Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Twice Upon a Time: Rapunzel, The One with All the Hair - Wendy Mass

Summary:  The girl's stuck in a tower.
The boy's stuck in a castle.
There are two sides to every story...

Rapunzel is having the ultimate bad day.  She's been stolen from home by an evil witch, locked in an incredibly high tower, and doesnt' even have a decent brush for her hair.

Prince Benjamin is in a pretty uncomfortable position himself.  His father wants him to be more kingly, his mother wants him to never leave her sight, and his cousin wants to get him into as much trouble as possible.  Plus, there's the little matter of prearranged marriages...

Both Rapunzel and Prince Benjamin are trapped -- in very different ways.  It's only when their paths cross that things really start to change.  (Summary from book - Image from www.en.libooki.com )

My Review:  Cute. Cute. Cute.  That's pretty much all I have to say about this book.

What?  You need more?  Well, if you insist....

Rapunzel, The One with All the Hair is the first book in the Twice Upon a Time Series by Wendy Mass  (followed by Sleeping Beauty, The One Who Took the Really Long Nap and Beauty and the Beast, The Only One Who Didn't Run Away).  The author tells the story of Rapunzel from two perspectives:  her own and that of her sort-of rescuer, Prince Benjamin.

Thankfully, this is one of those books that I really didn't mind reading to my girls.  Was it intellectually riveting?  Psssshhh.  Absolutely not.  However, it was funny and adorable and it made my girls giggle.  A lot.  I can't really ask for much more when it comes to finding a book they both want to read ( I swear, it's like they have agreed to permanently disagree on everything).  I thought it was refreshing to finally hear the Prince's side of things.  That never happens in these types of fairy tales!  Also, each character's personality and unique voice helped me feel like I was reading something I'd never read before, instead of revisiting a story I've heard/told/seen/read about nine kabillion times.  Like I said.  Cute!  I've already picked up Sleeping Beauty, the One Who Took the Really Long Nap from our local bookstore.

Here's what the kind-of-little munchkins had to say:

Kaisa (age 9) says:  "I just liked it.  I don't know why.  Every part seemed pretty good.  I didn't like that the chapters were smaller because you didn't get as much detail out of them [And, I suspect, that means that when they asked for only one more chapter, they didn't get much more story.]"

Sophie (age 7) says:  "That was one of my favorite ones that you had read yet.  We have lots more of those books to read and it makes me feel like I'm going to explode."

My Rating:  4 Stars.  I'd recommend it, but mostly to younger readers (6-12), or to read aloud to young readers.

For the sensitive reader:  I got nothin'.  There's a witch.  She's not that scary.

Sum it up:  Cute. Cute. Cute.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Inside Out & Back Again - Thanhha Lai

Summary:  No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
over
peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, Ha has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by...and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home.  Ha and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope.  In America, Ha discovers the foreign world of Alabama; the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape...and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/)

My Review:  Beautifully written, well-crafted, and simply portrayed: I couldn't put the book down and raced through all 262 pages of its poetic formatting.  Inside Out & Back Again is the first book I have read that detailed what refugees endured from the first day back in their own country. I loved that it was told through the eyes of a child, one with family, history, education, and strife.  Her transition to the U.S. is so raw and so real.  It must have been incredibly hard to go from being one of the smartest in her class to feeling like the dumbest, going from looking like everyone else to being the only one in between black and white.  In the author's note at the end of the book she explains that she wanted to capture the emotions of the girl and she did just that.  I felt everything with her: the taunts, the embarrassment, the frustration, the guilt.  Her perspective mixes fact with feeling and pulls it off authentically, probably because much of what Ha goes through the author did too.

I would recommend this to any reader, not just a young adult.  In fact, I think I'd even recommend reading this to upper elementary students--although probably aloud so that we could discuss and answer questions that would arise.  While I think it shares a profound experience in a simple yet beautiful way, anyone can benefit from understanding how a life can be so altered by war.  I love the perspective it gives.  The only aspect I saw lacking was some closure at the end of how the girls life turned out.  I wanted to know what happened to her, what became of her.  Honestly, that's the only thing I'd change. 

For the sensitive reader:  Nothing offensive here.  Read away!

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up:  A poetic journey through a year of  war-caused tumult and change.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith


Summary: Stalin's Soviet Union strives to be a paradise for its workers, providing for all of their needs. One of its fundamental pillars is that its citizens live free from the fear of ordinary crime and criminals.

But in this society, millions do live in fear . . . of the State. Death is a whisper away. The mere suspicion of ideological disloyalty-owning a book from the decadent West, the wrong word at the wrong time-sends millions of innocents into the Gulags or to their executions. Defending the system from its citizens is the MGB, the State Security Force. And no MGB officer is more courageous, conscientious, or idealistic than Leo Demidov.

A war hero with a beautiful wife, Leo lives in relative luxury in Moscow, even providing a decent apartment for his parents. His only ambition has been to serve his country. For this greater good, he has arrested and interrogated.

Then the impossible happens. A different kind of criminal-a murderer-is on the loose, killing at will. At the same time, Leo finds himself demoted and denounced by his enemies, his world turned upside down, and every belief he's ever held shattered. The only way to save his life and the lives of his family is to uncover this criminal. But in a society that is officially paradise, it's a crime against the State to suggest that a murderer-much less a serial killer-is in their midst. Exiled from his home, with only his wife, Raisa, remaining at his side, Leo must confront the vast resources and reach of the MBG to find and stop a criminal that the State won't admit even exists. (summary and image taken from goodreads.com)

My Review: I think that perhaps cutting my mystery teeth on Agatha Christie was a ridiculously bad move.  She ruined me.  One third of the way through the book, and I had figured out the murderer, his motive, and the “big, shocking” reveal I had been told to expect, the one “I’d never see coming”. 

Unfortunately, I suffer from “extreme reader-itis” – that is, a near-crippling inability to put down a book, no matter how terrible it gets.  And trust me, this one was pretty darn bad!  I tried to give credit for this being the author’s debut novel, but there were times in the book that within three paragraphs, three different characters’ internal points of view had been shared, leaving me utterly confused whether these were the points of view as imagined by the protagonist (a truly clueless fellow), or if they were really the points of view of the people he was interacting with.  It was so befuddling.  Coupled with Smith’s style of listing conversations in italics and dashes, it made me feel like the conversations were as convoluted as the points of view.    As for the story itself, it was truly predictable.

However, this story did serve a purpose for me.  It made me resolve to read at least one classical or non-fiction book a month.  I’ve decided I’m to the point in my life that I’m ready to start reading more uplifting and intelligent works … wish me luck!  Easy is just so easy – especially with three kids!

My Rating:  One half star

For the Sensitive Reader: Rough language, descriptions of the murders, this is one to stay away from.

Sum it Up:  Betrayed and disgraced MGB officer is determined to solve a rash of brutal murders throughout Russia, operating outside the parameters of Stalinist society.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Enclave - Ann Aguirre

Hey, guess what?!  This is post #1000.  Pretty neat, huh.

Summary:  In Deuce's world, people earn the right to a name only if they survive the first fifteen years.  By that point, each unnamed "brat" has trained into one of three groups -- Breeders, Builders, or Hunters, identifiable by the  number of scars they bear on their arms.  Deuce has wanted to be a Huntress for as long as she can remember.

As a Huntress, her purpose is clear -- to brave the dangerous tunnels outside the enclave and bring back meat to feed the group while evading ferocious monsters known as Freaks.  She's worked toward this goal her whole life, and nothing's going to stop her, not even a beautiful, brooding Hunter named Fade.  When the mysterious boy becomes her partner, Deuce's troubles are just beginning.

When she and Fade discover that the neighboring enclave has been destroyed by Freaks, who seem to be growing more organized, the elders refuse to listen to their warnings and exile Deuce and Fade. As the two are guided out of the dead city by Fade's long-ago memories, they face dangers, and feelings, unlike any they've ever known. (Summary from book - Image from www.annaguirre.com )

My Review:   All I can say is: FINALLY.  The little ones went down for a nap at the same time.  I dropped everything on my plate, made my mental health a priority, and was finally finally finally able to disappear inside a book.  You know, really bury myself deep down inside it and roll around for a little bit.  It was awesome – the reading part and the book.

Enclave, by Ann Aguirre, is a YA dystopian novel that follows Deuce and Fade, two young Hunters scrabbling to survive in a ravaged post-apocalyptic world.  Her realistic portrayal of their society, with its strict rules, divisions, and dangers, made it easy to see the remains of our culture through their eyes. 

I love characters that can be strong, resourceful and dauntless in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  Deuce and Fade are all that and more.  Deuce trained hard to become an expert Huntress and although wary of her new partner, protects him with her life.  She doesn't back down from a fight and is loyal to a fault, once her trust has been earned.  Fade is steadfast but compassionate, despite his tortured past.  He always has Deuce’s back, lets her be who she is, and appreciates her for it – a refreshing change from some of the more dominating male characters that seem so popular.

Together, Deuce and Fade make a marvelous pair – a lethal combination of calculated savagery, camaraderie, and strength.  Their relationship starts off shaky, but develops over the course of the book into a fierce devotion.  The strict rules of the enclave prevent them from becoming romantically involved, which of course sends the sparks a-flyin’ left and right.  Thankfully, their relationship serves to complement the rest of the story without overwhelming it.     

One of my favorite YA authors, Sharon Shinn, called Enclave "spooky-cool, grimly gorgeous, tactile, tough, and terrifying," while others have recommended it to fans of The Hunger Games and Divergent.  Although it’s been a while since I’ve read either of those books, I can say that I felt the same urgent need to devour this book as with them.  It also felt like a grittier, amped up version of one of my favorite children’s books, The Cityof Ember

In Enclave, there is so much solid make-it-into-a-movie action, tension, and romance that the more I think about it, the more I really want to see what happens next.  Aguirre doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow at the end, but there was enough of a resolution that I didn’t want to die – not right away, anyway.   Of course, it helps that the sequel, Outpost, has already been released.  Now, to get my grubby hands on it.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some fantasy violence, related to killing monsters, but also some human-to-human violence once the books setting changes.  Also some conversations elude to a rape, but they are fairly vague, and likely wouldn’t even be understood by a younger reader.  I can’t remember any profanity.    

Sum it up:  A thoroughly entertaining thrill ride.

Pssssst -- I'm in the middle of reading Endurance, an e-book companion to Enclave, that tells the story of Thimble and Stone, two of Enclave's supporting characters, after Deuce and Fade are exiled   I'm about halfway through it, but I like seeing their side of things.  Not necessary reading, but fun!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Lola the Lollipop Fairy - Lara Ede & Tim Bugbird

Summary: When a new theme park opens next door to their circus, nobody comes to see the Lollipop Fairies' famous show.  Determined to win back their audience, Lola and her friends work hard to create the most exciting act ever and make an amazing discovery along the way! (Summary from book - Image from www.learningdiscovery.com.au)  

My Review:    Our own little Lola (seen below at seven months -- now almost eight) received this book for Christmas from her Oma and she must really love it, because she keeps trying to eat the pages.  I don't blame her; it's a sweet little book.

Lola, Linda, and Lulu are adorable little fairies with big heads, colorful hair, and snappy outfits.  They work together in a famous circus show until one day a big theme park moves in next door and steals all their patrons.  At first the trio is discouraged, but Lola's enthusiastic attitude leads them to an explosive idea that will save their fairy circus.

 (SPOILER:  They decide to build a fairy cannon and send Lola to the moon! After a great deal of hard work, Lola blasts off and discovers that the moon is not made of cheese, but is, in fact, a giant orange lollipop.  She returns to earth with a sweet new idea to launch all fairies to the moon (for a small fee) and the circus is saved. SPOILER OVER).

Lola the Lollipop Fairy has a sparkly, shiny cover and thick, high-quality pages filled with delightfully vibrant caricature illustrations, that are adorable and engaging for young readers.  The rhyming and subtly alliterative prose give the book a pleasant cadence and there aren't a ton of words, which make this a perfect quick-to-bedtime story.  Of course, the moral of the story is my favorite -- Lola, Linda, and Lulu learn that if they work together, try hard, and never give up, anything is possible!

The author has several other books (Camilla the Cupcake Fairy and Daisy the Doughnut Fairy) but, for some reason, I don't think I'll be able to love them as much as this one.
(Lola Grace, Christmas morning at the Oja house ---->)

My Rating:  4 Stars.

For the sensitive reader: Parents concerned about the presence of sugary sweets in this book needn't worry. Lola does not go on a lollipop bender.

Sum it up:  A sweet little book.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Eating Heaven - Jennie Shortridge

Summary:  Nothing gets Eleanor Samuel's heart racing like a double scoop of mocha fudge chunk.  Sure, the magazine writer may have some issues aside form food, but she isn't quite ready to face them.  Then her beloved uncle Benny falls ill, and Eleanor's whole world is torn apart.  Unlike her sisters, she has neither a husband nor a full-time job, so it's up to Eleanor to care for her ailing uncle.  What at first seems scary and daunting becomes a blessing in disguise.  Because while she's doing all that cooking and nurturing -- and enjoying a delicious flirtation with a new chef in town -- Eleanor begins to uncover some long-buried secrets about her emotionally frayed family and may finally get the chance to become the woman she's always wanted to be... (Summary from book - Image from www.jennieshortridge.com )

My Review:  Eating Heaven is an achingly tender portrayal of love, grief, and renewal, delivered with mouthwatering delicacy.  It tells the story, both past and present of Eleanor Samuels, a kind, but lonely, freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon, who spends her days writing sell-out articles for cooking magazines and her nights entirely alone.  Still suffering the repercussions of her parents'unhappy marriage, her mother's constant criticism, and her father’s general apathy towards fatherhood, Eleanor’s tendency to find solace in good food has led her to feel uncomfortably large in her own skin.  When her Uncle Benny falls ill with terminal cancer, Eleanor quickly moves into his home to help care for him and, as his health continues to decline, she experiences the highs and lows of caring for someone in their final days, begins a promising new relationship, and discovers truths about her own family that will change everything.

Each character in this book feels genuine – perfectly imperfect in their own ways.  I loved Benny, who was equal parts stubborn mule and loving father, and swooned a little over Eleanor's culinary soul mate, Henry.  Eleanor’s mother?  Well,  I wanted to punch her for most of the story.  You will too.  I promise.   Eleanor was lovable and easy to root for because she seemed like a normal woman, with the typical insecurities, desires, and hopes for the future as any of us.  I connected with her on many levels, but no where more so than with her love of good food and her guilt over eating so much of it.  Can I get an 'Amen!'?  That having been said, her culinary life and eating habits didn't overshadow the rest of the story, so that food, family, grief, and love, just sort of melted together into a savory word stew.   

Eating Heaven wasn't the kind of book to set off fireworks.  Instead, it was quietly compelling, and I became so deeply invested in the lives of the characters that I didn't want to stop reading, even when it hurt -- and sometimes it really hurt.  Her writing style reminded me of one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg.  Like Berg, the author, Jennie Shortridge, writes in a way that is realistic and raw, but cathartic, so that even though I sobbed through parts of the story, I still felt strangely content when I finished reading.

Shortridge, who lost a relative to terminal illness bares a little bit of her soul, I think, in the telling of this story.  She deftly portrayed the slow, then slippery, decline of terminal illness, the bittersweet nature of death, and the agonizing stages of grief and mourning, but she also explored the blessings of family, a loving father-daughter relationship that extends beyond genetics, or the support that can come from a good man, or a house full of sisters.  She wrote about living life, in all its glory and pain, and finding joy in every moment.  Eating Heaven might have been heavier fare than I normally read, but it was still a great read and one that I highly recommend. 

My Rating:  4. 25 Stars.  I think I might have rated this higher if I were feeling a bit more emotionally stable.  Having four children has been an adjustment, to say the least, and I tend to spend my free time lost in the undemanding pages of the nearest YA novel.  This book took something from me, emotionally, and I don't think it has given it back yet.  Until it does, I"m holding at least a few tenths of a point hostage. 

For the sensitive reader:  Some sexual references and a handful of profanity (mostly “S” words, but at least one “F” variant). 

Sum it up:  Eating Heaven was heavier fare than I expected, but still undeniably divine.

PS.  I also plan on reading some of her other novels, found here.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Time Hunters - Carl Ashmore

Summary:  Becky Mellor is a typical thirteen-year-old girl.  She likes Facebook, gossiping and plenty of sleep.  When she and her brother, Joe, are invited to stay with their 'loony' Uncle Percy at his stately home, Bowen Hall, she thinks it'll be the worst summer ever.

Her mind soon changes when she sees Uncle Percy and his mysterious groundsman, Will Shakelock, peroforming tooth extraction on a Sabre-tooth tiger...

So begins the thrilling time traveling adventure that leads Becky, Joe, Uncle Percy and Will to Victorian England, Ancient Greece and Jurassic London in search for the legendary Golden Fleece.

The clock is ticking...  (Summary from back of the book.  Image from http://carlashmoreauthor.blogspot.com.  Book given free for review.)

My Review:  What a fun read!  When I get a book free for review, sometimes I'm afraid what I'm receiving.  When offered this one I couldn't pass it up: time travel, young adult fiction, and fantasy.  Add to that it's a series, and I had to give it a try.

The beginning of the book was a bit slow and choppy in spots, but by midway I was turning pages as quickly as I could.  I found it hard to get a feel for Becky's personality and really gauge her age in the beginning, which could have been what slowed my connection to the protagonist.  With time, though, she emerged and I started to get a better feel for her personality.  I may have missed it, but Joe's age also threw me.  Maybe it's because I'm around children all the time, but it was hard to put your finger on just how old Joe was because of how much history he already knew.  Most children I know don't know as much as these two did--although this might be explained as the story unfolds, but I don't want to give anything away.

One aspect of the book that distracted me was the stuttering.  Whenever a character was surprised, he or she stuttered.  It was predictable.  Another aspect to mention was the Brittish sayings.  There were a couple that I had to keep reading to figure out if it was a good or bad.  Other times I just had to decide it was unimportant.

Aside from that, the twists and turns of the plot, the time travel explorations, and the villains were highly enjoyable.  There were many pieces left unexplained.  There was so much more that could have been explored, it left me wanting more to the story.  I can't say I predicted the ending. Ashmore left it with enough closure, but with an open ending to easily continue the story.  I do hope I get to pick up the next in the series.

If you liked Fablehaven and are looking for another clean read series with a similar feel, pick this one up.  It's like Fablehaven but Time-Traveler style and in England. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Only one word I remember thinking wasn't quite appropriate for children, but it was biblical--I'd say it's up to the reader as to how offensive that is.

Sum it up:  Take time traveling and mix it with a Fablehaven and you've got The Time Hunters.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Tale Dark & Grimm - Adam Gidwitz

Summary:  Reader, beware.  But if you dare...
Follow Hansel and Gretel as they run away from their own story and into eight other scary fairy tales.

They'll encounter witches and warlocks, hunters with deadly aim, and bakers with ovens that are just right for baking children...

It may be frightening, but unlike those other fairy tales you know, these are true.  (Summary from book)

My Review:  A Tale Dark & Grimm is the story of Hansel and Gretel, deftly woven with several other tales from the Brothers Grimm.   It is, as the title implies, disturbingly dark and deeply grim, but sprinkled with moments of fancy, wisdom, and wry humor.   

This story begins with the line, "Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome."  I’ll have to admit, I kind of loved it right then and there, regardless of what was to come.  The author goes on to explain that fairy tales used to be cool before people retold them and left out all the scary, bloody, awesome parts.  He cautions parents to read this novel first, and begs, with tongue in cheek, that sensitive little ones leave the room.  I don’t know about you, but there aren’t many kids I know who would put any book down after all that hullaballoo.  I know my interest was piqued.  Could a children’s book really be that bad?!

Yes.  Yes, it can.   It's not often that I have the opportunity to categorize a novel as children's fiction, fairytale and horror, but A Tale Dark & Grimm definitely fits the bill.  Don't believe me?  Okay, but just remember you asked for this (excerpt, pg 102-3, A Smile As Red as Blood):   
"Dear Readers, I'm sorry for what follows.
He threw the girl on the oaken table, and from a nearby cupboard produced a filthy iron cage.  Then he reached his hand into the girl's mouth until his arm was buried deep in her throat.  Slowly, painfully, and with great struggle form the girl, he pulled forth a beautiful white dove.  The dove fought the young man as he shoved it in the filthy cage and slammed the door shut.
The girl’s body was still.
Now you might want to close your eyes. 
He lifted an ax that hung on the wall, and Gretel, peering through a gap between a filthy pot and a filthier pan, watched her handsome, wonderful, funny friend hack the girl's body into bits and toss each piece into the boiling cauldron.  His blunt butcher's knife rose and fell, rose and fell.  He licked the blood from his hands and sent piece after piece sailing into the pot.
Each piece, that is, save one.
On the girl's left hand there was a lovely golden ring, inlaid with rubies, red as rubies can be.  He tried to remove the ring so that it would not ruin the stew, but it wouldn't come off.  Finally in a rage, he hacked the finger clean off her hand and hurled it across the room.  Gretel watched, dumbstruck, as it tumbled through the air, over the enormous pile of pots and pans that she was hiding bheind, and landed squarely in her lap, ring and all.
Somehow, she did not scream."
I tried to warn you.   (It should be noted that when, in disbelief, I read that excerpt to my husband, he got a huge grin on his face, laughed, and said "Awesome!!! Fairy tales are cool again!" without any prompting from me whatsoever.)  There are also multiple familial beheadings, a few grisly murders, and dragon-related carnage that will likely terrify your littlest children.  I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  

I know what you’re thinking: What the heck?!?  In a children’s book?!?!  I had a similar reaction – a kind of horror mixed with disbelief – and had to see what the author, Adam Gidwitz, had to say for himself.  A quick internet search led me to his FAQ page and a few others, which helped soothe my ruffled feathers…somewhat.  It explains the author’s beliefs regarding the appropriateness of fairy tale violence and the importance of helping our children choose books that suit their interests, personality, and emotional readiness.  I’m not sure if I buy his entire argument, but it gave me something to think about.

My favorite aspect of A Tale Dark & Grimm is the delightfully amusing narrator prone to interjecting his own unique perspective into the story.  I absolutely adored his voice and how it served to lighten the mood in all the right places.  Just when a king kidnaps a golden princess he’d swoop in with:
 "Now, my young readers, I know just what you're thinking.  You're thinking,   Hmmmm.  Stealing a girl.  That's an interesting way of winning her heart.  Allow me to warn you now that, under any other circumstances, stealing a girl is about the worst way of winning her heart you could possibly cook up.  But, because this happened long ago, in a faraway land, it seems to have worked."  
Or after a particularly sad part he’d  say “I will tell you, as I always tell myself, that things will get better.  Much, much  better.  I promise.   Just not yet.”  And I loved it.  

What I’m trying to say, in a twisty, convoluted sort of way, is that this book is hysterical, entertaining, and totally appropriate for the right reader.  The best way to know if your child is ready to read a book like this is to do as the author instructs and read it first.  Ordinarily that might be a mind-numbingly boring feat of reading, but I thoroughly enjoyed A Tale Dark & Grimm, and I think you will too.  You just might not let your kid read it.  Yet.  Or ever. 

My Rating: 4 Stars.  I’d definitely recommend this book…just not to every reader.

For the sensitive reader:  Loads of fairy tale violence.  I recommend reading this book first  before handing it off to your child.

Sum it up:  A fascinating tale both dark and grim, but not without merit.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Origin - Jessica Khoury


Summary:  Pia has always known her destiny.  She is meant to start a new race, a line of descendants who will bring an end to death.  She has been bred for no other purpose, genetically engineered to be immortal and raised by a team of scientists in a secret compound hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest.  Now those scientists have begun to challenge her, with the goal of training her to carry on their dangerous work.

For as long as she can remember, Pia's greatest desire has been to fulfill their expectations.  But on the night she turns seventeen, she finds a hole in the seemingly impenetrable fence that surrounds her sterile home.  Free in the jungle for the first time in her life, Pia meets Eio, a boy from a nearby village.  Unable to resist, she continues sneaking out to see him.  As they fall in love, they begin to piece together the truth about Pia's orgiin -- a truth with deadly consequences that will change their lives forever.  (Summary from book - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:   Pia is a genetically engineered Immortal – the first of what researchers hope will be many – living in a secluded research laboratory in the middle of the Amazon.  Although her life is restricted to reason, science, and the confines of the compound, Pia is still a curious and lonely 17-year-old girl who doesn’t want to live forever alone and hopes to participate in the research that will duplicate immortality and generate for her an eternal companion.


One night, Pia’s burgeoning curiosity gets the better of her and she slips through a hole in the compound’s otherwise electrified fence, leaving behind the cold, sterility of the labs for the mysterious and lush surrounding area.  There she encounters a striking young man named Eio, who guides her through the jungle and to the local Ai’oan village.  Pia’s fascination with the native people and her growing attachment to Eio make it impossible to stay away and they stumble headlong into love, despite the complications of her immortality and the clandestine nature of their relationship. 

When the chief scientist, Pia’s mentor, asks her to do the unthinkable in the name of science and immortality, she must make a decision that will alter the course of her life:  Should she stay with the only family she has ever known, and lose her soul in the name of science, or give up her hopes of an immortal companion and run away with Eio?

I read the first 100 pages of Origin while I was visiting family.  I didn’t get a lot of reading done, though not for lack of trying, so when we got home I begged, pleaded, and cajoled my husband into running interference with the kids so that I could spend some quality time with this book.  He kindly consented.  It was heavenly!

Origin lacked the furious, unrelenting intensity of The Hunger Games, a standard to which many YA books are currently being held, but it still thoroughly captured my attention with a creative premise, that contained both mystery, romance, suspense, and several interesting characters.   I was also thrilled to discover that it was a completely stand-alone novel, bucking the current trend of YA trilogies.  Hooray for not having to wait years to read the whole story.  Thank you, Jessica!

I must confess to reading a majority of the book a bit smugly, certain that I knew how it was all going to end, but I did not.  I love that!  As long as I like the ending, anyway.  Origin had both the ending that I subconsciously longed for and the one that I didn’t expect.  I had a great time reading it and I think any fans of romantic, slightly mystical, lightly dystopian science fiction will enjoy the read as well.  

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Clean romance.  Some instances of violence, including death, murder, and suicide.  Not terribly graphic.  Two instances of "biblical" profanity.

Sum it up:  A lovely escapist read (with an ending I did not expect).

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Someone Knows my Name - Lawrence Hill


Summary:  Abducted from Africa as a child and enslaved in South Carolina, Aminata Diallo thinks only of freedom—and of the knowledge she needs to get home. Sold to an indigo trader who recognizes her intelligence, Aminata is torn from her husband and child and thrown into the chaos of the Revolutionary War. In Manhattan, Aminata helps pen the Book of Negroes, a list of blacks rewarded for service to the king with safe passage to Nova Scotia. There Aminata finds a life of hardship and stinging prejudice. When the British abolitionists come looking for "adventurers" to create a new colony in Sierra Leone, Aminata assists in moving 1,200 Nova Scotians to Africa and aiding the abolitionist cause by revealing the realities of slavery to the British public. This captivating story of one woman's remarkable experience spans six decades and three continents and brings to life a crucial chapter in world history.  (summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Aminata’s story is heart-wrenching and amazingly told.  It’s a difficult story to read, as she holds nothing back from what she has experienced.  Hill described the conditions of the slave ships in a way that made my stomach turn.  He details the abuses that were levied on those captured and sold into slavery, and uses Aminata to illustrate how difficult it was for Africans uprooted from their homes, sold across the ocean, and trying to survive in a completely new world. 

Hill focuses his story on the British Loyalists and the struggles and injustices they had to face.  What I found most interesting was the accounts he gave of Freetown and of Aminata’s work with the Abolitionists in England.  It’s a period in history that is unfamiliar to me (we didn’t cover it in World History), and it was a part of the book I felt deserved more attention than it received.

While this book is very well-written, and is single-handedly responsible for my falling behind in my housework (I've been promising my family fresh bread for a week… but who can bake bread when Aminata is witnessing a revolt aboard the slave ship?), there are parts I wish were fleshed out much more.  Years of character development are brushed over, “before I knew it, thirteen years had passed”, relationships develop and fall apart without any real explanation, and it detracted from the book.

Rating:  Three Stars.  Educationally, wow.  The writing is great, but its failings were just a little too much.

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is one to stay away from. While it was handled with the utmost delicacy, there are numerous instances of relations between either married or not yet married couples, instances of slavers or slave owners brutalizing women and Aminata, and some brutality.  It was very difficult to read.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Elephant and Piggie - Mo Willems

Do you know these two characters?  (Pun intended.)  



If not, you're missing out!  Teachers often do author studies.  Mo Willems would be one I would do if I had an elementary classroom.  He has written many books (Check out my review of his Pigeon books here) and so far I've enjoyed all of them.  Because I want to highlight a few and not go overboard, these are three of my favorite Elephant and Piggie books.   



Can I Play Too? is a classic.  Sometimes playing with friends can be tricky.  Especially when it comes to playing with someone who may have a disability or just can't play at the same level as you.  What I love about Can I Play Too? is how accepting both Elephant and Piggie are.  They see the logistics problem, but they don't want to exclude.  While there is a bit of the ridiculous to this story, it makes a great point: even if you can't do something the way you'd hoped or planned, figure out a way to make it work while including everyone.


















Here are some images from the book illustrating their predicament (don't worry: I won't ruin how they resolve it in this post):  (Image from http://www.education.wisc.edu/  and  http://3.bp.blogspot.com/  and   http://3.bp.blogspot.com/  and http://4.bp.blogspot.com/ and  http://arapahoelibraries.org/  and http://nerdybookclub.files.wordpress.com/  and  http://etblex.files.wordpress.com/)
 

  














Have you ever wanted to interact with the author?  What about with the reader of your story?  Mo Willems accomplishes it in this cute book.  I love his humor.  And from my experience, children love his humor.  I've attached a page for you to see firsthand what I mean by kid humor.  We Are in a Book! deals with the idea of something coming to an end, not being ready for something to end, and learning how to cope with it.  Willems has a way of dealing with difficult issues and making it not only understandable for children, but enjoyable for adults.  


Lastly, do you have a friend who tells outrageous stories?  Ones that grow wilder and more outlandish with each telling?  Or, even better, a friend who tells stories that you just can't miss?  If so, and you enjoy it, Elephant is your man.  What I love most about I Broke My Trunk is that you can't predict the actual cause.  This one is just too fun not to share.

These are not all the Elephant and Piggie books.  There are lots, therefore you get to know your favorite characters even better with each book.  As an avid reader I love building relationships with characters, and passing this on to my daughters is a must on my to-do list.

What is your favorite Elephant and Piggie book?

Friday, January 4, 2013

When Crickets Cry - Charles Martin

Summary:  A man with a painful past...a child with a doubtful future...and a shared journey toward healing for both their hearts.

It begins on the shaded town square in a sleepy Southern town.  A spirited seven-year-old has a brisk business at her lemonade stand.  Her latest customer, a bearded stranger, drains his cup and heads to his car.  But the little girl's pretty yellow dress can't quite hide the ugly scar on her chest.  The stranger understands more about it than he wants to admit.  And the beat-up bread truck careening around the corner with its radio blaring is about to change the trajectory of both their lives.  Before it's over, they'll both know there are painful reasons why crickets cry--and that miracles lurk around unexpected corners.  (Summary from book cover and image from http://vyrso.com/)

My Review:  To note, this was a book club pick--not something I'd normally pick up of my own volition.  It's Christian lit, which is fine, but again not something I typically pick up.

My biggest gripe with the book is its predictability.  Long before the twists and climax are foreshadowed I felt you could see them coming.  That was a big disappointment to me.  I also am not typically a sappy book reader.  Combine those two and you can see why I struggled to keep reading this selection.  

That said, the aspects to the book that I did enjoy were the medical descriptions and every once in a while there were some very lucid explanations of morals values that were spot on.  If I were to recommend this book to someone to read it would be for the small section Martin addresses regarding pornography and how it affects the mind.  It is beautifully written and has great wisdom. 

Overall, I felt the book was a bit contrived.  I learned a great deal about the heart, the body, and how doctors are able to perform such amazing feats as switching one person's heart with another.  There were some questions I had regarding the medical policies described--I don't dare go into any more details for fear of ruining the book--as they didn't seem plausible.    There were members of my book club that thoroughly enjoyed the book.  It just wasn't the book for me.

My Rating:  3 stars

For the sensitive reader: Descriptions of medical procedures that possibly could offend those with a weak stomach.  Otherwise, clean.

Sum it up: Predictable with a good message.

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