Sunday, April 29, 2012

Room - Emma Donoghue

Read Mindy and Heather's reviews of Room.


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

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it's the prison where she has been held for seven years.  Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in this eleven-by-eleven-foot space.  But Jack's curiosity is building alongside Ma's own desperation--and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.

Room is a tale at once shocking, riveting, exhilarating--a story of unconquerable love in harrowing circumstances, and of the diamond-hard bond between a mother and her child.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://katrinastonoff.wordpress.com/)

My Review:  Room was engrossing, disturbing, fascinating, and educational.  The first half of the book was hard for me to plow through.  I found certain aspects dull and boring, and others simply disgusting and disturbing.  Jack's counting of the squeaks made me ill.  I won't elaborate here; if you've read it, you know what I mean.  There was so much to learn, so much to contemplate.  The second half of the book was absolutely intriguing.  (Warning!  Spoiler!)  Because the escape takes place half way through--thank heavens!--you learn so much about how a child would have to adapt to the outside world after being held captive in such a small space.  There were many aspects I hadn't even considered: Jack's reaction to stairs, his eye sensitivity to name just two. 

Donoghue did extensive research before writing the book (cannot fathom digging that deep into that kind of abuse).  It is a fictional account, but was inspired by real events.  Jack's voice is probably what made this book palatable for me as a reader.  His perspective is innocent, which makes the book is easier to swallow because you're not aware of all the dark and dirty that comes with such a horrible situation.

Jack's mother is my ultimate fictional hero.  She did her utmost to give him the best possible environment within her control, which wasn't much.  She isn't without fault, but her selflessness, her suffering, her desire to do only the best for her son was not only valiant, it was humbling.  I cannot even fathom her strength.

This is a fantastic book club selection--if your book club can stomach the subject matter. One of the biggest bones of contention we had during our discussion at book club was how Jack's maturity seemed to fluctuate, including his depiction of intelligence.  While it didn't seem too off base to me, there were many who felt there were times he was portrayed inaccurately.

While this book is told from a childlike perspective, it is an adult book.  I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but an adult.  The subject matter is disturbing, but what else could it be considering what Jack's mother lived through?

Rating: 3.75 stars

For the sensitive reader:  Knowing the premise, it should be obvious that there is rape involved in the story.  It is portrayed through the eyes of a 5 year old, therefore it is very innocent and benign.  Regardless, it's disturbing.

Sum it up: A story of abduction and abuse, but through the eyes of a son born in captivity.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Girl Who Could Fly - Victoria Forester


Read Mindy's review here.


Summary:  SHE CAN FLY!

Piper McCloud lives with her normal ma and pa on a normal farm in normal Lowland County.  But Piper isn't your normal girl.  Ever since Piper was a baby, she's been able to hover a few feet off the ground, and if the people of Lowland County knew she could fly, they would have something to say about it.  So, it only seems best that Piper be sent away to I.N.S.A.N.E., the top secret school for children with extraordinary abilities like hers.  Her new friends have powers like telekinesis, X-ray vision, and the ability to create their own weather.  Piper likes her new life at school, but soon, she realizes things aren't always as they seem.  Now, the school she was sent to for her own protection might be the most dangerous place she's ever been.  (Summary from back of the book and image from  http://grahamchops.blogspot.com/)

My Review:  I was a more than a little disappointed in this book.  It was predictable, felt rushed, and had obvious, although abrupt, twists.  Maybe this is because it's a children's book, but I still didn't like it.  I personally think children can see the contrived plot.  It comes highly recommended by Stephanie Meyer, but I'm not sure what to think of that recommendation.  It was a mix of X-men and Little House on the Prairie and for me that felt awkward.  The characters were fairly well developed:  Piper is a fun little girl, with a spunky, lovable personality, and innocence of spirit that is quite endearing.  The villain is depicted well--great outer facade to cover sinister evil which in turn is covering complex pain and guilt.  The layers of complexity in the villain's character brought the story up in my estimation, but the overall flow still brought down my rating.  It felt like you were going along, understanding the plot and abruptly it all changes again and yet again.  The flow felt off.

The other aspect to the book that I didn't entirely like was the overall theme.  While I agree that old-fashioned ways can be negative when they are centered on bigotry, prejudice or racism, when it paints all adult wisdom negatively it rubs me wrong.  Change is a good thing when it's for the better, but there are times when change isn't for the best.  I felt this story leaned too far to the 'all adults and their reasoning can't be trusted' end of the spectrum.

Lastly, the story seemed very benign in it's content--for a children's book--until the very end.  During the climax the author threw in some (Biblical) swear words.  It did not seem to fit the rest of the story and changed the book in my eyes from a children's book to more of a YA book.  The problem is, the overall story is definitely more children's, so younger YA's would probably tolerate it, but I don't see my students embracing it. 

Rating:  2.75 stars

For the sensitive reader:  You get almost to the end of the book and the author throws in a couple swear words.  They felt very out of place to me, and although they're the Biblical kind, I still didn't feel it was necessary or flowed with the rest of the story.

Sum it up:  A child's innocence trumps all adult understanding kind of book.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Scorch Trials - James Dashner

Lara Hays Zierke is my former next door neighbor, an adoptive mama, and an aspiring writer who has graciously consented to guest review the Maze Runner series for us.  The Scorch Trials is the second book in the series.  Here is her review of the first -- The Maze Runner.
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Summary:  Solving the Maze was supposed to be the end. No more puzzles. No more variables. And no more running. Thomas was sure that escape meant he and the Gladers would get their lives back. But no one really knew what sort of life they were going back to.

In the Maze, life was easy. They had food, and shelter, and safety . . . until Teresa triggered the end. In the world outside the Maze, however, the end was triggered long ago.

Burned by sun flares and baked by a new, brutal climate, the earth is a wasteland. Government has disintegrated—and with it, order—and now Cranks, people covered in festering wounds and driven to murderous insanity by the infectious disease known as the Flare, roam the crumbling cities hunting for their next victim . . . and meal.

The Gladers are far from finished with running. Instead of freedom, they find themselves faced with another trial. They must cross the Scorch, the most burned-out section of the world, and arrive at a safe haven in two weeks. And WICKED has made sure to adjust the variables and stack the odds against them.

Thomas can only wonder -- does he hold the secret of freedom somewhere in his mind?  Or will he forever be at the mercy of WICKED? (Summary from book - Image from www.goodreads.com)

My review:  The Scorch Trials picks up right where The Maze Runner left off and immediately the reader realizes that the world Thomas and the Gladers escaped to is far worse than life in the maze. The entire human population is on the brink of extinction thanks to solar flares that devastated most of the world and unleashed a terrible disease called the Flare. A government-type agency called WICKED is closing in a cure. WICKED orchestrated the Maze as a way to map the brain patterns of the Gladers, which is essential to finding a cure (this didn’t sound very plausible, but I suspended my disbelief). WICKED needs one more set of trials to perfect the cure. They have infected the Gladers with the Flare and force them to traverse the uninhabitable land called the Scorch and survive the infected masses called Cranks (essentially zombies). The Gladers must accomplish this task in two weeks in two weeks to obtain a cure for themselves.

The story is action driven. Many terrifying things happen—physically, emotionally, politically—that could easily deserve more depth, but Dashner doesn’t go there. Sometimes this bothered me. Other times I felt that it was a smart choice, leaving those topics open for my brain to explore without inhibition. Characterization is still spotty. Most Gladers are unnamed and die without any emotional fuss—they are simply “redshirts.” I liked that this dystopian future was caused by natural disaster instead of the mainstays of nuclear holocaust or war and the Cranks are creepy beyond measure. A female named Brenda is introduced. A love triangle between Thomas, Teresa (the girl from the maze whom Thomas had a connection with), and Brenda is hinted at but never actualized. It seems like this love triangle idea was included because it’s the popular thing to do in young adult novels these days.

Unlike The Maze Runner, the ideal outcome of the story is quite clear—get all the Gladers out of the Scorch in time to get the cure. Still, the reader wonders if there is a way to save the Gladers without catering to WICKED’s questionable motives.

With a better understanding of the dystopian world and the purpose of the maze, I felt as though I was finally getting into the real story behind the series. It’s rare for me to enjoy a second book more than a first in a series, but in this case I did. More than the story itself or the somewhat shallow characters, I was hooked by the world itself and the philosophical/moral questions that developed with every chapter. As with The Maze Runner, the cliffhanger ending is short on closure.

My rating: 4.25

For the sensitive reader: This book contains violent situations expected with teenagers fighting for their lives. Teenagers fight, carry weapons, kill Cranks, suffer injury, and die. The made-up profanity from The Maze Runner continues throughout this book. PG-13.

Sum It Up: A meatier read than its predecessor, it paints a terrifying dystopian future and provokes moral questions without being preachy. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Gods and Generals - Jeff Shaara

Another fine guest review from the lovely Elizabeth Marsh.  I get the feeling you might be seeing a lot more of her around here...
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Summary:  The story follows four main characters from 1858 to the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg. Robert E Lee is a frustrated cavalry officer in Texas, watching his 30-year career in the U.S. Army stagnate into an unfulfilling conclusion to a life that has kept him far from his home, and the growth of his family. Thomas J. Jackson is an ill-equipped professor at the Virginia Military Institute who suffers enormous personal tragedy, and yearns for the exciting life he had known briefly as a soldier in the Mexican War. Winfield Scott Hancock is a one-man quartermaster in the small village of Los Angeles, California, also yearning for life closer to the "action," and like Lee, finds himself frustrated by a career that seems to be too far removed from the attention of his superiors. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a rising young star in the academic world of Bowdoin College in Maine, who realizes that his career is pleasing everyone but him.


As the extraordinary events of 1861 unfold, and the country collapses into the horror of a Civil War, each man must face his family, his personal duty and his own sense of responsibility to his country. The path these four men take, Lee and Jackson choosing to fight for the South, Hancock and Chamberlain fighting for the Union, reflect the paths taken by an entire generation of Americans.
Through the first two years of the war, each man learns not only about war, but about his own place in history. At Fredericksburg in December, 1862, the four men take to the same horrible field, discovering first hand what the Civil War has become, and what their own role will be. At Chancellorsville, in May, 1863, the story comes to a brutal climax as Jackson, now called "Stonewall," is killed, and with his death both sides understand that the tide of the war is turned. (Summary from www.jeffshaara.com - Image from www.plodit.com)

My Summary:  To start, I promise I read more than historical fiction!  However, I was so taken with The Killer Angels, that I was bound and determined to read this, the prequel penned by his son, as quickly as possible.

I love Gone with the Wind entirely.  I remember being so excited to read the sequel Scarlett and love it as much, solely based on its relationship to Mitchell’s classic.  But, to my disappointment, it was fine, but certainly not a classic!  I felt the exact same way about Gods and Generals, and I don’t think it’s entirely Shaara’s fault.  His father created a masterpiece, and he took up the torch after his father’s death by writing this and The Last Full Measure, which details the end of the Civil War.  The writing is fine, but it just doesn’t live up to the classic.

I think part of the problem is that Shaara has bitten off quite a lot.  He’s covering substantially more characters, more time, and more battles, and it’s a LOT to keep straight. I felt like he focuses more on the politics and the power struggles going on than the battles and causes of his characters, and that made it harder to relate.  Further, he jumps around in the middle of important decisions a lot, so I was constantly going back to check whose viewpoint I was reading, and then double-checking to make sure they were on the same side.  It was a little dizzying to read Union, Confederate, back to Union, two Confederates and finally, another Union point of view all in one day’s battle, and it made following these lesser-known battles difficult.  Wikipedia was my friend, sadly.

Featured heavily in Gods and Generals is Stonewall Jackson, and I was fully prepared to love him … but it just didn’t ring as true as I wanted.  Please don’t get me wrong, Shaara has done a wonderful job and this is definitely worth the read, it just didn’t strike my heart.  That being said, I nearly went back and changed my rating of The Killer Angels once I got a few days’ distance and was able to fully digest the book.  I hope that happens here!

My Rating:  3 stars.  It is an interesting read, and certainly worthwhile.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Clean.  For as many battles as are fought, Shaara writes more from the Generals’ viewpoints, so the gore is very minimal.


Sum it up:  I liked it, but I wish I had read the trilogy in order – starting with this.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tears of a Tiger - Sharon M. Draper

Summary:  In one horrifying night, Andy's life changed forever...

Andy Jackson was driving the car that crashed one night after a game, killing Robert Washington, his best friend and the captain of the Hazelwood High Tigers.  It was late, and they'd been drinking, and now, months later, Andy can't stop blaming himself.  As he turns away from family, friends, and even his girlfriend, he finds he's losing the most precious thing of all--his ability to face the future.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://sharondraper.com/)

My Review:  There was so much hype about this book at my school that I'm afraid I was disappointed more than impressed.  I've had this it in my classroom for years, despite having to replace it fairly frequently because it 'walks off' with students who adore the story.  Written in slang without the use of quotation marks (not something I like in books), this book is easily digestible for lower-level readers.  It's a smaller sized book with only 180 pages and this combination gives lower readers a sense of accomplishment: they are able to read a chapter book that's over 100 pages but reads quickly helping them build stamina and fluency. 

As to the meat of the story, Andy is dealing with some serious depression and guilt.  His friends try to help, particularly his girlfriend.  But Andy falls victim to the 'no one understands' mind-set and 'real men don't show vulnerability' which ultimately is his downfall.  The issues are very real, the characters are well developed and believable, and the depiction of teens, their relationships and interactions ring true despite having been written almost 20 years ago.  The overall message is strong: don't drink and drive, don't be afraid to look vulnerable and get help.

It wasn't my favorite read although I see the value of having it in my classroom and offering it to a select students.  Since it is a series, I'll have to see if the books build and become more complex, thus creating building blocks for lower level readers.

Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  One scene of teenage drunk driving that ends in a crash and mentioning of teen sexual intercourse although it doesn't occur--just teenage boy boasting.

Sum it up:  Easy reading, written with strong use of dialect that connects to young readers, dealing with real life issues and teen life.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Push (aka Precious ) - Sapphire

Summary:  Precious Jones, an illiterate sixteen-year-old, has up until now been invisible to the father who rapes her and the mother who batters her and the authorities who dismiss her as just one more of Harlem's casualties.  But when Precious, pregnant with a second child by her father meets a determined and radical teacher, we follow her on a journey of education and enlightenment as she learns not only how to write about her life, but how to make it truly her own for the first time.  (Summary from book - Image from vintagebooks.wordpress.com )


My Review:  Before you get too far into this review there is one thing you should know:

·         This book is, hands down, the most graphic, disturbing, sickening, and all out horrifying book I’ve ever read.   It’s also very powerful.  Read it at your own risk, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.  

When I picked up Push (aka Precious), I thought I was reading the non-fiction account of a teenage girl’s struggle to overcome years of sexual abuse at the hands of her parents.  Two-thirds of the way through I discovered I was mistaken, and that the author, who taught literacy classes in Harlem, based the main character, Precious, off of several students in her classroom.  Initially, this really bothered me.  By that point, I had waded through multiple chapters of the most graphic language and sexually explicit material I’d ever read, only to find out she wasn’t real!?  It felt like a betrayal until I realized something – this story is real. 

The girl might not be named Precious, but she’s out there somewhere.  Her story is beyond horrific; it’s the tells of a young girl enduring unimaginable abuse at the hands of her parents.  At school she is ignored by teachers, despite her obvious illiteracy, and tormented by classmates.  She is nothing.  She is no one.  And every night she goes home knowing it will happen again.  Her story makes me sick.  It makes me sad.  It makes me homicidal.  This is going to sound incredibly harsh, but this book made me want to put a bullet in the head (or hang a millstone around the neck) of every parent who could ever do something so destructive to their own child. 

My husband is a special assault detective for our local police department, and his caseload is primarily comprised of child sexual abuse investigations.  As you might imagine, conversations about his day tend to be rather disturbing.  Consequently, I’m no stranger to the topic of child sexual abuse and the lasting effects that such abuse can have on children, especially when it comes at the hands of someone who is supposed to love and protect them.   One of the worst, but most realistic, aspects of this novel was how Precious internalized her feelings of fear, hatred, guilt, sadness, desire, depression, and self-loathing, and the effect that it had on her outlook on life and her own self-esteem. 

Lest you think this book is all darkness and despair, there is hope.  This girl finds her way out of her destructive home.  She finds a teacher who cares enough to be patient with her and she finds salvation in motherhood – in the eyes, arms, and smile of her young son.  Ever so slowly, she begins to see something in herself.  To have hope. To know she is not alone. To want more.  Push calls also attention to a variety of social issues (e.g.  the decline of public education, the welfare system, racism) and, if you can stomach the story, would make a very interesting book club discussion.

This book is not pretty.  It isn’t pleasant.  It made me want to kill, cry, and throw up – but it is honest, inspiring, and powerfully compelling. 

My Rating: 3.5 Stars.                                                                           

For the sensitive reader:  Pervasive profanity, vulgarity, and sexually explicit descriptions of rape and molestation.

Sum it up:  I don’t think that I will ever be able to forget this book.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"HEAVEN IS HERE" WINNERS!!

Congratulations to all six 
Heaven Is Here winners:

(Before you get too excited, 
click on the name and make sure I'm talking about you...)

Emily Smith

I'll be contacting all of you swiftly to arrange shipping of one of these....


To those of you who didn't win?  
As my old history teacher used to say, "Buck up, little campers!"  
This book is unbelievable and worth the money, even in hardback!
Pick one up today.  Go in with a friend!  Nag your local library.  
Whatever you do, read this book!

Support independent booksellers and purchase Heaven Is Here online 

You can also purchase her books through AmazonBarnes & Noble.  
Available for Kindle, Nook, and ITunes.

PS:  In case you were wondering, I didn't get any compensation for this review or giveaway, other than the initial review copy that was sent to me.  I don't make any money off the sale of this book and I'm fairly certain that Stephanie Nielson doesn't even know I exist.  I just really admire her perseverance, and her love for her family, her faith, and her community. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Three to Get Deadly - Janet Evanovich

Three to Get Deadly is the third book in the popular Stephanie Plum crime series by Janet Evanovich.  We've already reviewed One for the Money and Two for the Dough if you'd like to read our thoughts on the first two books.

Summary: A "saintly" old candy-store owner is on the lam -- and bounty hunter extraordinaire Stephanie Plum is on the case.  As the body count rises, Stephanie finds herself dealing with dead drug dealers and slippery fugitives on the chase of her life.  And with the help of eccentric friends and family, Steph must see to it that this case doesn't end up being her last...  (Summary from book - Image from www.traderscity.com )

My Review:  Stephanie really wants people to stop shooting at her.  Ever since she got assigned to track down the neighborhood nice guy Moses Bedemier, people keep trying to knock her off and it's starting to freak her out.  On top of that, Stephanie is having the worst luck with cars and Joe Morelli, her on-again-off-again slice of action is playing things way to cool -- almost like they're, ugh, friends.  With the help of Ranger, Lula, and the occasional informant, Stephanie is on the case and, as usual, the body count is rising.

Three to Get Deadly was an easy read.  It didn't require a lot of my time, attention, or brain power (which is a good thing, because I seem to be running low on all three).  I enjoyed the story, but more because it was easy-on-the-brain than because it was any good.  Chances are, if you've made it this far in the series, you aren't a particularly sensitive reader.  This novel has just as much profanity and sexually suggestive (or blatant) dialogue as its predecessors.  Once again, Stephanie ends up in hot, steamy water with Morelli and while I am rooting for them, as a couple, I don't necessarily feel like I need to read everything about it.  Maybe just a little.  Like some really nice kissing.

Stephanie Plum is such a fun character -- she eats junk food, oozes sarcasm, loves her hamster, and is Jersey to the core.  Then, just when I think I've got her figured out, she drops in a little Shakespeare and I'm forced to reevaluate.  Ranger also plays more of a role in this novel than in the other two and it looks like the author is setting him up to become a romantic character as well.  Hmmm... I'm not opposed to that at all.  For now, though, he remains a tough-as-nails bounty hunter and Stephanie's go-to back up for sticky situations.

I'm not sure where I'm going to go with this series.  I borrowed the first three from Heather and I might read the rest, or I might not.  Either way, I won't lose sleep over it.  Obviously, that says something but I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Pervasive profanity and sexually suggestive (or blatant) dialogue, some violence.

Sum it up:  An easy read, but nothing special.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Girl in Translation - Jean Kwok

Summary:  When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition. Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly's story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about. Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant-a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.  (Summary from goodreads.com and image from http://www.usatoday.com/)


My Review:  I think one of the best aspects to this book is the lively discussion you can have with others who have read it.  It surprised me how varied everyone's responses to Kim's decisions were.  For more conservative readers it came as a surprise that this was a YA book.  If you've read a lot of YA lately this wouldn't surprise you.  Seeing as my book club doesn't consist of secondary education teachers, the number of YA books read regularly is lower.  One of the biggest complaints it seemed, besides disagreeing with Kim's decisions, was that the plot was predictable.  While I agree to a certain extent, I felt that for teens Kim's decisions--which dictate the plot--made sense to me.  (I won't go into detail so as to not ruin it for future readers.)  

There were some fantastic techniques the author used to help the reader see the world through an English Language Learner's eyes.  One of these was showing the words she thought she was hearing instead of what was actually being said.  Kim was exceptionally intelligent, and even for her this constant confusion changed her perception of the world and her understanding of it.  I can only imagine what it would be like to have to find your own way through a new culture, new school, new language without the help of adults for guidance.  Kim had no one to really rely on.  In fact, her family was either unable to help or purposefully hindering her.  It was heart-breaking to read and I can only wonder how common this experience is for immigrants who feel they have no help or alternative to what they are currently dealing with.  Kim manages to pull through by her own intelligence, hard-work, and grit, but how many do not?

One of my favorite concepts to analyze is her subconscious relationships with the opposite sex.  I can't help but wonder if her father hadn't died how it would have changed her decisions and the outcome of her life.  She seemed starved for their attention, but not really. Everything was surface level.  How much of this would have been different with her father in her life?

Lastly, Kwok throws in these moments of adult lucidity, metaphors, analogies that could be quotes to be hung on the walls of your home.  It's not more than half a dozen times, but they are beautiful, thought-provoking and quite moving.  I started anticipating these sections and spending more time analyzing those spots than speed-reading the book to find out what happens.


My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader:  There is a sex (mild description) scene near the end of the book, but it is integral to the story.

Sum it up:  A coming of age story combined with the underbelly of America's working immigrants and the trials they face.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Blue Asylum - Kathy Hepinstall

Summary:  Put on trial by her slaveholder husband and convicted of madness by a Virginia judge, Iris Dunleavy is sent to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good wife.  But Iris knows her husband is the true criminal; she's no lunatic, only guilty of violating southern notions of propriety.

A pompous superintendent heads this asylum populated by wonderful characters, including his self-diagnosing twelve-year-old son, a woman who swallows anything in sight, and Ambrose Weller, a Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris.

The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded "water treatment."  In this isolated place, she finds love with Ambrose.  But can she take him with her if she escapes?  Will there be anything for them to make a life from, back home?

Blue Asylum is the rich, absorbing story of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the call of freedom.  (Summary from book - Image from www.goodreads.com - Book given free for an honest review)

My Review:  Kathy Hepinstall is one of my favorite authors and I’ve been waiting for her to write another novel for almost a decade.  I like the way she thinks, and I love the way she writes.  I read her first novel, The House of Gentle Men cover-to-cover in one night and now own two copies -- one to lend out and one that no one but me touches.  She’s also the author of two other novels, The Absence of Nectar and Prince of Lost Places.  They are each drastically different from her first, but they all have a place of honor* on my bookshelf. 

Hepinstall’s latest novel, Blue Asylum, tells the tale of Iris Dunleavy, a young wife shipped off to a prestigious island asylum to be cured of her defiant behavior towards her husband.  Certain she can talk her way out of such a ridiculous predicament, Iris tries convince the doctor of her sanity, but when it becomes clear that no one will listen, she begins to plan her escape.  While she plots, Iris becomes acquainted with the various inhabitants of the asylum and increasingly drawn into their world.  When she finds love, can she leave it behind?

Blue Asylum is a deliciously hypnotic exploration of sanity and madness – not just one story, but several that unfold slowly throughout the book.  In a time where the rights of women and slaves were hotly contested, Hepinstall captures the flavor of the Civil War era and island setting with evocative imagery, intoxicating prose, and sumptuous detail.  Something about the way she writes just pulls me into the center of everything.  Her characters are unique, fascinating, and genuine – some truly insane, others less so – and each has their own stories and secrets to tell. 

One of the delightful aspects of Hepinstall’s novels is that she always manages to hold something back for the end, a piece of the story, horrific or startling, that has the potential to change everything.  I love that kind of anticipation.  The feeling of knowing I don’t know everything, and waiting, dying, to find out.  With each turn of the page, I held my breath for fear I might lose it – and I did. 

My Rating: 4.5 Stars (This would probably have rated bit higher if it wasn’t for the stuff in the sensitive reader section.)

For the sensitive reader:  Some violence.  One instance of profanity.  Several sexual situations.  While I wouldn’t consider them vulgar or graphic, these moments were stunningly intimate and so I felt like I was intruding.  Awkward.  To a lesser degree there were also a few passing references to male and female anatomy and the occasional mention of one young boy’s tendency toward…um…self-gratification.

Sum it up:  Worth the wait.

*at the top, where they are safe from my kiddos destructive hands.

To purchase:  Powell's Books  /  Amazon  /   B&N
To visit the author's blog:  http://kathyhepinstall.wordpress.com/

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wizard's First Rule - Terry Goodkind

This book is the first book in the Sword of Truth series.

Summary: In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher's forest sanctuary seeking help...and more.  His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword -- to invoke within himself something more noble.  Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed...or that their time has run out.

This is the beginning.  One book.  One rule.  Witness the birth of a legend.  (Summary from book - Image from barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  About a decade ago, The Sword of Truth novels were top sellers at the college bookstore where I worked.  So, when I found a special edition of Wizard's First Rule, the first book in the series, I purchased it, shelved it, and promptly forgot I owned it.  Then, a few years ago, ABC produced a TV show called Legend of the Seeker that was based on The Sword of Truth series.  Now, normally I’m one of those people who likes to read the books before watching the television version, but in this instance I made an exception.  You see, the male lead, Richard Cypher, was hot.  Go ahead.  Google him if you don't believe me.

Anyway, I watched the series for the next two years until it was cancelled and I was left hanging, wondering if I was missing out by not reading the books.  Finally, in Seeker-withdrawal, I decided to read that long-neglected book on my shelf.  I was so ready to be blown away that I even bought the next two books in the series just so that I could move from one to the other without having to get up off the couch.  It turns out that investment was a bit premature.

The fact is that, even though I enjoyed the TV show, I didn’t like the book at all.   The book’s antagonists were much more depraved and sadistic than their tv counterparts, making Wizard’s First Rule much more violent, gory, and sexually explicit than I expected.  If the tv series had stayed true to the book, it wouldn’t have been remotely suitable for television.   In the show, Richard was tough, but noble, and Kahlan was a butt-kicking, knife-wielding heroine.  In the book, their relationship felt affected and they were rather more weepy than I expected.  Call me crazy, but I don't think fantasy characters should sob like an infant at the slightest provocation.  Or really, ever.

Overall, Wizard’s First Rule read less like and epic quest and more like a series of random obstacles thrown into the path of two star-crossed lovers.  Each complication felt like a stall tactic and it wasn’t until somewhere around the 600th page (of this 820-page book)  that I felt any sort of interest in how the story would turn out.  That’s a really long time to wait.

I’m not sure how people unfamiliar with the series will feel about Wizard’s First Rule but I do know that fans of Legend of the Seeker won’t necessarily find much of their favorite characters (or story) in this book.  Overall, it just wasn’t my thang.  Yes, I said thang.  I’m in a mood.  Deal with it. 

My Rating: 2.25 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  Violent, gory, and sexually explicit.  Two or three instances of profanity. 

Sum it up:  A disappointing beginning to a series I don’t plan on finishing.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Maze Runner - James Dashner

This guest review comes to us from someone who probably knows much more about my  family than she probably should -- Lara Hays Zierke, my former next-door neighbor.  When we were younger, we lived side-by-side, and I remember sort-of having a  crush on her older brother.  Was it Brad?  Was it Jordan?  I'll never tell.  However, I think she might have had a crush on one of my brothers as well, so I suppose we're even.  My most graphic childhood memory involves seeing her teeny tiny poodle get squished by a garage door.  I'm sure we're both scarred for life.  

Lara works as a marketing writer for an international wellness company and is the  mother of a 3-year-old girl, through adoption.  She and her husband are expecting to adopt another little girl in June!  In her spare time, Lara likes to write.  She blogs about her life on Pocket Full of Prose and has even published some of her poetry and short stories, but it still peddling her novels to agents.  She also has five pets -- two dogs, two cockatiels, and a cat, none of which have been crushed by household machinery...as of yet. 

It's been a long time since I've seen Lara, through the miracle/time-wasting-death-trap of Facebook we managed to reconnect and she was kind enough to consent to review this series for the blog.  This is the first of three of her reviews that will be posting in the next several weeks.  Thanks so much Lara!
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Summary:  When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift.

Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers.

Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.  (Summary from book - Image from www.indiebound.org)

My review: Imagine how confused Thomas is to wake up in the Glade—a gigantic shifting maze populated by 60 other teenage boys where monsters called Grievers come out at night to kill anyone lost in the maze. As the reader, I was no less confused. The book is interesting and fast-paced, but I had no clue how I expected the plot to play out.

The Maze Runner pulls you into Thomas’s world wholly. As the reader, you know nothing more than Thomas does—which is both infuriating and intriguing. It took me a few chapters to become invested into the story because I felt confused. Once I was hooked, I plowed through book in a weekend.

Dashner does an excellent job of crafting a world of teenage boys. The egos, the attitudes, the language, the brotherhood. As a woman, I felt I was peeking into a world I don’t often see. The book is plot driven and centered on action. The emotional turmoil of living in such conditions is rarely explored. Even physical descriptions, metaphor, and other literary devices are not employed as much as I would have liked. Dashner’s characterization is inconsistent. Several supporting characters are multi-dimensional and unforgettable, while others—including the protagonist Thomas—are a bit flat. I am struggling to think of adjectives to describe Thomas now. There were resolutions in the story that I felt were too easy, too obvious, and a little unsatisfactory. The ending was unpredictable and left me desperate for the sequel.  

I enjoyed The Maze Runner and have recommended it to others. The book was an easy read that stimulated questions regarding a society, obligations to our past, and obligations to others. In most series, I enjoy the first book the most. In this series, The Maze Runner is more of a setup for the rest of the trilogy.

My rating:  3.75 stars

For the sensitive reader: Violence, though not graphic—teenagers do die. These teenage boys have created their own system of profanity. Their curse words are made up and that tends to lesson the sting of them, but it is obvious they are using language.

Sum it up: A futuristic story of bravery, brotherhood, and changing your fate.

P.S. I just read that a prequel is in the works. I am very excited to see what happened to Thomas before his memory wipe. Also, I read that a film of The Maze Runner is in development for a 2013 release.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Land of Decoration - Grace McCleen

Summary: A mesmerizing debut about a young girl whose steadfast belief and imagination bring everything she once held dear into treacherous balance.

In Grace McCleen's harrowing, powerful debut, she introduces an unforgettable heroine in ten-year-old Judith McPherson, a young believer who sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith. Persecuted at school for her beliefs and struggling with her distant, devout father at home, young Judith finds solace and connection in a model in miniature of the Promised Land that she has constructed in her room from collected discarded scraps—the Land of Decoration. Where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility and divinity in even the strangest traces left behind. As ominous forces disrupt the peace in her and Father's modest lives—a strike threatens her father's factory job, and the taunting at school slips into dangerous territory—Judith makes a miracle in the Land of Decoration that solidifies her blossoming convictions. She is God's chosen instrument. But the heady consequences of her newfound power are difficult to control and may threaten the very foundations of her world.

With its intensely taut storytelling and crystalline prose, The Land of Decoration is a gripping, psychologically complex story of good and evil, belonging and isolation, which casts new and startling light on how far we'll go to protect the things we love most.
Summary and cover image from http://us.macmillan.com/. Book given free for honest review.

My Review: This story is narrated by ten-year-old Judith McPherson. She is a girl of above-average intelligence being raised by her religious, yet remote, father. Judith is trying to find where she belongs in this world. She is being bullied in school and longs to feel her father's love. She finds solace in her room where she creates a world out of bits of nature and trash. This “land of decoration”, as she calls it, seems to have the power to create miracles. Judith soon discovers that having power may not be as desirable as she once thought.

With several biblical references this book may be viewed as a philosophical story on religion. Many of the messages pop from the book with little searching. On the reverse side, the story could also be read as one about a confused little girl digging for enlightenment and purpose.This would be an ideal book club read. It contains a story of father-daughter relationships, mystical powers, religion and social life.

This novel is rich in detail, quickly drawing the reader in. Judith becomes a friend, a character to root for throughout. Twists of evil and destruction infuse with beauty and goodness to provide dimension to the tale. The result is a powerful story that will leave you pondering.

My Rating: 4 stars

To sum it up: A captivating tale of the precarious balancing point between good and evil as a young girl seeks to find her destiny.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Pregnancy Project - Gaby Rodriguez

Here's another lovely guest review from Elizabeth Marsh, stay-at-home mother of three, bibliophile, and fitness guru.  We are so excited to have her review this book because the "project" itself took place about 20 miles away from where a few of us live! Thanks Elizabeth!

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Summary: Growing up, Gaby Rodriguez was often told she would end up a teen mom. After all, her mother and her older sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers; from an outsider’s perspective, it was practically a family tradition. Gaby had ambitions that didn’t include teen motherhood. But she wondered: how would she be treated if she “lived down” to others' expectations? Would everyone ignore the years she put into being a good student and see her as just another pregnant teen statistic with no future? These questions sparked Gaby’s school project: faking her own pregnancy as a high school senior to see how her family, friends, and community would react. What she learned changed her life forever, and made international headlines in the process.

In The Pregnancy Project, Gaby details how she was able to fake her own pregnancy—hiding the truth from even her siblings and boyfriend’s parents—and reveals all that she learned from the experience. But more than that, Gaby’s story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself.  (Summary from www.goodreads.com - Image from www.univisionnews.tumblr.com )

My Review:  I saw this story when it broke, and marveled at Gaby’s maturity and gumption.  When I saw the book displayed in my town’s library, I snatched it up, eager to hear her observations and conclusions.  Gaby chose to fake a pregnancy, something she was quite familiar with, being the eighth child of a teen mom as well as watching the majority of her siblings becoming teen parents.   She details how difficult it was to deceive the teachers who had invested so much in her future, her friends, and the hurtful and snide comments uttered by her peers.  

Toward the end of the experiment, she writes “… Did they think that getting pregnant had also affected my eyesight?  Did they think I couldn’t see them huddling together, putting their hands over their mouths to cover whatever insults they were sharing about me?  I wanted to hide.  It was exhausting to feel like people were judging me all day.”   Her experience and the research she put into this project led her to some pretty eye-opening conclusions.  I was surprised to find myself tearing up when I read of her great reveal.

This was a fast read.  It’s interesting, if a tad preachy, but it moves quickly until the end.  Be warned, this isn’t Jane Eyre … it was penned by a high school student, and the epilogue(s) felt more like a mash up of endless repetition and a Miss America speech.  This would be an interesting book to discuss with a slightly older mother-daughter book club (say, freshman and sophomore age) or a good book for a quick read.

My Rating:  3 stars

For the sensitive reader:  There are a couple cases of foul language.  However, for a book that’s about teen pregnancy, it’s surprisingly clean.


Sum it Up:  This was an interesting read from a remarkable girl about peer pressure and her own personal views.  No Newberry, but worth the two hours it’ll take to blaze through it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

HEAVEN IS HERE - SIX BOOK GIVEAWAY

In August 2008, Stephanie Nielson was living the dream with her sweetheart, Christian, relishing her role as wife, mother of four, and author of the popular blog, Nie Nie Dialogues

When Stephanie and her husband decided to take a quick flight with a close friend to tour the family ranch, their small plane crashed just after take-off and was rapidly engulfed in flames.  Nie was left trapped inside.  Miraculously, she survived. 

Heaven is Here is simply AMAZING!  Seriously. 
It was one of the best books I've read in a very long time and, between you and me, that is saying something.


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Quick question.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO WIN THIS BOOK? 
Of course you would.  You're not a crazy person.
Well, we have SIX COPIES to giveaway! 

SIX!
If you'd like to be one of the six lucky winners...
 TO ENTER TO WIN YOU MUST:
  • Comment with your contact information and answer this question:  “What is one thing you could do today to become a better person?”   That's it!  Pretty sweet, huh!

FOR EXTRA ENTRIES YOU MAY **leave a separate comment for each separate entry**:
  • Be (or quickly become) a follower of this blog via GFC Google Reader or Blogged (see sidebar).
  • Post about this giveaway on your public blog or other social networking site.
  • Pin this giveaway!

ELIGIBILITY:  This giveaway is open to US RESIDENTS ONLY (or at the very least, we're only shipping to the US.  If you are British, but want to send it to your sister who lives in Kentucky, that is fine.)  It will close on April 17th, 2012 at 11:59PM.  Winners will be chosen randomly, posted publicly, and contacted swiftly to arrange shipping.  Best of luck!  Oh yes...if you break the rules we reserve the right to invalidate your entry.

Heaven Is Here - Stephanie Nielson


Summary: When Stephanie Nielson began writing about her life in 2005, in what soon became the very popular blog Nie Nie Dialogues, she was deeply in love with her husband, Christian, enjoying raising their four young children, and fulfilled by her faith and close-knit community.  However, everything changed in an instant on a sunny day in August 2008, when Stephanie and Christian were in a horrific plane crash.  Christian was burned over 40 percent of his body, and Stephanie was on the brink of death, with burns over 80 percent of her body.  She would remain in a coma for four months.

Now, in this moving memoir, Stephanie shares the full, extraordinary story of her unlikely survival and the incredible love behind it -- from a gripping account of the crash to all that followed in its wake.  With her trademark wit and candor, Stephanie recounts her first painful days after awakening from her come, the first time she saw her face in the mirror, the first time she saw her children, and the first kiss she shared with Christian after the accident.  She also reflects back on life before the crash and the origins of her strength, faith, and family ties, which became the foundation for her survival.

What emerges from the wreckage of a tragic accident is an undying love affair and the conviction that there is joy and beauty to be found in every journey, no matter what life throws at you.  Heaven is Here is a poignant reminder of how faith and family, love and community can bolster us, sustain us, quite literally, in some cases, save us. (Summary from book - Image from nieniedialogues.com - Book given free for an honest review)

My Review:  If you read only one book this year, make it this one. Heaven is Here is a stunningly honest memoir written by Stephanie Nielson, author of the internationally popular blog, Nie Nie Dialogues. I picked it up thinking I knew everything there was to know about her story and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Reading this book was a revelation, and I found inspiration in a place I simply did not expect.

In August 2008, Stephanie Nielson was living a fairytale life with her sweetheart, Christian – relishing her role as wife, mother of four, and lifestyle blogger.
When Stephanie, her husband, and a close friend decided to make a quick trip to the family ranch, their small plane crashed just after take-off and was rapidly engulfed in flames. Although Stephanie was left trapped inside, she managed to escape the inferno and spent the next several months fighting for her life in a medically induced coma. Christian had survived but their dear friend had not. Stephanie’s body had received catastrophic burns and she awoke wrapped head to toe in bandages, facing a life of excruciating pain and uncertainty. The fairytale, as she knew it, was over – or so it seemed.

In Heaven is Here, Stephanie shares her amazing story of faith, love, and perseverance with her trademark optimism, insight, and emotional authenticity. Looking back on the horrific plane crash that dramatically changed her life, this devoted young mother says that “almost dying has taught me a valuable lesson about living.” Even in her darkest moments – the first glimpse of her scars, the fear in her children’s eyes, or enduring the callous stares of strangers -- Stephanie was buoyed by her faith in God and the unswerving devotion and support of those around her. Heaven is Here is a poignant chronicle of her journey to reclaim the remnants of her old life and, from them build anew.

Stephanie’s memoir, like her life, is infused with her personal beliefs. Although her Mormon faith is definitely present in the pages of this book, her approach isn’t pushy and her experience and message of hope holds universal appeal, regardless of religious preference. As a good friend of mine said, when she finished reading it in a day – “You don’t have to be Mormon to love this book!”

I was forever changed, inspired, and uplifted by Stephanie’s example. Her experience spoke to me on so many levels – as a wife, mother, and woman of faith – and moved me to tears of sadness, laughter, and joy. Stephanie’s love of life and her courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable trials prompted me to take greater joy the everyday moments of life, especially those spent with family. It taught me that, with a belief in something higher than ourselves, hope can be found even in the midst of profound devastation.

If all my gushing hasn’t convinced you, I highly recommend that you:
View the Book Trailer  --  See video-enhanced Digital Preview -- Visit Stephanie’s Blog     

My Rating:  5 BEAUTIFUL STARS!!
For the sensitive reader:  Have at it.  No complaints here.
Sum it up:  Heaven Is Here is one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read.  Nie is my hero.
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But wait….  Personally, I believe that Stephanie's message of hope will appeal to everyone, regardless of religious preference.  However, because I am Mormon and can’t really remove that perspective from my review, I’ve asked my friend Larissa (who had never heard of Stephanie and who is actively involved in another faith) to review Heaven Is Here with me.
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Larissa’s review:  The first I heard of Stephanie Nielson was when Mindy asked if I'd be interested in reading her memoir and reviewing it. I'm not LDS, but I do have a strong religious background.  Mindy promised me that this wasn't some sneaky attempt to convert me, and at first I was unsure about what messages would be conveyed through the book, but I was pleasantly surprised. Stephanie is not shy about her faith. And while there are many mentions of ideals and beliefs that are specifically Mormon, there are many more instances where the ideals are applicable to all faiths and even non-faiths. Stephanie went through a traumatic experience and I think anyone from any background can connect with Stephanie and feel part of her pain.

I was incredibly intrigued by Stephanie's story and really enjoyed hearing about her life before and after the accident. She left me feeling inspired and motivated. I wanted to hug my child and husband and I wanted to remember not to take any day for granted. Stephanie Nielson's story is devastating. But it's also a story full of hope and an uplifting message. I recommend this book to ANYONE. You don't have to be Mormon to appreciate the beauty in this story and in Stephanie's life.
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Support independent booksellers and purchase Heaven Is Here online via Powells Books or visit an indie bookstore near you!
You can also purchase her books through Amazon, Barnes & Noble.  Available for Kindle, Nook, and ITunes.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

Summary:  Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his front porch.  Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker--his classmate and crush--who committed suicide two weeks earlier.

Hannah's voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons she decided to end her life.  Clay is one of them.  If he listens, he'll find out why.

Clay responds the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide.  He becomes a first-hand witness to Hannah's pain, and learns the truth about himself--a truth he never wanted to face.  (Summary from book jacket and image from http://www.rhcl.org/)

My Review:  Wow.  This was a very unique read and a novel concept, at least for me.  Just knowing the concept I wasn't sure if I'd like this book.  A girl creates cassette tapes and sends it to the people who were part of her downfall into a place she felt she couldn't return from.  She basically blackmails them into listening.  The whole set up is intricately detailed and purposeful, down to the order the tapes are recorded in.  And while this sounds very disturbing (and it kind of is) it sets up the book to be a fantastic mystery.  I wasn't quite sure how everything fit together until the very end, which for me is a bonus.  It also isn't until the end that the most unnerving parts of her experience are revealed.  At first I kept thinking she was an overly dramatic girl--not so by the end. 

Some of my favorite aspects to the books are: 1) I like who Asher chose as the narrator--I can't go into detail why here lest it ruins the book for you 2) with the hardcover edition the jacket cover has a map of all the locations she speaks about and you can follow along as you read, just like the narrator does in the story 3) that the author focused on making it more of a puzzle and less an obsession on the darker aspects of suicide 4) the overall message of the story that you never know what your, seemingly small, impact on others' lives can produce 5) lastly, I love that this is a male writer portraying the damage that can be done to a girl when put through the ordeal she was.  I honestly felt it was very authentic with a strong voice.

If there was only one thing I would take away from the book, it would be the author's message and that, for me, is enough to promote the book up and down the halls of my school.  We can all be more kind, more attune to the struggles and pain of others.  I love how the story focuses on how each decision, each interaction is cumulative and you never know if yours will be what pushes a person over the edge.  So, think before you speak, think about others before acting.

My Rating:  4.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There are some scenes where she witnesses a rape. Minimal language, but overall concept is raw--a very planned and intentional suicide.

Sum it up:  A YA puzzle with a unique set up that completely pulls you in.

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