the sudden arrival of her grandfather at her home, and things are even more complicated. That’s because he’s thirteen years old! As a famous scientist, Melvin has successfully reversed the aging process through his discovery of a jellyfish compound, dubbed T. melvinus. So Ellie is essentially going to school with a teenager who has a 76 year old brain. Ellie and her friend Raj decide to help Melvin break into his lab in order to safeguard the compound, and if they accomplish this, perhaps the world will finally have its “fountain of youth.” What ensues is a humorous adventure in which Ellie discovers more about herself,  the changing nature of friendships, and the value of love from family and friends in the midst of growing up.

Spirituality in The Fourteenth Goldfish: The book’s ability to make the reader consider the realm of the “possibles” in the world of science is one of its highlights. I, for one, think that the relationship between spirituality and science is a relevant one. Especially when you get into quantum physics. I’ll save that for another post though. What I want to say is that some points and themes in the story leave gaps for spiritual ideas to poke through. For example, the cycle of life is important and the way that cycle runs is significant—if we have the power, should we be able to alter that? Should we play God? Such questions raise what could be heavy issues with readers.

Who Should Read This Book: Fans of When You Reach Me or A Tangle of Knots would get this title as a reading option from me (were you in my 6th grade classroom). The journey of a girl navigating the beginnings of middle school and also harboring a great secret (her grandfather who has discovered how to reverse aging is a teenager living in her home) is one that I think many readers of fantasy or science fiction would enjoy. I also think there are some cool events that could coincide with this text—jellyfish research and fountain of youth creations and even lunch at a Chinese restaurant where segments of dialogue could be read from the book in a reader’s theatre presentation. Don’t ignore the ‘possibles’ with this one!

The Final Word: Jennifer L. Holm is a three time Newbery honor winner, and this novel’s unique premise is reason alone to delve into the world of middle grade science fiction, if that’s not your normal cup of tea. If you found a fountain of youth, would you take advantage of it? If you could have your grandparent live with you, but as a teenager, would you say yes? You might never have to answer either of these questions in reality, but they’re amusing to think about. This story is charming, but it also gives science nerds something meatier to read as well. Readers that aren’t as interested in science might get a little bogged down at times, and there were a few points where I wanted more to happen faster, but all in all, I enjoyed the story and was satisfied with its conclusion. I’m especially drawn to middle grade novels that highlight enduring themes like this one: “Never ignore a possible.” Challenge accepted.

 

What did you think of The Fourteenth Goldfish? Are there other middle grade science fiction titles this reminds you of?

four-stars
What Katie Read

The Half Life of Molly Pierce (2014) by Katrina Leo

The Half Life of Molly Pierce (2014) by Katrina LeoThe Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno
Published by HarperCollins on July 8th 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Emotions & Feelings, Family, Friendship, Siblings, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 240
Goodreads
four-stars

Suggested age range: 15 and up

The Book: It’s mystery, it’s contemporary, it’s young adult. It’s The Half Life of Molly Pierce. Seventeen year-old Molly feels like she’s missing part of her life. There’s the boy who claims he knows her, but she doesn’t recognize him or know where (or when) she met him. Then there’s his brother who also knows her name, and with whom she senses a significant connection. Was (is?) there something between them? Love? Friendship? Slowly, memories start to come back, and Molly begins to put the pieces together. What is her secret life everyone else seems to know about but her? Will she ever have a whole life instead of just half of one?

Spirituality in The Half Life of Molly Pierce: So, you’ve probably heard me talk about the idea that the relationship to the self is one area of spirituality we can think about out of the four major connections (self, others, natural world, Divine [God]). Looking at this novel through a spiritual lens highlights that idea of our connectedness to the self, and it definitely made me think about how this idea of being “whole” is tied to our spirituality. Mental illness is something a lot of people deal with in today’s world, and it shouldn’t be ignored. The more we can understand it and support people who deal with it, the better. When we see brokenness, we want to fix it. I want to see un-whole people become whole, and Molly’s story reminded me of that even more.

Hope and expectation for the good to come were two other dimensions of the story that engaged my own spirituality.

I wasn’t expecting this because I honestly wasn’t sure what the book was going to be about! So I’m immensely glad I picked it up.

Who Should Read This Book: If you enjoy psychological reads that have a bit of mystery, like We Were Liars, you’ll probably enjoy this. Readers interested in issues surrounding mental illness, or writers interested in ways they can represent mental illness in a story would definitely find this book relevant. It will make you think, and is ideal for reading and discussing with others. I found myself telling my friends about it, even though they weren’t reading it at the time. Oh, and it’s pretty addictive. You might even drop friends off to shop and wait in the car so you can finish the book. (Note: There is some strong language and mature content in the book.)

The Final Word: I wasn’t sure what to think of Molly Pierce at first. I hadn’t read many of the reviews of the book before I plunged in, which I found out afterwards, was a good thing. There is a bit of a twist, and I’m certainly not going to give any hints what that twist entails, but readers who like puzzles and uncertainty—this might be a good choice for you.

I was wondering how Leo was going to wrap the story ends up and resolve the plot, and I was surprised at how satisfying the ending was to me.

The beginning of the book was very jarring (and I think it’s supposed to be) but its conclusion left you with a far different feeling.

Have you read The Half Life of Molly Pierce? What did you think? What other books did it remind you of?

four-stars
What Katie Read
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