Matched by Ally Condie

Cover Image of Matched by Ally CondieCondie, Ally. Matched. New York: Dutton Books, 2010.

Plot: Cassia is thrilled that the Society has Matched her with Xander, her best friend. But when she puts the government-issued microcard into her port to review Xander’s information, his face disappears after a moment and another face pops on the portscreen. Ky. An Official explains that there has been a mistake, Xander is still her Match. Ky is an Aberration and can never have a Match. The Society does not make mistakes, though. Cassia’s entire world — her family, her health, her work — has been formed around Society’s decisions and her own confidence in the system. Now the questions, and the doubt, come slowly, but steadily. Cassia could accept the explanations handed to her and be happy, or she could have choice. She could create.

Setting: A futuristic society descended from Western cultures.

Point of View: First person (Cassia)

Theme: future civilization, government, autonomy, independence, love, self identity, coming of age, family, risk, technology, self expression

Literary Quality: Fast-paced and laced with poetry, especially that of Dylan Thomas, Matched is a thought provoking page turner. As Cassia catches a glimmer beneath the surface of the Society, questions bubble up about love, autonomy, order, health, family, technology, and happiness in the future that will resonate with readers today, as well. Writing and reading are dangerous in this imagined society, and while it is suggested that the role and increase of technology has expedited and eased the elimination and outlawing of learning to write and create one’s own words, readers are reminded of words’ power and hopefully will recognize that the tradition of illegal words is based solidly in history. The division of knowledge to prevent anyone from knowing too much in this civilization is likewise an old theme into which Condie breathes new life. While the questions asked and the answers gradually arrived at in Matched are complex, their delivery lacks the same nuance. The explicit morals and lessons border on being forced and preachy, and can feel at times like a lack trust in the reader. Nevertheless, this absorbing book is well worth reading, and will keep readers pondering Cassia’s dilemmas long after it has been shelved.

Audience: I would recommend Matched to readers ages 12 and up.

Personal reaction: Matched was totally addicting. I am glad I waited a couple of years to read it, because I could (and did) immediately check out the next installment, Crossed. I appreciated the gray area in Condie’s portrayal of the Officials and the Society–that Cassia’s own father, grandfather, and neighbors are Officials and partake in actions she dislikes even though they are people she respects and loves; that Cassia can see how a problematic system can still be successful and produce happiness and meaningful relationships. I couldn’t help comparing Matched to The Hunger Games trilogy, as I read, especially given the love triangle, but with no conclusive thoughts worth sharing for now. I loved the weaving in of and framing by poetry, the subversiveness of reading poems and learning history. I found myself wishing for more discussion surrounding ethnicity and race.  There is a comment at some point about how many ethnicities the Society includes or has Matched over the years, but nothing more than a passing mention. Overall, though, a very pleasant reading experience.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Cover image of The Absolutely True Diary of  a Part-Time IndianAlexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007.

Plot: Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, has always been picked on. Small-framed, with big hands and feet, a lisp and stutter due to health problems when he was born, he is an easy target on the Spokane Indian reservation where he lives in Wellpinit, Washington. Luckily, his best friend, Rowdy, serves as his protector. Or at least he does until Junior decides to go to an all-white school twenty-two miles off of the reservation. Now Rowdy seems to hate Junior as much as everyone else, and Junior faces a whole new set of racist taunts at school. Torn between his identity as an Indian and his desire to make something of himself in a broader world, Junior just does not seem to fit in anywhere.

Setting: Present day on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.

Point of View: First person (Junior)

Theme: self-identity, bullying, Native Americans, childhood, school, friendship, family, death, coming-of-age, disability

Literary Quality: Simultaneously poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, this is an outstanding piece of fiction that should be read by young adults and adults alike. Certain to raise some eyebrows with frank references to masturbation, sexual arousal, domestic (and non-domestic) violence and racial conflict, Junior’s brazen and humorous narrative voice will speak to many teens who negotiate societal “norms” and rules of acceptance. Forney’s line-drawn illustrations, which stand in for Junior’s own as he is an aspiring cartoonist, are the perfect complement and add to both the laughs and the insights of this book. Alexie does not shy away from casting judgments on both Native Americans and whites, but delves into the complicated interactions of races, history, alcoholism, disabled individuals, family, and friends.  He takes a profound and unapologetic look at some of our country’s most troubling history and interrelations, raising issues wish high stakes in U.S. society today. This is a coming-of-age story that won’t soon be forgotten, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Cultural Authenticity: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is, by Sherman Alexie’s own description, partly autobiographical. Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit,Washington. Like Junior, Alexie changed schools after opening a textbook only to see his mother’s name printed in it. He, too, underwent conflicting feelings of guilt and shame as well as pride about leaving the reservation. His experiences growing up as a Spokane Indian greatly contribute to the story’s authenticity.

Audience: I would recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for readers ages 12 and up because of some of the language and sexual references. The age of the protagonist (14) also lends the book to that age group. That said, I would recommend it to any reader over the age of 12, be they 16 or 56. This book would work well in a high school classroom or as an individual leisure read.

Personal reaction: I could not put this book down. In addition to Sherman Alexie’s wonderful storytelling ability, I was impressed by his careful consideration of the many layers of complicated relations and mindsets of his characters. I came to really care about Junior. The first time I read this book a number of years ago, it made me more aware of my own thought patterns surrounding Native Americans, and sparked my interest in reading about reservations today. I laughed a lot and enjoyed the provocative nature of the story and topics at hand.

A Christmas Story

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than a cat. Every birthday, every Christmas, every opportunity I had I asked for a kitten. For ten years, a cat remained an elusive dream. I loved our dog. I loved my guinea pigs. But I was a cat person through and through. Then I turned ten years old. I was in fourth grade. Christmas time rolled around, as it always does, in festive lights and spirited songs. On Christmas Eve I assembled, as always, a plate of cookies and a glass of milk to leave out for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer.  And then, as always, I began to write my letter to Santa. I had my suspicions about the whole Santa business. But I loved the ritual. I wanted to believe. Reading The Polar Express with my father each year made my heart beat faster and my tongue tingle with the taste of the imagined hot cocoa they drink on the train. That night, however, I put my dwindling belief to the test. “Dear Santa,” I wrote, and I cannot remember exactly what my thought process was, and when my pen changed route. But rather than my typical sweet thanks-for-being-your-jolly-old-self letter, I said something to the effect of, “If you’re really real, you’ll bring me a kitten this year.”

I put it all on the line. The gift I wanted most of all. The merry figure I wanted so badly to believe in.

On Christmas morning (and it was a white Christmas that year. Even if it wasn’t really, it will always be in my memory), my family joined together in the living room, the wood stove radiating heat as kindling snapped and sizzled. We opened our stockings as we always do, going around and around, each person taking a turn, pulling some small delight out one by one. After stockings my parents prepared breakfast, I played Christmas carols on the piano, and my brother probably set the table seeing as I had most likely avoided that duty by plopping myself down at the piano. We ate our breakfast cheerfully, as always. Eggs, bacon, some scrumptious cinnamon concoction made for us each year by family friends, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Then my brother readied the chairs around the Christmas tree, assigning each person a seat. He always handed out the gifts, and we opened them as we always do, going around and around, each person taking a turn. I love this tradition of slowness and suspense and lingering over each gift, enjoying each other’s pleasure.

That Christmas, though, I confess I was a little bit disappointed. I felt guilty about that disappointment, but it was there nonetheless. I had known I was too old to believe in Santa. I had known my parents weren’t really going to get me a kitten. But I couldn’t help hoping. We finished opening our gifts, and I pushed my disappointment down and stood up to play a little before getting dressed. Then a blurry magical moment. Someone pointed out that there was a letter in the tree, stuck high up in the branches. A letter with my name on it. Someone pulled it down and handed it to me and I opened it. There in my hands was a letter from Santa telling me that I would find my kitten waiting for me in the next couple of days. A Christmas kitten. I read it over and over. The handwriting didn’t have my mother’s elegant slant or my father’s hurried scrawl. It was neat, readable, and unrecognizable. Of course it wasn’t my parents’ handwriting. I mean, I knew they were opposed to having a cat. They would never have agreed to get me one. And I had written the letter so late at night that there was really only one plausible explanation: Santa Claus himself had written me a letter.  He had read my letter and understood the urgency, the fragile belief on the line, and he had responded. I cried happy tears. I was getting a kitten. From Santa. And there was nothing my parents could do about it.

I did find my kitten, at a local animal shelter. When we arrived to the shelter on December 26th it was closed still for the holidays. However, one employee was there feeding the animals. She unlocked the doors let us in. A litter of kittens had just been delivered (by Santa, obviously). And there was mine, waiting for me: a playful, grey, fluffy furball with a white chin, a white chest and belly, and white boots on all four paws. In an attempt to be poetic I named him Snow Prince, thinking myself very clever since it looked like he had snow on his paws. He quickly captured all of our hearts, tortured our dog (who was the most patient, mellow dear in the world and Snow Prince was never quite the same after she passed away), terrified any guinea pig I had from that point on, and destroyed my mother’s beautiful furniture. He was the love of my life. He treated me like a sibling cat, cuddling, licking, wrestling with my arms, biting them. No one else put up with his wrestling moments, being the wise people they are, but I didn’t mind the scratches. I loved that cat too much. He trotted around with a rubber cricket—some old toy of mine—in his mouth, tossing it up in the air and batting it around. He lay on the floor next to my feet as I played the piano and purred. He waited for me to finish my showers in the morning so that he could walk in and lap up the water. He slept on my bed with me at night, and never quite outgrew pouncing on my toes if they wiggled just so.

One day when he was still quite tiny I went for a walk to our town library. It was a windy, cold, grey day. I kept hearing a little jingle behind me, but any time I turned around there wasn’t anything there. About half a mile from our house I finally turned and there he was, my little Prince, trotting behind me, his collar jingling. He had been darting in and out of the woods alongside the road. At the moment I turned around, though, an enormous truck zoomed past us. Prince spooked and ran into the woods. I hurried after him, and found him huddled in a ball, quivering. I turned around and carried him home.

He really was a Christmas miracle. In my hometown, it is unheard of for cats to live more than a few years because of the coyotes, owls, and other wildlife that prey on domestic animals. Snow Prince grew into a tough cat, nothing like his dainty name. He stayed out all night during a horrible lightning storm. He got into many fights, returning with battle wounds to show off. Once I heard the fight happening from afar and called and called and called his name fearing the worst. He returned home within the hour with a hole in his head, but seeming none the worse for wear. Eventually I think he just earned his keep. He outlived every cat we knew in town by more than double, triple, quadruple, quintuple in some cases. He survived enough misadventures that those other animals let him be, and he prowled the woods as he pleased. Well, and after probably twelve or so years, his stringy meat didn’t look so appealing.

Every summer when I went to camp Prince would express his displeasure by vomiting in my shoes or on a sweatshirt on the floor in my closet, which I wouldn’t find for months sometimes. When I went to college, my heart broke a little. Whenever I returned he would follow me everywhere, not even letting me go to the bathroom without him.  When I moved to Wisconsin after college and a year in Thailand, my heart broke even more. But I couldn’t take a fourteen-year-old cat that had always had a big house, big yard, and big woods for his playground and coop him up in a tiny apartment. Every Christmas I’ve returned to find him there, a little more deaf, meowing a little more loudly because he’s a little more deaf, and a little more arthritic, and even more affectionate. As he’s aged he’s been more content to lay in the sun and leave the prowling to the younger generation of felines. He loves nothing more than being held and hugging the holder. He even came to tolerate our sloppy, happy-go-lucky dog who could never take the place of our first dog, but who shares his smelly dog bed and therefore is acceptable. He’s gradually needed a little assistance hopping up on beds, but could manage clumsily if need be.

And this Christmas he won’t be there when I return. Tomorrow, my beloved Snow Prince will be put to rest, and I can’t even be there to comfort him. Or more to comfort me, I suppose. I know he’s suffering from poor health right now, and I want nothing more than for him to be content and comfortable. But it’s breaking my heart most of all that he’s so many miles away on such a hard night. I know he’s probably purring in the arms of my mom or dad, but not mine. I will never hold him again or bury my face in his fur. And in some ways the most grown up thing I feel like I’ve ever done wasn’t taking marriage vows, paying my first bills, buying my first home, or birthing a child. The most grown-up thing I’ve ever done was listening to my parents tell me that Prince’s time has come and not screaming no. Not begging them not to. Knowing that they are the ones with him every day and that they know when the scale of physical suffering and happiness has tipped too far to one side. And knowing that it must be terrible to tell me the news. The most grown-up thing I’ve ever done is to my let my kitty go. I turned twenty-eight in October. He turned eighteen this month.

Tonight we had a video chat so that I could say goodbye, not that the deaf old boy could hear me anyway. He purred in my father’s arms the whole time. I think we all were crying.

Snow Prince is the most amazing pet a girl could ever have hoped for, and the one I thought I’d never have. And so even though he won’t be there this Christmas season, I will still do what I’ve always done: write my letter to Santa. And this year, I’ll be sure to thank him for the best Christmas gift there ever was.

Photo of Snow Prince the Cat

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Cover of "The Last Summer of the Death Warriors"Stork, Francisco X. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010.

Plot: Pancho cannot seem to escape death. First his mother, then his father, then his sister Rosa died. And now he is stuck at St. Anthony’s, an orphanage, babysitting for D.Q., a blond, white kid who is fighting cancer and writing the Death Warrior Manifesto, an ethos for how to live. D.Q. might be a good friend, but he’s a good friend at the wrong time. Right now, Pancho just needs to find the man that he is certain killed his developmentally disabled sister and avenge her. But as the summer progresses, Pancho decides that revenge can wait as he stays by D.Q.’s side, pondering the meaning of life, death, faith, and friendship.

Setting: New Mexico, present day

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Death, life, revenge, friendship, cancer, mental disabilities, coming-of-age

Literary Quality: The Last Summer of the Death Warriors is a powerful story about the coming-of-age and growing friendship of two young men. As Pancho and D.Q. seek the meaning of life and death, author Stork looks honestly at teen male relationships and asks tough questions about perceptions of individuals who are differently-abled. Much of Pancho’s journey to self-discovery involves recognizing his own guilt, misperceptions, and misunderstandings surrounding his sister, who he considered childish, stunted, and incapable of making mature decisions about her own life and sexuality. D.Q. simultaneously struggles over his relationship with his mother who abandoned him years before. Between the two boys, readers get a profound glimpse at the meaning of family, both biological and constructed. In the end, Stork asks grand, sweeping questions, which he answers with nuance, subtlety, and humor. Readers familiar with Don Quixote will also appreciate echoes of that tale here.

Cultural Authenticity: Francisco X. Stork clearly has a stake in the issues his novel explores. Like Pancho, Stork is Mexican American. His mother was forced to give birth to him in secrecy because of the pregnancy’s illegitimacy and his step- and adopted father died when he was thirteen years old. He also studied Latin American literature during the course of his higher education.

Audience: I would recommend this book to readers ages 13 and up due to the mature themes and possible implication of sexual violence and murder. Given the almost entirely male cast of characters I expect it will have special appeal to male readers, but the story will certainly be enjoyed by young women, as well.

Personal reaction: I was very impressed with Stork’s novel. I appreciated Pancho’s imperfections and his struggle to allow himself to be a good friend. Stork incorporates details about socioeconomic, racial, and physical values in our society and their implications with subtlety without underplaying their importance. Instead he suggests that a possible mix of all three sets of values and circumstances have caused the police to dismiss Rosa’s death, and have led Pancho to his current mission of revenge. The story has a lovely thoughtfulness to it. I think Stork asks questions that teens especially tend to ask themselves about the meaning of life and death, and he does not condescend in his method of asking or in his answers.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Cover of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFeversLaFevers, Robin. Grave Mercy. His Fair Assassin. Book 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Plot: After Ismae Rienne’s childhood in the household of an abusive, turnip-growing father culminates in his sale of her to an equally abusive husband, she gladly takes an offer of refuge at a convent dedicated to St. Mortain, the god of Death. There she learns that her true father is St. Mortain, Himself, indicated by a nasty scar on her back brewed by the poison her mother took to try and expel Ismae from her womb. Ismae embraces her new role at the convent where she joins Death’s handmaidens in dedicating her life to the god and His desired assassinations. After completing her training in weaponry, poisons, history, politics, womanly arts, and her first two assignments, Ismae unwillingly enters into her next assignment posing as the mistress of Gavriel Duval in the court of Brittany’s young duchess, Anne. Her abilities to spy on Duval and identify any treachery on his part are thwarted by her growing affection for the man. With France and other parties threatening Brittany’s independence and future, time is running short for Ismae to collect herself and carry out her assignment. But as she begins to question her obligations to the convent, she wonders whether she has landed on the right side of good and evil.

Setting: 15th-century Brittany

Point of View: 1st person (Ismae)

Theme: Death, religion, romance, political intrigue, historical fiction, Brittany, France, mystery, murder, gender expectations

Literary Quality: LaFevers’ first entry in a planned trilogy grabs readers from the start and does not release them until the very last page. The blend of history, politics, mystery, fantasy, and romance along with well-paced chapters are sure to engage a wide variety of readers. Grave Mercy explores questions surrounding death, religion, gender expectations, love, and duty thoughtfully and with dark humor, but does not answer them completely (unsurprising given the additional novels to follow). LaFevers’ dynamic characters are most human in their combination of endearing and infuriating traits and moments. Ismae’s evolution and concerns over her self-identity nicely parallel the fears and transitions surrounding the fate of the young duchess and Brittany’s independence without being overdrawn. At the same time, readers will find it difficult to feel settled in this startling and provocative suggestion that in a strictly gendered world, women find power and agency in life through death.

Cultural Authenticity: LaFevers elegantly combines both real history and a fictional past in Grave Mercy. She also takes inspiration from mythology and epics. She has explained this process a bit in an interview at The Enchanted Inkpot noting that the most difficult part was paring down the political intrigue, which was even thicker in real life than in the book! Of course, the book coud be further enriched by a list of sources, but LaFevers’ website does offer further information and a select bibliography, as well as explanations on her creation of this fictionalized historic world.

Audience: I would recommend this book for readers ages 15 and up. As mentioned above, the blend of genres and topics should have wide appeal.

Personal reaction: Grave Mercy combines some of my favorite things to read (medieval European history, strong female protagonists, mystery, and romance) so well, I just couldn’t put it down. I did have some lingering questions about the outcome of the story that I expect will be answered in the rest of the trilogy. I felt particularly satisfied that I was never certain of the traitor’s identity until very near the end; new questions and doubts always popped up. I look forward to the next book!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Image of book cover for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Plot: Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of a Paris train station. His belly is often empty, but his life is full of secrets: his father died in a fire at the museum where he worked, his drunken uncle who took him in is missing, and he winds the station clocks in his uncle’s place. Perhaps his biggest secret is that he is trying to complete his clockmaker father’s last project, fixing an automaton, a mechanical man who can write. When stealing necessary parts gets him into trouble, he loses his father’s notebook of crucial drawings and diagrams to a grumpy old toyseller. Will he ever be able to solve the mystery of the mechanical man, or will he be alone forever?

Setting: 1931; Paris, France.

Point of View: 3rd person limited (to Hugo) until the last chapter when it switches to 1st person in Hugo’s voice. The perspective is also unique because large portions of the story are told through illustrations.

Theme: Orphans, death, mystery, work, imagination, magic, film, drawings, mechanics, 1930s, France

Literary Quality: This book breaks boundaries set by most novels in its alternating storytelling modes of prose and illustrations. Mixing reality with invention, it intertwines some real history of filmmaking and particularly of the filmmaker, Georges Méliès, with a fictional story about young Hugo Cabret, hidden behind his clocks. Beautiful pencil drawings and photographs from old movies create a cinematic effect and add to the enchantment and mystery of the story. Selznick won the Caldecott Medal for this book.

Cultural Authenticity: Selznick includes detailed source notes and clarifies which aspects of the book are fiction and which are historic. His research shines through on the history of filmmaking, automatons, and the Paris train station. He explains that he invented a personality for Georges Méliès to fill in some blanks. His inclusion of stills from several films also adds to the authenticity of the novel.

Audience: I would recommend this book for ages 9 and up, for whom the ages of the characters, the storyline, and the illustrations hold attraction. The story has broad appeal across genders and generations. It is a great group (classroom or library or other book group setting) or individual read.

Personal reaction: I absolutely loved The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I found it to be wonderfully enchanting, and felt swept away by the story and illustrations into another place and time. The illustrations and photographs complement and support the text, adding a dimension of magic, creativity, and movement to the novel that uniquely captures the story’s essence. The subtle differences between varying depictions of the same scene enabled a sense of motion, which, along with the quietness of the book, was emblematic of an old motion picture. This is a book I recommend every chance I get.