A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

a great and terrible beautyReading level: 5.9
Lexile: 760
Series: Gemma Doyle, #1
Genre: Historical fiction, paranormal
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order.

Mmmm. Libba Bray. Mmmm. That book cover. She is just so good.

Much like Beauty Queens, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a reflection on how society treats and views women. This time, there’s a Victorian spin where we get a taste of how women were expected to live back in the day. But if you stop and think for…two seconds you’ll see how some of those expectations carry over to today. Oh, but Gemma and her friends try to swim against the current, which is very refreshing.

Victorian English stories are interesting. Victorian English stories with paranormal monsters and other worlds is fantastic. I felt that some of the plot moved on too slowly, but in retrospect it was just building a complex world with complex characters that will continue for two more books (hooray!). I liked how we are set up to dislike Pippa and her crew, but we grow to like them. Watching them all pull together and grow stronger from each other was empowering. I didn’t expect them to become so tight. Honestly, I still don’t trust any of them except Gemma and Anne, but I am open to changing my mind.

It’s not ELL friendly (this is Victorian England, remember) but not too complex for higher ELLs to understand. My fear was that it just wouldn’t be appropriate for various reasons. I’ll put a PG-14 sticker on it for a brief but vivid dreamed…romantic encounter, but other than that one instance, I see no issues with it.

I might start a book talk by telling students what life was like in Victorian times: women expected to do whatever their father/brother/husband said, cook and clean and not have a career, to not speak unless spoken to, to marry whomever their parents chose… Imagine how hard it would be to rebel or be happy at all under these conditions. Gemma finds a way to escape these constraints, briefly, by escaping into the Realms, a magical place where there is anything and everything you could wish for but which holds dark magic and great dangers. Would you still go there to escape no matter the risks?

The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand

the year of shadowsReading level: ~5.0
Genre: Paranormal
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Her mother left, her neglectful father — the maestro of a failing orchestra — has moved her and her grandmother into his dark, broken-down concert hall to save money, and her only friend is Igor, an ornery stray cat.

Just when she thinks life couldn’t get any weirder, she meets four ghosts who haunt the hall. They need Olivia’s help — if the hall is torn down, they’ll be stuck as ghosts forever, never able to move on.

Olivia has to do the impossible for her shadowy new friends: Save the concert hall. But helping the dead has powerful consequences for the living . . . and soon it’s not just the concert hall that needs saving.

The Year of Shadows may be the best book I’ve read this year, perhaps even surpassing Listening for Lucca. Claire Legrand has created the flawed yet darling character of Olivia who helps ghosts “move on” with the help of her friend Henry. And Igor the cat. Can’t forget the cat. Now, ghost stories in YA can be pretty hit or miss, but this book was definitely a hit. These ghosts remind us that each life is important and unique. Overall, the story teaches readers that life is hard for everyone in some way, and it’s sometimes best to team up with someone to get through those hard bits.

I loved Olivia instantly. She’s depressed, angry, scared, goth, rude, and talented. But she’s also broken. While I was frustrated at her for being mean to her father and friends who tried to be nice to her, I understood her anger and reactions. Olivia is clearly a good person at heart, which we witness as she gingerly takes care of Nonnie, her grandmother, and instantly falls in love with Igor. As she befriends Henry and Joan, we watch as she becomes less negative and rude while continuing to keep some sort of wall between herself and others. Finally, at the end, that wall breaks down.

I loved Henry, too. We’re made to dislike him at first, because Olivia hates him. But it doesn’t take long to appreciate that he is a genuinely good person who cares about Olivia, even when she is mean to him. He slowly chips away at her wall, and he doesn’t give up even when Olivia snaps at him.

The relationship between Henry and Olivia is precious. They are too young to be “in a relationship,” so we don’t get into the romance genre at all. More than anything, these two are friends, and I loved watching them come closer and closer. The sweetest scene was at the end when they lay under a tree, and Olivia reaches out one of her fingers to rest against Henry’s. And they just lay there.

While The Year of Shadows is a middle level book, it could be enjoyed my high schoolers, too, because the themes and situations are applicable to middle though high school. For instance, Olivia mourns the loss of her absent mother and father (who isn’t much of a parent anymore); Olivia and her father live in poverty, and she takes it upon herself to get a job and buy what she needs even though she’s only about twelve years old. Heavy stuff.

It is mostly ELL-friendly, and the vocabulary I worry most about are the words dealing with music, from instruments to names of musical pieces to composers’ names. It is also necessary to understand that Olivia calls her dad “Maestro” rather than “Dad” and that Maestro means conductor of the orchestra. Another key word to understand is “anchor,” but not like a boat anchor. The anchors in this story deal with objects that were precious to someone in life and is something that is preventing (weighing down) the ghost from moving on to the world of Death. Because Nonnie speaks Italian, there are some Italian words and phrases throughout. Most of these words are translated or are cognates of English. Otherwise, I could tell from context clues what Nonnie was trying to convey.

Since this book is still pretty new, it is not leveled through Scholastic. My best guess, with some help from Microsoft Word, is that it’s at approximately a 5th grade reading level.

The Year of Shadows is my eighteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

In the Stone Circle – Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

in the stone circleReading level: 5.5

Genre: mystery, paranormal

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: Middle school

I confess that I love ghost stories, and I was quite pleased with this one. Although it was a tad juvenile, I turned on a few extra lights when I went to bed.

Cristyn came off as annoying and spoiled at the beginning, but her true (non-obnoxious) colors showed when she befriended 8 year-old Dennis and served as mediator between Miranda and her family. She really turned into a likeable character in very little time.

Miranda is a little twerp annoying. She reminds me of Phoebe in Walk Two Moons in that her character was pretty unlikable, but underlying stressers were causing her nasty attitude. The lesson here is that to know someone truly, we must understand all that they’re going through, their past and present. This lesson also applies to Dennis who acted out for various reasons and to Dennis and Miranda’s mother. Essentially, judging people is bad.

I think this book could be powerful in the hands of a student who has lost a family member through death or divorce. Although in this story Miranda’s dad is sort of the bad guy, we see how divorce can tear apart families, but also how they can be put back together. It might be good for students to read about kids like them struggling due to their parents divorcing. This story might also help students with the loss of a loved one because it highlights how hard it is to talk about and that it’s impossible to “get over it.”

I recommending this book to middle schoolers; it’s too easy of a read for high schoolers, and the subject matter is, like I said, juvenile. There are a dozen or so instances of characters saying things like “My God” or “Oh my God” to the point where it was a little excessive. That might bug some parents/students. There’s also about half a dozen-ish curse words – but not really bad ones, or anything. I don’t think these two reasons are enough to keep it off the shelves. I mean, if zero swearing were allowed in school books, there would be no school libraries.

Something that did really bug me was one or two characters using the term “retard” in a derogatory way. The first time, I pretended I didn’t see it. The second time, I crossed it out with a pencil so students will know that the word is there (I’m not censoring) but will know that it’s “bad” essentially.

The book is good for ELLs, but there are colloquialisms throughout, not to mention Welsh names of places and people. But I think that in the hands of an intermediate student, it could be just the level of familiar and difficult to get students thinking a little harder than they’re used to (Vygotsky’s i+1, anyone?). I mean that the language is at a low-level and is written how people casually speak. Throughout, there are academic words, Welsh terms, and figures of speech that might be a bit confusing.