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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama
- Alaska
- Arizona (1)
- Arkansas
- California (4)
- Colorado (1)
- Connecticut (1)
- Delaware
- Florida
- Georgia
- Hawaii (1)
- Idaho
- Illinois (4)
- Indiana
- Iowa
- Kansas
- Kentucky (1)
- Louisiana (1)
- Maine
- Maryland (1)
- Massachusetts (1)
- Michigan (1)
- Minnesota (1)
- Mississippi
- Missouri
- Montana
- Nebraska (1)
- Nevada (1)
- New Hampshire (1)
- New Jersey (1)
- New Mexico
- New York (3)
- North Carolina (1)
- North Dakota
- Ohio (6)
- Oklahoma
- Oregon
- Pennsylvania (1)
- Rhode Island (1)
- South Carolina (1)
- South Dakota
- Tennessee
- Texas (1)
- Utah (1)
- Vermont (2)
- Virginia (3)
- Washington (2)
- West Virginia
- Wisconsin
- Wyoming (1)
- *Washington, D.C.

Australia (2)
Canada (3)
England (6)
France (1)
Ireland (1)
Switzerland (1)
The Philippines (1)
Wales (1)

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
(Hosted by Yours Truly!)

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Thursday, December 27, 2007

The King of Mulberry Street Celebrates Triumph Over Trial

I was planning to take a break from this blog until January, but I just can't seem to do it. Maybe it's that I can't bring myself to stop reading, even for a week. Who knows, but here I am with a review of the book I just finished - Donna Jo Napoli's wonderful young adult novel, The King of Mulberry Street.

The year is 1892, and 9-year-old Dom Napoli is sleeping in a barrel on the mean streets of New York. It's not the life he imagined for himself when he stowed away on a cargo ship bound for America. Now, his homeland of Naples, Italy, is far away and he has nothing except the clothes on his back and the brand new shoes his mother gave him before secreting him on the ship. Although he knows no English, Dom knows he must do what his mother advised: he must simply survive.

But survival on the streets is no easy feat. The filthy alleys teem with homeless children willing to commit any crime to satisfy their cruel padrones. Dom knows enough to stay away from these evil overlords, but he still has to live. Other street kids advise him to steal what he needs, but Dom can't bring himself to do it. After all, what would his Nonna think if he surrendered all the principles she strove so hard to teach him? Maybe he has to hide his Jewish roots to survive, but he will not abandon them altogether.

So, Dom does what his Jewish ancestors have always done - he pulls himself up by his bootstraps (so to speak) and gets to work. First, he hunts for a job to earn money for passage back to Italy. His search leads him to Chatham Street, where he hopes to find work in a factory. When he realizes that Italian workers make less money than anyone but the Chinese, he knows a factory job will never work; he will have to use his own ingenuity to make enough money to get home. While visiting his friend Tin Pan Alley, a beggar on Wall Street, Dom hits upon a brilliant plan. He decides to buy a long sandwich in Five Points for .25, cut it into smaller pieces and sell the portions for a quarter each on Wall Street. With the help of Tin Pan Alley (the only one who speaks enough English to hawk the food) and Gaetano (Dom's friend, also from Naples), he starts his own business. The sandwich plan works like a dream, earning Dom and his friends more money than they ever dreamed possible. Their newfound wealth brings trouble as well as prosperity - suddenly, bigger boys are stalking them, eager for the coins in their pockets; Tin Pan Alley's padrone is getting suspicious; and other kids are moving in on their turf. Still, Dom is determined not only to survive, but to spread his fortune to the other street children. His generosity - or stupidity, in Gaetano's mind - earns him the nickname "The King of Mulberry Street."

Dom soon realizes, however, that even a king can't right every wrong he sees. His determination to topple the patroni system leads him to a situation that will change his life forever. Learning the truth about his mother will also force him to face truths he'd rather not see. Will these horrors cripple the boy? Will he succomb to the gritty streets and their evil padrones? And, most important, will Dom survive to return to his beloved Italy?

I enjoyed this story about the resilient Dom, who fights to stay alive without letting his humanity die. He's a boy with whom all readers can identify, and one whom all will cheer on as he battles for survival. His story moves along swiftly, with well-developed characters and vivid settings. Although Napoli hints at the darker elements of street life (i.e. prostitution and drug addiction), the references are subtle. The only truly devastating scene in the book is when Dom confronts Tin Pan Alley's padrone. Despite these dark matters, the tone of the novel is definitely hopeful. It really celebrates triumph over trial and remaining true to yourself even in the most dire situations. You'll love this story of Dom, The King of Mulberry Street.

Grade: A
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bookish Gifts

I wasn't planning to post here until after the New Year, but I wanted to pop my head in and show you the fun bookish gifts I got for Christmas and my birthday (the 22nd). My MIL got me Bookopoly, which looks like a lot of fun. She also got me Big Susan by Elizabeth Orton Jones and the hilarious red lady on the far left, whose skirt holds one of my favorite quotations: "She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain." I believe it's by Louisa May Alcott, who penned one of my favorite books, Little Women. I received Strangling Your Husband is Not an Option by Merrillee Browne Boyack - you'll never guess from whom it came :) My mom gave me the fun cookbook, and my SIL gifted me with Barbara Taylor Bradford's Living Romantically Every Day, which looks fun. I also got book money that I'm very much looking forward to spending! Thanks, everybody, you sure know how to spoil a bookworm.

All Wrapped Up

Whew! I finished the Fall Into Reading challenge, reading all six books on my list. They were:

The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Sarah's Quilt by Nancy E. Turner
Woman in Red by Eileen Goudge

The only book I really did not enjoy was Woman in Red. It was poorly written, poorly edited and poorly constructed. I wasn't really wowed by The Zookeeper's Wife either, but at least it was a well-written account. The Giver, The Lightning Thief and Sarah's Quilt were my favorites.

Thanks for hosting, Katrina. It was fun!

Despite Small problems, Sarah's Quilt Sews Up Nicely

I waited so long to check in with Sarah Agnes Prine, I'd forgotten how much I adore her. Her story begins in These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner, then continues in Sarah's Quilt. Although I didn't enjoy the latter as much as I did the former, I was still glued to Sarah's every word. You will be, too.

Sarah's Quilt continues Sarah's journal, with entries from the year 1906. And what a year it is. A terrible drought has seized the Arizona Territory, sizzling Sarah's crops and killing her cattle. Despite wishes and prayers, rain eludes them, leaving the land to bake and wither under the unrelenting sun. As if the weather hasn't brought Sarah enough troubles, she soon receives a letter from her brother Harland, which tells of the terrifying earthquake that has leveled their San Francisco home. Sarah rushes to their rescue. After torrential rain in California, she is disappointed to find that none has reached the desert. Her ranch is still suffering. To her dismay, she finds that Mother Nature isn't the only culprit - someone has tampered with her well. Desperation finally causes the family to hire a water witch, a strange man who sets Sarah's teeth on edge. Soon, another stranger arrives to cause her angst: Willie Prine, a teenage nephew Sarah has never met. Before the summer's through, Sarah will be up to her neck in troubles, from Willie's childish acts to her mother's "addled" mind to tornadoes, wildfire, and two men vying for her attention. Amidst it all, she must fight with all her strength to save the ranch she loves.

While Sarah's Quilt teems with action and drama, it's the characters that really make the book shine. All of them, even down to a poet cowhand, are memorable. Sarah, herself, makes an honest, believable narrator. Her strength and forthrightness demand respect, while her trials and sorrows make her real and sympathetic. I literally laughed and cried with her. She feels that real. Sarah's saga is so moving because she's a strong character who tells her story simply and beautifully, without melodrama or saccharine sentimentality.

I thought the plot presented surprises aplenty, although I felt the human source of Sarah's problems was obvious enough. It took her the whole story to see the truth, of course, but you'll spot the traitor a mile away. My copy also had a plethora of editing errors, although I found myself forgiving them because I was so caught up in Sarah's story. A lot of times, predictability and poor proofreading can ruin a book for me - not so much this time. Sarah's Quilt is just that good.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Challenge Crazy

Against my better judgment, I signed up for two more challenges:

You can get more information about the challenges and see my lists on my challenge blog, Up For A Challenge.

I think I'm officially insane. I just typed up a list of all the books I'm reading for challenges in 2008 and the remainder of 2007. My list has 128 titles on it! Maybe a dozen are alternates, but still...I'm going to be busy.

So, my New Year's reading resolutions are: 1.) Finish all the challenges I've signed up for, and 2.) Host one of my own (probably toward the end of the year).

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Percy Jackson's Debut is the Stuff That Myths Are Made Of

Percy Jackson, star of Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, has had a tough life. First, his father abandoned him and his mother when he was just a baby. Then, his mother married Gabe Ugliano, whose surname just about says it all.

At least, his mother dotes on him. Still, Percy just can't seem to stay out of trouble; He's been kicked out of six schools in as many years. Now, he's at Yancy Academy, which would actually be enjoyable if it weren't for two things: dyslexia, and the fact that nothing seems to go right when he's around

Now, he's headed home for the summer and things seem to be going from bad to worse. He and his mom set out for Montauk, where a hurricane has them running for their lives. Only the hurricane isn't really the problem - it's the minotaur that's got Percy terrified. Yep, you read that right - a minotaur, as in the bull-man monster from Greek myths. I know they're not supposed to exist, but in Percy's world they do, because (as he soon discovers) he is a half-blood, as in half-god, half-mortal.

After narrowly escaping the minotaur's grasp, Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood. Here, he finally learns the truth about his parentage (some truth anyway), his dyslexia (his brain is pre-wired for ancient Greek, not English), and the reason bad luck always seems to be only a step behind him (monsters have been following him, of course). Still, this is the worst bad luck he's had. Explanation? Easy. Hades (God of the Underworld) and Zeus believe that Percy has stolen two magical objects - Zeus' lightning bolt and Hades' war helmet. The thefts have the gods threatening war, a prospect that would not be good for anyone.

The only solution seems to be for Percy to take up a quest to find the true thief, recover the stolen items, and return them to their rightful owners. Despite the oracle's warnings, he selects two companions and embarks on the quest. What ensues is a harrowing trip across the U.S., which will take the trio to the River Styx and beyond. On their way, they encounter a group of monsters that seem to have stepped right out of a textbook on Greek mythology. When all is said and done, the thief is not who they thought it was, but someone much, much closer. In fact, it's someone Percy would call a friend.

The Lightning Thief offers a wonderful romp through a fantastical world of larger-than-life characters, from the powerful Zeus to a modern-day Medusa. The plot twists and turns, cleverly using mythological elements to keep the story racing along. Probably the most engaging thing about this book is Percy, our bumbling, misunderstood hero. He's likeable, human (well, kind of) and completely sympathetic. His voice is so authentic you almost believe his story is real. Although the story's a little predictable (you will spot the camp traitor a mile away), it's an irresistibly fun read. I'm heading right out to find the sequel.

Grade: A

Don't Waste Your Time on Goudge's Cliches and Melodrama

Just when I thought I may not have time to finish the Fall Into Reading challenge, I got a surprise - my husband bought me a plane ticket to visit my parents in Washington State. This was a wonderful gift in and of itself, but the fringe benefit was all that reading time. I spent about 6 hours on a plane and 2 hours in the airport. The result? Two books read. Woo hoo.

I boarded the plane with Woman in Red by Eileen Goudge in hand. I loved the cover art on this one and the story's premise sounded intriguing, so I delved into the book. After a few chapters, I wanted to climb right back out. Since my other book was stowed somewhere under the plane, it was Woman in Red or Southwest's in-flight magazine. I stuck with Goudge.

At the book's center is Alice Kessler, a woman who is fresh out of prison and looking for a new start. After doing nine years for the attempted murder of the man who killed her eldest son, Alice only wants three things: a home, a job and a chance to reconnect with her surviving son, Jeremy. That is, of course, easier said than done. When Alice returns to her home on an island in Washington, she crashes into roadblock after roadblack. No one wants to rent to an ex-con, let alone hire one, and Jeremy refuses to forgive her for abandoning him. Even her normally laidback brother-in-law, a sheriff's deputy, is acting strangely toward her. To top it all off, the man Alice tried to run down is now the mayor of the city. She suspects his influence has closed every door in the town. Alice's only allies seem to be her faithful sister and a stranger she met at the ferry dock.

The stranger is Colin McGinty, a New York City lawyer haunted by the death of his wife on 9/11. After drowning his grief in booze, he has ruined his career and lost all his friends. He is retreating to the cabin he inherited from his grandfather, hoping to find a little peace. What he finds is Alice Kessler, someone wrapped as tightly in sorrow as he is. Colin is drawn to her not only because of her obvious vulnerability, but also because she looks startingly familiar. It is only when Colin is alone in his grandfather's cabin, staring at a portrait the old man painted, that he realizes Alice bears a striking resemblance to the mystery woman in the picture.

While unraveling the mystery of the painting, Alice and Colin form a friendship that has the potential to go much deeper. Before the relationship has the chance to blossom, however, Alice gets another blow - Jeremy is being accused of rape. She knows only too well who's behind the trumped-up charges. Together, the two work to help Jeremy, while still probing the past for clues about old McGinty's painting. The two are, of course, connected, and Alice is determined to find out how. The question is, can she do it in time to save her son? Or is she doomed to face him only through prison bars?

As I said before, the plot really caught my attention. Unfortunately, its execution had me gritting my teeth in annoyance. For one thing, Goudge tried to pack so many issues into the story that it became both meandering and melodramatic. Too many crises occurred for the story to be believable. Don't even get me started on the scene between the mayor and Alice's brother-in-law - it's ridiculous to say the least. I could have forgiven the weak plot if Goudge had at least created some interesting characters. Nope. Didn't happen. Each one was as flat as a paper doll. Some of them were so cliche (Calpernia, for example) that I actually laughed out loud. Another thing that bugged the heck out of me was the sloppiness of the text, both in editing and in sentence structure. I got especially sick of redundant sentences like, "'Alice,' she said, not giving her last name" (16). Ugh. I hate it when an author thinks she has to do all the thinking for you.

This book annoyed me so much that I would have abandoned it after the Prologue (which was riveting, by the way), but I wanted to finish it for the Fall Into Reading challenge. So, I did, but if I were you, I wouldn't waste my time.

Grade: D
Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sequel Shines As Bright As First in Stroud's Magical Trilogy

After reading and loving The Amulet of Samarkand, I worried that the second book in Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy might not live up to the first. I shouldn't have worried.

The Golem's Eye picks up two years and eight months after the first book left off. Our hero - er, young magician, Nathaniel - is now working for Internal Affairs, strutting around London enjoying his new-found importance. His cozy little world is shattered, however, when an unknown menace begins wreaking havoc in the city. The government assumes it's another hit from the Resistance, and assigns the problem to Nathaniel. Eager to solve the crimes (thus gaining the notoriety he craves), the young magician summons his most powerful servant, the colorful Bartimaeus. Predictably, the djinn is not happy to see his former master, especially since "The boy had changed somewhat since I'd last seen him, and not for the better ... he was harder, harsher, and altogether more brittle" (167). Still, he's bound to young Nathaniel, and must obey his orders. Thus, he finds himself in the destructive path of an ancient enemy, who appears to be controlled by a magician. In order to return to his own world, Bartimaeus must help Nathaniel find the Golem's master.

This old pairing might have gotten a little dull (even though I adore Bartimaeus as a narrator), but Stroud introduces an exciting new element in the form of Kitty Jones. The teenager belongs to a group of Resistance workers, all of whom possess some form of resilliency to magic. This ability puts her in the perfect position to undermine the magicians who rule London. However, the group's activities prove ineffective, causing Kitty increasing discontent. When an informant tells the group how to break into the treasure-filled tomb of a famous magician, she can hardly contain her excitement. The dangerous mission doesn't exactly go as planned, and Kitty soon finds herself hunted by the government and one John Mandrake (a.k.a. Nathaniel).

Kitty proves slippery, but when Nathaniel dangles a friend's life in her face, she has no choice but to cooperate. Before the magician has a chance to extract information from Kitty, the two - along with Bartimaeus and Kitty's friend - find themselves face-to-face with not one, but two monstrosities from the Other World. Can the group save London from its twin terrors? Can they escape with their own lives? And, perhaps most importantly, will Nathaniel survive when everyone who knows him wants him dead?

I thoroughly enjoyed this second installment in Stroud's trilogy. Bartimaeus shone as usual, but he definitely had to share his spotlight with the brave Kitty Jones. She's as compelling as Bartimaeus, although her voice is more somber. Still, it's hard not to feel for her as she courageously takes on the magicians who routinely trample commoners like her under their shiny boots. I enjoyed these two characters immensely, but I really couldn't stand Nathaniel. He's an arrogant brat whose morals take a backseat to his ambition. Honestly, I found him almost insufferable in this book. Hopefully, he'll prove himself in the next volume.

For anyone who loves tales of magic and mystery, this trilogy is not to be missed.

Grade: A-
Saturday, December 08, 2007

Doing My Duty

While I sipped my hot chocolate this morning, I read an editorial about the decline of reading in the U.S. The reporter, one Kevin Horrigan, was pondering the irony of selling out of Kindles in the same week the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the U.S. is experiencing a reading crisis. According to the NEA, which got its info from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "the average American, age 15 and up, spends three hours and six minutes every weekend watching television and only 26 minutes reading." In addition, the NEA cites a 2002 survey which said that 43% of Americans hadn't read a single book for pleasure in 2001. Seriously? That's appalling.

Considering all this, I thought I should do my part to support booksellers and encourage reading in my home. It was all out of duty, I promise. So, I hit Borders, where I bought the following:

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig - I love Gone With the Wind and am excited to read this "official" sequel (prequel?) to Margaret Mitchell's classic
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James - I'm planning a Jane Austen binge for the Triple 8 challenge, and thought this one would fit in nicely.

Then, because my sense of duty was so overwhelming, I forced myself to go to a big sale at the Scholastic warehouse in Phoenix. Obviously, I took the obligation seriously, because I couldn't stop myself from purchasing these goodies (all at 30-60% off - yipee!):

Magyk by Angie Sage and Mark Zug - I've seen some great reviews of this YA book
Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle - This YA mystery/adventure caught my attention
The Secret School by Avi - I'm excited to read this one for the Newbery Award Project
The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue - This is the story of a woman hovering between Earth and whatever comes after death - sounds interesting
Coraline by Neil Gaiman - It's Neil Gaiman - what more do I have to say?
The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale - I've read great reviews of this one
Monday with A Mad Genius - This one is for my daughter, who loves the Magic Treehouse Series
A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck - This book cracks me up, and it was only a dollar! What a steal.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson - I thought this historical novel about a young woman who works a homestead in Montana sounded intriguing
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis - This one has gotten fabulous reviews. I can't wait to read it.
Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin - This one is for my son, who adores Diary of a Worm
The last book is a book about weather for my science-obsessed son.

Phew! I love stacks of books - they carry such promise. Plus, they give me something to write about when I haven't quite finished the book I've been reading for a week. I'm getting there...hopefully, a review of The Golem's Eye will be up tomorrow. Until then you can feast your eyes on my bargains :)
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Monday, December 03, 2007

So Many Books, So Little Time

I read - okay, devour - book blogs for two reasons: to get reading recommendations and to
mingle with other book lovers. I love books about books for the same reasons. So, when I heard about Nancy Pearl (via a podcast from NPR), I just had to check out her books.

If you don't know, Nancy Pearl is a bibliophile who has worked as both a bookseller and a librarian. Her book recommendations have earned her a reputation as "a rock star among readers and the tastemaker people turn to when deciding what to read next" (quote from her website). Pearl chats about books on National Public Radio (NPR), on her website and in her books Book Lust, More Book Lust, Book Crush, and others.

Book Lust is essentially a listing of recommended titles categorized by topic. The topics cover nearly every genre, from poetry to historical fiction to biography to "books that are simply about nothing" (256). Each section contains at least 6 recommended titles, both fiction and non. Some of her suggestions are obvious (Amy Tan for Chinese-American fiction, Chaim Potok for Jewish, etc.), and some are more unique. Pearl also offers a good mix between classic and contemporary literature.

I'm not sure how many titles Pearl covers in Book Lust, but it's a lot. To cover that much ground, she makes short work of plot summaries, usually limiting herself to one sentence per title. I need more than that to decide if I will like a book or not, so I found that aspect of the book annoying. Otherwise, I thought the book covered a good, wide-ranging selection of titles. I was awed by the sheer amount of books discussed and the fact that I had read only a fraction of them. That's the only problems with books like this - and book blogs for that matter - it reminds me of how many books there are out there and how little time I have to read them...

Grade: A-
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Vivacious Narrator Makes The Amulet of Samarkand Sparkle and Shine

If you're one of the cowards reluctant readers afraid to approach Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you may be interested in another Jonathan - British writer Jonathan Stroud, that is. His The Amulet of Samarkand (the first book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy) reminded me of Susanna Clarke's masterpiece - even down to the footnotes - except that it's much less daunting. It's just as brilliant, but infinitely more readable. Not that you should ignore Jonathan Strange, but if you're not quite up to the task, check this one out...

This young adult novel stars 11-year-old Nathaniel, who's apprenticed to an aging London magician named Arthur Underwood. The apprenticeship promises to end with a coveted position in Parliament, but it's turning out to be a lonely life for Nathaniel. Without family or playmates, the boy focuses only on learning magic and trying to please his master. This isn't easy because, as Nathaniel soon discovers, Arthur Underwood is a doddering old fool and a second-rate magician to boot. The old man confines Nathaniel to the library, refusing to teach him any real magic until he's of an appropriate age. Bored, the boy delves into advanced tomes, teaching himself the powerful spells and incantations his master forbids him to learn. When Arthur finally permits Nathaniel to mingle with other magicians, the boy is humiliated by a vain and powerful magician named Simon Lovelace. Arthur refuses to stick up for his apprentice, which stings Nathaniel badly. He vows that not only will he show all the magicians how skillful he is, but also that he will have his revenge on Simon Lovelace.

With feverish intensity, Nathaniel studies his books and practices incantations until he knows enough to exact his revenge. He calls up a legendary djinn (a mid-level demon) named Bartimaeus, enslaves him with magic and makes him steal an ancient amulet from his enemy's collection. Nathaniel soon discovers that this artifact - The Amulet of Samarkand - has, in fact, been stolen from the British government. Its presence in Lovelace's home damns the magician, creating the perfect opportunity for Nathaniel to expose him as a thief. The boy is so hungry for revenge that he fails to see how much trouble he's really gotten himself into - angry imps stalk his every move; Bartimaeus plots his demise; and Lovelace threatens the Underwoods with violence if they don't return his property. Before he knows it, Nathaniel has lost the only home and family he has ever known. With a resentful Bartimaeus by his side, the boy takes on his arch enemy to avenge his family and save the magical world. All of his skills will be required to face the powerful magician and his servants from the Other World. Has Nathaniel taught himself well enough? Does he have the strength to face his enemies? Or will his pride destroy him for good?

When I describe this book, it is from Nathaniel's point of view, but the story's real star is Bartimaeus. His voice sparkles in clear counterpoint to the boy's dull, whiney tone. I loved his character as well. The great Bartimaeus smarts at his imprisonment, knowing "[he] was bound to take some abuse for scurrying around on behalf of a scrap like [Nathaniel]" (10), so he fights back with sarcastic cajoling and mocking taunts. His exaggerated sense of self-importance made me laugh out loud. In spite of himself, Bartimaeus also finds compassion for the forlorn boy. These dueling natures make him a hilarious and intriguing narrator. Since he shines so brightly, it's obvious why Stroud named the trilogy after him.

Lest you think the book lacks action, let me tell you, it has it in spades. Honestly, I couldn't read the story fast enough, so eager was I to find out what happened next. It's a charming, enthralling read that will cast a spell and pull you in deeper with every magical page. Note: The Amulet of Samarkand bears many similarities to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but not enough to get you out of reading the latter! Buck up - now you've got two magical books to read and enjoy.

Grade: A
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lost in Books, or My Random Thoughts on Reading

I've been working so hard on Christmas - decorating the house, writing out Christmas cards, standing in line at the post office, etc. - that I haven't gotten as much reading done as I would have liked. It didn't help that I was reading a book I just couldn't get into - John Dunning's Booked to Die. I may come back to this one, but for now, I'm going to return it to the library. After abandoning Dunning, I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, which is fabulous. I'm really enjoying it. A review will be up just as soon as I finish the novel.

Since I don't have a book review, I thought I would throw out a question, which was inspired by a conversation I had with my husband last night. We were talking about recurring dreams and he mentioned one he has in which he's searching for me amid endless rows of books. We laughed about it, because I am frequently "lost" in a book. My husband is incredibly patient with my compulsive reading, but I think his dream reveals his occasional frustration with it. So, my question is this: how does your significant other deal with your (sometimes) obsessive reading habits? Does he/she care? Suffer in silence? If you don't have a significant other, what about your kids, friends or other relatives? How do they react to living with a bibliophile?

I think everyone has something to which they are addicted, be it video games or golf or crochet or tv; something with which they get so absorbed they forget about the real world. Books just happen to be my choice of drug. My husband deals with it. Patiently. Just like I deal with his love for PSP, sports and various electronics. It works for us, but I guess my husband's dream made me realize I need to pop my head back into the real world every now and then ... just to let him know I'm not so lost that I can't be found :)
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tick Tock, The Mystery Starts With A Clock...

For those of you who are missing a certain bespectacled boy wizard, The House With a Clock in Its Walls may provide a happy diversion. Not that it really compares, but it's a fun Gothic story about magic, ghosts and a mysterious clock.

The star of the novel is 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt, who lived with his parents near Milwaukie until the day they were killed in a car accident. Now, he is traveling to New Zebedee, Michigan, to live with an uncle he has never met. Although his maiden aunts have warned him about Uncle Jonathan, Lewis finds the man warm and friendly, if a bit eccentric. Jonathan lives in an old mansion, filled with wonderful, odd items, like stained-glass windows that change their scenes and a coat rack with an ever-changing mirror. Lewis soon realizes that his uncle Jonathan is a wizard, though he claims to be "pretty much [only] a parlor magician, though I have a few tricks that go beyond rabbits and playing cards" (34). With this realization comes another: Jonathan's chocolate-chip-cookie-baking housekeeper and best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a witch. Together, they are determined to unlock the mysteries of Jonathan's mansion, which once belonged to a dangerous magician couple. The foremost mystery concerns a clock hidden somewhere behind the walls, a clock that never stops ticking, a clock that may lead to the destruction of all humankind.

Lewis loves his new life with Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, who make his days fun and interesting. Outside of the mansion, however, Lewis is having a little trouble. He's always been overweight, and thus a target of other kids' taunts. Then, one day, he meets Tarby, a popular boy and athlete who's banned from baseball because of a broken arm. Bored, Tarby decides to tutor Lewis in the fine arts of catching and throwing. Lewis is thrilled with the friendship, until Tarby's arm heals and he assumes his former place as star athlete, a position that doesn't include consorting with nerds like Lewis. Desperate to keep his friend, Lewis decides to show him a little magic. His tricks work better than he can ever imagine, unleashing a powerful ghost intent on destroying the world. Terrified, Lewis keeps his secret from Uncle Jonathan, meaning he must face the menace alone. The key to its destruction seems to be Jonathan's clock, but where is it? Can Jonathan find it in time? And, most importantly, can he destroy the ghost and save the world from obliteration?

Like I said, the story lacks the depth of Harry Potter, but it's a fun read. Yes, it's predictable. Yes, the mystery is solved with relative ease. Still, it's a worth taking a peek at the indomitable Lewis and his quirky world.

Note: If you just can't get enough, you will be happy to know that The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the first in a series. Although the book was published in 1973, I believe it and its sequels have recently been reissued in paperback. John Bellairs died in 1991, but he penned numerous books during his lifetime; I, for one, am going to the library to search for more!

Grade: B +

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Giver Asks: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Imagine a world in which all of your choices were made for you, from your daily wardrobe to your family members to your career to your spouse. Think of a world in which you were entirely safe, where you were permitted to take no risks, and where physical pain could be erased with a single dose of medicine. Picture dwelling in a whitewashed world where everyone lives and thinks in exactly the same way, and questioning the rules leads to public chastisement and even "Release" from the community.

Jonas, star of Lois Lowry's The Giver, lives in just such a community. For 12 years, he has dwelt within its borders, attending school, mingling with friends and abiding by the strict rules that make his town the peaceful place it always is. Like all of his classmates, Jonas is looking forward to the December Ceremony when he will receive his "Assignment." This will be his career, which could be anything from Laborer to Doctor to Road Crew Maintainer. To his shock, Jonas learns he will be the new Receiver. The position comes with great honor, but even greater secrecy. Jonas receives a list of rules that will govern his training period, which allow him to do two things which are strictly prohibited in his community: to ask questions of anyone and to lie. Disconcerted, Jonas begins his training with The Giver, an elder who sags under the weight of his responsibilities. The Giver explains Jonas' new responsibilites: he must carry all the memories of the world - from sunshine, to sledding, to war, to starvation - so that his community will be free to live their peaceful, doubtless lives. In essence, he will feel all their emotions for them. As The Giver transfers his memories into his new apprentice's being, Jonas' dull world explodes into a dazzling array of color, sensation and emotion. Some of the memories Jonas receives are terrifying - war, loneliness, abandonment - but others are so powerful - love, family, warmth - that he realizes how empty his real life is. Now that he is able to ask questions freely, Jonas finds himself questioning the life he has been leading - why is he not allowed to have choices? Why can't families have more than the 2 children allowed by the Elders? And what does it really mean when someone is "Released" from the community?

As Jonas ingests this new knowledge, he knows that he can never again be satisfied with his dull, flavorless life. Together, he and The Giver hatch a plan to open the peoples' eyes. When their plans go horribly awry, Jonas suddenly finds himself on a terrifying journey to find "Elsewhere," a place that may or may not exist. Without the promised memories of courage to bind him up, Jonas must rely on his own wits and bravery to save himself, his future and the one person he truly loves.

That's the story in a nutshell, but this book isn't really about the main story. As one reviewer put it, "The simplicity and directness of Lowry's writing force readers to grapple with their own thoughts" (Booklist, Starred Review). Lowry's story is so unadorned that it provides the perfect canvas for infinte thoughts, opinions and analyses. Lowry, herself, says,
...The Giver is many things to many different people. People
bring to it their own complicated beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all
At the very least, it's a story about what it means to be human. To me, its message is that without choices, experience, risk and passion, we are not fully human.

I don't know if Lowry meant for the book to have any religious applications, but to me The Giver symbolizes Jesus Christ, at least to some degree. When he accepts memories for other people, he swallows some of their pain, leaving them comforted. Their pain still exists, but only dimly. This is what Christ does for us. Our suffering weighed on Christ (as it does on The Giver), as evidenced by his tortured cry, "O my Father...let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39, KJV) in Gethsamane, but He knew His duty and thus carried our burdens for us. Like Christ, The Giver desires that all men have their agency so they can learn wisdom through their choices. And like Jesus, The Giver knows he must help his people through the pain that knowledge and agency can bring. Like Lowry said, we bring our own convictions to the book and this is the interpretation to which I kept returning.

The one issue I had with this book is the very ambiguous ending. I'm a reading simpleton, who loves endings which neatly wrap up all of the story's loose ends. Paradoxically, I hate predictable endings. Anyway, The Giver ends in a way that leaves it VERY open to interpretation. Lowry calls it an "optimistic ending," but insists that the true ending exists only in the mind of the reader. As aggravating as that is for a neat-endings-junkie, it's also a sign of a truly great novel - one that makes you think long after you've closed the book.

Grade: A+
Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Bookworm's Meme

I love memes about books and reading. I stole this one from Becky, who got it from Dewey:

1.) Do you remember learning to read? How old were you? Nope, I really don't remember learning to read. My mom said I taught myself how before I started kindergarten, so we'll just have to take her word on that.

2.) What do you find most challenging to read? Anything technical, scientific or math-related. Boooring!

3.) What are your library habits? I head to the library about 3 times a month. I'm really bad at renewing books on time, so I'm often there to pay overdue fines. In spite of this, I still feel compelled to check out a whole stack of books each time I visit. Why is that? I think it stems from my childhood (doesn't everything?). As a kid, I used to walk down to our town library, load up on books and hike back home. My route wasn't quite a mile long, but it seemed like a major expedition. So, I toted home as many books as I could carry to avoid having to make the long walk to the library. Plus, I love the sense of anticipation I get from seeing a whole pile of books I have yet to read.

4. Have your library habits changed since you were a kid? Yes and no. I've always loved libraries and visited them often. As a kid, I spent more time reading in the library than I do now. And, of course, I no longer have to walk to the library, which is a very nice change!

5. How has blogging changed your reading life? Well, I started this blog to track what I read and record my opinions for myself and anyone else who happened to stop by. At that time, I had never heard of reading challenges - now, I'm an addict. They have really broadened my horizons by making me read things I otherwise wouldn't. Joining the book blogging community also exposed me to other people's book blogs, from which I get all kinds of ideas and recommendations.

6. What percentage of your books do you get from (a) new bookstores, (b) secondhand bookstores, (c) the library, (d) online exchange sites, (e) online retailers, and (f) other?

(a) 40%
(b) 0% - I rarely go to secondhand shops
(c) 40%
(d) 0 % - I've heard lots about these, but have never tried them
(e) 10% - I love me some Amazon
(f) 10% - from retailers (like Costco) who aren't officially bookstores, review copies and gifts

7. How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about it? I pretty much review every book I read.

8. What are your pet peeves about ways people abuse books? I hate it when people write in books. It just drives me nuts to read someone else's notes in a library book. I also hate dogearing (just get a bookmark, people!).

9. Do you ever read for pleasure at work? Well, I'm a stay-at-home Mom, so yeah, I read at home all the time. Do I ever shirk my responsibilities in favor of reading? No, never (hee hee)!

10. When you give people books as gifts, hwo do you decide what to give them? Oddly, I don't buy a lot of books as gifts. I guess because I feel like books are such personal things. When I do purchase them as gifts, I take into account the person's favorite authors, subjects, and genre of books. If I'm buying a gift for a booklover, I'm much more likely to purchase a gift card so that they can select their own books.
Thursday, November 15, 2007

WWII From An Animal Point of View

Although I've read numerous books about the Holocaust, I have never encountered the kind of information I found in Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife. Most books on WWII focus exclusively on the human element; this book is different because it takes a close look at the toll the war took on animals, specifically the residents of the Warsaw Zoo. Through the diaries of Antonina Zabinsky, "the zookeeper's wife," we get the stories of all the zoo's characters, both human and non.

Antonina and her husband Jan ran the zoo before and during the war, caring for all who lived on the grounds. This included a host of animals, from house cats to elephants to rare Pryzywalski horses. During Warsaw's years of Nazi occupation, the zoo's population also consisted of "Guests" - Jewish friends, Underground workers and others in need of aid - who hid in the zoo's cages and outbuildings. The Zabinsky's also stuffed fugitives into every corner of the villa they called home. While Jan worked with the Resistance, Antonina cared for all of her tenants. She especially loved the animals, with whom she had an almost magical relationship. According to her husband:

It's as if she's porous. She's almost able to read their [the animals']
mind. It's a snap for her to find out what's bothering her animal
friends. Maybe because she treats them like people. But you've seen
her. At a moment's notice, she can lose her Homo sapiens nature
and transform herself into a panther, badger, or muskrat (235).

Because of her abilities, Antonina always had animals around her,
even living in the villa with the family. One of the most charming scenes
in the book occurs when Antonina observes her son taking his pet badger for a
walk. During the height of the war, the villa hosted a chaotic mess of animals and people, co-existing in relative harmony. Antonina empathized with every individual, continually drawing similarities between the humans and the animals.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of this book was Ackerman's description of the Nazis' exhaustive philosophies, which they applied not only to humans but also to plants and animals. Despite the established theory of "hybrid vigor" - the fact that inbreeding actually strengthens bloodlines - German zoologists chose not to allow Polish animals to mate with their pure bred counterparts. Partly because of this, the rarer animals in the Warsaw Zoo were transported to Germany, while the less "important" residents were simply shot.

Like all Holocaust stories, this one kept my interest. I did get bored with some of Ackerman's endless animal descriptions - I'm not a big animal lover - although those passages seemed more warm than those discussing the humans in the book. Ackerman talks about people in kind of a cold, remote way. The story also seemed random and spotty - I found myself getting too much information on subjects I didn't find interesting (the nesting habits of various species) and too little on the topics I wanted to know about (Antonina's writing). The last third of the story turned into a tense and compelling conclusion. Overall, though, I thought the book was just okay.

Grade: B-

Prizes in the Post

The only thing better than getting a big check in the mail is getting free books! Thanks, everybody, for sending these fun titles my way. I can't wait to read and review them.

The top two, Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright and Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, came from the former's publicist at Deseret Book. I won American Gods by Neil Gaiman from Chris. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was a win from Katrina. Thanks, again!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What Happens When A Child of the Shadows Comes Out Into the Light?

What would you do if you discovered a child whose parents kept him hidden in the attic at all times? What if they never allowed him outdoors, forbade him to go to school or anywhere in public, and didn't even set a place for him at the dinner table? What if they denied his existence to even their friends and family? You'd be dialing Child Protective Services, wouldn't you? Now imagine that the child is being hidden away for his own protection. Imagine he is a third child in a world that only allows couples to produce two kids each. Imagine that his discovery could lead to trouble with the government, and possibly even to his death. What do you do now? If you're a member of the Garner family, you pretend you have no son or younger brother.

In Among the Hidden, the first book in the Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, we meet Luke Garner, a 6-year-old "Third" who doesn't officially exist. He spends most of his time in his house with the shades drawn. Although he's allowed out of his attic bedroom, he must be ready to run for it if anyone should knock on the door. He lives in mortal fear of the Population Police. Fortunately for Luke, his family's hog farm sits in an isolated area, surrounded by heavy woods, so he's at least allowed out into the backyard. That is until the Government decides to plow down the trees and build fancy new homes for the rich "Barons." The Garners panic at the first sight of construction, banishing Luke to the attic; even at meals he is forced to sit on the attic stairs, away from the windows. When the Government decides to stop letting the Garners raise pigs, Luke's mother is forced to take a factory position, leaving Luke home alone all day, without even the backyard as a refuge.

More isolated and lonely than ever, Luke takes to spying on his new neighbors. One day, he makes a shocking discovery - he sees a young face in a window, long after the inhabitants have left for school and work. He knows he's found another Third. Desperate for a friend, Luke creeps out of his house and into his neighbor's home. What he finds is Jen Talbot, a feisty Baron who's not content with hiding out in her house, opulent though it may be. Since Mr. Talbot is a Government employee, the family has access to the Internet, which Jen has used to set up a chat room for other Thirds. Luke is astonished to find that not only is there another Third in his neighborhood, but there are thousands across the nation. Jen is using her computer to gather them for a rally at the president's house. Although Luke wants freedom just as much as Jen does, her rashness scares him. He's putting himself in enough danger just sneaking over to Jen's to hang out. When the rally ends in tragedy, Luke fears that Thirds will never receive the freedom they crave. He knows he can do nothing to change his fate, or can he?

I always find the premises of Haddix's novels interesting. This one is no exception. As a young adult book, this one was too quick to explore all of the moral issues brought up by the premise, but Haddix did a pretty good job tackling them. As always, she couches the big questions (Is it right for the government to control a country's population? How do we evenly distribute goods so that no one goes hungry?) in a taut, action-packed plot. I love that she focuses primarily on the story, letting the moral issues subtly bubble to the surface. Despite these layers, Among the Hidden is still kind of a bare bones novel, so hopefully the sequels will continue to flesh out the story. I'll definitely be reading them to find out what happens to Luke and whether or not he can change the world for himself and the other Shadow Children.

Grade: B
Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Not Quite Up to the Hype, But Uglies Makes For An Exciting Read

What would you do to be stunningly gorgeous? Undergo a painful operation? Donate a few
brain cells to science? Betray your best friend? These are all dilemmas Tally Youngblood must face in Scott Westerfeld's young adult novel, Uglies.
Tally lives in a future world where all 16-year-olds undergo an operation that turns them from an "Ugly" nobody into a model-perfect "Pretty." Fifteen-year-old Tally has been looking forward to this operation her whole life; she can't wait for the procedure that will erase all her imperfect features and turn her into a knockout. She longs to live in New Pretty Town, where the Pretties spend their lives partying and having fun. When Tally's best friend Peris turns Pretty, she suffers from the most bitter loneliness she's ever known. Determined to find her friend, Tally sneaks into the Pretty part of town only to find that Peris has changed into someone she doesn't recognize - in more ways than one. Once she turns Pretty, she knows they will be able to reconnect. The question is, what in the world is she going to do until then?
The answer arrives in the form of Shay, another Ugly on the brink of her 16th birthday. Shay loves a rush almost as much as Tally. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with, hoverboarding and playing tricks on the incoming Uglies. Tally assumes that they will continue their antics as Pretties, but Shay isn't so sure. In fact, Shay doesn't want to become a Pretty at all. She's happy with her face, happy to be different. She urges Tally to run away with her to a secret colony called The Smoke, where Uglies live freely, hiding from authorities that want to force them to be Pretty.

Although Tally wants to support her friend, she also wants desperately to become a Pretty. Only one thing stands in her way: Shay. Special Circumstances, a special branch of the government, informs Tally that she will not get the operation unless she helps them find Shay and the group of rebels with whom she's now associated. Tally reluctantly takes on the assignment. She's not prepared, however, for what she finds - or who she meets - in The Smoke. Torn between her desire to be Pretty and her new friends, Tally must make dangerous decisions that could jeopardize them all. At the heart of it all looms the question - How far will she go to be Pretty?

I thought the idea of this novel was really interesting, but I didn't end up liking the story as much as I thought I would. The action kept it exciting, but the characters felt flat to me. It also felt a little preachy, like the moral questions were more important to Westerfield than the story. I found myself comparing this author to Margaret Peterson Haddix, who writes on similar themes, but puts the story first, letting her moral questions leak out subtly. I prefer the subtlety. Still, this was a good read. I didn't think it lived up to its hype, but it was good.

Grade: B
Thursday, November 01, 2007

Something Wicked(ly Fun) That Way Goes

Phew! I finished the R.I.P. II Challenge. I saved the longest books on my list for last, which wasn't a very smart idea, so I ended up having to sprint to the finish line. My eyes are bleary and red from my frenzied final stretch!

I really enjoyed this challenge, although I found myself steering away from the horror genre and focusing more on magical stories. My least favorite pick was Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (my review), and I really can't pick my most favorite. It's a toss-up between Lord of the Rings, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Stardust and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Really, the only book I read for this challenge that I didn't care much for was Heart-Shaped Box. Well, there was also Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters, which was just too erotic for me (I read Lord of the Rings in its place).

Thanks so much, Carl, for hosting this one. It was a lot of fun!

One Ring to Bind Me

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them.
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

Well, the ring certainly held me bound this week as I raced to finish Lord of the Rings (hereafter LOTR) by Halloween. I chose it as part of my book sandwich for Peril the Third, which involved reading two weighty tomes with a shorter qualifying book in between. Note to self: read the long books first! Since I saved LOTR for last, I really had to sprint to complete it before the R.I.P. II Challenge closed. Luckily, it was an absolutely mesmerizing book; in fact, it had me rising early and staying up late just to see what happened. My obsession had my husband seeing green - our divorce papers would have been the first to declare "J.R.R. Tolkien" as a reason for dissolving a marriage!

So much has been said and written about this book that I'm sure I won't be saying anything new. Still, there may be someone out there who doesn't know the story, so here goes...The Lord of the Rings takes place in Middle-earth, a world inhabited by diverse creatures, from the gentle Hobbits in the Shire to the fair Elves to the fearsome Orcs of the darker regions. This story, as Tolkien notes "is concerned mostly with Hobbits" (1), in particular one Frodo Baggins. Frodo is the young cousin of Bilbo Baggins, a "very rich and very peculiar" (21) creature whose adventures are told in Tolkien's earlier novel, The Hobbit. LOTR opens with Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party, at which Bilbo mysteriously disappears leaving most of his worldly possessions to Frodo. Although it's rumored that Bilbo has wealth untold, Frodo finds no riches, only a mysterious ring of which Bilbo spoke very little. Frodo knows the ring can make one disappear, but until Gandalf the great wizard delivers a warning about its power, the hobbit has no idea of its true importance. Gandalf explains: Long ago, magic rings were forged by Elven-smiths, rings which had various powers and strengths. The Great Rings, however, contained powers so irresistible that mortals became enslaved to them. Of these, there was One ring created to rule all the rest. To Frodo's dismay, he realizes that not only does he now possess the One, but also that the Dark Lord (the epitome of evil) will stop at nothing to have it. The young hobbit knows he must undertake a dangerous quest to take the ring to the dark lands of Mordor, and cast it into the Cracks of Doom, where lie the only fires hot enough to destroy it.

With three comrades, Frodo sets out on his secret quest. As they travel, they gain more friends until the "Fellowship of the Ring" is formed. The Fellowship consists of seven bodies - Frodo; his servant Sam; the hobbits Merry and Pippin; Gimli the Dwarf; Aragorn, a brave Ranger; Legolas the Elf. Gandalf also rides wth them when he can. The group moves through Middle-earth seeing lands beyond their wildest imaginings, lands filled with "Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers, and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing." (955) All of their adventures bring them, finally, to the dreaded Land of Mordor. Ruled by the Dark Lord, Mordor is filled with darkness and enemies at every turn. With the rest of the Fellowship engaged in war, Frodo and Sam must make their way to Mount Doom and its fiery Cracks. Hungry and weary, the pair trek up the mountain, their every footstep tracked by the wily Gollum. The burden of the ring wears heavily on Frodo, its power drawing the stout-hearted hobbit inexplicably to its evil master. Still, onward they go until Frodo stands at the edge of the Cracks, where he must struggle to rid himself of the ring which holds him in its power. The fate of Middle-earth rests in his small hobbit hands.

I won't give away anymore, but I have to say that LOTR is the consummate adventure tale. It combines so many elements - danger, romance, humor, war - into a rich story about good vs. evil. Tolkien goes into incredible (and sometimes tedious) detail about all the life forms in his book, which makes his whole world live and breathe. I wept through the last fourth of the book because I cared so deeply about the characters and their individual fates. After reading 1131 pages, I was ready for the story to end, but I truly regretted closing the door to this incredible, magical story of a hobbit and his quest to save the world.
Grade: A+
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Maybe October Isn't So Bad After All...

October really isn't my favorite month. I enjoyed it more when I lived in places that actually have seasons, but here in the Phoenix-area it's only a little cooler than it was in July. Plus, Halloween just isn't my thing. Even as a kid, I hated dressing up. Now, as a Mom, I have to go through the stress of decorating for Halloween ("Mom, are you EVER going to put up decorations? Everyone else has theirs up."), buying or (gulp) creating costumes for the kids, buying expensive bags of candy to give away (usually because we've eaten the bags I bought last week when they were on sale), taking the kids trick-or-treating, etc. etc. I know you're wondering what this has to do with books - trust me, this is leading somewhere. Anyway, the worst thing about October is that it signals the mad rush that begins with Halloween and doesn't end until the middle of January. This is when I have to worry about Christmas cards, holiday pictures, all of my kids' birthdays/parties, holiday get togethers, Christmas shopping, and so on. Not that I don't love the holidays, because I do, it just gets crazy.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank Amanda, Katrina and 3M for making my October a little brighter. I've won 3 books in the last two weeks from them, which has made me so happy. Thanks a bunch, ladies!

Now, I've really got to get back to my reading. I need to finish Lord of the Rings by Halloween so I can finish the R.I.P. II Challenge. I can't even LOOK at the books coming in the mail until I've got J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece crossed off my TBR list!

BTW: I stole the above picture off my mom's blog. It's from my parents' recent visit to Walden Pond.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Family Skeletons Ain't No Victory

After reading Family Skeletons by Rett MacPherson, I'm starting to realize the importance of bringing a list when I go to the library. This is one that I picked at random, because I liked the cover art (the library edition has a different cover) and the premise sounded interesting. I just wish the story had delivered.
This is the first book in a series featuring Victory "Torie" O'Shea, the resident historian of small town New Kassel, Missouri. When the story opens, she's busy working as a tour guide during the town's festival honoring its German roots. Although Torie has her hands full with her work at Gaheimer House, a historic home turned museum, she's intrigued when Norah Zumwalt comes to her asking for help. Norah, a local shop owner, asks Torie to trace her family tree. Specifically, she wants help finding her father, who left for WWII and never came home. Torie gets to work, discovering that not only is Norah's father alive, but also living in a nearby town. Armed with this information, Torie eagerly sets out to tell Norah, but the woman seems to have disappeared. When Torie drives to Norah's house, she finds the bloody corpse of her client.
The experience shakes Torie up, but also hardens her resolve. She must solve Norah's family mysteries and figure out what secrets were damning enough to cause the woman's death. Torie's nemesis, Sheriff Colin Brooke, is also on the case. Although Torie provides him with some useful information, the sheriff is not happy to have her as his unofficial assistant. Reluctantly, the two work together, digging up secrets someone doesn't want unearthed. Despite warnings to back off, Torie can't keep away from this intriguing case of mistaken identity, murder and family relationships that are, well, murder.
Like I said, I thought this book had a fun premise. I love the idea of a genealogist finding mysteries in people's family trees, and thought it would make a good story. And it would have in the hands of a better writer, or a more attentive editor. The writing is just clumsy, with awkward sentences and a sloppy plot. The characters in the novel are equally as weak. I found Torie downright unlikable. She is caustic, cold and not sympathetic in the least. The minor players were shadows and/or cliches. As for the mystery, I thought it was unimaginative and predictable - the murderer was so obvious that I dismissed the character outright, thinking there was no way he/she would turn out to be the villain. Of course, in the end, Torie walks right into the killer's trap, where she coerces the truth out of the bad guy (or girl) and solves the case.
I realize this is the first book in the series, and maybe the subsequent books are better than this one. Maybe I'll take the time to find out, maybe I won't.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sit Down, Relax, and let Susanna Clarke's Masterpiece Cast Its Spell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke is the kind of book that begs you to pull up a comfortable chair (preferably next to a nice, cozy fire), relax, and lose yourself in its pages. You may have guessed this simply by observing its bulk - 782 pages with microscopic type. And, it's true - this book is not a quick read. It's also not the type of novel you can carry around in your purse to read in spurts while waiting for appointments, slow traffic, etc. So, what is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and why should you wade through its mass of pages? Read on...

Clarke spins a rich, old-fashioned tale that begins with a meeting of "gentleman" magicians pondering this question: Why [is] there no more magic done in England? After all, magic was routinely performed in the past, but this is 1806 and no one has seen a spell cast in the present day. Of course, the meeting is filled with magicians, but they are theoretical, not practical wizards. To answer their intriguing inquiry, the group decides to seek instruction from a magician in Yorkshire, the reclusive Mr. Norrell. The gentlemen manage to persuade the old magician to move to London, where they promise to help him bring magic back into fashion. To attract attention to his cause, Mr. Norrell performs two incredible feats - he causes all the statues in York Cathedral to speak and he raises a young woman from the dead. Although he knows of their tricky nature, Mr. Norrell employs a Fairie to help with the latter deed. His actions have the desired effect. Suddenly, the old magician finds himself commissioned by the government to help battle Napoleon Bonaparte in a war with France that is causing England no end of frustrations. Satisfied, Mr. Norrell applies himself to his work, spending most of his time studying magic in the safety of his library. He considers the matter of his Fairie assistant not at all.

About this time, Jonathan Strange arrives in the city. Strange is a young gentleman with plenty of money and no career. He approaches the now-famous Mr. Norrell, seeking lessons in magic. The older man soon discovers that the younger has extraordinary natural talent. However, Strange seems restless with constant studying. He would rather be out performing magic, preferably to an admiring audience.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening in London. Lady Pole, the young woman helped by Mr. Norrell, has become withdrawn and morose. She complains that she is tired from dancing all night, even though she has attended no ball. Likewise, servants in her home complain of a bell that is constantly tolling. The master servant, Stephen Black, is having disconcerting experiences with a curious man who promises to make him a king. Both Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange are called on to explain these occurrences, but neither can deduce the real problem, although it smacks of Fairie magic. Mr. Norrell publicly rages against the wretched race and its Otherworlds, while Strange decides to pursue the matter more aggressively. When his own wife mysteriously disappears, Strange drives himself to madness trying to summon a Fairie to help him bring her back.

When Strange finally succeeds, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, England's entire landscape changes - roads and bridges appear where there were none before, thickets appear which are strewn with corpses and bones, and unrelenting Darkness descends. It is up to Norrell and Strange, who have long since parted ways, to banish the Fairie world and break the spells that bind Mrs. Strange and others to their terrible world. It is a showdown that will require all their magical skills and cost them everything, including their sanity and, indeed, their very lives.

Despite its subject matter, Clarke tells her story in a warm, engaging tone that sucks the reader slowly into the story. As I've said before, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not a page turner, but the action is steady enough to keep the reader interested. The characters are unique and interesting, especially the colorful Jonathan Strange. I also loved that Clarke created a whole magical history, which she refers to constantly in lively footnotes, which are so convincing that I actually consulted Wikipedia to see if the books she cited ever existed (they didn't - she made them up). All of these things combine to make a rich, detailed story that kept me reading for days. To put it simply, this book cast a heavy spell on me - I simply couldn't put it down.


Friday, October 19, 2007

This & That

So, I'm still working my way through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but I am loving every page. It's an excellent book - look for my review sometime soon (hopefully). I'm trying to finish it quickly so I can go onto my last book for the R.I.P. II Challenge - Lord of the Rings. Definitely stay tuned! In the meantime, I wanted to mention a few things:

First, I was so inspired by (I was going to insert the name of the blogger here, but I can't remember who it was!) that I went to the library the other day WITHOUT a list. I never do that, but I thought I could benefit from a little spontaneity. So, I grabbed Garden Spells by Sarah Addison and The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle, both of which are on my TBR list. Then, I just went crazy and grabbed a couple more that I had never heard of. One is Family Skeletons by Rett MacPherson, which is the story of a historian/geneaologist who is hired to look into the disappearance of a friend's father, who left for WWII and never came home. I thought it looked fun. The other is Margaret's Peace by Linda Hall. It's about a woman who returns to her childhood home after her daughter's death only to find herself caught up in long-hidden family secrets. Love those family secrets! They make for such juicy books. So, anyway, we'll see what I think of this pile of novels.

Secondly, I wanted to give a shout out to Eva, for motivating me take my book list to a whole new level of OCD-driven organization. Just this morning, I was perusing it and realizing how many book suggestions I get from book blogs. So, thank you, book bloggers! I subscribe to the feeds of many of your blogs and read them religiously. It's so nice to have this wonderful book-minded community in the blogosphere.

Thirdly, I signed up for a new challenge. Read all about it on my companion blog, Up For A Challenge.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a magazine I enjoy called Bookmarks. It's a great magazine that features book reviews, author interviews and other bookish items. I mention it because the editor asked subscribers to spread the word via blogs and reviews, so that the magazine can stay in business, unlike my former fave Pages. The subscription is a bit pricey, but it's worth it. You can find this magazine at bookstores, but they receive more of your money if you purchase a subscription.

Okay, that's it. Back to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Have I mentioned how much I love this book??

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Classic Ghost Story Comes to Disappointing End

So, I had a book crisis as I was packing for Lake Powell: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would not fit into my suitcase. I even traded my husband suitcases, so I'd have more room. Nope. The novel was just too big. So, I ended up taking The Woman in Black by Susan Hill instead. I admit a Victorian ghost story is an odd thing to read at bright, sunny Lake Powell, but I enjoyed it.

This novel has all the elements of a classic ghost story - a lonely setting, a creaky old mansion, and a resident ghost. It also contains a young solicitor eager to advance in his law firm. The lawyer, Arthur Kipps, receives an assignment to travel from his home in London to the remote town of Crythin Gifford. There, he will settle the affairs of Mrs. Drablow, the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House. Flattered to be given such an important mission, Arthur heads off on his adventure. He finds the people in Crythin Gifford friendly enough, although no one will talk about Mrs. Drablow. Their reticence piques Arthur's curiosity. As he visits the spinster's home, goes through her papers and talks to her neighbors, he slowly pieces together her mysterious story. The clues appear to him in ghostly forms: a malevolent woman in black; the sounds of a child crying at night on the lonely marshes; and an eerily well-preserved nursery. Although the search for Mrs. Drablow's secrets haunts him, Arthur cannot keep himself away from the ghosts and the mystery. His obsession takes a toll on him physically, which is nothing compared to what the woman in black will eventually steal from him.

Despite the subject of this novel, I found the tone quite warm, especially at first. As Arthur travelled to Crythin Gifford, however, it got more sinister. The descriptions of the lonely little town and its haunted marshes made me shiver. Still, it seemed to be a pretty cozy, predictable ghost story. Except it wasn't. I predicted a typical happy end to the story, but it didn't happen. The book ends abruptly, in about the bleakest way possible. Although it makes sense, I really wanted a good, satisfying end to Arthur's story. So, since I really enjoyed the book, but didn't like the ending, I'm giving it a solid B.
Friday, October 12, 2007


I have an excuse for being M.I.A. this week - I'm wading through Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a little slow for me at first, but now I'm loving it. The book is enormous, so I'll post a review when I finish it (around March, at this rate). I rarely read two
books at a time, but currently I'm also reading Woman in Black, a ghost story by Susan Hill. It was due at the library a week ago; I'm hoping I can renew it, since I'm enjoying it, too.
Last night, I set up a new blog - really a companion to this one. I shamelessly stole this idea from Chris: Since my sidebars were drooping under the weight of all my challenge lists, I decided to put them and all other challenge-related info on my new blog, Up For A Challenge. I haven't decided exactly how I will use it, but for now it contains all of my challenge lists with links to reviews on this site. I'll keep working on both of these, since blogging about books is just so much fun for me!
Last but certainly not least, I'm going to be even more M.I.A. this week as I am off to Lake Powell, for our family's bi-annual houseboat trip. I'm hoping to get some reading done, but I may be too busy jetskiing, hiking, boating, etc. Catch you later!
Sunday, October 07, 2007

What If Happily Ever After Wasn't All That Happy After All?

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella: a young peasant woman marries handsome Prince Charming after winning his hand with the help of her Fairy Godmother. The couple, of course, lives happily ever after. But, what if it didn't really happen that way? What if Cinderella earned the prince's attention through her own pluck and cleverness? And what if happily ever after wasn't all that happy after all? These questions form the backbone of Margaret Peterson Haddix's young adult novel, Just Ella.

Our heroine is Ella Brown, a 15-year-old girl who's engaged to marry handsome Prince Charming. Although she's thrilled to be luxuriating in the palace instead of waiting on the "Step Evils" (her stepmother and stepsisters, who made her their servant after the death of her father) hand and foot, she's beginning to realize that being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, she's confined to the castle where her every movement is dictated by what is appropriate for a princess (needlework; bridal gown fittings; and stiff, chaperoned conversations with the prince) and what is not (mingling with servants; watching sporting events; and lifting a finger to do servants' work). Under the critical eye of Madame Bisset, her decorum instructor, Ella tries to mold herself into a perfect princess, but the strain is killing her. In addition to the stress of adjusting to this new life, Ella finds herself at the center of the castle's juiciest morsel of gossip - everyone seems to be twittering about how she bamboozled the prince through the use of her Fairy Godmother's magic. Knowing it was her own cleverness that got her into the castle, Ella finds the rumor downright insulting. "I'd done something everybody told me I couldn't," she thinks, "I'd changed my life all by myself. Having a fairy godmother would have ruined everything" (56). All of this, however, pales in comparison to the prince himself. Sure, he's handsome, but he doesn't seem to have an original thought in his gorgeous head. Worst of all, he's attracted to Ella only for her beauty. With relief, Ella realizes that not only is he not in love with her, but she's not the least bit in love with him.

The solution to Ella's miserable situation seems simple: tell the prince how she feels, break the engagement, and get on with life. To her surprise, it's not that simple. The Charming Family does not look kindly on scandal, a fact Ella discovers when she wakes up in the castle's dungeon. Madame Bisset informs her that she will be released only when she is ready to face her duties as a princess. Knowing she can never live such a confined life, Ella resolves to find her way out of the castle the same way she got herself into it - through her own skill and cunning.

Although Just Ella isn't my most favorite story by Haddix, I enjoyed reading this re-telling of Cinderella. I loved the idea of this novel. It answers all the questions Disney glossed over: How does a girl who has been so abused live life in a constant state of happiness and optimism? (Answer: She doesn't. She resents her stepmother/sisters) How do two people fall madly in love after dancing for a couple of hours? (Answer: They don't - it's merely lust) How does a commoner adjust to a completely different life as a princess? (Answer: Blood, sweat and tears). As always with Haddix's books, I found the most interesting part of this novel to be the deeper issues she explores, like the true nature of love, the true nature of evil, and the laziness of the overindulged.

Don't fret if you're looking for a quick, exciting read, because this story has that, too. The plot is lively, if somewhat predictable. It also features a wonderful heroine who has a keen mind and the courage to use it. All I'm saying is that this is a multi-faceted book, with many layers of meaning ... see why Haddix is my new favorite young adult author?

Grade: B+ because it was good, but not so good that I have to shout it from the rooftops
Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Elizabeth Swann's Got Nothin' on Charlotte Doyle

I'm not sure a better setting exists for an old-fashioned adventure tale than the high seas. Something about a creaking ship riding the endless, always fickle sea, makes for exciting scenes
and imaginative characters. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by prolific children's author Avi, is no exception.

The story takes place in 1832 and stars 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle. Charlotte is an American girl who has just completed her final term at Liverpool's Barrington School for Better Girls, and is returning home to her family in Rhode Island. Her gentleman father has arranged passage for her on the ship Seahawk. Although he planned to have her travel in the company of two other families, both have bowed out at the last minute, leaving Charlotte to cross the sea alone. The idea terrifies her, especially when she observes the rat-infested vessel with its menacing, all-male crew. Before the ship has even left port, Charlotte has received numerous ominous warnings to leave the Seahawk. Since her father has left her with no money, she has no choice but to follow his instruction and travel on the filthy ship.

Although Charlotte vows to lock herself in her room, it isn't long before hunger draws her out. It also draws her to the cook, Zachariah, who secretly gives her a dirk, urging her to take it and "Place it where it may be reached" (24). The old sailor then explains that a mutiny is in the works against cruel Captain Jaggery. Charlotte can't decide whom to trust - the weathered cook with his stories of the Captain's brutality or Captain Jaggery, a cultured gentleman, who warns her not to listen to the sailors' exaggerated stories. Caught in the middle, Charlotte rats out the crew, and soon finds herself a pariah among dangerous men. To redeem herself, she casts aside her white gloves and petticoats, and joins the crew. Although the act wins her some loyalty, it is not enough to save her from a later charge of murder, which demands death by hanging. With only 24 hours to prove her innocence, Charlotte must use all her strength and wits to save herself and the ship that has become her whole world.

I absolutely loved this swashbuckling story of high adventure on the open sea. The action never quit, which meant I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I also enjoyed the characters, although the sailors all kind of blended together. I guess that's appropriate since the real focus was Charlotte. Although she began as a pretentious snob, she turns into a heroine with enough pluck and compassion to win over any reader's heart. She reminded me a little of Elizabeth Swann, (Kiera Knightly's character on Pirates of the Caribbean), but Charlotte solved her problems almost entirely on her own, so I think she wins in the pluck department. Although I felt the story ended the way it should, it still bothered me a little as a parent. Besides that, though, it was a wonderful, thrilling adventure. I loved it. I'm giving it a solid A.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Butterfly House a Little Unrealistic, but Engrossing

The first chapter of Marcia Preston's The Butterfly House sucker-punched me with its intensity and mystery. After such an intriguing opening, I just couldn't resist reading the rest of the book. None of the subsequent sections were quite as compelling as the first, but was an engrossing read.

As the novel opens, Roberta Dutreau hides in her isolated home, surrounded only by snowy hills. When she spies a stranger turning up her driveway, she panics, opening the door only when the man addresses her by her childhood nickname, Bobbie Lee. Despite his use of her nickname, Roberta has never met this man before. She recognizes his face only from a photograph her friend Cincy kept by her bedside, a "photograph from years ago, a young man in a uniform with the same black eyes - my best friend's missing father" (11). The man, Harley Jaines, has come with one purpose - to compell Roberta to tell the truth about a horrific event in her past that landed Cincy's mother in prison. Roberta, who has only recently climbed out of the pit of her own insanity, knows she can't revisit her past without risking another downward spiral. Yet, the door to her past has been opened and her mind won't let her close it.

Shaken from her encounter with Harley, Roberta climbs into her car and begins the long journey to Spokane, where Lenora Jaines - Harley's lover and Cincy's mother - resides in a women's prison. As she drives, Roberta's mind combs over her childhood in Shady River, Oregon, a small town on the Columbia River. When Roberta moves there as a child, her life is bleak and lonely. Her mother, Ruth, cleans hotel rooms by day and drinks herself into a coma by night. Roberta finds her salvation in Cincy Jaines, a vibrant girl who takes the new girl under her wing. When Roberta visits Cincy's home, she feels more at home there than anywhere. She is particularly attracted by the house's glassed-in porch, where plants and butterflies are cultivated by Cincy's scientist mother, Lenora. As Roberta and Cincy spend more and more time together, Lenora becomes Roberta's pseudo mother, a relationship which deepens as Roberta shows increasing interest in Lenora's scientific projects. Not only does Cincy become envious of their relationship, but Ruth is so jealous she accuses Roberta and Lenora of being lesbians. The anger that blossoms between the women erupts in a violent act that leaves Ruth dead, Roberta in a mental hospital, Lenora in prison and Cincy on the run. When Roberta emerges from the facility, she marries, moves to Canada and tries to put the entire situation behind her. She has done so with relative success until Harley Jaines shows up on her doorstep.

When Roberta finally arrives in Spokane, Lenora warns her to keep quiet about their past. Roberta is only too glad to comply, until she realizes that even she doesn't know what really happened that night. As she searches for her own answers, Roberta must confront her demons and decide if she can save Lenora and, ultimately, herself.

Marcia Preston delivers a major punch in the first chapter, then weaves the past and present together expertly throughout the rest of the book to create a compelling, suspenseful story. It's a bit predictable - I guessed several of the "secrets" long before Roberta did - but I still found the book engrossing. It's not warm and fuzzy by any means; in fact, it's downright bleak, but the story is ultimately about truth and redemption. I can't say I loved it, but I did find The Butterfly House an engrossing read.

Now, you know I always have weird issues with the books I read. Like I said, a lot of this novel takes place in a small, fictional town on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. The story describes Cincy and Roberta biking across a bridge to the Washington side to pick up groceries. This detail bugged me because I grew up in this exact sort of town (although it was real and on the Washington side), and the idea of two little girls biking across a bridge to Oregon is a little unrealistic. All the bridges I've crossed in this part of Washington/Oregon are very high and very narrow. Although people do bike across them occasionally, I have NEVER seen children doing it. Furthermore, I would NEVER allow any child to make such a dangerous trip. So, yeah, that detail bugged me through the whole book. I told you it was a small, weird thing.

So, anyway, I'm giving this book a B+ because it's a little predictable and some of the situations seem unrealistic. Overall, though, it's a well-written and interesting story.
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