Friday, August 31, 2007

Bones to Ashes A Page-Turner of the Highest Order

Is it just me or have you had sequels coming out your ears, too? Or more accurately, sequels overflowing your bookshelf. I love series fiction for many reasons, but mostly because the characters feel like old friends, and I've always been better at maintaining old friendships than building new ones. At any rate, my newest sequel read was Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs. Her Temperance Brennan series is one of my favorites.

Bones to Ashes seems more personal than Reichs' previous books, mostly because it discusses Tempe's background in more depth than before. Specifically, it examines the disappearance of her childhood friend, Evangeline Landry. Well, that and a boatload of other cases - as a forensic anthropologist working in both the U.S. and Canada, Tempe always has her hands full. While she works overtime on the Landry cold case, she has a slew of bones from more recent deaths to examine. Several of the murders seem to be linked, possibly the work of a serial killer. As if that wasn't enough, Tempe also has to deal with an extended visit from her impulsive sister, Harry, as well as her more-complicated-than-ever love life. Her estranged husband, Pete, announces his engagement to a woman 20 years his junior, while her on-again-off-again boyfriend, cop Andrew Ryan, decides to heal a relationship with his ex for the sake of their daughter. Between the rejection from two men, a missing old friend and onimous telephone and email threats, Tempe's dealing with more than she can seemingly handle. Still, she can't let the disappearances go, not the cold ones or the active ones, despite the very dangerous turns they seem to be taking.

Fast-paced and exciting, this is a page-turner of the highest order. I did think the bad guys were a little bit generic, and the ending is kind of predictable. Still, it's always fascinating to "watch" Tempe solve a case. Reichs is a master at explaining forensic science simply and understandably, without coming across as condescending. Her writing style engages with warmth and wit. The character of Tempe Brennan shines, as always. As for minor characters, Harry wins the title of Most Entertaining, as Ryan and Pete don't clock much time in this one. I love Ryan, so I'm anxious to see what happens to him and Tempe. Alas, another sequel I'll have to read...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Card Coincidence, or Why I'm Taking On Another Reading Challenge

I saw this announcement in the Book Nook section of the newest BYU Magazine: Orson Scott Card's Saints has been reissued. I've been looking for this novel about Joseph Smith and the experience of the early Saints for awhile now. Interestingly, Becky over at Becky's Book Reviews just announced she is sponsoring a new open-ended reading challenge, Cardathon. The coincidence seemed like a sign, so I ordered Saints (remember, I vowed not to buy any books after August 31) and took on the challenge. If you're interested in joining, you can get all the info on Becky's site. Here's my list (so far):

Saints - Orson Scott Card
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Fablehaven - Brandon Mull
Rachel & Leah - Orson Scott Card
Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson
Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill
Mayflower - Nathaniel Philbrick
A Storyteller in Zion - Orson Scott Card
The Watchman - Robert Crais
Because of Winn-Dixie - Kate DiCamillo
Everlost - Dale Shusterman
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn - Kathy Hirsh-Pasek & Roberta Michnick Golinkoff


Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine
The Bone Doll's Twin - Lynn Flewelling
The Princes of Ireland - Edward Rutherford
The Rebels of Ireland - Edward Rutherford
The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis - Alan Jacobs
Hidden Talents - David Lubar

Like I said, I may change it, but for now I think this is a good list.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Stolen Child Brings Terrifying Fairy Tale to Life

Among the many fairy tales told to children is that of the changelings - hobgoblins who kidnap human kids and assume their identities. Everyone knows these are only stories - everyone except Henry Day, that is. You see, he was stolen by hobgoblins in 1949 when he was only 7. If you ask Henry, he will tell you changelings exist, and that they pose a much bigger danger than anyone ever imagined.

If I grabbed your attention with that little teaser, run out and grab a copy of Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child. You won't be disappointed in this absorbing tale about a man haunted by his strange past. That man is Henry Day, who begins his story with this shocking admission: "I am a changeling." From there, he spins a wild tale of a young boy who wanders into the woods one day. An ancient band of hobgoblins seizes the child, replacing him with a changeling who resembles him so closely that no one can tell the difference. His parents notice subtle changes in the boy, but nothing that can't be explained away. Having duped the humans, the changeling becomes Henry Day. Yet, he can't quite forget his past. When he meets and marries the beautiful Tess, Henry aches to tell her his secret. Knowing she won't believe him, Henry vows to forget his past and focus on the present. When he spies a hobgoblin sneaking around his home, Henry fears the worst - the changelings have come for his son. Desperate to save his child, Henry forces himself to remember everything, a choice that could destroy the life he has so carefully built. Balancing Henry's story is the tale of Aniday - the child Henry who has now morphed into a hobgoblin. Despite his years in the forest, Aniday cannot quite forget his human beginning. Fractured memories draw him to the people, an obsession that grows dangerous for his dwindling band of hobgoblins. Still, he can't keep himself away. He is determined to know the truth of his past life, determined to discover the identities of the faces that haunt his dreams. His quest takes him to Henry Day, the man who stole his life. As their lives intersect, the two must confront each other and the truths about their troubled pasts.

Unique and engaging, this novel captured me from the first paragraph. It's a magic, absorbing tale that has so many exquisite layers. On one level, it's an engrossing tale of secrets, survival and adventure. On another, it's a powerful allegory about humanity and hidden evils. The writing is incredible - luminous and beautiful. The whole novel is so haunting and real, you'll find yourself locking your windows...just in case.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lewis' Out of Their League With Tale of Derring-Do

I've read Beverly Lewis before, so I expected Sanctuary (which was actually written by her and her husband, David) to be pretty much the same as her previous books. Turns out, I was right...and wrong.

This novel had a typical Lewis setting: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. That is where Melissa "Mellie" James finds refuge after ditching the man who seems intent on killing her. When she spots him in a restaurant near her home in Connecticut, Mellie races home, packs a suitcase and leaves her house and new husband behind. She jots Ryan a quick note, knowing she can't divulge the reasons behind her disappearance without putting him in danger as well. Frantically, she flies down the freeway, trying to shake off her pursuer. When she is finally able to evade him, she drives deep into Amish country, figuring it as the last place her stalker would expect her to go. When she sees a house with a room for rent, she stops. The quaint, peaceful home is a godsend for Mellie, a place off the beaten track where she can hide in relative safety. Mellie's hostess is a young Mennonite woman named Lela Denlinger, who has been praying for a chance to become an instrument in God's hands by helping somebody. Mellie James seems the perfect candidate. As Lela observes her troubled boarder, she vows to help the woman any way she can. When the two become close, Mellie spills her story: Lela is stunned to find out that Mellie's father was an "accountant" for the Russian mob. After stealing 80 million dollars from a mobster, Emery took his young daughter and disappeared, only to be hunted down and killed by the same fiend. The money never surfaced, and now the same man is tracking Mellie, determined to find the money her father took from him so long ago. Since Mellie's teenage years, she has been hiding from this dangerous man, taking precautions to change her identity and appearance. Now, the mobster has got up with her and even if she can elude capture, she knows she can never go home and put her husband in danger. Lela assures her she is safe and that God will protect her. Still, Mellie is worried. She has good reason, because soon enough she realizes that not only does her pursuer know where she is, but he is not the only one she should fear - her husband, Ryan, may be in on the whole thing. As Mellie struggles to sort out her past and her future, she finds solace in the Plain community around her and even finds herself embarking on her own spiritual journey. In the end, Sanctuary a story about finding strength in God despite the evil running rampant in the world around us.

Sanctuary is typical Lewis fare in several ways: 1.) It involves the Amish/Mennonite community, 2.) It is told (and I do mean told - Lewis isn't much much for "showing" a story; apparently, her husband isn't either) in sloppy sentences, tired description and cliched characters, and 3.) It concerns people searching for God. The way it differs from Lewis' other novels is the whole mobster/revenge/violence thing. I haven't seen that before in her writing (I've never read David Lewis' books, but I think they're similar to his wife's), and I hope I don't see it again. Their antagonist is so cliche, it's funny. He definitely doesn't ring true, so I found him more comical than sinister. Like the antagonist in Sanctuary, most of the other characters are flat as can be, especially the very boring Ryan James. I found the Plain characters more interesting, although they all appeared to be saints, despite Lela's declaration that "We aren't perfect." Even Paul Martin, who left the Plain community (and reappears out of the blue, for no good reason whatsoever), finds only sorrow until he returns. In short, the Plain characters are too perfect; the Englischers are too generic; and the bad guys are just plain laughable. I also thought the book got very preachy and that the main characters' spiritual makeovers happened way too fast and way too easily to be realistic.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. I thought the Lewis' would end it in the most generic way possible, but they actually surprised me.

All in all, I was pretty frustrated by the book. I do give the Lewis' kudos for producing a clean read that was inspiring, despite its many flaws. I also hope they stay away from tales of derring-do, and stick to the tried-and-true stories of Plain life for which they are known.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Book Thief: Resistance is Futile

After being sickened by the last book I attempted to read about Jews and Nazis in WWII (The True Story of Hansel and Gretel), I unknowingly picked up another book on the same subject. Naturally, I approached the new book -- Markus Zusak's The Book Thief -- with caution. After the first chapter, however, I was so thoroughly captured that Adolf Hitler himself couldn't have pulled the book away from me. The story is that mesmerizing, that powerful.

The Book Thief boasts a unique narrator - Death - who tells the story of young Liesel Meminger. Liesel's tale begins with a train ride to Munich, where she and her brother will be placed in a foster home. Her father has long since disappeared, the whispered label of "Communist" lingering in his wake, and her mother is too poor and sickly to care for her children. Thus, the kids are shipped to Munich, where they will be delivered to The Hubermanns, their new foster parents. The journey, however, proves too difficult for the boy; our narrator is soon on the scene to collect his delicate soul. His funeral is a cold, dismal affair. However, the event saves Liesel, offering her a gift: a small, black book falls from the pocket of an apprentice grave digger. Snatching it up, Liesel pockets the treasure. Now alone, Liesel is desposited on the Hubermanns doorstep in Molching, where she begins an innocuous new life. Liesel's foster parents - Rosa and Hans - take to the child in their own, enigmatic ways. Rosa, a wardrobe-shaped woman sporting a "face decorated with constant fury," (33) swears and berates the child, abuses Liesel recognizes belatedly as affectionate. Hans, a man who appears "Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable" (34), becomes Liesel's savior. His quiet ways soothe her, especially when she "nightmares" about her dead brother. At these times, he sits quietly at her bedside, and it is then that Liesel begs him to read her stolen book to her. Hans is "not such a good reader myself" (65), so he instead teaches her how to read. This feat ignites a fire in Liesel, a passion for books and their words. Like everyone else on Himmel Street, the Hubermanns are poor and cannot afford books. So, Liesel begins accumulating them in the only way she can - stealing. She rescues one from a Nazi book-burning, lifts several from the mayor's library, and even receives a couple as gifts. It is only when Liesel begins sharing the books, however, that she realizes their true power. One of the most vivid scenes in the book occurs when Liesel is reading to a group of neighbors huddled in a bomb shelter:

"She didn't dare to look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion.

The sound of the turning page carved them in half.

Liesel read on." (381)

As bombs rain down on Molching, Liesel sees the power of words - to enliven a beaten Jew; to comfort a grieving mother; to calm the fears of her friends; to incite a nation to imprison its own; to maim; to hurt; to kill. When Liesel realizes the strength of her own words, she begins to write, a task which saves her life and touches even Death.

As fascinating as Liesel's life is, it is really only a backdrop for Markus Zusak's sermon on the power of words to influence for good and evil. He purports that Hitler seduced his people with words, writing:

"Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. 'I will never fire a gun,' he devised. 'I will not have to.' Still...his first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible...He planted them day and night, and cultivated them...He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany...It was a nation of farmed thoughts." (445)

The Book Thief contains countless references to words both said and unsaid. I think I could write an entire thesis on this subject alone.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is the way it personifies Death. His character is both arrogant and humble, angry and humorous, hard-nosed and compassionate, interested and dispassionate. In short, he is as realistic - as human, if you will - as the rest of the absorbing cast.

Not only does The Book Thief contain layer after layer of thought-provoking ideas, but it is a compelling story to boot. Its unique format makes it accessible, humorous and impactful without being sentimental or sappy. It's pitch-perfect with exquisitely-crafted sentences and paragraphs. It will suck you in and spit you out only when it's through with you. Resistance is futile - succumb to the magic of this incredible tale.

Monday, August 20, 2007

My First Meme

Okay, so I don't even know what "meme" means, but this one looked fun:

What are you reading right now? The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I'm about halfway through, and loving it! I noticed that a lot of my book blogging friends read several books at a time; I don't. I guess I just don't have enough concentration to read more than one at a time.

Do you have any idea what you'll read when you're done with that? I have bought a ton of books lately, so I have a lot from which to choose. I will have to see what I'm in the mood for after I finish The Book Thief.

What's the worst thing you've ever been forced to read? I took an LDS Literature course at Brigham Young University (BYU), and we had to read some very poorly-written books. They were written by the professor and other of his friends, so I guess that explains why we were forced to read them...I also hated reading Walt Whitman in college. *Snore*

What's the one book you always recommend to just about anyone? The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Despite my issues with the most recent volume, the stories are fast-paced and well-written. Plus, they're clean reads, so I recommend them knowing they won't offend anyone.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first-name basis. Actually they don't, but that's only because checkout at my library is not done by the librarians. Patrons use a little kiosk to check out books. Now, the cashiers at Borders, that's another story...

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason people never think it sounds interesting, or have they read it and don't like it at all? Oh, I'm sure there are, but I can't think of any right offhand.

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or tv? While you listen to music? While you're on the computer? Considering my sloppy eating habits, I shouldn't eat and read at the same time, but I do. I always have a book or magazine available to peruse when I eat alone. When we dine as a family, I don't allow anyone to have reading material at the table! On the rare occasion that I take a bath, I do read, yep. No, on the other questions. I have a bit of a one-track mind, so I don't read while I watch tv, listen to music or work on the computer - I have to do one thing at a time :)

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits? I don't remember getting teased, but that's probably because I never read novels at school. By the time I was in high school, I purposely left my books at home so I wouldn't be labeled a nerd (horror of horrors). In my high school history class, I sat diagonally behind a girl who always brought a romance novel to class. She'd balance the book on her knees while our teacher droned on and on. She'd often sit there, reading, with tears streaming down her face, and our teacher never noticed! I wish I had been as brave as her - I would have gotten a lot of reading done.

What is the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn't put it down? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why I Abandoned The True Story of Hansel and Gretel Before I Was Even Halfway Through

I made it almost halfway through this one before I had to quit. Don't get me wrong, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy is well-written and undeniably compelling, but I just couldn't stomach the violent imagery.

The novel begins with a Jewish couple speeding across the Polish countryside trying desperately to outrun the Nazis on their tail. At a hidden bend, they slow their motorcycle only long enough to rush their two children off into the forest. The father urges the kids to head for a nearby village and find a farmer willing to feed them. The children - now dubbed Hansel and Gretel - discover a cottage in the woods, where Magda, the town witch, takes them in. In order to get extra food rations for the children, Magda concocts a story to explain their presence to the Nazis, who control the town. While on this errand, pretty Gretel captures one of the officer's attention, which I assume leads to trouble later on.

The book follows the children's story as well as that of their father and stepmother, who also manage to evade their Nazi pursuers. The couple flees into the woods as well. There, they encounter a ragtag group of men eager to exact revenge on the Nazis and all Poles who aid them. It was when this group hangs a woman out of her bedroom window that I closed the book.

As I said before, the book is well-written and spellbinding. I cared about some of the characters, especially the kids, but not enough to stick with a story that made me sick to my stomach. I have too many books in my TBR pile to force myself to finish this one. If anyone else has read it, let me know what happens to the kids...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

My Plea to Stephenie Meyer: Get on With the Story!

Wow. I just finished reading Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, and that is all I can say about the book. Well, it's probably not all I can say (I can always be persuaded to say more) ... but I have
to warn you that further musings will contain plot spoilers. If you haven't finished the book, don't read on!

I loved Eclipse almost as much as I loved the two previous books in the series; I say almost because there were a few things in this story that bugged me to no end. We'll get to that later, but first, a plot summary: This story continues the saga of loveable, accident-prone Bella Swan and her vampire-boyfriend, Edward Cullen. Bella is finishing up her senior year in high school, looking forward to graduation with equal parts excitement and dread. She has been dutifully filling out college applications, but it's not higher education that has her stomach in knots - it's the Cullens' promise to turn her into a vampire as soon as she receives her high school diploma. Although Bella trusts the peace-loving, "vegetarian" (they suck animal blood, not human) Cullens, she's a little nervous about becoming one of them. If she can't resist the scent of mortal blood, how can she sustain her relationships with her human family and friends? And what of her best friend, Jacob Black? He's a werewolf, an ancient enemy of the "bloodsuckers." If she becomes a vampire, she will have to leave him behind forever. Although she desperately wants to join the Cullens, she fears losing her humanity. As she ponders her impossible decision and all its consequences, a new horror rears its ugly head: an unprecedented number of violent murders are occurring in nearby Seattle. The Cullens fear they are the result of a coven of "newborns," reckless and bloodthirsty in their youth. Worse yet, they are led by Bella's worst nightmare, the vengeful Victoria, a vampire out to hurt Edward by drinking Bella's blood. As the violence escalates in Seattle, the Cullens reluctantly agree to challenge Victoria's clan. When other local vampires refuse to join the fight, the Cullens are forced to accept the help of Jacob and his pack. The uneasy alliance forces Bella into a tough spot - smack dab in the middle of two exquisite creatures who hate each other almost as much as they both love her. As the newborns creep ever closer, Bella finds her heart tearing for two men offering two very different futures, and the possiblity that Victoria may leave them no future at all. The heart-pounding finale pits vampire against werewolf, vampire against vampire, with the irrepressible Bella in the middle of it all.

As you can tell, the plot teems with action and suspense. It had me mesmerized, literally unable to stop reading until I reached the end. Meyer has drawn the characters so skillfully that they are real and sympathetic (vampires and werewolves though they may be), so sympathetic that I couldn't not care about what happened to all of them. I also thought the idea of Victoria and her gang was interesting - the idea of power-hungry vampires creating armies of "newborns" was something that made me shudder. I also admired the way Meyer handled the issue of physical intimacy in this book, a topic she has hinted at in the previous volumes, but not dealt with head on. She's not afraid to make Bella a normal (read that, hormonal) teenager, willing to trade her virginity for a night with her soul mate, but she's also brave enough to make Edward take an honest, unflinching stand in the defense of marriage. I've often wondered how - and if - Meyer would have written her novels differently if she wasn't LDS. I'm certainly glad she does know how to pen exciting, passionate novels that stay strictly within a PG rating (although she does throw in a few "hells" and "damns," just to prove she can get dicey when needed).

Okay, back to the things that irritate me about the novel. First, I think it lags a bit in the middle. It was around there that I told my husband I was tired of the whole Bella-Edward-Jacob love triangle. I was tired of Bella flying between the two of them, tired of Edward and Jacob's acceptance of her fickleness, and absolutely exhausted from her constant indecision. I couldn't understand why she didn't forget about Jacob, marry Edward, and accept her new life as a vampire. Bella's excuses that she can't get married at 18 because she's "not that kind of girl" and "what would people think?" seem weak and out-of-character. Thankfully, just when I was getting really annoyed, Jacob decided to be a real man (er, were-man) and fight for what he wanted. I also noticed a lot of typos in this book, which is a huge pet peeve of mine. Errors in the text yank me out of the story, interrupting the rhythm of my reading. I hate that. The biggest annoyance in the story, however, is the whole issue of Bella's transformation into a vampire. Meyer has dragged out the issue for three (large) books now, and I'm getting impatient. Prolonging plot elements just to ensure that sequels will follow is a tactic I associate with writers less skilled than Meyer. Since I love this series so much, I can't say I'm not glad to see Bella's story continue, but I really wish Meyer would stop dragging things out and just get on with the story!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Harry Potter Finale Breathtaking

I've had Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows since its release date, but I've been putting off reading it. Why? I was intimidated by its sheer heft, for one. It's 759 pages long, and a part of me just wanted to skip straight to the end (like my mom did) and get all the answers. That was really only a small part of me, though, because I never read the endings of books first. Anyway, the biggest reason I've been procrastinating is that I know it will be the last new Harry Potter book ever. I'm grieving. So, I vowed to read it slowly and savor the story, but...yeah, that didn't happen. I found myself racing through it like a madwoman, desperate to see what happened to Harry and his friends (and foes).

Before you read on, I should warn you that there may be plot spoilers ahead. I won't intentionally spoil the whole story, but I may inadvertently mention a few of its surprises, so consider yourself forewarned...

The story opens with a sinister first chapter affirming what we all know from the last book: Lord Voldemort has gained power and is planning to take over not only the Ministry of Magic, but also the entire wizarding world. Harry Potter is his only real obstacle, and of course Voldemort has plans to kill the young wizard. Knowing that, Harry's supporters have gathered at number four, Privet Drive, to whisk he and the Dursleys to safety. Unfortunately, the plan goes a bit awry and Harry finds himself trapped at Ron's house, under the constant, watchful eye of Mrs. Weasley. When Harry, Ron and Hermione can sneak away, they spend their stolen moments hatching their plans to continue the mission left for them by Professor Dumbledore: they must find Voldemort's 5 horcruxes and destroy them. Their search proves much harder than any of them imagined, pitting them against Death Eaters, goblins, possessed bodies and an enormous dragon among the more mundane problems of hunger, thirst, flared tempers and finding safety in an increasingly dangerous world. As if Harry doesn't have enough on his mind, he also has to face the fact that Dumbledore may not have been who Harry thought he was. Disturbing details in Rita Skeeter's new bestseller - a scathing tell-all about the Professor - seem to confirm Harry's biggest fears about his beloved mentor. Was it true the Professor was involved in the Dark Arts as a youth? What happened to his sister, Ariana? Was Dumbledore really responsible for her death? And, why, did he trust Severus Snape, a confirmed Death Eater? If Dumbledore can't be trusted, then what of the perilous quest Harry and his friends have undertaken? Somehow, Harry can't bring himself to abandon it, no matter how much danger he and his supporters are in. And they are indeed in grave danger: war has broken out in the wizarding world, and Voldemort seems intent on killing anyone who stands in his way. The final showdown happens - appropriately - at Hogwarts, with the good wizards fighting the bad. In the end, it comes down to Harry v. Voldemort, in the ultimate duel between good and evil.

What can I say? The ending was inevitable and predictable, but it was an awesome ride. The book was simply impossible to put down, and I enjoyed every word. I wasn't at all surprised by the ending, but I was (mostly) satisfied by it. My main beef was actually with the Epilogue, which was dull and not at all informative. I've still got questions: What happened to the Dursleys? They aren't mentioned after Chapter 2. I'm also wondering how Neville Longbottom ended up with Gryffindor's sword in the end? Maybe I missed something, but I thought Griphook took it...Anyway, I would have preferred a better wrap-up, but all in all, the book was breathtaking.

I'm sad that Harry Potter mania is over, but I'm glad to have been a part of it. Farewell, Harry, the world won't be the same without you!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sammy's Hill Chick-Lit with a Brain

Samantha "Sammy" Joyce has it all - her own apartment, a loyal pet fish and a respectable job on Capitol Hill. Okay, so she lacks poise and confidence - especially when it comes to interactions with the opposite sex - but she has a darn good life, altogether. She loves working for Robert Gary, junior senator from Ohio and bona fide man of the people. As an analyst, Sammy is a minion, but she feels "like I had a chance to make a positive difference in the world every day." (3) She is so happy with her job, in fact, that she feels guilty when gorgeous Aaron Driver comes on the scene. Aaron works as a speechwriter for Senior Senator John Bramen, a man Sammy classifies as "a jerk by most accounts, but a very successful one." (30) Bramen is, in fact, working exhaustively to win a nomination for the Presidency. Aaron admires his scheming, self-absorbed boss, a fact Sammy is willing to put aside for the least until she and Aaron are happily married. Surely, she can win him over from the Dark Side after that. When the Gary and Bramen teams form a tentative alliance, Sammy's friends and co-workers warn her not to trust anyone on Bramen's staff. Sammy refuses to listen, insisting that unlike Bramen and the rest of his staff, Aaron can be trusted. As the relationship progresses, however, Sammy begins to have her own doubts. Unfortunately, she can't fully examine them because work is keeping her busier than ever. She's already got a mountain of problems to contend with: An anonymous source from Bramen's camp has been bad-mouthing Gary's people; a reporter is hounding her about a Blackberry message accidentally sent to the wrong people; and Aaron is getting more and more distant. When an unpleasant surprise forces Sammy to see Aaron in a whole new light, her problems go from bad to worse. As she makes herself pick up the pieces of her shattered life, she must face the tough questions: Can she keep up with her increasingly important, but completely overwhelming, job? And will she ever find a man she can trust or is she destined to spend her life alone?

Kristin Gore (yep, she's Al Gore's daughter) tells Sammy's story with just the right amount of wit in her debut novel, Sammy's Hill. Her style is readable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Its setting makes the book a little meatier than your average chick-lit fare (although I'm so politically unaware that any book on the subject seems brainy). Seriously, though, I liked the political bent and thought it added an interesting dimension to the story. I also came to like Sammy Joyce, although I found her character so weird at first that I considered ditching Sammy's Hill completely. By the end of the first chapter, I decided to accept her with all of her neuroses and simply enjoy reading about her crazy, improbable life. She's kind of a female version of Dr. Dorian (Zach Braff's character) on the tv show Scrubs - loveable, but prone to bizarre daydreams and odd trains of thought. Her weird compulsions actually lessen toward the end of the story, which apparently prove her maturation as a character.

The book is really a lot of fun, although somewhat predictable. I have to say, though, that the happy ending seemed fitting and right. I also thought that Gore tried so hard to create a unique, but loveable heroine that she went way over the top, making Sammy Joyce just a little bit too crazy to be real. After all, who would seriously keep a sling around the house so she could practice performing household tasks just in case one of her arms happened to be swallowed by a lion? Like I said, she's a little nuts.

For those of you looking for a "clean read," I'm not sure what to say about this one. It does have love scenes, but they are really not graphic at all. There is plenty of innuendo, and plenty of outright sexual references, although they would probably only garner a PG-13 rating if Sammy's Hill was turned into a movie. As for profanity, there's a little, but not much (the F-word is used once). All in all, it's not that bad, so you'll have to use your own judgment. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed the story immensely.

Up for a Challenge

I've been writing my little book blog for awhile now, but it's only lately that I've discovered other people's book blogs. I happened upon Amanda's fun site, A Patchwork of Books, and I'm addicted to following all her links. The sites I've found are amazing - I love reading everyone's opinions and recommendations. One thing I've noticed is that lots of other book bloggers participate in book "challenges." I think this is an awesome idea. Amanda mentioned the "Unread Authors Challenge" and I thought, "This is my chance!" So, I'm going for it. I had been thinking about creating my own personal challenge to read the books on my bookshelf before buying any new ones - this way, I can kill two birds with one stone. Without further ado (sorry for all the ado, I'm a little wordy today), here's my list:

1. The March by E.L. Doctorow
2. The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman
3. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
4. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman
5. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
6. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

Alternates/Extra Credit:

1. 1776 by David McCullough
2. The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
3. Boys and Girls Learn Differently by Michael Gurian
4. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
5. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning Or, Orphans by Lemony Snicket
6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Wish me luck!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Vacation Reads Predictable, Disappointing

I just returned from a 2 1/2 week, 4,678-mile trip through 7 states and I am exhausted! Unfortunately, I can't read in the car without getting nauseous, so I only managed to finish 2 books while on vacation. One of those was not Harry Potter, but I did have HP mailed to my mom's house, so I could get it on its release day! I haven't read it yet, but it's definitely on my list. I may have to read Eclipse first, so we'll see...

Anyway, back to the two books I have finished...First up is Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth, the first novel in the Pennsylvania Dutch Murder Mysteries series by Tamar Myers. This murder mystery with recipes features Magdalena Yoder, a Mennonite with an attitude, who runs the PennDutch Inn in Hernia, Pennsylvania. Thanks to a positive newspaper review, the Inn has become a haven for the rich and famous, who are only too happy to pay for the "Amish Lifestyle Plan Option," which means they clean their own rooms and Magdalena saves on overhead. According to her, "You'd be surprised how much people will pay for abuse, provided they can view it as a cultural experience." (p. 11) Anyway, when Magdalena's new crop of guests shows up, she realizes that she may have a problem on her hands. Included on the guest list are 3 members of an animal rights group, 1 animal-rights saboteur in disguise, 1 Congressman, 1 wife of a Congressman, 1 aide to a Congressman and 1 reporter. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad any other time of the year, but it just happens to be the opening day of deer-hunting season. An explosive situation indeed. To make things even more complicated for Magdalena and her temperamental cook, the guests all seem to have different dietary demands, and have barely gotten settled before they start complaining. When Magdalena discovers a dead body in her inn, things quickly go from bad to worse. Good police investigators are hard to find in Hernia, so Magdalena takes it upon herself to solve the crime, all the while trying to placate her grumbling lodgers. The discovery of another body at the PennDutch certainly doesn't help things. Suddenly, Magdalena finds herself in a dangerous race against time to find a killer that has chosen her as his next victim.

My favorite part of this book is the way it deals with the Amish/Mennonite experience. I've read my fair share of books about this culture, and this is the first time I've seen an author deal with it in such an honest, lighthearted way. Myers is able to laugh at her own people without devaluing their religion or way of life. Through Magdalena Yoder, the reader discovers a realistic Mennonite woman (not that I know any Mennonites, but still...) who is a little greedy, a little lazy and needs a big attitude adjustment. I thought she was a hilarious character, although I didn't think she reacted very realistically to finding dead bodies in her inn. My least favorite part of the book was the plot, which was sloppy and predictable. My rule of thumb for mysteries is that the person you least suspect is always the killer, and Too Many Crooks followed this formula to a T. I also didn't think the clues pointed conclusively to the ending, which they should in a well-crafted mystery.

Needless to say, I'm still trying to find a solid series in the mystery-with-recipes genre. I place Tamar Myers only one wrung higher than Joanne Fluke, whose Hannah Swenson series is redeemable only because it is fun and the recipes look good. Otherwise, these cozy mysteries seem to lack solid plotting and tight writing. I'm looking for a well-written, fun murder mystery with delicious recipes - is that too much to ask??

Okay, sorry, I didn't mean to ramble on about that one. I was just hoping to like it more, which leads me to my next read: When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin. I had heard so much about Martin that I guess I was just expecting more from this book.

The story concerns Reese, a man with a past, who is most content quietly restoring old boats or rowing in Lake Burton. Although he actively avoids other people, Reese finds himself in town one day buying parts for his boats. He is drawn to a little girl in a yellow dress, who is raking in the dough at her lemonade stand. When he gets closer to her, he realizes why - the child has a deep scar in her chest, signifying heart problems. It dawns on him then that the money has nothing to do with lemonade and everything to do with getting the child a new heart. Something in Reese's own heart responds, unleashing painful memories of Emma, his childhood sweetheart who died waiting for a healthy heart. He is haunted by her memory, scarred by his own inability to save her. Yet, he is drawn to this girl, 7-year-old Annie, who remains hopeful despite her damaged heart. When a bread truck careens around the corner heading straight for Annie's lemonade stand, Reese's heroics kick him out of anonymity and straight into the very situation he never wanted to be in again. But, here he is, caring about another girl with an irreparable heart. As Annie waits desperately for a new organ, Reese becomes her biggest cheerleader. Still, he can't quite bring himself to reveal all of his secrets to Annie and her caretaker aunt (who is becoming disturbingly important to him) even if it means saving the little girl's life. As Annie's life drains away, Reese must face his past and make the decision that could change all their lives forever.

Although I enjoyed Martin's writing style and appreciated the inspiration he was trying to impart, there were several things that really bugged me about this book. One was the character of Reese. I thought he was realistic, except when he did things that were totally out of character, which happened constantly in the book. For instance, why would a man intent on hiding his identity stop at a stranger's lemonade stand and have a prolonged conversation with her? Or why, after causing a scene which would reveal the identity he has tried so hard to conceal, does he continue to visit with Annie and her aunt? Wouldn't it be more in character for Reese to run and hide, shaking with fear? I also think it's out of character for a man like that to purposely reach out to a troubled teenager (Termite), who seems to only be in the book so that he can rescue Reese in a later chapter. In short, I found Reese confusing and inconsistent, and not in a realistic way. My other problem with the book is its complete and utter predictability. Nothing in the plot surprised me. Make no mistake, I like a happy ending, but I think it should be achieved only after some good plot twists which make it seem absolutely unattainable.

Despite my issues with the plot and characters, this is a book I plan to keep on my shelf, if only because it's a clean story about faith and love. I also plan to give Martin another chance - I just hope it's worth it.
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