Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!! Wait, already?!


This year has been wonderful.  We've added new (amazing) reviewers, said goodbye to one, read our fair share of books (good, bad, and ugly), and I think I speak for all of us when I say we're excited to see what 2015 holds.

A few years ago, I set a goal to read at least one non-fiction or classic book a month, and it's become a habit I love.  So, this year, I asked our reviewers what their 2015 Reading Resolutions are, and I thought I'd share.

But you've got to be nice and share your resolutions, too!!

Mindy:  "Read something ... anything!  But especially something that requires IQ points to read."

Emily:  "Read every book club book (rather than just showing up for the food and a night out)."

Kari:  "My resolution is to read 35 books this coming year - whether I review all those, that's too be seen!"

Ashley:  "A book a week."

Lara:  "I saw this fun list and thought I might take a stab at it, with some possible modifications.  Some books will cover more than one checkmark.  I'm working on listing what books I plan for each listing, though some I'll leave open for fun!  But first, I'm finishing my re-read of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  It's a real commitment! :)"

As for me, I love that list Lara's going to use.  But my goal is twofold - break the reading rut and work on absorbing more of what I read.

We wish you the happiest of New Year's days, filled with reading by a fire (or a furnace) and cozy blankets!!

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Hundred-Year House - Rebecca Makkai

Summary: Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.

Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.

In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review: I wanted to like this book more than I did. First off, I liked the writing style. It was easy to get into and read quickly. I don’t like when I have to slog through the writing in order to get to the story. So that was a good thing.  Also, the story is told backwards, which is kind of cool and different. Not shocking and unheard of, but a little outside of the norm. Does this make it confusing? Yes.

But I guess my problem was the story. I mean, I wanted to like the story more. Maybe I’m just insensitive to artists or the artists’ plight or something, but after reading the entire book I was hoping for a little more explanation about why. You know how some books just beg the question why? Like “Why was this written?” “What was the point of this?” This book was like that for me. I just can’t figure out what the point was. The author’s acknowledgement at the end gave what I thought pretty much summed it up: “Artists need a community.” So there ya go. I guess they do? I mean. Sure. They do.

There were some interesting moments and some interesting characters, but by and large I didn’t like any of the characters (I really have a problem with people who have little to no morals and couldn’t care less about it. Also. Antisocial people. Like the DSM definition of “antisocial” wherein they try to ruin other’s lives while posing as a completely normal person. That kind of antisocial). So the characters weren’t likeable and the one character who was interesting is a ghost but is never really discussed at length nor fleshed out (haha), to the point where she actually never became much of anything. So I was left with this rag tag bunch of people (artists, you know, who need a community) and they’re doing weird things and living their [pretty much] immoral lives and there ya go. And by immoral I don’t mean the homosexuality in this book, I just mean in general that the characters do immoral things and don’t really care.

Also—I was confused. I was confused about the characters and what was happening, and sometimes I felt like there were things that were happening that should have been more obvious to me and I should have caught, but I didn’t. I could feel it just out of my reach. Or maybe I wanted there to be something and there wasn’t? I’m still not sure.

In the end, here’s what you have—characters I didn’t personally like with a mundane story with a few blips of weirdness here and there. And artists. But at least it’s all presented well.

My rating: 2 stars.

For the sensitive reader: There isn’t much language although there is some suggested sexual promiscuity, some of it homosexual.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson

Summary: The Herdmans are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, steal, smoke cigars, swear, and hit little kids. So no one is prepared when this outlaw family invades church one Sunday and decides to take over the annual Christmas pageant.

None of the Herdmans has ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation of the tale -- the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating -- has a lot of people up in arms. But it will make this year's pageant the most unusual anyone has seen and, just possibly, the best one ever.

(image from BarnesandNoble.com, summary from Goodreads.com)

My Summary: I randomly selected this from my child's book order to read with her now that she likes chapter books. The description was probably one sentence long, but I figured I knew what the story was about - something unconventional happens at the annual Christmas pageant that make audience members view Christmas through new eyes. I wasn't wrong, but I was pleasantly surprised by the discussions this book sparked with my five-year-old. 

Every year the Christmas pageant is the same. The same children always play the same roles--no one makes a more pious Mary than Alice Wendelken and who better to play Joseph than the pastor's son? This particular year, the regular director of the Christmas pageant must pass the buck because of a broken leg. The narrator's mother is handed the responsibility. (Side note--though this book is narrated in first person, nothing about this narrator is ever revealed. Name, gender, age...all a big question mark. While I suppose this information wasn't necessary--the story was successfully told without it--it still bugs me.)

The Herdmans are the worst kids in town and everybody knows it. The substitute pageant director doesn't quite know what to do when they audition for the Christmas pageant and no one else does. It's obvious that the "regulars" have been bullied into silence, but with everyone else refusing to participate, the director has to cast the Herdmans. The first rehearsal is a disaster. Instead of learning their lines, the Herdmans set everything back by asking what an inn is and why Joseph didn't beat up the innkeeper to get the Son of God a real room? 

The "villains" of the story become more complex as the reader understands that they have never heard details about the real Christmas story before. Their awful behavior becomes more excusable as the reader realizes they've never been taught differently. As their ignorant minds process the Christmas story for the first time, the reader gets to experience the Christmas story for the first time, too, in a way that's hard to imagine. Imogene Herdman's portrayal of Mary may be less pious and a little more rowdy than Alice Wendelken's, but perhaps it was more accurate. Maybe after all she'd been through, Mary would be a little more protective of her infant son, maybe she'd have a smudge of dirt on her face, and maybe she'd truly question the usability of fancy tree sap as a gift. 

The story wasn't too surprising as an adult reader but for my five-year-old, it opened her eyes. This is probably the first story she has been exposed to where the "bad guys" of the book didn't end up as the bad guys. It played on her empathy and understanding for others. The King Herod story line was something my daughter latched onto as well. It's not an aspect of the Christmas story often told. This book sparked a lot of "offline" discussions--mainly about King Herod, bullying, and judging people's behavior based on their knowledge of right and wrong, not our knowledge. 

It was a delightful experience. The exposition was witty. I am sure most of it was beyond the understanding of my five-year-old. Still, it held her attention and made her think and ask questions more than any book we have yet read. 

For the sensitive reader: This book has about three swear words in it that I changed when reading aloud to my child. There is significant emphasis on King Herod's plans to kill the Christ child. 

My rating: Four stars. I've probably have given the story itself 3, but the enlightening discussions with my daughter that came from this book raised it a notch.  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas from Reading for Sanity


Today, during the hustle and the bustle and the wrapping and the last minute shopping and the cacophony of delightful holiday smells, sounds, and sights, we want to wish you an early Merry Christmas. 

We want you to know how grateful we are for you, for a mutual love of books, but mostly, we want you to know how grateful we are for the Savior - for His birth, His life, and His example.  We welcome the opportunity to share that love and that gratitude.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Trouble With Chickens - Doreen Cronin

Summary:  J.J. Tully is a former search-and rescue dog who is trying to enjoy his retirement after years of performing daring missions saving lives. So he’s not terribly impressed when two chicks named Dirt and Sugar (who look like popcorn on legs) and their chicken mom show up demanding his help to track down their missing siblings. Driven by the promise of a cheeseburger, J.J. begins to track down clues. Is Vince the Funnel hiding something? Are there dark forces at work—or is J.J. not smelling the evidence that’s right in front of him?
Bestselling author Doreen Cronin uses her deadpan humor to pitch-perfect effect in her first novel for young readers. Heavily illustrated with black-and-white artwork from Kevin Cornell, this new series is destined to become a classic.  (Summary and image from Amazon.com)

My Review:  I read this with my oldest (8 year old) daughter this summer as we worked through Oregon Battle of the Books list for our summer reading. This was the perfect book for my new reader.  The words are just a big bigger on the page, with just enough white space, images sprinkled throughout and still had the formatting of a chapter book to make her feel confident and competent reading it.  I love this book for emerging independent readers!  The voice is so strong.  The story line is unique enough to keep you guessing what's going to happen next--anticipating the next move is not predictable--and that's super fun for young readers.  I also love that this is a character that has other stories--series are great for building strong, young readers. 

If you have a reluctant reader, regardless of gender, and one you know would love a who-dun-nit plot, please pick this up!  It was a great book to read together as well.

For the sensitive reader:  Super clean and super fun!

Rating: 4.5 stars

Sum it up: A super cute mystery for elementary grade children.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mountain Place of Knowledge - Marshall Chamberlain

 Summary: The burial chamber of a revered Mayan sorceress is uncovered atop a sacrificial pyramid at the Caracol ruins in western Belize. Translation of ancient metallic scrolls and a 1100-year-old codex found in the chamber reveal the existence of a secret entrance to the inside of a mountain. The scrolls refer to the interior as Trinium, the Place of Knowledge, and explain its creation by an advanced civilization A flash of mysterious blue light brings death to a U.N. official, and investigators are sent to Belize to discover the source and locate the secret mountain entrance. What they discover inside is bizarre and unimaginable; mental prodding guides them to the Place of Seeing for the most shocking experience of their lives Leaks of the discoveries cause one nation to determine the mountain poses a threat to world order, and it will take great risks to neutralize the danger. The Mountain is a mesmerizing adventure, scientifically mysterious and metaphysically familiar. Breaking new ground at the speed of light, stalwart characters meet the unknown head on as Chamberlain weaves the first book of the Ancestor Series. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I received a free copy of this in exchange for my honest review.

My Review: Readers of techno-thrillers are fully aware that sometimes you have to suspend technological judgment (or the lack thereof) for the enjoyment of reading. There is, of course, the assumption that the technology will be explained well enough that it’s somewhat believable. That maybe in a decade or so or maybe in some governmental laboratory the kind of technology exists and therefore it’s okay to suspend judgment. That was my first question about this book. The actual “mountain place of knowledge” is kind of a confusing place. Now, admittedly, I’m not really one for sci-fi, so different colored buttons in mountains and ethereal people that float around in a netherspace giving advice may be a little bit outside of my realm of belief, but I think that aside from that, I was actually a little confused.

The way the book started out, I thought it was going to give me a little more explanation to ease my, uh, unease, but that was not to be. To be fair, this is the first book in a series, so maybe that will come later? I don’t know. Sometimes books are confusing on purpose so that you can follow along with the characters who are also confused, but I’m not totally convinced that was the deal for this book. I think I was just a little bit confused. I can see that the author had a clear course mapped out for what was happening and what was supposed to be, and so I think what happened is that he had ideas that were well developed and fleshed out but he was so used to thinking about them and they had become so much a part of him that maybe they were not explained as well to those of us who were not the inventors of the idea.

This book took me a long time to read, despite the fact that it actually moves quite quickly. The chapters are short and lots of stuff is happening, so it’s not like it’s boring or anything. It’s just a long book. Also, there are lots of characters and because the book was long, sometimes it was hard to keep track of someone that I met a long time ago in the reading.

Overall, I thought the book had some pretty interesting ideas. I liked the idea that although the Mountain Place of Knowledge is kind of a far-fetched discovery, there were some very interesting things about it and the author involved a lot of scientists who were researching it so that alone allows for some explanation as the scientists discover different things.  There are a lot of things happening, too, so there is always the hope that in the next book, things really take off and get going after the basic descriptions and characters have been introduced.

My rating: 2.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language in this book, but I think it is milder than in others from this genre. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Artificial Intelligence Revolution - Louis A. Del Monte

Summary: "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution" by Louis A. Del Monte is a warning regarding the threat new artificial intelligence (AI) technology poses to the survival of humankind. Will the future come down to man versus machine, when the singularity is near? Will an artificial intelligence robot be your friend or foe?

Scientists are working relentlessly at improving AI technology for the benefit of man. Evolved technology is everywhere-smart TVs, smart phones, and even smart houses. One day the artificial intelligence of these machines will match our own intelligence-and one day it will exceed the "singularity."

Then what?

Will machines continue to serve us as the balance tips in their favor? These questions are addressed rigorously, their potentialities extrapolated for one reason-the survival of humankind. Are "strong" AI machines (SAMs) a new form of life? Should SAMs have rights? Do SAMs pose a threat to humankind?

Del Monte and other AI experts predict that AI capabilities will develop into SAMs with abilities far beyond what human beings can even fathom. Will they serve us, or will SAMs take an entirely different viewpoint? That question and many more are tackled by Del Monte in this sobering look at the "The Artificial Intelligence Revolution." (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com)

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

My Review: I think I was the perfect audience for this book. Before I read this book, I didn’t really know a ton about artificial intelligence or the singularity, and so you can see how a zealous author would love someone like me—someone malleable, untouched in the ins and outs of AI, but yet someone who has somewhat of a capacity to think (I flatter myself).

So here I am, unaware, and then BAM! It’s like I was drinking from a fire hose. In fact, this book took me quite awhile to read because there is a ton of information coupled with some very strong opinions and so I had to pace myself—you know, come up for air every now and then.

The author is obviously knowledgeable and had a very vested interest in this topic. He’s done a ton of research and a lot of reading, and although he does present some information from both sides, he’s definitely got his opinions, which he heavily supports. Some of his logical discussions are ones that may be seen on a practice version of the LSAT, and if you’ve taken the LSAT, you know what I mean. If this then A then this then B then this then C this so obviously C equals A.

Speaking of the LSAT and therefore school, this book is written very much like a master’s thesis. Even the format is like the published version of someone’s thesis. The resources are there, it presents quotes at the beginning, outlines and then conclusions and wrap-ups after every chapter. Given the heavy nature of the topic and also the lingo and acronyms associated with it, I very much appreciated that. It kept me on track and made it much easier to read. I’m pretty sure I would have been extremely lost if it weren’t for those wrap-ups and conclusions.

By the very nature of the way that the book is written and the author’s passion for the topic, you bettah believe that I’m a little worried that I’m going to become a subhuman in 2040 because I’m not AI. It leaves a little bit of doubt (or maybe more than that!) in that iron-hard shell that many of us have created in believing that artificial intelligence will never take over.

So if you are looking for a good introduction to the topic of the singularity or artificial intelligence and the future, this is definitely a book to check out, if for no other reason that it gives you a healthy dose of fear when you read your newspaper and read about the drones and such. And even though I love my Amazon Prime, after reading this I’m very grateful that the rumor of delivery by drones right to my door was exaggerated. For the time being.

My rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean. There isn’t even any bad language.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Finding Me - Michelle Knight

Summary:  Michelle was a young single mother when she was kidnapped by a local school bus driver named Ariel Castro. For more than a decade afterward, she endured unimaginable torture at the hand of her abductor. In 2003 Amanda Berry joined her in captivity, followed by Gina DeJesus in 2004. Their escape on May 6, 2013, made headlines around the world. 

Barely out of her own tumultuous childhood, Michelle was estranged from her family and fighting for custody of her young son when she disappeared. Local police believed she had run away, so they removed her from the missing persons lists fifteen months after she vanished. Castro tormented her with these facts, reminding her that no one was looking for her, that the outside world had forgotten her. But Michelle would not be broken.

In Finding Me, Michelle will reveal the heartbreaking details of her story, including the thoughts and prayers that helped her find courage to endure her unimaginable circumstances and now build a life worth living. By sharing both her past and her efforts to create a future, Michelle becomes a voice for the voiceless and a powerful symbol of hope for the thousands of children and young adults who go missing every year. (Summary and Image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  How do you go about critiquing or even reviewing an experience like Michelle's?  She survived conditions that go beyond imagination and horror, she emerged with her spirit intact, and she fought back in every way she could.

I was surprised at what a quick read this was.  Having been laid flat (dumb backs are always dumb), I grabbed a couple of books, hobbled upstairs, and was shocked two hours later to find that I'd finished her book.  Her voice is clear, her memory haunting, and my heart broke numerous times as I read what she had to endure.

By far the most redeeming and the most enlightening part of her story is the end - not only did she have the courage to face her torturer (whom is only referred to as "the dude") in court, she has found the strength and the courage to forgive him, to set that terrible, terrible decade behind her, and to make something of herself.  Studying to be a chef, moving forward with plans for a life of her own, it may sound silly, but I was so proud of her for moving forward.  It's not an easy thing to choose to do, but she's chosen not to hide anymore.

My Rating:  Again, this is so hard to rate!  But I'd give it a solid four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Michelle's life before being abducted, enslaved, and tortured wasn't much better.  There are numerous accounts of rape, assault, deviancy, and rough language.  What is saddest is that it's true.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Between Shades of Grey - Ruta Sepetys

Summary:  Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously - and at great risk - documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.  (Summary from back of the book and image from readmanybooks.blogspot.com)

My Review:  Please know that this is NOTHING like 50 Shades of Grey.  I've never read 50 Shades, and have no intention of doing so.  But, this book is totally worth the read.  Before reading this book, I had no idea the crimes committed by the Russians against the Lithuanians.  WWII is filled with horrifying stories of the human race hurting each other, and this is no exception.  Told from the perspective of a teenage girl, you get to see her lose her home, her life, her identity, her future as she knows it, and embark on what must have felt like the longest, most brutal journey of her life.  Death, starvation, sub-zero temperatures, back-breaking work, and no seeming end to the misery shape what Lina endures.  The mix of portrayals of between the other prisoners, guards, and children create a complex tapestry of human experiences during war times. 

My only complaint, which probably shouldn't be called that, is that the story seemed slow, long, drawn-out if you will.  But, this was probably purposeful.  That's how it felt to Lina.  And that's how I'm sure Sepetys meant for the reader to feel.  Because that's how it was for those enduring the time they spent in Russia.  Written in a more simplistic voice, any young reader could get through this book.  It's a fascinating perspective of another WWII experience.  I'm so grateful Sepetys took the time to research the information considering the gag-order that was placed upon those who lived it.

I highly recommend this book!

For the sensitive reader:  Some more mature themes mentioned, but nothing that would prevent me from handing it to a high school student or mature middle school student.

Rating: 4 stars

Sum it up:  Take WWII, jump into Russia, and see what was happening to an entire nation while people were distracted by the atrocities committed by the Germans.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Has Become of You - Jan Elizabeth Watson

Summary: What Has Become of You follows Vera Lundy, an aspiring crime writer and master of self-deprecation who, like many adults, has survived adolescence but hasn’t entirely overcome it. When she agrees to fill in for a private school English teacher on maternity leave, teaching The Catcher in the Rye to privileged girls, Vera feels in over her head. The students are on edge, too, due to the recent murder of a local girl close to their age.

Enter Jensen Willard. At fifteen she’s already a gifted writer but also self-destructive and eerily reminiscent of Vera’s younger self. As the two outcasts forge a tentative bond, a sense of menace enfolds their small New England town. When another student, new to the country, is imperiled by her beliefs, Vera finds herself in the vortex of danger—and suspicion.

With the threat of a killer at large, the disappearance of her increasingly worrisome pupil, and her own professional reputation at stake, Vera must thread her way among what is right by the law, by her students, and by herself. In this poignant page-turner, populated with beguiling characters and sharp social insights, coming-of-age can happen no matter how old you are. (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com)

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review: So. I’ve been trying to decide what it is that I didn’t like about this book. It’s not the writing—the writing was fine. It’s easy to get into, easy to read, and moves along at a fairly quick pace. It wasn’t the way the book looked (and yes, this matters). It’s actually a really nice, well-made book that feels good in your hand and has a nice weight to it. So I think what it was the main character. I really, really didn’t like the main character.

The problem is, I think I was supposed to like the main character. At least I was supposed to relate to her or understand where she was coming from or something? Or maybe feel sorry for her?  I don’t know. All I could think of was how creepy she was, actually. One thing I do know for sure is that I was supposed to think that the high school girl stalking down the teacher was creepy. And yeah, she was. I mean, I could totally see her as one of those troubled, manipulative girls that is obviously trying to find someone to rope into her dysfunctional (and in this, case, lethal) ways, but I don’t know. I guess I could buy that easily enough. Yeah, she was a bad girl. She should have been in juvey and I’m surprised that she made it as far as she did in this bookland because in the real world, she would have been with all of her other sociopathic comrades. She totally had everyone hoodwinked (because her parents were obviously stupid) but the teacher? Why, oh why was she so weak and obviously ridiculous?

It’s hard not to give away what happens. Sure, this book does have some action, but the apex can’t be revealed because then there’s really nothing left if I do—but the teacher just totally bugged me. She violated not only every ethical teacher protocol out there, but left me with a bad taste in my mouth thinking she was just kind of a loser who had made stupid decisions her whole life and this was just one of about a bajillion. Give or take. I’m sure if one of my teacher friends read this they would have been totally bugged by her and her ridiculous shenanigans.  I sincerely hope my children never have a teacher like this. I am going to be more vigilant about that from now on.

And I don’t know. Maybe I just really didn’t like being in such a weak character’s head. Not that the writing of the character was weak. No, that was strong. I guess that’s why I’m so bugged by her weakness.  It made me uncomfortable to see how she thought and acted, and I couldn’t help but think that either this was someone that really wouldn’t exist or someone I really didn’t want to know. And maybe this was the point? I’m not sure.

My Rating: 2 Stars. I hate weak characters I don’t like.

For the Sensitive Reader: This book has some minor language and violence (though it is not really graphic) and minor teenage sexual exploits. It is pretty standard for adult fiction fare.

Monday, December 8, 2014

An Uncommon Blue - R.C. Hancock

Summary:  In Télesphore, the glowing color of a person’s palm determines their place in society, and touching hands with another mixes the colors permanently. When sixteen-year-old Bruno accidentally kills a royal soldier, he goes from favored to fugitive. Now Bruno's only chance at survival is to become someone else. That means a haircut, a change of wardrobe, and most important, getting rid of his once cherished Blue. Now he’s visiting parts of town he never knew existed, and making friends with people he would've crossed the street to avoid only weeks ago. At the last minute, Bruno’s parents arrange a deal to clear his name and get his life back. All Bruno has to do is abandon those in the Red slums that look to him as a leader and let an innocent Green boy die in his place. (Summary and image from Goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  Bruno has an easy life. He's popular, he's a rugby player, he's almost guaranteed one of the best jobs out there - a fire surgeon - and all because his hand burns blue.  That all changes when a pudgy, awkward, frightened kid asks him one small favor.  Things go wrong.  Bruno is no longer a Blue - he's a Melange, a combination of two different colors.  Things just go from bad to worse with the death of a poker, the royal soldiers charged with protecting the Blues.  Bruno must flee - and in doing so, he discovers more truths about his society (and his place in it) than he dared dream.

Hancock has created a whole world with a whole history and just thrusts the reader into the middle of it.  His characters are well-developed, they grow (or don't, depending on whether they should), they evolve, and they demand you care about them.  The story moves very quickly - sometimes, a little too quickly.  I had too many questions about the fire: why fire?  What was the purpose of the fire? Why the caste system?  And why are Melanges (mixed colors) more valuable than pure Reds or Greens?  Some of my questions were answered as I read, but those that weren't, and the terminology Hancock uses, had my head spinning.  

That being said, however, the story was enough to incite me to keep going.  While rather predictable, I definitely wouldn't mind checking out the upcoming second book of this series.  Some of the side characters (like Bruno's grandma, his parents, Baptiste) I care too much about to never see again.  Some, I just want to see get their just desserts, and some are just too deliciously insane to cast aside.  I want to know what happens!  And I want answers!

My Rating:  3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader:  There is an allusion to an assault and the book starts with a murder.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Looking For Alaska - John Greene

Summary: before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" [Francois Rabelais, poet] even more.  He heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe.  Because down the hall is Alaska Young.  The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself.  She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.
after.  Nothing is ever the same.  (Summary from back of the book and image from www.ala.org)

My Review:  This book was recommended to me by a teaching friend I highly admire, and I'm glad she did.  Did you have to read Catcher in the Rye?  Did you hate it as much as I did, despite understanding the point of reading a 'coming of age' story?  Hated it.  Still hate it.  Would probably still want to throw it across the room if I had to read it again.  This book is nothing like that.  While I cannot relate to the wilder side of these kids, I can relate to getting caught up in the world of your high school friends.  And I can relate to studying my way through tough classes that make you grapple with subjects you're not sure you can master.  I can relate to the angst of unrequited love and at times finally attaining it, or so you think, only to lose it.  There is only one aspect I can't relate to, as having not experienced it while in high school.  And I don't dare tell you what that is, lest I give away the story.  And that would be a crime.

What makes this story so gripping is the reality of the characters, developed so believably, in a much more current day setting despite it being a boarding school--we really don't have those here in Oregon that I'm aware of.  And the way the characters react or act, depending on the situation, is so real.  So real because sometimes you think back on a situation, obsess over a situation, and kick yourself over and over again because you know what you should have done and yet you didn't.  And that regret, that frustration, that anger at yourself is so relate-able, so much the human experience.  And this is why it doesn't surprise me that this is a huge hit with teens.

Please note the information in for the sensitive reader below.  This very easily could offend some readers and I want parents or teachers to be aware of the more mature content.

For the sensitive reader:  Definitely not for a young YA reader.  In fact, I'm not sure some parents would want their children reading this until they were adults.  Depiction of one sexual experience--definitely not graphic, but still could be shocking for some.

Rating: 4 stars

Sum it up:  A coming of age story dealing with loss.

Read Heather's review here:  http://readingforsanity.blogspot.com/2013/11/looking-for-alaska-john-green.html

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Captain No-Beard Series - Carole P. Roman

Series Summary: A young boy named Alexander, his cousin Hallie, and three stuffed animals board his bed and their world is transformed! Set sail with Captain No Beard! (Summary from Captain No-Beard's Facebook page, images from goodreads.com.  I was provided with the series in exchange for my honest review.)

Being a captain is hard.  Sometimes, using your imagination isn't as easy as you want it to be, especially when not everyone sees eye to eye.  But Alexander - I mean, Captain No Beard is up to the challenge!  He and his faithful crew set sail and bump into a mermaid in this first adventure. 

                                      
Part of the reason I'm so happy to have the Captain No Beard series in my home is the relationships my kids are able to form with the characters.  All kids lose their tempers.  All kids struggle with learning something, whether it be their directions, reading, sharing, or ownership.
I've found that my kids tend to learn ideals better when they're hearing them in parable form - apparently, lecturing until I'm blue in the face doesn't work.  Captain No Beard's series has given us opportunities to talk about how to share, how to play with others, how not to be a bossy-pants, all in ways that my kids are more willing to learn from.

 The stories are easy enough that my first grader (who isn't the most confident reader ... but only because she's comparing herself to my oldest who is frighteningly good) can read them happily, but fun enough for me to be willing to curl up with my youngest and read them with him repeatedly.  

 One of the things I've come to expect from Ms. Roman's books (if you haven't noticed, we review her fairly frequently on the blog) is the ability to take a simple, predictable, straightforward story and present it in such a way to pique curiosity and encourage conversation.  Anyone could plunk out a story, but not everyone has the ability to write a story in such a way to invite discussion.  And if you've ever tried to have a discussion with a three year old, you know what I'm talking about!
Every single story we've read from Captain No Beard has rung true.  My kids have all been able to relate to the conflict, and have been able to come away a little bit better prepared for the next time such a conflict arises.  They have been a happy edition to our shelves.

My Rating:  For the series, 4.5 stars

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Curious Man - Neal Thompson

Summary:  "A Curious Man" is the marvelously compelling biography of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world's strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable. 
As portrayed by acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson, Ripley's life is the stuff of a classic American fairy tale. Buck-toothed and cursed by shyness, Ripley turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world. After selling his first cartoon to "Time "magazine at age eighteen, more cartooning triumphs followed, but it was his "Believe It or Not" conceit and the wildly popular radio shows it birthed that would make him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time and spur him to search the globe's farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena. 

Ripley delighted in making outrageous declarations that somehow always turned out to be true--such as that Charles Lindbergh was only the sixty-seventh man to fly across the Atlantic or that "The Star Spangled Banner" was "not "the national anthem. Assisted by an exotic harem of female admirers and by ex-banker Norbert Pearlroth, a devoted researcher who spoke eleven languages, Ripley simultaneously embodied the spirit of Peter Pan, the fearlessness of Marco Polo and the marketing savvy of P. T. Barnum. 

In a very real sense, Ripley sought to remake the world's aesthetic. He demanded respect for those who were labeled "eccentrics" or "freaks"--whether it be E. L. Blystone, who wrote 1,615 alphabet letters on a grain of rice, or the man who could swallow his own nose. 

By the 1930s Ripley possessed a vast fortune, a private yacht, and a twenty-eight room mansion stocked with such "oddities" as shrunken heads and medieval torture devices, and his pioneering firsts in print, radio, and television were tapping into something deep in the American consciousness--a taste for the titillating and exotic, and a fascination with the fastest, biggest, dumbest and most weird. Today, that legacy continues and can be seen in reality TV, YouTube, "America's Funniest Home Videos, Jackass, MythBusters" and a host of other pop-culture phenomena. 

In the end Robert L. Ripley changed "everything. "The supreme irony of his life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of A Curious Man in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  I think we've all grown up with the Ripley brand - I vaguely remember the "Believe it or Not" shows from my childhood (and sadly, remember the Dean Cain iteration a little better).  My son has a Ripley's Believe it or Not full of trivia and amazing facts that he loves.  But I'd never given much thought to the man behind the machine - Robert L. Ripley.

Neal Thompson has done an incredible job telling the story of Bob Ripley.  From his humble and inauspicious beginnings (fatherless early on, didn't excel at school, but found drawing on everything) to his incredible rise to fame, I was entranced with Thompson's telling.  Ripley was truly a self-made man, taking a raw talent for drawing and honing it, taking necessary risks, and by making calculated decisions (and with a little bit of luck), he was able to overcome job losses, build an empire during the Depression, and truly create a place for himself in history.

Thompson depicts Ripley as Howard Hughes crossed with P.T. Barnum -- a genius and giddy admirer of the macabre, Ripley sought out the fantastic, the horrific, the amazing, and the truly mind-boggling worldwide.  Unlike Barnum, who prided himself in tricking or duping the public, Ripley was determined to only present that which was true.  As I read, however, Ripley seemed to also resemble Hugh Hefner - down to the penchant for harem-like guests and an inability to not appear in public in a dressing gown.   

Like most artistic individuals who storm into history, it was difficult reading about some aspects of Ripley's life.  Especially as he aged and those who were dear to him either passed away or fell out of his life, he seemed to lose control of his emotional state.   His health suffered for his art (whether that be radio, television, or his cartoons), and with it, so did his personal relationships.  It broke my heart.

You know how occasionally you pick up a book and dive into it without thinking you wanted to read about or learn about the subject?  This was one of those books for me.  I was intrigued, but by midway through, I had a difficult time putting the book down.  Ripley may have had some unlikeable qualities, but his story is one of endurance, hard work, ingenuity, and, as Thompson asserts, may be the strangest of all.

My Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader:  Ripley was vocal about his disdain for monogamy.  He was a womanizer, drank heavily, and was emotionally abusive to his companions later in life.  However, Thompson handles the details with tact.

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