Thursday, March 31, 2011

Steel - Carrie Vaughn

Summary:  Sixteen-year-old Jill has fought dozens of fencing tournaments, but she has never held a sharpened blade.  When she finds a corroded sword piece on a Caribbean beach, she is instantly intrigued and pockets it as her own personal treasure.

The broken tip holds secrets, though, and it transports Jill through time to the deck of a pirate ship.  Stranded in the past and surrounded by strangers, she is forced to sign on as crew.  But a pirate's life is bloody and brief, and as Jill learns about the dark magic that brought her there, she forms a desperate scheme to get home--one that risks everything in a duel to the death with a villainous pirate captain.  (Summary from book - Image from harperteen.com  - Book given free for review)

My Review:  Steel arrived at my door, looking every so promising, with a dashing cover that guaranteed a “swashbuckling tale of magic, romance, and pirates”. I’ve been pretty stressed out lately--we’re trying to get our house ready to put on the market--and couldn’t wait to escape into what I hoped was a fast-paced, blustery adventure on the high seas.

Steel offers an interesting combination of modern fencing, time travel, and piracy. While this novel provided ample information on fencing and pirates, it started slowly, and I struggled to connect with the characters or disappear into the story. My first thought, when reading of Jill’s initial appearance on a colonial pirate ship was, “Wow. She’s taking this really well.” She didn’t seem particularly fazed by her disappearance from modern times and subsequent capture by a raggedy band of pirates. Now I don’t have a lot of experience with these things, but I’m guessing that time travel usually tends to freak people out. Jill’s lack of sheer, unadulterated terror was conspicuous, to say the least, and I felt an immediate emotional distance from the story and its characters.

With a gorgeous setting like the colonial Caribbean, I expected luscious descriptions that created a feast for the senses--words that allowed me to taste the salty air, feel the blistering sun, and possibly get a mild case of seasickness. Quite simply, I wanted to feel there, and, alas, I did not. I stayed in my almost-for-sale house and read a book. It wasn’t a bad way to spend the afternoon, but it wasn’t a great one either.

Steel awkwardly straddles the children’s fiction and YA genres, producing a kind of lukewarm piracy that lacked the grease, grit, and outright peril that come from more accurate pirate adventures. Even, the promised romance was virtually non-existent and certainly not worth mentioning on the cover. While I understand having to keep to a certain code when writing for the kiddos, I was still a little disappointed by what felt like a watered-down version of a more exciting novel.

I struggled for about a week through nearly two hundred pages, before the events of the story finally caught my attention. The final duel, chase, and battle were far more intense than the rest of the book, and I liked how she chose to resolve things. While I probably won’t recommend this book to many adults, I think that this novel could find its ideal audience with younger young adults who are more likely to enjoy this PG pirate adventure.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Despite the sugarcoated pirates, there were some moments of profanity, violence, and underage rum-consumption. They are still pirates, after all.

Sum it up: A swashbuckling tale of lukewarm piracy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kabul Beauty School - Deborah Rodriguez

Summary:  Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan with nothing but a desire to help and a degree in cosmetology.  There she joined the Kabul Beauty School, which welcomed its first class in 2003.  Well meaning but sometimes brazen, Rodriguez, one of the school's first teachers and its eventual director, stumbled through language barriers and overstepped cultural customs as she learned how to empower her students to become their families' breadwinners, teaching them the fundamentals of coloring techniques, haircutting, and makeup.

Yet within the small haven of the beauty school, the line between teacher and student quickly blurred.  As these vibrant women shared their stories, Rodriguez found the strength to leave her own unhealthy marriage and allow herself to love again, Afghan style.  With warmth and humor, Rodriguez reveals the magnificence behind the burqa--and present the remarkable tale of an extraordinary community of women who come together and learn the arts of perms, friendship, and freedom.  (Summary from book - Image from http://www.kobobooks.com/ )

My Review:When I saw this book sitting on the shelf at my local used bookstore, I all but leaped at the chance to skip the luggage fee, leave my burqa behind, and experience life behind the veil in Afghanistan. Kabul Beauty School tells the story of Deborah Rodriguez, an American woman fleeing a terrible marriage and who hopes to make a difference in a post 9/11, war-torn Afghanistan by establishing a beauty school. The author's descriptions of the Afghani people, their culture and traditions, and her stories of courage, friendship, and adversity were definitely worth the trip. I loved being able to experience Afghanistan with her, in all its wonder, but without the inherent dangers.

More than a simple travelogue, Kabul Beauty School carries an important message.  While some of the more extremist elements of Afghani culture frown on the education of women,Afghan men are not allowed in beauty salons as a matter of propriety (the women’s hair is uncovered). In an exclusively female environment, Deborah’s students were able to learn a skill that could financially support their families in a country that suffered from 40% unemployment. The school also provided an escape from abusive homes and helped create strong bonds of friendship between students and teachers. Each student's story was heartbreaking and, while difficult to read, especially with eyes used to certain freedoms, these accounts only helped to emphasize the everyday struggles faced by Afghani women and the genuine need for programs like KBS.

Deborah’s understanding of Afghani behavior was limited by both a substantial language barrier and some massive cultural differences. Her diligent attempts to navigate the morass of societal rules and traditions provided ample entertainment whenever she would unintentionally horrify the local population. Throughout the book, Deborah's take-no-prisoner’s personality conflicted with more extremist elements in the country (like the time she kicked down her neighbor’s gate, machine gun in hand, after they threatened one of her workers). While I wonder at the wisdom of such action, I certainly enjoyed reading about it. It was also fascinating to read about Deborah’s struggle to reconcile American with Afghan in a marriage that is, by western standards, extremely unconventional.

I experienced the same internal conflict reading Kabul Beauty School that I felt when I read Three Cups of Tea. Both books relate the story of a humanitarian that traveled to Afghanistan in the hopes of educating women, and in both books, they left families behind. I long to travel the world, making a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, but now that I have children, I can’t reconcile doing any of those things if it comes at the expense of my own family. I admire Deborah greatly for her compassion and dedication to the women of Afghanistan, and while I understand the passion she found in dedicated service, I wonder at the cost to her own children. Did they understand? Did they miss the time they could have spent with their mother? Where was she more needed? That question weighed on my mind as I read the book, and it is a question with no easy answer.

I will admit to being saddened and a little disappointed by the end of this book (mostly the afterword). Deborah’s program could make a profound difference in the lives of countless women, but is hindered by a culture that seems resistant to change, especially in regard to women’s rights. When faced with the loss of a particularly close friend, Deborah writes,

“There are many of us Westerners who want to help Afghan women, but our efforts don’t always help them in the ways that we hope they will. There are so many ties that bind these women and hold them back, and many of the ties aren’t visible to the Western eye. It takes a long time to understand how the complexities of these women’s lives differ from the complexities of ours. Sometimes we can’t help, even when we understand these complexities. The culture is changing so much more slowly than their dreams are.”

 I can only hope that the political atmosphere in Afghanistan will eventually become one that will welcome and nurture this type of humanitarian aid.

Similar to Three Cups of Tea or The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I thought this book offered an increased understanding of a complicated issue and that its value lies less in its literary quality (eh.) and more in the humanitarian concepts that it promotes. Education and the promotion of strong, self-sufficient families is a vital step towards a securing civil rights, a better economy, and a more peaceful world.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book contained some profanity and brief discussion of sexual matters, though usually within the context of cultural differences.  There are also several horrifying (but essential) stories that illustrate the difficulties of growing up female in Afghanistan. 

Sum it up: An aesthetician’s Three Cups of Tea.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Me and Mr. Darcy - Alexandra Potter

Summary:  After a string of disastrous dates, Emily Albright decides she's had it with love.  She'd much rather curl up with Pride and Prejudice and spend her time with Mr. Darcy, the dashing, honorable, and passionate hero of Jane Austen's classic.  So when her best friend suggests a wild week of margaritas and men in Mexico with the girls, Emily abruptly flees to England on a guided tour of Jane Austen country instead.  Far from inspiring romance, though, the company aboard the tour bus consist of a gaggle of little old ladies and one single man, Spike Hargeaves, a foul-tempered journalist writing an article on why the fictional Mr. Darcy has earned the title of Man Most Women Would Love to Date.

The last thing Emily expects to find on her excursion is a broodingly handsome man striding across a field, his damp shirt clinging to his chest.  But that's exactly what happens when she comes face-to-face with none other than Mr. Darcy himself.  And suddenly, every woman's fantasy becomes one woman's reality...  (Summary from book - Image from shelfari.com)

My Review:  Honestly, why do I even try? Retellings never live up to the real thing.

Let's start with the likes, shall we? There is really just the one. Emily Albright is an awkward, sarcastic, and outspoken book lover. She’s me, but single (and childless). I loved her brash inner dialog, especially when she couldn’t contain it, and her stream-of-consciousness rambling created a voice that you will find either humorous or exceedingly irritating. I’d like to think you’ll land on humorous, but we can’t all have great taste. Don’t feel bad.

With names Spike and Ernie, it was hard to take this story's "Darcy" or the "Wickham" seriously. Since Ms. Potter’s knowledge of popular culture is clearly displayed throughout the book, she should have known that if she named a character Spike and gave him a British accent, I would picture this guy and that it would darn near ruin everything. And Ernie? Seriously?

Miss Potter also took so many liberties with both timeline and character presence that, aside from some obvious similarities, her book feels only loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. From time to time, she would drop in block quotes from the original novel that mirrored Emily’s current situation, as if I needed to have the parallels drawn for me. While some situations and emotions were overblown, I was surprised that there was only a lukewarm chemistry between Spike and Emily. Oh, their irritation was evident, but when things shifted to romance it felt insincere and baseless.

The last several pages of Me and Mr. Darcy were dedicated to somehow convincing me to overlook some pretty wobbly loose ends. Apparently, I am supposed to ignore the fact that Mr. Darcy’s magic act and Ms. Steane’s motives are never fully explained. Um. I don’t think so. Give Emily a brain tumor or something, but don’t tell me that I need to just “believe in something incredible” and expect that to stand.

I suppose the point to Miss Potter's remake, is that while real men can never measure up to Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy could never measure up to a real man. Likewise, this book cannot hope to compare with the real Pride and Prejudice. While the swearing and crass commentary was enough for me to check this book off the list of novels I’d recommend to my mother, it was the disappearing Darcy and the lack of genuine chemistry that had me chucking it off my recommend list altogether.

My Rating: 2.75 Stars.  And at least .5 of that is just because I liked seeing myself in print.
 
For the sensitive reader:   Plenty of four letter words, references to diety, and crass commentary.   

Sum it up:  A weak, and loosely-based, remake of a classic bestseller.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne Collins

Also reviewed by Heather.

Summary:  When eleven-year-old Gregor follows his little sister through a grate in the laundry room of their New York apartment building, he hurtles into the dark Underland beneath the city.  There, humans live uneasily beside giant spiders, bats, cockroaches, and rats--but the fragile peace is about to fall apart.

Gregor wants no part of a conflict between these creepy creatures.  He just wants to find his way home.  But when he discovers that a strange prophecy foretells a role for him in the Underland's uncertain future, he realizes it might be the only way to solve the biggest mystery of his life.  Little does he know his quest will change him--and the Underland--forever.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://images.betterworldbooks.com/)

My Review:   I feel behind the times that I'm just now reading this series. After reading Collins' trilogy, The Hunger Games, and recommending it to my students, I discovered that they already knew and loved this author.

I thoroughly enjoyed this first book.  Collins has a wonderful way of making her characters real and endearing.  I absolutely loved Gregor's sister Boots.  She practically made this book.  The idea that humans migrated (is that what you'd call it despite the location?) underground and created another world is fascinating.  The way they grew their food and traveled on large bats that stealthily flew in darkness, took away the impending fear of constant darkness one would normally associate with being stuck underground. However, there was still that sense of fear with the larger than life insects and rodents. 

Collins, despite having violence in all the books I've read of hers, manages to write in a way that does not glorify the violence but instills in the reader a real sense of loss.  I think despite this being a book written for a younger audience than my 8th grade students I'll still recommend the series if they enjoyed the Hunger Games.

My Rating: 5 stars--warning for parents: since this is aimed at a 5th or 6th grade reading level, I think parents should know there is death, and particularly death related to war, in this book.

Sum it up: A modern day imaginary adventure, sure to capture children's attention and entertain adults.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

JANE EYRE Swag Bag Giveaway

I don't know if you've heard, but Jane Eyre just hit theatres

*Happy Dance*

  Since we're big fans of the book, we thought we'd celebrate
with a Jane Eyre Swag Bag Giveaway.

Enter to win your choice of the following CafePress Swag Bags:

Choose this one...

 Jane Eyre Swag Bag #1 (value $70)
"Jane Eyre" and "Good Charlotte" Mini-buttons

OR you can pick this one....

Jane Eyre Swag Bag #2 (valued $73.50)
"Team Edward (Rochester)" PJ set (w/ color & size options)

To enter to win you must:
  • Be, or quickly become, a follower of this blog via GFC, Blogged, or (a new feature) email.  They can  all be found in the right sidebar.  Be sure to comment and leave your contact information!
For extra entries (leave a separate comment for each entry*):
  • Blog about this giveaway (w/ link)
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While our giveaways are ALWAYS book-themed, you can find your hearts desire in gifts at CafePress.  They offer millions of personalized gifts, coffee mugs, and vintage t-shirts!

*I'm still doing this the old-fashioned way (no linky's for me) so if you don't separate your comments you only get the one entry

Eligibilty: This giveaway is open to US/CAN Residents ONLY and will end on April 22nd, 2011 at 11:59PM.  The winner will be chosen randomly, posted publicly, and contacted swiftly to arrange shipping. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Raising the Perfect Child through Guilt and Manipulation - Elizabeth Beckwith

This guest review comes from my sweet cousin, Kalea Christman, mother of two under two and therefore wholly qualified to write her own parenting guide

Summary: Raising the Perfect Child Through Guilt and Manipulation is not one of those traditional, all-too-earnest parenting guides that, for generations, have sucked all the fun out of child rearing. The foundation of Elizabeth Beckwith's Guilt and Manipulation family philosophy is simple: We do things a certain way, and everyone else is an @**#&!$.   Is that something you should put on a bumper sticker and slap on your minivan? Of course not—that would be trashy. But in the privacy of your own home, you can employ the essential components of Guilt and Manipulation to mold the little runts ruthlessly yet effectively into children you won't be embarrassed to admit are yours. (Summary and cover from amazon.com - Image from usedbooks.co.nz ).

My Review:  I originally wanted to read the book based on its title. But as we all know, you can't judge a book by it's cover. What I thought would be a fun parenting book turned out to be a spoof on parenting books.

The author considers herself conservative and says that she gets uncomfortable if anybody brings up the subject of sex. I found that inconsistent with the fact that there is at least one swear word per page (including the “F” word in one story), that she explicitly describes what Las Vegas Show girls do to each other onstage, and brings up sexual topics throughout the whole thing.

It did, however, have a few redeeming qualities. There were times that it was laugh-out-loud funny. It also had some gems of parenting advice, like:
  • Don't tell your kids that if they don't turn off the TV, you'll through it out the window, unless you really intend on doing it. She harped on consistency, which is crucial in parenting.
  • Explain to your kids that the reason why they need to hold your hand when crossing the street is because if they don't, they could get hit by a car and die. So many parents sugarcoat the severity of certain consequences instead of being honest.
  • Make your home into a comfortable haven with good food and team-building activities so that it's a place they want to be.
I've read other reviews on it and it seems as though there are two takes on it. Either you love it, or you wanted to love it, but hated it.

My Rating: 2 stars

Sum it up: A sarcastic spoof on parenting books with some good advice sprinkled here and there.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Long Winter - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summary:  On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing:  a blizzard was seconds away.  The first blizzard came in October.  It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below.  Snow reached the rooftops.  And no trains could get through with food and coal.  The townspeople began to starve.  The Ingalls family barely lived through the winter.  And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town.  (Summary from book - Image from knowledgetreedaycareandpreschoo.com)


My Review:  The girls and I have been steadily consuming the Little House series for the past several months. At ages five and seven, they have loved reading about the Ingalls family and been very excited to read each night, even crying on nights we’ve had to skip stories. Then we hit The Long Winter and all I can say is, boy, was it.

As its title implies, this book covers an unusual and incredibly long winter the Ingalls family spends in the town of De Smet, South Dakota. After about eighty pages, winter sets in, and the story devolves into a series of three and four-day blizzards with hardly a day’s rest in between. The family’s days become a never-ending cycle of freezing snow, screaming wind, and ever increasing hunger. As an older reader, I can see the value of learning about the Ingalls family’s ability to endure hardship and their use of good, old-fashioned ingenuity and perseverance to overcome it, but my kids were just bored. While my seven year old retained some interest in the story (at least in its conclusion), and both marveled when the snow reached the rooftops, I practically had to beg my five year old to come sit down so that we could finish the book and move on to the more active Little Town on the Prairie.

I've heard The Long Winter described as one of the more exciting books of the series since it was uncertain whether the family would survive, but felt that the summary, and the continuation of the series, really put an end to that question.  Despite my children's boredom, I still liked this book and would recommend it to an older reader (9 and up) with a longer attention span.

Click a link to read our reviews of: Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Farmer Boy, and By the Shores of Silver Lake.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

Sum it up: A VERY long winter.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lost Hero - Rick Riordan

Summary:  Jason has a problem.  He doesn't remember anything before waking up in a bus full of kids on a field trip.  Apparently he has a girlfriend named Piper, and his best friend is a guy named Leo.  They're all students at the Wilderness School, a boarding school for "bad kids," as Leo puts it.  What did Jason do to end up here?  And where is here, exactly?  Jason doesn't know anything--except that everything seems very wrong.

Piper has a secret.  Her father, a famous actor, has been missing for three days, ever since she had that terrifying nightmare about his being in trouble.  Piper doesn't understand her dream, or why her boyfriend suddenly doesn't recognize her.  When a freak storm hits during the school trip, unleashing strange creatures and whisking her, Jason, and Leo away to someplace called Camp Half-Blood, she has a feeling she's going to find out, whether she wants to or not.

Leo has a way with tools.  When he sees his cabin at Camp Half-Blood, filled with power tools and machine parts, he feels right at home.  But there's weird stuff, too--like the curse everyone keeps talking about, and some camper who's gone missing.  Weirdest of all, his bunk mates insist that each of them --including Leo-- is related to a god.  Does this have anything to do with Jason's amnesia, or the fact that Leo keeps seeing ghosts.    (Summary from book - Image from fanpop.com)

My Review:  I am a die-hard fan of those Lightning Thief books (aka the Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series) and jumped at the chance to revisit Riordan’s magical world of mythology, monsters and mayhem by reading the first book in his new series, The Heroes of Olympus. I loved Riordan’s unique blend of modern with mythological and found that The Lost Hero, now with new demigods (and a few old ones), another ominous prophecy, a case of amnesia, and a treacherous quest, had a similar feel to Riordan’s previous works.

In short, I liked this book.  The Lost Hero was fun, easy to read, and I enjoyed learning more about familiar characters and being introduced to some new ones.  It's always interesting to see what powers each demigod has inherited from their parent and the full extent of what they can do.  Riordan also adds some new gods to the mix and even throws in a a few heroes or villains for good measure.  I loved the addition of the lesser known (to me) Roman mythology and all that it means for the series. 

My only real complaint is that, at first, I had some difficulty figuring out who the "bad guy" really was, or which "bad guy" was speaking to which demigod.  It took a little mental exercise and reading a little further into the story before I finally figured everything out, but it eventually all made sense. 

This is a book aimed at older children or younger young adults, and as such, isn’t overly complex or arduous. It doesn’t take long before an obstacle is faced, overcome, and replaced with another. If this book were written for an older audience, I would call this a “flaw”, but in this case, the pace kept things exciting for younger readers. Either way the story was laced with enough trademark creativity and humor that I didn’t really mind. I look forward to the next book in the Heroes of Olympus series, The Son of Neptune (releasing 10/11/11), and hope that the excitement continues.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Um.  I don't remember anything offensive -- unless you are offended by Cyclops.

Sum it up: A fun spin-off to a much-loved series.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Secret Sisters - Tristi Pinkston

Summary:  Ida Mae Babbitt, president of the Omni 2nd Ward Relief Society, didn't mean to become a spy.  But when visiting teaching stats are low, and she learns that one family under her care is in financial trouble, she'll do whatever it takes to make sure they have what they need.  If that includes planting surveillance cameras in their home and watching them from a parked car in the woods...well, isn't that what any caring Relief Society president would do?

With the help of her counselors, Arlette and Tansy, Ida Mae soon learns there's more to the situation than meets the eye.

But it's all in a day's work for the Relief Society.  (Summary from back of the book, book given free for review and image from http://cranberryfries.blogspot.com/2010/04/secret-sisters-review.html)

My Review:  I'm always wary of literature written for and aimed at the LDS population.  The audience is so narrow and the topic so specific that unless you're LDS you probably won't enjoy the book and often it can lack real depth. 

While this book falls into the "LDS" category, there was much that I enjoyed and it contained more depth than others in the genre.  This is probably the first LDS lit I've read that had so much wit.  Ida Mae is a great character and such a spunky old gal that I almost felt like I was listening to my own inner dialog while reading.  She's constantly seeing the puns in life, saying and connecting them to situations, but without the dorky "did you get that?" line you typically see.  She enjoyed her own humor and the way it was written the reader can too.  She also kept her judgmental side in check, which was refreshing.

The story line was quite intriguing.  I was truly curious to see how the sneaking around would come back to bite them and it did.  Nice.  So often you see people get off the hook for doing something wrong even if it's for the right reasons.  And in real life, that's not always the case.  The story was going really well and I enjoyed the ending, though it was a tad cliched and the frying-pan scene was a bit of a let down.  It wasn't very realistic, at least for me.  

Overall, I honestly enjoyed the book and was glad to have a chance to get to know Ida Mae and her quirky Relief Society presidency.  (It painted a very realistic picture of what a Relief Society President does for her ward on a daily basis.)

My Rating: 4 stars

Sum it up: A quirky read for a female LDS audience.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I Am Number Four - Pittacus Lore

Summary:  Nine of us came here.  We look like you.  We talk like you.  We live among you.  But we are not  you.  We can do things you dream of doing.  We have powers you dream of having.  We are stronger and faster than anything you have ever seen.  We are the superheroes you worship in movies and comic books - but we are real.

Our plan was to grow, and train, and become strong, and become one, and fight them.  But they found us and started hunting us first.  Now all of us are running.  Spending our lives in the shadows, in places where no one would look, blending in.  We have lived among you without you knowing.

But they know.

They caught Number One in Malaysia.
Number Two in England.
And Number Three in Kenya.

I am Number Four.

I am next.

(Summary from book - Image from barnesandnoble.com )

My Review:  I am Number Four is a romantic young adult sci-fi novel and an extremely easy read. It had an immediate hook, with a prologue that caught my attention and a premise that held it for most of the book. It took me about 295 pages before I even thought to write down more than a few sentences of notes (and the book is only 440 pages long).

My favorite part of this book was the emergence of John Smith/Number Four’s supernatural powers and his attempts to navigate a new school without revealing his identity. John’s efforts to control his powers, hone them, and hide them, provided quite a few situations that were interesting and, at times, humorous or surprising. I also liked the moments of initial attraction between John and Sarah and the problems that their relationship created both within the school and for John in general. This book will delight the less discerning YA reader and entertain older fans who don’t mind a little predictability, a few knight-in-shining-armor moments, and some occasionally cheesy dialog.

I am Number Four started out strong, but lost momentum towards the end. I could handle the moments of predictability, but once the Mogadorians emerged as an immediate threat my interest began to wane. They felt cartoonish with their pale skin, pointy teeth, trench coats, and low brimmed hats, and I had a hard time taking them seriously. Also, once John and Sarah’s romance progressed past the initial stages of attraction, I lost the connection between them. It just fizzled out. Oh, there was love professed, but it felt wooden and unrealistic. I think the final battle was my least favorite part of the book. While I loved the addition of another character, the rest was sloppy and rushed with some all out absurdity for good measure.  The ending does, however, provide closure with enough room for the sequel, The Power of Six, releasing August 23, 2011.

Despite its flaws, I can see why this book was chosen for the big screen. It was quite cinematic and held numerous possibilities for action, romance, and impressive special effects. If the Mogadorian’s manage to get their scare on and John and Sarah are well-cast, the movie has the potential to be better than the book. 

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Some scattered profanity and ever so slightly gory violence.

Sum it up: An exciting premise with less than satisfactory execution.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Heretic's Daughter - Kathleen Kent

Summary:  Martha Carrier was one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and willful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. Often at odds with one another, mother and daughter are forced to stand together against the escalating hysteria of the trials and the superstitious tyranny that led to the torture and imprisonment of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. This is the story of Martha's courageous defiance and ultimate death, as told by the daughter who survived. (Summary taken from author's website)
  
My Review:  I'll cut to the chase and say that although I did not like the first half of this book the second half made reading through it worth it.  The first half was too raw, mean and salacious*.  It left me feeling mean, which I don't really need in my life.  I just have a hard time with the portrayal of the 1600s as such a glum, hypocritical and hardscrabble world.  Was it?  I don't know.  Do you know?  No.  So lets not assume that all life in this century was callous and unkind.

With the second half of the book I was drawn in, the characters became more caring and human, rather than the carnal portrayal that the book began with.  And of course, this could have been purposeful, as the daughter began to grow up (because of the dreadful circumstances she was in) she could see a greater dimension to her mother, to life in general and therefore I, as the reader also became aware of it.  This was accomplished so well that when I finished the book I was willing to dismiss the beginning and say that I enjoyed the reading.  

I recently read The Year of Wonder set in 1666 (this was set in 1692) which dealt with many of the same issues in this book.  Greed, superstition, sexism among the similar topics.  And frankly, both had that sort of glum bias against the century, which perhaps it deserves (bubonic plague in one and witch trials in the other). However I thought that The Heretic's Daughter handled the issues more realistically and in a way more applicable to the here and now.  The story explained well how something like the Salem witch trials could come about in that time and place.

The book took a broader view (culturally and geographically) than what I remember The Crucible focusing on, which is really the only other witch trials book I've read.   Despite my living in and loving the town the trials took place (because that should mean I automatically know everything) I ended up spending a lot of time on wikipedia and other reference sites brushing up on my history.  There was definitely some literary license taken and it was done in a way that told the story "better" than it might have been told. 

A final note.  What is with authors' lately taking a pass when it comes to naming their books?  Please, no more wife/daughter titles.  Nothing relegates a book to being viewed as "for women only" than a title like that.  Give your book credit as having a broad appeal by naming it better.  (FYI, Kathleen Kent's next book is titled The Wolves of Andover.  A big improvement.)

My Rating:  4 stars.  

To Sum it Up:  An examination of one family embroiled in a tragedy for human-kind that deserves an audience beyond women's book clubs.

*Salacious is apparently my new favorite word as I used it in this review, and this one.  Authors, let it be known - although not as bad manipulating me, feeding me salacious details is a waste of my time.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Forge - Laurie Halse Anderson

Summary:  Would you risk everything to be free?

The young soldiers at Valley Forge are suffering from hunger, cold, and the threat of the British army.  Their newly forged bonds of friendship might be enough to help them survive.  But the chains of Curzon's past threaten to shackle him again.

Surrounded by the fires of ignorance, mistrust, and greed, Curzon can't risk sharing his deadly secrets with anyone.  Does he have the mettle to hold on to his freedom?  To claim his rightful place as an American?  Is he strong enough to find the answer to the hardest question of all: Is Isabel still alive?

Acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson continues the thrilling adventure started in her bestselling, award-winning novel Chains.  Ride along on a gallop that will take you from battling the British at Saratoga to fighting the elements at Valley Forge to rebelling against merciless tyranny.  Discover what the fight for freedom was really all about.  (Summary from jacket cover and image from http://bonniesbooks.blogspot.com)

My Review:  When I first started Forge, I kept thinking that it was a bit slow and that I didn't get introduced to the main character very well.  I realized after reading three-fourths of the book, that it is a sequel.  Chains comes first.  Obviously you're expected to come into the story knowing the protagonist.  I didn't want to stop reading to start the first in the series, so I'm missing some of the back story but once I was a third of the way through I was hooked.  Reading Forge was the best way to make history come alive for me.  I never had a love of social studies growing up; I just couldn't get myself interested in all the dates and places that I was supposed to memorize.  It wasn't until I became an adult that I realized how fascinating it is. 

Forge was very informative and I feel like I understand the Revolutionary War a lot better after reading it.  I didn't know much about it besides the little I can remember from elementary school.  I had no idea that slaves fought in the war and that many of their owners made a deal of freedom at the end of the war if they fought in the army.  I am going to highly recommend this book to all my students and especially to the social studies teachers at my middle school.  I think I would have retained more information if I had learned about the war in this format.

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Gritty on a YA level, it opens eyes to what conditions were like for soldiers fighting for our freedom and then takes it a step further by seeing it all through the eyes of a slave.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Friday Night Knitting Club - Kate Jacobs

Summary:  Juggling the demands of her yarn shop and single-handedly raising a teenage daughter has made Georgia Walker grateful for her Friday Night Knitting Club. Her friends are happy to escape their lives too, even for just a few hours. But when Georgia's ex suddenly reappears, demanding a role in their daughter's life, her whole world is shattered.

Luckily, Georgia's friends are there, sharing their own tales of intimacy, heartbreak, and miracle making. And when the unthinkable happens, these women will discover that what they've created isn't just a knitting club: it's a sisterhood.   (
From the publisher.  Image from http://www.trashionista.com/images/fridaynight.jpg)

My Review:  Reading this was like eating a store-bought cookie.  You enjoy it, it wasn't much work, and sometimes there are small bit and pieces that aren't your favorite, but it's good enough you'll consume the whole thing.  The writing was ok.  For me, Jacobs is the queen of fragments used for impact.  While I understand the use, and often it is very helpful, it was overdone in the Friday Night Knitting Club.  The other aspect that fell short in my eyes was the way her characters were crafted.  Every single character had a foul mouth.  In today's age, this isn't that uncommon or surprising, but one of the characters I don't believe should have had a cleaner vocabulary.  A woman in her 70's who lived a privileged lifestyle in New York City, married and from a religious Jewish background just didn't fit that she should be dropping four letter words.  The other characters, fine.  Anita?  No.  That and the way the characters swore so often, they started to sound alike.  James, the only male character you spent much time hearing from his perspective, started to sound like the Friday Night Knitters.

Aside from those inconsistencies and the overdone fragments, the story was charming and feel-good.  I won't ruin the ending, but even with a twist thrown in that those of you who've read the book would probably contend is NOT feel-good, I left with that same feel-good experience.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning about knitting--what I could imagine.  I enjoyed getting to know the characters and their back stories.  I also loved reading about New York.  I can't help myself when it comes to New York.  It's such a fascinating and amazing city.  I haven't done my research, but now I'm curious to know if there is a quaint yarn shop on the second story of a building in New York.  I'm sure there is, but I'd love to have visited when we went to New York.

I'd recommend this to my friends and probably acquaintances, but definitely not to my mother.  I don't think she could get past the four-letter-words sprinkled  generously throughout.

My Rating: 3 stars--Warning for sensitive readers: Lots of four-letter-words, albeit rare with the most offensive.

Sum it up: A easy-reading, feel-good story.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Winner of "A HEARTBEAT AWAY" Giveaway

Congratulations to
Clenna Emery
Winner of a shiny, autographed copy of
the intense medical thriller

"A Heartbeat Away"
by Michael Palmer


We'll be contacting you soon to arrange shipping!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Delirium - Lauren Oliver

Summary:  Ninety-five days, and then I'll be safe. 

I wonder whether the procedure will hurt.  I want to get it over with.

It's hard to be patient.  It's hard not to be afraid while I'm still uncured, though so far the deliria hasn't touched me yet.

Still, I worry.  They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness.  The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don't.  (Teaser from book jacket)

------------

They say that the cure for love will make me happy and safe forever. And I’ve always believed them.

Until now.

Now everything has changed. Now, I’d rather be infected with love for the tiniest sliver of a second than live a hundred years smothered by a lie.

(Teaser from harperteen.com - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I haven’t been able to get this book out of my mind for the last couple of days. It’s no secret (or it shouldn’t be by now) that I’m a fan of dystopian fiction and this one snagged my attention from the few teasers that I had read about it.

Lena can’t wait for the surgery will make her immune to the world’s deadliest disease, amor deliria nervosa, more commonly known as love. She wants to be happy again -- free from the constant threat of contamination and able to forget the pain she feels from her mother’s suicide. The cure is her chance to start over and she is counting the days until her procedure. That is, until she meets Alex and learns the truth.  Her world is not as perfect as it seems and the “cure” is not a gift.

Can I just step outside my reviewing persona for a second? You know, the one where I try to sound all uber-smart and professional. I can? Oh, thank heavens. Sometimes that persona is ex-haust-ing.

I really enjoyed this book. It was fun. It was romantic. It was interesting. I recommend it if you are a fan of light YA dystopian fiction, especially if you like some spicy-but-not-too-spicy romance thrown in. While Delirium does fall prey to the occasional cliché description of love (e.g. heat, floating, explosions of color), for the most part, I was too busy reading to roll my eyes. Lauren Oliver has written a book that is both emotionally charged, exhilarating, and captures the overwhelming intensity of first love. Lena’s story held my attention the entire time and occasionally made my heart race.  I finally had to make myself put it down around 3 AM so I wasn’t a complete ogre the next day.

To be clear, this book is not Fahrenheit 451 or The Giver. Few books are. Delirium has been compared to Matched, another recently released (and reviewed) young adult novel with a romantic theme, but is significantly more exciting and sophisticated. Both books focus on the romantic element more than any other part of the plot, but because Delirium treats love as a disease, it skillfully weaves together the lighter subject matter and the more horrific elements of society without taking away from either part of the experience.

One of my favorite features of the book was the the statements from experts on the deliria, and excerpts from The Book of ShhhThe Comprehensive Compilation of Dangerous Words and Ideas, and other sources, that headed each chapter.  These little tidbits, while completely fictional, were very interesting and gave more insight into the mentality of the Lena's world and added depth to the story. I was also glad that it took Lena a while to come to terms with her feelings and make certain decisions – that she didn’t chuck it all for love at the very first opportunity (ahem…Twilight). For some reason, that made her struggle, and the entire story, seem more real. Also, Alex only takes his shirt off in an actual emergency and, thankfully, Lena does not wax poetic about his abs (though it’s totally implied) which for YA novels, these days has got to be some kind of record.

Delirium ends at a frantic pace and with a gutsy finish that I loved, but not everyone will appreciate. Normally I check books out at the library, but I’m glad that I purchased this one and will not be selling it to any used bookstores. I will definitely be reading the sequel, Pandemonium, when it is released.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader: A few widely-spread cases of profanity (including a couple f-words that came out of nowhere and in rapid succession) and a vaguely sexual scene where certain items of clothing come off.

Sum it up: A pure pleasure read.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Precious and Fragile Things - Megan Hart

Summary:  He's not about to let her leave.  And she cannot stay.

Gilly Soloman has been reduced to a mothering machine, taking care of everyone and everything except herself.  But the machine has broken down.  Burnt out by endless days of crying children and menial tasks, and exhausted from always putting herself last, Gilly doesn't immediately consider the consequences when she's carjacked.  With a knife to her throat, her first thought is that she'll finally get some rest.  Someone can save her for a change.

But salvation isn't so forthcoming.  Stranded in a remote, snowbound cabin with this stranger, hours turn to days, days into weeks.  As time forges a fragile bond between them, she learns her captor is not the lunatic she first believed, but a human being whose wasted life has been shaped by secrets and tragedy.  Yet even as their connection begins to foster trust, Gill knows she must never forget he's still a man teetering on the edge.  One who just might take her with him.  (Summary from book - Image from kobobooks.com - Book given free for review)

My Review: I was a little wary of starting this book. It had an interesting premise, but one that could tank if done poorly (case and point).

I’m still trying to wrap my head around how this book made me feel. Gilly’s frustration with the constant demands of stay-at-home mothering was both palpable and familiar. Her thoughts and emotions echoed my own more often than I would like to admit, though in slightly less dramatic ways. I would love to say that I think only happy, fluffy thoughts about motherhood, but that would be flat out lying. I love my kids, but some days it’s tough being their primary source of food, entertainment, rides, and clean clothes.

Gilly is a worn-out mother on the verge of a mental breakdown who, in a moment of desperation, makes a decision that is both horrifying and difficult to fathom. It took me a while to come to terms with her choice, but through the course of the novel I began to understand her fears and motivation. I still can’t say that I would have made the same decision, but I understand why she did.

Kidnapped and dragged to a remote cabin in the woods, Gilly is held captive by a young man named Todd, who never meant to take her but will not let her go. Trapped by snow and circumstance, the two gradually form a tenuous bond. Their interaction becomes almost filial, as they open up about their own tragic pasts and draw comfort from each other. I thought the relationship between Gilly and Todd, or, more precisely, it's development, was one of the more intriguing aspects of this book.

Todd is at once pathetic, psychotic, and oddly endearing, but not the monster that Gilly expects him to be. His severe emotional issues are grounded in a childhood trauma so sickening that I couldn’t help but be sympathetic. However, I was disappointed by the sheer volume of F-words (and others) in this story.   I suppose, it helped Todd seem more intimidating and spoke to the both of the character's emotions, but the average one to two F-bombs a page was a bit much, even for me, and distracted from the story.  

One of the more obvious themes of this book was the intensity of motherly love and what a beautiful, horrible, ferocious thing it can be. As a young girl Gilly suffered through her mother’s own mental health issues, and is overcome with fear that she will put her children through the same fate. So, she bites her tongue and screams into her pillow, determined that her children never see her fears or imperfections and ultimately, it is a mother’s love that saves them all.

I was unprepared for how this story ended. For some reason, I thought the story was going to go another way, and was pleasantly surprised (in a very disturbing way) that it did not end all sunshine and butterflies. It ended in a way that I didn’t necessarily enjoy, but could respect.

Precious and Fragile Things was more than I thought it would be. While the story slowed occasionally, I couldn’t tear away from the interaction between Gilly and Todd.  Because of the subject matter, I wouldn’t read this book again or recommend it to just any reader, but I thought the overall concept was fascinating, and that it could be an excellent pick for the right book club.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has LOTS of profanity, crude language, and some discussion of sexual matters.

Sum it up: An expertly titled and disturbing tale about the complexities of motherly love, loss, and the relationships that change our lives. Oh, and I’ve hit my lifetime quota for the F-word now.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Moon Over Manifest - Clare Vanderpool

This guest review comes to us from Melissa M. over a Gerbera Daisy Diaries.  She sends us some real gems from time to time and we always love to have her!

Summary:  Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.

Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”

Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

Powerful in its simplicity and rich in historical detail, Clare Vanderpool’s debut is a gripping story of loss and redemption.  (Summary from goodreads.com - Image from http://www.clarevanderpool.com/)

My Review:  Abilene Tucker is riding the rails, quite literally, into the town of Manifest, Kansas.

She’s been shipped by her father to spend the summer with Shady Howard– and man she has never met, but is trusted by her father to care for her during the summer.

There she meets up with Lettie and Ruthanne, who become her companions on a quest to determine the meaning behind a box of mementos discovered under the floorboard of her room: a map, a cork, a fishhook, a sliver dollar, a fancy key, and a tiny wooden baby doll.

Thus Abilene begins a summertime odyssey to learn the secrets of her past and of the city of Manifest.

No mincing words --  I adored this book.

Author, Clare Vanderpool, has created a vintage story that bridges two time periods – that of WWI and the Depression, with a cast of captivating & quirky characters (everything from bootleggers, and miners, to a gypsy and a nun!) and a main character, Abilene, who will run away with your heart.

I was completely transformed back in time – I felt like I was walking in stride with Abilene. Every clue she uncovered and every story she heard was as if I was learning it with her. It was also particularly endearing because much like Manifest, my ancestors were a part of a small town Manifest-like community – that this book could easily been about their lives.

The only thing I that I regret, was taking far too long to finish (so many obligations this week). This is a book that needs to be read in a day or two to fully embrace the richness of the narrative.

This was absolutely deserving of the Newbery Medal Award this year…and so far, my favorite book of 2011.

My Rating: 5 Stars - Love, love love LOVED it!

Sum it up:  A well deserved award winner that will appeal to both child and parent alike.For a clip from the author, please check out this related video:

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