Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Great and Terrible Beauty - Libba Bray

Summary: A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy--jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.

Gemma, 16, has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions "for a bit of fun" and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the "others" and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy. Summary and Cover photo from Amazon.com

My Review: Gemma Doyle dreams of living in England but her mother wants her near in India. When a tragedy makes Gemma's dream come true, life in England isn't what she expected. First Gemma must keep a terrible secret. Then she finds that the other girls at Spence girl's academy are not easily befriended. To make matters worse upon arriving in England a mysterious man has begun to follow her. Gemma must see through the mystery and magic to discover who her true self.

Woven quietly into this intriguing story line are several important lessons for today's teenage girls. The author addresses the insecurities girls of this age have with themselves, while showing that these are normal and that all girls deal with some sort of insecurity though their nature may differ. The novel also faces the issue of popularity while stressing the importance of acceptance. This book does an excellent job recounting the mischievous behavior of girls in another era yet relating to modern day.

Libba Bray also played with the idea of teenage romance and Although I thought the love story between Gemma and Kartik added to the story, I wish the author would have left out some of the detail of Gemma's dreams. I must admit that there is one scene that had me questioning it's appropriateness for young adults, though I'm sure it would be fine for the 15+ age group. I would also have loved a little more romantic tension between Gemma and Kartik.

Overall an enjoyable story with stand up characters. A quick read that, while not all consuming, will make the reader enjoy picking up the book to continue the tale. There are two other books in this series, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing, and I am excited to see where the author takes the story.

My Rating: 4 Stars

If I could sum it up in one sentence it would be: A mystical, magical coming-of-age story told from another realm.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

*Okay, it's official*

I want to send a huge welcome out to Kari, (pronounced Kah-ree) our newest contributor!
Kari is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, wife, and mommy of two girls. Her way of releasing stress for as long as she can remember is from reading books. As a young child she was known to get in trouble for staying up way past her bed time reading by shoving a blanket under her door so the bedside lamp light wouldn't give her away. Kari's typical reading material is focused on Young Adult Lit. She usually likes books that don't leave her depressed from the realities of our world--it is an escape, isn't it? She loves book recommendations though!
We're so excited to have you!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

Summary: The Dursleys were so mean and hideous that summer that all Harry Potter wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girl's bathroom, and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley's younger sister, Ginny. (Picture from amazon.com --summary from the back of the book)

But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble beings, and someone--or something--starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects...Harry Potter himself.

My review: In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets we find Harry in his second year of school at Hogwarts, where his unique magical abilities have, once again, landed him in a heap of trouble. As the book progresses, and students start getting inexplicably attacked, Harry becomes the target of suspicion and even begins to question how well he truly knows himself. I had a blast reading this one with Curt! Not only is there a mysterious good vs. evil plot going, but there are enough side stories involving rogue bludgers, potions gone awry, and narcissistic teachers to keep even the most skeptical of readers interested.

While this book was a little bit darker than the first, with Harry starting to see some similarities between himself and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, it was still full of the sarcastic humor and undeniable wit that J.K. Rowling readers love. I found Ron’s petrifying fear of spiders to be both hysterical and endearing. I really felt for him—and I believe that it solidified my undying love for him as a character. I LOATHED Gilderoy Lockhart, Hogwart’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. He was an (intentionally) annoying character, but I couldn’t help but be amused by his ability to mesmerize the adolescent female half of the book (and the male halfs subsequent disgust with it).

It is great to read this series again and (this time) pick up on Voldemort’s backstory and the foreshadowing of a far-distant romance between Harry and another character in the book. Each character that Rowling creates is so full of life and unique—with its own defining characteristics—so that they are easy to picture and astonishingly real. I can’t even tell you how attached I am to some of the returning characters—how alive they are to me—with their distinct personalities, speech patterns, and senses of humor—I feel like they are like close friends whose blogs I read daily but with whom I never actually have a conversation. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, the entire Weasely clan, and even Snape, Draco, and the Durselys are great characters with depth that only seems to increase as the series goes on.

In short, this book was completely full of all the things that a good book should have: strong plot, humor, action, emotion, tension, fascinating and vivid characters, a unique setting, and a wee bit of romance (if you know where to look). We read it quite quickly and I am very excited to continue in the series.

My Rating: 5 magical stars! I still think this is a fairly young adult book (10-12). It wasn't too dark or scary, though there were a few tense moments (and an instance where a couple people were knocked out and locked in a cupboard--but they totally deserved it ;)

Sum it up in one phrase: Finally a sequel that can keep it's head up around the original! A strong continuation to a fabulous series.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kari's Educational Book Suggestions

Once again the fabulous Kari C. graces our blog with her awesome book suggestions. As soon as she accepts my invite (literally) she will be our newest contributor. ;) Here she is:
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I wanted to write down and share with you the Children's books I use to aid my teaching. Sometimes a Children's book is the quickest and clearest way to explain a concept to my kiddos.
Figures of Speech are very difficult for 2nd language learners to understand. I tend to use them a lot in my everyday speech as well as when I’m trying to explain something. Because of that I’ve used these books to give visuals and explanations.

-The King Who Rained

When trying to explain Adjectives I use:

-Many Luscious Lollipops

-Hairy, Scary, Ordinary: What Is An Adjective?

When trying to explain Verbs I use:

-To Root, To Toot, To Parachute: What Is A Verb?

When trying to explain a Noun I use:

-A Mink, A Fink, A Skating Rink: What Is A Noun?

When trying to explain Cause and Effect I use:

-The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate The Wash

-Thomas’ Snowsuit

When trying to explain Point Of View (Perspective or delving into Character Study) I use:

-The True Story of the Three Little Pigs

-Once Upon A Fairy Tale (StarBright Foundation version)

-The Emperor’s New Clothes (StarBright Foundation version)

***(If you haven't seen the StarBright Foundation books, they are really fun! The stories are familiar, but it's done differently than typical books. They come with a CD you can listen to with the characters being read by famous actors and actresses and the artwork is done by famous artists. It's really cool. Oh, and the proceeds go to helping sick children. Also very cool.)***

When trying to explain Apostrophes I use:

-The Girl’s Like Spaghetti

I also bring in fun books for the kids to enjoy; simply books that catch attention, but maybe aren’t the most literary. Some I’ve used before are:

-Vanishing Act

-Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

-Guinness Book Of World Records

-Form and Pheromone

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sovay - Celia Rees

Summary: For privileged young maidens in the year 1794, adventure seems limited to primping, preening and sitting for portraits. But the beautiful Sovay is drawn to more thrilling pastimes--namely, donning a man's cloak and holding up stagecoaches in broad daylight. Posing as a highway robber began as a lark to test a suitor's devotion. But when Sovay lifts the wallet of one of England's most dangerous men, the stakes become critical: she discovers that her father, who is mysteriously missing, has been accused of treason.

Soon robbery is the least of Sovay's perils. On a mission to clear her family's good name, she becomes entangled in a web of deceit and duplicity. London's underground net of spies and informers holds tremendous power --and it is closing in quickly on Sovay. (picture from amazon.com--excerpt from book cover)

My review: I've purchased several books by this best-selling author (never having read any of them) because they seemed, at first glance, to be fun empowering reads for young girls. I have a few favorites in that you-go-girl-genre and am always looking to add to the List. Sovay, however, got nowhere near the List. Not that list anyway. In an effort to avoid wasting any more time on this book I'm going to attempt be brief.

I can’t tell you the relief that flooded me at the end of this book. There was not one single moment of the time I spent reading that I ever connected with the characters or storyline. Not one. I was very much a woman sitting in a room reading words off a page—and extremely reluctantly at that. It was such a complete mess—a jumble of inconsistent characters, changing perspectives, and contrived “adventures”—that it made my head spin. Sovay was quite possibly the most poorly written character I have ever read. She was supposed to be leading a double life, but the author, Celia Reese, was unable to manage making either side of Sovay's personality believable. Was she bold and daring? Or naive, dim-witted, and in need of the protection of every man on the face of the earth? We'll never know. On top of that, Rees constantly eluded to Sovay’s romantic interest in one man or another, stringing it along until the last 30 pages when she finally decided on someone with whom she had zero chemistry whatsoever. The only thing that I liked, even remotely, about this book was it’s historical setting—the French Revolution. I haven’t read a book in that setting before and it was the only life preserver in an ocean of bad writing.

It took me over a week to read this book. Nine days to be precise. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it actually took me that long, but I simply never wanted to read it (unless you counted before I opened it). I really expected more of a best-selling author and can only think that this book must have been some sort of severe lapse in judgement on the part of Rees, her editor, and publishers.

My Rating: 1 Star. While it is possible that a younger reader might not pick up on some of the things that drove me to insanity, I still find this book to be a gigantic waste of my time.

Sum it up: I don’t understand how this book could have passed through so many hands and still gotten published. I'm sorry to say it Celia (as I'm sure you read this blog daily) but it was nine days of my life I will NEVER get back.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Peace Like A River - Leif Enger

Summary: Dead for 10 minutes before his father orders him to breathe in the name of the living God, Reuben Land is living proof that the world is full of miracles. But it's the impassioned honesty of his quiet, measured narrative voice that gives weight and truth to the fantastic elements of this engrossing tale. From the vantage point of adulthood, Reuben tells how his father rescued his brother Davy's girlfriend from two attackers, how that led to Davy being jailed for murder and how, once Davy escapes and heads south for the Badlands of North Dakota, 12-year-old Reuben, his younger sister Swede and their janitor father light out after him. But the FBI is following Davy as well, and Reuben has a part to play in the finale of that chase, just as he had a part to play in his brother's trial. It's the kind of story that used to be material for ballads, and Enger twines in numerous references to the Old West, chiefly through the rhymed poetry Swede writes about a hero called Sunny Sundown. That the story is set in the early '60s in Minnesota gives it an archetypal feel, evoking a time when the possibility of getting lost in the country still existed. Enger has created a world of signs, where dead crows fall in a snowstorm and vagrants lie curled up in fields, in which everything is significant, everything has weight and comprehension is always fleeting. This is a stunning debut novel, one that sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a North Dakota winter, a novel about faith, miracles and family that is, ultimately, miraculous.
(from Publishers Weekly, cover photo from Amazon.com)

My Review: Reuben Land is a grown man now but the tale he narrates of perhaps the most important time of his life happened when he was just 12 years old. Reuben's brother, Davy, is going on trial for the murder of two bad boys from the small town the Land family resides in. It's a murder which Reuben witnessed, one which Reuben believes was in self defense. When Davy breaks out of jail, the Land family follows shortly after in search for him. It's a journey where Reuben will discover much about his values, his family, and faith in God, as well as in others.

The core of this story is fairly solid. It's truly a story about family love and how blinding that love can be, both for the better and worse. It is also a story of religious faith and how that faith fits with life and love. The core I can swallow, it's getting down to it that was so difficult for me.

One problem I had with the story was that the characters were unbelievable. The dad, Jeremiah Land, performs miracle after miracle. I can see how in retailing a story from childhood a boy could easily find his dad and the tasks he performed bigger than life, especially from a dad with such strong faith and religious teachings. I can get past this. It Swede's character (the younger sister) that really killed me. Here is a girl that writes amazing poetry (and this poetry fits in incredibly well with the happenings in the book and was probaly my favorite part of the novel). However it just feels too mature for a girl of her age. Swede also speaks as an adult would most of the time, yet at various points once again reverts to the thinking of a 9 year old girl. I wish the author would have made her character a bit older as I think it would have made the whole story work better.

I would have to say the main difficulty for me with this novel was the writing style. It reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan's Atonement, in that it was extremely detailed. The author uses metaphor after metaphor. Don't get me wrong, I usually love metaphors as they help the reader visualize the story better but too many metaphors remind me of too much icing on a cake. It's good for the first couple bites but quickly becomes too sweet and therefore must be digested in small doses. (How's that for a metaphor?) Maybe that is why it took me over two weeks to get through only 300 pages.

I really wanted to love this story, as it seems many others did but I couldn't bring myself to. I close the cover on this book feeling like I missed something. There has to be a reason so many are gushing over this novel and I am sure that several of you know exactly what it is. It just wasn't there for me though and I sincerely doubt I will be able to bring myself to pick it up again to discover just what this reason is.

My Rating: 2 Stars

If I had to sum this book up in one sentence: A book loved by many, but not by me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kari's Children's Book Suggestions

This list of children's book suggestions comes from my friend Kari C.--who I have met exactly once and yet knew within minutes that we were kindred spirits. She is a teacher and a new mommy (for the second time) and I am trying desperately to lure her to this blog as a regular contributor. All this flattery, I know. I'm shameless. All ye who want Kari to come on over...give a shout (comment).

Kari C.'s Favorite Children's Books

The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein
The Polar Express - Chris Van Allsburg
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day - Judith Viorst
Tuesday - David Weisner
Guess How Much I Love You - Sam McBratney
Love You Forever - Robert Munsch
Don't Let The Pigeon Stay Up Late (any of the Pigeon series are good...very funny books!) - Mo Willems
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs - Judi & Ron Barret
Oh, The Places You'll Go (any Dr. Seuss books are good) - Dr. Suess
Silly Sally - Audrey Wood
Knuffle Bunny - Mo Willems
Any of the Mr. Men or Little Miss series (you know, Little Miss Bossy or Mr. Tickle, Little Miss Shy) - Roger Hargreaves
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs - Jon Scieszka
The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Eric Carle
The Napping House - Audrey Wood
Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak
If You Give A Mouse A Cookie - Laura Numeroff
You Are Special (any Max Lucado book is good) - Max Lucado
Olivia - Ian Falconer
Once Upon A Time, The End - Geoffrey Kloske
Miss Nelson Is Missing - Harry Allard

ATTENTION FOLLOWERS:
**Would you like to have YOUR favorite books list posted on Reading For Sanity? If so, leave a comment and we'll get you started!**

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fairest - Gail Carson-Levine (Audiobook)

Summary: Aza is far from beautiful. With pale skin and blood-red lips (not to mention ungainly size), she is seen as odd, at best. But Aza does have one blessing: a voice of astonishing beauty. In Ayortha, where singing is the main mode of communication, this gift is no small thing, and soon Aza finds herself rising at court. But, as she will discover, unexpected good fortune can also bring unexpected danger...
Funny and moving, wise and uplifting, Fairest represents New York Times bestselling autor Gail Carson Levine at her finest. Composer-director Todd Hobin has crafted melodies for all the story's lyrics and songs, resulting in a unique listening experience - an audiobook that has as much original music as a Broadway show!

My Review: I picked this up to pass the time on this weekend's road trip. We always listen to books as we drive, as it makes the ride more enjoyable. And I have to say that this was the most unique book that we have listened to. A musical book? I wasn't sure I would like it but found myself engrossed. What's more is that my 6-year-old was also engrossed in the story, so much so that he chose to listen to it rather than watch his DVD.

This is the story of Aza, an ugly duckling abandoned as an infant at an inn. The innkeeper and his wife find the child and raise her as their own. She grows up a good girl with a beautiful voice but she is rather hard on the eye. She refers to herself as ugly and tries to remain hidden from guests as the inn. Her biggest wish is to be beautiful.

One day a grumpy duchess visits the inn and takes a liking to Aza. In an unexpected turn Aza is invited to be the duchess's companion to a royal wedding. At the wedding Aza befriends the queen, who in a Snow White type twist has magic mirror and life takes another drastic turn. In a dangerous quest to discover the true meaning of beauty, Aza also learns the hard lessons of love and betrayal.

This story is full of beautiful magic, music, and morals. It teaches that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And that inner beauty is always more important that outer. A fun tale appropriate for all ages. This one is sure to delight. I would definitely recommend listening to this book rather than reading it as I can't imagine the songs fitting as neatly in written form. They certainly wouldn't contain the same immense feeling if you were merely reading it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

If I had to sum it up in one phrase it would be: A delightful musical book sure to leave you smiling.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone - J.K. Rowling

Summary: Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far about the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility.

All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley--a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry's room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry --and anyone who reads about him--will find unforgettable.

For it's there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that's been waiting for him...if Harry can survive the encounter.
(picture from amazon.com - excerpt from book cover)

My review: I just finished reading this book to my husband. It’ll be the second time that we’ve read it together and probably the third or fourth time that I’ve read it myself. We aren’t die-hard Harry Potter fans but we have been to a few midnight releases sans costumes just to get started on the book. Maybe that does make us diehards. I don’t know. I do have to say that each time I read it I pick up on something new and I enjoy myself just as much as I did the first time I cracked the cover.

I think that Sorcerer’s Stone is a great introductory book into the world of Harry Potter. It is here that you get the first descriptions of Harry’s dysfunctional family, his abrupt introduction into the wizarding world, the mysteries and wonder of Diagon alley, the majesty of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the joys of unbreakable friendships, and the exhilaration of a good vs. evil battle. Each page is enchanting and effortless to imagine, allowing you to easily slip into Rowling’s world.

Believe it or not, there are still a few people out there who have not read these books yet. They are usually of one of four camps. The “It’s evil” camp, the “It’s trendy” camp, the “It’s a kid’s book” camp, and the “Seen the movie” camp.

To those out there who have chosen to not read these books, believing that they are evil: That is your right. I don’t dispute it. I quit reading the Golden Compass Series after I skimmed through it and didn’t like it’s sub themes. I think you’re missing out but I doubt I can change your mind.

To the “it’s trendy” camp. Get over yourselves. Yup, I said it. My brother was a part of this camp until he actually cracked one of the books. Then he read all seven of them in rapid succession. Embrace the trend. You’ll enjoy yourself.

To the “It’s a kids book” camp. It’s actually young adult and, as you might have noticed, these books are best sellers. AND FOR GOOD REASON. They are cross-generational, touching the lives of both young and old precisely because they allow us all to disappear inside the daydream. I have all of them in hardback so that I can read them to my kids someday. I might even have to buy them their own set. And you know what, I’m probably going to have to hide the set so they can’t read ahead. I almost have to do that with my husband.

To the “seen the movie” camp. You think you know Harry Potter? Even if you’ve seen the movie, I urge you to read this book. While the characters in the movie are extremely well cast, there is absolutely no way to get the depth of experience you can from the books. Trust me, there is enough new and interesting story (left out from the movie) to keep you entertained despite your knowledge of the basic plot. I really liked the movie, but compared to the book…well. I give it 3 stars.

You can probably tell already--but just to be clear--I L.O.V.E.D this book. It is the perfect way to spend the evening.

My rating: 5 HUGE STARS. For parents: The fantasy and magical elements in this book are fairly tame but, just like the Twilight Series (and MANY others), these books tend to get a bit more adult the further you get into the series. I feel like Book 1 is acceptable for the 8-10 age group but counsel against letting your 8 year old read clear through till book 7 without reading them yourself.

Sum it up: An unbelievably amazing trip into your own imagination. DO NOT MISS THE RIDE.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Virgin's Lover - Philippa Gregory

Summary: Sumptuous historical novel from bestselling author of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL and THE QUEEN'S FOOL. Elizabeth I has acceded to the throne of England, a position she has waited and schemed for all her life. She is surrounded by advisers, all convinced that a young woman cannot form political judgements. Elizabeth feels that she can rely on just one man: her oldest friend, Robert Dudley. It is soon plain that he is more than merely a friend. In a house in the countryside waits a very different woman, Amy Robsart - Robert's wife. She has no taste for life at court and longs for the day when her husband will return home. She has loved him since she was a girl, but now they are adults she hardly sees him. Meanwhile, the pressure grows for Elizabeth to marry, for it is unthinkable that a queen should rule on her own. Elizabeth's preference is clear, but he is unavailable. But what if the unthinkable were to happen! Philippa Gregory blends passion, personalities and politics in this stunning novel of the Tudor court and a country divided. (photo and summary courtesy of Amazon UK)

My Review: Queen Mary is dead. The protestant Princess Elizabeth assumes the throne, but not without opposition. Scotland is threatened by Mary of Guise, regent to Mary-Queen of Scots. While England faces defeat and Elizabeth faces the possibility of losing her throne, months after she has gained it, a passionate love affair blossoms. His name is Robert Dudley. Dark, handsome, said to be an excellent lover, and childhood friend of Elizabeth. Son of a traitor, he comes in to the Queen's favor under scrutinizing eyes. While Elizabeth chooses to press forward in their courting, a mirage of treasonous plots unfold around the lustful couple.

I have so much to say about this book. I scarcely know where to begin.

First things first: Historically this book is accurate. Embellishments have been made , of course, and we do not know what the "true" story of the Tudors really is. What Ms. Gregory has done is taken a phenomenal compilation of facts and theories from numerous different sources(which she lists at the end of all her novels), and woven them into intense, streamlined storytelling. Superb.

Second: The passion that rises out of these characters is relentless.Their dialogue is witty, yet sensual; erotic, yet innocent and playful. I am including this paragraph in my review for the fact that it really gives you a true "taste" of the intensity of Gregory's writing:

Robert shrugged, smiling. "Of course not," he said. He turned to Elizabeth."But how could one choose a man from canvas and paint? You would never choose a horse like that."
"Yes; but an Archduke is not a horse."
"Well, I would want to know how my horse would move, before I gave myself up to desire for him," he said "I would want to put him through his paces. I would want to know how he felt when I gentled him under my hand, smoothed his neck, touched him everywhere, behind his ears, on the lips, behind his legs. I would want to know how responsive he was when I was on him, when I had him between my legs. You know, I would even want to know the smell of him, the very scent of his sweat."
.
The book will take you on a ride, with twists and turns and, just when you think you know what is becoming of it all, you will realize that you don't really care what it is becoming, it is just a great ride getting there. I wish that more authors had the dedication that Gregory displays. I find that the knowledge she displays in her book is almost as fascinating as the story. This book took me two weeks to get through. This was due to the fact that I was so consumed by the information that I would read a paragraph and then go research it for an hour before I returned to the novel. Great story, great characters, great writing. A true Tudor masterpiece.
I am not sure that you would really define these as a series, but they are chronological: The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queens Fool, and The Virgins Lover (all reviewed by Kim), as well as, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Constant Princess, and The Other Queen. I plan to read and review the remaining in the series after a short return to the 21st century:)
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My Rating: 5 Stars
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If you could sum up this book in one phrase it would be: Is it possible that I was born in the wrong century?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook - America's Test Kitchen

Summary: Recipes that work...the first time and every time. We know how frustrating it can be when things go wrong in the kitchen. That's why every single recipe in this book has been tested not once, not twice, but often as many at 20, 30, or even 40 times. And then, just to make absolutely sure, we often test our recipes using cheap cookware, mediocre stove tops, and the wrong ingredients. All of this work results, we hope, in a simple promise: our recipes work, the first time and every time. As we like to say, "We make all the mistakes, so you don't have to." So here are 1,200 recipes you can count on. And that's a guarantee from America's Test Kitchen to your kitchen. (Picture from amazon.com and summary from back of the book)

My review: Well the plot was thick and juicy. The characters were vibrant and flavorful, and most of all I loved the ...well, here's a list:

-There are lots of different sections: Appetizers, Salads, Sandwiches, Soups and Stews, Vegetables, Rice Grains and Beans, Pasta, Eggs and Breakfast, Fish and Shellfish, Poultry, Meat, Grilling , Slow Cooker and Pressure Cooker, Bread and Pizza, Quick Breads, Cookies, Cakes, Pies and Tarts, Fruit Desserts, Puddings and Custards, Frozen Desserts, Sauces and Condiments, Light Recipes, and Special Menus.

-Most of these recipes are ones that I would actually make. There is nothing (or very little) in french or in milliliters or grams. I could probably get a hold of a majority of the ingredients in a local supermarket. It's nice. It's practical. And there's something comforting about knowing that someone actually tried this recipe a bazillion times before they published it.

-This book is ring bound so that it will lay flat while you are cooking. There is nothing worse than a regularly bound cookbook because in order to use it you have to either have one of those fancy cookbook holders cluttering up your counter OR you have to break the binding. You can imagine how well that goes over with me.

-This book will likely make me a better cook who makes tastier food. There are Cooking 101 sections that help with the basics and Test Kitchen Tips alongside that give you helpful information on just why a recipe is better with a certain ingredient or what you shouldn't do if you want a recipe to work. The Emergency Substitutions list will help me when it's too late to go to the store. The Test Kitchen also rates equipment and ingredients and then tells you which is the best product to buy--taking taking both quality and PRICE into account.

-Does it work? Their big promise of recipes that work right the first time? To tell you that I'd have to cook them all so.....I'll let you know. You can check out the ones I like, as well as some other great recipes at The Family Kitchen. All I can tell you right now is that with this massive amount of recipes to choose from available at my fingertips, it's going to take me a lot longer to plan my menu.

But wait, what do I find on page 686?

It's a MENU PLANNING section with tips on how to plan your menu and even some pre-planned menu suggestions for different activities like"Sunday Dinners", "Dinners to Serve a Crowd", "Birthday Parties for Kids", "Valentine's Day Dinner", "Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed", and much more.

Honestly, I really don't see a down side to this cookbook (except that it doesn't come with one of the chefs). I even got it at Costco (if you're looking for a deal). It will likely boot my Better Home's and Garden's cookbook off the pedestal marked "Most Used Cookbook in my Home."

My Rating: 5 Stars. Suitable for all ages and cooking levels.

Sum it up: Tasty and delicious.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

City of Bones - Cassandra Clare

Summary: When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder -- much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It's hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing -- not even a smear of blood -- to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy? This is Clary's first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It's also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace's world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know. . . . (Picture from BooksOnBoard and summary from the back of the book)

My review: Okay, let me know when you are done oogling the cover art......................................done yet? Maybe I need to make it smaller so you'll pay attention. Okay, here we go. This book was recommended by Stephenie Meyer on her website (as part of the Mortal Instruments Series) so I thought I'd give it a try.

City of Bones is laced with a magical dark-side of vampires, werewolves, demons, faeries, and Shadowhunters but set in a time that could be our own. It has a heroine who is coming into her own, the possibility for a little romance (which I always like), and of course the big SM’s stamp of approval. Consequently, I really expected that I would like this book more than I did. It started out well—fast paced, descriptive, and mysterious in all the right places but after a while I found it had a hard time maintaining my interest in that I-cannot-put-this-book-down way. I enjoyed the novelty of the interaction between the different “species” but as the story moved on it got progressively more violent, so much so, that I felt it took away from the story and just left me kind of grossed out (though at least I can say that Ms. Clare does not lack descriptive talent).

I felt that the characters were varied, though a bit reminiscent of a few other sci-fi/fantasy cult classics which shall remain nameless so as not to hint at the ending. There is some mild sexual tension between Clary and Jace that keeps things interesting, but my favorite part of the whole book was the jealousy-induced hostility between Simon and Jace in regards to Clary. It was fun to “watch" and I kept looking forward to the next confrontation. Unfortunately, there was a disturbing twist at the end that I saw coming but kept hoping wouldn’t actually arrive. Arrive it did, and for me, it knocked off a whole star. I might be saying too much here—but there was definitely an EEWWWWW factor.

I wish I had more to say about it, but I don’t. In the end, it was an okay read, but I really couldn’t see what all the hype was about. It just didn’t sit well. While I didn’t get terribly bored with it, I wasn’t particularly engaged either. It was something to read and, I could read the next one, or not, and be just fine (which, I guess, says alot).

My Rating: 3 stars. There were instances of language (ya know, high school parking lot kind of stuff) and lots of hack and slash descriptors that were TMI. I'd put this at a 15+ YA read.

Sum it up: Starts out strong and finishes, well, oddly.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence - Gavin De Becker

Summary -
True fear is a gift.
Unwarranted fear is a curse.
Learn how to tell the difference.

A date won't take "no" for an answer. The new nanny gives a mother an uneasy feeling. A stranger in a deserted parking lot offers unsolicited help. The threat of violence surrounds us every day. But we can protect ourselves, by learning to trust--and act on--our gut instincts.

In this empowering book, Gavin de Becker, the man Oprah Winfrey calls the leading expert on violent behavior, shows you how to spot even subtle signs of danger--before it's too late. Shattering the myth that most violent acts are unpredictable, de Becker, whose clients include top Hollywood stars and government agencies, offers specific ways to protect yourself and those you love, including...how to act when approached by a stranger...when you should fear someone close to you...what to do if you are being stalked...how to uncover the source of anonymous threats or phone calls...the biggest mistake you can make with a threatening person...and more. Learn to spot the danger signals others miss. It might just save your life. (Picture from amazon.com. Excerpt from the back of the book.)

My review: Gavin De Becker is a world-renowned expert in the field of violent behavior and threat evaluation, and the man ultimately responsible for the protection of eight of the ten most at risk Americans, 35 top American families, and the security of countless government agencies. Which means, when it comes to dangerous encounters, De Becker can spot them a mile away.

In his New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin De Becker focuses on honing our most important survival tool – our fear instinct. Most of us have conditioned ourselves to override our own intuition; in this age of obligatory acceptance, we will consciously choose to get into an elevator with a person who makes us uncomfortable, or accept unwanted assistance because we do not want to seem judgmental, intolerant, mean, or paranoid.

The Gift of Fear illustrates the vital importance of acknowledging, assessing, and acting on our own fear instincts through a series of chilling victim accounts, and provides an intense and informative tutorial on how to predict violent encounters and how to spot the warning signs of an aggressive personality. Rather than rampant fear mongering, De Becker explains how to evaluate and disregard, or act on, possible threats to yourself or loved ones. The victim accounts provided serve as a teaching tool – not to thrill – but to show the different tactics an assailant may use and the signals present before an attack.

We have all been in a situation where we should have listened to our fear, and did not. I know I have. The Gift of Fear helped me to recognize and pay attention to my own instincts, without feeling the need to stifle or rationalize them away. It validated my decision to be 100% unapologetic about the safety of my family, instead of worrying about popular opinion. More than anything, it gave that still, small voice in the back of my head a megaphone and a license to use it.

Whether our ability to sense danger is biological in nature, divine in origin, or both, I believe that we can all agree it is a gift and one we would be wise to train ourselves to hear. The Gift of Fear is a gripping, instructive, and essential read for anyone concerned about their own personal safety or that of their family.

For more information on The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker visit his website at http://www.gavindebecker.com/


My rating: 5 Stars. Not necessarily fun...but essential.

Sum it up: A slightly disturbing, highly informative must-read for anyone concerned about their own personal safety or the safety of their families. It is for men or women, for the young, for the old, for those about to go to college, for anyone who works, or for those who have concerns about someone in their life...in short, this book is for EVERYONE.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire

Also Reviewed by Kari

Summary:
The death of Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West, brings about spectacular changes in this masterfully imaginative sequel to Maguire's 1995 blockbuster Wicked—most notably, the startling possibility that Elphaba had a son. Scattered among the ruins of great portions of Emerald City, many residents have been skinned and bloodied, supposedly by the barbaric Yunamatas. Travel caravan leader Oatsie Manglehand stumbles upon the body of an unknown young man, badly beaten but still alive. She presents him to the wise Superior Maunt, who recognizes the hurt boy as Liir, rumored to be the dead Witch's secreted son...

Maguire supplies alternating chapters of extensive, mesmerizing backstory of Liir's boyhood, from the witch's watery demise, to the trek to the Wizard's Castle with Dorothy and company, his search for the imprisoned princess Nor, and a long stint in the Munchkinland Army, all while donning his mother's black cape and clutching her magic broom handle. Along the way, a headspinning cast of vividly described, eccentric characters emerges. By Publishers Weekly, via Amazon.com

My Review:
Oh, how I wanted to love this book. And how long I put off reading it out of fear I wouldn't. What I realized as I read was that what I really wanted was a character I could care about as much as I did Elphaba (the Witch in the first of this series, Wicked). Time and time again I nearly thought I had it, then Liir would let me, and himself, down. Every time he had a chance to do something noble he'd fumble, further convincing himself that he did not measure up to what he was, or perhaps wasn't - the son of the Witch.

For much of the book he was entirely frozen by his unknown parentage, unable to become anything at all because he didn't know what he "should" be. If he had made a commitment to one possibility or another his choices would have then been concrete judgements based on his own desires. Instead his life was shaped by errant missteps that left him a middling, mediocre character.

This would almost be enough for me to cast the book entirely aside. However, knowing (okay, admittadly just finding out) that there is a third installment in the series gives me the hope that Liir will embrace the heroic actions he began to take near the end of this book and become the hero I was hoping to find. I justify the actions of Liir because he was so young for so much of the book and as he ages has the potential to become - HIMSELF - instead of the maybe-child of the famous Witch.

Character flaws aside (and what is this series if not a look at flawed characters?) I love the writing style of the author in these books. Not overly poetic, but still unique enough to change the cadence of my thoughts and words while I read. This book however lacked a lot of the layered quality that made Wicked one of my all time favorite novels.

As I read I found myself missing and mourning dear Elphaba and take this moment to strongly recommend Wicked. The dark plots and many of the pitiable or ignoble characters are scrubbed out of the sparkly Broadway show - making the Musical rather into a yummy treat but lacking so much of the heartwrenching beauty of the book.

I eagerly plan to read the third book, looking for some of the depth in Wicked to sate my desire for a character equal Elphaba.

My rating: 3.75 stars - I just didn't love Liir like I wanted to, although I don't think the author intended me to. The writing style nearly earns this book a four and I hold hope for the third book to up the overall rating of the series.

In One Sentence: Perhaps the good person we turn into is a result of all the poor choices we make in life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tell No One - Harlen Coben

Summary: For Dr. David Beck, the loss was shattering. And every day for the past eight years, he has relived the horror of what happened. The gleaming lake. The pale moonlight. The piercing screams. The night his wife was taken. The last night he saw her alive.

Everyone tells him it's time to move on, to forget the past once and for all. But for David Beck, there can be no closure. A message has appeared on his computer, a phrase only he and his dead wife know. Suddenly Beck is taunted with the impossible - that somewhere, somehow, his wife is alive...and he's been warned to tell no one.
(Cover photo from harlencoben.com and summary from back of book)

My Review: I will keep this short and sweet since this novel has already been reviewed twice on the blog. If you want more read Emily's Review or Kim's Review.

I only pick up mystery novels a few times a year but when I do it will likely be a Harlen Coben title you'll find in my hands. I feel that he has a way of making his characters come alive so much better than other mystery writers. He gives them personality. He also adds a bit more substance to his books than the average mystery by briefly mixing in a few political issues (in this case the medicaid system and social class). Coben can provide a suspenseful story line with plenty of twists, while going light on the bang-bang shoot-em-up scenes that I despise. This is exactly what you can expect to find within the covers of Tell No One.

I would say that it was an average novel from an above average writer. It had about the perfect amount of suspense and action. It had me really caring for the Dr. Beck and his family, and even some scummy characters I never expected to like. The twists weren't as exciting as I have seen in other novels, but they were still fun. The ending could have been a bit more dramatic, yet it was still quite satisfying. Overall, not my favorite Coben book, yet a good read. If you have already enjoyed this novel or are looking to try Harlen Coben's writing for the first time, let me recommend his Myron Bolitar novels, such as Deal Breaker and Promise Me. I also have to say that I found No Second Chance a bit more entertaining than this one.

*Apparently a movie based on this novel was released at the end of March.

My Rating: 3 Stars

If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be: An enjoyable novel from a skilled mystery writer.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Beastly - Alex Flinn

Summary: I am a Beast. A beast. Not quite wolf or bear, gorilla or dog but a horrible new creature who walks upright--a creature with fangs and claws and hair springing from every pore. I am a monster.

You think I'm talking fairy tales? No way. The place is New York City. The time is now. It's no deformity, no disease. And I'll stay this way forever--ruined unless I can break the spell.

Yes, the spell, the one the witch in my English class cast on me. Why did she turn me into a beast who hides by day and prowls by night? I'll tell you. I'll tell you how I used to be Kyle Kingsbury, the guy you wished you were, with money, perfect looks, and the perfect life. And then, I'll tell you how I became perfectly...beastly. (Excerpt from book cover--picture from Amazon.com)


My review: Kyle Kingsbury is the product of a workaholic father and an alcoholic mother. He’s been blessed with far too much money or good looks for his own good and has an enormous ego to match. Hot on the outside and cruel on the inside, one day he goes to far in his teasing and gets transformed into a hideous monster. Let's face it. Haven't we all wished that on someone in high school. I won't name names....but I could.

I love modern retellings. It is so fun to watch how the author incorporates the old-fashioned aspects of the story into a new age setting. I also think that it makes the story more relatable for a YA audience. Case and point. Beastly begins in a online chatroom/self-help group for people who have suffered from magical transformation. Right away we get treated to the authors humor as we meet a Beast who is desperate to date anyone, a former-prince-turned-frog complaining about the difficulties of typing with webbed feet, a mermaid contemplating the pros and cons of becoming human, a man-turned-grizzly bear in love with two women, and, of course, the completely normal moderator/group therapist. With this modern approach, I can definitely see the appeal for teen readers and, of course, it’s always fun to read from the perspective of the “bad guy” every now and then.

For me, this felt like a highly simplified, young adult version of Gregory MacGuire’s “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”--not so much in the details (obviously), but in the overall feel it provided with a different narrator than the standard fairytale. While the plot was fairly predictable, something difficult to avoid in retellings, the masculine perspective was creative and humorous which kept the story from getting stale. Now and then Kyle suffered from flashes of testosterone-driven male fantasies, but (thank heavens) they were always fleeting and fairly tame. There are moments that elude to adult themes, but the author steers clear of giving any actual details. Given that, I’d classify this as a 15 and up YA novel.

I read this book in about four hours (2 at night and 2 the next day). It’s about 300 pages but is smaller than the standard trade paper. I think it would be an light entertaining read for an adult or a “LOVED IT” read for a young adult—and a great escape for either.

My rating: 4 stars.

To sum it up: An entertaining, masculine twist to an old feminine classic.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Annie Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral by Kris Radish

Summary: Radish's latest overwrought book tracks five strangers– turned–soul mates over the course of the titular funeral, posthumously organized by their friend Annie, who died from ovarian cancer at age 56. A package arrives at Katherine Givens's front door and in it are the ashes of her free-spirited, altruistic childhood friend, along with instructions for a procession that will take Annie's closest friends on a cross country trip from Sonoma, Calif., to Manhattan, sprinkling her remains as they go. Just nine days later, Annie's former university colleague Jill, women's crisis savior Laura, cantankerous neighbor Rebecca and her hospice aide Marie join Katherine on the journey during which they learn their eccentric friend's deepest secrets and share many of their own. Most importantly, these unorthodox urnbearers understand the greatness Annie saw in them and attain the courage to act on it. Windswept melodrama marks Radish's prose (e.g. "these moments were the ones Marie needed to keep the tears and gashes in her own soul from washing her out to sea"), but that will not deter readers who relish the idea of women forming bonds when their mettle is tested and finding power and self-actualization in grief, sharing and love. By Publishers Weekly via Amazon.com

My Review: Read the above summary carefully. I think the reviewer at least partially shared my opinion of the book. The key words are "overwrought" and "windswept melodrama." I also don't think it is flattering to have the phrase "but that will not deter..." in a summary. I think these are nice ways to say what I was thinking while I attempted to read this book. After gagging my way through the first half of the book I simply had enough and it became the third book in as many months that I simply could not bare to finish (see review of City of Falling Angels).

In general - I was put off by the over-emotive thoughts of the women and the "coincidence" that they were all at some sort of cross-roads of life, and despite being cast as intelligent, interesting women couldn't figure out how to get themselves beyond the rut they were existing in. I didn't buy the witty banter that attempted to be so telling of their unique personalities - so unique I couldn't remember which name went to which character, or who was saying what. I was beyond irritated by the absurd overuse of similes that made the prose seem practically gummy with description and comparison.

I love a good "girls rule" book as much as the next person but I think I was insulted by the cliche and improbable relationship these women had. The author was obviously trying to create a warm (dare I say womb-like) reality for the setting of this journey but in doing so stifled the true and terribly interesting nature of a "real" woman and her characters became messy, blobby things instead of interesting, striking women.

And a very small aside - regarding a short section where the author talks about a doctor whose "internal" examination is gentle and kind in a way only a female can be. Uh, so not true! Although I've had good (unpainful) and bad (OUCH) exams from doctors of both genders, the male doctors always apologize when I start squirming around from the pain, whereas it is inevitably the female doctors who say things like "You've already had a baby haven't you?" or "Its a good thing you can get an epidural" in a tone of voice that means "Suck it up, sister and take it like a man". Not that I'm bitter...

My Rating: 1 star
Caveat: I sat in on the book club discussion of this book prior to reading it and nothing said by the 7 women who'd read it would have let me know I'd hate it so much, in fact it influenced one woman to begin the adoption process.

In One Sentence: I wonder if some of the conversations I try to have with my husbands make him react like I did to this book ("Why is she STILL talking about this touchy feely nonsense, didn't she already say that, who cares")...if so, he'd be wise to keep his trap shut!

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