Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Announcement: Hiatus

Good morning, Readers!  

I've debated about this post and this decision for quite some time.

Reading is one of my passions in life.  It makes me who I am.  Unfortunately, another integral part of who I am involves my physical prowess.  I'm an epically clumsy individual. Truly, it's miraculous that the only bones I've ever broken are my pinkie toes and my pinkie.  I've alluded to my back in the past and my initial surgery was immensely successful.  So successful, in fact, that I felt more capable than I was, and I've reinjured the same disc.  Tomorrow,  I go in for the same surgery to correct the damage.

After consulting with our amazing reviewers and Mindy, we've all made the decision to put the blog on a month-long hiatus.

We're not going anywhere, I promise! I have some posts scheduled on our Facebook page, so you don't forget about us, but until I'm able to sit for two minutes without pain, we won't be publishing reviews here.  We have a wide variety of reviews scheduled, some incredible, some to watch out for, and some that may ruffle feathers (but that's the business of opinions!)  Look for us in May, and I look forward to catching up with you, then!!


Monday, March 16, 2015

Whisper Hollow - Chris Cander

Summary: Set in a small coal-mining town, a debut novel full of secrets, love, betrayal, and suspicious accidents, where Catholicism casts a long shadow and three courageous women make choices that will challenge our own moral convictions.

One morning in Verra, a town nestled into the hillsides of West Virginia, the young Myrthen Bergmann is playing tug-of-war with her twin, when her sister is killed. Unable to accept her own guilt, Myrthen excludes herself from all forms of friendship and affection and begins a twisted, haunted life dedicated to God. Meanwhile, her neighbor Alta Krol longs to be an artist even as her days are taken up caring for her widowed father and siblings. Everything changes when Myrthen marries the man Alta loves. Fourteen years later, we meet Lidia, a teenage girl in the same town, and her precocious son, Gabriel. When Gabriel starts telling eerily prescient stories that hint at Verra’s long-buried secrets, it’s not long before the townspeople begin to suspect that the boy harbors evil spirits—an irresistible state of affairs for Myrthen and her obsession with salvation. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I like books that, from the very first sentence, suck you in, set the tone, and demand your attention. Admittedly, a lot of books do this, but then they don’t deliver. By the time you’re a few chapters in, you feel kind of duped. I like the books that really suck you in, and that, after sucking you in, can back it up with a compelling story and good writing. It’s a rare book that has both. This is not to say that some books don’t survive on one or the other, because that’s okay, but if a book has both? Well.

Whisper Hollow has both. I love that right from the start, the writing is solid. This is rarer than you think. A lot of authors can tell a good story, but they’re not great writers. They’re passable and it doesn’t ruin the book, but it is a great author indeed who actually writes well and has a good story and can maintain it. Cander definitely does this. Her writing is compelling and beautiful, but accessible as well. Being accessible is key. There are authors who write beautifully, but their writing is a slog to get through. Not true with this book. The writing is beautiful and well-crafted and easy to read. This, my friends, is a great combination. It’s not just not bugging you, but it adds to the story and is a better book because of it.

I also really enjoyed the story of this book. It has a lot of heartache but it also has some great ups, too. It takes place in West Virginia, in the coal mines and mining towns, so right there you know that it’s not going to be all rainbows and sunshine. It’s a hard life there, and this book does a great job of weaving a story that doesn’t vilify or glamorize things unnecessarily. The characters are believable, too. No one is too good or too evil, and like real people there are some that have more good or more evil but no one is infallible and that makes them very relatable.

I have to admit that at the end, I almost couldn’t finish the book because there was a part I saw coming—hoped it wasn’t coming, dared the author not to do it, etc.—but I just had to because I had to know. That is the sign of a good book, peeps. That you care enough about what is going on and are caught up enough in the characters and the environment that you almost can’t bring yourself to read about a disaster you see coming, but you have to in the end. No matter what.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book would be rated PG-13. There is some sexual content, including a rape scene, as well as violence. It is not excessive or outside of the realm of the genre.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Redwall - Brian Jacques

Summary:  As the inhabitants of Redwall Abbey bask in the glorious Summer of the Late Rose, all is quiet and peaceful. But things are not as they seem. Cluny the Scourge, the evil one-eyed rat warlord, is hell-bent on destroying the tranquility as he prepares to fight a bloody battle for the ownership of Redwall. This dazzling story in the Redwall series is packed with all the wit, wisdom, humor, and blood-curdling adventure of the other books in the collection, but has the added bonus of taking the reader right back to the heart and soul of Redwall Abbey and the characters who live there.

My Review:  Do you remember the PBS Redwall series that aired in the mid-to-late 90s?  My brothers were obsessed.  It was one of those shows that I never actually watched, but I could probably still sing the opening song, and I had a rudimentary knowledge of the characters.

I was lamenting to my mom that I needed a good series to hook my oldest into, and she suggested I just try Redwall.  She warned me that it wasn't her cup of tea, but I told her I'd read it first and see if it was something I'd be willing to pass along to my son.  I grabbed a few books from the series from her library, packed them away, and went to bed - but I made the mistake of starting the first book before I fell asleep.  And I didn't sleep much that night.

Brian Jacques has created an entire world that is enchanting.  The forest creatures are divided into good and evil, and I'll be honest, I spent a lot of time googling images of the different species so I could see them better in my mind.  However, despite my lack of knowledge of woodland creatures, I found myself pulled into the story and didn't want to look back.  

This is definitely a book written for a middle-age reader, but it's full of adventure, just a hint of romance, legends, destiny, and just good writing.  I passed it to my son with a little trepidation, but he's really been enjoying the books.  As for that PBS show?  Our library has it on DVD, and our entire brood has devoured them.

My Rating:  Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are quite a few deaths in the novel, and some of them are a little gruesome.  Also, some of the wrong characters die.  Again, I would recommend this for middle readers - no one under the age of nine or ten, despite their maturity.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Major's Daughter - J.P. Francis

Summary:  Like Snow Falling on Cedars, a stirring tale of wartime love
 
April, 1944.  The quiet rural village of Stark, New Hampshire is irrevocably changed by the arrival of 150 German prisoners of war.  And one family, unexpectedly divided, must choose between love and country.
 
Camp Stark is under the command of Major John Brennan, whose beautiful daughter, Collie, will serve as translator. Educated at Smith and devoted to her widowed father, Collie is immediately drawn to Private August Wahrlich, a peaceful poet jaded by war. As international conflict looms on the home front, their passion blinds them to the inevitable dangers ahead.
 
Inspired by the little-known existence of a real World War II POW camp,The Major’s Daughter is a fresh take on the timeless theme of forbidden love. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)


My Review:  In wartime, everyone has to make sacrifices. Collie has had to leave school to assist her father, a capable Major suffering physically from his chlorine inhalation in WWI, mentally from the strain of running a Prisoner of War camp, and emotionally from the loss of his wife. As a loving daughter, that part isn't difficult, but as the only person fluent in German she is asked to serve as camp translator and doesn't feel quite up to the task. It doesn't help matters when a prisoner arrives who steals her heart - a soft-spoken, well-mannered poet who just happens to be gorgeous. How can she allow herself to fall in love with him? But what if her heart doesn't listen to her head?

I don't really know the best way to review this novel. Was it a sleepy historical fiction romance? Yes, except for when it wasn't. Was it a page-turner? No, except for when it was. Did it have a direct message or idea to impart?  Yes ... ?  To be honest, I found myself a little confused about what this book was trying to be. Things happened, people fell in and out of love, hearts were broken and mended, But I'm not sure if lessons were truly learned. 

Francis has created a well-rounded cast of characters who are all generally good people. There are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, this is an amalgam of people I'd sit down and chat with. However, I was left feeling dissatisfied, and I'm not even entirely sure why. No one gets their fairy tale and no one gets their comeuppance, but that's life, right? 

I think I was frustrated by the lack of growth in the characters. There were situations that demanded growth or regression, and it felt like the characters were too comfortable with the status quo and stayed static. As a reader, I walk away from books like that unfulfilled and slightly frustrated. It makes me wonder if that was Francis' point, that living a life of complacency is never fulfilling. But it made me want to move, to act, to do something to shake off the dust settled on me by the inactions of the characters. 

Overall, this is a comfortable book to read.  It flowed easily, and it was easy to get lost in the imagry. I just wished for more movement, however slight. 

My Rating:  Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is one character who is utterly revolting, and there isn't one scene he's in that isn't uncomfortable. There is unwelcome groping, foul language, and as a "joke", this character forces girls to undress in public for a ride home. There is also a brutal beating, and two brutal deaths. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Paper Towns - John Green

Summary: Who is the real Margo?

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they're for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew...

Summary and cover art from Goodreads.com

Review: I’d spent a lot of time reading political fantasy and was reading for some heart-wrenching teenage angst-y YA. Who is the master of that? John Green. Duh.

Since Paper Towns is being made into a movie and I’ll surely be exposed to it that way, I figured I’d choose this one. I’ve read two John Green books previously with great experiences (Looking for Alaska, which was a powerful experience that reshaped my book-loving soul and The Fault in Our Stars, which was definitely good and worth reading), so I knew I was in for a treat.

If you consider rice cakes a treat.

Sure, Paper Towns might be caramel-flavored rice cakes, but it’s still nothing compared to death-by-chocolate Looking for Alaska or banana-split-with-extra-fudge-sauce The Fault in Our Stars.

For a short book, it took me five days to read. It was interesting, but not gripping. The characters were believable, but not lovable. The ending was believable, but not satisfying (not even in that painfully unsatisfying way like in Looking for Alaska). I mean…rice cakes…you’re still hungry after you eat ten.

I didn’t like Quentin. I really didn’t like Margo. The sidekick friends were unrealistic caricatures. The humor was trite. Green's usual thought-provoking approach was a string of existential questions that I had no desire to really think about. The combination of meh characters and a meh plot just gave me a meh experience. Green's anchoring device in this book was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, so that was a +1 (I, too, was a nerdy teenager that studied and highlighted Leaves of Grass.)

To give Green a break, Paper Towns was the follow up to his award-winning Looking for Alaska. And that’s a tough act to follow. I hope there’s a way the movie will improve on the book. The concept is interesting, but the delivery petered out.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: Teenage swearing and crude humor. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Jailhouse Doc: A Doctor in the County Jail - William Wright

Summary: Dr. William Wright gave up a suburban practice as an ear surgeon to become the doctor at Colorado's maximum-security prison. After that, running a medical clinic at the county jail should be a snap, right? Oh, brother...Hoards of desperate people fresh from the streets, homeless addicts, illegal aliens, and gangbangers all ruled by a corrupt sheriff and his concubine sidekick made the supermax look almost pastoral.

Told with humor and biting wit by the best-selling author of Maximum Insecurity, Jailhouse Doc follows Dr. Wright and his struggles with scamming inmates, corporate bureaucrats, and a sheriff who wants to be a doctor.

Peek behind the bars at the operations of a city jail and the daily battles to deliver medical care to a population on the edge.  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I really enjoyed this book. First of all, I liked the voice. Dr. Wright is funny and I liked his sarcastic humor. He’s not rude, he wasn’t disrespectful, but he also doesn’t beat around the bush or pretend like the patients he sees are just normal everyday people like he saw in his practice before he became a jail house doctor. He was able to be forthcoming and also sensitive, which I appreciated.  Because while this population is definitely unique, they are also vulnerable and I would have felt uncomfortable with a doctor who was not sensitive to this. Dr. Wright is and I appreciated that.

Dr. Wright has some really interesting stories and experiences. Working in the jail is obviously something really unique and different than a doctor would normally see in a standard practice, and I found this really interesting.  The jail population is really different from the normal doctor/patient population at large, and I learned a lot from reading this book. He has had a lot of interesting experiences and if nothing else, it was fascinating to read about a population that is somewhat overlooked in the healthcare realm.

I also found the discussion of the jail inner workings interesting. It seems obvious that there would be drama with the inmates, but I also found it eye-opening to see what the jail staff was like and what was successful and what was dysfunctional.

My only complaint about this book is that I wish it had been longer and included more stories. I guess that’s as good as a complaint as you could ask for.

My rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some minor language and slightly disturbing content, but it is certainly not gratuitous or disrespectful. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Echo - Pam Muñoz Ryan

Summary:  Lost and alone
in a forbidden forest
Otto meets three mysterious sisters
and suddenly finds himself entwined
in a puzzling quest involving
a PROPHECY,
a PROMISE, and
a HARMONICA.

Decades later,
Friedrich in Germany,
Mike in Pennsylvania, and
Ivy in California

each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives.  All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together.  And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, Echo pushes the boundaries of genre and form and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories.  The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.  (Book given free at NCTE as an Advanced Reader Copy during a Scholastic luncheon.  Summary from inside book cover.  Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Wow.  For many reasons, wow.  For the length--587 pages.  For the thoroughly planned and executed plot.  For the artfully crafted characters.  For a beautifully structured organization.  But, should you expect anything less from Pan Muñoz Ryan?  I think not.

Three are four clear stories in this novel, although one could argue there's a fifth that isn't clearly articulated.  Because there are four full stories, this is a long book and could be quite daunting to read for a young reader.  That is, unless they've already conquered Harry Potter.  I'm sure this wouldn't scare a child away after that.  I think that Muñoz could have possibly broken this isn't four different stories, but then you wouldn't have had the incredible arch story line that ties up so nicely at the end.  You really have a sense of closure when this book finishes, a come full circle effect.

Since this is an Advanced Reader Copy, I'm assuming there's a possibility of minor changes.  I don't know if I could find something that needs changing though.  The only reason I gave it 4.5 stars instead of 5 stars is that I didn't understand the structure going into it (the back of the book doesn't have the description on my ARC and it wasn't until I was already 3/4's through the book that I realized it was on the back page of the front cover) and so it seemed to wander without direction.  That is, until the end and you have a very satisfactory conclusion.  But because of this long story  (almost 600 pages!) line, I found myself not always lured back to read.  So, I took off .5 stars for that.  Maybe I shouldn't.  But, I did.  Still, this is a good book, one I'd definitely recommend to friends and family.  Muñoz is an incredible writer.

My last plug is that I got to listen to Muñoz read the first handful of pages with a couple other authors while at the National Council Teachers of English convention in November.  It wasn't hard to want the book without knowing anything about it (it's Pam Muñoz Ryan!), but to have her wet our appetites was amazing!  She's a very engaging speaker and reader as well as a talented writer.

For the sensitive reader:  Nothing in here I'd be worried about my elementary aged-daughter reading.  Clean, through and through.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up:  An intricately woven tale of fulfilled dreams despite dire circumstances.

Monday, March 2, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - Nathaniel Philbrick

Summary:  In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex—an event as mythic in its own century as theTitanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In a harrowing page-turner, Nathaniel Philbrick restores this epic story to its rightful place in American history.

In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During ninety days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

In the Heart of the Sea tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever. Philbrick interweaves his account of this extraordinary ordeal of ordinary men with a wealth of whale lore and with a brilliantly detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship's cabin boy. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the same issues of class, race, and man's relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea will endure as a vital work of American history.
   (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  The story of the Essex is more well-known than you may think.  The destruction of the Essex,  a fine and seaworthy vessel, sent shockwaves through whaling communities.  Not only because of the loss of lives, the financial repercussions, or the extreme measures taken by the handful of survivors, but because the destruction of the vessel was a deliberate attack by its prey - a sperm whale.  The whales were thought to be docile - almost tame - so to have one deliberately and maliciously attack a ship was the stuff of nightmares.  Sound familiar?  The story was so incredible, so shocking that when Herman Melville heard it, it became the backbone of his classic Moby Dick.  

I'm a sucker for a shipwreck survival story.  To be honest, though, this one was one of the most difficult I've ever read.  The survivors of the initial sinking are divided into three different whaleships, none of them seaworthy and all equipped for short whale-slaughtering travels.  Their provisions are slight, their luck dismal, the captain is a good man with good instincts but little backbone, and their decisions are deadly.  Philbrick's exhaustive and incredible research made me very much appreciate their trials, but this was definitely a book where there were no winners.  The survivors, while welcomed back to their community and forgiven for whatever happened, can't even be considered winners, their circumstances were so tragic.

I very much appreciated Philbrick's attention to detail.  He made the Nantucket Quaker community come alive.  Their traditions and the impacts it had directly and indirectly on the sailors were well-explained, but not obnoxiously so.  The politics of whaling, the effects of starvation and shipwreck psychology, and the maritime ethics of the time are not areas of my expertise (I know, shocking!).  However, Philbrick had researched them so well and relayed the relevant matter in such an organic way it greatly enriched the book.  I greatly appreciated it.

This has been adapted into a movie, and I have a feeling it'll get quite a bit of buzz.  A real-life Moby Dick!?  Definitely grab this one before you see the flick!

My Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are accounts of cannibalism, the effects of starvation and dehydration on the men (boils and edema) which can be a little tough to handle if you're sensitive.  There are also difficult accounts of sailors dying from their ordeal.

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