Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spooktacular Books Revisited

We originally posted this last year, but with Halloween around the corner, it's a great list to revisit!  Have any favorite spooky must-reads we should check out?  Let us know!


There's something about reading in the fall.  The crisp air, the lead-up to Halloween, fresh apple cider ... I think it may be my favorite time of year, and there's nothing better than indulging in some spooky classics to prepare yourself!  The best part about reading these just might be the icy fingers of imagination running up your spine as you lose yourself in the words.  Here are some of my favorite perennial Halloween reads (in no particular order).

A delightfully spooky read for the whole family.  I'm thinking it's time to introduce my son to this classic!
What can I say about Rebecca?  The mystery, the love, Manderley itself, what a wonderful October read!
Harry Potter is the perfect October read for families.  Spooky, fun, and magical!
If a book can scare me in the middle of summer in my backyard, it's a GIVEN for Spook Season!
For a work that Shelley meant to be a short story, this has stood the test of time, and can certainly scare anyone!
The battle between ourselves ... is there anything scarier than the shadows of ourselves we don't want to face?
 Shivers.  This will certainly give you shivers.
Has anyone else been watching the new BBC "Sherlock"?  
Oh, my goodness, the BBC does adaptions right!
From the first line, "Once upon a midnight dreary ..." I feel transported to a foggy, cold, rainy fall evening.  It just gets better from there!
Again, what can be more terrifying than facing ourselves?
Any Christie novel is good in October, but this one takes the cake!
Collins is wordy.  But if you can power through, this book will certainly get you in an Halloween-y mood.
I don't know what it was about the late 1800s, but they wrote some wonderfully scary novels!
In a complete departure from the lovely "Anne of Green Gables" series, Montgomery explores love stories that break the barrier of death.  Not "Sixth Sense" scary, but lightly spooky!
Okay, this one isn't so scary as it is simply thrilling, but it's definitely worth a read!
I don't like Wuthering Heights at all.  I don't.  
But if I had to read it, it'd only be in October!

Monday, October 28, 2013

And Then There Were None


Summary:  First there were ten--a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they're unwilling to reveal--and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.

My Review:  Rarely you find an author that you love so much that you don’t even need to read the premise of their newest book, you just buy it.  Agatha Christie is on my shortlist of authors I trust implicitly, and this book is the one that introduced me to her.  I love mystery.  I love books that make me think, that make me search for the truth, and this one, oh, my goodness!  Years after reading it for the first time, I still find my heart racing In the last couple of scenes.  I still get goose bumps at the reveal.  It is a perfect example of why Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery.

As the number-one best-selling mystery novel, ever, this is one mystery that has withstood the test of time.  The twists and turns are so intricate, the characters so well-developed, it’s impossible to not feel like you’ve been held “captive” on the island with the guests.  And the ending.  That ending!!  I bow to Dame Agatha Christie – this one is NOT one to miss!

My Rating:  Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are ten murders committed in a variety of fashions.

This novel was originally published under the name "Ten Little [Bad word deleted]", and sometimes under "Ten Little Indians", after a british nursery rhyme.   

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Charles Dickens

Summary:  Edwin Drood is contracted to marry Orphan Rosa, but they break the engagement off-and soon afterwards Edwin disappears. Is it murder? And is his jealous uncle-a sinister choirmaster with a double life and designs on Rosa-the killer? Dickens died before completing the story, leaving the mystery unsolved and encouraging successive generations of readers to turn detective. In addition to its tantalizing crime, the novel also offers a characteristically Dickensian mix of the fantastical world of the imagination and a vibrantly journalistic depiction of gritty reality.(Image and summary taken from goodreads.com)

My Review: October is a perfect time for spooky mysteries, good books, and suspense.  What better time to read Dickens' last novel - the one he was writing when he died, before he could actually reveal the murderer?   

There are a few things with Dickens' last novel that frustrated me.  First, I have always found Dickens an amazing author of characters.  Within the first minute or two of meeting a character, I have always found myself either adoring or despising the character, just as Dickens intends.  There were some characters that lived up to this reputation, but one pivotal character so annoyed me that I found myself hoping she either was the one murdered (unlikely, as her name isn't Edwin Drood) or the murderess.  I had a difficult time empathizing with her, which made the whole mystery seem contrived.  Second, the focus of the novel seems to switch a third of the way through.  It's as though Dickens began by penning an anti-romantic novel, and then changed his mind after the first serial was published.  It gave me a little whiplash. (Sidenote, after writing this review, I did a little digging ... and it turns out that's exactly what happened!)

That being said, it was quite a good read.  I liked trying to guess where Dickens was planning on taking his characters.  I've always admired Dickens' ability to introduce so many seemingly unrelated characters and tie them together at the very end, and I enjoyed trying to piece together who would come into play and when.  Unfortunately, there's no telling whether I was right in my assumptions ... but I like to think I was!  He certainly surprised me more than once with tie-ins I had never expected.  I would have loved to have read a finished novel, but luckily with a little cyber-digging, I was able to find quite a few outlines left in his papers and statements he had made to his relatives that hint at the resolution.  And there's nothing wrong with an excellent cliff-hanger!

My Rating:  3.5 stars


For the sensitive reader:  Dickens tackles the Opium trade.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie

Summary:  Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation.

Born with a variety of medical problems, he is picked on by everyone but his best friend.  Determined to receive a good education, Junior leaves the rez to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Indian is the school mascot.  Despite being condemned as a traitor to his people and enduring great tragedies, Junior attacks life with wit and humor and discovers a strength inside of himself that he never knew existed.  Written with raw emotion by acclaimed writer Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his first novel for young adults, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one unlucky boy trying to rise above the life everyone expects him to live.  (Summary from book cover and image from en.wikipedia.org)

My Review:  I've been hearing about this book for quite a few years now and just haven't gotten around to reading it until now, when it's next up for our book club discussion.  And man am I mad at myself for not reading it sooner!  It's hilarious!  I had some expectation that it would be--everyone I know who's read it say so.  But, I often go into books that come with rave reviews with skepticism.  This one did not fail me.  Alexie's humor is spot on.  He manages to pull off awkward, insecure and immature 14-year-old boy spot on.

All that aside, this book would be what it is without the cartoons.  Junior is an artist--budding and definitely not trained in classical art, but his drawings add depth that you couldn't get any other way.  The art for the story was drawn by Ellen Forney.  Below is an example of just one of his hilarious depictions of the people in his life.

 It feels, at the beginning, that Junior doesn't have a chance in life--so much is against him.  One of the strongest messages in the book is to fight hard for what you desire; Junior does just that.  He manages to survive being an outsider, changing schools, being rejected by his own, losing more people than a teen should have to endure in one year, and many other trials.  Yet, Junior comes out on top.  He has some fantastic inner dialogues and self-analysis.  If only all teenage males were able to understand themselves so clearly.

While some will find this offensive, if you've ever spent time in a poverty-ridden area where hope is limited and humor is all you have, you'll know that what Alexie draws out is fairly accurate.  It's not pretty, but it's real.  It's difficult and violent, but there's beauty there as well.  People are flawed, life isn't fair, and everywhere you look it seems like there's just another barrier you must somehow get past; and yet, if you really want it, you can overcome.

I left this book with a great sense of hope.  For some students, this is the only kind of book that is real, that isn't so foreign from their experience that they can actually relate to it.  And for that, I believe it's a great option for students.  Just know that it isn't for everyone.  It might just be the book for a struggling reader in your classroom.  It's funny, it's emotional, it's poignant.  And just to throw a last plug for the book, I learned a bit more about Native American current culture.

For the sensitive reader:  Definitely swearing, crass humor, and violence, but in a light-hearted way that depicts the story authentically.

Rating: 4 stars

Sum it up: Ever been caught in two worlds?  If so, you'll be able to relate.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Case of the Missing Donut - Alison McGhee

Summary:  The sheriff and his deputy dog have been charged with a mission: to bring a dozen donuts home safely. All seems to be going well until the young sheriff peeks inside the box to check on the tasty treats. They’re practically calling his name, and in the blink of an eye (and with just a few nibbles), a donut disappears! Wherever could that missing donut be? Luckily, this is one mystery the sheriff and his deputy are sure to bring to a close.  (Image and summary taken from goodreads.com)

My Review:  What happens when the Sheriff becomes a suspect?  How is he supposed to solve the mystery of the missing donut when the evidence is right under his own nose?

My daughter and I both found this story delightful. Isabel Roxas' illustrations are darling, and the way that the story is printed makes it for such a visually fun book.  Clara loved the mystery aspect, and I loved the way the Sheriff's parents handled the situation.  It was a great little bedtime story, and one that my daughter immediately put into the "Again, again!" pile!

There is such a benefit to picture books.  Not only do they inspire a love of reading, but they provide visual clues to new vocabulary for both budding and established readers.  My daughter's class has been talking about "reading the pictures", using the visual clues to stimulate their imagination and help them envision the story more fully.  In fact, my son's second grade teacher has been encouraging us to read more picture books with our second graders!

My Rating: 4.5 stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Never fear, the guilty party gets apprehended in the end!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Revolutionary Mothers - Carol Berkin

Summary:  The American Revolution was a home-front war that brought scarcity, bloodshed, and danger into the life of every American. In this groundbreaking history, Carol Berkin shows us how women played a vital role throughout the conflict.

The women of the Revolution were most active at home, organizing boycotts of British goods, raising funds for the fledgling nation, and managing the family business while struggling to maintain a modicum of normalcy as husbands, brothers and fathers died. Yet Berkin also reveals that it was not just the men who fought on the front lines, as in the story of Margaret Corbin, who was crippled for life when she took her husband’s place beside a cannon at Fort Monmouth. This incisive and comprehensive history illuminates a fascinating and unknown side of the struggle for American independence.  (Image and summary taken from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I started out so excited to read this book.  After two months of not reading for my challenge, I was finally back on track – and what a better read than to gain some new heroines of the American Revolution during July?!  Perfect pairing, right?  When I set out for our library (oh, the adventures of this new library system – the stories I can tell already!), I saw this on display, and the cover promising detailed accounts of women’s support and strength during the revolution.  However, only about a third of the book actually deals with women who supported the American Revolution and that research is shallow at best.  The women who are discussed are done so briefly, with their contributions, personal history, and impact rarely taking more than three paragraphs.  The second two-thirds of the book deal with loyalist women, wives of Hessian generals, Native American women, and African-American women who happened to be in America at the time of the Revolution.  It made the whole book come across as bitter and vengeful – and while I understand that war is terrible and too often it’s the women left behind who suffer the most, I felt that it was misplaced research.

Overall, this book was very poorly put together.  I had a writing professor offer me a wonderful piece of advice my sophomore year.  He knew I had my major picked out and my courses laid out to graduation, so he counseled me to choose every paper topic I could to support what would eventually be my senior thesis.  His point was that when I reached that point, my thesis would essentially write itself, as I would have already done the research and refined my argument.  This book felt like the antithesis of that advice – like Berkin had done all this research but didn’t really have anywhere to stick it or to make it cohesive, so she crammed it into one tome.  It took me nearly a month to read, mainly because I’d get so bored by the lack of substance I’d start playing Candy Crush (seriously), or do the dishes, or just watch a show.   When she would breach a subject that offered promise, she either copped out with “Tales have been written”  or “Countless history books have documented …”.  Yes?  And did you research those?  Because instead of checking out every single book that may have ever mentioned a woman who lived during this time, I checked out yours.  I want those stories.  Don’t make me go do your research, just do it properly! 

This was a frustrating read.  I found it shallow, unfocused, without coherent argument, and disappointing.

My Rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is a chapter devoted to the handling of rapes on both sides of the war.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Charlotte's Web - E.B. White

Summary:  Wilbur was lovingly raised by a girl named Fern.  But now he's a barn pig.  He's bored and lonely--until he meets Charlotte, the beautiful grey spider who also lives in the barn.

Charlotte thinks of a wonderful way to save Wilbur from a pig's unhappy fate.  Her clever plan will delight you, in this famous story Charlotte's Web.  (Summary from back of the book and image from Amazon.com)

My Review:  Reading to my daughter every night I've tried to stretch her listening attention span and push her past picture books.  This book came to mind, as I hadn't read this book in years.  Seeing as my daughters are deathly afraid of spiders, I was unsure how this book would be received. 

Between painting a picture of an old county fair, to real farm life, to Charlotte's attachment to animals, this book was the perfect fit to expose my daughters to something they have very little schema for.  We'd just gone to the state fair, where they saw all sorts of animals and experiences the raw sights, sounds, smells that accompany farm life.  Therefore, this book was more real to them than if we hadn't had those experiences.  I believe this was the first time my daughters realized where bacon came from, as we had to have a discussion as to why Mr. Zuckerman (the farmer) would want to kill Wilbur.

This book is written so sweetly, so simply, and yet touches on matters that are deep and poignant.  To be loved, to have someone believe the best in you when you may not deserve it or haven't earned that love yet, is an amazing message.  Just ponder on that.  If we had a world where people did this, truly loved before judging, I can't even imagine how much better it would be.  That, all by itself, is the reason this book is a classic.  Charlotte is an unlikely loveable character, being a spider and all.  Wilbur is so simple-minded and unassuming: he is a baby pig.  And yet the story unravels why we need each other, why selflessness is so beautiful, and capitalizes on what we all know deep down: how important it is to love and be loved in return.

I have to say, I believe this is a story everyone should read.  Everyone.

***SPOILER***

One of my favorite moments while reading this book aloud to my girls was a moment that happened about when Charlotte is about to die.  My oldest daughter got all teary-eyed and said, "No!  Not Charlotte!"  I turned to her surprised and said, "But, you hate spiders."  And her reactions was priceless, "Mom," said with that all-knowing 'duh' voice, "it's a book.  Not real life."  Touche, my child, touche. 

For the sensitive reader:  Read away.  Besides an inevitable death--an honest depiction of the cycle of life--this story is as clean as they come.

Rating: 5 Stars--it's a classic for a reason.

Sum it up: A story of friendship, ingenuity, a small town and nostalgic days past.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Orange is the New Black - Piper Kerman

Summary: With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
Summary from book, cover photo from indiebound.org.

My Review: I first became interested in this title after listening to multiple talks and interviews with Piper Kerman on NPR. Piper had spent several months in a minimal security prison after being convicted of drug trafficking, a crime she committed a decade before being charged when she helped smuggle drug money into a foreign country. Piper entered the prison feeling sorry for herself but once inside it didn't take long for her to gain a greater understanding of the severity of her crime as she meets the women whose lives the drug industry has destroyed.

If you have watched the Netflix series based on this book you are familiar with the dramatic scenes, full of shocking moments that at once sicken you and pull you in. Unfortunately I can't say the same for the book. While certainly interesting, the book feels a bit disjointed, moving from one scene to the next without any recognizable transitions. The story also lacks detail. I kept yearning to know more about the characters, the moments of daily prison life and Piper's deeper thoughts, only to be disappointed. I also felt that Piper put too much effort into making herself out to be likable. I could live with all of these flaws but then comes the very poor ending that barely touches on what Piper did once she got out. I longed for more information on the gals Piper befriended while in prison but this information only barely presented itself.

For all my complaints I must admit there were some very good aspects to this story. First, it provides a general overview of life within a women's prison, an interesting topic. Secondly Piper's growth while inside the system was a pleasure to behold. She does seems to realize the bigger role her crime played in getting drugs to the addict and feels genuine remorse for her actions. Finally, the book does make one ponder the role of our justice system. It brings to light the fact that these women are not getting the help they need to be constructive members of society once their sentences are served. These women are being locked up and then released with very little training on how to survive in the world outside. In this sense it really is a sad story, and one worth reading.

My Rating: 3 Stars

To sum it up: A PG-13 version of the hit Netflix show and a realistic glance into life inside a women's penitentiary.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Secret Zoo - Bryan Chick

Summary:  When three friends link a girl's disappearance to unusual activity at their local zoo, they discover that each exhibit holds a hidden passage to a secret zoo kingdom. To rescue their friend, the children must band with the animals, enter this mysterious world, and embark on an exciting adventure in the first book of an epic series for middle-grade readers. (Image and summary taken from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Megan swears she saw monkeys running across the elementary school roof.  Suddenly, she’s filling a journal … until she disappears.  Her friends, the Action Scouts, are devastated and are bound and determined to figure out what happened to their friend.

I was recommended this book for my son, and wanted to preview it to see if it was okay for him.  Chick assumes his readers are intelligent and adventurous, and he has created a world I know I’d like to step into.  The initial mystery may have been solved, but not without opening another can of worms or two.   There were times I was a little annoyed that the story was a little juvenile – but then I had to remember that this was a children’s book.  A thirty-something mom isn’t exactly the target audience.

This is a book that would be perfect for animal lovers that are either high-level readers in Third grade or Fourth grade and up.

I look forward to reading the second book in this series!

My rating: Four stars


For the sensitive reader:  There are two battles that may get really intense for children.  There are also mythical creatures wreaking havoc.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Push - D.P. Davidson

Summary:  Kale Carson was barely fourteen when her mother married a self important man. He came from nowhere, the man she and her brother called the General, and took them away from everything they'd ever known. When their mother retreated within herself, the General filled their heads with fearful plans for the future.

Then Kale found a friend, someone she could confide in, and she felt she had a chance at a normal existence. Off on an adventure, it should have been the time of her life--but betrayal and heartbreak waited around the corner.

Trying to pick up the pieces, she forges on alone but the General's plans include her and he's decided it's time to reclaim her. (Summary and image taken from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I couldn’t put this book down!  It’s a good thing my kids were well into the lazy days of summer and didn’t really want parental intervention, because once I started, I couldn’t have intervened if necessary.  Davidson’s main character Kale was relatable, intelligent, and true to the world Davidson had created around her.  My heart ached for the losses she had to endure, the betrayals and uncertainty she dealt with, but I was simultaneously elated at each little victory.  She’s a girl who doesn’t want to fight, but will if necessary.

I can always tell if a book is worth recommending if days after I’ve finished I’m still wondering how the characters are doing now, or wondering about the backstories of the characters.   I certainly found myself thinking about Kale and Adam, wondering about the General – truly a creepy bad guy if there ever was one, and curious as to the world that they found themselves trying to create.   Davidson did an excellent job answering enough to leave no confusion, but leaving enough open to allow for “reader participation” in the novel.  It made for a very fun, quick read.

My Rating: Four stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few fight scenes. 

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