Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Star of the Morning - Lynn Kurland

This is the first book in the Nine Kingdoms series. Read our review of the second book, The Mage's Daughter, and the third, Princess of the Sword.

Summary: Darkness covers the north, for the black mage has begun his assault on the isolated kingdom of Neroche. Legend has it that only the two magical swords held in trust by Neroche's king can defeat the mage. Now the fate of the Nine Kingdoms rests in the hands of a woman destined to wield one of those blades...

The Mercenary - Morgan is a practical woman with no use for magic. Yet she feels compelled to offer her sword to the sorcerer king of Neroche. Her fateful decision will lead her to a magical destiny...and a man whose love will change her life forever.

The King - Adhemar of Neroche's connection to the magic of the land is fading. Helpless to defend his country against the black mage's forces, his only hope is to travel in disguise, searching for the one who was foretold to bring victory.

The Mage - Miach, the archmage of Neroche, is Adhemar's youngest brother--and duty bound to aid his king. Though they find what they seek, Miach will lose his heart in a way he never could have foreseen.

In this land of dragons and mages, warrior maids and magical swords, nothing is as it seems. For the king is less than he should be, the mage is far more than he appears, and the mercenary will find that the magic in her blood brings her troubles she cannot face with a sword--and a love more powerful than she has ever imagined... (Summary from book - Image from penguin.com)

My Review: I went through a sci-fi/fantasy phase in high school and the beginning of my college years that had me running through fantasy books (and little else) like they were chocolate. I've since diversified my reading preferences, but love to revisit the genre of my youth whenever I feel stressed. Guess what? I'm stressed. So, when someone recommended Star of the Morning as an easy-to-read fantasy romance and offered to lend me the series I said "Yes!" far more quickly than I'd like to admit.

Once I actually had time to sit down and devote myself to this book, I went through it rather quickly. Morgan, a trained mercenary, is tasked with taking a specific sword to the king of Neroche and, unwittingly, ends up traveling with him and his brother for a good portion of the book. I think what made this book so interesting was the anticipation of what, exactly, this fierce sword-maiden was going to do when she found out the truth. The rest of the story unfolds rather predictably, but I enjoyed it all the same. Overall, Star of the Morning was undemanding and entertaining (much like Countess Below Stairs) without even a smidgen of complexity – an escapist fantasy if there ever was one.

Because it’s the first in a series, the story of Morgan, Miach, and Adhemar has barely begun and the end of the story left so much unfinished that I have to pick up the next one. I’m hesitant to pass judgment on its own, lest the final book in the series end up being a dismal failure (can you say Breaking Dawn?), but I will anyway. I think that those people who enjoy reading Eva Ibbotson, Robin McKinley, and Sharon Shinn will probably like this series as well.

My Rating: 4 Stars. For the sensitive reader: Read away. I don't remember a single thing that could offend.

Sum it up: Sword fighting, enchantment, intrigue, and romance. Fans of Ibbotson, McKinley and Shinn should enjoy this book as well.

The Mage's Daughter - Lynn Kurland

This book is the second in the Nine Kingdoms Trilogy. Read our review of the first book, Star of the Morning, and the third book, Princess of the Sword.

Summary: Darkness in the kingdom...

Neroche is under assault by a mysterious magic that has stripped its king of his powers and unleased nightmarish creatures as weapons in a war of evil. Morgan of Melksham is fighting against that menace as well as for her life. Struggling to regain her strength after a near-fatal attack, Morgan realizes that she must decide between two fates: that of being a simple sheildmaiden or accepting her heritage as an elven princess. If only she could forget that she was the daughter of the perilous black mage of Ceangail...

Magic in the blood...

Duty bound to aid his king, Miach of Neroche is torn between what his responsibilities demand and what his heart desires. He is willing to risk his life to rescue Morgan from the darkenss that haunts her, but he must do so at the peril of his realm. Forced to choose between love and the burden of his mantle, Miach sets out on his most deadly quest ever. (Summary from book - Image from http://us.penguingroup.com )

My Review: Sometimes you can blaze through a book, care about the characters, sink into the plot, read the final page, and, minutes later, not really remember what happened in the story. That’s how I feel about The Mage’s Daughter. I had to actually go back and flip through to remind myself of the specific things I liked and disliked.

Everything that I enjoyed about this book was action-oriented and much of it will spoil the book if I elaborate. Miach has to expend a great deal of energy in an attempt to regain Morgan’s trust. The story also explores Morgan’s heritage and introduces some members of her extended family. However, what kept me reading for the first book (Morgan not knowing about Miach’s true identity and the tension between them) was understandably absent in the second. Barring an interesting portion of the book set in Scrymgeour Weger’s legendary fortress, most everything was settled between Miach and Morgan. Yes, you love each other. I like that you love each other, I really do, but at this point I’d also like to know what else is going on and perhaps stop all this chit-chat.

I was also irritated by Morgan’s transition from a fierce warrior to a needy, weeping, clingy maiden, however brief it may have been. At one point in the book, Miach fights to defend Morgan’s honor. In the first book, Morgan would have pushed Miach out of the way and kicked the crap out of his opponent on her own. Does she? Nope. She sits there on the sidelines and trembles in fear for her lethally-trained “beloved”. Give me a break. I’m hoping, that with the third book Morgan gets the rest of her spine back.

I felt that this book was an okay read, but functioned more as a transition period from the first book to the third. Despite my griping here, I am still going to pick up the final book in this series because I’m interested in how it all wraps up.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars. For the sensitive reader: Still very PG.

Sum it up: An okay read, but I wanted a faster pace and less all around weeping. I hope the next one is better.

Princess of the Sword - Lynn Kurland

This is the third book in the Nine Kingdoms series. Read our review of the first book, Star of the Morning, and the second, The Mage's Daughter.

Summary: When darkness falls...

As the mercenary daughter of Gair, the black mage of Ceangail, Morgan is the only one who can stop the terrible sorcery her father unleashed. To do so, she must race against time and find the spell that will allow her to close the well of evil he opened. But that quest will lead her to places she never dreamed existed and into a darkness she would give anything to avoid...

The magic rises.
The fate of the kingdom of Neroche is intertwined with the closing of Gair's well. Miach, the archmage of Neroche, is determined to help Morgan find what she needs, not only because the safety of the Nine Kingdoms hangs in the balance but also because he will do anything to protect her. Together they must search out the mysteries of Ceangail, and the dangers of Morgan's own bloodline.

Now to rescue the kingdom from total ruin, Morgan and Miach have only each other to trust, heart, and soul... (Summary from book - Image from www.us.penguingroup.com )

My Review: Princess of the Sword, despite it’s lame-o name, was much better than The Mage’s Daughter. For one, Morgan wept less, fought harder, and we witnessed the return of her spine which seemed to all but disappear in the previous book. I appreciated some of the surprises strewn throughout the book and can honestly say that I didn’t see all of them coming. I enjoyed the unexpected moments and little quirks thrown in, but had a hard time not drifting off when the author waxed entirely to poetic about Morgan’s beauty or when characters started to over think things (and I had to read about it).

Believe it or not, the romance aspect of this book was my least favorite part. Because Morgan and Miach managed to fall desperately and irrevocably in love in the first two books, their relationship in this book was all sweet spoken words with very little tension or conflict between the two of them. What fun is that? While I applaud Kurland for her attempts at “keeping it clean”, after the first book (and part of the second) she had no idea where to take the characters when she couldn’t take them into the bedroom. Instead she settled for beating me over the head with their all-consuming love for one another. It gave me a headache (not really).

Very few books are made for everyone. I do not like mysteries – unless they somehow involve food. Depressing memoirs just make me want to cry – but I love Elizabeth Berg. I think that fans of fantasy romance, and more particularly, those in search of a clean fantasy romance will probably enjoy this series.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

Sum it up: Liked it, but didn't love it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Broken Birds : The Story of My Momila - Jeannette Katzir

Summary: Channa will evade Nazi Soldiers and survive WWII by the age of twelve. The consequences will be that her 5 children will fight for their own survival with---each other.

World War II has long since ended, and yet Jaclyn and her four brothers and sisters grow up learning to survive it. Having lived through the Holocaust on the principle of constant distrust, their mother, Channa, dutifully teaches her children to cling to one another while casting a suspicious eye to the outside world. When Channa dies, the unexpected contents of her will force her adult children to face years of suppressed indignation. For Jaclyn and her siblings, the greatest war will not be against strangers, but against one another. Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila is Jeannette Katzir's achingly honest memoir of the enduring effects of war. From her parents' harrowing experiences during the Holocaust to her own personal battles, Katzir exposes maladies of heart and mind that those broken by war, inevitably and unintentionally pass down to the generations that follow. (Summary from back of the book and image from http://levinejudaica.com/ - Book given free for review)

My Review: I received this book free for review--free books rock! I've been pondering how to explain my thinking about this book and have come up with this analogy. Although I realize it probably fits best with my experience, I'm sure some of you will understand my meaning. Reading Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila is like running a marathon. You're glad you did it. It was long. It took dedication and hard work, but at least for me, I'll never do it again. It was painful. Too painful to want to read a second time. There were many times I wanted to put it down because the fighting between the siblings was just so sad and depressing I didn't want to know how it could get worse...and you know it's supposed to get worse because it says so in the opening chapter. It seems so awful that siblings would fight so bitterly. Their relationships are so horrible because of their own actions, and yet they still can't seem to stop. Maybe I'm alone in my desire to not read things that make me sad, but that is truthfully the reason I didn't give this book a higher rating than 3.5. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Have I learned a lot from it? Yes. But, you know my thoughts on the matter.

I've read books about Holocaust survivors, but I have never read a book about how their trauma affected their families post war. This book explores their broken lives in great detail and how it ruined or almost ruined their children's lives. I learned quite a bit. In fact, detail is something Jeannette Katzir does very well. I liked her writing style; it lures me in and has a nice pace. Because of this, I had the hardest time separating the book from what I kept picturing was an exact depiction of her life. I knew it wasn't the case, and yet I found myself again and again thinking she was Jaclyn. This is evidence of her ability to make the story so real. The details did, at times, start to feel a bit overdone. Although I can't help but wonder if this was the author's intent--it does help make the impression that everything was quite painful (therefore achieving her purpose). I also learned more about Jewish culture and customs. It was interesting to read about the strict Jewish characters and compare them to the more relaxed characters. I don't have any close personal friends who are Jewish, so I felt like I was getting a glimpse into the modern Jewish world I've never had the chance to see.

I do believe there is a valuable lesson to either be learned or reinforced from reading this book: try not to pass your emotional baggage onto your children. This is easier said than done, but a good reminder nonetheless.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the survivors of the Holocaust, those interested in Jewish history, those interested in post-war trauma and its effects on families, and anyone who simply wants more information about WWII from a different perspective. It is a fairly clean read with very little swearing although there is one f-bomb (maybe a handful of times with the others).

Rating: 3.5 Stars--because it was just so painful.

Sum it up: A detailed depiction of the myriad of ways WWII damaged the people who lived through it and how they unintentionally damaged their own children.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Lucas Manson - Thomas Hauck

Summary: When Special Agent Mark Dylan investigates a gruesome homicide, he uncovers the terrifying world of the Kingdom Seven Family Temple and its leader, the charismatic and ruthless Minister Lucas Manson. As Dylan and his partner Jill Kelly penetrate the secret inner sanctum of the temple, they learn that friends cannot be distinguished from enemies. The vast and powerful temple holds dark secrets that will change their lives forever.

Lucas Manson asks: Do you know who you are? Do you know which side you're on? The answer may shock you. (Summary from book - Cover image and review copy courtesy of publisher)

My Review: If the author didn't feel the need to describe every detail--down to the material the elevator buttons are made of*--then this book would be… well, still pretty bad. As it is, my brain oozed from my eyeballs after ten pages.

*Bakelite, in case you're curious. You shouldn't be. It's not important. Neither was the menu of every meal eaten during the course of the novel, nor the life stories of half the walk-on characters. Perhaps the obsessive detail would be ok if it were at least inventive; instead, it's patched-together bits of every cliche in the tide pool of popular culture. Even the Evil Cult of Darkness(™) is formulaic.**

**Recipe for an Evil Cult of Darkness: Mix three parts Scientology, two parts Mormonism, and a hefty dose of born-again televangelism. Veil thinly and serve lukewarm. Oh, and make them all vampires.***

***Really, really pathetic vampires. Ok, so I'm just adding footnotes for the fun of it. Remember the bit about my brain oozing from my eyeballs? Apparently the one synapse I have left is the one that does footnotes. Forgive me.

Star Rating: 1 Star. Sensitive readers may be turned off by the hackneyed violence and embarrassingly drool-y sex, if they make it that far.

Sum it up: A book about vampires, or rather, a book that is a vampire--it will suck you dry and destroy everything that is good and pure in your life. It's really that bad.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Skid & the Too Tiny Tunnel - Jeffery Stoddard

Summary: A story of courage based on Deuteronomy 3:16

Skid, the littlest yellow tractor in the equipment yard, wants to be mighty like the giant bulldozers, tall cranes and massive diggers who tower over him. But some of the big machines tell him he is just a dinky tractor with a putt-putt engine. While they are busy building a new road through the mountain, Skid is left behind to take out the garbage.

When disaster strikes and a tunnel the machines are digging collapses, Pillar, the biggest bulldozers, is trapped in the rubble. Only a small opening remains at the tunnel entrance and the only one who can fit through the opening is Skid--who is afraid of the dark.

Now it's up to the tiniest tractor to save the day. Can Skid find the courage to do what he was made to do and prove that he doesn't have to be big to be mighty? (Summary from book - Image from walmart.com)

My Review: I received a digital copy of this book for review and read it to my children (ages 4 and 6) this morning while they were supposed to be eating their cereal. It didn’t take long before the cereal was soggy and their little minds were fully absorbed in Skid’s little predicament. When we finished the story and I asked them what they thought, they were both emphatic that it was "a really cool story". We talked briefly about how Skid did what he was made to do even when he was afraid and that what he had thought was a bad thing was actually what made him special.

Skid & the Too Tiny Tunnel manages to teach a spiritual principle with a gentle hand -- without being pushy or overly explanatory. It can be read with a deeper meaning but, for those who aren’t of a religious bent, can simply be a well-illustrated book about a courageous tractor that learns his own worth. I really appreciated this book because I have a six-year-old daughter who has always been a little on the small side. My four year old is only millimeters away from surpassing her in height and has already passed her on the scale. Sometimes she gets worried about being smaller than others (especially when they tell her she is) and it was nice to see her eyes light up as I read. I could see the wheels turning in her head as she drew the parallels between Skid's size and fears and her own.

There are so many books out there that teach the wrong message, or don’t teach any message at all. It is nice to find a morally based children’s book that offers teaching moments and is both engaging and uplifting.

For more books like this one, visit http://www.peteandpillar.com/

My Rating: 4.5 Stars. The only thing that could have made it better would be if it had rhymed.

Sum it up: Skid & the Too Tiny Tunnel teaches the value of courage, self-worth, and the importance of trusting in the Lord to make us “mighty” in the face of our fears.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Odd and the Frost Giants - Neil Gaiman

Summary: In a village in ancient Norway lives a boy named Odd, and he's had some very bad luck: His father perished in a Viking expedition; a tree fell on and shattered his leg; the endless freezing weather is making villagers dangerously grumpy.

Out in the forest Odd encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle--three creatures with a strange story to tell. Now Odd is forced on a stranger journey than he had imagined--a journey to save Asgard, city of the gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it.

It's going to take a very special kind of twelve-year-old boy to outwit the Frost Giants, restore peace to the city of gods, and end the long winter. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever…

Someone just like Odd… (Summary from book - cover image courtesy of harpercollinschildrens.com)

My Review: I read this book to my four-year-old son. His review was "Dada, I love Odd and the Frost Giants because it's one of my favorites." While he says that about everything, and I'm not sure he understood more than a fraction of the book, I have to agree with his assessment. Charming, inventive, and perfectly pitched for its intended audience (probably closer to eight years old than to four), this is one of the better children's books I've read.

A particular strength is Gaiman's well-practiced ability to convey clear and compelling images of characters, scenes, even moods in a few well-chosen words, woven into an apparently effortless skein of themes and events that leaves no loose ends yet somehow manages to avoid seeming contrived. I was also impressed by the way this story presented the bloody, grim world of Norse mythology in a way that was reasonably true to the legends and yet neither patronizing nor nightmare-inducing--a not-insignificant feat of tact.

I have only two complaints with this book. First, I felt as if it could have been a bit longer without disrupting the balance of the story; both my son and I would have enjoyed another chapter or two. Second, there was no mention of Ragnarok. Even if this is a kid's book, the ship made from dead men's fingernails is too good an image to pass up. (Ok, maybe I'm stretching on that one, but I had to come up with something to complain about.)

Star Rating: 4 Stars

Sum it up: American Gods in miniature, and with less angst.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

For Our Fathers

_______________________________

~~Kim~~

When I was young my dad was the one to really teach me to read. I remember sitting with me and encouraging me to sound out each word. The book that sticks in my head is called The Silence of the North. I had asked my Dad what it was about and, after he told me, I wanted to read it but was still a little young to be able to handle the writing style as well as the content. At his encouraging, I went ahead and picked it up. To this day the plot and characters are vivid in my head. With that little bit of "if you want to try it, try it," he gave me permission to read all sorts of things. Whether or not the material was advanced or remedial it was ok just to read what you like. I had to jump over this hoop again when I broke myself down enough to read the Twilight series. And just like that...Boom! A whole new genre opened up once I told myself it was ok to like YA fiction as a almost thirty year old mother of two. Happy Fathers Day Dad, you opened up the door that led me to an incredible world.
_____________________________________

~~Heather~~

Books and reading were such common elements in our home growing up that I took for granted my parent's influence on my own reading habits. As a parent myself now I have come to realize the impact a parent has on their child's reading skills, and also have a grander appreciation for the time involved in this task.

I am now aware of the difficulty of reading books at bedtime on nights when I am so eager for those children to be asleep and can relate to the weariness that stems from of reading the same book each day for weeks on end. I am that parent toting arms full of children's books home from the library and I am the one to crawl under beds, look in dark closets and dig through the toy box in search of those nearly over due books. I have come to appreciate the influence my own reading habits have on my children and therefore allow for ample opportunities to get "caught" reading my own book.

Thanks dad for doing all this and more for me. I want you to know that I appreciated the nightly stories, especially the repeats, and have fond memories of library trips. And I am glad I frequently caught you with those Stephen King books. I love you. Happy Father's Day!
________________________________________

~~Mindy~~

My Dad doesn't read a lot of secular literature. He reads his scriptures diligently and I'm sure he reads a ton of environmental papers for work, but I have little hope of ever catching him with his nose buried in any other type of book. That's just how he is, and I love him regardless of his apparent insanity.

So, imagine my surprise when my Dad visited our house not too long ago and actually asked to borrow one of my books. What is that ROCKING? I think the world might have shifted a little on it's axis! That book, the one so extraordinary as to catch his eye, was Lists to Live By: For Everything that Really Matters. If you know my Dad, you are chuckling right now. He is the listing type, especially those lists that contain little nuggets of wisdom which he can diligently memorize and then impart to the rest of us when we are sitting around the dinner table or trapped in a car on long road trips. It naturally follows that because of my father, I am a list maker and, secretly, adore those wisdom recitations.

Dad, I love you, and what few books you read me (Added Upon by Nephi Anderson and Watership Down by Richard Adams) I will always remember. Not just because they were interesting, but because you read them to me. Happy Father's Day!

_________________________________________

~~Kari~~

Both of my parents were integral to my becoming a reader. My mother had more of an impact on the younger years of my life and my father when I became a more independent reader. One memory I have is of a large, hardback fairy tale book that my father would read to us kids before bedtime (that, for the life of me, I can't find anywhere on the internet). We have pictures of us piled onto his lap in our pajamas enjoying this book. As I got older and became a more independent reader this did change. What didn't change, and I could always count on, was receiving two books on Christmas and my birthday. This was equal across the board for all my siblings. It was a special treat to be allowed to go with my dad to the OSU bookstore and pick out my two books. He even indulged my need for reading at night by purchasing a small clip on lamp for my bed. I know there were many nights he ignored my light, although there were plenty of him coming in angry because I, again, was up reading WAY too late for a school night. I love my dad and all his sacrifices for me and my siblings, and particularly in the area of enriching our lives with good books. Happy Father's Day, Dad!

_________________________________________

~~Daniel~~

Growing up in a family of readers, my tastes over the years were necessarily influenced by the books I found around the house or saw my parents reading. During my teenage years, my reading material was especially influenced by my dad's books, or ones he told me about. From Kurt Vonnegut to Hofstadter, I picked up whatever my dad was reading (OK, so I didn't get to the Hofstadter until a few years ago, but still…). One book I found on my dad's nightstand, in particular, made an impression on me: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

As a teenager still feeling out the literary world, I believed that "good books" fell into two major categories: (1) anything written more than a hundred years ago, and therefore "classic," and (2) science fiction. Reading The Name of the Rose broke down the walls of that narrow world. Here was a book that had the imagination and daring of Asimov or Zelazny, and the depth and richness of Hawthorne or Dostoevsky--and it was published in my lifetime!

Since The Name of the Rose, I have bought each of Eco's novels as it appeared on the shelves, and one of his books, Foucault's Pendulum, is the book I name if forced to pick a favorite. Eco is only one of many favorites to whom my dad introduced me. But more than introducing me to good authors and books, though, I thank my dad for showing me by example that there were always "more things in heaven and in earth" than I dreamed of, and teaching me that beauty and wonder could be found running in rich veins through every part of life.

____________________________________

Happy Father's Day to all the RFS Dad's out there
--including our own Daniel Nighting,
father of two adorable children
who are, no doubt, plotting his downfall
at this very moment.
__________________

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dead Girls Don't Write Letters - Gail Giles


Summary: When Sunny's older sister, Jazz ran away to New York, Sunny was secretly relieved. Everyone loved Jazz, talked about Jazz, wished they were friends with Jazz. Jazz was perfect and Sunny was...well, not Jazz.

Then Jazz's apartment building burns to the ground and she is presumed dead. Sunny's family, already broken by divorce, unravels. Dad's drinking skyrockets, and Mom's depression hits an all-time non-functioning low. Sunny is left to cope.

Then they get a letter from Jazz saying she is coming home. But how? Jazz is dead, right? (Image from www.randombuzzers.com and summary from back of the book)

My Review: Atmosphere is typically not something I find in YA books. But, this one has it. There are multiple times where you wonder just what kind of trouble this girl has found herself in. Fast and by the end, disturbing are probably the best descriptors for this YA book. The whole time you're thinking the main character is the sane one... and then the end, well, I'll let you read and decide for yourself. So weird. Kinda creepy. Leaves you hanging and slightly confused. I read it in about 2 hours after a student in my class said it left her confused despite being a good read. I think this could easily pull in the reluctant reader and make reading seem successful at only 128 pages. I thoroughly enjoyed this fast read.

My Rating: 4.5 stars (for Young Adults). I really want to give this 5 stars, but when you compare it to Hunger Games or Jane Eyre...well, it just doesn't measure up. It's close though.

Sum it up: A creepy, incredibly fast read that throws you at the end.

Also reviewed by Mindy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

This review comes to us from Melissa McCurdy over at Gerbera Daisy Diaries. She's unbelievably well-read and occasionally graces our blog with her presence (and her reviews). We love having her!

Summary: England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death. (Summary from publisher - Image from amazon.com )

My Review: Henry VIII needs an heir – he needs Katherine of Aragon out and wants Anne Boleyn in. It’s up to Thomas Cromwell to figure out how to make it happen.

Thus begins the tumult of the English reformation.

Reams of paper have been devoted to this historical time period (including the recently popular, The Other Boleyn Girl). I have not read much of it other than what was required in high school and college. But Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, makes this chaotic and violent event, modern and fresh.

She has brought to life characters lost to history books. Thomas Cromwell could walk off the page and become a modern day lobbyist or presidential advisor. Henry and Anne could be the precursor to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (or any other dysfunctional reality TV couple). He could also be a distant caricature of Elvis – a man of immense talent and judgment, but loses himself in gluttony and the influence of his advisors and the lust for a woman.

The brilliance of Mantel’s book is her dialogue. Never have I read a book where the dialogue was so rich, authentic, shrewd and, ultimately, witty. She has created living, breathing, individuals who seem as modern as the news in today’s paper. I would reach the end of a sentence or paragraph and often gasp, “Wow.” I’m convinced she created a time machine where she transported herself back to Henry VIII’s court and was a scribe to these individuals private conversations.

The downfall to this book is the immense character list. I guess every mother in the 16th century was fond of the name THOMAS (there were at least 10 in Wolf Hall) . It proved complicated to keep them all straight. The majority of the time, she used the personal pronoun, HE, to refer exclusively to Thomas Cromwell. But even that was hard to follow. Additionally, the Suffolks , Norfolks, Richmonds – any number of suffixes added to a name was difficult to place. This book tops out at 530 pages, so it’s not a weekend/beach read. It took me the entire month of May to finish it. But I should be thankful, I’ve learned the European copy is 650 pages!

My Rating: 4 stars. For the sensitive reader: There is some foul language (including the F bomb), but it is few and far between. Oh, and the occasional heretic burning at the stake!

Sum it up: Ultimately, this was an historically rich, cerebral, and engaging book, for Anglophile and novice alike.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner : An Eclipse Novella - Stephenie Meyer

Summary: Bree Tanner can barely remember life before she had uncannily powerful sense, superhuman reflexes, and unstoppable physical strength. Life before she had a relentless thirst for blood.

All Bree knows is that living with her fellow newborns has few certainties and even fewer rules: watch your back, don't draw attention to yourself, and above all, make it home by sunrise or die. What she doesn't know: her time as an immortal is quickly running out.

Then Bree finds an unexpected friend in Diego, a newborn just as curious as Bree about their mysterious creator, whom they know only as her. As they come to realize that the newborns are pawns in a game larger than anything they could have imagined, Bree and Diego must choose sides and decide whom to trust. But when everything you know about vampires is based on a lie, how do you find the truth? (Summary from book - Image from stepheniemeyer.com)

Mindy's Review: The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner provides Twilight fans with some interesting, though not essential background reading and offers a way back into a series they adore . The story centers around Bree, a newborn vampire, as she attempts to “survive” in a nest of other newborns, afraid of the sun and slave to an unquenchable thirst. At a young 3 months, Bree inadvertently learns the truth about her vampire superiors and is drawn into a confrontation for which she is utterly unprepared.

If you have never read the series, I wouldn’t recommend this book as a starting point. It’s the kind of book that wouldn’t make a great deal of sense without having the other books under your belt. For fans of the series, I’d recommend reading Eclipse first (or at least having read it recently). I haven’t read it since Breaking Dawn came out and had this nagging feeling throughout that I was missing the little connections between the two stories that are made when books collide. I might read it again if I decide to revisit the series but I don’t feel that it was essential to the story. The good news is that, true to its' title, this novella is short (only 178 pages) and can be read in less than an afternoon.

One of the things about the Twilight series that was a little irritating (and perhaps I didn’t realize this right away) was that, barring a few wolfish interludes, the books are entirely written from Bella’s perspective. If it didn’t happen in front of her, then it didn’t happen. In reading Bree’s story, as well as Meyer’s as-yet-unfinished Midnight Sun (a version of Twilight told from Edward’s POV), I enjoyed the opportunity to view the same story from different perspectives and learn a little something extra about Bree’s interaction with the Cullens.

If you would like to read The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, you can read it here FOR FREE until midnight July 5th, 2010. However, one dollar from each book sold is donated to the American Red Cross, so I would recommend spending the money and buying your own copy. If you're a fan, it would look nice on your shelf with the rest of the series.

Her Rating: 3.75 Stars. It was nothing terribly special, just some light background reading. For the sensitive reader: When dealing with newborn vampires, expect carnage.

Sum it up: If I can’t have Midnight Sun, I suppose this will have to do...for now.
_______________________________________

Kari's Review: This did not read like the Twilight series for me. I raced through those hardly able to put it down. This was insightful, but definitely not as engaging. I was curious about Bree, her perspective and how it all meshed with the Cullens, but it took until about page 100 before I really became entrenched in her story. I agree with Stephenie Meyer: by the time the book is ending and you already know how it goes down for Bree, you're sad to see her character die. I'd recommend this only to Twilight junkies. It is not for someone who hasn't read the series. (And, there is a lot more dark, blood-thirsty images. So, if you're sensitive to that, steer clear.)

Her Rating: 3.5 stars. Ok, but definitely not fantastic.

Sum it up: A deeper look into the world of Twilight, although not critical if missed.
_______________________________________

Average Rating: 3.625 Stars
_______________________________________

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Assembling Georgia - Beth Carpel

Summary: Georgia Dunn, an underachieving Minneapolis chicken factory worker, is jolted out of her rut when engine parts inexplicably begin arriving in her mail. Faced with a flood of packages from an unknown sender with unfathomable motives, she must choose between her safe, tedious existence and a world of immediacy, of vulnerability and wide-open senses. But she learns that the joys and risks are not hers alone when she collides head-on with her past. (Summary from book - Image from www.bethcarpel.com)

My Review: Georgia works in a chicken factory, spending the entire day with her hands up the bottom of a dead chicken. Her life is stagnant and mediocre, at best. Then one day she receives a package followed quickly by another and another. Soon her living room is full of parts, pistons, wires, and a handmade manual to build her own motorcycle. With this mysterious gift, Georgia ponders the possibility that she could get more out of life—something “beyond the ordinary”. And life changes for the better, and for the worse.

I’ll admit that, initially, my curiosity was only piqued by the mystery of who might be sending the packages. Even after it becomes obvious who sent them, I still cared enough to keep reading. This book's title perfectly portrays Georgia’s transformation – how she slowly learns to be alone, to be herself, and finds a freedom she never knew existed.

Assembling Georgia is written with deliberate movement, emotional intensity, and characters that linger even after the final page. I’ve spent an entire book’s worth of reading thinking about how to explain how this book made me feel. Despite all my attempts at originality, I kept flashing back to a term used in the book – “quiet expectancy”. Sometimes when I read a book, my head is filled with other things, only partially committed to the words on the page. With Assembling Georgia, it was almost like someone put a filter on the world around me. Everything got quiet. And I read.

My Rating: 4 Stars. For the sensitive reader: This book contains a graphic description of a violent act. While I believe that this scene was necessary in the context of the story, even critical to it, that didn’t make me like it any more. It was painful to read and I wanted it over with. There are also a few short bouts of swearing (mostly at the beginning and end of the book).

Sum it up: A convincing portrayal of one woman’s journey towards self-discovery and the unalterable truth.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Virtues of Mendacity : On Lying in Politics - Martin Jay

Summary: When Michael Dukakis accused George H. W. Bush of being the "Joe Isuzu of American politics" during the 1988 presidential campaign, he asserted in a particularly American tenor the near-ancient idea that lying and politics (and perhaps advertising, too) are inseparable, or at least intertwined. Our response to this phenomenon, writes the renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay, tends to vacillate--often impotently--between moral outrage and amoral realism. In The Virtues of Mendacity, Jay resolves to avoid this conventional framing of the debate over lying and politics by examining what has been said in support of, and opposition to, political lying from Plato and St. Augustine to Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. Jay proceeds to show that each philosopher's argument corresponds to a particular conception of the political realm, which decisively shapes his or her attitude toward political mendacity. He then applies this insight to a variety of contexts and questions about lying and politics. Surprisingly, he concludes by asking if lying in politics is really all that bad. The political hypocrisy that Americans in particular periodically decry may be, in Jay's view, the best alternative to the violence justified by those who claim to know the truth. (Summary from book - cover image and review copy courtesy of University of Virginia Press)

My Review: A teacher whom I greatly respect once told me that if you can't explain something in plain English, without technical terms and jargon, you don't really understand it. This is true of whether you're writing about particle physics, crocheting, or, as in the case of The Virtues of Mendacity, philosophy. While I don't want to imply that Martin Jay doesn't know his stuff--he certainly does, perhaps better than anyone else--I do wish that he had made it a little easier for us to share in his knowledge.

Jay's understanding is comprehensive, his exposition strong, his analysis insightful, and his conclusions sensible and well-justified. In many respects, this is a perfect book of its sort--cultured, intelligent, and obviously the result of deep and prolonged thought. But it has one drawback--it trusts too much in its readers. Certainly, there are those for whom words like deontological, cryptonormative, instauration, and metaindividuals need no explanation,* and names like Habermas, Arendt, and Derrida no introduction. Indeed, among the students of philosophy who will likely be this book's primary audience, such matters are par for the course. But this book deserves a wider audience than that.

The Virtues of Mendacity was, for me, a welcome--if turgid--change from the polarizing, sensationalized, and demagogic shouting match that makes up so much of current American political discussion, even among the intellectuals who ought to know better. Jay's restraint and avoidance of easy answers provide an excellent model, and his conclusions sound advice, for those who study politics, those who practice it, and those who merely follow it. Unfortunately, only the former are likely ever to get the message.

*Though nobody should use heteroclite or irenic. Ever.

Star Rating: 4 stars.

Sum it up: Excellent--and important--reading, if you don't mind keeping a dictionary and an encyclopedia of philosophy at hand while you read. If you find that you don't need the reference books, it's time to put the book down and go spend some time outside.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Totaled Woman : True Slices of Life from a Mother of Five - Marcia Veldhuis

Summary: Everyone knows that life happens--the secret is finding God at work through it all!

Comprising individual true stories, The Totaled Woman shares the challenges and joys from a mother's perspective in a home with five precocious children and a brilliant (if impractical) scientist husband. Marcia Veldhuis looks beyond the crisis of the moment and finds the lessons that God would have. Enter into the joy, sorrow, hilarity, and difficulty of each unbelievable situation. (Image and summary from BringItOn Communications)

My Review: Hallelujah! Picking up The Totaled Woman was a breath of fresh air in a room full of stinky review copies. I've picked some losers lately, to be sure, but this one wasn't one of them. All I can say is, thank heavens for mothers like Marcia Veldhuis! She made me laugh when I desperately needed to. I took great pleasure in reading each “slice” of her demanding yet wonderful, chaotic yet joyous, tiring yet faith-filled life. Her short stories, rarely more than a page in length, were frequently amusing, only occasionally heartbreaking, and always relatable. I fell more in love with this woman, her life, and her family with each turn of the page.

Whether Marcia is dealing with grumpy neighbors, bizarre late-night visitors, an absent-minded husband, or some seriously troublesome animals her short stories manage to be uplifting without being “preachy” and were often, but not always, accompanied by a sentence or two at the end that, ever so gently, gave a deeper spiritual meaning to her experience. These little moments taught more, in my opinion, than a library full of doctrine as she taught by her humble example how to pull divine meaning from the smallest moments and see God’s hand in our lives and in our families.

I am certain that I have many such experiences in my future while I attempt to raise my young family and can only hope and pray for the same perspective that Marcia embraces throughout this book.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

Sum it up: A simple, unaffected and delightful slice of (her) family life.

*Note to Marcia* There is no way (barring meth addiction) that, at thirty, you looked old enough to be your children’s grandmother. Rest assured, that lady was just plain out of her mind. Oh, and the owl story was real HOOT! (Sorry, I absolutely could not resist).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Last Olympian - Rick Riordan

Summary: All year the half-bloods have been preparing for battle against the Titans, knowing the odds of a victory are grim. Kronos' army is stronger than ever, and with every god and half-blood he recruits, the evil Titan's power only grows.While the Olympians struggle to contain the rampaging monster Typhon, Kronos begins his advance on New York City, where Mount Olympus stands virtually unguarded. Now it's up to Percy Jackson and his army of young demigods to stop the Lord of Time.

In this momentous final book in the New York Times best-selling series, the long awaited prophecy surrounding Percy's sixteenth birthday unfolds. And as the battle for Western civilization rages on the streets of Manhattan, Percy faces a terrifying suspicion that he may be fighting against his own fate. (Summary from book - Image from rickriordan.com)

My Review: If you’ve made it this far into the Percy Jackson series, it’s a good bet that you’re already pretty attached to the characters, and that reading this book is more about the final battle and tying up loose ends that about any kind of nit-picky analysis. I felt the same way while reading. I didn’t pause to write down any notes. I ignored good friends, sweet children, and my husband as well. Sometimes you just have to read – what else can I say? I don’t want to spoil anything for you die-hards out there, but I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the story Riordan has crafted. This book, more than all the others, deals with the sense of abandonment and lack of recognition that most of the half-bloods have felt at one time or another . Overall, I thought The Last Olympian was an excellent way to wrap up this particular series. The last few pages contain a new prophecy and leave the book open for another separate series that will likely have some of the same characters and countless new ones. I look forward to it.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up: A satisfying ending to well-written series.

Also reviewed by Kari.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Summary: "Here (in Pakistan and Afghanistan), we drink three cups of tea to do business: the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything--even die."
-Haji Ali, Korphe Village Chief, Karakoran Mountains, Pakistan

The astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his remarkable humanitarian campaign in the Taliban's backyard.

In 1993 a mountaineer named Greg Mortenson drifted into an impoverished Pakistan village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed attempt to climb K2. Moved by the inhabitants' kindness, he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of Tea is the story of that promise and its extraordinary outcome. Over the next decade Mortenson built not just one but fifty-five schools--especially for girls--in the forbidding terrain that gave birth to the Taliban. His story is at once a riveting adventure and a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit. (Image from http://sisterrose.files.wordpress.com/ and summary from back of the book.)

My Review: I am torn writing this review. Maybe it's because it was probably rushed into publication, maybe it's because people are human and therefore error is inevitable, maybe it's just the way this story happens to be told. Regardless of all this I feel I must mention how ridiculously difficult it was to get to the end of the book. I truly was interested; I wanted to know the outcome and was cheering for Mortenson from the beginning. I felt a true kinship to his desire to help those less fortunate being a teacher at a school with 82% poverty. That aside, there were parts I was trying desperately to peel my eyes back open so as to read a few more pages before giving up for the night. A good book never has that affect on me. Typically it's the opposite--I can't put the book down and forgo sleep in order to finish. For example, some of the metaphors made me groan out loud. I teach middle school--I know what a painfully used metaphor sounds like.

There is one other aspect that started to bother me by the end of the story. Mortenson truly is a laudable human being. He sacrificed much to give to the impoverished people in Pakistan and Afghanistan schools where their children could learn in safety. All this is commendable. But, after a while it starts to sound almost like he was tooting his own horn. Having your name on the front of the book as an author (the main author in my mind considering his name is first) and then repeating over and over again how the people in these regions practically praised his name right along with Allah, well it started to not settle well with me.

All this aside, what he accomplished is truly wonderful and something I can fully stand behind. Knowledge is power and that is what he's giving to the poor people in these small villages. He's empowering the women and the men, giving them brighter futures than they could have ever hoped for before these schools were built.

I just wish it was written better. I'm so glad to be done reading this book.

Rating: 2.5 for the writing, 5 stars for the humanitarian efforts.

Sum it up: Detail ridden, but overwhelmingly moving story of change and charity.

Also reviewed by Emily.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pattern Recognition - William Gibson

Summary: Cayce Pollard is a new kind of prophet--a world-renowned "coolhunter" who predicts the hottest trends. While in London to evaluate the redesign of a famous corporate logo, she's offered a different assignment: find the creator of the obscure, enigmatic video clips being uploaded to the Internet--footage that is generating massive underground buzz worldwide.

Still haunted by the memory of her missing father--a Cold War security guru who disappeared in downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001--Cayce is soon traveling through parallel universes of marketing, globalization, and terror, heading always for the still point where the three converge. From London to Tokyo to Moscow, she follows the implications of a secret as disturbing--and compelling--as the twenty-first century promises to be… (Summary from book - cover image from www.coverbrowser.com)

My Review:
Please ignore the summary above. Although completely true, it gives a grossly distorted image of what this book is about--even as a William Gibson fan, I approached this book with hesitation based on that description, which promises exactly the sort of pretentious, shallow, self-consciously "cool" thriller that I make a point of avoiding. In fact, Pattern Recognition is anything but that kind of book.

Not that I could do any better trying to summarize it. I've spent almost a month since reading this book trying to think of a better way to explain it in a review, and failing. It's not a thriller, per se, though it is thrilling. It's not pretentious, though it ought to be, and would be in the hands of a less capable writer. It's not even cool, at least not in the style-before-substance way that so many bestsellers are. For Pattern Recognition, style and substance are the same thing, and are both available in mind-bending quantities.

Gibson's early work had a certain prophetic quality, not so much the result of foretelling the future as of telling stories so powerfully as to shape that future. This book, however, presents something else--a telling of the present so powerful as to capture it, like a dragonfly, in mid-flight. One can almost imagine this book as a sort of linguistic needle, sharp enough and subtle enough to pierce right to the heart of the spirit of our age, and pin it down so we can see the delicate tracery of the veins on its wings.

Star Rating: 5 stars. Contains non-explicit violence and sex, and some explicit language.

Sum it up: Neuromancer come of age. If you're the sort of person who looks for novels with the power to show you not just a different world, but a different perspective on this one, this book is for you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Not So Big House - Sarah Susanka

Summary: Architect Susanka believes that the large homes being built today place too much emphasis on square footage rather than on current lifestyles. Here she shows how homes can be designed to feature "adaptable spaces open to one another, designed for everyday use." She describes how to examine occupants' lifestyles, how to incorporate the kitchen as the focal point of the home, how to give the illusion of space, and how, with storage, lighting, and furniture arrangement, a smaller home can be comfortably livable. Photographs of contemporary homes as well as those by Frank Lloyd Wright and other modern architects illustrate Susanka's ideas and show the timelessness of the style she advocates. (summary copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. as posted on Amazon.com)

My Review:
I am reviewing this book, not because I recently read it (I read it 8+ years ago), but because I highly recommend the ideas it advocates. As in, I actually recommend this book to people who ask me to design a house for them. At the time I originally read it, the nation was caught up in rising property values, driven by "re-sell," and many homeowners were concerned only with square footage. In this atmosphere the ideas in the book would help a homeowner to value and create a home, rather than just an investment. It advocates for considering how you will live in the house, not how the next person will - in essence, enjoy the house because it fits the needs of your family - live in the moment.

On the other hand, perhaps you have a home that was once spacious and luxurious, then two kids and one tanked realty market later you are, ahem, stuck with what is a quaint little cottage on good days, and on bad days a tenement house. In this case reading this book will make you feel like you are making a specific lifestyle choice - so that you too can enjoy the moment.

This book was originally released in 1998, over a decade ago, championing the idea that we should embrace life, use our resources wisely and build better, not bigger. Since then idea that homes can be cozy and customized has been embraced by home remodel TV shows, magazines and blogs.

The advice in this book is mainly geared to people who are building new, or doing major remodels or additions, but the concepts are applicable to anyone. In addition, there are a series of books by this author that address existing homes.

Disclaimer - if you currently live in a home you are happy with, I might not recommend reading this. There is a chance that the author might gently rub you the wrong way when describing what she sees as negative about many recently constructed house. However, if you are planning to build either your dream house on a large or small budget, this is a book you MUST read.

My Rating: 4 stars

In One Sentence: If you think you want more more more - read this book before you raise a hammer.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon - Cressida Cowell

Summary: Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III was a truly extraordinary Viking Hero, Warrior chieftain, awesome sword-fighter, and ameteur naturalist. He was known throughout Vikingdom as "the Dragon Whisperer," on accoutn of his power over the terrifying beasts.

But it wasn't always like that...
(Summary from book - Image from hatchettebookgroup.com)

My Review: A few weeks ago I took my girls to see the movie How to Train Your Dragon where, apart from being thoroughly entertained, we learned there was a book by the same name, ostensibly written by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. It seemed like something the girls would enjoy and so I checked it out of our local library and began reading it to them a few days ago.

My children really enjoyed this book, even though I felt like sometimes the language was over their 4 and 6-year-old heads. It helped that they had seen the movie so they understood the basic concept of Vikings, dragons, etc. While there are a few of the same characters as the movie version, a dragon named Toothless, and an even larger dragon that spells trouble for the Vikings, that’s about as far as the similarities go. In the book, the Vikings steal their dragons when they are small and train them to follow their commands and catch fish for them, while in the movie the Vikings take a more defensive stance. Throughout the book, Cowell inserts several extra pages of information about Viking Dragons, Learning to Speak Dragonese, etc., that were fun to read with the kids.

There was quite bit of name-calling in this book--Vikings are a rough crowd, you know—but it was of the “winkle-hearted, seaweed-brained, limpet eating” variety and was more absurd than offensive. Cowell’s illustrations were sloppily drawn, and even though I understand they were supposed to be, I still wanted them more detail. One of my favorite parts to read to my kids was the book within this book –an earlier edition of How To Train Your Dragon by Professor Yob Yobbish. It was terribly clever and not nearly long enough. Overall, this story was a quick, adventurous read about a young, less-than-confident, less-than-popular boy who overcomes his fears and saves his people. While I had my doubts at times, it ended with a good moral about true courage and selflessness.

As a bonus, I picked up a new term for my own little band of heathens– the hairy hooligans. Now when my girls are being terrors, that’s what I’m going to call them.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars (It had a little bit more “stupid” and “shut up” than I like in my children’s books and you are treated to a vague illustration of a Viking being flicked, stark naked, away from an irate dragon. It’s a long story as to how he got stark naked. Just know that you see some hairy Viking tush. My girls giggled. )

Sum it up: Having seen one and read the other, I actually think I’m going to side with the movie version this time – but that could be the HD talking. I still think this was still worth a read and might consider reading the rest of the series to the girls if they express an interest.

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