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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Haddix Novel A Thrilling Race Against Time

The year is 1840. At least, that's what the children in Clifton, Indiana, believe. They have grown up wearing homemade clothing, riding in horse-drawn wagons, and writing on slates with chalk. For 14-year-old Jessie Keyser, it's all part of her normal, everyday life. Then, an epidemic breaks out in Clifton, a mysterious sickness that's affecting kids all over town, including Katie, Jessie's younger sister. Panicked, Jessie's mother takes her aside and delivers the shocking news: It is really 1996. She explains that the people of Clifton are actually part of a living history museum, where tourists can observe life as it was lived in 1840. When the Keysers agreed to live as authentic 19th Century villagers, the agreement had included access to modern medicine. But now, there is a diptheria breakout and no medicine has come into the village. Without it, children will die. Jessie's mother warns her that the founders of Clifton don't want to help, so someone will have to sneak out of the community and find aid. Fearing her disappearance would attract too much attention, Jessie's mother asks Jessie to go. Although she is scared, Jessie slips into the jeans and T-shirt her mom offers her and sneaks into the terrifying world of 1996. With little more than a name and a phone number, she begins her dangerous quest to find help. When she finally reaches the man who is supposed to help her, Jessie realizes just how dangerous her mission really is. With Clifton's founders desperate to find her, Jessie must use all her strength and wit to avoid captureand save the people and town she loves.

This is the ingenious plot behind Margaret Peterson Haddix's fascinating novel, Running Out of Time. The story's premise intrigued me, but the suspense kept me turning the pages. It's a fast-paced, thrilling adventure that is absolutely unputdownable. I loved it. There were aspects that confused me (How come no planes ever flew over Clifton? Why was Jessie instructed to contact a stranger on the outside instead of her grandparents or other relatives?), but overall, it's an awesome read.

Although Haddix excels at writing taut, exciting plots, it's the questions behind her books that really give me pause. This one pits the old world against the new and begs to know which is better, safer? It asks which parents should do - shelter their children against evil or thrust them into the world and teach them how to cope? It also demands to know when children are old enough to learn the harsh truths of their worlds? As a parent, I find these questions endlessly fascinating.

If you liked the ideas behind City of Ember and the movie The Village, check this one out. You're sure to enjoy it.

Another Challenge I Just Couldn't Pass Up

Okay, so I know I'm getting in over my head with the challenges, but I simply can't resist. Here's another one that I'm really excited about: it's the Triple 8 Challenge hosted by 3M. All the details are on the challenge blog, but basically you choose 8 books to read in 8 different categories. Some overlap is allowed, so it's not as overwhelming as it sounds! It runs from January 1 to December 31, 2008. I'm so excited! Here's my list:

Jane Austen
  • Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  • Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
  • Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
  • Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
  • Austenland - Shannon Hale
  • The Jane Austen Book Club - Karen Joy Fowler
  • Becoming Jane - Jon Spence
  • Me and Mr. Darcy - Alexandra Potter

Classics I Need to Read or Re-read

  • Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  • Emma - Jane Austen
  • Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  • In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
  • Last of the Mohicans - James Fennimore Cooper
  • Little Men - Louisa May Alcott
  • Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
  • A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

Books by LDS Authors

  • The Yearbook - Allyson Braithwaite Condie
  • I Am A Mother - Jane Clayson Johnson
  • Running With Angels - Pamela H. Hansen
  • Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card (also reading for Cardathon Challenge)
  • Rachel and Leah - Orson Scott Card (also reading for Cardathon Challenge)
  • Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling - Richard Lyman Bushman (also reading for Unread Authors Challenge)
  • Alone, Together - Jack Weyland
  • No Doubt About It - Sheri Dew


  • Lemony Snicket: The Unofficial Autobiography - Lemony Snicket
  • The Lives and Loves of Violet and Daisy Hilton - Dean Jensen (also reading for In Their Shoes Challenge)
  • The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom (also reading for In Their Shoes Challenge)
  • Color Me Butterfly - L.Y. Marlow
  • Fat Girl - Judith Moore
  • The Wounded Spirit - Frank Peretti
  • Porch Tales - Jewell Parker Rhodes
  • A Girl Named Zippy - Haven Kimmel (also reading for In Their Shoes Challenge)

First In A Series

  • Uglies - Scott Westerfield (also reading for Fall Into Reading Challenge)
  • The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman
  • The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan (also reading for Fall Into Reading Challenge)
  • Flamingo Fatale - Jimmie Ruth Evans
  • On What Grounds - Cleo Coyle (overlap book/books about food)
  • Catering to Nobody - Diane Mott Davidson (overlap book/books about food)
  • To the Edge - Cindy Gerard
  • Darkly Dreaming Dexter - Jeff Lindsay

Neil Gaiman

  • American Gods - Neil Gaiman
  • Coraline - Neil Gaiman
  • M Is For Magic - Neil Gaiman
  • Interworld - Neil Gaiman
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • Smoke & Mirrors - Neil Gaiman
  • Good Omens - Neil Gaiman
  • The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish - Neil Gaiman

Random Picks From My (Never-Ending) TBR Pile

  • Empire Falls - Richard Russo
  • Whistling in the Dark - Lesley Kegan
  • I Am the Messenger - Markus Zusak
  • Saving Fish From Drowning - Amy Tan
  • Peony in Love - Lisa See
  • Summer Reading - Hilma Wolitzer
  • Midnight Sea - Colleen Coble
  • Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

Books About Food

  • Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser
  • Something From the Oven - Laura Shapiro
  • Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen - Julie Powell
  • Cooking With My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes, From Bari to Big Stone Gap - Adriana Trigiani
  • Murder on the Rocks - Karen McInerny
  • Dead and Berried - Karen McInerny
  • On What Grounds - Cleo Coyle (overlap book/First In A Series)
  • Catering to Nobody - Diane Mott Davidson (overlap book/First in A Series)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

This & That

Here are a couple of tidbits I wanted to mention...

I have decided to start grading the books I review with a simple A-F system that will be familiar to anyone educated in an American public school. I don't think I really need to explain what the grades mean, but I will probably post an explanation on the sidebar anyway. This will occur when I have the time and energy (so around 2009). My latest review (below) contains this new feature, and I will try to go back and grade the books in my previous reviews. Again, this should be accomplished sometime in the next 2 years. Just kidding - I'll probably get to it in the next week or so. I will also include the grades in the tags at the bottom of this blog so you can skip all the flunkees and find the A plussers more easily.

Also, Camy Tang is having a huge book giveaway on her site. Who is Camy? Well, I was wondering that same thing yesterday when I read about this giveaway on Mommy of 3's blog. Then, I thought, "Who cares who she is - she's giving away a ton of free stuff." After surfing around her website, I found out that she is an Asian woman who writes Christian fiction. If you're interested in entering her giveaway, go to her website and read all about it. If you enter, please mention that Susan at Bloggin' 'Bout Books sent you. I love contests and free stuff!

Okay, that's all I've got. Now, back to my book...

And the Search Continues for a Decent Murder Mystery with Recipes...

As an armchair detective and food lover, I adore the idea of stories involving murder mysteries and recipes. The punny titles, the cozy settings, the delicious plotlines - I long to scarf them all up. If only I could find a good one. I've tried Joanna Fluke, Tamar Myers and now J.B. Stanley, all of whom make me groan in defeat. By definition, these types of books are light and fun, but does that mean they also have to be poorly written and utterly predictable? No! Somewhere in this genre lurks a skilled writer, I just know it...

Carbs & Cadavers tells the story of James Henry. At the moment, James' future is looking pretty dim: he's newly divorced; his mother has just died, leaving him to care for his cantakerous father; he's had to resign his professorship at William & Mary and hire on at the library, earning a much lower salary; he's back in his hometown, where he felt awkward even as a child; and, he's 50 pounds overweight. He finds his silver lining in the plus-size form of Lindy Perez, who bustles into the library with a notice to post on the community bulletin board. The poster announces the formation of a Supper Club for people interested in forming friendships and losing weight - "like a dieter's club but more fun," enthuses Lindy. James immediately decides to join the club. Along with Lindy and three others - a statistics-loving postman; a hippie pet groomer; and a sherriff's assistant longing for a promotion - James becomes a member of the Flab Five. With the support of the group, James fully intends to be able to drop some weight. What he doesn't count on is falling for Lucy, whose presence leads directly to his involvement in a murder investigation. The victim is Brinkley Myers, whose only real accomplishments occurred a few years back on the high school football field. No one's all that sorry he's dead, but many are outraged when Whitney, a sweet, young waitress is jailed for the crime. Lucy determines to find the true killer, drawing her dieting friends into her unofficial investigation. As the Flab Five gets closer to the truth, certain members find themselves in increasing danger. Can they prove Whitney's innocence and find the real killer? And, most importantly, can they manage to stay away from Cheese Puffs and peanut butter cups long enough to shed some pounds?

I agree, the plot sounds like a lot of fun. In the hands of a better writer, it could have been a decent mystery. But, J.B. Stanley would have flunked a freshman writing course. Her characters are cliched, her writing is sloppy, and the plot she's created is so predictable that I identified the killer as soon as the character was introduced. I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from picking up a red pen and making the book bleed with corrections. If only someone had edited all the clumsy sentences, erased all the extraneous information (the reader really doesn't need a description of every float in the Halloween parade), and encouraged Stanley to flesh out her characters, this book could have worked. As it is, Carbs & Cadavers is nothing more than a rough draft.

Perhaps the book could have been redeemed by some interesting recipes, but nope. It includes only two, and if you've ever tried to lose weight, you've seen them both - "Phony" Mashed Potatoes made with cauliflower; and crustless pumpkin pie. Neither look that great.

Needless to say, my search for the perfect murder mystery with recipes continues...and no longer includes J.B. Stanley

Grade: D (and that's only because it wasn't horrible enough to make me abandon it)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Crispin Presents a Peasant Boy's Grand Quest for the Truth

Set in Medieval England, Crispin: Cross of Lead tells the story of a 13-year-old peasant boy - called Asta's Son - who becomes orphaned when his mother dies. He has no kin and few friends in his village, where he and his mother were always treated as outsiders. Distraught, he hides in the woods, where he overhears a disturbing conversation between his cruel feudal master Lord Aycliffe and a stranger. Although the words exchanged make little sense to Asta's Son, he senses the men are discussing his own situation. When the feudal lord spies the boy, a chase ensues, and Asta's Son narrowly escapes. After spending a night in the forest, the boy creeps back to his hut, only to see soldiers burning it to the ground. Stunned, Asta's Boy cannot understand what is happening. At nightfall, he creeps to the town church to seek help from the only friend he has left - Father Quinlen. The priest presents Asta's Boy with a leaden cross, which belonged to his mother. On the cross is printed words the boy can't read - Father Quinlen promises to read to decipher the writing later. The priest also gives the boy another gift, the name with which he was christened - Crispin. Father Quinlen further explains to Crispin that he has been declared a "wolf's head" - a wanted criminal, who is to be shot on sight - by Lord Aycliffe. The charge is thievery, although Crispin has done nothing. Mystified, Crispin creeps back into the woods, promising to meet Father Quinlen the next night, when the priest will help him escape the village. Crispin keeps the appointment, only to find his friend dead. In abject terror, Crispin flees, heeding the priest's warnings to run for his life. Lost and hungry, the boy wanders into a deserted village where he encounters a huge, red-headed juggler named Bear. The man commands Crispin to be his servant, but the boy soon realizes that he is freer with Bear than he has ever been. Still, Lord Aycliffe pursues the boy, and Crispin cannot be wholly certain Bear will not betray him for a reward. As Bear and Crispin travel to Great Wexley for a grand festival, they attempt to make sense of Crispin's mystifying situation. The solution appears to be connected to the writing on Crispin's lead cross, writing which remains undeciphered. Once in Great Wexley, Bear and Crispin find themselves in more danger than they could have possibly imagined. As they close in on the truth, they must risk their necks to save their lives. Although I won't give away the ending, I will say that Crispin survives to continue his adventures in Crispin at The Edge of the World (which I haven't read yet).

This Newbery Award winner gives the reader a fascinating glimpse into the bleak world of 14th Century England; its old-fashioned, formal tone just adds to the period detail. I think younger readers may be put off by the tone of the novel, but they will certainly be pulled in by the non-stop action. It's truly a grand adventure with a brave and admirable hero on a quest to find the most important thing in the world - his true identity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

December 7, 1941: A Day When One Boy's Life Will Change Forever...

I don't know many authors personally - okay, I don't know any - but I do have a connection (however tenuous) with Graham Salisbury . Although I've never met him, I do know his ex-wife and a couple of his kids. In fact, his daughter Melanie was my younger brother's good friend. I heard rumors her dad was a writer, but that's all I knew. Fast forward a few years...I found myself sitting in a college classroom listening to a presentation by a visiting children's author. We were given extra credit points for attending these lectures, so I had chosen this one at random. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was Graham Salisbury - Melanie's dad. He was an excellent speaker, but I never checked out any of his books. Well, the other day, I was at the library scanning the shelves for Lemony Snicket books (I'm on #4), and I happened to see several of Salisbury's novels. So, I grabbed Under the Blood-Red Sun, read it and really enjoyed it.

The story revolves around Tomikazu "Tomi" Nakaji, a Japanese-American eighth-grader living on Oahu in 1941. Tomi lives with his father, a fisherman; his mother, a maid; his ornery grandpa; and his little sister, Kimi. While the Nakaji's shack is less than luxurious, life is pretty good for Tomi. Beating the Kaka'ako Boys in baseball is his biggest worry. Until December 7, when Tomi and his friend Billy spot smoke billowing up from Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, the far-off war has hit Hawaii, and the Nakaji's friends and neighbors are eyeing them with suspicion. As Tomi describes it: "It felt strange, like people were sneaking glances at us ... I realized that what that lady saw wasn't just a boy and his mother...What she saw was a Japanese boy, and his Japanese mother" (131). It doesn't help that Tomi's grandpa still clings desperately to the souveniers of his life in Japan - a flag, their family's katana (an heirloom sword), and an altar for his dead wife. Burying the items makes the Nakajis feel safer...for a time. Then, they receive news they have feared since the attack at Pearl Harbor - Tomi's father, Taro, has been shot and jailed. Without Taro's income to support the family, the Nakajis have little food or kerosene. Tomi wants only to go back to life as it was - school and baseball - but his world has changed forever. When his grandpa is also arrested, Tomi becomes the man of the house, a position that requires him to be strong despite the fact that his whole life is falling apart...The story ends at this point, continuing in the sequel, House of the Red Fish.

The beginning of the book drags a little, although Salisbury does a fine job of introducing readers to life on Oahu. The characters' accents ring true, as do the descriptions of scenery and daily life. Once Pearl Harbor is attacked, the story picks up pace and races to a heartbreaking finale. Although packed with action, the book is really about a friendship - between Japanese-American Tomi and his haole friend Billy - and how the war changes the boys and their relationship with each other. Salisbury also describes the plight of Japanese-Americans in this period with honesty and compassion. It's an authentic, touching story and I'm not just saying that because I know the author...well, okay, sort of know. It really is a great story - I can't wait to read the sequel.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ghost For Sale, No Refunds/Exchanges

As I mentioned earlier, I stuck this book on my list for the R.I.P. II Challenge to up my list's spooky quotient. Well, it did. Wow, did it ever. I may not sleep for a week.

Heart-Shaped Box concerns Jude Coyne, a 54-year-old rock star with no music left in him. He's got plenty of money, a competent assistant to handle his business affairs, and a pretty Goth girl to warm his bed. He's also got a macabre collection of sinister items - a confession signed by a witch, a skull of a dead peasant, and other bizarre objects. So, when his assistant laughingly shows him a ghost for sale on an auction site, Jude can't resist. He buys it. When UPS delivers a heart-shaped box with a black suit inside, Jude's amused. According to the seller, the suit belonged to her recently deceased stepfather, and is haunted by his restless spirit. Jude thinks little of his new acquisition until strange things begin happening - the suit mysteriously leaps from its place in the closet; radios play when they're unplugged; the air is unnaturally cold; and, worst of all, Jude sees the dead man everywhere.

Jude, along with his current girlfriend Georgia (her name is actually Marybeth, but Jude is too callous to remember his girls' names, so calls them by their home state; his last girlfriend was Florida), do everything they can think of to rid themselves of the sinister ghost. Nothing works. The only beings capable of stopping the ghost seem to be Jude's dogs. By now, Jude has realized that he doesn't own a random ghost; in fact, he was tricked into buying the ghost of Florida's stepfather. The haunt blames Jude for Florida (real name: Anna)'s suicide, and he won't stop plaguing Jude until he's dead. Terrified, Jude and Marybeth take the dogs for protection and head to Florida, intent on making Anna's family help them destroy the ghost. Instead, they are confronted with the terrible secrets Anna was forced to keep. Finally, the pair head for Louisiana, where Jude's own tortured past awaits. In a bloody showdown, Jude and Marybeth finally face the sinister ghost in a last, desperate attempt to rid the world of his evil presence.

Okay, I love ghost stories, but this one was bloody, crude and full of profanity. I should have put it down immediately, but I was so drawn into the story that I couldn't stop reading. It was absolutely absorbing. The action started almost immediately and didn't let up until the last page. I thought the idea of buying a ghost was inventive, although the rest of the story was somewhat standard horror fare. Still, I couldn't stop turning pages. The novel's most redeeming quality is that, at its heart, it's about a man searching for goodness within himself. Jude's life has been so crammed with filth that it takes an evil ghost to make him fight for the few precious things in it. Like I said, it's a horrifying, mesmerizing story, but you won't be able to put it down. If you're a Stephen King fan, you will probably love this tale penned by his son.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Hi, My Name Is Susan and I'm a Challenge-aholic...

Yes, I am obsessed. I love challenges. The funny thing is, I always hated being told what to read in high school and college. But, now, I am having a blast reading the books on my list and (best of all) crossing them off when I'm done. So, here we go with another reading challenge. This one is called In Their Shoes, and it runs from January 1, 2008 - December 31, 2008. All you have to do is read memoirs, biographies and/or autobiographies. Nice and easy, huh? So, here's my list:

1. The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
2. The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton - Dean Jensen
3. A Woman in Berlin: 3 Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary - Anonymous
4. Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women - Cornelia Meigs (also reading for Newbery Challenge)
5. The Glass Castle - Jeanette Walls
6. Beatrix Potter: A Life In Nature - Lida Lear
7. Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind - Marianne Walker
8. The Liars Club: A Memoir - Mary Karr
9. Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School At a Time - Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
10. The Education of Little Tree - Forest Carter
11. Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood - Alexandra Fuller
12. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee - Charles J. Shields
13. A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana - Haven Kimmel


1. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder - Donald Zochert
2. Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father - John Matteson
3. A Mind in Prison: The Memoir of a Son and Soldier of the 3rd Reich - Bruno Manz
4. The History of Joseph Smith By His Mother Lucy Mack Smith - R. Virnon Ingleton

You Know You've Taken on Too Many Reading Challenges When... forget about one of the challenges you signed up for. This is what happened with the Unread Authors Challenge. Somehow, I neglected to post my challenge list on my sidebar, consequently forgetting I ever signed up for it. Man! This is what happens after you turn 30 - your memory just starts slipping away... Well, I have rectified the situation. And, just because I can't stop myself, I'm taking on Challenge #4 - Fall Into Reading. This one runs from September 23 - December 21, and is hosted by Callapidder Days. It's a casual challenge, with no limits on how many books to read and there will be prizes.

So, here's my list:

The Giver - Lois Lowry

The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan

The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman

Uglies - Scott Westerfield

Sarah's Quilt - Nancy E. Turner

Woman In Red - Eileen Goudge

You can't sign up for this one until the 21st, I think, but if it sounds interesting, check out Callapidder's site - it's really fun!

Confessions of An Obsessive Reader, Or A Weekend Survey

I have been thinking of writing a blog entry called "Confessions of An Obsessive Reader" detailing all my "reading rules." Sometimes I think I am just an OCD-infected freak, but I thought maybe, just maybe, some of you are, too. So, when I saw this survey over at Becky's Book Reviews, I thought I would steal it, fill it in with all my secrets and hope that other obsessive readers will find it and make nice, comforting comments to convince me that I'm not operating too far south of normal! So, here goes...

What book are you currently reading? Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Since all of my reading for the R.I.P. II Challenge has been more fantastical than scary, I thought I needed something more Halloween-ish. This book, written by Stephen King's son, fits the bill perfectly.

How do you decide what book to read next? Since I've also become an obsessive book buyer, I have tons of choices on my bookshelf. I also make frequent trips to the library. Okay, here's a peek into my OCD - I keep a list (alphabetized by author) on my computer of all the books I want to read. When I hear about a good book, I add it. Then, before I go to the library or the bookstore, I peruse the list for interesting titles. Despite this, my list never seems to get any shorter; at least, I'll never run out of things to read!

Do you always finish books, or do you give up on them? If you give up on them, how many pages does it usually take? I don't give up on books often, but sometimes I do. I have WAY too many books in my TBR pile to waste time on those I don't like. It usually takes me a couple of chapters to decide.

Do you ever re-read books you love? If so, how often? Give examples, if possible. I rarely re-read books, even if I adore them. I also can't stand watching reruns on tv. Like I said, I'm weird.

Can you read books in noisy places (e.g. trains, buses, crowded rooms)? I can't read while I'm in the car because I get really carsick. Planes are a different story - usually I can read in the air without any problem. When I read - especially if the book is really good - I tune everything else out, so I can read with the t.v. on, my kids screaming, tornadoes raging outside, etc. I prefer to read in silence, but I take what I can get.

Where do you acquire most of your books? If you are a library user or borrower, how many books do you borrow at once? If a buyer, how many books do you usually buy at once? I get books any way I can. Lately, I have been buying more because I can't seem to get my library books back on time. But, when I do go to the library, I usually get at least 4 books, sometimes more. Yesterday, I checked out 12, but most of them were YA novels. Likewise, when I buy books, I can't purchase just one. I'm a huge sucker for Borders' 3 for 2 table. I try to shop wisely, taking advantage of coupons and free shipping (when I buy online). New books just make me happy. What can I say?

Do you use bookmarks, or dog-ear the pages of your books? Do you make marginal notes? If so, do you use pencil or pen? Dog-ear pages?? Gasp! No, I would never do that. I use bookmarks - pretty ones if I have them, scraps of paper otherwise. I don't make marginal notes ever. I had an English teacher in high school who wrote copious notes in books she owned. Her spidery handwriting filled every blank space on the page. I thought this was very intellectual of her, but I don't read that way. Also, I find it hugely irritating to read a book that's filled with someone else's notes.

Do you have any unusual tendencies while you read? Did I mention my OCD? I have to read books in a series in order. I absolutely will not start in the middle. Also, I have a hard time with non-fiction. My husband has several books he's been urging me to read for years, but I've put them off because they're not fiction. In addition, I've discovered that I'm not big on reading the classics. I wish I was, but I find a lot of them incredibly boring. Of course, there are exceptions - Little Women, Gone With the Wind (more of a modern classic), Anne of Green Gables, poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, etc. and there are lots of classics I haven't read, but, in general, I'm not big on the classics. I know - you're stunned! Reading is also an addiction of mine (almost as bad as the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups one) - I get so swept up in exciting plots that I forget about everything else. My husband and kids often have to pull me back up to the surface.

Do you read through pages at top speed, or do you stop to savor the sentences along the way? It depends on what I'm reading. If the writer uses language masterfully, I will pause to savor sentences here and there before I continue at top speed. In general, I read very quickly.

We know most of us can read just about anywhere, but specifically where and when do you do your best reading? Let's see, I love reading outside in serene places, but that doesn't happen a lot. So, I'd have to say my favorite reading spot is in my room. I have an adjustable bed that lets me achieve the perfect reading position (head elevated, feet elevated,). Then, I turn on a lamp so I have nice, soft light. A glass of ice water completes my perfect reading environment. Ahh...

Okay, there you have it. Remember your part in this? Nice, understanding comments that let me know I'm not too obsessive and weird! I'd love to hear other book lovers' answers to these questions as well - so feel free to steal - I mean, borrow - the survey I stole - I mean, borrowed, from Becky.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Turnabout Reveals the Dark Side of Fountain of Youth

Both Amanda and Becky recommend Margaret Peterson Haddix so highly that I knew I had to check her out. My library had several of her books, so I just picked Turnabout at random. After reading it, I'm beginning to understand why everyone raves about this author.

Turnabout tells the story of Melly and Anny Beth, two teenagers with a big secret. You see, for years they have been "unaging" - or aging backwards over the course of the last 85 years. It began when they were elderly women living in a nursing home. The pair, along with 48 other residents, were talked into signing papers allowing their bodies to be used for scientific purposes. Only their bodies were used before they died. All 50 were moved to a private facility owned by "The Agency" and injected with PT-1, an agent that reverses aging. The participants were all promised an anti-drug (termed "The Cure") that would pause their aging/unaging process at around 30 years old. The only problem is "The Cure," which worked on rats does not exactly work on humans. Every patient who takes it dies. No longer trusting the agency, Melly and Anny Beth reenter life on the outside. Although The Agency tracks the pair, it reluctantly allows them their freedom since they've kept mum about the whole PT-1 disaster. Their peaceful lives come to a screeching halt when Melly receives a mass e-mail asking for help locating herself. The computer identifies the sender as a reporter. Frightened of an impending expose, Melly and Anny Beth flee, desperate to find a place where they can live safely and anonymously. They end up back where they started - in rural Kentucky - only to find danger close on their heels. Melly and Anny Beth only want to stay out of the spotlight, away from doctors and scientists, but can they keep running? Is there anywhere safe in a world where cameras follow people's every moves? Worse, will Melly and Anny Beth be exposed as the freaks they feel themselves to be? In a frantic race against time, the women must find safety in a world of increasing dangers.

I enjoyed the fast pace of the story as well as the characterization of the two heroines. I thought they were understated and believable. However, it's the central concept of the book that kept me most interested. Aging seems an odd choice of topic for a young adult novel, but I found it truly fascinating. Would I choose to stop my own aging process if I had the chance? Or would I grow old gracefully, without any regrets? If I had a second life, would I be able to live it up or would I be hopelessly lost in the past? Very thought-provoking. I also think the book made some excellent points about how progress both helps and hurts civilization. In the end, Haddix preaches the importance of family and heritage.

I don't know if this was Haddix's best book or not, but I plan to find out :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Cardathon: My First Picks Becomes a Pan

When I read that Saints by Orson Scott Card was being re-issued, I rushed out to buy it. The weighty tome (689 pages) promised to be a good old-fashioned Mormon saga a la Work and the Glory, but penned by a more skillful writer than Gerald Lund. Plus, it was perfect for The Cardathon Challenge. I could hardly wait to read the novel Card called "my love song to my own people" (711). It didn't take me long to realize that if this book was a love song, Card is a very critical lover indeed.

Saints begins in Manchester, England, in 1829, as John Kirkham prepares to abandon his family. Born into money, John's social status has severely declined as his family's wealth is used to pay off his father's gambling debts. Now, he is forced to push a broom in another man's store, making barely enough to afford his "definitely middle-bordering-on-lower class" (12) life. Tired of his bleak existence, John sneaks out in the middle of the night, leaving his family to fend for itself. Stung by her husband's betrayal, Anna forces herself to be strong for her three - soon to be four - children. She moves them into a cheap, filthy apartment, hires herself out as a maid and accepts 13-year-old Robert's offer to go to work in one of the city's many factories. Their meager paychecks aren't enough to stave off their impending poverty, so 10-year-old Dinah heads for the factory as well. When Anna's newborn dies, she falls into a severe fever, which keeps her from earning her wage; not knowing what else to do, Robert sends his 7-year-old brother, Charlie, to live with Mr. Whitesides, a repugnant man who promises to make the boy a chimney sweep. After being beaten and molested, Charlie escapes Whitesides, but can't forgive his brother for "selling" him to the monster. Although the Kirkhams' situation eventually improves, the trials do not cease. Headstrong Dinah resists her boss's advances, only to find her reputation ruined, a situation which lands her in a loveless marriage. To complicate matters even more, John returns, begging for forgiveness and mercy.

In the middle of all this turmoil comes another challenge - the charming Heber Kimball. Kimball is an American missionary who can "charm the shingles off the roof in a rainstorm" (192). He comes to Manchester preaching a new religion, urging residents to accept Mormonism and be baptized. So earnest is the preacher that Charlie invites him to the home he shares with his mother. There, Charlie, Anna and Dinah feel the Lord's Spirit and decide to be baptized. Despite the trio's happiness with their new religion, there are obstacles - namely, Robert and Dinah's husband, who thinks the family has gone mad. When they decide to emigrate to America to join the Latter-Day Saints in Illinois, Robert forbids it. Still, some of the family departs on a boat, despite the fact that some are forcibly left behind. In Illinois, Charlie and Dinah find their own destinies. Charlie's lies in developing factories in Nauvoo, while Dinah's future seems to be as a "spiritual wife" to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Her acceptance of polygamy is the turning point in her life, and the remainder of the book is basically about her experience as a plural wife. The rest of the family's stories are told as well, but most of the text is about Dinah and her relationship with Joseph Smith.

The first third of the book was absolutely riveting, with horrific descriptions of the smoky factories and abject poverty that defined England's Industrial Age. Card evoked such a desperate atmosphere that I despaired for the poor Kirkhams. Even when some of their pain lifted, I was still mesmerized by the story. However, the tale seemed to lose direction after placing the Kirkhams in Nauvoo, but I was still interested enough to finish the book. While I have many issues with the novel, I have to admit that Card knows how to tell a story. Although I tried to put this novel down several times, I kept coming back to it until I finally turned the last page.

One of my big beefs with this book is the character of Dinah Kirkham Smith. To put it bluntly, I couldn't stand her. From the beginning of the book, I thought she was a selfish, stubborn, intellectual snob. I understand Card's intention - he was trying to create a strong, enlightened woman who would never be submissive enough to accept polygamy unless it came as an edict from God. He succeeded, but he also created an obstinate feminist who is so conceited that she believes no one is as wise as she is, prophet or not. In fact, no other character even comes close - her brothers are either prideful (Robert) or slow (Charlie); her parents are sinful (John) or weak (Anna); her first husband (Matt) doesn't understand poetry like she does, her second husband (Joseph Smith) is so trusting he doesn't see a wolf in sheep's clothing even though Dinah, of course, warns him; Emma Smith is moody and cold; Sally Ann is not intelligent enough; and on and on ... I found her incredibly irritating, which made me really not care what happened to her. Also, I felt that by making every other woman in the story weak, unintelligent and/or petty, Card became just as chauvinistic toward them as he accuses the early Church leadership of being toward Dinah and anyone like her.

Another one of my beefs with this book is the way Card focuses so completely on Joseph Smith and the issue of polygamy. I think the idea of Dinah seeing the Prophet in a vision and coming to Nauvoo just to be his wife absurd in the extreme. I also thought it was offensive when she equated him with God - let me say this once and for all, Mormons don't and never have worshipped Joseph Smith. The issue of polygamy was HUGE in this book - in fact, the majority of the novel is about Dinah learning to accept and revere being a "sister wife." While I found some of his insights interesting, I found myself wishing Card would stop dwelling on polygamy - trying to excuse and explain it - and just get on with the story.

Finally, my biggest complaint is that this novel lacked purpose. In the Afterword, Card states that he wrote Saints for non-Mormons with the intent of finding "a story to tell, a way to interlace my characters with Mormon history, without ever requiring the readers to decide whether they believed in Joseph Smith's religion" (696). He was hoping to remain unbiased. In doing this, I think he tried to serve too many masters and the result is a chaotic, meandering tale that can't make up its mind about which direction to take. On one hand, it celebrates Joseph Smith as a loving, charismatic leader who is completely in tune with God; on the other, it paints him as a lecherous bully who doesn't have enough discernment to separate good men from evil. It also celebrates marriage, but only of the polygamous variety. I can think of only one example Card gives of a solid monogamous marriage. Card also writes of a pure and righteous people, but infuses his story with profanity and sexual scenes that would make any pure and righteous person blush. And he insinuates that Joseph Smith was a hypocrite. Yikes. In the Afterword, Card explains one thing that makes these issues a little clearer: he describes the narrator, O. Kirkham, as a "not officially (yet) ex-Mormon" (706). That explains the skepticism in the story, I suppose, but O. Kirkham's position on Mormonism was never made clear in the novel. The whole thing just confused me. I found myself wishing the narrator/author would just choose a side, since it was obviously impossible to be impartial on this subject.

Since that is true, maybe I'm not the best one to review this book. I tried to look at it objectively, but there were so many things in this book that I found erroneous and just downright offensive. I don't mind that Orson Scott Card wrote about plural marriage - it happened, I accept that - I just wish he had written a tighter story with a clearer objective. I also wish he had written as evocatively in the last 2/3 of the book as he did in the first 1/3. Mostly I wish someone out there (with more talent than Gerald Lund and Orson Scott Card) would write an honest, compelling book about the Mormon experience. It would make an incredible book...if only someone could finally get it right.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Avi's Short Stories Not Brilliant, But Not Bad

In general, I'm not a big fan of short stories. Why? I don't know. I've been analyzing my psyche to figure it out. I think it goes back to the whole old friends v. new friends thing - I'd rather keep old, established relationships than try to create new, possibly superficial ones. Thus, I enjoy reading series' and big, thick novels that delve deeply into the characters. Anyway, the point I am very slowly getting to is that I don't usually read short stories. In fact, I chose Avi's Strange Happenings for the R.I.P. Challenge thinking it was a novel. Nope. Short stories. But, since the volume is short (it's intended for 8-12 year olds), I decided to give it a shot...and the short stories were not bad, not bad at all...

They weren't, however, exceptional. I felt most of the stories lacked imagination and carried over-simplified morals (i.e. always keep your word; you can't trick a trickster; physical beauty does not necessarily equal happiness, etc.). Yes, I realize that they are written for children, but I would have liked more intricate tales. I did think "Curious" was funny, especially since my husband and I were just at an Arizona Diamondbacks game musing about what kind of people dress up like tacos and burritos and act like idiots during the 7th inning stretch. Anyway, "Curious" is about Jeff, a young boy who loves the mascot - dubbed The Alien - of his hometown baseball team. He desperately wants to meet the person inside the costume, so he lurks around the field, questioning players and staff about the identity of The Alien. Oddly, no one knows, or really cares. Most people consider The Alien's actions rude and even offensive. Not Jeff, who is now even more curious about the mascot. Finally, he decides to hide under the bleachers and wait for The Alien to reveal himself. Jeff ends up getting a lot more than he bargained for, which proves that curiousity can get you into a whole lot of trouble.

My favorite story in this collection was "Babette the Beautiful," a tale in which a beautiful queen makes a deal with a sorceress to ensure she bears a princess who is equally as fetching as herself. So obsessed is the queen with beauty that she wants her child to be wholly without blemish. The sorceress, an ugly hag, assures the vain queen that her daughter will "appear flawless." Satisfied, the queen leaves, but banishes the hag to an outer forest, just so she doesn't make trouble. When Princess Babette is born, her mother stares at her in confusion. At first, the infant's features are curiously invisible. Luckily, the queen has an image in her head of what she wanted her child to look like, and that image replaces the one before her. In fact, she orders all mirrors removed from the kingdom. She then has artists paint Babette according to her description; thus, everyone in the land comes to recognize the princess based on the pictures that have been drawn. This is all well and good until Babette, travelling in the outer forests, encounters an ugly old woman who tells the princess she is invisible. Outraged, she orders her guards to stow the hag in the castle's prison. The furious Babette then questions her subjects about her appearance - no one can give her a credible answer. Finally, she demands a mirror. When she peers into it, she can see nothing. Astounded, Babette sends for the old woman, who gives her mysterious instructions as to how to fix the problem. I won't spoil the story for you, but let's just say that Babette learns her lesson about prizing physical beauty over all else.

Avi's stories were quick and amusing, if not brilliant. They're really not scary at all, but magical and fun. Kids will certainly enjoy them, probably without even realizing they are cautionary tales with time-tested morals.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Something Different This Way Comes...

Since my right sidebar dragged on forever with all of my challenge lists, I decided to go to a 3-columned template. Unfortunately, none of Blogger's templates have 3 columns. So, I had to download one off of another website. It actually works really well - I just hope I didn't download a bunch of spyware or other junk! So, although it's not as pretty as my old template, I think this one is more accessible. Hope you like it...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Once Upon A Time, There Was a Magical Book...

If you know me, or if you read this blog with any regularity, you know I'm not a big sci-fi/fantasy fan. Still, Neil Gaiman's Stardust has gotten so much press, I knew I had to read it. And, guess what? I LOVED it. I mean, I liked Gaiman's Anansi Boys, but Stardust made me worship this writer on a whole new level.

The book stars Tristran Thorn, a young man living in the walled city of Wall. At one end of his city is a hole, through which lies the land of Fairie. This opening in the wall is guarded every night by men who are charged with allowing no one passage through the hole. Like all residents of Wall, Tristran has observed strange shadows lurking on the Fairie side, but he has never had any real desire to cross the boundary. At least, not until one fateful night, when he accompanies the beautiful Victoria Forester home and the pair see a falling star. Teasingly, Victoria promises that she will marry Tristran if he brings her the star that has fallen. Hopeful, the boy sets out on a journey that takes him beyond his home to the strange land of Fairie, a place where magic abounds and nothing is as it seems. Here, a fallen star does not resemble a "diamond or a rock"(109) like Tristran expects; instead, he finds himself dragging an ethereal young lady back to his city. Soon, Tristran discovers that he is not the only one seeking the star - there's a power-hungry lord searching for its power; an evil hag intent on removing its heart and any number of creatures willing to do harm to Tristran and his prize. Confronting the many dangers in the strange - but oddly familiar - land requires all of Tristan's strength and wit. It also forces him to face the truth of his birth, his heritage and his heart.

This "fairy tale for adults" is simple and enchanting. It lacks the depth of some classic stories, but it captures the imagination as aptly as anything written by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Gaiman writes exceptionally well - his word choice is always apt, always laced with his trademark wit. He sculpts his characters with care, creating a memorable cast of various creatures. Tristran makes a likable, if unlikely, hero, who captured my heart with his humility and goodness. I loved Yvain - the fallen star - as well, and thought her character unique and interesting. Mostly, I loved this story because it is saturated with heart. Despite dark spots, Stardust is essentially a warm tale about one boy's quest to find adventure, love and, ultimately, himself.

Note: I stuck this book on my list for the R.I.P. Challenge, knowing only that it had something to do with magic. It probably wasn't the best read (theme-wise) for this challenge, but I'm not apologizing since I loved the book so much and I wouldn't have gotten to it this year if I hadn't put it on my R.I.P. list. So there!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Secrets on the Southwest Frontier Abound in The Night Journal

Meg Mabry has spent her life trying to ignore her family legacy - a set of journals penned by her great-grandmother, Hannah Bass. The volumes describe her life on the Southwestern frontier as she arrives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, works as a Harvey Girl at the famous Montezuma Hotel, marries, and becomes an early preservationist of Pecos ruins. So detailed are the diaries that they have become Southwest treasures, read and studied by school children and university students alike. Meg, however, wants nothing to do with them. She has spent her childhood crammed into her grandmother, Bassie's, spare room with the journals, vying with them for Bassie's attention. And losing. As Bassie's caretaker, an adult Meg puts up with her cranky, critical ways, but she will not bow to her grandmother's constant plea to read the journals.

Now, Bassie has learned that a team of archaeologists plans to build a new addition to the visitor's center that sits near Hannah's original homesite, an addition that would encroach upon land her parents used as a cemetery for their precious dogs. Immediately, Bassie demands to be taken to New Mexico to protest the excavation. Although Meg is busy with her own life, she knows there is no way to get out of the trip, so she reluctantly travels with her grandmother. Once in Las Vegas, the power of the past seems unavoidable. Drawn to the journals she previously shunned, Meg finds herself riveted by Hannah's story. Meanwhile, Jim, a handsome archaeologist unearths disturbing artifacts at the home site, discoveries that signal something much more sinister than a dog's grave. The elusive answers to Hannah's mysteries seem to lie in a missing volume of her famous journals. As Meg and Jim probe the depths of the past, Meg finally starts to come to terms with her grandmother and her whole, sordid, incredible family legacy.

While The Night Journal starts out slowly, it picks up as soon as Meg begins reading Hannah's story. Once that happens, the book becomes an exciting adventure into a past full of secrets and lies. Hannah's story about life on the frontier is riveting, with enough period detail to make it interesting and believable. The story does tend to drag in places, but all in all, it's an engrossing read. You may find yourself slogging through the beginning, but stick with it. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Anansi Boys a Fun, But Meaningful Romp

Fat Charlie Nancy has a problem: his father. According to Charlie, his dad "[was] the most embarrassing person on God's Green Earth" (7), an attribute he "had elevated ... to an art form, and he rejoiced in it..."(4). After a childhood of humiliation at the hands of his father, Charlie moves to England, where he feels relatively safe. Until his fiancee suggests inviting the man to their wedding. Rosie, Fat Charlie's bride-to-be is so kind that Charlie cannot say no to her, so he dutifully phones the U.S. in search of his father. A phone call to Mrs. Higgler, an elderly friend of the family in Florida, results in this news: Fat Charlie's father is dead. When he travels to the U.S. for the funeral, Fat Charlie gets a double shock: according to Mrs. Higgler, his father was actually Anansi, the African spider god of trickery; and he has a brother he never knew about. This confirms his sneaking suspicion: Mrs. Higgler is insane. The old woman insists, however, that if Charlie wants to see his brother all he has to do is whisper his request to a spider. Shaking off the whole crazy business, Fat Charlie returns to the U.K. hoping to resume his nice, normal life.

One night, while shooing away a spider, Charlie jokingly asks the creature to send his brother to him. Much to his shock, the arachnid delivers. Charlie's brother, Spider, is suddenly standing on his doorstep. Spider explains that he, not Charlie, got all of the magic in the family and is, in fact, half god. Like the mens' father, Spider is looking for three things: wine, women and song. Basically, all he wants is a good time and he soon sets about getting it, dragging a sputtering Charlie along with him. After one whirlwind evening with his brother, Charlie awakes to find a woman in his bed who is not Rosie; Spider impersonating him at the office; and himself a stranger in his own home which Spider has magically transformed into a rockin' bachelor pad. In short, Spider has taken over his life. Charlie finds himself on the outside while Spider seduces Rosie, intimidates his boss, and generally makes a mess of his careful life. Desperate, Charlie flies back to Florida to beg Mrs. Higgler's help in being rid of his brother. His request propels him into a strange world where a host of animal/human beings offer him little help. As a trickster, Anansi made a whole lot of enemies, not too many friends. Finally, Charlie begs a sinister Bird Woman to help him get rid of Spider. In exchange for the ruination of Anansi's bloodline, the creature agrees.

Returning to England once again, Charlie is hoping for a quick, quiet resolution to his problem. That is not to be. The Bird Woman has sent her minions - in the form of pigeons, larks, even penguins - to deal with Spider. Aghast, Charlie realizes that he has formed an alliance with a dangerous being. Now, the brothers must run for their lives from their father's ancient enemies. With the help of a pretty policewoman, four withered old ladies, a duppy, and a lime (yes, a lime), Charlie must save himself and his brother, the last of Anansi's line. To do so, Charlie must find his inner strength, confront a bloodthirsty tiger and come to terms with a father he never really knew or understood.

It's difficult to describe this book in all its complexity. On the surface, it's a fun, magical story about a man taking on enemies as old as time. At its heart, however, Anansi Boys is the story of a man and his father, two men who refuse to see eye-to-eye until it's too late. Its moral is one of loving despite differences and, most of all, about embracing what is unique in each of us.

Despite the story's common father v. son theme, this book is anything but ordinary. The writing is spectacular - fun, sarcastic and hilarious - as are the characters. The plot moves quickly, with enough wacky stories to keep you reading. In short, it's just a fun romp, although a romp with a timeless, endearing message about brothers, fathers, humans and the hidden strengths in all of us.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Newbery Project

I just heard about The Newbery Project, and thought, "How much fun is that?" It's an open-ended challenge to read all the Newbery Award winners. Some of these I've read recently, some I haven't read since I was a kid and some of them I've never even heard of! I'm posting the list with those I have read in red, those I have never read will remain black and those I've read, but plan to re-read in green:

2007: The Higher Power of Lucky - Susan Patron
2006: Criss Cross - Lynn Rae Perkins
2005: Kira-Kira - Cynthia Kadohata
2004: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread - Kate DiCamillo
2003: Crispin: The Cross of Lead - Avi
2002: A Single Shard - Linda Sue Park
2001: A Year Down Yonder - Richard Peck
2000: Bud, Not Buddy - Christopher Paul Curtis
1999: Holes - Louis Sachar
1998: Out of the Dust - Karen Hesse
1997: The View From Saturday - E.L. Konisburg
1996: The Midwife's Apprentice - Karen Cushman
1995: Walk Two Moons - Sharon Creech
1994: The Giver - Lois Lowry
1993: Missing May - Cynthia Rylant
1992: Shiloh - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1991: Maniac Magee - Jerry Spinelli
1990: Number the Stars - Lois Lowry
1989: Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices - Paul Fleischman
1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography - Russell Freedman
1987: The Whipping Boy - Sid Fleischman
1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall - Patricia MacLachlan
1985: The Hero and the Crown - Robin McKinley

1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw - Beverly Cleary
1983: Dicey's Song - Cynthia Voigt
1982: A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers - Nancy Willard
1981: Jacob Have I Loved - Katherine Paterson
1980: A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 - Joan W. Blos
1979: The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin
1978: Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson
1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry - Mildred D. Taylor
1976: The Grey King - Susan Cooper
1975: M.C. Higgins, the Great - Virginia Hamilton
1974: The Slave Dancer - Paula Fox
1973: Julie of the Wolves - Jean Craighead George

1972: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - Robert C. O'Brien
1971: Summer of the Swans - Betsy Byars
1970: Sounder - William H. Armstrong
1969: The High King - Lloyd Alexander
1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler - E.L. Konigsburg
1967: Up A Road Slowly - Irene Hunt
1966: I, Juan de Pareja - Elizabeth Borton de Trevino
1965: Shadow of A Bull - Maia Wojciechowska
1964: It's Like This, Cat - Emily Neville

1963: A Wrinkle in Time - Madeliene L'Engle
1962: The Bronze Bow - Elizabeth George Speare
1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins - Scott O'Dell
1960: Onion John - Joseph Krumgold
1959: The Witch of Blackbird Pond - Elizabeth George Speare
1958: Rifles for Watie - Harold Keith
1957: Miracles on Maple Hill - Virginia Sorenson
1956: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch - Jean Lee Latham
1955: The Wheel on the School - Meindert DeJong
1954: ...And Now Miguel - Joseph Krumgold
1953: Secret of the Andes - Ann Nolan Clark
1952: Ginger Pye - Eleanor Estes
1951: Amos Fortune, Free Man - Elizabeth Yates
1950: The Door in the Wall - Marguerite de Angeli
1949: King of the Wind - Marguerite Henry
1948: The Twenty-One Balloons - William Pene du Bois
1947: Miss Hickory - Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
1946: Strawberry Girl - Lois Lenski
1945: Rabbit Hill - Robert Lawson
1944: Johnny Tremain - Esther Forbes
1943: Adam of the Road - Elizabeth Janet Grey
1942: The Matchlock Gun - Walter Edmonds
1941: Call It Courage - Armstrong Sperry
1940: Daniel Boone - James Dougherty
1939: Thimble Summer - Elizabeth Enright
1938: The White Stag - Kate Seredy
1937: Roller Skates - Ruth Sawyer
1936: Caddie Woodlawn - Carol Ryrie Brink
1935: Dobry - Monica Shannon
1934: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women - Cornelia Meigs
1933: Young Foo of the Upper Yangtze - Elizabeth Lewis
1932: Waterless Mountain - Laura Adams Armer
1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven - Elizabeth Coatsworth
1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years - Rachel Field
1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow - Eric P. Kelly
1928: Gay Neck, The Story of a Pigeon - Dhan Gopal Mukerji
1927: Smoky, The Cowhorse - Will James
1926: Shen of the Sea - Arthur Bowie Chrisman
1925: Tales from Silver Lands - Charles Finger
1924: The Dark Frigate - Charles Hawes
1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle - Hugh Lofting
1922: The Story of Mankind - Hendrik Willem van Loon

Wow, it's amazing how many of these I haven't read. I've got my work cut out for me!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Unfortunately For Me, I Can't Put it Down

In a little over an hour, I have just read one of the wackiest, most sarcastic and fun books ever! The Bad Beginning, Book the First in Lemony Snicket's popular A Series of Unfortunate Events series is a gem - I adored it.

The book tells the story of the Baudelaires - Violet, Klaus and Sunny - who are orphaned when their parents die in a tragic fire. Mr. Poe (who, naturally, has a boy named Edgar), the executor of the Baudelaires' will, informs the children that they will be sent to live with their closest relative (closest geographically, that is), Count Olaf. Never having heard of the man, the children are a little anxious at this news. When Mr. Poe drops them at their new home, their anxiety turns to out and out fear. Count Olaf proves to be a strange, menacing host in a filthy, crumbling mansion. It soon becomes apparent to the children that the Count is after one thing - the fortune their parents left them. While feeding them only lumpy oatmeal and making them do horrendous chores, Count Olaf is hatching a nefarious plan to capture the money, a plan he reveals by innocently asking Violet to co-star with him in a theatrical production of The Marvelous Marriage. When Klaus discovers the evil plan, Count Olaf locks baby Sunny in a cage hanging from a 30-foot tower to ensure the children's cooperation. With no one to turn to, Violet and Klaus must save themselves and their baby sister. The only question is, how? And will they figure out what to do before Violet becomes the legal wife of the sinister Count?

Book Ninja recommended having all of the sequels on hand when reading this series, and I'm glad I took her advice. I can't wait to see what happens in the next one and the next one...It's just such a fun series. It's written in a fun, mysterious, playful voice that just makes the book a sheer pleasure to read. When I finish the series (sometime tomorrow, probably), I'll review it in total. For now, go out and get this book. It's fast, fun and eerie enough to fit in perfectly with the R.I.P. Challenge - what's not to love?

Goodbye, Glass Books, May You R.I.P.

So, my second pick for the R.I.P. challenge was Gordon Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. I checked it out at the library today, without even reading the book jacket or the reviews. If I had noticed how many times reviewers used the words "sex" and "erotic," I probably would have stuck it right back on the shelf. I didn't notice, so I started reading...and gave up about 56 pages in. It's just not my cup of tea. Since there are so many great books out there, it's my policy not to read any that I don't like. Therefore, I'm officially abandoning this one. Instead, I'm going to read J.R.R. Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings for the Peril the Second part of the R.I.P. challenge. It's weighty enough to take the place of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it more.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

CSI Meets The Canterbury Tales in 12th Century Murder Mystery

When I first read about the R.I.P. II Challenge, one book popped into my head: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. Its menacing cover just screams Halloween. Halfway through the book, however, I realized it wasn't that type of story. Not that it wasn't scary, it was, just not in a haunted house kind of way. It's scary in more of a deranged-killer-on-the-loose way. Come to think of it, perhaps those are the scariest stories out there, so maybe this was the perfect pick after all...

Picture this. The year is 1171. The place: Cambridge, England. The problem: Children are disappearing from the town. When one of the children's corpse is found on the lawn of a wealthy Jewish usurer, all Hell breaks loose. A mob murders the homeowners, forcing the town Prior to herd all Jews into the castle for their own protection. This causes problems for Henry II, King of England, whose purse suffers every day the Jews are confined. The solution: Clearly, a master of death (the 12th Century equivalent of a medical examiner) is needed to study the body for clues and find the responsible party. The problem with the solution: An expert is sent from Salerno, Italy - a town renowned for its medical school - only the doctor is not a master of death, but a mistress of death, in the form of Adelia Aguilar. While Adelia has been schooled in medicine, her real expertise lies not in treating the living, but in examining the dead. Thus, the King of Sicily orders her to investigate the deaths in England, a country where women healers are routinely burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. Thus, Adelia and her two companions - her Saracen servant Mansur and the king's investigator, Simon of Naples - are forced into a charade where Mansur is the physician and Adelia is but an assistant. Although they are determined not to call attention to themselves, the three gain notoriety on the journey to Cambridge when Adelia deftly cures the Prior of a bladder infection. When word spreads, Adelia and Mansur find themselves inundated with patients. Adelia tries desperately to keep up the charade while helping the sick and investigating the children's murders. Another problem with the solution: Although Adelia is sadly lacking in bedside manner and femininity, she is not invisible to men. In fact, she has attracted the attention of tax collector Sir Rowley Picot, a jolly man who shows an unusual interest in the murdered children. His presence disconcerts Adelia, who increasingly suspects him to be the killer. The rest of the story: As Adelia and her companions come closer to finding the murderer, they find themselves in increasing danger. Adelia fears, in particular, for her young friend, Ulf. When he disappears from town one day, desperation overcomes her. Can Adelia save him as she couldn't save the other kids? Can she trust Sir Rowley with her secrets? Her life? Her heart? And, most importantly, can she find the killer, absolve the Jews, and return to her beloved Salerno? Or will she find herself the victim of a lunatic bent on terrorizing women and children?

One reviewer described Mistress of the Art of Death as "CSI meets The Canterbury Tales," and it is exactly that. The atmosphere is all Canterbury Tales, with vivid period detail and a cast of quirky knights, nuns and clergymen; but the plot is as taut and suspenseful as an episode with Gil Grissom and friends. It took me a chapter or two to get used to Franklin's style (I considered reading with a dictionary next to me, since she employed words I had never even seen before), but once I did, I was hooked. I literally could not put this book down until I finished it. Although I had the guilty party (or is it parties?) figured out long before Adelia did, there were plenty of other plot twists to keep me on the edge of my seat.

A warning: This book is not for the squeamish. It's also not for those who want to get something done, because trust me, you won't be able to complete anything until you finish this book.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Love Walked In A Novel With Heart

After 31 years of unremarkable living, pint-sized Cornelia Brown is ready for a little drama. So, when Martin Grace, a debonair Cary Grant clone, walks into the coffee shop she manages, she embraces the winds of change that seem to blow in with him. Martin is, after all, movie star perfect. Okay, he's older, emotionally distant and not that great in bed, but Cornelia really wants to be in love with him. Before she has time to contemplate their relationship further, Martin re-enters the shop with a child in tow. A child who, in Cornelia's opinion, "[looks] fierce and furious and terrified and bottomlessly sad. No one would need to ask this girl if her heart had been broken" (97). Turns out, the girl is Clare, Martin's 11-year-old daughter. A daughter Martin has never mentioned and clearly has very little to do with. Because she so obviously needs it, Cornelia enfolds the child in her arms. Later, she learns that Clare's mother, Viviana, has deserted her daughter, flitting off to Barcelona with no explanation. Cornelia immediately takes the girl under her wing, causing the awkward Martin tremendous relief. Adding "bad father" to her growing list of reasons she can't be with Martin, Cornelia throws her efforts into healing Clare. Cornelia, along with her brother-in-law, Teo, create an unlikely "family" for the child, who comes to trust them more than her own parents. While the three are content with the arrangement, they know it can't last. And it doesn't. Tragedy strikes, leaving Clare's future in further jeopardy. Cornelia's bond with Clare is so strong, she can't bear the thought of losing the girl, a separation that is heartbreaking, but inevitable. In the end, Cornelia must decide just how far she's willing to go not only for the love of a man, but also for the love of a child.

This is the essence of Marisa de los Santos' remarkable novel, Love Walked In. Both Cornelia and Clare narrate the story, each in their own way: Cornelia rambles conspiratorially, while Clare speaks cautiously, seeming to weigh each word. The result is a rich, multi-layered story that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. I ached for Clare, cheered for Cornelia, loathed Martin, and fell helplessly in love with Teo. The characters are that real. It was impossible to put the book down and abandon them. The plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading and guessing. Although it's a sad story in so many ways, hope and love triumph in the end.

I did have a few issues with this book - when do I not? For one, I got a little irritated with Cornelia. While her voice is conversational and funny, she also tends to ramble and overanalyze. I think she has a bit of the Sammy Joyce syndrome (see review here) - de los Santos has tried so hard to make Cornelia lovably quirky that, after awhile, she just ends up being annoying. Also, I think several of the plot twists were unrealistic. I won't elaborate, because I don't want to give away any of the surprises, but some of them were just way too convenient. I found this especially interesting, since de los Santos went out of her way to make sure other elements of the story, like Teo's Filipino heritage, were authentic (She describes the tradition of "blessing" one's elders in a way I've experienced in The Philippines, but never seen described in literature). I also wish I could recommend this book as a clean read, but it's liberally sprinkled with the F-word and sexual references (although no graphic sex).

All in all, though, I really enjoyed this book. It's a novel with heart, and it will absolutely steal yours.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Against My Better Judgment...

I've already got 2 reading challenges going on, so I've been debating whether or not to do this one. Unfortunately, it's just too alluring...scary reads, giveaways, an engaging host...what's not to love? Since it's still hitting 110 degrees here, I'm hoping this will get me into the Fall/Halloween spirit. If you want to join in, check out Carl's site for all the details.

My list is below:

Peril the First (read 4 books of any length from any subgenre of scary stories you choose):

1. Mistress of the Art of Death - Ariana Franklin (also reading for the Unread Authors Challenge hosted by Sycorax Pine)

2. The Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill (also reading for Cardathon Challenge, hosted by Becky)

3. A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, Or Orphans - Lemony Snickett (also reading for Unread Authors Challenge)

4. Stardust - Neil Gaiman

Peril the Second (Read 2 long books with 1 average-sized volume sandwiched between)
1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
2. Strange Happenings - Avi
3. Glass Books of the Dream Eaters - Gordon Dahlquist
1. Rosemary's Baby - Ira Levin
2. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

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