This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl by Esther Earl with Lori and Wayne Earl

This Star Won't Go Out

Esther Grace Earl was an exceptional teenager. She was a kind, thoughtful, and generous Nerdfighter who managed to bring out the best in herself and the people around her while simultaneously battling thyroid cancer. Esther bravely endured lengthy and painful treatments with the hope that she could live long enough to “make a difference, to help someone.” Well, she definitely succeeded. Not only did she inspire people while she was alive, but her legacy continues via a charity called This Star Won’t Go Out.

This book is a collection of Esther’s blog posts, letters to her family, CaringBridge entries from her family, and reflections from people who knew her, interspersed with photos. There is an introduction by John Green, which explains how he met Esther and the role she played in inspiring him while he wrote The Fault in Our Stars. I found it difficult to read this story because I found myself getting depressed and angry about the unfairness of it all. How can there be healthy “bad people” in the world while innocent children and teens die from cancer?!? As I finished the book, and I came to the section where Esther’s parents recalled her final words and moments, I couldn’t help but sob. Thankfully, there was a small samples of stories Esther had written to lighten the mood at the end of the book.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares

The Here and Now

I am pretty sure the only Ann Brashares books I had read before this ARC [Advance Reader Copy] were from the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.  It looks like I never posted about them on my book review blog, though, so I can’t simply link to what I thought of them.  Instead, I will quickly summarize by saying that they are basic contemporary “chick lit” books.  They primarily dealt with friendship, dating, and body image — and they were both realistic and well written enough that I’m not surprised to see that they’re still popular. While this book was also well written and has a romantic element to it, it was VERY different in that it has a science fiction angle.

Prenna James is an immigrant, but she didn’t come from another country — she came from another time. She, along with the rest of the people in her tight-knit community, traveled back in time from a future in which global warming had destroyed the world. Warmer temperatures melted the polar ice caps, caused massive floods, and also allowed mosquitoes to thrive. Even though cancer had been cured, human existence was threatened by a blood-borne plague reminiscent of AIDS. Prenna’s time-traveling community has many rules, but the most important rules are to blend in, to avoid making any changes to “the past,” and to avoid intimacy with outsiders. Despite worries about getting in trouble, Prenna has a hard time following the rules. She just can’t understand how they can just sit by and watch people destroy the world instead of trying to make a difference. Plus, of course, there’s the fact that she’s falling for an outsider named Ethan…

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

The Water Castle

I know I am always telling people not to judge books by their covers, but I am certainly guilty of this infraction from time to time.  Somehow, I saw the cover of this book and thought it would be more fantastic than it was.  Maybe it was the banner that says “Believe in the unbelievable…”  Maybe it was the castle in the background.  But, somehow, I had my mind set that those kids would be involved in mystical time travel.  Yeah…  Not so much!  Although, there were chapters that took readers back to the early 1900s to discover the history of the Water Castle and the ancestors of the main characters, those main characters most definitely did not travel through time themselves.  And that was OK.  Even though this story wasn’t what I thought it would be, I still thought it was extremely cool.

Ephraim Appledore-Smith’s family relocated to Crystal Springs, Maine, after his father had a stroke.  Though his mother had inherited the house quite some time ago, Ephraim and his siblings had never been there before.  His mother decided to move to Crystal Springs because she had hopes that a specialist who lived in that area would be able to help her husband with his recovery.  After their arrival, though, Ephraim became obsessed with the possibility that the local water had special, mystical properties and that he could use it to cure his father.  After all, that was how the “Water Castle” came to be in the first place; his ancestor, Orlando Appledore, built the house because he was convinced that the Fountain of Youth was in Crystal Springs.  After floundering to find his niche in the new town/school, Ephraim became part of an unlikely trio — with Mallory Green, whose family has always worked as caretakers of the Appledore property, and Will Wylie, whose family has long feuded with the Appledores.  First brought together by a polar explorer’s research project, the three banded together with a determination to find the fountain of youth themselves.

“The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings

Another great novel and my favorite now of best-selling author Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Life of Secret Bees and The Mermaid Chair. Blending facts and fiction, this novel takes a powerful, intense look into the cruelties of slavery.  It follows the stories of Sarah and Angelina Grimke (the first female abolitionists), two sisters from Charleston, SC. These two devote their lives to the abolition of slavery and become some of the earliest feminist speakers for women’s rights. The story is told through the voices of Sarah and also of her slave girl, Hetty (Handful), given to her on her eleventh birthday as a present. It follows both of their courageous battles as they fight for their dreams, giving an in-depth look at the injustices of slavery.  I highly recommend this powerful story that will leave you touched.

Divergent [trilogy] by Veronica Roth

Divergent

People have been telling me to read this series since the first book came out.  And, although I trust the opinions of the people who kept recommending it, I kept thinking about how often I get frustrated waiting for the next books to come out in all the series I read.  I get so caught up in the characters that waiting for the next book in a series is like waiting to reunite with a friend who just moved away and won’t be home to visit for at least another year.  I don’t get desperate, per se, but it’s not fun to have to keep on waiting all the time!  So, I purposely waited to even get started.  For real.  I just refused to start this series until I knew the third book was almost out.  And, boy, am I glad I decided to wait!

Beatrice Prior was born into a society divided into five factions — Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent).  Although she was born into Abnegation, her society came up with a selection process by which teens could choose to stay in their given faction or to move to a different faction.  In preparation for making her choice, Beatrice went through a simulation that was supposed to narrow down which faction would be the best fit.  Something went wrong, though, and Beatrice’s test proctor informed her that her test results were anything but definitive; Beatrice was Divergent.  She didn’t know what it meant, but the proctor made it quite clear that being Divergent was dangerous and that Beatrice should not tell anyone about her results.  I don’t know that I can summarize the rest of the series without getting into spoilers, so I will just wrap things up by saying that fans of other dystopias like The Hunger Games and Delirium will not be disappointed.

Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore

Manor of Secrets

Charlotte Edmonds is expected to be a perfect lady.  After all, how will she land the perfect husband if she doesn’t dress, speak, and act exactly as society expects?  She seems to be a constant disappointment to her mother, Lady Diana, who has her sights set on a marriage proposal from Lord Andrew Broadhurst before Charlotte even makes it to her first season.  Even though her best friend, Fran, seems content to play by the rules and to hope for a marriage proposal from a suitable man, Charlotte longs for more — for fun, spontaneity, and a career as a writer.  When Charlotte spies a scullery maid, Janie, sneaking away from a garden party to wade in the lake on a hot summer day, she decides to try it too.  Thus begins an unlikely friendship between the girls.  Secret rendezvous and rule-breaking abound as Charlotte and Janie try to find a way to live the lives they want instead of the lives they’ve been pigeonholed into, and all of The Manor’s secrets come spilling out.  The ending is tidy enough, but just begs for a sequel.  (This book is a “must read” for Downton Abbey fans!)

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Tiger Lily

Though this book tells the story of a 15-year-old girl named Tiger Lily, it is actually narrated by a fairy named Tinkerbell.   [Yes, the same Tinkerbell you’ve heard of before!]  Tiger Lily, a native girl who has always lived as an outcast of sorts within her tribe, is desperate to find a way out of marrying a horrid man to whom she has been betrothed.  Tiger Lily spends time in the woods to avoid her tribe and to try to escape her life, if only for short periods of time, and ends up running into Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.  Not only does she fall for Peter, fully knowing she can’t actually make a life with him, but then Wendy Darling shows up in Neverland…  If you don’t get your heart broken at least once by the end of this story, you don’t have a heart.

I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I Am Malala

When I first heard of the assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai, I was in shock.  The fact that the Taliban treated women and girls so poorly was no surprise, but the fact that they actually tried to kill a girl who merely fought for girls to be educated was practically unbelievable.  I was so relieved to hear the reports that Malala not only survived but that her fighting spirit was still intact.  While I find it terribly depressing to know that she cannot safely return to her home, it is heartening to know that Malala has the attention of many world leaders and is being kept safe as she travels the world to continue her work — fighting for the basic right to education.  After watching Malala’s interview on The Daily Show — which left Jon Stewart absolutely speechless — I knew I had to read this book!

While I was already familiar with the general history of unrest in the Middle East, I appreciated Malala’s overview of the formation of Pakistan.  I think it went a long way toward explaining how people could have “let” the Taliban take over; how low literacy rates meant that people had to trust what they were told, and how the intolerance and hatred crept in so slowly that many people did not see what was coming.  The overview of her family’s history, specifically how her own father fought so hard for his education and the education of others, also explained how Malala grew up to be so passionate about the right to an education.  Even though she didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s great that she was nominated — her nomination has the possibility to inspire a whole generation.  I can only hope that the youth of the world are paying attention and that Malala’s virtues are contagious, because there’s no limit to what a generation of people with her drive, courage, and enthusiasm can accomplish.

A Guide to Being Born: Stories by Ramona Ausubel

A Guide to Being Born

You CAN judge a book by its cover. Perhaps that’s not fair to Ausubel, whose book stands on merits far beyond its colorful, fantastic cover. But that’s what first attracted me to this book, and happily, the contents within proved to be every bit as fantastic and engaging.

I was enchanted by the opening tale of a ship carrying a cargo of puzzled grandmothers. Where were they? How had they gotten there? Where were they going? The dream haze of the story slowly clears as one of the grandmothers recognizes and embraces her journey.

I also loved Magniloquence, which features an auditorium of professors waiting for a speaker to arrive. They wait and wait, and as they wait, inhibitions are shed and speeches are improvised and many cookies are surreptitiously eaten.

Love is at the core of each of these stories, and in most cases, that love is sure and calm and gentle. And sometimes it is odd, and sometimes oddly compelling, as in Poppyseed, when two parents employ unorthodox means to honor their disabled daughter.

Ausubel’s writing is exquisite. Enter this book with an open mind and enjoy the strange and moving beauty.

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

If You Find Me

Carey grew up to be a remarkably mature teenager.  That’s not exactly surprising, though, if you consider the fact that she spent much of her childhood raising her little sister, Jenessa, in a broken-down camper in a national forest she affectionately referred to as The Hundred Acre Wood.  Although her mom frequently ran off and left the girls to fend for themselves with little more than a meager supply of canned beans, she still managed to brainwash Carey into believing that she was better off living in the squalor of the camper than if they had stayed with her father.  She had Carey convinced that her father was physically abusive and that leaving was the only way to protect themselves.  I thought it was quite clear that Carey’s mom was lying about her father and that she had major mental health issues — after all, what sane mother would leave two little girls to fend for themselves in the woods?  Still, I recognized how easily Carey could have been manipulated in that situation and understood why she just *had* to believe that her mother had the best of intentions, regardless of what her actions indicated.  After the girls were found by Carey’s dad and a social worker, based on clues in a letter from their mother, Carey had a hard time adjusting to life in the “real world.”  She did her best to help Jenessa adapt, but she also did her best not to reveal the harsh realities of what life had been like in The Hundred Acre Wood and why, exactly, Jenessa suddenly stopped talking about a year prior to their discovery.  Though I readily admit that this was an extremely difficult read at times, I can happily report that the ending left me feeling hopeful.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Perfect

Perfect opened my eyes to the phenomenon of “leap seconds,” which are periodically added to coordinated uniform time to account for minute fluctuations in the earth’s rotation.  When enough milliseconds of variation accumulate– which typically only happens every few years– a one second addition to the clock is required to maintain the integrity of our time keeping system.  Rachel Joyce’s novel takes place in 1972, the only year so far in which two seconds were needed.  For 11-year-old Byron Hemmings, those two seconds are a confounding anomaly that will alter the course of his life.

Following young Byron as he tries to make sense of an event that has occurred– he believes– because of the two second expansion of time, and as he tries to shelter his family from its consequences, is heart wrenching.  Layered atop is a pervasive sense of foreboding that, for Byron, there is worse yet to come.

I love books with 10- to 13- year old protagonists– those years are so vital in shaping the teen, and later the adult, that one will become.  Byron’s tale is satisfyingly poignant, and though it is also tinged with tragedy, it is ultimately uplifting.

Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon

Somebody Up There Hates You

When people ask Richard Casey what’s wrong with him, he likes to reply that he has SUTHY syndrome.  He waits an uncomfortable beat and then explains that SUTHY stands for “Somebody Up There Hates You.”  After all, what other reason would there be for a 17-year-old to be in hospice care with a terminal cancer diagnosis?  If I hadn’t already read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, I may not have believed it was possible that Seamon could have written so much humor into this story.  Between Rich’s wry sense of humor and his bumbling romance with a girl named Sylvie [the only other teen in the hospice unit], I laughed out loud often enough that my cat gave up on falling asleep in my lap — and that never happens!  If you already read TFiOS and need something to hold you over until the movie comes out in June, you will probably enjoy this story too.