Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Banned Books Week 2014

I found an amazing article today out of Arizona that did a great job of detailing why we celebrate Banned Books Week. It also included a list of the ten most challenged books last year, along with the incredible news that NO BOOK was banned, according to the ALA. PROGRESS!!

Check out the article here: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/mesa/2014/09/22/hunger-games-one-of-many-books-challenged-in-2013/16054491 and don't forget to come back and tell us what you think!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mum is in Charge - John O'Neill

Summary: The story Mum is in Charge' is based on true events, covering the period 1939 to 1945, with some flashbacks to earlier years. It is related by youngest child of the family, with a host of interesting, exciting, challenging moments. 
There is a close encounter with death, the controversial friendship with an old lady ghost, sadness, hardships including school bullying, which developed into what all families need, a bonding as a single unit. The making of a few close friends, which grew into a happy camaraderie. The experiences of a young infatuation and romances. There are veiled secrets which are for the first time revealed after seven decades, and brings into play emotional heart searching. 
It is Mum who had the most common sense in the family and turned all types of situations into acceptable realities, resulting in Mum is in Charge'. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: At the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I lived in a neighborhood that everyone referred to as “newly wed and nearly dead.” We were, of course, on the newly wed side, although we were among the oldest of the newly weds. The next closest in age to us were people who were 70 years old, and it just went up from there. We lived there for about four years and we really enjoyed it, and we got to know a lot of the older couples. We still stay in touch with them, mostly in the form of Christmas cards. Ours are slick, complete with photo and print-on-demand, and sometimes we’ll include a witty poem about our goings on of the year. Theirs are always typed, but much less froofy and are obviously from an era where texting wasn’t the main form of communication. K thnx bye ttfn cu l8er

Mum Is in Charge reminded me of that. The writing is almost stream of conscious—like you’d picked up in the middle of an ongoing conversation, a reminder that people did actually write long letters back and forth and didn’t necessarily expect a response within the minute. R u there? In fact, Mr. O’Neill talks a lot about keeping a scrapbook, and spent a lot of time keeping it up, so this book ends up being a unique memoir. Obviously a lot of information in it is taken from his perspective of events as they were taken at the time, with the added bonus of his perspective of those same events as an older man.

This is a gentle little book, reliving one of the most important parts of history through the eyes of one who was actually there. The author describes in great detail what it was like to be a youth in England during World War II, living not only the important, flashy parts of the war, but day to day life as well. For this, I find this book invaluable. It is told in little stories and vignettes of remembrances and memories and although I found this a little bit difficult at the beginning, I really enjoyed it by the end. It was a genuine peak into someone’s life during this great historic time.

This book is not a dramatized version of all the important things happening to one person in one brief novel. Instead, it’s a lovely memoir of one man recalling his past and giving the gift of his memories. If you are a WWII or history buff or even just love reading memoirs, you should definitely look into this book.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is some mild language and some teenage sexual exploits, but nothing too shocking. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Of Blood and Brothers: Book Two - E. Michael Helms

Summary:  Following the unexpected death of his father, reporter Calvin Hogue is eager to resume writing his weekly serial featuring Daniel and Elijah Malburn, brothers who fought for opposing armies during the Civil War some six decades ago.

After its resounding victory at Chickamauga and subsequent defeat at Lookout Mountain/Missionary Ridge, the Confederate Army of Tennessee has fallen back to winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia. Spring arrives, and with it come thousands of fresh Union troops to reinforce the armies under the command of General William T. Sherman. Soon the Federals launch a relentless offensive against the greatly outnumbered Confederate army, determined to take the vital railhead at Atlanta.

The Confederates make the first of many valiant stands at Resaca, but are flanked and forced to retreat toward Atlanta. During a fierce battle near the small town of Dallas, Daniel suffers a severe head wound. His “pards” report he’s been killed, but he comes to and is captured. Sent north to Rock Island Prison, Daniel faces a new war—surviving the harsh conditions and cruelties to which the Southern captives are subjected.

After unwillingly leading Union forces on a raid through the Econfina Valley, the Malburns’ lifelong home, Elijah learns the Federals’ next objective is to capture the Florida capital of Tallahassee. The Confederates confront the invaders south of the city at Natural Bridge, and after a vicious battle win a striking victory. Elijah survives the fight, but he’s had enough of a war he wanted no part of. With Union forces scattering in disarray, he and beloved family slave Jefferson desert and set out for home.

The South finally surrenders, but the peace is far from won. Freed from prison, an expectant Daniel faces an arduous, year-long trek home only to find his dreams shattered and his world forever changed.

Trouble stalks the Malburns in post-war Florida. Amid the violent days of Reconstruction, Daniel and Elijah face continuing conflict, family turmoil and heart-wrenching tragedy as they struggle toward a hard-earned and costly reconciliation.  (Summary and Image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review:  I found myself giddy to receive the concluding book of E. Michael Helms' series Of Blood and Brothers.  I was so excited to find out how the brothers would reunite (praying it wouldn't be on a battlefield), what would happen with Annie, and I wanted to know what caused the rift I sensed in the first novel.

Helms has done a great job continuing the brothers' stories and propelling the overall story of the Malburn family forward.  I appreciate seeing different sides of the war than I'm used to (Daniel's time in Rock Island and his journey home), and I was fascinated by his journey home.  Elijah's desertion felt so organic I didn't even question what he was doing, which surprised me.  The grief that the Malburn family feels upon receiving the erroneous news of Daniel's death shook me.

I also appreciated the story continuing on through the Reconstruction, detailing the stress, the worry, and the boiling animosity between the South and the encroaching carpetbaggers.  Unfortunately, the story switched points of view so quickly during this section I found myself confused more than once whether it was Danny or Eli wreaking havoc.  The conclusion to the arc was dramatic and sorrowing ... but the overall conclusion felt a little trite.  I guess it's because I was expecting more of an understanding as to the rift between brothers that I sensed in the first book.  Either I imagined that rift, or that storyline was unresolved.  

My Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Wartime battles, postwar and POW violence, and cold-blooded murders.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Flip - Michael Phillip Cash

Description: Julie and Brad Evans are house flippers. They buy low, clean out the old occupants junk, and try to make a profit. Enter Hemmings House on Bedlam Street in scenic Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Too good a deal to pass up, but with an ominous secret. The old Victorian Mansion has dwellers that do not want to be dispossessed. As the house reveals it's past, will the couples marriage survive The Flip? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com.  I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review: Well. This was a fun little book.  Right from the start, you can tell it’s a ghost story with poltergeist-type ghosts, and it appears that these ghosts are not about to hand over their old Victorian mansion to just whoever.  [Cue appropriately dramatic music] This book doesn’t really pull any punches—it is what it is. It’s a ghost story with some love stories in it, peppered with some good old-fashioned ghostly encounters.  If you’re looking for a ghost story that won’t necessarily have you scared out of your wits but will certainly come back to you if you visit any run-down Victorian mansions, then this is your book.

I wouldn’t say the premise to this book’s plot is anything shocking or new, but it certainly does a good job of creating a spooky environment.  In fact, I think that’s its greatest strength. It’s not like you’re literally too scared to read, but more like fun scared. The characters are unabashedly handsome and beautiful, and although their relationship appears perfect on the outside, there are, of course, some demons (pun totally intended) in the closet. I wouldn’t say I necessarily related to the characters, but I was certainly right there with them when they were being all creeped out by former residents of the mansion.

I am not a huge reader of hard core horror, especially if it involves a lot of gore or creepy satanic things, so this was a fun read for me and definitely my kind of horror. My brother-in-laws watch really disgusting horror movies that only hard core horror lovers even know about. Compared to those, this book is “Watcher in the Woods” (which is totally a compliment, by the way. NAREK!) It’s relatively low commitment: it’s not a literary slog nor full of confusing and inane things.The writing is really accessible and it’s a total page turner. I read it in about a day.

So if you’re looking for something fun, fast, and with a good ghost story, you should check it out. It would be perfect for Halloween readers who want something sort of light sauce or for anyone going somewhere really old and cool like the Winchester Mansion or old Victorian homesteads. You know, just to get in the mood.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and one or two mild sex scenes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Strands of Bronze and Gold - Jane Nickerson

Summary:  The Bluebeard fairy tale retold. . . .

When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

Glowing strands of romance, mystery, and suspense are woven into this breathtaking debut—a thrilling retelling of the “Bluebeard” fairy tale.  (Image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: Of all of the princes or villains that I was introduced to as a child, Bluebeard is the one I'd least like to meet.  Blackbeard (I always thought they must be cousins), although not a fairy tale, is someone I'd LOVE to sit down and chat with.  But Bluebeard?  Creepy!

Jane Nickerson is forthright that the fairy tale of Bluebeard disturbs even her, but her retelling is masterful. Set in antebellum Mississippi, Nickerson has crafted the perfect world for her Bluebeard's dealings.  His isolation of our heroine Sophie, his dual personality-one for the charmer, one for the controlling side, his flattery, generosity and simultaneous demands of repayment ... this book read like a manual "How to Spot a Bad Relationship". 

It was disturbing.  It was frightful.  It left me feeling dark and icky, that although Sophie was able to see what kind of man her godfather is, that although she is bright and independent, she still allows the traps to be set.  I think that was Nickerson's point - run while you first can.  Run, and don't look back.

I couldn't help but think of that Twilight study - that Edward and Bella's relationship fits every question used to define an abusive relationship.  This book would as well, but this time, Nickerson paints the relationship in a most unflattering light.  Sophie wants to escape.  She desires it to all end.

Did I regret reading the book?  I don't know.  Nickerson is a good author, and has done a fantastic job retelling a disturbing story.  Did I feel dark and icky? Yes.  Was I supposed to?  Yes.  Will I be checking out more of her books?  Yes ... I don't think she can get creepier than Bluebeard!

My Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  de Cressac's character is a horrible man.  There are multiple murders (only one plays out in the book), one near molestation, and the entire novel is about an abusive relationship.  Although the heroine does escape for the best in the end, it is disturbing.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lights Out - Melissa Groeling

Summary: Even when the lights are out, he can still see you…
Paul Holten’s profession doesn’t leave much room for doubt or conscience but he’s reaching his breaking point. The nightmares are getting worse, the jobs are getting harder to finish and the volatile relationship with his boss, Aaron, is falling apart. Now faced with the possibility of an impending death sentence, Paul makes the fatal decision to run. Drawn into one hellish situation after another, he’s forced to confront his dark past---and wonder if perhaps dying isn’t the better option. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com.  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review: Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Just whoa.

Right from the start this book is compelling. First off, it has a character who is instantly unlikeable but also really interesting. He’s been trained to do a job—not necessarily of his own volition—and he is good at it. But he isn’t the one who calls the shots. He’s a man who is trained to kill and is not only good at what he does, but has no choice. He’s got nothing to lose as he feels he’s already reached the bottom, but he really has nothing to gain either, since his life is not his own. So you can see where this is going. Someone with no choice but to do what they’re told—to kill who they’re told—will be pretty good at their job.

This book is gripping right from the start, and once it gets going…well, you’d better plan on just reading. I was particularly exhausted one night, thinking I would just read a chapter to relax before going to sleep (cause, ya know, murder is so relaxing), and then two and a half hours later I was wide awake, reading, wondering how long it would take me to finish the second half of the book.

The story is compelling. You feel like you’re cheering for the characters against almost insurmountable odds. There’s a lot going on and a lot at stake and all you can do is just readreadreadreadread with the hopes that it will all be over soon and end how you want it to.

I am being purposely vague. I don’t want to give anything away because this book is a serious trip. If you like gritty, non-stop action, murder and mystery and mayhem and keep-you-gripped-to-the-end-unpredictable-adventure-in-a-crime-novel, this book is for you.

But let’s address the elephant in the room. This book is violent. Like seriously violent. Like Girl with a Dragon Tattoo violent. With children. Yeah. So if even the idea of that makes you want to ralph up your Froot Loops, you should pass on Lights Out. If you can overlook this, then you should certainly give it a try. If you have read any of the Scandinavian wave of crime novels and you’re fine with that level of violence and gore, you should be fine with this. I do not think I can overstate the level of violence. There were several points where I was trying to decide if I could even handle it (but it’s not like I’m some sort of hard core violence person or anything) but once I felt like I was pushed to the edge, it would stop and give me a reprieve. Because of this, however, I do not know if I would read it again.

My rating: 4 stars.

For the sensitive reader: This book is extremely violent both physically and sexually, and some violence involves minors. No sensitive reader should read it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bossy Pants - Tina Fey

Summary: Before Liz Lemon, before "Weekend Update," before "Sarah Palin," Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon -- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.  (Summary from Amazon.com and image from npr.org)

My Review:  I have always found Tina Fey to be hilarious.  What I didn't realize is how TV-edited she is!  This book is crass.  Very crass.  If you have any aversion to swearing or harsh language and crude jokes, this is NOT the book for you.  If you can turn a blind eye to those things, or even enjoy the humor that slides into the gutter at times, it's the hilarious Tina Fey you're used to but without a filter.

I listened to this on audio, so one of the aspects I found jarring was the jumping around of chapter to chapter with regards to topics.  It really didn't feel like one chapter had any connection to the previous or subsequent.  I'm sure this was easier to follow with the visual of the chapter headings, but listening made it confusing at times and disjointed at best.

One of Fey's charms is how unassuming she is.  I adore the fact that she honestly doesn't think she's attractive, that she doesn't view herself as anything special, and she knows that a lot of success is working hard, and having connections.  I enjoyed seeing how her career took off.  It's always interesting to see how people's trails are blazed.  Her openness to share how precarious her success and the show 30 Rock was in the beginning is authentic; it doesn't seem that much on TV is authentic any more, so this was a nice change.

A friendly warning to those who are conservative: Fey is a die-hard liberal and makes it very apparent in this book.  If you don't like jabs at all things not liberal, this won't be your book.

Rating:  3.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Tina's hilarious perspective on how her life has come to be.

Monday, September 8, 2014

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks

Summary: We survived the zombie apocalypse, but how many of us are still haunted by that terrible time? We have (temporarily?) defeated the living dead, but at what cost? Told in the haunting and riveting voices of the men and women who witnessed the horror firsthand, World War Z is the only record of the plague years. (summary and cover from goodreads.com)

My Review: Perhaps the most unnerving thing about a zombie apocalypse would be the not knowing what they're really like, or what we're really supposed to do to fight them. Sure, we've all seen "The Walking Dead", let alone the many other books and movies that have fed our zombie obsession for years. Just yesterday I saw Facebook pictures of a friend's 5k race that was zombie-versus-human themed. They’re everywhere now—and not just in geekdom. Zombies have literally (well, hopefully not) grabbed us and we're officially obsessed.

I'm a newcomer to zombie-dom; I have to admit that I didn't have much interest in zombies before the recent onslaught of zombies into everything pop culture. Reading World War Z was never really on my list until I became one of those newcomer zombie lovers (and I'm not alone here, you know), but, surprisingly, I loved it.

And it terrified me.

Because it got me asking what would we really do if there was a zombie apocalypse. I mean, how do you really kill them? Obviously we've all been trained by our zombie reading and watching to aim for the brain and take 'em down and save our bullets when they're close enough to deal with in hand-to-hand combat, but really…what would we do? And that's what's terrifying and awesome and awesomely terrifying about World War Z. It's not sensationalized, hyped-up, Hollywood-type zombies, but more like an unknown evil that sneaked up without us even knowing it. It's not like we've ever really seen a zombie, or ever really expected to see one, so what would we do? And at one point do we stop all the re-creations of Hollywood's version of zombie fighting and actually have to deal with real ones—ones who crossed the ocean floor, ones who were frozen and now thawing, ones who weren't killed correctly in the first place—a nameless, faceless army that never stops, never gives up, has no conscience and no leader?

But this was not the scariest thing in this book. The things that were the most unnerving were both the amount of precise personal information given and the lack of general, overarching information. It’s written with an unknown interviewer/narrator, who then gives personal accounts of various people in various walks of life, who lived through the worldwide zombie war. There are bits and pieces of annotation that give a little bit of a broader picture, but mostly it's just one person's perspective on their little slice of hell living through World War Z. It's scary. It's scary because that's what it would be like—if infrastructure went down, if there were no internet, if modern life ceased as we knew it, we would be left with only our small, isolated personal experience. We would be left with knowing nothing in the fight for our lives.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has jumped on the zombie bandwagon—whether newcomer or old-comer. It's also just a really great read for anyone who enjoys post-apocalyptic stories or war stories. It's well-written and exciting.

My rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is not for the sensitive reader. There's violence, language, and adult themes.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Of Monsters and Madness - Jessica Verday

Summary: A romantic, historical retelling of classic Gothic horror featuring Edgar Allan Poe and his character Annabel Lee, from a New York Times best-selling author.

Summoned to her father's home in 1820's Philadelphia, a girl finds herself in the midst of a rash of gruesome murders in which he might be implicated. She is torn romantically between her father's assistants-one kind and proper, one mysterious and brooding-who share a dark secret and may have more to do with the violent events than they're letting on.
(Summary and Pic from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review: I have to admit I was a little surprised by this book. First off, and this should have been an obvious thing, but it was still a surprise to me—Of Monsters and Madness is a fictional account of some of the life of Edgar Allen Poe. When I read the description, I thought it might be “based on” historical fact or even a somewhat-biographical version of his life. Not so. It is more like a nod to the fact that Edgar Allen Poe is a somewhat unknown weirdo. Yeah, he’s creepy. Yeah, he’s obviously got some issues.  So the question is this: would the serious creeper Edgar Allen Poe even in his fictional state make a good gothic novel?

Yes. Oh yes.

And this was the other surprise to me. I’m not your typical teenage reader (who are we kidding? I’m almost decade and a half away from that!) but still. This book creeped me out. In a good way, of course. It’s not like I felt like I had to call up a Catholic priest to have my house exorcised after reading this book, and it’s also not like I had to call Mulder and Scully to come bail me out of an obviously paranormal situation. It just had a creeping dread to it which was super cool. You know, the kind that you’re watching the main character (na├»ve, beautiful, you know the drill) get herself in these situations where you’re almost yelling at the book “Don’t do it! Don’t you see?! He’s a creep! How can you not know it’s him?!!” In my defense, I never did this out loud. My bulldog was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her.  She keeps my feet warm. But I certainly did think it.

And so here’s what you’ve got—a very fun gothic horror novel with a PG rating. And I really liked that. I don’t feel that I need to be overwhelmed with gore and disgust to get that creepy dread that is so fun. I’m giving it 4 stars for that. Because I don’t think in order to have a creepy book you have to stoop to that level. You can dabble, you can dance around it, you can nod to the fact that all involved are not exactly sane, but keep it clean and do all that? Win. Also, this is a fast read with relatable characters and a fun plot. The best part? There’s a sequel, which is a big relief because it ends on a major cliffhanger and I may have to hunt the author down were it not for that.

Looking for some YA Fic of the gothic horror ilk? Read this. Looking for something low commitment to get you in the mood for Halloween? Read this. It’s a fun, easy read.

My rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: I would rate this book PG for some gore (there is murder, after all), but nothing that is above the sensitivities of a young YA reader.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Running Dream - Wendelin Van Draanen

Summary:  Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?

As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.

With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.  (Summary from Amazon.com and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  This book came to my attention two years ago, not long after it was released.  I'm a runner--not a competitive runner, but a daily runner.  And since I'm a YA reader for my job as a teacher, this book spoke to me before I even cracked the cover.  Jessica loses her leg after a freak accident after a track meet.  And being a gifted runner, this makes her world, her hopes and dreams, come crashing down.  And yet, this book is hopeful.

This is what I love so much about this book.  It's complex despite the simplistic idea of overcoming an injury that takes a limb.  Jessica's story is more than just recovering; it's about accepting herself, loving herself in her new form, learning to run again, and learning to love others on a deeper level.

Jessica's teenage attitude is authentic as well.  She's angry--quite understandably--and frustrated.  And yet, it's not hard to read about.  It's easy to relate to her and you learn to love all the flawed people in her life.  I think that's what makes the book all the more compelling: the characters are so deep, so layered, so real.

And then there's her community.  I love the idea of a community coming together to rally around each other.  I wish I could share this book with everyone.  We all won't go through the experience of losing a limb, but we'll all have difficulties we need to conquer.  And Jessica's story shares how although this is hard, it's worth it.

I highly recommend this book.

Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  I don't remember anything offensive.  Jessica is negative in the beginning after what happens to her, but it's reasonable and seems like normal teenage attitude.

Sum it up: One courageous triumph over tragedy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

When a Spider Came to Stay - Rebecca Crosdale

Summary:  She appeared one day next to my chair, right there on the floor.  She looked strange and didn't speak my language, yet there she was, just looking up at me.  I didn't know why.  (Summary from back of the book, image from  www.smashwords.com.  Book given free for review.)

My Review:  The main character in this book has an encounter with a spider and over a period of time watches the spider make web after web in the hopes of catching some food. During this time the little girl tries to get the spider to talk to her and tell her its secrets and share some food. The spider doesn't succeed in trapping some food and eventually leaves the room, which disappoints the little girl, but she ends with a feeling of reverence for what the spider has created.

While I like the idea of a book that tries to help children see how spiders aren't scary, I think this one needs a bit more polishing.  Charlotte's Web, on the whole, does a better job.  I realize that that's a longer story and this tries to do that in just 23 short pages. You can tell the author reveres spiders and what they're capable of; I'm just not sure it communicates that in a way that rubs off on children.  My daughter, after reading it to her, didn't change her opinion that spiders are creepy and gross, while Charlotte's Web helped her understand that spiders need to eat just like we do: it's just different.

The other aspect that's a little odd is the artistry, although I'm not sure the author had any control over this.  The colors seem warped, as does the character's body in different pictures.

On the whole, I think the concept is good, but the execution is poor.  I'd still read it to my kids, but I'm not sure I'd recommend this be considered high quality children's literature.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Sum it up:  An attempt to help children not be so afraid of spiders.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Collateral Kindness - Paul Holton

Summary:  As a loving father and compassionate family man, Paul Holton found it hard to reconcile his innate goodwill with his role as a steel-nerved interrogator for the Army National Guard. 
Until one day, deep in Iraqi territory, surrounded by the horrors of war, he realized how he could make a small but significant difference in the lives of the children all around him. On impulse, he began asking friends and family to send him little things like toys and toothbrushes to share with children devastated by deadly conflicts.
From that small gesture, his efforts have grown into an international humanitarian organization that now blesses children across the globe. And in the process, Holton learned that the more he focused on helping the people around him, the more he was able to cheerfully endure the hardships of his duty.
This fascinating account from the front lines illustrates the simple truth that kindness can heal even the deepest wounds.  (Image and summary from collateralkindness.com.  I was provided a complimentary copy of Collateral Kindness in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review: Chief Warrant Officer Paul Holton found more purpose on his second tour than he bargained for.  Amid the stress, the uncertainty, the goals of the United States Military and the personal goals of Chief Holton, an unexpected and abiding love for the Iraqi people grew.  He found himself wanting to give back, and found it in the most unlikely place.

I was so touched by this book.  Let me be up front, Chief Holton is not a literary scholar, he's a military man with a story to tell.  Sometimes, the grammarian in me started to surface, but the story he was telling was powerful enough to allow me to just go with it.  I was so touched, not only by his ability to see a need others were overlooking and find a way to relieve that need, but by the generosity and the kindness of strangers and of those he came into contact with.  So many were willing to help alleviate the uncertainty with a donation of toys, with a shared meal, a hug, or with donated time.  I loved witnessing the evolution of Chief Holton's secondary mission Operation Give.  He wrote this story to tell of the acts of kindness that were so common and so unreported during the war.

Holton does bring up the scrutiny that Operation Give placed him under, and unfortunately, the amount of resources and time it took led to a potential court martial.  I felt like the mention and the resolution of it came out of left field, and I wish that it had been a little more clear how it resolved, and why the scrutiny was issued.  But that's only because I have an insatiable curiosity, and you just can't dangle a carrot like that and then snatch it away!

The work that grew of its own volition continues today, and while at times, Collateral Kindness felt like one big ad for the project, I truly feel it's a story that needs to be shared.  I remember when I was in a Statistics and Elections class at the start of the war.  I had a very, VERY liberal professor.  One evening, as he was going on about the Iraqi war, I noticed that the man sitting next to me getting more and more tense.  I wasn't the only one to notice, and soon, the professor couldn't ignore the ring of students paying more attention to this particular, tensed student than to him.  This brave student stood, apologized to our professor, and then told him he had no idea what he was talking about.  He had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and proceeded to tell us what CNN wouldn't: the sacrifices the troops were making for the people; the businesses. schools, hospitals, roads, waterworks, and other structures that the military was voluntarily repairing; the support they were providing single mothers as they struggled to support their families.  He told us of the love that returning soldiers had for the people--not for Hussein, but for those he'd abused for so long.  I learned more in the few minutes this soldier spoke than I did during the 1/3 of the semester I was in that professor's class.  Collateral Kindness was the same testament of what truly happened over there-so much good that was left unseen.

If you're looking for a quick, feel-good read, this is definitely one to check out!

My Rating:   Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  For a war book, this is quite clean.  Chief Holton is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and makes no effort to hide that, frequently talking about his faith.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Death's Academy - Michael Best

Summary:  The Death’s Academy entrance exam for Midnight Smith is quickly approaching. There’s just one problem: Midnight is the worst exam taker the academy has ever seen. If Midnight wants to ever step foot inside the school, he’ll have to join forces with the hated Guardian Angels, and together face the deadliest creatures in the world—the dreaded Unicorns. Becoming a Grim Reaper has never been more hilarious!  (Image and summary from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of Death's Academy in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review:  Poor Midnight.  He's a totally normal Reaper kid who just wants to be amazing.  Unfortunately, he happens to be saddled with a dad who did something so humiliating, SO embarrassing that he's the laughing stock of the entire Reaper community.  And the Angels.  It's so bad Midnight doesn't even know what it is, he just knows he's doomed to carry the burden.  Determined as he is to make a name for himself, Midnight takes ridiculous chances with his own safety and the safety of his friends.

Oh, goodness, I really enjoyed this book!  It was exactly what the summertime prescribed - creative, silly, and too much fun to put down.  It definitely felt a little Harry Potter-eque to me ... the draw toward boarding school, the magical elements, a threat not quite understood ... but there were some aspects that I felt Best nailed.  Midnight is a twelve-year old boy.  And he has an ego of one.  He's pretty sure he's awesome, and he's more sure of his abilities than any kid should be, but I found it endearing, probably because he's also aware when he's in over his head.  Unfortunately, that ego also means that he's a little bit of a smart aleck, and I found myself wishing he would show his parents a little bit more respect.  (Or, you know, any.)  I can see where Best is coming from - Midnight has suffered from the mistakes of his father his whole life.  HIS own life has been and will continue to be affected because of it,  but no one ever bothered to tell him what happened.  His mother is downright derogatory to his father, his father has given up any gumption ... what a confusing place for a child to be.  

However, Best has done a great job weaving intrigue into the sad tale.  Midnight stumbles onto a plot too crazy to be imagined, but too real to be ignored.   Before he knows what he's really doing, Midnight finds himself teamed with his best Reaper friend, his arch-nemesis on the Skullball court, and fighting .... unicorns?!  Bits and pieces of his father's history are sprinkled quietly throughout the book, and Midnight starts to discover that perhaps his dad isn't as humiliating as he thought. I find myself anxiously awaiting the second book to get the full story.  This is definitely a series I'll be keeping my eye on!

My Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Parental disrespect, fantastical violence.  And unicorns are epically evil.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Ruby Red Trilogy/The Precious Stone Trilogy - Kerstin Gier

Summary: Gwyneth Shepherd's sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era!

Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon--the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust.
(Summary and image from Goodreads.com)

My summary: These books are so much fun! First off, look at that cover art. Just look at it. Stunning! Okay. So we have a teenage girl who finds out she is a time-traveler and becomes part of a society that aids and uses the time travelers to right wrongs that have occurred in the past. Naturally, the only other time traveler is a dashing, arrogant, teenage boy. They must dress the part, dance the dances, and time travel together in a race against time to save humanity.

Gwyn is a fantastic heroine. She is smart, funny, and a total teenage girl. I have not read a book or watched even a TV show in a long time that showed teenagers thinking and behaving like teenagers do. It's a strange shadow world between childhood and adulthood and the characters in the book showcase both the childishness and immaturity as well as the bravery of teens.

The three books demand to be read back-to-back. The books often break rather abruptly. There are chapter breaks with more closure. So get 'em all lined up and pray for a rainy weekend. If you're really curious, there are German movies of this series, so if you don't mind subtitles, they'd be fun to watch, too.

My rating:  5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: some teenage "snogging," a few olden-day duels, and a dash of language, but nothing R-rated.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Shadow and Bone (Grisha Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo

Summary: The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite—the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?

My review: Let me start by saying that the producers who made the Harry Potter movies have purchased the rights to the Grisha trilogy. You will be seeing a lot about Shadow and Bone. Might as well read it now.

Alina and Mal are two orphans now learning their trades for the king's army. Alina is a cartographer in training and Mal is a soldier. But on their first trip into the the Shadow Fold, a swath of blackness separating their dying country from its trade ports, they are attacked by flesh-eating monsters created by dark magic. In a moment of desperation, Alina discovers a unique and powerful gift--she can summon the light of the sun.

She is immediately welcomed into the ranks of the Grisha—an elite group who has mastered the "small science" and manipulate atoms and elements of this world in a way that seems magical. There are the tide makers, the healers, the squallers, the fabrikators, and heartrenders. They make up the King's second army. An army that terrifies all others because of what they do without weapons. Alina is now the darling of the king and of the Darkling—the leader of the Grisha of unknown origin who has an intoxicating pull over her.

She says goodbye to her childhood friend Mal—who she always secretly crushed on—and learns to use her power—a power that could destroy the Shadow Fold and save all of Ravka. Yet she yearns for the simple girl she once was and the boy who could always make her laugh. Mal doesn't return her letters. And the Darkling keeps spending more and more time with her. Alina's magnificent future is right before her, yet she can't let go of her past.

I loved the different spin on magic in this book. It's not some cosmic power, but just a very advanced manipulation of earthly elements. I loved the Russian influence of this fantasy. So many fantasies are set in a generic western-European type world. I loved the Russian linguistics, architecture, wardrobes, and food. So fun. I've heard some critics complain that the genders of the last names are wrong and the drink kvas is portrayed incorrectly (in Russia, kvas is as mild as root beer, apparently. In the book, it's a strong drink). But it's fantasy, people. Not historical fiction. Let it slide.

The middle section of the book with Alina learning to use her powers was a little slow and boring. In the movie, it will be a one-minute montage and it will be perfect.

I could not understand her draw to Mal. Their friendship and her crush did not seem real. There were few examples that sold me on it. I had to believe in it simply because the author said it existed. So when the Darkling comes along with his all-powerful, hotness, I was totally Team Darkling. For anyone worried about a love triangle, there really isn't one. You'll have to read it to see what I mean, but this isn't the typical YA "two boys love me at the same time and I don't know who to pick" kind of thing.

The word and lore is very well-developed. I devoured this book and the entire series. Check it out. I think it's going to make a gripping and visually stunning movie in the right hands.

My rating: 4.5

For the sensitive reader: mild language, a few passionate kisses, and violence that is never too graphically described. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Darkest Minds - Alexandra Bracken

Summary:  When Ruby woke up on her tenth birthday, something about her had changed. Something alarming enough to make her parents lock her in the garage and call the police. Something that gets her sent to Thurmond, a brutal government "rehabilitation camp." She might have survived the mysterious disease that's killed most of America's children, but she and the others have emerged with something far worse: frightening abilities they cannot control.

Now sixteen, Ruby is one of the dangerous ones.

When the truth comes out, Ruby barely escapes Thurmond with her life. Now she's on the run, desperate to find the one safe haven left for kids like her-East River. She joins a group of kids who escaped their own camp. Liam, their brave leader, is falling hard for Ruby. But no matter how much she aches for him, Ruby can't risk getting close. Not after what happened to her parents.

When they arrive at East River, nothing is as it seems, least of all its mysterious leader. But there are other forces at work, people who will stop at nothing to use Ruby in their fight against the government. Ruby will be faced with a terrible choice, one that may mean giving up her only chance at a life worth living. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Ruby is not brave.  She's dangerous.  She's terrified of people finding out who she is and what she can do, but she's even more terrified of herself.

The premise of this book grabbed me from the first few pages.  Alexandra Bracken has approached the dystopian genre with fresh eyes -- instead of the typical "start in the middle", Bracken begins where it should, at the beginning.  Society hasn't fallen apart yet, but it's about to, and Ruby and her misunderstood, newly-found powers have a front row seat.

I started this book in the middle of a reading drought.  I'm ashamed to admit that I've been reading the same book for over a month.  It's fascinating.  But I'm just stuck in such a busy rut I can't devote the brain power to finish it.  I picked this up one lazy and grumpy day, thinking I may finish it before summer, and couldn't put it down.  At all.  (I finished it that day.)  I have so many questions I'm dying to get answered - why did the absence of powers affect the children so dramatically?  What in the WORLD does the government think is going to happen to the next generation?  Is there a way to fix Ruby's powers?  When, oh, when, will the next book come out?!

If you're needing a good, quick, fun read, grab this one on your next trip out.  Trust me.

My Rating: Four and a half stars. 

For the Sensitive Reader:  Children are placed in concentration camps.  Although the first two thirds of the book are shockingly cuss word free, there is a profanity-laced speech at the end that makes up for the restraint in the first part of the book.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman

Summary: After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own. 

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family . . . 

Beloved master storyteller Neil Gaiman returns with a luminous new novel for the audience that embraced his New York Times bestselling modern classic Coraline. Magical, terrifying, and filled with breathtaking adventures, The Graveyard Book is sure to enthrall readers of all ages. (Image and summary from Goodreads.com)

My Review: While his family is being murdered, a diaper-clad toddler wanders out of the open front door and disappears into the night. The murderer's target was always the child, but he wanted the entire family dead to keep things clean. The murderer sees that the only logical place for the child to wander to is the graveyard down the street. As he goes to investigate, he is greeted by a groundskeeper who assures the man that there is no baby in the graveyard. 

The baby wandered into the graveyard. Silas, a frequent visitor of the graveyard, misled the murderer, giving the residents of the graveyard time to decide what to do with the child. Still in diapers and unable to do much more than babble, he is helpless. Mrs. Owens--a long-dead ghost who never had children during her life--immediately takes to the child. When the disturbed specters of the boy's recently murdered parents give Mrs. Owen their blessing for her to raise him, the graveyard decides to consider the matter. It's decided--Mrs. and Mr. Owens will raise the boy, but only because Silas has agreed to be his guardian. After all, Silas is the only one who can leave the cemetery. 

The boy--Nobody, nicknamed "Bod"--has a strange childhood, learning to read off of headstones and being educated by long-dead scholars. He befriends a young girl who often visits the graveyard. He encounters mischievous ghouls and severe werewolves. He knows little about his past, but his guardian and ghost family never forget that there is still a man out there who wants Bod dead. Bod has yet to understand the complexities and the risks of the real world. As he grows into a young man and learn of his past, he begins to realize that he can't always stay in the protected walls of the graveyard. He must confront the man who murdered his family and he must begin to live with the living. 

“You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.” 

My Rating: Five stars

To Sum It Up: This charming story reads like a fairy tale and Mr. Gaiman admitted to being inspired by Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Each chapter is its own complete short story while still contributing to the overarching, chronological plot of the book. I have never read any book like this and I absolutely loved it. Graveyards, ghosts, ghouls, and other mythical demons unite to help a lost child. He definitely has an unconventional childhood, yet still learns sacrifice, love, bravery, and friendship. It was simultaneously fascinating, silly, macabre, and heart-rending. I am not ashamed to admit that I could hardly read the final pages through my tears. This book has been optioned for a Hollywood movie. Discover it in print first. 

For the Sensitive Reader: This is a children's book and is fit for that audience. There is the murder of Bod's family and the fact that a murderer is still after him, but the violence is very mild and age-appropriate for this YA book. No bad language. No sex. Pretty clean overall. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sense and Sensibility A Latter-Day Tale - Rebecca H. Jamison

Summary:  As if it wasn't bad enough to be getting food from Church welfare, I had to meet one of the Ferreros--and a good-looking Ferrero, at that.

Elly Goodwin, a brilliant programmer, is so desperate for a job that she takes one from her ex-fiance--the same man who put her family out of business.  Then she meets Ethan Ferrero, who seems too good to be true.  But Elly is far too sensible to unexpectedly fall in love--especially with her ex's brother-in-law.

But when Elly's sister, Maren, dates the wrong guy, Elly must intercede before Maren's passion clouds her common sense.  Together, Elly and Maren must learn that a mixture of sense and sensibility is the perfect recipe for love.

Fans of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility will love this modern retelling of the classic romance novel.  (Summary from back of the book, image from www.rebeccahjamison.com.  Book sent free for review.)

My Review:  Before going any further, I think it's important to note that this is LDS literature.  With that said, it's not over the top LDS lit.  Things are mentioned, spoken about in passing, but not overdone. 

This book truly hit the spot for me.  I've been needing a good fiction-fast-read.  I needed a story where the story-line drew me in and boy did the ride went quickly over the two days I read!  I've always loved the story-line of Sense and Sensibility, and this version is so realistic but stays true to the original plot of the story.  I loved seeing how Jamison carried the structure of the story while making it new at the same time.  And I loved the characters.  Typically I have a harder time to relating to  Maren's character, but even in this story it was believable and understandable her reactions with how Jamison crafted the tale. I think what made this story so satisfying was the depth and complexity of each character and their lives.  They felt like people I know in real life, people I love and can't understand all at the same time.  And the plot felt the same--things happened that didn't make sense, but that's how life goes; you don't always know what hand you'll be dealt or how exactly you'll deal with it.  But, Jamison writes a smooth tale that takes you from start to finish effortlessly.  I truly enjoyed this.

If you're needing a Jane Austen fix, but something a little different you definitely want to pick up this book.  It has the right mix of romance, comedy, realistic plot twists, and conflict to be enjoyable.  If you know the plot of Sense and Sensibility, the ending won't be a surprise, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

For the sensitive reader:  Only kissing--and this isn't much.

Rating:  4.5 stars

Sum it up:  A well-done spin off of a classic tale.

Friday, August 15, 2014

If You Were Me and Lived in ... Australia - Carole P. Roman

Summary:  Former social studies teacher Carole P. Roman has penned a new addition in her exiting explorations of foreign cultures and customs with “If You Were Me and Lived in … Australia". In her years as a teacher, parent and grandparent, Roman noticed that there were few, if any, books about other cultures for young children. Roman has remedied the deficit and now introduces the new Australia installment in a series that educates kids, parents and teachers, alike. Roman recognizes that children love to discover the differences and similarities of other people and places in far-off lands. In this series, she describes details that kids can relate to. Tailored to children from 3-to-8-years old, her writing is simple but does not talk down to youngsters. Among the topics that are introduced in this journey to Australia are the unusual indigenous animals, the extraordinary Great Barrier Reef, the currency, the beloved game of cricket and the national holiday, Australia Day, as well as the special nicknames people have for one another and the curious taste sensation, Vegemite. “This series is just enough facts to begin a discussion without overwhelming the child and can be expanded or contracted to fit the age group,” Roman explains. "Carole P. Roman has created a marvelous premise for her series of educational children's books: young readers are given the opportunity to realistically envision a foreign country without leaving their homes, libraries, or classrooms....Roman's formula allows for so much lovely variety in each book of this series that it hardly seems like a formula at all...If You Were Me and Lived in ...Kenya is a short, vibrant picture book, brightly illustrated in cartoon style. The text is scant, appropriate, and does not deviate from the central theme." ForeWord Reviews Clarion Review (Summary and Cover image from amazon.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  If You Were Me and Lived in ... Australia follows the same pattern as Carole Roman has laid out in the rest of the series.  It's full of wonderful, basic information regarding the Great Barrier reef, local treats and diet, games, and currency.  However, I felt like there was a little missing from this installment.  Perhaps it's me, but I would have loved to see some mention of kangaroos and koalas, and I missed seeing the Sydney Opera House.  It's just synonymous with Australia for me!

However, from a child's perspective, this is a great addition to the If You Were Me ... series.  I giggled when I saw that the pronunciation guides took into account the Australian accent -- and I found myself reading in an accent for the rest of the book.  I wonder if my kids will start calling me mummy, now ... 

My Rating: Four stars

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dangerous - Shannon Hale

Summary:  Maisie Danger Brown just wanted to get away from home for a bit, see something new. She never intended to fall in love. And she never imagined stumbling into a frightening plot that kills her friends and just might kill her, too. A plot that is already changing life on Earth as we know it. There's no going back. She is the only thing standing between danger and annihilation.

From NY Times bestselling author Shannon Hale comes a novel that asks, How far would you go to save the ones you love? And how far would you go to save everyone else? (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Maisie has lived a small life.  She's 15, homeschooled, her best friend is homeschooled, her parents are great, if a little protective, and while she dreams of being an astronaut, she's aware that with one arm, it's a long shot.  That all changes when she wins a three-week Astronaut Camp Experience.

Her fireteam (she and three other sweepstakes winners) wins a grand prize - a chance to see Dr. Howell's innovative Space Elevator in action.  Without realizing it, such a prize will not only change their lives, but the world.

Before I actually review this, I'd like to formally apologize to my Thursday classes ... I was so distracted thinking about where Hale was going to take Maisie and the fireteam, we may have overdone some muscle groups.  And underdone others.  Oh, and then there was that whole Zumba kerfuffle.  I blame Shannon Hale!!

Shannon Hale is simply too talented for fairness.  She launches into the YA/Sci-fi genre with no awkwardness, I felt like she'd been writing this genre forever.  Her story stuck with me (hence the oopsies in class!), moving so quickly that putting the book down wasn't an option in case the characters did something without me.  Her characters are believable, flawed, real, and relatable.  Even her side characters had amazing backstories.  It really felt as though they were real people with real experiences.

I would have happily read an entire series in the thread of The Hunger Games, Divergent, or Legend to get the complete story - that's how hooked I was.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to get the whole story the first time around.  I don't like HAVING to read another book for a conclusion (I'm looking at you, Jacky Faber!).  But were Maisie ever to return?  Yeah, I'd be the first in line to read that.  I'm excited to see what else Shannon has up her sleeve (because, in my mind, we're on a first-name basis now).  She never ceases to amaze!

My Rating: Four and a half stars

For the sensitive reader:  There is quite a bit of violence, some death, and some serious kissing that Maisie stops before it goes too far.


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