Monday, January 31, 2011

This Must Be The Place - Kate Racculia

Summary:  When Arthur Rook learns that his vital, creative wife, Amy, has been killed in an accident, he realizes to his horror that he has no idea what her last wishes would have been.  Blindsided by the sudden loss and delirious with grief, he flees his home and job in Los Angeles, guided only by a pink shoebox full of Amy's keepsakes.  Among the contents, he finds an unmailed postcard written sixteen years earlier, addressed to a woman he's never heard of.  Arthur follows it to the Darby-Jones boardinghouse in the sleepy town of Ruby Falls, New York.

There, he finds more answers than he bargained for in Mona Jones, Amy's best friend from childhood, now the proprietor of the Darby-Jones and a professional baker of wedding cakes.  It turns out that Mona and her daughter, Oneida, two quirky kindred spirits, have a lot to learn from Arthur as well.  As the three gradually unveil one another's secrets, they are forced to choose whether the truth will ruin them or teach them about love: how deeply it runs, how strong it makes us, and, even when all seems lost, how it brings us together and gives our lives meaning.  (Summary from book cover, book given free for review from Holt Publishing, and image from  http://chamberfour.com/)

My Review:  I don't think of myself as a sensitive reader, but after this book I'm going to put myself in that category.  I handled the profanity for a while--I've read books with profanity before that I was able to finish because the content really grabbed me or the message of the book was so redeeming I wanted to know the ending.  About one-third of the way through the book Racculia added a teenage male character obsessed with masturbation and then sex.  Again, I persevered, hoping that this was just a quick side character.  Then she added a relationship that reminisced a lost lesbian summer.  I'm afraid at that point I was done--I just don't want to read about that.  Racculia's writing is well executed.  She is a bit detailed laden, but truly the writing was well done.  I just couldn't finish the story with where it seemed to be leading and I had a strong dislike of the main (dead) character, Amy.  I think there is an audience for this book and that many would probably enjoy the storyline despite the detail heavy, slower pace.  It's just not a book for me.

My Rating: 2 stars--writing was well done, I just didn't like the content. 

For sensitive readers:  Controversial relationships and excessive profanity.

Sum it up: Troubled characters centered around a selfish and irritating woman with healing to be done and secrets to be revealed.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bumpy Landings - Donald J. Carey

Summary: All his life, Jordan MacDonald has dreamed of taking flight and soaring above the majestic mountains of his native Hawaii, but he doesn’t dare disobey his mother, who has absolutely forbidden him to fly. Suddenly everything changes when, spurred by the pain of a failed relationship, Jordan begins working toward the coveted pilot’s license. Just as he finds love again, Jordan’s lies start to close in around him, and he soon learns that a life full of dishonesty attracts more turbulence than he’s ever faced in the air.


Set against the exotic backdrop of the Hawaiian islands, this thrilling tale of romance and self-discovery is a perfect vacation from the average love story. Join Jordan as he tests the limits of friendship and finds out just how far his dreams can carry him. Entertaining and engaging, Bumpy Landings will take you to new heights with each turn of the page.  (Summary from book - Image from goodreads.com - Book given free for review)

My Review: I haven't traveled a lot, but by reading you can go anywhere the book takes you—this book took me to Hawaii. I’d like to say I laid on the beach and soaked up the sun and enjoyed the lush green vegetation, but I didn’t.  Instead, I was involved in a young man’s life and his search for someone to love. The story line took several twists and turns but the basic plot centered on his love life, or lack of it, depending on which part of the book you were reading. I actually found parts of Bumpy Landings rather painful to read because they reminded me of what my social life was like when I was much younger—it was hard to relive that. That being said, I feel like this book would have made a good “young adult” fiction book. It was a very light, easy read with very few, if any surprises.

The plot was not deep so it was easy to follow, but I wanted more -- something to make me think, keep me wanting to read, and wondering what would happen next. It was a “happily ever after” story, and for some that would be enough. For me, I would have liked more than just lush green surroundings and fragrant exotic flowers.

My Rating: 3 stars

Sum it up: A light “happily ever after” read with a predictable ending.


(Reviewed by Chris)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Frugalista Files - Natalie McNeal

Summary: Natalie McNeal opened her bills in January 2008 to find that she was a staggering five figures—$20,000!—in debt. Young, hip and gainfully (if Dilbert-ly) employed, Natalie loved her lifestyle of regular mani/pedis, daily takeout and nights on the town, but clearly something had to give.

And so The Frugalista Files was born. Through her blog, Natalie confessed her spending habits to the world—and it turns out she wasn't the only one having trouble balancing the budget! From the drastic "no-buy" month that kicked it all off to the career gamble that threatened to put her deeper in the hole, The Frugalista Files shares Natalie's personal and professional transformation from cubicle rat to take-charge career girl.

It is possible to get ahead without giving up on the fabulous life. This is personal finance in peep-toe pumps—the empowering true story of one woman's personal and professional transformation and your ultimate guide to living the Frugalista lifestyle, too.
Summary from book, cover photo from thefrugalista.com, book received free for review


My Review: As Natalie McNeal finds herself more than $20,000 in debt she knows she must make a change. The debt is wearing on her yet she desires to continue her fashionable, socially-active lifestyle. With the new year she pledges to get herself debt-free while maintaining her current way of life. It all begins with a month long spending freeze which Natalie documents on a blog through her work at the Miami Herald.

Natalie's goal is commendable and the idea behind the story is intriguing. This book starts out witty, with plenty of humorous moments at the author's expense. Natalie's desire to live extravagantly on a limited income is easy to relate to. I was enthusiastic about the book as I began reading. I couldn't wait to learn all her fantastic frugal secrets.

However by the mid-way point this story begins to ramble and becomes a bit whiny. It develops into merely the recounting of the author's day-to-day life...what she is going to eat, what she will wear, what party will she attend and where she will park once she arrives. What started out as a charming writing style quickly becomes annoying as the author over uses "LOL" and "SOOOO" and "heehee" followed by little happy faces. Suddenly instead of reading one woman's flight for financial freedom this book takes on the feel of a teenager's diary. In other words, it gets annoying and rather dull.

If you are looking for frugal living tips you will not find anything innovative inside these pages. Everything Natalie does you probably do as well, or have at least thought of (i.e. going without manicures, styling your own hair, eating out less). This novel ends up feeling like just another way to make some more money off a simple idea.  While there is very little substance in this book, I have to admit her journey out of debt is motivating. If you long to be a frugalista start by saving the money you could spend on this book and checking out her website instead at www.thefrugalista.com.

My Rating: 2 Stars

To sum it up: A good idea but is poorly executed, lacks substance and is recounted in an immature narrative. If you already know that prescription strength ibuprofen (800 mg) is the equivalent to four over-the-counter pills look elsewhere for money advice.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Kitchen House - Kathleen Grissom

Summary: When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.

The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail.
Cover photo and summary from barnesandnoble.com

My Review: In hopes of providing a better life for their children, Lavinia's parents board a ship headed for America in 1791. Unfortunately both parents succumbed to illness aboard the ship leaving their two children orphans. Lavinia is merely six years old when she is seperated from her brother to become the captain's indentured servant. She is placed in the kitchen house and is raised by the captain's salves, particularly Belle. Lavinia becomes embedded in her new "family". As she matures Lavina is transfered to a realitive's home because it is considered uproper for a white girl to be raised among slaves. There she is treated almost as a family member. As the years pass it becomes quite clear that there is no keeping Lavania away from the only home she has ever know, the kitchen house.

Lavinia and Belle share the narrating of this story, each from her own unique voice. The two forge a strong bond to one another in the few short years they are housed together. Their mother-daughter relationship creates another twisted branch within an already tangled family tree. The story comes alive with each girl's narrative as their two very different perspectives are played out.

This is a story of heartache and love, a story of secrets and deceit, a story of violence and new life. This novel is emotionally difficult to read yet impossible to pull away from. Though the story touches on many facets of slavery, the darker side seems to be focused on most frequently. As the characters make mistakes, many of which would have been avoided had so many secrets not been so carefully guarded, the reader is forced into a powerless hold where all that can be done is to take a deep breath and watch the horror unfold.

Buried inside this story is a powerful message of love's ability to cross racial boundaries and create unbreakable ties. There is a moral regarding honor and standing up for what is just. Freedom is represented at several points with Lavinia's love of birds. This seems at odds with the prevailing themes of isolation and entrapment until the end when the truth is revealed and a sense freedom manages to peek through.

My Rating: 4 Stars
Sensitive reader: There are many uncomfortable moments in this book yet it is mostly just eluded to with few details.

To sum it up: A story of slavery set in the early 1800's that is both powerful and horrific. I wouldn't want to read it again but was unable to put it down once I began.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hush, Hush - Becca Fitzpatrick

Summary:   A sacred oath.
A fallen angle.
A forbidden love.

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

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

For she is right in the middle of an ancient battle between the immortal and those who have fallen--and, when it comes to choosing sides, the wrong choice will cost Nora her life. (Summary from jacket cover and image from http://1.bp.blogspot.com/)

My Review: If I were to compare this book to something you'd eat, it would be the perfect midnight snack.  I read it that quickly and enjoyed every bite, which surprised me because I typically can't sink my teeth into suspense or scary of any nature.  Hush, Hush might have changed my mind.  I can't profess that it's all that literary, or that the overall message is a perfectly clean one for young adult readers, but it sucks you in and takes you for a wild ride.

Nora is so easy to relate to, which makes her predicament shockingly believable--and it shouldn't be.  Despite the warning flags that went off in my mind, you couldn't quite guess which warning flag was the right one.  All the way until the end of the book you're wondering who is the really bad guy, or if they all are and Nora's trapped in an inescapable trap.  I even began wondering if her best friend Vee was in on Nora's demise.

I think what also makes this book fun is how it vicariously allows the reader to indulge in going for the bad guy, something I'd never do in real life because who knows what kind of trouble it could bring.  The book is probably the safest way to enjoy that little experience without getting too close.  My only concern would be for young adult females who, I worry, would think that the bad boys in real life could be as benign as the ending of this book makes him out to be.

I can't help but want my friends to read this book, whether it has any significant literary value or not.  I'd just want to see how they enjoyed the crazy trip.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up: Thrilling, often heart-pounding, suspenseful -- a fantastic and indulgent YA read.

Also reviewed by Mindy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe - Jenny Hollowell

Summary:  Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.  At twenty-two she leaves behind her small-town, small-time life--walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents--and boards a bus to Los Angeles.

Seven years later, Birdie's life in Hollywood is far from golden.  Stalled at the margins of fame, haunted by guilt about her abandoned marriage, she is on the verge of collapse when she meets Lewis, a beautiful young actor whose self-destructive impulses run dangerously parallel to her own.  When Birdie's big break finally comes, both she and Lewis find that the Technicolor land of make-believe--and their place in it--is nothing like they had imagined.  (Summary from back of the book, book free for review from Holt Publishing, and image from http://blackirismusic.tumblr.com/)

My Review:  This book confirmed my belief that I could NEVER be a psychiatrist or a psychologist.  Every time I read about, or listen to, someone who's dealing with mental illness -- the likes of which send the person into immobility, constant negativity, and apathy -- I leave feeling drained.  That's what this book did to me.  I rushed through reading it because I wanted to get it over with, rip that Band-Aid off and move on with life.

Birdie's life is pathetic.  She runs from what she knows to one of the most inhospitable places in the US. (Hollywood) and finds herself fighting all odds to become something she eventually finds she doesn't want.  It's insanity.  She rejects everything she's raised to believe, but then finds herself hating life because she hates life without her religious upbringing too.  I can relate to wanting to get away, find yourself on your own, and make something of yourself that you can believe in.  I can't relate to compromising everything about yourself in order to get what you 'think' you want.  Birdie was left feeling hollow and so was I.  Much of her 'duh, I get it now' moments were things I felt most sane people figure out without putting themselves through Hades.

What Hollowell  does well is her ability to transfer the reader to the crazy-place that is the mind of an unstable person.  You can't help but be sucked into Birdie's depression.  Her writing is well crafted, with imagery, symbolism, metaphors up the wazoo.  While I can appreciate this, it felt over done.  I started skimming sections because I simply did not care about how crazy Birdie's mind had become.  Time and again, I felt the extensive descriptions were ways to make the book longer or stall out the story's progress.  I realize this is a literary device used to help the reader experience the interminable wait Birdie had while trying to make it in show business, but, man, it was ridiculous.

I can see why some people enjoyed the book.  It is raw, real, painful, and, I'm guessing, honest in what the world of Hollywood puts some through.  It also reminded me a lot of the American literature courses I took in college, Hemmingway, Faulkner, etc.-- dark, depressing, and eerily reminds you of the realities of this harsh world.  In some ways, it reminded me of Sylvia Plath's writing in The Bell Jar.  With those comparisons, I think you can decide if this is your kind of book.

Rating: 2 Stars.  Warning: LOTS of swearing, including the most offensive words, and multiple sexual encounters, albeit typically painted with a wide sweep of the brush. 

Sum it up:  A painful, depressing book about a girl who gives up all she knows for a life in the limelight.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Matched - Ally Condie

Summary: In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.
Cassia has always trusted their choices.  It's hardly any price to pay for a long life, the perfect job, the ideal mate.  So when her best friend appears on the Matching screen, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is the one...until she sees another face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.  Now Cassia is faced with impossible choices: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path no one else has ever dared follow--between perfection and passion.  Matched is a story for right now and story-telling with the resonance of a classic.   (Summary from book - Image from www.allysoncondie.com )

My Review:  There used to be more than one hundred songs, one hundred works of art, and one hundred poems. That was before the Society destroyed the rest -- burned them all -- in an attempt to create a simple and egalitarian civilization. Cassia’s life is simple, perfect in fact, until a technological glitch in the Matching program, and the consequences that follow, cause her to doubt the government that keeps her safe. Soon she is forced to choose between the life she has always known and a life without guarantees…with someone she loves.

Matched probably won’t go down in history as an epic work of fiction, but it reminded me of a lighter version of some of my favorite (mostly YA) dystopian novels: The Hunger Games, The House of the Scorpion, The City of Ember, Uglies, and most especially 1984, The Giver, and Fahrenheit 451. While these books vary in their particulars, they all follow the journey of a character, content (or at least resigned) to conform until something happens that causes them to question their designated place and the power of the government that holds the reins. Most include mildly dark subject matter or controversial themes that speak to our fears for the future. In these areas, Matched is no different. The shared structure with all these novels led to a certain amount of predictability, but the details are what set this novel apart. Ally Condie’s spin on a standard plot was different enough to retain my interest and the addition of one of my favorite poems was icing on an already tasty cake.

Matched fit well into the young adult category (12+) and could slip easily into children’s fiction if it weren’t for a romantic element that isn’t usually found in that genre. The writing style was incredibly easy to read, perhaps a little too easy, but I was impressed with Condie’s ability to write a squeaky clean romance that was actually interesting*. If I had a glass box to sit in so that my children wouldn’t climb on me, I could easily have finished this book in an afternoon. Alas, I am fresh out of glass boxes, and it took me a week to read. Once I got some quiet time, I finished in one sitting.

I understand that Matched was created for the younger set of young adults, and is fairly perfect for them, but I wish it had been designed and written for an older audience. As a YYA novel, it lacked the richness of language and description that would have put it over the top (for me). I also had a horrible time with the name Xander and could not stop picturing Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in his less attractive years). It killed the mood on so many occasions, which now that I think about it might have been the point.

Overall, I had fun with this book. It isn’t anywhere near the level of Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, or 1984, but those who like the Uglies Series or City of Ember, might find something to entertain. Personally, I am not happy that I have to wait until November 2011 to read its sequel, Crossed, and November 2012 for book three.

*Let’s admit it. Pride and Prejudice aside, sometimes they are just boooooring.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For even the most sensitive reader: Have at it.  There is some very mild thematic material that comes across much worse when I type it (e.g. euthenasia, genetic engineering, governmental tyranny) than it actually is in the book. 

Sum it up:  A futuristic tale of love, sacrifice, and a young girl who would not go gently into that good night.

Also reviewed by Kari.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

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 screw-ups, 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 cover and image from http://www.shockya.com/news/)

My Review: There are many aspects to Fallen that intrigued me--a girl haunted by her bizarre past, one not brought on by anything she can fathom, and parents who have tried everything under the sun to help their troubled daughter.  Luce's confusion as to why she sees these strange shadows created a fantastic element of suspense for me as a reader.  It's the perfect crazy-girl set up--how does she explain the dark shadows that show up and hover around her evoking feelings of illness and dread?  How could she even begin to explain to her parents about how the shadows affect her daily life without sounding like she was already on drugs?  Fallen also touches on some religious pre-earth-life stories that I found interesting--to be more specific would ruin the story.  I wish it had delved deeper, and I am hoping the next book will address them more in depth.

All the positives aside, I'm afraid the summary leads the reader to believe there's a bit more to the book than what is delivered.  I wouldn't quite describe Fallen as a "page-turning thriller".  Admittedly, I did read Fallen rather quickly and was interested in the storyline.  It just isn't a thriller in my mind.  It had a slow and steady build up to the climax--it's 400+ pages--and then a rushed resolution that did not, in my mind, fit with the pace of the story.  Too many aspects at the end of the story seemed forced--characters that fit into this strange mold that, again, felt forced in order to resolve the conflict and yet still leave Fallen unfinished for a sequel.  I don't want to ruin the story for a potential reader, so I won't go into any more detail.  Suffice it to say, I'm curious to see how the religious elements play out in a second book, but I doubt I'll be highly recommending it to my students.

Rating: 3 Stars--for the sensitive reader: there is occasional swearing, a few brief exposures to teens and alcohol, and a handful of violent scenes.

Sum it up:  A 'emo-esque' Young Adult book with religious twists.

Also reviewed by Mindy.

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