Publisher: Penguin

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

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.



What Katie Read

The Infinite Sea [The 5th Wave #2] (2014) by Rick Yancey

The Infinite Sea [The 5th Wave #2] (2014) by Rick YanceyThe Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey
Published by Penguin on September 16th 2014
Genres: Action & Adventure, Love & Romance, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 480

Suggested age range: 14 and up

The Book: The sequel to The 5th Wave, this second book in Rick Yancey’s gripping series continues the story of Cassie as she attempts to survive on the earth in the midst of an alien enemy. But who and where is the enemy? The first book raised this question, and it’s asked again in the second. The stories of Ringer, Razor, and Teacup also continue, giving readers chapters in different perspectives. Ringer and Cassie are both given large chunks of the narrative to tell their story, and even if readers are jarred by the shifting perspectives, they should be familiar with the novel’s twists and turns. Who will triumph: aliens or humans? There are strong odds stacked up against the humans, but the aliens didn’t count on Evan Walker, whom we meet in Book 1.

Spirituality in The Infinite Sea: Hope, Despair, Love, Hate—these emotions are threaded throughout the experiences of the characters in the novel, and the story grapples with that age old tension between giving up and persevering/hoping that something good will come out of what seems to be a very bleak situation.

Can a world overrun with aliens get better? Can it be saved?

There are points in the story where you might think it can’t (as there are times in our own lives where we think, how can I get through this or how can anything good come out of this situation?!) but I think Yancey successfully shows how hope is powerful and the tiniest bit of light makes a difference. There isn’t any doubt that love is going to win—at least that’s my take, but we’ll have to see what happens in Book 3.

Who Should Read This Book: If you read Book 1 of The 5th Wave, you’re going to want to read the sequel. If you haven’t read Book 1, and you like post-apocalyptic reads with aliens and a strong female lead, I would recommend Book 1 for sure. Obviously you’re then going to want to pick up Book 2. Book 2 draws the readers inside the mind of another strong female, and I think Yancey gives really interesting portrayals of these two girls caught up in a very cruel and dangerous world. If you like unpredictable turns in a book, this is one for you. I did not see that coming at the end of Book 2 (no spoilers here).

Warning: There is some strong language in the book! (remember this is the end of the world with aliens–but if strong language is an issue for young readers you might be giving this book to, etc., take a look at the story first)

The Final Word: I didn’t like Book 2 as much as Book 1, and one reason for that was the shifting perspectives. I can understand why Yancey chose to give us Cassie’s perspective as well as Ringer’s. He even gives us a glimpse into the minds of several minor characters, which I actually liked. I think I’m just more interested in Cassie’s story, and that may be why I didn’t like it when the narrative switched to Ringer. Though, at the end of the book, I think I understood more why a good chunk of the narrative belonged to Ringer. At the same time, I also felt like a lot of questions and issues were raised, but weren’t really answered. I didn’t expect Yancey to wrap things up neatly, but I felt more satisfied at the end of Book 1 than I did at the end of Book 2. I’m looking forward to Book 3, to see how it all goes down. Now, how long will we have to wait?

Did you read the sequel to The 5th Wave? What did you think?

What Katie Read

Endings Can Be Beginnings: Counting by 7s (2013) by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Endings Can Be Beginnings: Counting by 7s (2013) by Holly Goldberg SloanCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Published by Penguin on August 29th 2013
Genres: Family, Parents, School & Education
Pages: 400

Suggested age range: 9 and up

“And endings are always the beginnings of something else.”

The Book:

This heartwarming story opens with a tragedy, but is surprisingly hopeful and unique throughout the rest of the novel. In the narrative, we meet twelve year-old genius, Willow, who counts by sevens, is a math whiz, and loves making things grow. The story charts Willo’ws journey to discovering a community and a new family. The beauty and wonder of the natural world is celebrated through Willow’s reflective and unique perspective of her surroundings.

Spirituality in Counting by 7s:

Willow’s journey into becoming comfortable with herself, a girl without parents, is one spiritual aspect of the story. I was particularly interested in the way the author revealed Willow’s spirituality though her gardening. The people Willow encounters affect her spiritual identity, and with them she develops community. The way Willow’s community support and love her represents a part of the story I fell in love with—as a reader I was cheering for Willow and the search for her to discover a place in a community that would value her. Her discovery of these people and  of a purpose really made this a strong book for me.

Who Should Read This Book:

This middle grade novel is similar to ones by Kate DiCamillo in that I think it’s a story almost any age would enjoy. Whether you’re twelve or twenty, I think you can appreciate this story and Willow’s journey as she navigates a world without family. Readers may discover some aspects of Willow’s journey to relate to—we are all searching for belonging and identity in some way, and this journey doesn’t stop at a certain age, though it may become easier.

Using this book with young readers? After reading the book, you could give your readers the opportunity to either journal in response to a question such as: What is one thing in your life that makes you feel like you belong?” or draw a picture about something in the book they liked. Arts-based response would be fabulous with this book. Either way, there is a lot of potential for curriculum with upper elementary students, or any age for that matter. Discussion is a must for any activity that you use with your young readers.

The Final Word:

The book is refreshing in the way it’s not predictable and features some surprising turns. That’s one of the reasons why I give this book such a high rating. I leave you with a quote from the book that relates well to that notion:

“What we expect rarely occurs; what we don’t expect is what happens.”

This 2013 story is not to be missed, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the book, in spite of my worries about it being too sad initially. Don’t be put off by the potentially tragic premise—Sloan’s novel is brilliant!




What Katie Read
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