Monday, November 30, 2009

Deadlock - Iris Johansen

Summary: Emily Hudson is an archeologist who travels the world in search of priceless artifacts from war-torn countries and other hot spots. Her best friend and partner, Joel Levy, is always at her side - until one day, her entire crew is massacred and Joel and Emily are held captive. Victims of one of the most ruthless and evil human beings on earth. For two weeks they try to survive, until Emily is the unwitting instrument in Joel's demise.

John Garrett has worked for the CIA, MI6, and whoever else needed his services. Now, the CIA comes calling with a desperate mission for him: save Emily Hudson. But their may be more to this job than they let him know. And soon, his connection to Emily has him questioning everything he thought to be true. Emily has vengeance on her mind. Will Garrett aid her in getting revenge? Can Emily help him get to the truth behind a bigger conspiracy? Or will they both die trying.

With lightning-fast pacing, plot twists and shocking betrayals, Iris Johansen is at the top of her game in this latest thriller. (summary and image from booksonboard.com)

My Review: After being taken into the depths of the mountains of Afghanistan at the mercy of a mad man, two American archaeologists undergo the most devastating of events, of which only one will survive.

Emily is rescued from her captor, literally in the knick of time, by John Garrett. A mysterious man whose past is never clearly defined, but seems to be some sort of criminal/government ops type, Garrett offers Emily something she cannot refuse: her kidnapper and friend's murderer. Blinded by rage, she is consumed with the desire to hunt down this man who committed these atrocities and, to do that, she must find what he was after-- Zelov's Hammer, an artifact that has been hunted for years. Said to be linked with Rasputin, it holds the key to a fortune....among other things.

I have read all of Iris Johansen's books since The Ugly Duckling came out years and years ago. That being said, I can't be that hard on this book, after all I keep going back for more. But, I will try to be honest. I can always depend on Johansen's books to give me a good love story, riddled with gunfire, bad guys and the like. I will always read them for that reason. I find them somewhat comforting. Deadlock follows a predictable formula: girl in danger+ super sexy renegade type to the rescue= a woman bent on revenge and a man willing to help her get it. It is a good equation, and I love the relationships that the characters develop, always original in their own way.

As Emily and Garrett battle bad guys and fall into each others arms, a series of historical facts come to light and are actually quite interesting. Rasputin's story is scary and intriguing, and I would not have minded more attention to that aspect of the novel.

Ending in a heart pounding , yet slightly predictable climax, it is another great story from Johansen's creative mind.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Sum it up: Classic storyline, with a twist here and there for spice.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Life Of Pi - Yann Martel


Summary:
When sixteen-year-old Pi Patel finds himself stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with only a menacing 450-pound Bengal tiger for company, he quickly realizes that the only way he will survive is if he makes sure the tiger is more afraid of him than he is of it. Finding strength within himself, he draws upon all of his knowledge and cunning, battles for food and shelter, overcomes storms and disasters, and, in the end, makes a peace of sorts with both tiger and ocean.

With more than one million copies in print, Life of Pi has become a modern classic, combining grand story-telling with a profound exploration of ageless themes: faith and truth, fact and fiction, man versus nature, and innocence and experience. (Image from Powells.com and summary from back of the book.)

My Review: Fascinating is the word I'd use to describe Pi's journey. Sad, powerful, awe-inspiring, disgusting, unbelievable: all of these adjectives would be accurate.

I'm still confused as to whether this story is true or not. Anyone care to enlighten me? If it is true, wow. Just, wow. If it's not, what an imagination!

My favorite aspects to this book were the religious musings, specifically in the beginning of the book, and the information about wild animals. Considering I'm not much of an animal person, this book didn't strike me the way it may some--except to say that the depictions of the violence between animals made me sick. The cruelty is more than my passive nature could bare at times. I was nauseous many times while reading. For that, I wanted to put the book down. I'm not sure I would have finished unless it hadn't been assigned as a book club pick. I'm glad I did finish, but I can assure you I won't be picking it up again. I don't mind thinking or conversing about it, but I'm not going to re-read it.

I also learned that I could not survive a ship wreck. The lengths he went to for survival are definitely past my capacity. I think I would have happily allowed that tiger to bat me around until I was able to leave such a miserable existence.

Besides the first section of the book with its religious musings, my favorite part would be the last section: the interview with the Japanese Ministry of Transport. I loved the translation of the side conversations, as well as Pi's outrageous outbursts and quite absurd hording of food. Too funny!

Rating: 4 stars--thought about giving it less, but I really enjoyed specific parts and I know I'll ponder on this story for a while, therefore I felt it deserved 4 stars.

In a phrase: Somewhat grotesque, although I can only imagine accurate, tale of survival from a ship wreck in the Pacific.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Hush, Hush - Becca Fitzpatrick

Summary: Romance was not a part of Nora Grey's plan. She's never been particularly attracted to the boys at her school, no matter how hard her best friend, Vee, pushes them at her. Not until Patch comes along. With his easy smile and eyes that seem to see insider her, Patch draws Nora to him against her better judgement.

But after a series of terrifying encounters, Nora's not sure whom to trust. Patch seems to be everywhere she is and seems to know more about her than her closest friends. She can't decides whether she should fall into his arms or run and hide. And when she tries to seek some answers, she finds herself near a truth that is way more unsettling than anything Patch makes her feel.

For she is right in the middle of an ancient battle between the immortal and those who have fallen--and when it comes to choosing sides, the wrong choice will cost Nora her life.

My review: I read this 391-page book in about six hours. Had I not been required to eat dinner and occasionally interact with my family, I might have finished in five. All I can say is thank the heavens for a husband who understands my occasional need to disappear into a novel.

Hush, Hush is very much the girl-meets-boy-who-may-or-may-not-be-dangerous-and-supernatural kind of book. I am fairly certain that is the current formula for a winning YA chick-lit novel and Hush, Hush will not disappoint readers that are looking for just that type of book. Obviously, I enjoyed the read but could not help but wish for a little bit more depth of character and some more plot originality. On the flip side, there were times when I thought I’d scream for not knowing what was going to happen--a sure sign of investing in the story--and that lack of knowledge and, let’s face it, the romantic element of the story, was likely what compelled me to keep reading. I enjoyed the creepy, intense moments and the steamier aspects of the story enough to give this book a higher rating but think that you’ll probably only like this book if you like this kind of book (Twilight, Evernight, etc). Make sense?

My rating: 4 Stars (for a YA) For the sensitive reader, I don’t recall any swearing and it stays fairly YA appropriate (as in – no sex) depending on how Y your A is.

Sum it up: Hush, Hush is going to make some waves in the YA world – trust me.

Also reviewed by Kari.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Swan Maiden - Heather Tomlinson

Summary: In the quiet hour before dawn...Anything can happen. A third daughter can dream of being a creature of flight and magic, of wearing a swan skin like her sisters. But Doucette must run the castle household while her sisters learn to weave spells. Her dream of flying is exactly that...until the day she discovers her own hidden birthright. Sudden, soaring freedom--it is a wish come true. Yet not even magic can protect against every danger, especially where the heart is involved. As she struggles to find her own way in the world. Doucette risks losing the one person she loves most of all. (Image from dealoz.com - Summary from book)

My review: I don't have much to say about this book, other than I chose it as a way to escape from another, equally interesting, yet much more troublesome book I was reading. I needed a break and I happily found it in The Swan Maiden, an enchanting and romantic story, strongly reminiscent of old fairy tales and folklore. At just under 300 pages, it didn't take long to read and was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a Saturday morning, while my kids filled their heads with cartoons.

This book is 100% PG (if that) and I'd recommend it to anyone who is just looking for some easy escapist reading. It also reminded me a lot of Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, and not just in it's affection for our feathered friends. I'll definitely be checking out Tomlinson's other books (releasing in early 2010) when I feel that pressing need to just get away.

My rating: 4 Stars

Sum it up: A nice escape from our crazy crazy world.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Read It, But I Don't Get It - Cris Tovani

Summary: I Read It, but I Don't Get It is a practical, engaging account of how teachers can help adolescents develop new reading comprehension skills. Cris Tovani is an accomplished teacher and staff developer who writes with verve and humor about the challenges of working with students at all levels of achievement--from those who have mastered the art of fake reading to college-bound juniors and seniors who struggle with the different demands of content-area textbooks and novels.

Enter Cris' classroom, a place where students are continually learning new strategies for tackling difficult text. You will be taken step-by-step through practical, theory-based reading instruction that can be adapted for use in any subject area. The book features:

  • anecdotes in each chapter about real kids with real universal problems. You will identify with these adolescents and will see how these problems can be solved;
  • a thoughtful explanation of current theories of comprehension instruction and how they might be adapted for use with adolescents;
  • a What Works section in each of the last seven chapters that offers simple ideas you can immediately employ in your classroom. The suggestions can be used in a variety of content areas and grade levels(6-12);
  • teaching tips and ideas that benefit struggling readers as well as proficient and advanced readers;
  • appendixes with reproducible materials that you can use in your classroom, including coding sheets, double entry diaries, and comprehension constructors.

In a time when students need increasingly sophisticated reading skills, this book will provide support for teachers who want to incorporate comprehension instruction into their daily lesson plans without sacrificing content knowledge.

My Review: Are students that make it to middle and high school as struggling readers beyond hope? Tovani says no. As a teacher of middle school Language Arts, I see and deal with the issue of comprehension everyday. Across the spectrum of students, a large number struggle with inferring main ideas not explicitly stated. Even more struggle discerning meanings of words in context, especially if the student has never heard or seen the word before. Thankfully, unlike many educational books, this text gives strategies and not just theories.

Teaching students to connect to what they're reading and just how to infer information based on what they read can be difficult to say the least. Many just jump to conclusions not at all related to what they read, or base their entire conclusion on personal opinion. This book gives actual tools and prompts for the teacher to use in facilitating this type of higher level thinking all connected to reading comprehension strategies. From my personal experience I caution the important to teach these strategies in connection with content that's relevant and interesting.

Good readers do many of the strategies she speaks of instinctively. Teachers, as good readers, often forget how reading text that is just above their comfort level can be very demanding and at times seem beyond what the reader can handle. Tovani reminds her reader that for many middle and high school students their experience reading your subject matter would be like reading a legal document for the adult--difficult, frustrating, but necessary because it's expected of her. We as teachers, parents and mentor adults also are included in this statement, need to show students how to make meaning of difficult text. What are those strategies you use to get un-stuck? Tovani makes teaching those strategies realistic and gives real life examples of how she has done it.

If you teach reading to middle or high school students, regardless of their ability and skill level, this book is very helpful. If you are a parent who has a struggling reader, don't know how to teach what came so naturally to you with comprehension, this book could also be for you.

By the way, this book is reader friendly. I read it in two days.

Rating: 5 stars

In a phrase: A resource for any teacher or adult teaching students with comprehension difficulties, regardless of subject matter.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Defense of Food : An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan

Summary: Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it? Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it--in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone--is not really eating. Instead of food, we're consuming "edible foodlike substances"--no longer the products of nature but of food science. Many of them come packaged with health claims that should be our first clue they are anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion. The result is what Michael Pollan calls the American paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.

But if real food--the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food--stands in need of a defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question that for most of the human history people have been able to answer without expert help. Yet the professionalization of eating has failed to make Americans healthier. Thirty years of official nutritional advice has only made us sicker and fatter while ruining countless numbers of meals.

By urging us once again to eat food, he challenges the prevailing nutrient-by-nutrient approach--what he calls nutritionism--and proposes an alternative way of eating that is informed by the traditions and ecology of real, well-grown, and unprocessed food. Our personal health, he argues, cannot be divorced form the health of the food chains of which we are part.

In Defense of Food shows us how, despite the daunting dietary landscape Americans confront in the modern supermarket, we can escape the Western diet and, by doing so, most of the chronic diseases that diet causes. We can relearn which foods are healthy, develop simple ways to moderate our appetites, and return eating to it's proper context--out of the car and back to the table. Michael Pollan's bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we can start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives, enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy, and bring pleasure back to eating. (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)
__________________________________________

Mindy's Review: "In Defense of Food" is a highly informative, controversial novel that strives to dispel myths and eliminate much of the nutritional disinformation that has been created by the food and food science industry, while urging us to make healthier real-food choices. It is pretty much exactly what the above summary claims, and so I won't bother awkwardly reiterating what is so eloquently stated there (go on, read it, I'll wait).

Michael Pollan's advice to us? Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Sounds simple right? Yes and no.

Pollan's arguments in defense of natural whole foods, comprising nearly two-thirds of the book, are logically sound, well-supported, and utterly shocking. However, his solutions might be a disappointment to those looking for an easy fix to health woes. Not all of his advice is financially or geographically feasible. When possible, he advises buying organically from a farmer's market or CSA (aka weekly veggie deliveries) and making sure that all meat consumed is 100% grass fed. This advice is smart and wonderful--if you can afford it, but much of America doesn't know their way around a kitchen, let alone an extremely expensive rutabaga. Pollan's solutions require commitment, effort, and in some cases, money--they are not for the faint of heart or thin of wallet.

Despite a few harder to implement steps, In Defense of Food is peppered with common-sense ideas for squeezing more nutrients into our food supply and our bodies. Pollan does specify important ingredients to avoid (like trans fats and high fructose corn syrup) and offers sound-bite grocery shopping advice like "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," "Shop the outer limits of the grocery store," "Don't eat anything that is incapable of rotting" (yes TWINKIES, he means YOU), and much more. He also lists changes we can make in how we eat--like actually cooking our own food (gasp), planting a garden, eating home-cooked family meals, and only eating at a table.

On the whole, I found his book to be a thorough, fascinating expose of the political meddling and financial motivations of the food industry, it's sketchy marketing ploys and rampant nutritionism, and an eye-opening look at how the Western diet is slowly killing us. So, you might not be able to successfully follow all of Pollan's advice -- I don't expect that many people can. Change as much as you can and I expect you'll be monumentally healthier for it.

Her rating: 4 Stars (would be higher if it wasn't so dry)

Sum it up: Some amazingly sound food for thought.
_________________________________________

Heather’s Review: Michael Pollan knows how to make a point and defend it well. In this book he has shown that we, as Americans, are currently consuming more calories than ever before, yet getting less nutrition. It is because of these deficiencies in vitamins and minerals that we have so many health problems. This book is full of intriguing studies that support these statements and others like them.

My husband is a dietitian, as well as a type 1 diabetic. We carefully monitor what we eat. Yet this book has left me feeling mocked by food marketers and the FDA. I have always avoided hydrogenated oils and corn syrup in the grocery store. We have also stuck to a fairly low fat, high fiber diet. What I have failed to really stop and think about is how food functions as a whole and not as a “sum of its nutritional parts,” as Pollan puts it. We need the fat in milk and cheese to absorb those fat-soluble vitamins. Adding grains back into refined flour does not make the food function as naturally whole grain food functions. These are just a couple of the valuable insights that came from reading this book.

The one topic that this book fails to address in relation to food is Western laziness. I’m not speaking for only physical laziness here, though there is little doubt that our nation’s lack of exercise and demand for quick, low-mess meals contributes greatly to various health problems. I’m also speaking about our intellectual apathy. As a nation we are quick to trust in the newest study without questioning methods and controls. Many of us choose to let the media do our thinking, allowing food marketers to easily trick us. It makes me ponder what our nation’s prognosis would be if the time and money recently devoted to reforming healthcare went instead towards prevention with a focus on nutrition.

I found this book to be incredibly thought provoking. It is full of food marketing schemes and food regulations that you will be astonished to know even exist. I’m thrilled that this was a book club pick as there is so much I’m longing to discuss with others. I’m buying a copy. Everyone I know must read this!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars, HIGHLY recommend but I can’t say that I adored this book and it did get wordy and slightly redundant in spots.

Sum it up: Your health and the health of your family rely upon on the food you eat. Read this book and you will never buy Pop-Tarts again.
_______________________________________

Average Rating: 4.25 Stars
____________________________________

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Your Family Constitution - Scott Gale

Summary: What do you get when you cross two working professionals, two active kids and a dog? Chaos! For more than a decade, Scott Gale and his wife, Karen, juggled three bowling bowls- kids, personal needs, and careers. Clear and consistent expectations simply did not factor into their frantic lifestyle. In the wake of a Mother's Day family meltdown, Gale took time to evaluate his family's challenges and induce change, piecing together a powerful tool to restore family harmony. This 'Family Constitution' became the catalyst for clarity, consistency and commitment ('3C's), enabling his family to enjoy mutually understood boundaries and much-needed structure. Your Family Constitution shares Gale's innovative parenting tool and, more importantly, reveals the step-by-step process he went through to become a happier and more effective parent. (Excerpt from an editorial review found on Amazon.com - image from )
________________________________________

Emily's Review: This book is an anecdotal guide to establishing family rules and expectations. Scott Gale relates how his family reached a point where he felt all order had broken down and then details how they came to a solution that validated each member of the family. As far as I could tell the author doesn't have any formal counseling training and so his story of how and why is what he uses to authenticate his advice. Despite his lack of training, the advice makes sense and seems applicable to most family dynamics.

The basic idea is to establish rules and consequences that seem fair and understandable to all family members. By doing this everyone knows what is expected of them, and what they can expect from others. Doing this reduces conflicts about the fairness and consistency of family rules while treating children with respect.

This book has some very helpful tips for parents on examining your values, guiding principles and potential problems. It also emphasizes the importance of both parents agreeing on these topics, providing a checks and balances dynamic among the family "leadership." Having this discussion with your spouse would be an excellent foundation for establishing family rules of any sort.

My family is very young and the children don't need a lot of rules, yet. However my husband and I could benefit greatly from some establishing some codified expectations between ourselves in order to minimize (or even end!) our frequent power struggles over who gets to do what when.

Her rating: 3.8 stars. I'm a sucker for credentials so I'm cutting some points because it entirely based on the anecdotal experience of one family.

Sum it up: A great workbook for outlining your family's goals, priorities and expectations and for letting each family member feel like they are contributing to the family.
______________________________________________

Heather’s Review: In this book Scott Gale details the makings of a family constitution, which is basically a tool used to keep the family on the same page when it comes to expected behavior and family values. The constitution addresses each family’s individual goals. It lets each member know exactly what is expected of him or her and lines out the consequences, as well as the rewards, for behaviors. It makes complete sense that families run more smoothly when both children and adults have guidelines to follow, and have participated in the making of these said guidelines.

While Gale beautifully lays out the steps to creating such a document, readers should be forewarned that discipline and reward techniques are not discussed within the pages of this book. The method the Gale family used for creating their family system is talked about and that’s a starting place but be prepared to research other places to find effective behavior modifications for your children. The author does offer a web site in relation to the book where additional insight is given, http://www.yourfamilyconstitution.com/ .

Her rating: 3.5 Stars, great idea just didn’t feel complete enough to stand on it’s own.

Sum it up: An important piece for implementing strategies to create harmony within a household.
________________________________________
Average Rating : 3.65 Stars
________________________________________

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Am I Not a Man? : The Dred Scott Story - Mark L. Shurtleff

Summary: An illiterate slave, Dred Scott trusted in an all-white, slave-owning jury to declare him free. But after briefly experiencing the glory of freedom and manhood, a new state Supreme Court ordered the cold steel of the shackles to be closed again around his wrists and ankles. Falling to his knees, Dred cried, "Ain't I a man?" Dred answered his own question by rising and taking his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dred ultimately lost his epic battle when the Chief Justice declared that a black man was so inferior that he had "no rights a white man was bound to respect."

Dred died not knowing that his undying courage led directly to the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the emancipation proclamation.

Dred Scott's inspiring and compelling true story of adventure, courage, love, hatred, and friendship parallels the history of this nation from the long night of slavery to the narrow crack in the door that would ultimately lead to freedom and equality for all men. Summary and cover photo from valorpublishinggroup.com

My Review: The elegant writing style of Mark Shurtleff brings the story of Dred Scott, to life. Dred Scott was a hardworking, kind and self-sacrificing slave living in the 1800's. He dreams of freedom and once he learns that it may be obtainable he chooses to go to court for it. His courage to fight for the freedom of his family paved the way for the abolishment of slavery.

This book toes the line between factual history and historical fiction. It grants the reader a look into the past by telling a story without merging (for the most part) into dry textbook style writing. There are times that the writing veers off to include the history of Roosevelt, Lincoln and even early Mormons and I found myself skimming in order to get back to the heart of the story. When the tale focused on the Scott and the Blow families, I became immersed in the book, many times my eyes filling with tears. Overall a well-written book, bringing emotion to history.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Sum it up: A powerful tale of a strong man whose fight for freedom played a vital role in the freeing of all slaves.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Don't Swear With Your Mouth Full - Cary S. Chugh, Ph.D

Summary: Parents are charged with a seemingly impossible task - transforming a completely dependent child into a responsible, self-sufficient adult. For some of us, this job is made more difficult by the inherent traits our children possess from birth. If your child could be described as being headstrong, stubborn, controlling, or manipulative, chances are good that typical rewards and punishments haven't worked like you expected. Parents are often quick to blame themselves for their child's continued misbehavior. Professionals are often too quick to suggest the use of medication to address the problems. But, maybe, there is another explanation. Maybe there is something wrong with the typical rewards and punishments parents are told to use to address their child's behavioral problems in the first place. Maybe we don't see these flaws until we attempt to discipline the toughest kids. And, maybe, we finally have a solution! (Summary from back of the book. Image from Amazon.com)

My Review: I have to say that the title of this book really put me off at first. It was a book that the author sent me for free to review, so I cracked the cover; I'm glad I did.

The advice in this book is sound. I found it intriguing that the procedures he recommends are some I use in my classroom; tactics I've stumbled across by the process of trial by fire. The main recommendation is to use your difficult child's stubbornness and controlling nature to your advantage--basically give the control back to the child to get out of her punishment. This makes it so the parent is not the enemy any longer; the child's own stubbornness becomes the enemy. It also doesn't extinguish the strong personality traits that as an adult can be used for good. I noticed this immediately with my first child. She is very strong willed and has a mind of her own. As an adult this is a good thing. We need strong women. I don't want to squash these traits. A push over is not what I want her to become.

For the most part this book is user friendly. There are charts at the end of each chapter with 'take it home' notes. This aspect is very usable. There were times in the midst of the chapters that it became a bit wordy. I found my mind wandering a bit and had to refocus. I'm not sure that the majority of the parents of my students could read and garner what they'd need in order to implement these tactics without someone breaking down the verbiage for them. It has great advice, but for someone who isn't college educated it may get wordy at times. That would be, in my opinion, the only downfall to this book--that and the title threw me off for a bit.


Rating: 4.25 stars--the readability would be the only aspect bringing this down. Parents with difficult children come from all walks of life and you'd want everyone to be able to use this kind of help.

Sum it up: A great tool for parents and teachers who deal with difficult to discipline children.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

Summary: Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

The improbable story of Christopher's quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.
Summary from the back of book, cover photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review: Christopher is 15 years 3 months and 2 days old when he discovers the neighbor's dog slain in the middle of the night. After being accused of the murder and spending a few hours in jail, he encompasses on a journey to solve the crime and while doing so writes a book about his adventure. This is Christopher's book yet it's not the mystery of a dead dog so much as it is a journey into the mind of an autistic child.

Haddon's skilled writing style gives the reader a taste of the emotions and hardships of a child inflicted with autism. The writing style is simple yet realistic as the book is narrated by Christopher. Christopher has a very mathematical way of thinking which is depicted in the story. The chapters are all numbered with prime numbers. Small sketches throughout the book depict what Christopher is truly thinking/seeing. Christopher also takes everything quite literally, making for some interesting conversations.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is at once humorous yet painful. I closed this book not only feeling like a knew Christopher, but genuinely caring for him in all his quirkiness. Along the way I learned all sorts of eccentric facts about math, language and the astrology. This is a story that sticks with the reader long after the last page is read.

To the sensitive reader: There is a lot of language in this book. It's language that I felt was necessary for setting the tone of the novel but some may find it offensive.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

It I had to sum it up in one phrase: A cleverly written book which provides insight into the world of autism.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The End of the Alphabet - C.S. Richardson

Summary: The End of the Alphabet is a tender, intimate story of an ordinary life defined by an extraordinary love.

Ambrose Zephyr is a contented man. He shares a book-laden Victorian house with his loving wife, Zipper. He owns two suits, one of which he was married in. He is a courageous eater, save brussels sprouts. His knowledge of wine is vague and best defined as Napa, good; Australian, better; French, better still. Kir royale is his drink of occasion. For an Englishman he makes a poor cup of tea. He believes women are quantifiably wiser than men, and would never give Zipper the slightest reason to mistrust him or question his love. Zipper simply describes Ambrose as the only man she has ever loved. Without adjustment.

Then, just as he is turning fifty, Ambrose is told by his doctor that he has one month to live. Reeling from the news, he and Zipper embark on a whirlwind expedition to the places he has most loved or has always longed to visit, from A to Z, Amsterdam to Zanzibar. As they travel to Italian piazzas, Turkish baths, and other romantic destinations, all beautifully evoked by the author, Zipper struggles to deal with the grand unfairness of their circumstances as she buoys Ambrose with her gentle affection and humor. Meanwhile, Ambrose reflects on his life, one well lived, and comes to understand that death, like life, will be made bearable by the strength and grace of their devotion.

C.S. Richardson’s lovely prose comes alive with an honesty and intensity that will leave you breathless and inspired by the simple beauty and power of love. The End of the Alphabet is a timeless, resonant exploration of the nature of love, loss, and life.
Summary from book, photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review: This is the short tale, (just 117 pages), of Ambrose Zephyr, a man who has a great love for the alphabet. Upon learning of his imminent death, Ambrose plans a trip comprised of places from A to Z that he has long desired to see. While following Ambrose and his wife, Zipper, on their final journey, the reader is granted a glance into their past serene life. The book is too brief to become connected with these two main characters, however this glimpse into their history proves that their love is undeniable strong, providing the novel with a very sensual feel.

Though I appreciated the author's play on the alphabet, I would have to caution that this novel teetered on the edge of trite. For example, Ambrose's initials are A.Z. married to Z.A., and T is for a tower in Paris. However, Richardson's elegant writing style saves the story. Redemption comes full swing in the final chapters when Ambrose realizes that his quest to achieve his dreams was previously fulfilled by Zipper's love.

My Rating: 3 Stars

If I had to sum it up in one phrase: A short, yet quietly intense love story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mercury Falls - Rob Kroese (with Author Interview)

Summary: Years of covering the antics of End Times cults for The Banner, a religious news magazine, have left Christine Temetri not only jaded but seriously questioning her career choice.

That is, until she meets Mercury, an anti-establishment angel who's frittering his time away whipping up batches of Rice Krispy Treats and perfecting his ping-pong backhand instead of doing his job: helping to orchestrate Armageddon. With the end near and angels and demons debating the finer political points of the Apocalypse, Christine and Mercury accidentally foil an attempt to assassinate one Karl Grissom, a thirty-seven-year-old film school dropout about to make his big break as the Antichrist. Now, to save the world, she must negotiate the byzantine bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell and convince the apathetic Mercury to take a stand, all the while putting up with the obnoxious mouth-breathing Antichrist. (Summary and Image from Rob Kroese)

My review: Heaven and Hell. Check all your ideas and preconceptions at the door.

I will be the first to admit that I had some misgivings about this book. Being Christian I was not keen on a book that would mock my beliefs or go beyond the gray area in sarcasm relating to religion. But, what I found was the complete opposite.

Mercury is a “fallen angel”. While other Angels are busy orchestrating the Apocalypse, Mercury is busy cooking up Rice Crispy treats and playing ping pong to pass the hours with little interest for the goings on in Heaven and Hell. Mercury’s laid back lifestyle is brought to a screeching halt when a journalist shows up on his door step with a briefcase, which coincidently ends up being one of the Four Attaché Cases of the Apocalypse. What? You thought it was horseman? Yeah….me too.

When thrown into the company of the would be Anti –Christ, Mercury finds himself exactly where he doesn’t want to be, in the middle of a war between Heaven and hell.

Drawing parallels to our own quirky society, Kroese will make you ask yourself the hard questions, not the least of which is whether or not to replace your household linoleum. Could there really be Angels walking around among us, biding their time? Do we really have free will? Have we taken our obsession with Harry Potter too far?

Littered with foot notes that are as interesting as the novel itself, Mercury Fall is truly laugh out loud funny. The characters are fully developed personas that I got rather attached to. Since finishing the book I have missed Mercury and his dry wit. I have even missed hating Karl Grissom, the geeky, middle aged, live at home with your mamma, would be Anti-Christ. Wonderfully detailed and superbly plotted, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good laugh. Kroese’s imagination is running at top speed.

My rating: 4 Stars

Sum it up: If you are looking for an escape from the “Mundane Plane”……

I had the opportunity to interview the author of Mercury Falls, Robert Kroese. Check out our conversation below.
________________________________________________
5 Questions for Robert Kroese

1. Mercury falls is different than most everyday type novels. What gave you the idea? Did it come easily or was it just a flicker that had to be developed?

As strange as this may sound, the book very much arose from my own personal life. I never really thought of myself as a humor writer, but in the fall of 2006 I started a blog as a sort of a joke. I always thought blogs were kind of lame and boring, so rather than write about my mundane life, I started posting these completely ridiculous and fabricated accounts of things that obviously never happened (my very first post was about my encounter with a sea turtle who showed up at my door one morning). The blog grew into Mattress Police (
http://mattresspolice.com), which I subtitled "Antisocial Commentary," because I sort of fell into this misanthropic persona, sort of a combination of Oscar Wilde and Al Bundy. At the same time that Mattress Police was taking off, I became a deacon in my church. People find it hard to believe, but I'm actually a Christian and I'm very serious about my faith. So I felt like I was developing a bit of a split personality, writing these caustic blog posts and then heading off to a meeting at church where we would pray and discuss how to help the downtrodden in our community. That's where I got the idea of an angel who is a total smart***.

2. Mercury's character in the novel is....quirky, to say the least. Without spoiling his wit for other reader, do you see any similarities between the way he thinks and the way you think? He had a very interesting take on things regarding the Apocalypse....

Absolutely. Mercury is an exaggerated version of me. The way he pontificates, his lack of tolerance for bureaucracy and hypocrisy, the way he pretends not to give a crap about anybody else, his love for Rice Krispy treats -- that's totally me. But I also have a lot in common with Christine (the other main character). Even Harry Giddings, the blowhard who thinks its his destiny to proclaim the apocalypse, has a fair amount of me in him. The hardest character to write was actually Karl the antichrist, because he's such a worthless schlub. He's everything I hate.

3. Again, without any spoilers. The novel is written with many words and phrases that are not a part of our common language. The Mundane Plane and all the characters in heaven and hell come to life very easily, and the fictitious aspects flow very well.. Was is hard to find that kind of ........sync for this book?

Well, it was a little difficult to find the right balance between the authoritative expository style (the novel is in the form of a report written by an angel who works for the "Mundane Observation Corps"), and the more conversational style that dominates the rest of the book. But I read Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was 14, and I think the template for this sort of novel was more-or-less imprinted on my brain at that time. Adams opened the door for books like Mercury Falls.

4. I obviously enjoyed this novel. The rating on the review should make that evident. I suggested that a friend read it and she read the summary and was put off by the subject matter. What can you tell us to dispel those first impressions? Do you feel that certain religious and/or spiritual beliefs would be offended by some of the concepts in this novel?

First of all, I empathize with your situation. My own wife was hesitant to become a "fan" of Mercury Falls on Facebook because she didn't want to have to deal with difficult question at the Christian school where she teaches. And while I don't blame her, I think it's sad that Christians make this sort of self-censorship unavoidable. A lot of Christians seem to think that books and movies are like food: there's good food and bad food, and if you get too much bad food in you, Terrible Things will happen to you. I'm here to tell you that you could read any horrible book, from Mein Kampf to Eragon, without corrupting your soul. Take what good there is to be had in the book, and discard the bad things. That's why God gave us brains. If you think that Mercury Falls looks like a crappy novel, then by all means avoid it and move on to Huck Finn or Slaughterhouse Five. But don't avoid it because it has jokes about religion in it. That's just silly.

5. What is next for you as an author? Any sequels in the works? Where can we find information on what you are working on?

I'm really not sure. I'd love to do a sequel, but Mercury Falls took me three years (off and on) to write. I'd kind of like to follow this book up with something sooner than 2012. I may do a sort of David Sedaris style compilation of humorous essays, using some of the material from my Mattress Police blog. If you want to know what I'm working on, my best suggestion is to visit
http://mercuryfalls.net/.

You can purchase Mercury Falls by Rob Kroese at Amazon.


Monday, November 9, 2009

The Four Corners - Christian Usera

This review is from my friend Dan (husband to Becca, father of almost two), who cracks me up, even when I can't understand a word he's saying...

Summary: "The Four Corners" is an anthology containing a series of folktales by Christian Usera. Each story is an inner journey into the heart of Light, Love, Truth, and Wisdom. Although written in a childish format, the style belies these complex surrealist proverbs. (Summary from book jacket- image from amazon.com)

My review: I tend to get all tingly at words like "complex surrealist proverbs," so I was rather looking forward to reading this book, which contains four short stories liberally illustrated with the author's own paintings. To my disappointment, I soon found that "complex" meant "incoherent," "surrealist" meant "paying little attention to things like plot, character, consistency, or grammar and spelling," and "proverbs" meant "heavy-handed preaching." Nor could the illustrations make up for the weakness of the text; they appeared hastily conceived and haphazardly executed.

The book seems unsure of who its target audience is. The tone veers from condescendingly childish to pompously faux-scriptural, while the stories themselves discuss grand themes (the creation of the world, the nature of the soul, moral laws, and humanity's quest for meaning) using sound bites drawn from the Barnes & Noble metaphysics section. And somehow, despite the book's claim of exploring "Light, Love, Truth, and Wisdom," the primary values I could discern involved misanthropy, a sense of pious superiority, latent sexism, and general disgust at the messiness of life.

To the author's credit, the stories improved somewhat from the earliest to the latest; if he spent the next few years dedicating the same degree of passion to developing the craft of storytelling (and painting) as he has to developing his personal brand of spiritual syncretism, perhaps his next work will be worthy of a more sympathetic review.

My rating: 1 star. I'm all for personal mythologies, esoteric philosophy, and unorthodox experiences of spirituality, but even Great Cosmic Truths suffer from a clumsy presentation--and Great Cosmic Truths are in short supply in this book.

Sum it up: Warmed-over New Age morality tales for the aesthetically numb.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Everything Sucks : Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest for Cool - Hannah Friedman

Summary: When everything sucks, change everything...

And that's exactly what Hannah Friedman set out to do in an ambitious attempt to bust out of a life of obscurity and absurdity and into an alternate world of glamour, wealth, and popularity.

Being dubbed "That Monkey Girl" by middle school bullies and being pulled out of sixth grade to live on a tour bus with her agoraphobic mother, her smelly little brother, and her father's hippie band mates convinces Hannah that she is destined for a life of freakdom.

But when she enters one of the country's most prestigious boarding schools on scholarship, Hannah transforms herself into everything she is not: cool. By senior year, she has a perfect millionaire boyfriend, a perfect GPA, a perfect designer wardrobe, and is part of the most popular clique in school, but somehow everything begins to suck far worse than when she first started. Her newfound costly drug habit, eating disorder, identity crisis, and Queen-Bee attitude lead to the unraveling of Hannah's very unusual life.

Putting her life back together will take more than a few clicks of her heels, or the perfect fit of a glass slipper, in this not-so-fairy tale of going from rock bottom to head of the class and back again. (summary from the book - image from amazon.com)

My review: Let’s be honest, sometimes when I’m given a book to review, I’m not entirely certain that I’m going to like it. I am hesitant to crack the cover for fear I’ll have to review the book using words like “abysmal,” “mindless,” and “incoherent”.

Hannah Friedman, you may breathe a sigh of relief. I’m not going to use any of those words. Everything Sucks is an intelligent, quirky, sarcastic, and authentic portrayal of a young girl weaving her way through the terrors and trials of adolescence. Keep reading...

Hannah's story begins in a public high school, where she is tormented and ostracized. Her parents quickly transfer her to an elite private school, where she is inexplicably included in the inner circle despite her lack of finances and fashion sense. Both of these sections are filled with mortifying moments you’d rather die than have to live and instances where you ache in painful sympathy. Hannah, as a character, is oh-so-easy to care about. I certainly identified with the beginning of this book, where Hannah was unpopular, insecure, and desperate to fit in. She was a teenage-me (and probably every teenage girl) in so many ways.

As Hannah progressed down darker roads of travel – exploring drugs, and sexual relationships, I had a harder time identifying with her experience (having led a fairly sheltered life). Her struggles, quite simply, were not mine and very foreign to me. Despite having to skeptically wade through Hannah’s experiences with drugs, sex, eating disorders, and family dysfunction, her story concludes with a message of self-discovery and acceptance. Nowhere is Hannah’s growth more evident than in her final plea to the universe. Despite her extremely rocky path, and the way in which she learned her lessons, I found myself cheering for the growth she had attained in those four short years.

While I can’t say that I would ever want my children to learn the same lessons in quite the same way or environment that Hannah did (let alone read about it), I appreciate her story for what it is – a dynamic recollection of her personal journey through a turbulent adolescence into the shaking footing of a young adult.

Sidenote: Mormonism (my faith) makes a hysterical cameo in this novel when a Jewish Hannah meets her boyfriend Adam’s LDS family (and all 72 cousins) at Christmastime. It was brief, but so true-to-life that I had to snort with hysterical sympathy. Oh poor Hannah! Meeting the FAMILY!? Children of the Corn!? *Snort*

My rating: 3.25 Stars. To a sensitive reader or parent: With a title like this it is likely to draw the attention of every teenager within reach – either because they agree with the statement or they think it’s another teen vampire novel. To that end I add a caution. Everything Sucks is a blunt, frequently profane, and graphic, portrayal of the life of a teenage girl. If you like to supervise your teens reading, you’ll definitely want to read this first so that you can discuss it with them. If you are squeamish about drugs or un-glamourized sexual situations, you will probably struggle with the latter half of this book.

Sum it up: An authentic depiction of a tumultuous adolescence and Hannah’s struggle for self-acceptance.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Graceling - Kristen Cashore

Also reviewed by Mindy and Kim.

Summary: Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight--she's a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king's thug.

When she first meets Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po's friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace--or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away... (Summary from back of the book. Image from Powells.com)

My Review: For a debut novel, this really was a great read. There were many things I loved about this book. It has a similar feel to it as The Hunger Games. The powerful and skilled female protagonist is a great role model for young girls. It also portrays women in a positive light for any male readers.

There were plenty of realistic fears in this novel to make the trials the characters faced hit home. King Leck is so sinister and, I think as an attribute to the story, his motives are not explained. If they had been, it may have made the reader want to sympathize with such a horrible person with evil intent. The poor girls and animals you know he's torturing make his threat very real. And somehow Cashore manages to portray all this without going into gory details.

This book almost felt like a super hero book for girls--not just a knock off of the boys' comic book world. Despite the length, it was such a fast and enjoyable read.

That said, there was only one aspect of this book I didn't like. Everything else was purely enjoyable reading. After doing a little research, I found the author's reason for putting marriage in a bad light, albeit in my mind, a rather weak reason. Only 2 scenes mention their love affair (one about a paragraph and the other a mere mention to the act). What bothers me is how Po (main male character) gives up his morals and wishes to do anything to fit Katsa's wishes. Seems like the reverse of the stereotype seen more commonly today--it feels wrong to me. Giving up what you want and believe because it's the only way the other person will take you--neither should have to compromise--is a bad message. The message that you can't truly be free as a woman and be married really angered me as well. Because it's a lie. This is a YA book. That message is inappropriate to tell kids. Everything else in the book was great.

Rating: 4.5 Stars--only that one aspect brought it down from a 5.

Sum it up: Adventure mixed with a woman's lib touch: a superhero role model but for girls.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Nobody's Princess - Esther Friesner

Summary: She is beautiful, she is a princess, and Aphrodite is her favorite goddess, but something in Helen of Sparta just itches for more out of life. Unlike her prissy sister, Clytemnestra, she takes no pleasure in weaving and embroidery. And despite what her mother says, she's not even close to being interested in getting married. Instead, she wants to do combat training with her older brothers, go on heroic adventures, and be free to do what she wants and find out who she is.

Not one to count on the gods--or her looks--to take care of her, Helen sets out to get what she wants with determination and an attitude. And while it's the attitude that makes Helen a few enemies (such as the self-proclaimed "son of Poseidon," Theseus), it's also what intrigues, charms, and amuses those who become her friends, from the huntress Atalanta, to the young priestess who is the Oracle of Delphi. (summary from book - image from sff.net)

My review: I’ve been interested in mythology since I was a young girl. It started with a star lab in the 8th grade where we learned about the origins of the constellations. I was fascinated by all the stories. My interest continued up until a college mythology course when one of my professors starting describing Chaos as the great gaping vagina from which the universe was born. I have to admit that mythology rather lost something for me that day. I couldn’t get the image from my mind. And now, neither will you. Sorry about that.

I thought, perhaps, that this book would renew my interest in the subject so I started reading. At 296 pages, Nobody’s Princess is a fairly easy read about the famous Helen of Troy—before she became the famous Helen of Troy. I don’t know if I could describe it as historical fiction since it has its roots in both Greek history and Greek mythology. There are several mythological characters and historical incidents mixed in, and though I can’t be absolutely certain, it seemed like the book was well researched or, at the very least, written by someone extremely familiar with mythology. Freisner obviously didn’t feel bound to completely mimic the classics and deviated from the standard tale quite enough to make things new and interesting…at first.

I enjoyed the first half of the book, where a young Helen, heir to the throne of Sparta, decides who she wants to become and works hard to achieve her goals. It reminded me a great deal of Tamora Peirce’s Song of the Lioness Series (a childhood, adolescent, and adult favorite of mine). However, toward the end things began to get a little stale. I wish I could say that I really liked this book, but in the end it was just okay. While it had some interesting run-ins with famous Greek heroes and heroines, it didn’t maintain the same level of intensity throughout the book that would entitle it to a higher rating.

My rating: 3 Stars. An okay read. On the plus side, it was entirely suitable for the young adult genre with absolutely no sex or swearing.

Sum it up: A “prequel” to the Helen of Troy saga. I might check the sequel (Nobody's Prize) out from the library, but I won’t be rushing out to buy it any time soon.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Summary:In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge.

At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance: a former student who has lost the will to live: Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
Summary and photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review: This book is composed of the stories from the residents living in small town Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is one member of this little community and as the short stories within this novel unravel, she is found to be the common thread. Reading this book felt a little like people watching, which I'll admit I find to be a fairly enjoyable pastime. It was one of those books that I didn't want to put down and when I did I found myself yearning to read it.

The opening chapter is told from the viewpoint of Olive's husband. From there each chapter introduces a new set of characters whose lives have brushed with Olive's, many just briefly. Every other chapter jumps back to Olive's life, either told by her or her husband or son. The story spans most of Olive's adult life, coming to a close with Olive as an old woman. This writing style kept me interested in the story, but I was frustrated that the characters I had grown to care about disappeared from the story as quickly as they had entered it. This left the novel feeling slightly incomplete.

The story took an unfortunate turn during the last 100 pages of the book. The characters introduced at this point were rather odd and the choices the author had them make were ludicrous. I found myself groaning through the last few chapters of the book. However this does not discourage me from trying another book written by Elizabeth Strout. She has a marvelous writing talent that draws the reader into the fictitious world she has formed.

My Rating: 3 Stars

If I had to sum it up in one sentence: Similar to the life of Olive Kitteridge, this book has a promising beginning, entertaining middle and discouraging end.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cry, The Beloved Country - Alan Paton

Summary: An immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948, Alan Paton's impassioned novel about a black man's country under white man's law is a work of searing beauty. Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man. (Summary from the back of the book and image from Powells.com)

My Review: This book had many great themes about redemption, hate/love, sin, history, race, language, learning, to name a few. It was a nice look into South African history although it stops short because of the date it was finished--the author couldn't know how things would take a turn for the worst. The characters and the outcomes of their decisions were painted perfectly true to life. They have vices, moments of weakness, self indulgence, and internal torment and also heart-warming compassion and charity.

There are two quotes I felt exceptionally compelling and sum up the message of the book nicely:
"In the deserted harbour there is yet water that laps against the quays. In the dark and silent forest there is a leaf that falls. Behind the polished panelling the white ant eats away the wood. Nothing is ever quiet, except for fools." page 224
and
"I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they turn to loving they will find we are turned to hating. Oh, the grave and sombre words." page 311

What I couldn't get past was the punctuation--or the lack thereof. Dialogue punctuation is too important not to use...at all. For me that really took away from the book. I disliked having to go back and count the number of lines above to figure out who was saying what after a while. Annoying. It was a one time read, one I'm glad I read.

Rating: 3.5 stars The punctuation lowered this rating, otherwise it would probably be 4.5.

In a phrase: A realistic history of the people of South Africa.

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails