Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Company of Swans - Eva Ibbotson

Summary: For nineteen-year-old Harriet Morton, life in 1912 Cambridge is as dry and dull as a biscuit. Her stuffy academic father and her oppressive aunt Louisa allow her only one outlet: ballet. There, in Madame Lavarre's famed school, Harriet is finally able to come to life for a few hours each week. When a Russian ballet master comes to class searching for dancers to fill the corps of his ballet company before their South American tour, Harriet's world changes. He chooses her to be the "eighteenth swan." Defying her father's wishes and narrowly escaping the clutches of the man who wishes to marry her, Harriet sneaks off to join the Russian ballet on their journey to the Amazon. There, in the wild, lush jungle, they perform Swan Lake in grand golden opera houses for the wealthy and culture-deprived rubber barons, and Harriet meets Rom Verney, the handsome and mysterious British exile who owns the most ornate opera house. Utterly enchanted by both the exotic surroundings and by Rom's affections, Harriet is swept away by her new life, completely unaware that her father and would-be fiance have begun to track her down.

My review: I decided to read this book based solely on the fact that I completely flipped for Countess Below Stairs by the same author. You can read my review here and Heather's here. Despite my adoration of that novel, and perhaps because of it, I couldn't help but have mixed feelings about this one. I was delighted by certain aspects of this book--the descriptions, a particular turn of phrase, or surprising twist in plot. Ibbotson is a fabulous writer and she created some truly charming characters (my favorite--a little boy named Henry). Others were so aggravating that you just couldn't help but want to throw through a plate glass window, figuratively speaking, like Isobel or Harriet's father and it was fun to watch them get what was coming to them. However, Rom, the male lead doesn't stand out much in my mind even now, a few short hours after I read the book. Harriet herself, is a mix of dependability, quiet strength, and intelligence. Typically this isn't the kind of heroine I like. Well, I like all those things...but they need to be mixed with a serious backbone and some real fire, which Harriet was supremely slow in developing. She was almost too agreeable. What fun is that?! All of that having been said, I still ignored my kids for a great portion of the morning so that I could finish this book--that has to mean something (other than my inability to prioritize).

I think I might be judging a bit harshly for the young adult genre because of the fact that I liked her other book so much and, consequently, expected more from this one. Comparison is a killer. While I don't regret reading Company of Swans, it lacked the all around quantity and quality of characters that I found in Countess Below Stairs. I still think it's a fun, worthwhile read depending on what you are looking for. If you want something with teeth and substance, this ain't it. But if you are just looking for a lazy afternoon snuggled up on the couch with a romantic storyline and a bag of milano cookies, then this is right up your alley.

My rating: 3.9 Stars. Close to a 4 but fell just shy.

Sum it up in one phrase: One ballerina short of a full corps.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Gossamer - Lois Lowry

Also reviewed by Kari.

Summary: Where do dreams come from? What stealthy nighttime messengers are the guardians of our most deeply hidden hopes and our half-forgotten fears?

Drawing on her rich imagination, two-time Newberry Medal winner Lois Lowry confronts these questions and explores the conflicts between the gentle bits and pieces of the past that come to life in dream and the darker horrors that form in nightmare. In a haunting story that tiptoes between reality and imagination, two people -- a lonely, sensitive woman and a damaged, angry boy -- face their own histories and discover what they can be to each other, renewed by the strength that comes from a tiny, caring creature they will never see.

My Review: Littlest dream-giver has been assigned, along with her instructor, to provide dreams for an old, lonely woman and the angry foster child she has taken in. While fending off the bad dreams caused by the Sinisteeds, Littlest learns that regardless of her size she has great strength.
In this story dreams are woven into reality. Lowry takes the reader into the fantasy world of the dream-givers and nightmare-makers while providing you with the reality of everyday challenges faced in the human world. Through this entertaining tale Lowry also provides more of her life lessons. You can accomplish great things regardless of your size. Love can overcome great obstacles.
In only 140 pages, Lowry is able to give the reader a beautifully written original tale full of important lessons and a happy ending. A quick read that you will remember for a long time to come. Who could ask for more?

My Rating: 5 Stars

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: What dreams are made of.

**On a side note, this books states it is written
for ages 9 and older. However readers should know that the boy in this story comes from an abusive background, which, though not discussed in great detail, is in my opinion material suited for a slightly more mature audience . Therefore I would probably suggest this book for ages 12 and up.**

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mutant Message Down Under - Marlo Morgan

Summary: An American woman is summoned by a remote tribe of nomadic Aboriginals, who call themselves the "Real People," to accompany them on a four-month long walkabout through the Outback. While traveling barefoot with them through 1,400 miles of rugged desert terrain, she learns a new way of life, including their methods of healing, based on the wisdom of their 50,000-year-old culture. Ultimately, she experiences a dramatic personal transformation.

Also reviewed by Mindy.

Mutant Message Down Under recounts a unique, timely, and powerful life-enhancing message for all humankind: It is not too late to save our world from destruction if we realize that all living things -- be they plants, animals, or human beings -- are part of the same universal oneness. If we heed the message, our lives, like the lives of the Real People, can be filled with this great sense of purpose.

My Review: There has been a great deal of controversy over rather or not this book is a fictional work. The author has promoted that this is a work based on her personal experiences in the outback and sold as a novel to protect the Aborigines from legal involvement. However, many who are familiar with the Australian outback and the Aborigine way of life feel this book is a complete work of fiction. The manner in which the book is written feels like a little of both. The beginning has more of a novel feel, while the remainder reads as a nonfiction.

While not being certain of the validity of the book was frustrating and distracting at times, the overall message came through loud and clear. We are destroying our world by not respecting all living things. We must remember that we, as humans, need plants and animals to survive. When we fail to respect this, we end up harming ourselves as well.

Though I didn't exactly love this book a few parts spoke to me and rather than try to sum these up I will quote them as they appear in the novel. So pardon the length of this review.

  • "It is truly amazing that after fifty thousand years these people have destroyed no forests, pollutes no water, endanger no species, caused no contamination, and all the while they have received abundant food and shelter. They have laughed a lot and cried very little. They live long, productive, healthy lives and leave spiritually confident."

  • "People are nonliving when angry, depressed, feeling sorry for themselves, or filled with fear. Breathing doesn't determine being alive...Not all breathing people are in a state of aliveness. It's okay to try out negative emotions and see how they feel , but it certainly isn't a place one would wisely want to stay...You are supposed to learn from the experience and ultimately figure out which feels painful and which feels great."

  • "It is fine to walk for a while as the last one in any group, and it is acceptable to spend time mingling in the middle, but ultimately everyone must at some time lead. You have no way of understanding leadership roles until you assume that responsibility. Everyone must experience all of these roles at some time, without exception, sooner or later."

  • "Things...generate fear. The more things you have, the more you have to fear. Eventually you are living your life for things."

  • "Each person hears the same exact first human words: 'We love you and support you on this journey.' At their final celebration, everyone hugs them and repeats this phrase again."

My Rating: 3.5 Stars, if it were truly a nonfiction book I would have probably rated it higher

If I were to sum this book up in one sentence it would be: A discovery in the art of living simply and how this lifestyle can bring more overall happiness.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

Summary:
The titular Oscar is a 300-pound-plus "lovesick ghetto nerd" with zero game (except for Dungeons & Dragons) who cranks out pages of fantasy fiction with the hopes of becoming a Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. The book is also the story of a multi-generational family curse that courses through the book, leaving troubles and tragedy in its wake.
-Excerpt from Amazon.com Review


My Review:
I first heard about this novel when my husband googled it after hearing an interview on NPR's "Fresh Aire." When I saw it sitting around my neighbor's house I asked to borrow it, was really looking forward to reading it, and only put off reading it because I needed to finish library books first. The back of the book says things like"giddily glorious and hauntingly horrific," "full of ideas," "high-energy...exhilarating to re-read," "shot through with wit and insight." How can you not look forward to reading that. And at the beginning of the book there are three more pages of "Praise for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Um...I so didn't get it.

I found nothing in the book giddy, I found very few ideas, wit, or insight. If there was anything worthwhile about the book it was the historical insights into the modern history of the Dominican Republic and that of the "diaspora" here in the United States. Also, the lesson "be nice to fat people."

Other than that...

The book was pretty much a documentation of Oscar's serious inability to get...(I'll not use the words the book does) "some" - in general contrast to how easy it was for everyone else to get some. I'm just not sure how "fat kid wants to get laid" translates to "wondrous."

As for the insight into Dominican history and culture. The book gives a very unflattering representation into the modern culture that the characters seemed oddly proud of, or covetous and protective of, anyway. Because the author is Dominican I guess this is justified as cultural navel-gazing but for this priviledged little white girl (by that I very un-sarcastically, mean not threatened with rape or exploitation simply by the advent of puberty), with very little exposure to the Dominican culture specifically, it leaves me with a pretty low opinion. So, should I believe that, as this critically acclaimed book illustrates in graphic language (yes, that was my subtle warning that there is a LOT of vulgarity), Dominicans are a totally chauvanistic, sex-driven people? I hate to admit it but I now have to take this into account, though I'm hoping to have future encounters that balance my viewpoint because I do not like what the author portrayed.

In this book there were perhaps two noble characters, and a third on the fence. I just didn't get many good vibes from the rest. Their flaws were simply too severe for me to overlook, despite learning their backgrounds I felt no sympathy for them. I like to think I "get" dark stories that have a literary point, but here I just found a lot of depressing, "hauntingly horrific" experiences that showed the worst in both the perpetrators and the victims. Should I give this book a pass because it is "ethnic" (and NPR likes it)? Or should I call it as I see it?

My rating: 2 stars (I went with calling it as I see it).

In one sentence: Fat kid wants to get laid does not wondrous make.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry - Kathleen Flinn

Summary: Flinn's engaging account of her studies at famed French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu should strike a chord with anyone who has dreamed of leaving the rat race and following a passion for food. The main course, Flinn's narrative of her trials and triumphs as she moves through the three levels of cuisine, is supplemented by plentiful helpings of drama, romance and near-tragedy in her personal life. - Taken from Publisher's Weekly Review, via Amazon.com

My Review: This book was a fairly light, but enjoyable read. If I had any in depth knowledge of French cuisine I'd say it was like... such and such a food. And perhaps after reading this book I should have a bigger food vocabulary, however in terms of greater knowledge what really stands out cooking-wise for me is the process of boning a whole turkey, hacking off the head of a duck, skewering a live lobster, cleaving a leg of lamb into smaller pieces, shopping for a rabbit with its head still attached, and tripe. Oddly enough this is the stuff that stood out to me, not so much the simmering of a nice vichyssoise. Judge me as you will.

I think the author lucked while writing about her experiences while attending Le Cordon Blue cooking school AND about her blossoming romance with a guy who sounds excellent. While I was entertained by the cooking school details the book would have been a little flat if that were all. However the inclusion of the dashing boyfriend turned husband added a heavy serving of sparkle to the story.

Thankfully the writing style was a little less regimented than it could have been considering the author's background as a journalist. However near the end of the book her pattern of "tell charming anecdote, then craft a deeper meaning as a conclusion" became a touch irritatingly predictable.

Important note **Mindy are you reading** this book contains recipes. However I was generally perplexed by why the specific recipes were included. In a chapter about simple soup base she had a recipe for minestrone, in a chapter about cheese souffle there was a recipe for chocolate souffle and often a recipe she mentioned in one chapter was included in a different chapter half way through the book. Yes, there were recipes but in my view they did nothing to support the concept.

And then there is Paris. Ah, Paris. This is definitely a book for the francophile. While I'm not necessarily in that category this book did make me hungry, FAMISHED, for a few months of living in Paris. C'est merveilleux!

P.S. I promise my next read will be a novel, enough with the memoirs!


My Rating: 3 stars. I'll recommend this to select people but it isn't exactly 4 stars.

In One Sentence: While reading you'll happily think "I could do this" but then truthfully admit French cuisine has too much cleaving for you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Last Book in the Universe - Rodman Philbrick

Summary:

"If you're reading this, it must be a thousand years from now."

Nobody around here reads anymore. Why bother, when you can just use a mindprobe needle and shoot all the images and excitement straight into your brain? I've heard of books, but they were long before I was born, in the backtimes before the Big Shake, when everything supposedly was perfect, and everybody lived rich.

Personally, I doubt the backtimes ever existed. It's like a story you tell to make yourself feel better. As if having a past makes the future somehow worth believing in.

In real life, nobody comes to your rescue. believe me, I know. But then I met Ryter, this old gummy who had a lot of crazy ideas. Together we tried to change the world...

My review: Spaz, is a kid growing up in the future, a future that is pretty darn bleak considering the fact that earth has disintegrated into a sort of feudal system complete with mob violence, brutal crime lords and techno-drug addictions. Spaz suffers from seizures which get him kicked out of his foster home for being a Deef (defective person) but keep him from using mind probes (a sort of virtual reality injected straight into your brain via large needle) like the rest of the population. He's working as a Banger, collecting for the local latchboss when he meets an ancient old man, Ryter, who shows him something called a Book. Soon after, Spaz recieves word that his foster sister, who lives clear across the Urb, is dying. He seeks safe passage from his Latchboss and when he is denied, Spaz goes rogue, attempting to cross several dangerous latches in a desperate effort to get to his sister.

I wasn't two pages into this book before I realized some huge similarities between it and one of my favorite books Uglies (and sequels) by Scott Westerfeld. They both have the same distinctions between a lower, normal society (Mopes / Uglies) and a perfect utopian one (Proovs / Pretties). In both books the lower society lived a squalid, unappealing lifestyle and longed to be part of that "better" world. There were also similar alterations to the languages in an attempt to make them seem futuristic but still based in English.

The difference between the two books is that The Last Book in the Universe really takes these differences to the extreme. It's Uglies on steroids. The Mope society is truly horrific and not just perceived to be so in comparison with the better one. There is famine, bloodthirsty gangs, radiation, filth, and almost no written word (gasp). Young children roam the streets searching for scraps and people are "canceled" for the smallest offense. The Utopian society, called Eden in this book, is honestly that--a paradise of human, environmental, and technological advance that is open only to those who have been genetically improved before birth. I liked the premise of this book, it was interesting and fun to read, but I wouldn't recommend it for those under the age of 12 because of some of the violence towards a central and beloved character. Still, it was definitely adventurous and unpredictable and something that I enjoyed reading.

My rating: 3.5 Stars. I liked it enough to keep in in my collection for my kids to read when they get older, but I probably won't read it again myself.

Sum it up in one phrase: The guy version of "Uglies"

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier - Ishmael Beah

Also reviewed by Heather and Kim

Summary: In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Ishamel Beah, now twenty-six years old, tells a powerfully gripping story: At the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. At sixteen, he was removed from fighting by UNICEF, and through the help of the staff at his rehabilitation center, he learned how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and, finally, to heal.

My review: My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extend of my thoughts didn’t go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seems as if my heart had frozen.”
This statement is significant to me because it encompasses all that Ismael had to battle through. He had become so completely desensitized to the violence around him--the violence he committed that he felt nothing inside.
One of the things that really hit home for me was that Ishmael is my age. When he was 12, so was I. When he was running around the forest, fighting for his life and taking the lives of other, I was worried about boys and how to get the next New Kids cassette. It really put a lot of things in perspective and made me feel astoundingly blessed to live in a country that, despite it’s tanking economy, guarantees us a great deal more freedom than many others around the world.
As Ishmael is able to escape the army and recover from a near constant state of drug addiction and murder, he slowly feels bits and pieces of himself coming back. It gave me hope, watching him heal, that these atrocities did not break him completely and that he would have a chance at a happy fulfilling life.
I don't know what more I can say about this book that my fellow reviewers haven't already covered. This book was absolutely heartrending and emotionally exhausting--but totally worth my time. So much happens in our world that we don't hear about, either because it isn't "relevant" enough to be covered in the media or because we don't pay attention. Often, we turn a blind eye because with knowledge comes responsibility and we don't really know what difference we could make. If it does make it to the media, we profess our outrage, but eventually we forget, we move on, we go back to our lives and people continue to die. I feel that this book needs to be read and that we have an obligation to read about inhuman atrocities so that we can learn from past mistakes and bring them media attention. Even if a book is hard to read, I'll often push through because I think that, in some way, by reading their words I can give a voice--a small speck of validation--to those who have suffered. If we read it--their story can be heard. If we acknowledge it--they won't be forgotten.
My rating: 4 stars. Very compelling but be aware of the highly graphic depictions of violence to men, women, and children.
Sum this book up in one phrase: Hard to read, but undeniably worth it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nefertiti - Michelle Moran

Guest reviewed by the lovely Anne Bennion:
"Hi, I’m a stay at home mom of 4 rambunctious boys. There’s not much that I like better than to curl up on a rainy day and read a book – and since I live in Western Washington where it rains almost all the time, reading is something that I do best."

Summary: Nefertiti and her younger sister, Mutnodjmet, have been raised in a powerful family that has provided wives to the rulers of Egypt for centuries. Ambitious, charismatic, and beautiful, Nefertiti is destined to marry Amunhotep, an unstable young pharaoh. It is hoped by all that her strong personality will temper the young Amunhotep’s heretical desire to forsake Egypt’s ancient gods, overthrow the priests of Amun, and introduce a new sun god for all to worship.

From the moment of her arrival in Thebes, Nefertiti is beloved by the people. Her charisma is matched only by her husband’s perceived generosity: Amunhotep showers his subjects with lofty promises. The love of the commoners will not be enough, however, if the royal couple is not able to conceive an heir, and as Nefertiti turns her attention to producing a son, she fails to see that the powerful priests, along with the military, are plotting against her husband’s rule. The only person wise enough to recognized the shift in political winds – and brave enough to tell the queen – is her younger sister Mutnodjmet(Mutny).

Observant and contemplative, Mutny has never shared her sister’s desire for power. She yearns for a quiet existence away from family duty and the intrigues of court. Her greatest hope is to share her life with the general who has won her heart. But as Nefertiti learns of precariousness of her reign, she declares that her sister must remain at court and marry for political gain, not love. To achieve her independence, Mutny must defy her sister, the most powerful woman in Egypt – while also remaining loyal to the needs of her family.

My Review: Nefertiti is a fascinating story about the Eighteenth Dynasty in Egypt. The story is told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s half sister – Mutnodjmet (Mutny). From her unique point of view, we are taken into the life as “the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife.” She is royalty in her own right, and yet, is nothing like the royalty that currently reigns in Thebes. Nefertiti keeps Mutny close to her because she knows Mutny will never lie to her and will help her keep the coveted position of the King’s Chief wife, which she fears losing because she has only given the Pharaoh daughters and not sons. I was impressed by Mutny and the sacrifices that she made for Nefertiti. I loved the drama that surrounded court life and the forbidden romance that finds it way into Mutny’s life. And of course, the drama that comes when the plague hits added a completely different level of drama for me.

As the story unfolded, I found myself in awe of the fact that the rulers of one of the world’s most powerful nations (during this time period) were nothing but teenagers. Nefertiti was 15 years old when she married the pharaoh Amunhotep. Amunhotep was 17. Despite their age, they succeeded in overthrowing the worship of Amun, the sun god and converted many in the kingdom to worshipping Aten (the sun itself). Nefertiti and Amunhotep created the city Amarna, succeeded in making enemies from most political and military allies from the previous Pharaoh’s reign, and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their arrogance. And the book captures it all! I, too, was captivated by Nefertiti and have found myself pouring over history websites in search of just a little bit more about her life.

My Rating: 5 stars

Sum it up: Politics, power, and passion that will leave you wanting more.

Monday, March 23, 2009

No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels - Jay Dobyns

Summary: Here, from Jay Dobyns, the first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, is the inside story of the twenty-one-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life. Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mp, and responding to full scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols--these are just a few of the high-adrenaline experiences Dobyns recounts in this action-packed, hard-to-imagine-but-true story.

Dobyns leaves no stone of his harrowing journey unturned. At runs and clubhouses, between rides and riots, Dobyns befriends bikers, meth-fueled "old ladies," gun fetishists, psycho-killer ex-cons, and even some of the "Filthy Few"--the elite of the Hells Angels who've committed extreme violence on behalf of their club....To blend in with them, he gets full-arm ink; to win their respect, he vows to prove himself a stone-cold killer. Hardest of all is leading a double life, which has him torn between his devotion to his wife and children, and his pledge to become the first federal agent ever to be "fully patched" into the Angels' near-impregnable ranks. His act is so convincing that he comes within a hairsbreadth of losing himself. Eventually he realizes that just as he's been infiltrating the Hells Angels, they've been infiltrating him. And just as they're not all bad, he's not all good...

My review: The summary tells you quite a lot about the books premise, so I'll skip that and get right to the meat. This book was a sort of lay-it-all-on-the-table kind of book. I appreciated the lack of deception and because of that I'm going to lay it out for you as well. This book has profanity in it. I'm not talking every now and then either. It has a lot--A LOT A LOT. It's coarse, crude, and often objectionable. I hope I'm being clear. Jay "Bird" Dobyns doesn't pull punches by glossing over the unpleasant situations he comes up against. He talks like the men he infiltrates and tells it like it is--and that can include anything from gun running and biker fights to murder. You will read about it--in detail. If you think that will bother you, don't read this book. It WILL bother you. The thing is, I don't think it would be possible to understand the undercover operation without allowing Jay to tell the story exactly as he does. This book couldn't even have been written, and written honestly, if it had been censored. It would have been 35 pages long. Instead, what I read was a highly detailed and realistic description of life inside the Hells Angels and of Jay's spiraling descent into the darkness of his undercover character.

That having been said, I liked this book, probably quite a bit more than I should have. It is non-fiction (the author's note in the back details what he did to make it as true to life as his memory could make it), a fact that I constantly had to remind myself as I read. The situations he gets himself into, and subsequently out of, are truly terrifying. I thought, at first, that in his telling of the story, Jay was tooting his own horn quite a bit--but then I realized that is wasn't just himself he was talking about (and talking up), but other agents as well and even Angels. He also made a concerted effort to talk about his own fears, weaknesses, and how the job was affecting him--about crying himself to sleep, neglecting his family, or getting addicted to diet pills to keep himself alert.

The most touching, yet toughest, moments of the book were the moments "Bird" interacted with his family. As a husband and father of two children, Jay struggled to be in both worlds and ultimately, admits to failing his family miserably during his time undercover. He admits that he just couldn't be two people and that the job was more important to him. What ultimately holds the book together, and gives it some redeeming value is Jay's overall view of the experience--the one he gained, I'm sure, after it was all over. He doesn't wait until the end to share these views either, but peppers them throughout the book--telling you what he was thinking in one situation and his thoughts on it in hindsight. One of the most significant moments of the book for me actually takes place near the beginning when Jay talks about missing his son's first steps because he was trying to nail down an explosives deal. He said "that's the kind of thing I've habitually traded the most precious moments of my life for."

While Jay starts off blazingly cocky, he actually ends up kind of humble as he comes to realize all that he has sacrificed and the people that he hurt because of his ambition. The last chapter is really dedicated to his reflections on what the journey had cost him. One of the highlights of the book for me where he stands up (figuratively speaking) and takes responsibility for who he became and what he did throughout his undercover career. It convinced me that he came out of the experience a better, more appreciative person.

So, if that wasn't a mixed review, I don't know what is. Jay often commented that he, as a person, was both good and evil. This book is no different. It has some definitely good qualities and some not so shiny moments. Take it or leave it.

My rating: So. 4 Stars. My conscience can't give it a 5...and my heart can't give it a 3. Does that make any sense?

Sum this book up in one phrase: In a word? Exhilarating. In two? Messed up.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Summary:
Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse's unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world's second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town's first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson's efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. (by Publisher's Weekly)

My Review: The Bookmarks Magazine review of this book, found on amazon.com states that "critics agree that Three Cups of Tea should be read for its inspirational value rather than for its literary merit" and I agree with this statement. This is not to say that the writing is bad, it is simply not the reason you are reading the book. The writing tells the story, and the story is why you are reading. You read because you simply cannot imagine the courage and dedication it takes to do what Greg Mortenson did and does. You are astounded at what he accomplishes. You read because you are thrilled that there are people in the world who DO things like this but you wouldn't believe it if the book didn't tell you about it.

I started this book as I often do when I begin a "trendy" book, feeling cynical. Particularly if it is a "feel good" book. Judge me as you will, I just can't stand being manipulated. I guess for this reason the writing is well done, because David Relin, the journalist telling the story does not preach the religion of David Mortenson, despite his confession in the prelude that he was not able to stay unbiased in his research and strongly supports Mortenson's efforts. And who wouldn't? Mortenson's actions seem almost wholly self-less, he serves the poorest among us, he has glaring weaknesses which do not stop his progress.

Mortenson's reasoning behind his actions is that providing an unbiased education to children allows them to better the lives of their families and villages, rather than fall victim to extremist groups who provide the only real educational alternative. With his meager beginnings (50 schools at the time of this books writing) he is only a drop in the bucket, but to those individual children and families he has provided hope instead of hatred and fear. He does not promote western ideals, only education. He has no agenda, only a guiding sense of fairness.

(Shallow P.S. One highlight of the book is the incredibly romantic meeting/courtship/wedding of Mortenson and his incredibly patient wife. Awwww.....)

My Rating: 4 for the book overall. 5 for David Mortenson (and his organization Central Asia Institute).

Sum it up: A philanthropic action/adventure novel set in a culture you likely know very little about.

Also reviewed by Kari.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Shoot the Moon - Billie Letts

Summary: In 1972, windswept DeClare, Oklahoma was consumed by a terrifying crime: the murder of a young mother, Gaylene Harjo, and the disappearance of her baby, Nicky Jack. When the child's pajama bottoms were discovered on the banks of Willow Creek, everyone feared that he, too, had been killed, although his body was never found.
Now, nearly thirty years later, Nicky Jack mysteriously returns to DeClare, shocking the town with his sudden reappearance and stirring up long-buried memories. But what he discovers about the night he vanished is far more than he, or anyone, bargains for. Piece by piece, what emerges is a story of dashed hopes, desperate love, and an act with repercussions that still cry out for justice...and redemption.

My Review: Mark Albright is a Beverly Hills veterinarian, who at first glance seems like a snob living a privileged life thanks to his affluent parents. A closer look will show that his snobbery is a cover-up for his insecurity in feeling that he doesn't belong. Those feelings prove correct when he discovers some papers in his recently deceased father's safety deposit box telling him that he was adopted. Armed with this new information he quickly heads out of Beverly Hills to small town Oklahoma to find his birth mother.

Once arriving in DeClare, Mark begins to uncover the secrets of his past first by learning that his mother was murdered 25 years ago and that up until now he was presumed dead as well. His mother never revealed who his father was, so Mark sets on a search to uncover this information while seeking for the truth of his mother's death. Along the way Mark also meets a couple of villains, one who is the sheriff of this small town.

Along with the predictable villain sheriff, the woman situation is one that is just expected from this type of story. Of course, while Mark is searching for answers, he falls in love. This drives me absolutely crazy in most books. However, I must say that I was surprised to find the relationship side of this story, although somewhat uncomfortable at first, end up being an enjoyable part to the story.

What is not so predictable in this story is the who-done-it. I loved the manner in which the author twisted her story so that one moment you would be so sure that you knew who the father was and who the murderer was only to turn the page and discover you are wrong.

I also felt that the author did a terrific job of introducing her characters and creating emotions for the reader with them. She was even able to uniquely give you a look at Mark's birth mother through her diary. This diary of a teenage girl had me recalling just what it was like to be that age... how everything is so dramatic and feels so life-changing. I adored this intelligent, artsy, athletic young girl whose life path was drastically altered by her unexpected pregnancy.

Overall, although I didn't love this novel as much as I did Where the heart Is, I still found it to be a very enjoyable read. It is a fairly light novel that one can soar through quickly. Yet it is a story that you will be sure to remember.

My Rating: 4 stars

If I had to sum this book up in one sentence it would be: An enjoyable, memorable book to lose yourself in for a couple days.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Before Midnight (Once Upon a Time Series)

by Cameron Dokey

Summary: Etienne de Brabant is brokenhearted. His wife has died in childbirth, leaving him alone with an infant daughter he cannot bear to name. But before he abandons her for king and court, he brings a second child to be raised alongside her, a boy whose identity he does not reveal.

The girl, La Cendrillon, and the boy, Raoul, pass sixteen years in the servant's care until one day a very fine lady arrives with her two daughters. The lady has married La Cendrillon's father, and her arrival changes their lives.

When an invitation to a great ball reaches the family, La Cendrillon's new stepmother will make a decision with far-reaching effects. Her choice will lead La Cendrillon and Raoul toward their destiny--a choice that will challenge their understanding of family, test their loyalty and courage, and ultimately teach them who they are.

My review: Raised alongside a mysterious boy, Cendrillon knows her father doesn’t want her and longs to have a loving family. In the wee hours of the morning, she makes a life-altering birthday wish—to have a mother who will love her and two sisters (so that maybe, just maybe, one of them will like her). Not soon after, her wish is granted in the form of a stepmother and two sisters, one of whom is particularly dreadful, that are completely unaware of her existence or their familial bond. Cendrillon works as a servant until tensions mount and her secret spills out. As the story progresses, it plays out in surprising, but delightful ways; however, I won't spoil it for you except to say that it ended as it should.

I enjoyed the addition of several secondary characters and the romance and conflict they brought to the story. Dokey wasn't afraid to change things that needed to be changed to make the story work. Cendrillon's father is not dead (and technically, he isn't in the original either) but distant in more ways that one.

The setting the author creates is magical--in a light and comfortable sort of way. Tears can grow sunflowers--wishes can be granted in unpredictable ways--peach trees bare apples. It had all of the feeling of the classic fairytale without going overboard with all the “bibbity-bobbity-boo” nonsense. Dokey does a fabulous job blending the old fairytale with her own retelling, once again, making the story of Cinderella her own while still maintaining key elements like balls, slippers, etc. If you couldn't tell, I very much enjoyed this retelling. Shock, I know! I’ve said it a billion times and I’m sure you probably are sick of it….but Dokey is really the only one of the writers in this series that can really pull off a quality retelling.

My rating: 4 Stars. I'll buy this one (and the Wild Orchid one as well)

Sum this book up in one phrase: A proper fairytale.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Host - Stephenie Meyer

Read Emily's review here.
Review by Alicia Connell - currently acting as a "mommy-substitute" while Emily is on bed rest, she is joining the "reading for sanity" cause.
Summary:
A species of altruistic parasites has peacefully assumed control of the minds and bodies of most humans, but feisty Melanie Stryder won't surrender her mind to the alien soul called Wanderer. Overwhelmed by Melanie's memories of fellow resistor Jared, Wanderer yields to her body's longing and sets off into the desert to find him. Likely the first love triangle involving just two bodies, it's unabashedly romantic, and the characters (human and alien) genuinely endearing.

My Review:
At the beginning of this book it was difficult for me to really get into it. I kept thinking no way can it be as good as the Twilight series. I also thought it would be similar to Twilight and that made it difficult also cause I was afraid I would read this one and twilight would be ruined.

I was wrong.
Once I got time and I pushed aside my doubt-filled thoughts I was able to read and keep reading until I finished it almost without taking any brakes. This book was not so much scary but a little intense and at times frustrating. I often would get upset and put the book down but then right after I would pick it up because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. There are characters that I despised when they were first introduced but as they were more involved and I got to know them I loved them. A few in particular. I fell in love with some of them and I wanted to yell at others.
As I started getting closer to the end I didn't think that there was any possible way that there could be a good happy ending. I kept thinking what only four more chapters there's got to be more how can it even end in four more chapters. But there was a way.

My Rating: 4.8 Stars. I'm taking off .2 for a little bit of a slow beginning.

Summed up in one phrase: Surprising and captivating

Bread & Chocolate - Philippa Gregory

Summary: A TV chef who specializes in outrageous cakes tempts a monk who bakes bread for his brothers; a surprise visitor invites mayhem into the perfect minimalist flat in the season of good will; a woman explains her unique view of straying husbands; straying husbands encounter a variety of inventive responses. These are just some of the treats on offer in this sumptuous box of delights.

My review: I don't often indulge in books of short stories, though I'm not sure why. I really enjoy reading them. Perhaps it's the unpredictability (or the predictable chaos) of parenting, but short stories are probably best suited for the life of a stay-at-home mother since they can be read--beginning to end--in one sitting. While the odds of us having more than five minutes to ourselves are fairly slim, time-outs can be great opportunities to sneak in a quick story. Thankfully we have a LOT of time-outs at our house.

For me, this book was like a white elephant gift exchange. The back of the book told me very little, so each story was like unwrapping a present--I didn't know what I was going to get. Granted some of them were vacuum cleaners--something that I appreciate but don't really intend to use very much. Others were comfy booties that you love to just sink into. My favorites stories, however, were the ones that I can't find an adequate analogy for--because I would be reading along wondering if I was even going to like the story and then BAM, the author would tweak the ending and give me something I wasn't at all expecting. I found myself grinning (sometimes inappropriately) at how the author chose to end the story. She blindsided me quite a few times. On the whole, I found her stories to be a enjoyable mix of the creepy, mysterious, lovely, romantic, bizarre, vengeful, and surprising.

That having been said, I'm fairly certain I won' t read it again and I don't intend to keep it on my shelf. Knowing the surprise endings will just suck all the fun out of it. I'll probably sell it to Encore Books or give it to someone who might like to read it.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars. A good one time read. Some adult situations in some of the stories.

Sum this book up in one phrase: Unexpectedly enjoyable

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider - Ishmael Beah

Also reviewed by Kim and Mindy

Summary: This absorbing account by a young man who, as a boy of 12, gets swept up in Sierra Leone's civil war goes beyond even the best journalistic efforts in revealing the life and mind of a child abducted into the horrors of warfare. Beah's harrowing journey transforms him overnight from a child enthralled by American hip-hop music and dance to an internal refugee bereft of family, wandering from village to village in a country grown deeply divided by the indiscriminate atrocities of unruly, sociopathic rebel and army forces. Beah then finds himself in the army—in a drug-filled life of casual mass slaughter that lasts until he is 15, when he's brought to a rehabilitation center sponsored by UNICEF and partnering NGOs. The process marks out Beah as a gifted spokesman for the center's work after his "repatriation" to civilian life in the capital, where he lives with his family and a distant uncle. When the war finally engulfs the capital, it sends 17-year-old Beah fleeing again, this time to the U.S., where he now lives. (Beah graduated from Oberlin College in 2004.) Told in clear, accessible language by a young writer with a gifted literary voice, this memoir seems destined to become a classic firsthand account of war and the ongoing plight of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide.

My Review: This was definitely a difficult book to read, as the subject matter was very emotional. Boys being drugged and dehumanized in order to become soldiers is without a doubt a sick and wrong practice. I can't imagine being in Ishmael's position, alone at the age of twelve, traveling by foot in an attempt to stay alive. I am astonished by this young boy's courage.

I must say that there are a few things that bothered me about this story, besides the horrific subject matter. First, the time line of this story seems rather convenient, if you will, in an unbelievable way. However, given that these are the memories of a twelve year old boy I can certainly understand how this is how he remembers things happening even if these events didn't happen so closely together. Also the author rarely speaks of his emotions during the story, nor does he tell how he reconciles with his own actions. Maybe this is because he is not far enough into the healing process to dive that deep or maybe it is just something he has chosen not to put down on paper. Either way, I must admit that as a reader I felt that this left the story feeling incomplete for me.

Overall I am glad that I have the knowledge of what is happening in Africa and believe that this would be a good book for others to read to would inform them of the horrific acts that are taking place in that part of the world. I find it rather ironic that Ishmael and his friends were so familiar with U.S. rap songs and artists, as well as other American trends, yet we don't have the slightest clue what is happening to people over there. I think this is probably a true statement for many parts of the world. We should do more to keep ourselves informed, as knowledge is power.

My Rating: 4 Stars, glad I read it and will recommend it to others

Sum this book up in one phrase: Unforgettable

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier - Ishmael Beah

also reviewed by Heather and Mindy

Summary:New York City, 1998
My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“Did you witness some of the fighting?”
“Everyone in the country did.”
“You mean you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
“Cool.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
“Yes, sometime.”
This is how wars are fought now: by children, traumatized, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become the soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.
What does war look like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But it is rare to find a first-person account from someone who endured this hell and survived.
In A LONG WAY GONE: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Beah, now twenty-six years old, tells a powerfully gripping story: At the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. At sixteen, he was removed from fighting by UNICEF, and through the help of the staff at his rehabilitation center, he learned how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and, finally, to heal.
This is an extraordinary and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.

My Review: I know that there has been mixed reviews on this novel. I will make this very short and sweet.
If you want to know what so many choose to ignore. If you want to cry and remember what it is to be human, no matter what color...read this book. For you and for all mankind, we are in this together...ACT LIKE IT.

My Rating: 5

If I could sum this book up in one phrase: We have all become lazy in our efforts, if we let other humans suffer such atrocities on our watch. Read it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer

Summary:Breaking Dawn is split into three separate "books", or parts. The first part details Bella's marriage and honeymoon with Edward, which they spend on a private island off the coast of Brazil. Edward grants Bella's wish and makes love to her. Soon after, Bella realizes that she is pregnant.
The second part of the novel is written from Jacob's point of view, and lasts throughout Bella's pregnancy and childbirth. The pack of werewolves, not knowing what danger the unborn child may pose, make plans to destroy it, even though they must kill Bella to do so.
The third section of Breaking Dawn shifts back to Bella's perspective, finding her changed into a vampire and enjoying her new life and abilities. However, the vampire Irina misidentifies Renesmee as an "immortal child", a child who has been turned into a vampire. The creation of "immortal children" was previously outlawed by the Volturi. After Irina presents her allegation to the Volturi, they plan to destroy Renesmee and the Cullens. In an attempt to save her, the Cullens gather vampires from around the world to stand as witnesses and prove to the Volturi that Renesmee is not an immortal child. The Volturi Arrives........

Review: At the beginning of this series I was very unclear on how the plot would unfold. Although this book was not my favorite of the series, I think it was a well written, and (at least the first half)was incredibly engaging,
I think my main problem with this book was that I found it slightly anti- climatic . Unfortunately that is all the detail I can give without giving away plot lines.
Bella and Edward are hot and heavy and it seems that Jacob may have found what he needs to get past Bella. So everything should be hunky-dorey, right?
But, in this novel, that is the tip of the iceberg. Inner-turmoil and Volturi intervention lend an intense build up and fantasmic outcome..........However....
You will have to read to discover all the ins and outs of this novel. It is an good ending to a GREAT series...but all in all.........

My Rating: 4.0

If I could sum this book up in one phrase: Just give me what I want, you know I do, so why are you not giving it to me!!!!!!

Eclipse - Stephenie Meyer

Summary:As Seattle is ravaged by a string of mysterious killings and a malicious vampire continues her quest for revenge, Bella once again finds herself surrounded by danger. In the midst of it all, she is forced to choose between her love for Edward and her friendship with Jacob—knowing that her decision has the potential to ignite the ageless struggle between vampire and werewolf. With her graduation quickly approaching, Bella has one more decision to make: life or death. But which is which?

Review: Ok, This was the one. I have had so many mixed feelings about this series, but for me , this one locked it up.

Bella finds herself caught between the two men that she truly loves. The storyline is heart wrenching and fast paced with everything that book one and two were lacking. I feel like I cannot say much about this book without giving away the plot line...but I think that Miss Meyer has scored with her interpretation of a true triangle of love, the emotions of loving two men are made so vivid and real you feel yourself doubting your original thoughts on the whole series.

I found this to be my favorite of the series and by far the most engaging. If you stopped at number one or number two.....GO BUY NUMBER THREE!!

My Rating: 5.......5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5

If I could sum this book up on one phrase: It is over already...??!!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wild Orchid (Once Upon a Time Series)

by Cameron Dokey

Summary: Wielding a sword as deftly as an embroidery needle, Mulan is unlike any other girl in China. When the emperor summons a great army, each family must send a male to fight. Tomboyish Mulan is determined to spare her aging father and bring her family honor, so she disguises herself and answers the call.
But Mulan never expects to find a friend, let alone a soul mate, in the commander of her division, Prince Jian. For all of Mulan's courage with a bow and arrow, is she brave enough to share her true identity and feelings with Prince Jian?

My review: Mulan is painfully aware of loss of her mother who died when she was born. Her father, a famous war hero, forbid anyone to speak her mother’s name and cannot bear to return home and see the child responsible for her death. Mulan grows up surrounded by the servants who care for her and Li Po, her neighbor and best friend, who teaches her the art of archery, sword fighting, and how to read and write. When, at last, her father returns from battling the Huns, Mulan falls out of a tree and lands right in front of his horse—not exactly making the best first impression. Both father and daughter struggle to become acquainted for the first time in their lives. Eventually, to spare her father’s life, Mulan takes his place on the battlefield in an elite company of archers led by the emperors youngest son, Prince Jian, where she finally comes to realize the true desire of her heart.

I really enjoyed reading Cameron Dokey’s version of Mulan. Her retelling provided a historical richness similar to the original Battle of Mulan and gave an infinitely more touching back story than the Disney movie provides. There was an awkwardness between Mulan and her father as they tried to get to know each other, but the tender moments when they finally connect are well worth the wait. The addition of secondary characters—Li Po, General Yuwen, and Zao Xing—only added to the depth of the story. I had to lock myself in the bedroom so I could finish it (don't worry, Curt was up). As always, I felt the book was over a little bit too quickly but it was great while it lasted.

My rating: 4 stars. A nice addition to my library.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: Dokey doesn't disappoint.

Daemon - Daniel Suarez

Summary: Technology. It controls almost everything in our modern world, from remote entry on our cars and the flight controls of our airplanes to the movements of the entire world economy. Thousands of simple and autonomous computer programs, or daemons, make our networked world possible, running constantly in the background of our lives. Daemons traffic e-mail. Daemons transfer money. Daemons monitor power grids. These daemons are pervasive and, for the most part, benign.

But the same can't aways be said for the people who design them.

Matthew Sobol was a legendary computer game designer--the billionaire architect behind half a dozen popular online games. His premature death depressed millions of gamers around the world. But Sobol's fans are the only ones to note his passing. When is obituary is posted online, a previously dormant daemon activates, initiating a chain of events that may unravel the fabric of the hyper efficient interconnected world Sobol left behind.

With Sobol's secrets buried along with him, and as new layers of his daemon are unleashed at every turn, it's up to an unlikely alliance to decipher his intricate plans and wrest the world from the grasp of a nameless, faceless enemy--or learn to live in a society in which we are no longer in control.  (Summary from book -Image from thedaemon.com)

My review: Matthew Sobol, a gaming developer, software genius, and man with a serious God complex, has died from cancer but left behind a legacy—a legacy so dangerous and complex that the entire world is threatened. Before his death, he implanted a Daemon on the internet--an AI program set to carry out his master plan as certain parameters are met. Within a matter of months his Daemon controls people all over the globe, portions of the media, powerful companies, and factions all independent of one another yet completely dependent on the program for their welfare and livelihood. The Daemon and its’ operatives are fully capable and willing to destroying the world through manipulation of the global economy and the creation of civil unrest. Sobol’s ultimate objective isn’t revealed until the end, but to achieve it his program protects those who are loyal and wipes out everything and everyone who stands in its’ way.

Throughout the book, even through to the ending chapters, new characters kept popping up. Most of the book seemed to be a blur of characters identified almost solely by their name, rank, and agency affiliation. The author often introduced a character in the beginning and then shelved him until the end at which time you had completely forgotten the character and how they tied into the story. I never felt any attachment to Detective Peter Sebeck, the main character for a good portion of the book, though a few characters began to stand out towards the end of the book.

Despite some of the books flaws, I went along--I was there through the hacking, techno murders, and computer recruited operatives. I was there through the brain scans, the fully automated house of death, and vocal projection technology-- but eventually, they lost me. I think I was supposed to believe it—that it could happen right now—as the author has stated in interviews, and I did buy it up to a point. I think my line in the sand was somewhere around the alternate web reality, shirts that could detect/control technology, automated homicidal cars, and a global non-entity that controls every technological aspect of the internet and the world. It’s not that I believe that, technologically, these things can’t be done. I don’t know enough about computers to say either way. I’m still reeling from the Qwerty keyboard. However, I harbor serious doubts about the plausibility of one person, genius or not, having the foresight, knowledge, and complete understanding of human behavior that it would take to plot and carry out a plan of this magnitude. Oh, and add to all of that the fact that the word “Sorcerer” was used. At a certain point, it just got absurd.

This storyline would make a FAR better movie than it does a book--a sort of Transformers meets Minority Report. It would be an streamlined, abridged version of the book and obviously the visualization problems would solve themselves. As a book, I have no plans to read it again or continue reading in what is apparently a series. It was all just a bit too much for me.

My rating: 2.75. I tried giving it a 3. It didn't feel right. A hacker might find this story invigorating and give it a 4. I don't know any. Do you? **Violence and Language**

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: Unbelievable--and not in a good way.

A Year of Living Biblically - A.J. Jacobs

Summary:
What would it require for a person to live all the commandments of the Bible for an entire year? That is the question that animates this hilarious, quixotic, thought-provoking memoir from Jacobs. He didn't just keep the Bible's better-known moral laws (being honest, tithing to charity and trying to curb his lust), but also the obscure and unfathomable ones: not mixing wool with linen in his clothing; calling the days of the week by their ordinal numbers to avoid voicing the names of pagan gods; trying his hand at a 10-string harp; growing a ZZ Top beard; eating crickets; and paying the babysitter in cash at the end of each work day. (He considered some rules, such as killing magicians, too legally questionable to uphold.) In his attempts at living the Bible to the letter, Jacobs hits the road in highly entertaining fashion to meet other literalists, including Samaritans in Israel, snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., and biblical creationists in Kentucky. Throughout his journey, Jacobs comes across as a generous and thoughtful (and, yes, slightly neurotic) participant observer, lacing his story with absurdly funny cultural commentary as well as nuanced insights into the impossible task of biblical literalism. By Publisher's Weekly via Amazon.com

My Review:
I read portions of this book a few years ago while standing at the bookstore and have had it on my mind ever since. I was looking forward to a funny read, which I got - AND - in addition I got to follow the author as he gained his own spiritual insights and understanding. The author comes to this project from a wholly secular life view with the purpose of showing the fallacy of following the Bible with extreme liberalism, combined with the competing goal of gaining some sort of spiritual relationship with the divine. As a religious person who (tries) to live the Bible with some degree of literalism I thrilled at some of his realizations and I also took a look at the reasons I do what I do, or think what I think. I love reading a book that lets me examine my own beliefs and encourages me to better myself.

Here are some of the book's topics/themes I enjoyed: Tithing, the difficulty in living the laws like, no gossip, no lying, being grateful - and the peace it brings when you do, dealing with infertility, finding peace and joy in observing the Sabbath, guarding your tongue (no swearing), our material and sexual culture. The book also made me examine my beliefs on creationism, gay rights, and the parts of beliefs based on actual scripture, verses my religious culture.

My Rating: 4 stars - I'll recommend this to a lot of people, and it may be my next book club selection.

In one sentence: Thou shalt examine your own beliefs while enjoying some levity.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Gargoyle - Andrew Davidson

Summary: An extraordinary debut novel of love that survives the fires of hell and transcends the boundaries of time.

The narrator of The Gargoyle is a very contemporary cynic, physically beautiful and sexually adept, who dwells in the moral vacuum that is modern life. As the book opens, he is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. He crashes into a ravine and suffers horrible burns over much of his body. As he recovers in a burn ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned, he awaits the day when he can leave the hospital and commit carefully planned suicide—for he is now a monster in appearance as well as in soul.

A beautiful and compelling, but clearly unhinged, sculptress of gargoyles by the name of Marianne Engel appears at the foot of his bed and insists that they were once lovers in medieval Germany. In her telling, he was a badly injured mercenary and she was a nun and scribe in the famed monastery of Engelthal who nursed him back to health. As she spins their tale in Scheherazade fashion and relates equally mesmerizing stories of deathless love in Japan, Iceland, Italy, and England, he finds himself drawn back to life—and, finally, in love. He is released into Marianne's care and takes up residence in her huge stone house. But all is not well. For one thing, the pull of his past sins becomes ever more powerful as the morphine he is prescribed becomes ever more addictive. For another, Marianne receives word from God that she has only twenty-seven sculptures left to complete—and her time on earth will be finished.

Already an international literary sensation, The Gargoyle is an Inferno for our time. It will have you believing in the impossible.

My Review: The story begins with a drug addict getting into a terrible car crash that results in severe burns all over his body. As his story unfolds you find out that not only is he a druggie, he is also a porn star. This makes it difficult for the reader to feel much sympathy for him despite the extremely painful processes he must endure during his recovery, which as explained in the first few chapters in excruciating graphic detail. This rather unlikable character is the narrator for the book (and only as I am writing this do I realize that he remains unnamed throughout the story).

While in the first stages of recovery, Marianne Engel slips over from the psych ward and insists that her and the burn victim knew each other long ago, in medieval times. Although you doubt her she begins to reveal secrets that no one else could possibly know. Then as she is nursing him back to health she unravels the story of their past, which turns out to be very much a love story with a tragic end. While doing this, Marianne weaves in other fascinating love stories of couples from the 1200-1400's. As the healing progresses, so does the modern day relationship between Marianne and the narrator (whom I jokingly refer to as human charcoal).

Although the story told in the present view was interesting, it was not nearly as captivating as the stories of the past that are told throughout the novel. I could have read an entire book filled with these stories of tragic true love. I was especially engrossed by the story of a Japanese glass maker's daughter, which the author tells on amazon.com. I also very much enjoyed the story of Marianne and the narrator's past that was spread out through the novel.

Considering that this is Andrew Davidson's first novel, I would have to say that he is an outstanding author. This is a man that just has a way with words and using words in such a manner that inspires the reader to reflect. For example he describes love as a pygmy mouse lemur...a tiny, jittery primate with eyes permanently peeled open in fear. How's that for a new way of thinking about love?

Overall I would say that while this book was better than average, it wasn't fantastic for me. That being said, I am not sure that this is an entirely fair review for two reasons. First, I picked the wrong time to read this book. It fell into a very busy time of my life and therefore, took over three weeks for me to get through, which is an insane amount of time for me. I was forced to read this book in small increments and was never able to engross myself in it the way the book deserved. Secondly, I had extremely high expectations (unrealistic if I do say so myself) for this novel given it's numerous outstanding reviews, some by favorite authors such as Sara Gruen.

I would really like to read this book again at a time when I could devote just a few days to it and without the expectations. There are so many realizations that came to me after finishing the book. For instance, I mentioned before I didn't even know that the narrator was unnamed until I went to search for his name to write the review. This has to say something about how the novel was narrated. Also I read the reader's guide after I finished the book and found out there were two acrostics within the chapters. The first letter of every chapter spells out ALL THINGS IN A SINGLE BOOK BOUND BY LOVE, which is printed on the cover of the book as well. The last letter of every chapter spells out DIE LIEBE IST STARK WIE DER TOD, MARIANNE, meaning "Love is as strong as death, Marianne". Both of which you will understand better once reading the novel.

My Rating: 3.5, this time around at least. (I reserve the right to change that after the next reading)

If I had to sum this book up in one phrase it would be: A blazingly unique love story.

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