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Siren Sisters by Dana Langer (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

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Siren Sisters by Dana Langer (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

SIREN SISTERS by Dana Langer

published by Aladdin, January 2017

suggested age range: 9 – 13

SUMMARY:

A soon-to-be siren finds herself responsible for the lives of her sisters–and the fisherman they curse–in this haunting debut novel.

Lolly Salt has three beautiful sisters. When they’re not in school or running their small town’s diner, they’re secretly luring ships to their doom from the cliffs of Starbridge Cove, Maine. With alluring voices that twelve-year-old Lolly has yet to grow into, the Salt sisters do the work mandated by the Sea Witch, a glamorously frightening figure determined to keep the girls under her control. With their mother dead after a mysterious car accident, and their father drowning in grief, the sisters carry on with their lives and duties until a local sea captain gets suspicious about the shipwrecks.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Death of a parent, grief, the environment, making choices

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Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf discussions here.

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  I almost gave up on this book because I was reading too many things at once, and I wasn’t totally hooked by the first two chapters.  I’m SO glad I stuck with it though.  Around chapter three it really turned a corner, and I loved it after that.  In fact, I texted you as soon as I finished it and told you it was a MUST READ.

Eva:  I felt the opposite — I was drawn in almost immediately!  Maybe because I loved the setting:  a quaint and quirky New England sea town that holds an annual folk festival and is seeped in the legends and history of its colonial days.  In some ways Starbridge Cove felt like a real, specific place, and yet it in other ways the town had a mystical quality that made the sea witch and the existence of sirens seem believable.

Meagan:  Let’s talk about the sea witch!  She is first introduced in chapter three.  Prior to her introduction, we’ve only been told that Lolly is becoming a siren and her sisters are sirens but none of that felt tangible to me until the witch came on the scene.  From that point on, the whole story was a rich and complicated tapestry with threads coming together from hundreds of years of the town’s history, cultures from all over the world, and the interplay and of many complex characters.  I often find myself drawn to complex stories, and this definitely fit the bill.

Eva:  Yes, one of my favorite things was how the town’s history and the ancestors of some of the characters played into the story.  (There’s an old diary, for example, that I couldn’t get enough of.)  I, too, loved the complexity of the sea witch — she was a great character who winds up being both an enemy and a friend.

She also has some of the best lines in the book:  

She narrows her eyes.  “Young man, ‘witch’ is in the eye of the beholder.  It’s just a name… Let’s not talk of witches and thieves and try to figure out who is or isn’t crazy.  That’s nearly always a waste of time.”

Meagan:  I wonder about Dana Langer’s earlier drafts.  The story and characters were so complicated, I imagine this book could easily have been twice as long.  I’m curious if her first draft was enormous and then she edited it down a lot.  For so many characters and subplots we get just the tiniest taste of what’s going on and the rest is left to the imagination of the reader.  I don’t find this to be very common, but I really thought it worked.  It was like the opposite of over-writing.  I guess that’s called “trusting your reader.”

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Siren Sisters is Langer’s debut novel.

Eva:  I agree.  I thought she did a great  job with pacing.  I wasn’t always 100% on board with some of her plotting choices (for example it’s a little too easy for Lolly to get the info she needs from the sea witch), but from the middle of the book on the stakes were high and the tension was mounting.  

Meagan:  For such a multi-faceted story, it managed to move along pretty quickly.  Near the end, as the pace picked up, I found myself noticing these truncated scenes where whatever the main action was occurred and then the narrative just skipped straight to the next scene with practically no transition.  The author didn’t waste any time describing how the characters got from place to place or what happened along the way.  I don’t think I’d want a whole book to be paced like this, but for the climactic section, I was okay with it.  

Eva:  Although I thought the action-packed second half was done well, I was disappointed by the ending.  It ended rather abruptly (in my opinion) and left some major things unanswered. I wonder if there might be a sequel…

I more enjoyed reading about Lolly’s everyday life in the first half of the book, where she is trying to balance being a normal middle schooler with becoming a siren.  She comes to school late and is always tired and disorganized (because she was out late with her sisters causing shipwrecks).  She hopes no one will notice the scales that are starting to grow on the bottoms of her feet or the way her hair is changing color.  She wonders if her best friend Jason will still like her when he finds out that she’s really a monster.  I thought this was so relatable for middle school kids who are going through their own changes at this age.  (Turning into a teenager is sort of like becoming a mythical beast, right?)  

Another thing I loved was Jason’s “evil” stepdad, Mr. Bergstrom.  He was probably the most farcical character in the book, but I didn’t mind.  His comedic obsession with his own Viking heritage and his creepy comments towards Jason’s mother made him very a specific bad guy.  

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Meagan:  Yeah, he was an interesting and funny villain.  I loved that there were actually two “bad guys” operating against each other, and really, the main character is a “bad guy” in her own right.  Absolutely no one in the story is totally innocent or 100% good, but you still root for Lolly and want things to get better for her.

Eva:  I agree.  When I first heard about this story, I was skeptical.  How could the protagonist be a siren?  Aren’t sirens bad?  But this book explores the gray areas.  The sea witch and her sirens are protecting the ocean and its sealife from commercial fishers… but they are hurting people in the process.  It’s an interesting take on an old myth.  

Meagan:  Speaking of old myths, I noticed that this book came out right around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.  I haven’t had a chance to read that one yet, but apparently it’s flying off the shelves.  Gaiman has a huge fan-base of both adult and kid readers, so maybe some kids who are newly hooked on mythology will find their way to Siren Sisters.  I hope so!

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  This is an adult book, but it reminds me of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Both books explore how historical wrongdoing can have a lasting impact on a community, and both books involve the use of magic to attempt to change those consequences.  

Eva:  It reminded me of an Alice Hoffman novel.  Hoffman (author of Practical Magic and many others) often writes about quaint and quirky New England towns steeped in history, legend, and magic.  She apparently writes middle grade and young adult novels as well, although I’ve only read her books for adults.    

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A specific setting
  • Trusting the reader
  • Keeping a complicated story to a reasonable length
  • Fast pacing of a complicated story
  • Great (and complex) villains
  • A story that explores ethical gray areas

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  A magical and specific setting, two complex villains, and a relatable protagonist come together in this fast-paced yet richly-woven tale.   

Meagan:  I can imagine coming back to this book for writerly guidance on telling a complex story in the simplest and shortest possible way.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015

National Book Award Finalist

Suggested age range:  10-13 years

 

SUMMARY:

Suzy Swanson is pretty sure she knows the real reason Franny Jackson died. Everyone says that there’s no way to be certain…that sometimes things just happen. But Suzy knows there must be a better explanation—a scientific one. Haunted by the loss of her former best friend — and by a final, terrible moment that passed between them — she retreats into a silent world of her own imagination.  Convinced that Franny’s death was the result of a freak jellyfish sting, she crafts a plan to prove the truth, even if it means traveling around the globe… alone. As she prepares, she learns astonishing things about the universe around her… and discovers the potential for love and hope in her own backyard.

(summary taken from Ali Benjamin’s website)

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Death of a child, divorced parents, some bullying. It’s also possible that Suzy is on the autism spectrum, although this is never addressed outright.     

 

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Eva and Meagan display their favorite MG books.  To read more posts from Middle Grade Bookshelf, go here!

 

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  This book is formatted as a lab report.  It’s broken into sections with headings from the scientific method, which accomplishes two cool things right away.  First, it sets the book apart and helps distinguish it from other contemporary realistic fiction.  It also provides characterization for the narrator, Suzy.  She is a scientist at heart, and so the structure of the book shows us her unique world view.

 

Eva:  Exactly.  The book is divided into sections: purpose, background, hypothesis, etc.  This was probably my favorite thing because it was so clever — and perfect for this character and her story.  John Truby in The Anatomy of Story would call this a designing principle:  

“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.  It is… what makes the parts  hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Most stories, he says, don’t have a designing principle, but stories that do have one are original.  And structuring the story in this way definitely made the book more interesting to me.      

 

Meagan:  I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ali Benjamin, is an established science writer.  This book is so immersed in scientific facts and scientific thinking, it could hardly have been written by someone who was not.

 

Eva:  Totally.  Suzy knows and learns so many amazing facts about jellyfish (and many other things) — it was fun for me as the reader to learn about them, too.  She is a fount of knowledge, but all the facts are written in fun, kid-accessible ways:  

Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.  I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large.  Three billion.  Count back three billion hours and modern humans don’t exist — just wild-eyed cave people all hairy and grunting…  And yet here’s your heart, doing it’s job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.  

I was amazed at how much research went into the book, so it made sense when I realized the author started out writing an adult article about jellyfish for a science magazine.  The article didn’t work out, but it eventually became this book.

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Meagan:  I also loved how I saw the story so clearly through Suzy’s eyes.  It took a long time to get how anyone else in the story was perceiving Suzy and why.  That realization made for an interesting and dramatic moment in the middle of the story, and it was almost like I got to have that realization along with the character.  Very well done.

 

Eva:  Yes, it takes a while to realize that Suzy is seen as a weirdo by many of her classmates.  I cringed at one of the flashback lunchroom scenes when she’s sitting with the popular girls, but it’s a perfect example of Suzy’s personality and how she’s seen as odd to others but doesn’t quite realize it herself:  

“Actually, humans have the most sweat glands on the bottom of their feet.”  I say this because it’s true, and also because it’s joining the conversation.  

Molly looks at me and raises a single eyebrow.  That’s how I know I said the wrong thing . I try again.  “Did you know that sweat is sterile when it comes out of your body?”  …  “It’s kind of like pee,” I say.  “Everybody thinks pee is so gross, but it’s actually totally clean.”  

 

Meagan:  Yes, some of those scenes from Suzy’s daily life in sixth grade are the best.  I liked the parts about Suzy and Franny’s unraveling friendship (in the flashbacks).  It’s set up so that you know they used to be best friends and you also know things ended badly between them, but you don’t quite know how.  Most of the dramatic tension in the book arises from watching this social disaster unfold.  

 

Eva:  I thought the flashbacks were well done, too.  And I liked the way they were written — as if Suzy is talking TO Franny — because it helped set them apart from the present-day story:  

You were dead for two whole days before I even knew.  

The flashbacks set up a nice little mystery because we know from early on that Suzy feels guilty about something, but we don’t know what happened.  We get the story parceled out to us through the flashbacks.  

 

Meagan:  I liked the present-moment plot less, although I thought the structure that interwove the two worked well.  Some things in the present plot seemed a little over-dramatic.  Trying not to spoil anything…I thought Suzy’s decision to stop talking, and her plan for how to address her concerns and meet with the jellyfish expert, were both unnecessarily dramatic.  The lower-level drama between the friends in the flashbacks was much more believable and therefore more emotionally real and interesting to me.  

 

Eva:  I enjoyed the present-day plot. I DID question the believability of some of Suzy’s actions, particularly carrying out the plan to meet with the jellyfish expert and the strange measure she takes to “send Franny a message.”  On the other hand, I sometimes thought Suzy might be on the autism spectrum, so in light of that, perhaps her actions are more believable?  I’m not sure.  

 

Meagan:  I also thought the book was about 30% too long.  I kept thinking I’d read to the end, and then realizing there was still more.  Once I read the end of the flashback story, I think I’d had my “core emotional experience” (as Mary Kole puts it), so the rest of it just kind of felt like a long wind down.  

 

Eva:   Yeah, the climax in the flashback story was more emotionally satisfying than the present-day climax, but I think the story probably needed both.  Maybe there was a different way the present-day story could have ended, though, to make it feel more organic and satisfying.  In some ways, the present-day story just seemed like a vehicle for the very-cool lab report structure.  But since I loved the lab report structure so much, I was able to forgive some of what the story was lacking.    

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  In some ways it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.  In The Curious Incident, the narrator, Chris, is a math-obsessed teenager with autism who does not see himself or the world in the same way that everyone else does.  The Curious Incident also has a designing principle.  Not only is it a mystery story told by an unreliable, autistic narrator, but the chapters are numbered using prime numbers instead of consecutive numbers to mirror Chris’s interest in math.  Similar to the way Jellyfish is broken up into lab report sections.   

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A book with a “designing principle”
  • Alternating a present-day story with a flashback story
  • A unique voice
  • Unique characters, and characterization that’s shown rather than told
  • Dealing with grief (death of a friend)
  • Contemporary middle-grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  The lab report structure, unique main character, and loads of fascinating science facts make this novel an original and interesting read.   

Meagan:  I would suggest this book to anyone looking to write MG, contemporary, realistic fiction.  I think it’s tempting to take an easy route with contemporary, realistic fiction and tell a story about friends, family, school etc. that ultimately doesn’t stand out in any way.  This book is a good example of how a contemporary, realistic story can be told with a unique designing principle and a unique first person narrator such that it really makes the story special and memorable.

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

As a woman, as a Virginian, and as a former high school math teacher, the topic of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures both excited and moved me. She tells the true story of the black, female mathematicians who, during the labor shortages of World War II, came to work at NASA’s Langely Field campus in Hampton, Virginia. These “human computers,” most of whom had previously worked as underpaid math teachers in segregated public schools, stayed on at NASA after the war ended and became an important part of America’s race into space.

Fascinating, right? Totally. Except I had some trouble actually getting through the book.

Largely this was due to my taste in books. I was hoping for a highly-personal narrative that closely followed the lives of these brilliant women. I was hoping, to be honest, for another The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a highly-personal nonfiction book that I devoured in two days). But that is simply not what Hidden Figures is.

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I received Hidden Figures for review from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours

 

The book does follow four women in particular: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. We learn about their personal lives as well as their careers and contributions to NASA. But it is done in a much more distant way than The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; instead of staying close to these women’s stories, the book often spans way out to address the wider historical context. For example:

So far, Hampton Roads had avoided the strife that had befallen Detroit, Mobile, and Los Angeles, where tensions between whites and blacks (and in Los Angeles, between Mexican, Negro, and Filipino zoot-suited youths and the white servicemen who attacked them) boiled over into violent confrontations…

…Negro resistance to this injustice had been a constant ever since the first ship carried enslaved Africans to Old Point Comfort on Hampton’s shores in 1609. The war, however, and the rhetoric that accompanied it created an urgency in the black community to call in the long overdue debt their country owed them.

 

Margot Lee Shetterly AP Photo by Aran Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampon, VA where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures.

 

Also, unlike The Immortal Life, Shetterly, as the author, stays firmly behind the scenes (except for in the Prologue which, as it happens, was one of my favorite parts).  But all of this is not to say that Hidden Figures is bad or unreadable. The opposite, in fact.  It is a beautiful-written and expertly-researched book about a fascinating topic. It is the perfect book for people who love history and/or love reading nonfiction (especially if they enjoy nonfiction books about history). It’s not, however, the best choice for people like me who prefer novels, or at least nonfiction books that read like narrative fiction.

While this book wasn’t quite for me, I’m so glad it was written. I was happy to learn about these women, who proved you can be black and female and a top-notch mathematician (something, that, unfortunately, is still not as common as it should be.)  This is an important story that  most people knew nothing about until now.

What I’m greatly looking forward to is the motion picture; that’s right, Hidden Figures is going to be a movie! I’m guessing the film will likely focus on (and likely embellish) the narrative threads woven throughout the book and will provide me with the strong, personal story I tend to need when digesting my history.  The movie is due out this January.  It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and features Octavia SpencerJanelle MonáeKevin CostnerKirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons.