Sunday, October 31, 2010

Call Me Kate - Molly Roe

Summary:  Coming of age amidst the seething unrest of the Civil War era, feisty fourteen-year-old Katie McCafferty infiltrates the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish organization, to rescue a lifelong friend.  Under the guise of "Dominick," a draft resister, Katie volunteers for a dangerous mission in hopes of preventing bloodshed.  Katie risks job, family, and ultimately her very life to intervene.  A series of tragedies challenge Katie's strength and ingenuity, and she faces a crisis of conscience.  Can she balance her sense of justice with the law?  (Summary from book cover and image from http://4.bp.blogspot.com/  Book given free for review.)

My Review:  I really enjoyed reading Call Me Kate.  It's definitely written for the younger of the YA audience with a strong emphasis on a historical event.  As a young female reader I think I would have thoroughly enjoyed a strong female protagonist related to what I was learning about in school (Civil War era).  It also teaches about an aspect of the Civil War I wasn't as familiar with.  Typically when I have read about the Civil war you learn about the disease, the huge death toll, the war tactics, the generals and the reasoning behind the war: abolishment of slavery.  This book brought to life what the draftees faced up in the North.  I wasn't surprised to learn that immigrants who were not yet citizens were drafted along with citizens, but again this was not something I knew before.  It also brought to life the prejudice and bigotry of the times.  It's sad and yet so true that even today we haven't gotten past our dislike, even hatred of people who aren't like ourselves. 

WARNING: SPOILER:
There is one aspect I'm struggling with.  I'm having a bit of a hard time believing a girl of those times would be quite that stubborn and force her opinion upon the men around her.  It just seems a bit preposterous. This is fiction and I think there must have been some women who were influential in their husband's or the men in their lives thinking.  But, that said, I can't imagine a girl in the 1860's being able to set up her own working environment that would help immigrant women have better working conditions.  A girl probably could have dreamed that (or maybe not), but actually believing it could happen?  I just can't buy that.  Women couldn't vote at that time, therefore it just doesn't ring true.  Therefore Katie's declining her marriage opportunity at the end of the book fell flat in my eyes.  Not that I want or expect every woman to settle down and marry the man available and offering.  It just doesn't fit with those times and what was expected of women.
END OF SPOILER

Overall, it was a fun read, full of interesting information of those times, and I learned quite a bit about the customs and traditions that shape our nation today.

Rating: 4 stars--couldn't hold a 5 star rating because it didn't hold me to its pages like a hostage, but it was a good read.

Sum it up: A courageous (if somewhat unbelievable) story about a heroine following her conscience to save a childhood friend.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Lonely Hearts Club - Elizabeth Eulberg

Summary:  Love is all you need...or is it?  Penny is sick of boys and sick of dating, so she vows: No more.  She's had one too many bad dates, and has been hurt by one too many bad boys. 

It's a personal choice...and soon everybody wants to know about it.  It seems that Penny's not the only girl who's tired of the way girls change themselves (most of the time for the worse) in order to get their guys...or the way their guys don't really care.

Girls are soon thronging to The Lonely Hearts Club, and Penny finds herself near legendary for her nondating ways--which is too bad, since the leader of The Lonely Hearts Club has found a certain boy she can't help but like... (Summary from book - Image from amazon.co.uk)

My Review:   Ahh.  A book that rails against the male gender while stressing the importance of sisterly bonds -- The Lonely Hearts Club hopes to target fed-up female readers who have been used, abused, and taken advantage of by the opposite sex.  Pardon me if I sound bitter, but it doesn't take a genius to come up with that marketing strategy.  I’m fairly certain that about 98% of the female population can relate to Penny’s frustration with men at one time or another. The rest are nuns.

The Lonely Hearts Club's flaws are not hard to find.  It displays all the plot predictability, simplistic writing, and insane optimism of a children’s book, but is replete with language and themes more suited to a young adult novel. Above all, this book boasts a whopping 2.5% believability factor. It's been a little while since I was in high school, but I can tell you this much--social lines are not that easy to cross. Girls don’t miraculously become loyal-to-the-core besties overnight simply because they bonded at a dance or the wrong boy dumped them. It would be nice, but that is not how it works and Eulberg’s idealistic attempt to make me believe it could, fell flat on its face and then rolled down some stairs and through a plate glass window.

In spite of its defects, The Lonely Hearts Club is an honorable attempt at uplifting YA literature. Its message of friendship, self-respect, and staying true to your convictions, is one that I strongly support, regardless of Eulberg’s sugary-sweet delivery.  Women do need to learn to establish their own self worth instead of looking to men to give them an estimate.

Unfortunately, Penny Lane and her cohorts end up being vehicles for the book's message instead of characters in their own right.  I felt like I was watching cardboard cutouts walk around the page: the mean girl, the cheerleader, the jock, the rebel. Combine these pretty, but empty, shells with enough teenage drama and I can actually close my eyes and smell the Disney After-School Special, can’t you?  Oooh, Demi Lovato would be perfect as Penny Lane, and perhaps they can snag one of those little Jonas boys to be her romantic interest.....whatever.  I'm glad I don't have cable.

My Rating: 2 Stars. For the sensitive reader: Some mild adult themes and profanity.

Sum it up: A noble attempt -- but it felt too good to be true.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Plans - Natalie Smothers

Summary:  All great things start out as something small, a connection formed by two unexpected sparks, foundations built through trial and time and trust, future plans mapped out in baby steps.  Danya Biermann never expected to be cooking for the students of the Shimamura School for Gifted Children, just as she never expected Patrick Dahlberg to agree to her book proposal, but there she'd had hope...and egg rolls.

Danya always found it easy to believe in herself and take care of everyone else, but found it hard to accept that same faith and love from others. 

And so does Nathan Weisflock, but sometimes an unexpected connection borne of love and faith can bring us back to ourselves and our best laid plans. (Summary from book - Image from goodreads.com - Book given free to review)

My Review:   When I received this book in the mail, it dropped out of the package looking nothing like what I expected. I understand the architectural significance of the cover art now and how it factors into the story, but my initial impression was “What the heck?! Did I agree to review a textbook?”. I was a little reluctant at first, but as I started reading I found a story that had a lot of promise. The characters felt realistically flawed yet endearing and, a few pages in, it had the makings of a Pride and Prejudice like romance -- if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth were acutely unpleasant and swore as easily as breathing. I felt like I had read an entire book by page 83 and was having a merry old time when Ms. Smothers threw in a twist that had me fractured and needing to know more. 

If you handed me Plans in outline form, with basic plot and character sketches, I would snap it up in a second flat. Indeed, it was the bones of this story kept me reading through a challengingly detailed 327-page novel with unbelievably small font, and incredibly narrow margins. Unfortunately, the bones were deeply buried beneath mountains of detail. Smothers' tendency to overexplain left nothing for the reader to infer. For example:
“ [Danya] went into the kitchen and took two glasses out of the cabinet, then looked into the refrigerator. A carton of organic lemonade was pushed all the way to the back of the middle shelf and she reached in for it, shaking it as she took it out to try and determine how much was left. There was enough for each of them to have a glass if she threw a few ice cubes in with it.”
Now, imagine 327 pages of exactly how the tomatoes were sliced, in depth conversations with the cabdriver, or the precise position of a photograph on a nightstand. I liked the story, but by the end, I was ready for it to end. I did not need to know the exact position of the lemonade in the fridge, nor did I care that it was organic. This additional knowledge did not enhance anything and, in fact, its sheer unnecessary presence only served to detract from the story.

If I might presume to give Ms. Smothers advice that I’m not even remotely qualified to give, it would be to strip away all the dead wood* and let her story breathe a little. A great writer knows when to describe and when to withhold so that the reader can create for themselves. A great writer takes the expertly crafted sentence they have spent hours, even days, perfecting and throws it on the scrap heap because, ultimately, it doesn’t serve the story.

Towards the end, particularly the last section, I had a hard time putting the book down despite its tendency towards overexertion. Overall, I enjoyed the premise, characters, and the emotional pull of the story, but could have done without all the excessive detail. If you have the patience for it, you might find something to admire as well.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars.  For the sensitive reader.  Occasional profanity of the non-biblical variety, some mild sexual situations and description, and a slightly unorthodox relationship.

Sum it up: Plans is like a beautiful house, solidly constructed, expertly designed and decorated, but with a yard full of lawn ornaments that muck up everything and annoy the heck out of the neighbors.

*That’s for you Mrs. Bybee

Monday, October 25, 2010

Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli

Summary: Stargirl. She's as magical as the desert sky. As strange as her pet rat. As mysterious as her own name. And she captures Leo Borlock's heart with just one smile.

But when the students of Mica High turn on Stargirl for everything that makes her different, Leo urges her to become the very thing that can destroy her: normal. In celebration of nonconformity, Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the perils of popularity - and the inspiration of first love.
Summary of back of book, cover photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review
: Stargirl is the new girl at school and to say she doesn't quite fit in is a gross understatement. This girl dances completely to the beat of her own drummer never noticing that she is out of sync with those around her. She is her own person, making no effort to conform to the norms of high school. When Leo, the narrator of the story, falls in love with her it is because of her differences. What he fails to realize is that by loving her originality he also makes himself an outsider.

When the kids at school begin to shun Stargirl, and by proximity the narrator himself, suddenly Stargirl's differences are not as likable. The narrator begins to talk with Stargirl about the importance of fitting in. The change he is desiring in Stargirl is the exact thing that will tear the two apart.

This is a well-written tale of the importance of remaining true to yourself. It is a tale that will appeal to all but will have a special meaning to tweens and young teens. Stargirl begins the story as the feared unknown and ends as role model. This tale accurately protrays the typical emotions of a high school universe in which individuality contends with conformity. Spinelli allows his narrator to make a fool of himself and fall on his head a couple times as all students must do. He illustrates the highs and lows of his characters with remarkable strength. With a focus on developing character traits, this is an ideal read for the 9-12 age group.

My Rating: 5 Stars

To Sum it up: A tale carrying my favorite message...the importance of being yourself

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Teaching Yoga : Essential Foundations and Techniques - Mark Stephens

Summary:  Teaching Yoga is an essential resource for all yoga teachers and students interested in refining their skills and expanding their knowledge of yoga.  Enhanced with nearly 200 instructional photos and illustrations, this comprehensive book is ideal for use as a core textbook in teacher training programs.  Readers will find practical and detailed information on teaching methods, sequencing principles, the fundamentals of 108 poses (asanas), and techniques for teaching meditation and breathing (pranayama).  Yoga philosophy and history as well as traditional and modern aspects of anatomy are also covered.  Author Mark Stephens, an esteemed yoga teacher and teacher trainer, offers guidance through the process involved in becoming a teacher and sustaining oneself in the profession.  A useful appendix lists associations, institutes, organizations, and professional resources for yoga teachers.  (Summary from back of the book.  Image from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/.  This book was given free for review.)

My Review:  This has to be the most comprehensive book on yoga I've ever read.  It is definitely more than just your typical 'how-to' yoga book.  It isn't until page 157 that the actual process of teaching yoga is addressed.  The pages preceding this are filled with history, the separate but integral aspects of yoga from mental to physical to ethical standards.

The middle section of the book focuses on the basic teachings, processes, and set up of a yoga class including breathing, sequencing, and meditation.  This section also has pictures to illustrate the positions (asanas) in black and white.  Not being a yoga instructor, some of the terms and vocabulary were definitely above my vocabulary relating to yoga.  That shouldn't stop you from picking up this book though.  There are multiple formats of explanation and a glossary at the back of the book.  Another aspect to the book I really liked was how this mid-section (probably the most helpful for a yoga participant and not someone angling to become a yoga instructor) was organized.  Each of the separate asanas (positions) is its own section.  These sections give the primary risk areas of the body, how to guide students into position safely, and what to look for to ensure proper technique.  Some of these positions are beyond an average students capability at least at first.  I would not call this a beginners book.  One last thing about the mid-section that I loved is the many examples of sequencing and planning a class that Stephens provides.  If you're new to teaching yoga and don't want to get bogged down in the same routine, I would think this would be your favorite section.

The last section proves even more this is an advanced book for serious yoga instructors.  This section contains information about specialized teaching for people with injuries, pregnant students, and even has a section for how to teach yoga to people suffering from depression.  There is an appendix containing yoga teaching resources, yoga organizations, websites, and even institutes and research centers on yoga.  The last aspect I wanted to mention specifically is Appendix C.  It contains a quick list of asanas (positions) with the classical name, the common name (ex. downward dog) and a picture. 

I have been thoroughly impressed, even if it was overwhelming at first, by this all encompassing book on yoga.  If you teach yoga I'd be surprised if you hadn't read this book.  It would be my go-to guide.

Rating: 4.5 stars only because it was a bit daunting to get into.

Sum it up:  The most comprehensive book I've read on teaching yoga.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Musical Chairs - Jen Knox

Summary: Musical Chairs is candid, darkly humorous and wholly engaging. Taking place in Ohio, this gripping memoir recounts the story of a runaway girl and the family that stood by her.

After being struck by a severe panic disorder in 2003, Jen begins to explore her past. In doing so, she becomes enamored by the mysterious nature of her family's history. She discovers a pattern of mental health diagnoses and searches to define the cusp between her '90s working-class childhood and the trouble of adapting to a comfortable life in the suburbs.

Inspired by the least likely source, the family she left behind, Jen attempts to reconcile with this past. She reflects upon years of strip-dancing, alcoholism, and estrangement while maintaining impressive narrative control. This story is about identity, class, family ties, and the elusive nature of mental illness.
Summary from book, cover photo from amazon.com, book received free for review

My Review: Jen Knox neatly weaves the tale of her coming-to-age years within the pages of Musical Chairs. Jen struggles to find her identity and in the process makes some difficult choices, including leaving home at a young age and stripping to support herself. The title, Musical Chairs, is fitting as Jen finds the mental illness within her family tree comes full circle. Reliving these painful moments while writing this book had to be heart-wrenching. The manner in which the author takes full responsibility for her own mistakes is refreshing.

Though overall Jen's tale is not incredibly remarkable her depiction of it is. Lancaster's beautiful writing style keeps the reader engaged. Her raw emotion is fully captured within these pages. Though this tale feels as if it were written for the purpose of providing some personal closure, it's end result is a true work of art as it showcases Jen's extraordinary writing talent. She is currently working on her first fiction novel which I will quickly snatch up as I am quite certain it will be delicious.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars Sensitive readers - this story contains sex, drugs and some choice language.

To Sum it up: A healing memoir from a promising new writer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne Collins

Summary: When Gregor falls through a grate in the laundry room of his apartment building, he hurtles into the dark Underland, where spiders, rats, cockroaches coexist uneasily with humans. This world is on the brink of war, and Gregor's arrival is no accident. A prophecy foretells that Gregor has a role to play in the Underland's uncertain future. Gregor wants no part of it -- until he realizes it's the only way to solve the mystery of his father's disappearance. Reluctantly, Gregor embarks on a dangerous adventure that will change both him and the Underland forever.
Summary from barnesandnoble.com, Cover photo from www.suzannecollinsbooks.com

My Review: Join Gregor and his baby sister, Boots, as they slide miles beneath New York City to the underland. Here you will patronize with the light-skinned violet-eyed people of this obscure world. You will ride on enormous cockroaches and fly on top of bats. You may encounter some sinister spiders, who though useful for their spinning of clothing and catchcloths (diapers), have treacherous webs one must be cautious not to become entangled within. Also beware of the six foot rats. With their razor sharp claws and teeth, they are your most dangerous enemy.

Collins vividly paints the world of the underland so the reader is quickly engulfed within this mysterious world. As you travel with Gregor on his quest to find his father you will find yourself laughing out loud one minute and holding your breath the next and then finally gasping in surprise. This author has a knack for ending each chapter with suspense, making the book virtually impossible to put down. As I read this fantasy with my eight-year-old son I delighted in the emotions the tale was able to evoke.


This is fun fantasy perfect for the 8-12 age group. It is sure to leave children with a delight for reading. With a total of five books, this series promises to be every bit as addicting as the Harry Potter novels, only at a more simplistic level. Worth 8 accelerated reader points, this the perfect series to get your young one hooked on reading. My son and I quickly embarked on the next adventure, The Prophecy of Bane, after closing the covers of this one.

My Rating: 4 stars for me, 5 stars from my 8-year-old

To sum it up: A fun adventure series for the emerging reader.

Also reviewed by Kari.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Darcy Vs. Edward Giveaway

There is just something about a gorgeous man with a menacing stare
that seems to make women swoon with desire. 
We love them.  Especially in books.

So, tell me:

Do you prefer a man who is proud? 
Or a guy who sparkles?

Well, if you win this giveaway,
you are going to have to choose.

Darcy Vs. Edward

Enter to win your choice of these Darcy Vs. Edward book swag gift bags-- 
You can give it away to a loved one or keep it for yourself. 
Either way, you have to admit, it's pretty darn cool.


DARCY Gift Bag: (value $60.50)
Mr. Darcy Tote bag
P&P mini-button
Find a Man  magnet
Tolerable Women's T-shirt*



EDWARD Gift Bag: (value $60.50)
In Love Tote Bag
Twilight Mini Button
Papercut Magnet
Feathers T-shirt*


To enter you must:

  • Be (or quickly become) a follower of this blog and comment leaving your contact information.  Don't forget to tell us who you'd rather sweep you off your feet!  Darcy or Edward?


For extra entries you may (please comment separately for each extra entry**):
  • Visit CafePress and return to tell us your favorite Darcy or Edward item. 
  • Post about this giveaway (with link) on a social networking site like Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Like or follow on our Facebook or Twitter pages.
  • Grab a button for your sidebar
  • Blog about this giveaway (with link) on your public blog.
  • Tell us your favorite moment/quote/section from either book. 
Good luck and a big thanks to CafePress - a website that offers millions of personalized gifts ranging from personalized photo ornaments to Christmas aprons and items for any interest, brand, or topic - like customizable hoodies, 2011 yearly calendars and even some pretty hot book merchandise!

This giveaway is also being featured in the MomAudience Giveaway Explosion - Get links to tons of giveaways November 1-5th.  Subscribe to receive the giveaway links!


Eligibility Rules:  This giveaway is open world-wide and will end at 11:59 PM on 11/17/2010.   Winners will be chosen randomly, posted publicly, and contacted swiftly to arrange for shipping.  Your bag will be delivered in time for Christmas. 

*In your choice of sizes and certain colors.
**If you comment separately, you get your extra entries.  If you combine them, you get one.

One in a Million GIVEAWAY WINNER

Congratulations!

 Cheryl
and
Karen (aka. Sonflower)

Winners of our "One in a Million" Giveaway!!

We'll be contacting you both soon to arrange shipping
of your very own copy of
One in a Million by Priscilla Shirer.


 We hope that you enjoy this book and, if you do,
that you come back and share your thoughts with us!
Thanks again to Sabin Hogue for her generosity. 
She is a spiritual giant and a wonderful woman!

Didn't win? 
 Don't worry! 

We have another giveaway
starting in just a few hours. 

Hold on to your hats, though, 
because it's a doozy!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Room - Emma Donoghue

Also reviewed by Mindy.

Summary: To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.  Summary and cover image from indiebound.org

My Review: Upon opening this book you are thrust into the world of a five-year-old. Jack narrates this story through the eyes of an innocent child. At first it is a struggle to get into character but within a few pages the transport from adulthood back to childhood is complete. It must be quite a challenge to write from this perspective, yet Donoghue masters it flawlessly.

Jack is an energetic, inquisitive and creative five-year-old. Other than being particularly bright, he is the average child. Yet his surroundings are anything but typical. Jack and his mother live locked within a 12 by 12 foot room. Knowing no different, Jack is quite content in his singular world with his mother, a small television, his snake friend made from egg shells and his Sunday treats. His mother, however, knows Room to be a life-draining prison, one they must escape before it smothers them both.

This powerful novel is at once absolutely appalling and undeniably beautiful. This is an all-consuming book which begs to be read in a single sitting. Jack's innocence is presented with bits of humor and heartache. His mother's battle between doing right by her son and her need for freedom will capture the hearts of readers. Her struggle to remain courageous while being absolutely powerless perfectly displays the undeniable bond between a mother and her child. Book clubs take note this is a story that demands to be discussed.

*See the room and hear Jack's voice at www.roomthebook.com, a very cool addition to the book that puts it all into perspective

My Rating: 5 Stars, though the nature of the story is rather dark there are really no details into the terrifying events and, other than a choice word or two, this book is clean.

To sum it up: A tender and horrific tale told in the most unique voice.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Help - Kathryn Stockett


Also reviewed by Mindy and Heather.

Summary:  Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step...
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss.  She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger.  Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child.  Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way.  She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi.  She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job.  Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation.  But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why?  Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times.  And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women--mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends--view one another.  A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't. 
(Image from http://reviewsbylola.files.wordpress.com/ and summary from book jacket.)

My Review:  I'm going to admit right now that I didn't blast through this the way it seems most do.  I just had this foreboding feeling that nagged at me until about two-thirds the way through the book.  Until that point I found myself avoiding reading and worried (yes, I know it's fictional) about the outcome of the characters. I would attribute this attachment to the characters to Kathryn's great writing.  The dialect feels natural and authentic, the characters three-dimensional and endearing. Once I got past the first two-thirds I rushed through it like going over a waterfall.  At that point I couldn't put it down.

The divisive force of racism, for me, was the strongest message.  And for Skeeter, tragically so.  How do you accept the fact that the people you've known and loved your whole life are so polarly different from you in their beliefs about equality?  And then, once you do realize, and they realize the differences, how do you move on with your life?  Knowing so few actually agree with you, being a woman from the South, without a set path for your future, has to be heartbreaking.  Throw in two women from the other perspective, one who wants to love despite being hated, and the other who's grown to hate and you have an amazing, moving story.

I loved the story.  I loved the message.  I can only wish that more would read this book, feel the empathy for others that we either don't allow ourselves to feel or are blind to feeling through self-absorption.  Change is not easy, but I can only imagine this story would help open eyes or reinforce kindness in everyone who reads it. 

The book doesn't wrap up perfectly, but that's another aspect that makes it feel right.  There's enough closure to the character's lives that you leave feeling content.  I will definitely be passing this book along to any and all who will read it.

Rating: 5 Stars

Sum it up: Eloquently written, touching on both the beauty and the cruelty of the Southern racial experience of the 1960's, The Help stays with you.

Also reviewed by Mindy and Heather.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Savvy - Ingrid Law

Also reviewed by Kari.

Summary: Mibs Beaumont is about to become a teenager. As if that prospect weren't scary enough, thirteen is when a Beaumont's savvy hits - and with one brother who causes hurricanes and another who creates electricity, it promises to be outrageous... and totally thrilling.

But just before the big day, Poppa is in a terrible accident. Suddenly, Mibs's dreams of x-ray vision disappear like a flash of her brother's lightening: All she wants now is a savvy that will save Poppa. In fact, Mibs is so sure she'll get a powerful savvy that she sneaks a ride to the hospital on a rickety bus with her sibling and the preacher's kids in tow. But when the bus starts heading in the wrong direction only one thing is certain: After this extraordinary adventure not a soul on board will ever be the same.

Reading the fantastical tale of the Beaumont family will leave you as changed as if you'd just discovered your own savvy - and who's to say you won't, once you've learned how to look?
Summary from book, cover photo from barnesandnoble.com

My Review: Mibs Beaumont is approaching that all important birthday, thirteen, when the savvy surfaces for all Beaumont children. She is anxiously awaiting the reveal of her magical power when tragedy hits, resulting in the hospitalization of her father. With her mother and eldest brother at her father's side, Mibs is forced to face her time of change virtually alone. She becomes convinced that her power is meant to save her father so she attempts to make her way to the hospital and thus the drama unfolds.

Mibs has always been an outsider in school and when she finds herself aboard the bus with an older popular girl who has consistently taunted her in the past she is afraid at first. Over time Mibs realizes that maybe this bully isn't as strong as she makes herself out to be, her rough exterior is only covering for a soft insecure interior. Mibs also discovers that she is not the only one with secrets. The message sent young readers is that they are never as alone in the world as they may feel.

This is a fun story ideal for the 8-12 year-old audience. Kids will be able to relate to the quirky characters inside these pages, flaws and all. As the mystery unfolds at a perfect pace, this story is sure to keep readers with their noses in the book. At the heart of this novel is the moral of embracing differences and unconditional love. This will be a sure-fire hit within it's genre and I am anxious to read it with my eight-year-old son.

My Rating: 4 Stars

To Sum it up: A magical tale with a female heroine that will capture hearts

Saturday, October 9, 2010

When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do (grades 6-12) - Kylene Beers

Summary:  For Kylene Beers, the question of what to do when kids can't read surfaced abruptly in 1979 when she began teaching.  That year, she discovered that some of the students in her seventh-grade language arts classes could pronounce all the words, but couldn't make any sense of the text.  Others couldn't even pronounce the words.  And that was the year she met a boy named George.

George couldn't read.  When George's parents asked her to explain what their son's reading difficulties were and what she was going to do to help, Kylene, a secondary certified English teacher with no background in reading, realized she had little to offer the parents, even less to offer their son.  That defining moment sent her on a twenty-year search for answers to that original question: how do we help middle and high schoolers who can't read?

Now, in this critical and practical text Kylene shares what she has learned and shows teachers how to help struggling readers with:

Comprehension      Vocabulary      Fluency    Word Recognition       Motivation

Here, Kylene offers teachers the comprehensive handbook they've needed to help readers improve their skills, their attitudes, and their confidence.  Filled with student transcripts, detailed strategies, reproducible material, and extensive book lists, this much-anticipated guide to teaching reading both instructs and inspires. 
(Summary from book - Image fro abebooks.com)

My Review:  I'm always looking for ways to improve my teaching and one day my literacy instructional coach brought this book for me to read.  Kylene Beers voices what every secondary English teacher fears: will I be able to teach older illiterate students to read?  For most teachers the education programs focused on secondary Language Arts do not cover (at least not in depth) how to reach students with a wide range of literacy gaps.  Some have decoding skills, some have sight words, some have comprehension if it is read aloud, and others have nothing.

There are so many steps to reading, that as we grow, we stop realizing we're do them.  Things like predicting, questioning the author or character's motives, using the context a foreign word is placed in to understand what it means for this situation, to understanding sequencing of events are skills good readers do without consciously thinking.  And, these are skills many teachers assume students should have before they reach middle school.  That just isn't the case any more. And I would beg to disagree and say that in the past there were illiterate students in the secondary grades, but that teachers simply gave up trying because 'if they hadn't gotten it by now, they're never going to get it.'

With high stakes testing (NCLB) ensuring that these students aren't simply forgotten--at least, that is in the schools with higher numbers of these students or who have teachers who want to reach each and every child--more teachers are trying to find ways to reach those students.

Beers provides personally researched practices, with anecdotal notes, showing ways she was able to reach students and overcome a multitude of non-readers' difficulties.  I have used some of her ideas in my classroom and I will attest that they do, indeed, work.  Some of my favorite strategies are Say Something, the Anticipation Guide, Probable Passage, and Tea Party.

There is an extensive appendix and many templates for easy application and personal classroom use, as well as many comprehensive lists that typically aren't covered for secondary Language Arts teachers in education programs.  From a list of sight words, to roots, to easily confused words, to most common syllables in the English language, this book is a go-to guide for teachers trying to teach ALL levels of readers.

I personally use different chapters and sections of this book from year to year.  Each group of students come with unique and individual needs, and many ways to address those needs are given in this book.  If you're thinking of doing a Reading endorsement program, I'd highly recommend reading this book and adding it to your personal academic library.  Every Language Arts teachers in the secondary levels should own a copy (and preferably use) this book.

Rating: 5 Stars

Sum it up: A resource book choke-full of great ideas and quite guides for any Language Arts teacher (or any teacher for that matter who is concerned that his students are able to comprehend text) wanting to improve literacy at the higher grade levels.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ape House - Sara Gruen

Summary: Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships—but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.

Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn’t understand people, but animals she gets—especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she’s ever felt among humans . . . until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what’s really going on inside.

When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and “liberating” the apes, John’s human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he’ll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggest—and unlikeliest—phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda.

Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen’s place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before.
Summary from book, cover photo from indiebound.org

My Review: Sara Gruen has combined the art of fiction writing and her personal experiences with Bonobo apes to create an intriguing tale in Ape House. Much like Water for Elephants, the animals in this story take on a life of their own becoming the focal characters in the plot. Gruen depicts the intelligence of these apes as she writes about their ability to communicate with humans not only their wants and needs but emotions as well. These are truly fascinating animals. She also touches on the political issues regarding the maintenance of these creatures, forcing the reader to consider the effects of the research being conducted.

It is odd that while the plot is devoted to the story of the Bonobos less than half of the book actually includes these primates. There were so many side stories going on one almost ends up dizzy. From a meth lab to prostitution to the account of a couple unable to conceive, one never knows where this tale will lead next. While these side stories add a bit of humor and drama to the book they just don't fit very nicely. The result is a distracting jumbled mess.

Fans of Water for Elephants be forewarned this book is just not of the same caliber. The characters within this novel lack substance in the manner Water for Elephants was able to achieve. It is hard to form a bond with such unrealistic characters and the ridiculous situations they find themselves involved in result in eye rolling. However the parts of this book that include the Bonobos are riveting and, in the end, save this novel from totally flopping.

My Rating: 3 stars

To sum it up: A good but not great tale from an author who is capable of so much more.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bill Warrington's Last Chance - James King

Summary: Bill Warrington's three children escaped their father’s domineering presence long ago, but with a new diagnosis that threatens his mind and his most cherished memories, this monumentally stubborn ex-Marine is determined to patch up their differences before it’s too late.

The younger Warringtons, however, have their own issues to contend with: Marcy's struggles to raise her headstrong teenage daughter on her own; Nick's inability to move on with his life after his wife’s death; and Mike’s ego maniacal, self-absorbed philandering that threatens his career and his own family. When all three grown siblings greet Bill's overtures with wary indifference, he improvises a scheme none of them could have foreseen: skip town with Marcy’s fifteen-year-old daughter, April, whose twin ambitions to learn how to drive and to find rock stardom on the West Coast make her his perfect--and perfectly willing--abductee.

Despite his carefully crafted clues as to their whereabouts, Bill's plan to force a family reunion soon veers dangerously off course. His dementia worsens more quickly than anticipated, and April finds herself behind the wheel of his beloved Chevy Impala, dealing with situations no fifteen-year-old should face while gaining surprising insights into a complex family history that emerges from Bill's fragmented flights into the past. With the American heartland yielding to the Rockies, and her mother and uncles grappling with their own recollections as they scramble to find her, April’s resolve to protect her grandfather--and honor his final lucid wishes for them all--culminates in a tour de force of reconciliation and atonement.

A rich multi-generational saga, Bill Warrington's Last Chance soars with humor, compassion, and unflinching insight into the pain and joy of all family life, while the promise of a new generation shines bright against the ravages of aging in a man who does not go gently… anywhere.
(Summary from book, Cover photo from barnesandnoble.com, BOOK RECEIVED FREE FOR REVIEW)

My Review: The premise of Bill Warrington's Last Chance is at two different ends of the spectrum. It is a coming-of-age tale mixed with the story of a grandfather's battle with dementia. It is the bittersweet tale of a young girl discovering her identity while her grandfather quietly loses his own. The result is a remarkable book full of drama yet laced with humor, leaving the reader sighing in satisfaction. This is a beautiful story of new-found respect and unconditional love between a grandfather and his granddaughter.

The characters within these pages will leap from the pages to pull the reader in. Each character has flaws yet processes enough redeeming qualities that you can't help but to care for each and every one. Most remarkably the reader will be able to recognize and relate to some aspect in every character.

This story remains interesting throughout. The writing flows making it an easy read. And while all is not neatly tied up and presented with a pretty bow in the end, the overall package is appealing and completely satisfying. It's a memorable novel that I will be recommending frequently.

My Rating: 4 Stars

To Sum it up: A remarkable tale of a teenage girl's discovery of life at odds, yet harmoniously told, with her grandfather's loss of reality.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Boxcar Children - Gertrude Chandler Warner

Summary: One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery.  No one knew them.  No one knew where they had come from.

Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny are orphans.  Determined to make it on their own, they set out to find a safe place to live. 

They discover an old, red boxcar that provides shelter from a storm.  Against all odds, they make it into their home--and become The Boxcar Children(Summary from book cover - Image from www.goodreads.com)

My Review:  My mother-in-law recommended this book to me as one that was read to her when she was little, and as one she read to my husband when he was young. I’d never read it before, but I’m a sucker for tradition and so, as soon as they would let me, I read The Boxcar Children to my kids.
My girls (ages four and six) loved it so much that they actually begged me to read it to them at times other than bedtime.  I obliged and my four year old happily listened, but my six year old was enthralled in the story. She said she dreamed about it every night and I’m sure that if we could somehow build a boxcar in our backyard, she would be the happiest person this side of the solar system. I’m fairly certain she’s been downstairs drafting plans.

I thought this book was a wonderful read-aloud book for children but a slightly mind-numbing read for an adult, complete with grand leaps of logic and oversimplified text. (A lot of early reader kids books are like that, so I realize it’s probably too much to expect something that will retain my interest and theirs at this point.)  I appreciated that the story wasn’t bogged down by too much detail, which can sometimes be difficult for little minds to absorb. The characters emotions and actions were always clearly stated and the story constantly moved in imaginative ways. Consequently, my kids didn’t get confused, could follow the story easily, and it stuck with them after the final page. I’m sure that The Boxcar Children will factor into their imaginary play* for some time to come.

My Rating: 4 Stars (The adult in me wanted to rate this lower because it was so childlike, but my kids just loved it so much that I’m going to let it slide.)

Sum it up: An easy and imaginative read-aloud story for your early readers.

*Lacking the funds to build an adequate boxcar, I did manage to persuade both girls that the bottom bunk of their bunk bed, complete with a hung bedspread front, would suffice and they happily played inside with their stuffed dog "Watch", making an eating area, a sleeping area, and raiding the “dump” (aka. the toy box) for dishes.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Censorship & Banned Books

Dear RFS Readers,

By promoting Banned Books Week on Reading For Sanity, I am not saying that you should feel obligated to go out and read every banned book.  I'm not even saying that you should go out and read the ones we've reviewed.  I'll leave your choice of reading material to you.  I am simply trying to raise awareness on the dangers of censorship.   If we remove one book because of a sexual premise, how many more have to come off the shelves.  If we censor the books with swearing, when do we put the black marker down?  If we rip a book from the library because we deem it worthy of banning, we are removing the choice from countless others who might gain something entirely different from the experience.  Choice must be a part of the equation.  In terms of what is available to the general population, who decides what is appropriate?  You?  Me?  What makes you qualified?  Or me for that matter?  Who draws that line in the sand?

The point is you either believe in our guaranteed right to freedom of expression or you don't.  You either believe that authors hold full control of their ideas, or you don't.  If we ask them to change what they write, so that we can be comfortable, or feel safe, then we run the risk of being censored ourselves when some day our beliefs and our ideas are called into question.   Think about it.  Censorship is not the answer.

Sincerely, 
Mindy O.

To close out Banned Book's Week, we'd like to leave you with the links to a few of the banned books we've reviewed and a list of some of our favorites. 

Banned/Challenged Book's We've Reviewed
(and the Reasons They Were Banned**)

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. - Judy Blume
Reasons: irreverent attitude towards God, unsuited to age group, discussion of sexual matters

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Reasons: themes of sexuality, drugs, and suicide

Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

The Color Purple - Alice Walker
Reasons: graphic sexuality, violence, racism, offensive language

Cut - Patricia McCormick
Reasons: explicit, promotes dangerous behavior

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
Reasons:  offensive language, violence

The Giver - Lois Lowry
Reasons: sexually explicit, promoting euthenasia

Harris and Me - Gary Paulsen
Reasons: Language, animal cruelty

Harry Potter (Series)  - J.K. Rowling
Reasons: anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, violence
 
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Reasons: unsuited to age group, violence

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult
Reasons: homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence

Naked Lunch - William S. Burroughs
Reasons: obscene language, violence, pedophilia,

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
Reasons: offensive language, racism, violence

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Reasons: Offensive language, violence, sexually explicit, sacrilegious

Slaughterhouse-five - Kurt Vonnegut
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, homosexuality

Snow Falling On Cedars - David Guterson
Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language, racial themes

Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
Reasons: descriptions of rape

Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group


Our Favorite Banned Books

1984 - George Orwell
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
Blubber - Judy Blume
Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson
My Brother Sam is Dead - James Lincoln Collier
The Call of the Wild - Jack London
Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
Cut - Patricia McCormick
The Face on the Milk Carton - Caroline B. Cooney
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
The Giver - Lois Lowry
Go Ask Alice - Anonymous
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
Harris and Me - Gary PaulsenHarry Potter (series), - J.K. Rowling
Julie of the Wolves - Jean Craighead George
Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
Kaffir Boy - Mark Mathabane
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
The Lord of the Flies - William Golding
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Mildred Taylor
Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
Summer of My German Soldier - Bette Green
A Time to Kill - John Grisham
We All Fall Down - Robert Cormier
What My Mother Doesn't Know - Sonya Sones
The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeline L’Engle

*Sources: Quite frankly, Google. But also ALA, and here,

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

Alice Walker published her award winning novel, The Color Purple, in 1982.  Shortly thereafter it began to attract criticism from many parents who believed the book was inappropriate.  It has been banned/challenged a number of times for sexual content, violence, and racism.

Summary:  This novel tells the story of two sisters--one a missionary in Africa and the other a child-wife living in the South--who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. 

The principal voice is that of Celie, who has been raped by the man she believes to be her father, robbed of her two children, and married off to a man she hates.  Her sister, Nettie, escapes the same fate, and is befriended by missionaries who have unwittingly adopted Celie's children.  Separated for thirty years, the sisters live in ignorance of each other's circumstances.  Nettie's letters do not reach Celie, and so great is Celie's sense of shame that she can write only to God.  But life for Celie begins to change for the better when her husband's lover, a remarkable woman named Shug Avery, comes to live with them. 

Honest, poignant, vibrant, defiant, The Color Purple is a story of heroic lives, love, and the nature of God. (Summary from book - Image from life.arizona.edu)

My Review: **  Some books are classics because their story is so moving, so all encompassing, that they will be forever relevant.  Other books are classics because, when printed they were scandalous, groundbreaking literary works.  They were something that blew everything else out of the water.  Such is The Color Purple.

Alice Walker does not pull a single punch.  The very first page is a letter to God, written by a young girl, Celie, who tells of her brutal rape by a family member.  Celie continues writing about her turbulent adolescence -- taking care of her new husband's children from a first marriage and enduring beatings and frequent rapes at his hands.   Resigned to her lot in life, Celie cannot --will not-- imagine a way out.  To cope, she writes to God and shares her innermost thoughts about life in a poor black community.  Eventually, through letters written and the company of another woman (yes, that kind of company), Celie begins to navigate her own path.  Though the ending is neither perfect nor happilyever-after, she emerges completely transformed.

For me, Ms. Walker played the devil's advocate.  She used all the things that make me uncomfortable (graphic sexuality, offensive language, and racism) and with them, poked and prodded my sore spots to get a reaction. I suppose that was her objective -- to slap the apathy off my face and make me feel.  And I did.  At first, all I felt was revulsion.  I didn't want to read anymore about Celie's awful life.  I couldn't see a redeeming thing about it (Hey, I'm being honest).  However, once Celie began to receive letters from her sister, Nettie, who is on a mission in Africa, the book opened up for me on a more emotional level.  I reveled in the observations that Nettie made about the African people, the nature of God (however heretical), and the nature of man.  Though Nettie never received Celie's letters, the dialogue between the two sisters was touching and beautiful, as each struggled to make a life for themselves on separate continents.

I can understand why some parents objected to children of a certain age reading this novel.  Heck, I had a problem with me reading this novel.  There are a variety of topics that would make them squirm: graphic sexuality, sexual violence, homosexuality, offensive language, racial themes, and general misery.  That having been said, this book also allows for extensive dialogue on racial prejudice and it's use in literature, racial prejudice within ethnicities, women's rights and general inequality, as well as the nature of God, and highlights the importance of appreciating life, family, friends, and forgiveness in ways that I felt were uplifting.

While I can't say that the latter half of the book completely changed my opinion of the first half, I am glad that I read the book.  Ultimately, if you'd like to read this book, you're going to have to decide what you can handle.  Its good qualities are there, to be devoured and discussed, but you must get past all the muck on the surface.  One way or another, you cannot read this book and remain untouched. 
My Rating: 2.75 Stars.  For the sensitive reader:  This book is chock full of graphic sexuality and (to a lesser extent) crass language, violence, and some unorthodox theories about the nature of God. 

Sum it up: A classic fueled by powerfully raw emotion -- but it's not for everyone.

**This entire review was written at one in the morning with a severe head cold and zero meds (since you can't take jack squat when nursing).  So please, cut me some slack.  I'm seriously sleep deprived.

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails