Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Return To Sender - Julia Alvarez

Summary:  After Tyler's father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm.  Tyler isn't sure what to make of these workers.  Are they undocumented?  And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life?  Mari's family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico.  Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?

In a novel full of hope but offering no easy answers, Julia Alvarez weaves a beautiful and timely story that will stay with readers long after they have finished it.  (Summary from book jacket and image from http://blogs.kcls.org/ )

My Review:  A couple things to note first off, the book is written in a mix of letters that Mari writes and 3rd person narration watching the character Tyler.  By doing this the reader is able to see things from multiple points of view and adds variety to the story telling.  At times it felt a bit stilted and if you didn't pay attention to whom the letter was written, it could be a tad confusing.

I'm conflicted writing this review.  Parts I really liked and others...not so much.  This is a hot topic right now, i.e. Immigration/illegal immigration.  For this reason I'm leery of even writing a review at all.  For information purposes it leans very Left.  Many times I cringed as it painted a very one-sided view of this issue.  This book only presents a liberal view of the issues.  I would have appreciated it being more well-rounded since it was proposed as a book to be read by my entire school this coming school year

Political leanings aside the story touches the heart.  I found myself drawn to Mari and her plight--it's something I see everyday with my students.  She's such a hardworking, good older sister and daughter with so much against her and forced to grow up far too quickly.  Her mother's story breaks my heart as well.  Any kind of abuse is deplorable, but to be preyed upon like she was simply because the law is a double-edged sword is just heartbreaking.

One aspect I appreciated was that even characters that differed from the author's point of view concerning politics weren't painted one dimensional.  While I can't say she depicted them accurately, she did make sure they were portrayed as humans with hearts and a conscience. 

I'm afraid I wouldn't feel comfortable promoting this book as a stand alone, but I would combine it with another that gives the opposite perspective and then hope to have a lively discussion in my classroom.  I would hope it could be an agent for change and a lesson in how to follow correct course for changing the world in a peaceful and respectful way.

Side note:  I realize the author is Latino and sees the world from that perspective.  It simply is very difficult for me to read about the laws in our land being demonized when the root of the problem stems from their own country and not the USA.  The poverty and lack in availability to proper paperwork doesn't come from the USA.  That issue is never addressed in the book.  The only issues addressed were the tribulation of the people who came here, the preying upon their own people because of dire circumstances, and the realities of breaking the law.  I do not condone the awful living situations and sad stories the characters in this book represent.  I just feel it is not representing the issue clearly and in full.  Please know I also understand the laws as they stand are not working.  I do not proclaim to have the answers, nor do I believe so many good, hard-working people should be thrown out of the country, especially considering how this breaks up families.  We do have laws for a reason and I do believe we should uphold the law or amend it going through the proper process.  It's a very sticky situation, one I'm glad I'm not in charge of fixing.

Rating: 3 stars.  In order for me to give it a higher rating it would have to be more balanced in its views.

Sum it up:  Understanding a child's perspective of illegal immigration to the USA and all the ramifications.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

An Accidental Monk - Marylee Mitcham

Excerpts from An Accidental Monk :  "A monk, he said, is a man who is truly searching for God. My husband and I wanted to find a way of life capable of testing the truth of our desire. We longed to 'be made worthy of the promises of Christ,' but we were finding it difficult, in our ordinary circumstances, to grapple with the side of ourselves that wasn't truly searching for God."

"Not infrequently I am asked, 'But what do you do with yourself?' 'Not much,' I usually reply and wonder if I should mention how many hours it all takes. Next time I'll look my visitor right in the eye and say, 'I work at being peaceful' or 'I'm studying how to be content.' "  (Excerpts and Image from http://www.anaccidentalmonk.blogspot.com/ )

My Review: Marylee Mitcham and her husband had an overwhelming desire to discover God in their lives, both within and without. They moved to a small community and commenced living a spare, yet spiritually sating, life next to an order of monks. What follows in this book is a collection of her thoughts, experiences, poetry, and personal anecdotes from that time in her life.

Marylee Daniel Mitcham has become a friend of mine this past year and when she sent me a copy of her book to review I will admit to being completely intimidated by a 65-page book. What if I hate it? What if it’s no good? WHAT IF IT’S AWFUL? Then I’d be faced with that impossible task of letting her down easy while still remaining true to my promise of honest reviews. It’d be a nightmare.

You can imagine my relief, upon the book’s completion, that I can honestly say I thought it was fascinating! If you were to add a dash of the simplicity in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a pinch of the “pray” in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and a heaping spoonful of spiritual examination and personal reflection, you would have Marylee Mitcham’s An Accidental Monk.

An Accidental Monk is an interesting glimpse of a woman’s search for connection with God on a sacred, personal level and would be an excellent beginning to a conversation about our own relationships with God. That having been said, I wish it were longer. I would have liked to hear more of her experiences and conclusions especially when she converted to the Mormon faith and how that either conformed with or altered her perceptions.

Marylee’s search for connection with God echoes my own desires in many ways. I want to see Him, feel Him, be Him in so many ways and yet at times I feel I am miserably short of my own goals. Marylee’s book offered the opportunity for some serious introspection and examination of my own beliefs and spoke to that woman inside of me who is all the things that I want to be and is simply waiting for me to catch up.

If you are interested in reading An Accidental Monk, you can either pay a great deal to get it online (it's out of print) or you can zip over to MaryLee's blog and read it online.  I suggest the latter, but it's your money.

Be sure to check out her newest book Blacktime Song by Rosalie Wolfe that should be appearing on our review pages soon!

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

Sum it up:  For its diminutive size, this book packs quite a contemplative punch.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Silent Governess - Julie Klassen

Summary:  Olivia Keene is fleeing her own secret.  She never intended to overhear his.  But now that she has, what is Lord Bradley to do with her?  He cannot let her go, for were the truth to get out, he would lose everything--his reputation, his inheritance, his very home.

He gives Miss Keene little choice but to accept a post at Brightwell Court, where he can make certain she does not spread what she heard.  Keeping an eye on the young woman as she cares for the children, he finds himself drawn to her, even as he struggles against the growing attraction.  The clever Miss Keene is definitely hiding something.

Moving, mysterious, and romantic, The Silent Governess takes readers inside the intriguing life of a nineteenth-century governess in an English manor house where all is not as it appears.  (Summary from book - Image from http://www.amazon.com.uk/ )

My Review:  I borrowed The Silent Governess in the hopes of getting some light evening reading done while my husband is in Hawaii on business.  After all, if I'm going to be home alone with three kids for the week, I'm going to need to conserve my brain power at night so that I don't go all batty mid-morning. 

In the beginning, this book felt more YA Romance than Historical Fiction.  While I'm sure a great deal of research went into making certain aspects of the story correct, there was very little historical detail beyond manner of dress, custom, language, and the occasional mention of Parliament.  I really had no idea what was going on in the time period of the book. 

The story itself was simple and engaging with a fair amount of mystery and a wholesome romance. The author, Jane Klassen, is a self confessed fan of "all things Jane" -- both Jane Eyre and Jane Austen so it was not surprising that her story contained similarities to both in the writing style, characters, and thematic elements.  Since I love both Jane's as well, this was definitely a plus!

My biggest complaint was that, even though I was interested in the comings and goings of the characters and the final outcome of the story, it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time* to bring everything together and to a close.  Regardless, people who enjoy this kind of clean romance won't love it, but they'll like it well enough.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars. For the sensitive reader: No worries.  Because this book is published by Bethany House, there is a slight Christian tilt to it, but nothing so over done as to put off a less religious reader. 

Sum it up: A slower-paced Ibbotson with hints of Bronte and Austen that fell just short of all of them.

*Of course, that might have a little to do with the fact that I have Mockingjay (Book #3 in The Hunger Games Trilogy) waiting in the wings. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Band of Sisters - Annette Lyon

Summary:  When the war on terror calls their husbands to duty, five LDS women are left behind to fight battles of their own: Kim, newlywed and pregnant, frightened of what the future might bring.  Brenda, struggling to manage three unruly boys and a crippling bout of depression.  Jessie, secretly grappling with mixed feelings about her emotionally abusive husband.  Marianne, wrestling with a rebellious teenage daughter.  And Nora, the seasoned Army wife with perfect hair, an immaculate home--and an ill-tempered mother dying of cancer.

Knowing that the separation of deployment is extremely difficult, Nora gathers the wives together every week to share lunch and burdens.  In good company, they worry over safety in the field and stability at home and offer one another counsel and comfort.  But as their personal crises build, each woman faces the risks of forming deep bonds of trust.  And when tragedy strikes, they must confront the painful realities of war that pull families apart and bring friends together as sisters.  (Image from http://rebeccairvine.blogspot.com and summary from back of the book.  This book was given to me free for review.)

My Review:  I'm torn on this book. The issues raised, the message sent, and the overall feeling the book evoked deserves a high rating. That said, the writing wasn't all that spectacular--errors that were hard to ignore and things that felt over analyzed--and there were times that I had a hard time wanting to even read it. I know some of that was because of the writing.  "Belabored" fits how the writing of the women's thoughts were portrayed, which after a while you could see coming a mile away. The only other explanation for why it was hard to read was simply because the book evoked the loneliness that I can only imagine a deployed soldier's wife would feel. I'd recommend it to people, but I don't think I'll ever re-read it again.

That said, by the 200th page I was very attached to the women and their specific needs and trials.  I felt my heart breaking with Marianne.  I felt the panic as Kim approached labor and delivery for the first time and without her husband.  And Nora's experience shedding the many facades she'd been taught to uphold, I believe, can't help but speak to many LDS women.  I believe all women deal with this to a certain extent or another, but how the book is written it is specifically directed toward the pressures LDS women face.  If you can stomach all the details that make up the thoughts of the women, you'll be able to get to the point in the story where you love the characters and race to the end of the story.  

My Rating: 4 stars--because it hit some very emotional chords with me.

 Sum it up:  A moving tale of women brought together by their husband's deployment in Afghanistan.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Five Quarters of the Orange - Joanne Harris

This review is written by Anne Bennion, a good friend of mine, who is constantly juggling a house full of boys, an often overwhelming church calling, play groups, practices, and lessons and still finds time to send us a review now and then.  Way to go, Anne!  You are amazing!

Summary:  In her bestselling and critically acclaimed novel Chocolat, Joanne Harris told a lush story of the conflicts between pleasure and repression. Now she delivers her most complex and sophisticated work yet, an unforgettable tale of mothers and daughters, of the past and the present, of resisting and succumbing – an extraordinary work of fiction limned with darkness and fierce joy.

When Framboise Simon returns to a small village on the banks of the Loire, the locals do not recognize her as the daughter of the infamous woman they hold responsible for a tragedy during the German occupation years ago. But the past and present are inextricably entwined, particularly in a scrapbook of recipes and memories that Framboise has inherited from her mother. And soon Framboise will realize that the journal also contains the key to the tragedy that indelibly marked that summer of her ninth year… (Summary from back of book - Image from joanneharris.co.uk)

My Review: The title of this book intrigued me, that and being written by the author of Chocolat. I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. The book takes place in the little village of Les Laveuses, France during the Occupation and then in that same village 40 years later. The story is told in a series of flashbacks intermixed with the current life of the main character. I loved the flashbacks and also was just as captivated by the things happening in the present. Right away, the main character Framboise caught my attention. She was smart, cunning, and had such an interesting relationship with her mother. Framboise’s mother was a war widow. She ran an orchard to support her three children and suffered from debilitating migraines. (I feel her pain – ugh migraines!) She was not a loving mother and showed little affection for her children, however, most of her time and effort was used in supporting and strengthening her children. Throughout the book, I hated and loved Framboise’s mother. I was amazed at the depth of feeling that Framboise had for her mother – and it wasn’t always good feelings. She purposely found a way to trigger her mother’s migraines so that she could go out and do the things she wanted to during the day.

Framboise was nine years old during most of the flashbacks. I sometimes felt that the feelings Framboise was explaining were a bit intense for a nine year old, namely falling in love with a German soldier. She talked about not being able to breathe without him, feeling the hot spot on her hand where she touched his shoulder, etc. All these feelings seemed a bit too mature – and I am mostly basing that off of my own nine-year-old experiences, sure I had crushes but nothing that intense.

I couldn’t put this book down. Once I had been introduced to the characters and their lives, I was hooked. I needed to know if Framboise ever actually caught the giant Pike that was the curse of the Loire River by her home. I needed to know if Paul ever found out what his friends were really doing. I had to find out what the horrible crime was that Framboise’s mother committed. The story is well developed and the author does a great job of keeping the story moving, even with all of the flashbacks. Although there wasn’t as much food references as I would have liked, food served as a major theme throughout the story. I sometimes wished I could taste what Framboise cooked up at her restaurant or smell the food that her mother cooked for dinner. I was pleased the Framboise didn’t change when times got hard – she remained smart, determined, sometimes rigid – all of the things that she despised in her mother, which led to Framboise’s ultimate realization that she had turned into her mother despite all of her effort not to.

I was slightly disappointed when I found out the crime that was the dark secret in this book. I was expecting something far worse. I did wish that I spoke fluent French and German to help translate the random phrases that were thrown into conversations.

My Rating: 3.9 Stars ( I couldn’t quite give it a 4 because of all of the f words.)  For the sensitive reader, there is language throughout the book but the big kicker is the last 50 pages, which has lots of the f word. There is also one scene of child rape.

Sum it up: A great story of love and hate, discovering who you really are, and overcoming secrets.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Girl She Used to Be - David Cristofano

Summary:  When Melody Grace McCartney was six years old, she and her parents witnessed a brutal act of violence--and then were lured into the Witness Protection Program.  And so Melody lost her identity, her home, her family, and ultimately her innocence.   She's been May Adams, Karen Smith, and countless others.  But the one person she has always longed to be is Melody Grace McCartney.

Now, twenty years later and still on the run, she's stunned when a man calls her by her real name.  Jonathan Bovaro, the mafioso sent to find her, knows her, the real her.  It's a thrill Melody can't resist and she goes with him willingly, defying the feds.  To the Justic Department, she's just a pawn in their war agains the Bovaro family.  But as dangerous as Jonathan is, he gives Melody the opportunity of a lifetime:  the chance to embrace her past and present and choose a future all her own.  (Summary from book - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:   The more I think about it, the more I hate this book. The Girl She Used to Be started out surprisingly well.  I was intrigued by the developing story, amazed that a male author could write a female character so well, and I loved Melody's sarcastic demeanor and emotional intensity -- up until about page 50 when she turned into a complete moron. 

Okay, so maybe I didn't read the back as closely as I should have, but what the heck?!?  While I do believe that someone in Witness Protection would be miserable and have a difficult time investing in relationships or keeping their cover, especially as a child, anyone actually approached by a mafia hit-man would run screaming in the other direction.  They would NOT jump into a car with a complete stranger, (SPOILER) fall in love, and agree to meet and attempt to gain acceptance in the family that killed her parents.  Ever.  (END OF SPOILER)

Even if we could suspend reality for just a moment, and pretend that the world (and the mafia) work this way, this story is an epically bad movie waiting to happen -- complete with absurd characters, a Pretty Woman-esqe makeover, several overly dramatic "rescues", some of the most syrupy dialogue I have ever had the misfortune to read, and an ending that completely fell apart.  That kind of stuff generally means it belongs in the romance department with a pretty pink cover (with Fabio the Mafioso on it) not sitting smack in the middle of the adult fiction section smugly pretending it belongs there. 

Sidenote:  This book has been given 4 and 5 star reviews by others...so feel free to read it despite my review.  It's your hair.  You can pull it out if you want to.

My Rating:  1.5 Stars.  (The .5 is for the beginning, which wasn't near as bad as the end) 

For the sensitive reader:  The author makes a point of not cursing (a la "what the fu--fudge") but there are several nearly sexual situations and some discussion of sexual matters.

Sum it up: Lame.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When You Reach Me - Rebecca Stead

Summary:  By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood.  They know where it's safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know who to avoid.  Like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel.  Sal gets punched by a kid on the street for what seems like  no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life.  The apartment key that Miranda's mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen.  And then a mysterious note arrives, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend's life, and my own.
I ask only two favors.  First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows things no one should know.  Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death.  Until the final note makes her think she's too late. 

This remarkable novel takes place in the real world but holds a fantastic puzzle at its heart.  When You Reach Me is an original, and a brilliant and profound delight.  (Summary from book jacket and image from http://shelflove.files.wordpress.com)

My Review:  I picked up this book because it was selected for book club.  I've noticed it many times before and just hadn't gotten around to it.  I'm glad I did.  I feel the summary does a good job giving you the basics, so I'll let that stand. 

About half way through the story I had figured out who was leaving the notes, and although I already had it figured out, it was still fun to see how all the details tied together.  There are so many hints and clues as the story progresses, that by the end you're having aha! moment after aha! moment.  Which was fun.  There were some messages, albeit mostly underlying, that hinted of liberal agenda.  If that's your thing it shouldn't bother you at all.  If not, I still think everyone can appreciate the humanity this story brings out and the reminder to be aware of how we treat others.  I loved how it kept making connections to the protagonist's favorite book A Wrinkle In Time and how it had made such a lasting impact on her.  There are so many little details that I could mention, but I believe that would take away from the fun of reading such a short, fast-paced book.

Rating: 5 Stars...for a Young Adult Book.


Sum it up:  If you liked A Wrinkle In Time, this is another great YA puzzle book.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Moonflower Vine - Jetta Carleton

Summary: A timeless American classic rediscovered--an unforgettable saga of a heartland family

On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters. Jessica will break their hearts. Leonie will fall in love with the wrong man. Mary Jo will escape to New York. And wild child Mathy's fate will be the family's greatest tragedy. Over the decades they will love, deceive, comfort, forgive--and, ultimately, they will come to cherish all the more fiercely the bonds of love that hold the family together.
Summary from book, photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review:
The story opens in the 50's with the grown Soames family back on the farm for their annual summer vacation where they are working hard to plan the perfect day, a day that was not in the cards as one thing after another pops up to ruin the carefully laid plans. All these plans center around the blooming of the Moonflower vine. As the novel progresses we are taken back to the late 1800's and the family's history is recounted through each members individual view point, though not in his or her voice. The theme of a plan going astray continues throughout the book, coming to a head in Matthew's (the father) life, who the tale seems most to belong to.

This is a story about love and loss, joy and struggles, deceit and victory all wound together. It's a tale of the turns life can take depending on our choices. It will leave you pondering how one choice effects various other dimensions of the future. This tale, such as life, is composed of triumphs and disappointments, sins and repentance, betrayal and consequence.

The Moonflower Vine is difficult to put down. It can be read as a simple enjoyable tale or one can peel back the layers to reveal multiple dynamics taking place. Much like a prism this story will change depending on the light you read it by. Many additional facets that were hidden during the previous reading will be uncovered during sequential readings. This is the perfect book for book club as each reader will discover something different. The book was so multi-dimensional that I decided to re-read it after book club and enjoyed it this time even more. I would have loved there to be a sequel but must admit that the end was really quite satisfying as it leaves it open to the reader to put your own finishing touches on a remarkable story.

My Rating: 5 Stars

To Sum it up: A hidden classic that begs to be read time and time again

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Adam - Ted Dekker

This review comes to us from Larissa over at Pearls and Pumps where you will find adorable photographs and the most gorgeous jewelry.  She is a stay at home mom of a busy 20 month old and an even busier 8 month old chocolate lab and enjoys photography and reading whenever she has the chance--which, she says, isn't near often enough! She loves going out to dinner and to the movies with her husband and would do that every night, if she had an unlimited budget.  (Me too, Larissa!)  We're so excited she decided to guest post for us!

Summary:  Sixteen young women are dead, each injected with a mysterious illness on the night of a new moon and left in various underground basements or caverns. The murderer leaves no clues, except for one scrawled-in-red trademark, "Eve."

Special Agent Daniel Clark has devoted his life to tracking and finding serial killers and Eve is proving an especially difficult case. Difficult, that is, until Clark and his colleagues find Eve's latest victim still alive. In a race to save the girl's life and potentially discover the killer's identity, Daniel finds himself in danger. A run-in with Eve leaves Daniel clinically dead for twenty minutes, only to survive but remembers nothing of the incident.

As Daniel attempts to recall the details before his attack, the killer strikes again, this time much closer home to all he holds dear. Daniel takes his obsession to a dangerous new level. Soon enough he finds himself in a world where blurred lines between life and death leave him fighting for his very life.  (Summary from back cover - Image from teddekker.com)

My Review: I really love the Ted Dekker books I've read, so I had high hopes for this book. And like all the other Dekker books, I was sucked in immediately. Daniel Clark is a seasoned FBI agent on the case of a serial killer called, "Eve." Eve has killed sixteen women by exposing them to a deadly disease each new moon. Daniel is obsessed with the case with has caused a divorce between himself and his wife. As Clark and his new partner get closer and learn more about Eve, things aren't what they seem.

I was extremely happy with the beginning of this book. And it wasn't until I was about 2/3 of the way through that I started doubting how much I was going to enjoy the ending. Things started getting just a little too weird for me.

One thing I really appreciate about Dekker's books, is that because he is a Christian author, there isn't any language, sex or much descriptive gore. That wasn't completely the case with this book. There was a brief moment of what I would call "strong language" and there was a lot of crude name calling. There wasn't any sex and the gore wasn't terrible, but the book was dark and there were times that I was pretty scared (Hey! It was the middle of the night, okay?! Or 9 o'clock at least!).

Bottom-line: I wouldn't suggest this to a sensitive reader, but for the most part it was a pretty good read.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars (I took a point off for the strange ending, and I just couldn't give it a 4 because of the language from a Christian author!)

Sum it up: An intriguing and thrilling book with a strange ending. I don't think I'll read this twice, but I did enjoy it (mostly) while it lasted.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Good Son - Michael Gruber

Summary: Sonia Laghari, a Pakistani-American writer and psychologist, sets up a conference on peace in Kashmir, the most terrorist-infested place on earth, only to have her and her small group of pacifists abducted and held captive by terrorists, who may or may not be manufacturing nuclear weapons. All but doomed to a public beheading, Sonia uses her familiarity with Islamic doctrine as well as her knowledge of Jungian psychology in an attempt to enlighten her deeply conflicted captors. (Summary from Amazon.com, Book given free for review)

My Review: If it weren't for the beginning and the end, this book would be one of my very top recommendations. I nearly put the book down after the first chapter - we enter into the bedroom with Theo, presumably "the good son", and his longtime casual sex partner and thus commences a crude description of the goings on. Not too graphic but unnecessarily descriptive. This scene was the only one I recall throughout the book but I signed on for a political thriller, not a tawdry fiction. Upon reflection I can see that this was used to show Theo as a flawed character but oh, there are so many better ways to do this.

As I read on I began frantically dog-ear-ing pages (Mindy gasps in horror) for future discussion, which is one of my personal signs of a compelling read. My dog-ears include discussions about religion (culture) vs. spirituality (faith), a lot of explanation regarding the abuse of women by extreme Muslims, a distancing of the core of Islam from fanaticism, the separation between tribal tradition and Islam (see culture vs. faith), the influence of place on our sense of self, how the oppression of women leads to women being oppressors, and plenty of insight* into Muslim culture along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

*Of course the author is a Caucasian professor in America so this begs the question of how accurate is his portrayal of the Afghan/Pakistan (specifically Pashtun) world? My book club often debates if a story is more accurate if told my someone inside or outside a culture. If being "inside" lends authenticity or if being "outside" removes bias. Then follows the question, because I am reading this story from "outside" does the fact that I think it seems realistic have any bearing whatsoever? Oh, so many interesting questions.

And then there is the ending. Eh. It is well done in that it answers the big questions but then leaves you with a few that keep you thinking once you've put the book down. It also makes you question some character assumptions you made throughout the book. But the surprise twist, which one begins to suspect, just wraps everything up too nicely. I just couldn't believe that x, y AND z all happened at the same time and the same place.

My Rating: 4 stars - The meat of the novel is so thought-provoking that, despite the tawdry opening and unbelievable ending, it still merits a recommendation.

In one sentence: Skip the opening, suspend belief at the ending and discuss what is in between.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

Summary: Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo combines murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.

Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pieced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.
summary from book, cover photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review: I had attempted to read this book on two other occasions over the past year. I would stumble over the first 50 pages completely lost and finally give up. The opening just required more thought than I was willing to devote to the book. This reading was no different except that it was a book club read so I felt an obligation to finish it. I'm sure glad I did.

Once I made it past those first couple chapters I was able to dive in, neglecting to come up for air. This book is that addicting. I soon formed a relationship with the characters and was devoted to solving the mystery, a task easier said than done. Actually this book isn't comprised of just one mystery but three. Two come full circle and the next I'm sure will be addressed in the follow-up, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

This novel is what every great mystery should be. It's a race between good and evil with evil in the lead throughout much of the book. Good continues to make progress, occasionally slipping backward and only surpassing in the final moments. When good triumphs and evil's identity is surprisingly revealed the reader finally catches a breath and may even cheer.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars
Sensitive readers: Violence, language and sexual situations

To sum it up: A great mystery that will have you longing for more. You might as well just buy the trilogy because you are going to want to read the next as soon as the cover is closed on this one.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fallen - Lauren Kate

Summary:  There's something achingly familiar about Daniel Grigori.  Mysterious and aloof, he captures Luce Price's attention from the moment she sees him on her first day at Sword & Cross boarding school in Savannah.  He's the one bright spot in a place where cell phones are forbidden, the other students are screwups, and security cameras watch every move. 

Except Daniel wants nothing to do with Luce--he goes out of his way to make that very clear.  But she can't let it go.  Drawn to him like a moth to a flame, Luce has to find out what Daniel is so desperate to keep secret...even if it kills her.

Dangerously exciting and darkly romantic,  Fallen is a page-turning thriller and the ultimate love story.  
(Summary from book - Image from laurenkatebooks.net - Book from library)

My Review:  Okay, first things first.  I think I just need to up and admit that what made me pick up this book was its gorgeous cover art.  Angela Carlino did a wonderful job at evoking the dark and twisty nature of the book.  I wish I could say as much for Lauren Kate.  I had a very hard time settling in to this book.  It was very easy for me to put it down and walk away and took me about a week to read (that's a really long time). 

Fallen exudes an element of mystery and, at first, it’s the good kind – the kind that keeps you reading because you really want to know who the good/bad guys are, and where the story is headed. Since Ms. Kate seemed doomed to repeat the whole “new girl at school” plot (that is currently being bludgeoned to death by so many others), at least she had the grace to set it in a reform school with some slightly psycho characters.  Unfortunately, Fallen morphed into a boring-I-want-to-go-read-something-else kind of book because the author dragged out the unknown without serving up enough tasty plot morsels that open up more of the story. Grr.  Still, I kept reading because I hate to not finish a book.

I will never forgive Ms. Kate for making me wade through nearly 300 pages of a 464-page book before the story started moving. Even then, under the guise of the protagonist not being able to “handle it”, the author only revealed vague partial-truths so that at the end of the book I was left disengaged, confused and completely frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the art of a well-timed twist, waiting to divulge key plot elements until the perfect moment, or the cliffhanger ending, but not at the expense of the overall story or the reader’s interest. Kate dragged the beginning out so much that by the time I got to the meat of the story I had already resorted to skimming because I wanted to be done.

All of this aside, I still think the teenage masses will like this one. Mostly because it has the oh-so-essential new girl at school and the two mysterious guys that want her. I kept waiting for werewolves to pop out of the furniture or something. I think I just need to stop reading books like this hoping that they will be good. They are rarely more than average.

I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that one of the many objectives of the first book in a series is to induce you to want to read the second. Fallen tried to walk the fine line between saying too much and not saying enough and failed miserably, leaving me unwilling to invest any more of my precious time in the series.  I have no intention of picking up the next book (Torment, Sept. 2010) no matter how good the cover art (and it is good).

My Rating: 2.75 Stars. For the sensitive reader: This book did stay fairly YA but there was some swearing and one instance of graphic violence.

Sum it up: Neither the page-turning thriller nor the ultimate love story that its' cover quotes claim. An overall disappointment.

Also reviewed by Kari.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Last Child - John Hart

Summary: Thirteen year-old Johnny Merrimon had the perfect life: a warm home and loving parents; a twin sister, Alyssa, with whom he shared an irreplaceable bond. He knew nothing of loss, until the day Alyssa vanished from the side of a lonely street. Now, a year later, Johnny finds himself isolated and alone, failed by the people he's been taught since birth to trust. No one else believes that Alyssa is still alive, but Johnny is certain that she is---confident in a way that he can never fully explain.

Determined to find his sister, Johnny risks everything to explore the dark side of his hometown. It is a desperate, terrifying search, but Johnny is not as alone as he might think. Detective Clyde Hunt has never stopped looking for Alyssa either, and he has a soft spot for Johnny. He watches over the boy and tries to keep him safe, but when Johnny uncovers a dangerous lead and vows to follow it, Hunt has no choice but to intervene. Then a second child goes missing...

Undeterred by Hunt's threats or his mother's pleas, Johnny enlists the help of his last friend, and together they plunge into the wild, to a forgotten place with a history of violence that goes back more than a hundred years. There, they meet a giant of a man, an escaped convict on his own tragic quest. What they learn from him will shatter every notion Johnny had about the fate of his sister; it will lead them to another far place, to a truth that will test both boys to the limit. Traveling the wilderness between innocence and hard wisdom, between hopelessness and faith, The Last Child leaves all categories behind and establishes John Hart as a writer of unique power.
Cover photo and summary from borders.com

My Review: Johnny Merrimon's twin sister has disappeared without a trace. During the investigation the remainder of Johnny's life has also fallen apart. His father has taken off and has not been heard from. His mother has resorted to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to keep herself numb, barely getting out of bed. Hope is gone for finding Alyssa alive from everyone but Johnny who sets out on his own to discover his sister's fate.

These characters, though a bit stereotypical, will pull the reader in and draw an array of emotions. One can feel Johnny's loneliness and can't help but to feel anger at his mother's actions while simultaneously sympathizing with her loss. The mother's boyfriend conveys disgust and the die-hard detective brings fortitude. Hope for happiness streams throughout the novel.

Though at times suspenseful, this novel just didn't have the intense intrigue that I long for in a mystery. I found the end to be somewhat, though not entirely, predictable This novel also felt a bit disjointed to me. The prologue never completely ties in with the story. Yet it was still a decent read that kept me entertained throughout. Overall a good, but not great, mystery novel.

My Rating: 3 Stars

To sum it up: A
satisfying summer read.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fablehaven : Keys to the Demon Prison - Brandon Mull

Summary:  After many centuries of plotting, the Sphinx--leader of the Society of the Evening Star--is after the final artifacts needed to open the great demon prison, Zzyxx.  If the legendary prison is opened, a tide of evil is certain to usurp control of the world.

In an effort to intercept the final artifacts, Kendra, Seth, and the Knights of the Dawn race to strange and exotic preserves across the globe.  The stakes have never been higher.  The risks have never been more deadly.

In this explosive series finale, allegiances will be confirmed and secrets revealed as the forces of light and darkness collide in a desperate, climactic battle to control the keys to the demon prison.

Summary from inside book cover and image from http://brandondorman.blogspot.com/

My Review:  I'm going to start by saying if you haven't read the previous 4 books, I wouldn't recommend reading this review unless you know you'll never pick them up.  Spoiling a series is a terrible thing and I wouldn't want to be the reason behind that.

It feels like the ending to this series has been a long time in coming.  It might have been because I've had to space them out around book club selections, or because they're simply longer books (although easy reading) that it sometimes felt like it was dragging on. 

I'm very happy with the ending to the Fablehaven series and also happy I read them.  It was nice to read a story about a close-knit family, with grandparents involved and people who work together, people working for a greater good.  It was also nice to read a fantasy book that wasn't over the top with description.  I'm afraid I'll offend some ardent fantasy readers with that comment, but that's simply a personal opinion of mine.  The more description of the forest (or whatever), the less interested I become.  You need enough to paint a picture, but beyond that it becomes laborious.  Fablehaven balances this need nicely.  Another aspect I love about the Fablehaven books is that they truly are Young Adult literature.  No swearing, no mature themes, no questionable content--unless you're not a fan of dark creatures/good vs. evil themes.

Kendra and Seth show major growth in this last book.  Both show the promise that the first book sets up their characters to potentially have.  Some amazing feats are accomplished and there are definitely twists that, at least for me, catch you off guard.  At one point in the story I literally gasped, put the book in my lap for a second, and gaped open mouth at my husband from what I'd just read; it was that surprising.

One thing I'd like mention, since I'd brought it up in one of my previous reviews for the Fablehaven series, was my concern about children meddling in any sort of dark magic.  This last book addresses this issue and I felt very comfortable with the strong message it sent the reader.  I'd want my student/child to read the entire series just for the reason that I'd want them to understand the greater message of the books.

If you like fantasy and enjoy relatively easy reading, you'll probably enjoy the Fablehaven series.

Rating: 4.5 stars


Sum it up:  A climactic and satisfying end to a fun and adventure filled series.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"The Reapers are the Angels" THREE BOOK GIVEAWAY

Enter to win
one of THREE autographed copies of
The Reapers are the Angels
by Alden Bell
copies donated and shipped by the lovely Henry and Holt Company

We absolutely loved this book
and are thrilled to be able to give away
three autographed copies!


To enter to win you must (in one comment):
Be (or quickly become) a follower of this blog, and comment with your contact information.  Please follow via the Google or Blogged widgets found in the right sidebar.

For extra entries you may (in separate comments*):
1) post about this giveaway on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking site.  (Each post = extra entry)
2) blog about this giveaway on your public blog and leave the link
3) like or follow us on our Facebook and Twitter pages
4) grab a new button for your sidebar
5) comment and tell us your favorite horror or dark fantasy novel 

This giveaway is open to US/CAN residents only and will end on August 31st at 11:59 PM.  The winners will be chosen randomly, posted publicly, and contacted as soon as possible to arrange shipment.

*Seriously people.  If you follow the rules you will receive multiple entries.  If not, you receive one. 


Good luck!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Reapers are the Angels - Alden Bell

Summary: For twenty-five years, civilization has survived in meager enclaves, guarded against a plague of the dead. Temple wanders this blighted landscape, keeping to herself and keeping her demons inside her heart. She can't remember a time before the zombies, but she does remember an old man who took her in and the younger brother she cared for until the tragedy that set her on a personal journey toward redemption. Moving back and forth between the insulated remnants of society and the brutal frontier beyond, Temple must decide where ultimately to make a home and find the salvation she seeks. (Summary from book cover - Image from macmillan.com - Books given free to review)
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Pay attention, because we have a little surprise for you!
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Mindy's Review: I am stunned (nearly) speechless by every aspect of this book--the writing, the characters, the plot, every shred of everything. Good thing I can still type, eh?

Dramatic and gritty with a unique, inescapable voice, The Reapers are the Angels is a brilliant story, enhanced by characters that burrow into your skull, and woven together with splinters of bone and rivers of blood. Bell’s exquisite prose runs in striking contrast to vivid images of death and decay. His idiosyncratic grasp of the English language allows him to use the words ain’t and palaver in the same sentence without damaging the authenticity of his characters. Haunted by a past she cannot change and hunted by both the living and the living dead, Temple is a force of nature--fury and endless wonder, death and life personified--in her search for redemption in a horrifying world.

This morning I finished reading, closed the book, let out a big sigh of relief/contentment/sadness and, from the length of my exhalation, realized I must have been holding my breath for half the book. In the past two years or so, I’ve reviewed over 145 books for this blog and I have never read a book like this one. It is gorgeous. It is disgusting. It is just so good. I’m fairly certain it has ruined me for many books to come.

Her Rating: 5 Stars. For the sensitive reader: If you cringe at images of roiling maggots, mangled viscera, or fecal ooze, you probably shouldn’t read this book. Seriously, don’t even think about it. Back away slowly and go pick up something by L.M. Montgomery. Now. This book contains a few brief sexual encounters, occasional swearing, and an incredible amount of gore. It’s possible I’m still in shock and minimizing the extent of the carnage. Don’t you dare say I didn’t warn you.

Sum it up: If you are looking for a book to suck you in, mind, body, and soul, chew you up, and spit you back out again, run to the store and get this book*.

*But please, for the love of Alden Bell, read the above “My Rating” section before you do.

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Daniel's Review: As a reader, I mentally file my favorite works of fiction into two broad categories. Great Literature requires careful attention but can subtly remold your head and heart, changing you forever. Light reading, however, may spark your imagination and tantalize your palate, but seldom fires your soul. Unfortunately, books involving zombies always seem to fall into the latter category.

Not any longer.

One page into The Reapers Are the Angels, it was clear that this was a book that belongs on a shelf with Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, and Calvino. Beautiful images, carefully-crafted phrases, perfectly-balanced nuances--clearly, the work of a skilled writer. By the end of the first chapter, I was seeing through the protagonist’s eyes and tasting the flavor of her thoughts as she regretfully smashed in a zombie’s head with a rock.

Before long, the zombies showed up in force, and I was lost in Bell’s grand and awful vision of a world in ruins. Never has a post-apocalyptic wasteland been so lovingly and dreadfully spread out. But the true action of this book doesn’t come from the countless hordes of entrail-chewing revenants. Rather, it was the living who horrified, disturbed, and even inspired me.

Like the best zombie stories (to which it seems somehow wrong to compare this book), the undead here serve to highlight the depravity and soul-deadness of their as-yet-undecayed prey. Unlike its gore-soaked literary forebears, however, The Reapers Are the Angels lives up to the promise of its title and shows how beauty and redemption come, not in the absence of horror and evil, nor even by overcoming or conquering them, but somehow through them and in harmony with them. A paradox, perhaps, but it’s such complexities and their transcendence that sets great books apart from pulp page-turners.

His Rating: 5 stars. Not for the faint of heart on account of horrific images, which are only partially due to the zombies.

Sum it up: A moving meditation on life and death, beauty and horror, and the meaning of them all (with more zombies than you can shake a shotgun at).
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Are you as excited about this book as we are? If so, you'll be delighted to know that TOMORROW we'll be posting a GIVEAWAY with THREE chances to win
your own autographed copy!
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Death on the Barrens : A True Story of Courage and Tragedy in the Canadian Arctic - George James Grinnell

Summary: Set in the remote arctic region of Northern Canada, this book takes readers on a harrowing canoe voyage that results in tragedy, redemption, and, ultimately, transformation. George Grinnell was one of six young men who set off on the 1955 expedition led by experienced wilderness canoeist Art Moffatt. Poorly planned and executed, the journey seemed doomed from the start. Ignoring the approaching winter, the men became entranced with the peace and beauty of the arctic in autumn. As winter closed in, they suddenly faced numbing cold and dwindling food. When the crew is swept over a waterfall, Moffatt is killed and most of the gear and emergency food supplies destroyed. Confronting freezing conditions and near starvation, the remaining crew struggled to make it back to civilization. For Grinnell, the three-month expedition was both a rite of passage and a spiritual odyssey. In the Barrens, he lost his sense of identity and what he had been conditioned to think about society and himself. Forever changed by the experience, he unsparingly describes how the expedition influenced his adult life and what powerful insights he was able to glean from this life-altering experience.
Summary and photo from northatlanticbooks.com, Book received free for review

My Review:
Death on the Barrens is the true story of six young men who embark on a canoe voyage over 900 miles long in the Canadian Arctic during the summer of 1955. Lost in the spirituality of the land the men allow the journey to drag on at too leisurely a pace. The group soon finds themselves low on food with winter moving in. A devastating canoe roll over leaves 5 of the men in the icy cold water. The leader freezes to death after this incident and the others are forever changed as they attempt to survive the remainder the journey.

The author was one of the men on this expedition. He tells this story with amazing poise, instantly drawing the reader in. One can almost feel the mist of the river and the bumping of the rapids, and later the cold and hunger. There is a lot of emotion caught within these pages. Add the stunning watercolors that help to break up the book and you have a true gem.

My only complaint with the book is that the author's character is quite unlikeable. He comes across as rather arrogant, at times forgetting that the story isn't solely about him. Though some of his background information was helpful I could have done without the addition of his family tree and the outline of where the family wealth came from. Luckily this unpleasantness is contained within a couple chapters that can easily be skimmed or passed over without detracting from the storyline.

Overall I would highly recommend this book, especially to those who enjoy nonfiction outdoor adventure tales. At less than 300 pages this is a quick and interesting read.

My Rating: 4 Stars

To sum it up: The true story of a peaceful canoe trip that came to a tragic end.

WINNER OF THE "SON OF A WITCH" GIVEAWAY

Congratulations to
BENITA
the winner of our "Son of a Witch" Giveaway.

We'll be contacting you ASAP to set up delivery!

Didn't win?! 
 Don't fret. 
We've got another giveaway coming up
 in a couple of days that is going to
knock your socks off!

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