Monday, June 30, 2008

You Won't Be Able to Forget The Memory of Water

(Image from Barnes & Noble)


When beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it: and would not willingly remember that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. - Herman Melville

On a stormy night 16 years ago, a mother in the throes of a manic episode dragged her daughters aboard her sailboat. Hurricane-force winds slapped the craft around, stealing control of the vessel. Before the night was over, the ocean claimed the mother, leaving her daughters adrift and terrified. Although the sisters were lucky to escape with their lives, the strange events of that night changed everything. The girls, who were once as close as twins in the womb, became living ghosts. Scared. Haunted. Strangers ...

The Memory of Water by Karen White begins 10 years later, when Marnie Maitland comes home to the South Carolina Lowcountry. She hasn't spoken to her sister Diana for a decade. Still, when Diana's ex-husband Quinn summons her home, she packs her bags and lands in the one spot she never thought she'd be again - her childhood home. She hasn't come for herself, or even for her sister, but for her 9-year-old nephew Gil. The boy has not spoken since the night his mother took him for his own storm-tossed boatride. Quinn hopes that Marnie, who teaches art to special needs students, can help him speak again. Although Marnie's own fears make her want to turn and flee, she knows she must try to help the boy whose terror reminds her so much of her own.

As weeks stretch into months, Marnie feels the distance she so carefully put between herself and home evaporate. Her true self comes back to her, along with repressed memories of the night her mother drowned. She wants to confront Diana, demand to know the truth of what happened, but her sister is dealing with her own demons. Like her mother before her, Diana battles bi-polar disorder. The manic episodes twist her mind, but allow her to paint with brilliance and abandon. Since her boat accident with Gil, Quinn forces her to take her meds in order to see her son. Since he cringes every time she comes near, Diana locks herself in her studio where she produces second-rate pieces she knows to be "the paintings of the drugs and not the true heart of the damaged artist" (69). So, Marnie stays away as well, keeping her distance from her turbulent sister.

Marnie's presence obviously agitates the unstable Diana, who vaccilates wildly between rationality and madness. She raves about the Maitland curse, painting a macabre timeline to document all the tragedies the family has experienced. Diana seems bent on releasing the secrets that are eating her alive, obsessed by stopping the madness before it consumes her son, but how far can she go before her tenuous hold on life slips away? And what of the others? Can they handle the ugly truths hidden in every nook and cranny of the family home? Pandora's Box has opened, and demons are running rampant - will any of them have what it takes to finally bring peace to the troubled Maitlands?

Told from 4 different viewpoints (Marnie, Diana, Gil and Quinn), The Memory of Water tells a complicated story that highlights the very thin line between love and hate. It asks tough questions - What happens when a mother favors one child over the other? Can a child ever survive betrayal by a parent? What is a family to do when mental illness threatens to tear it apart? And, most importantly, can the truth really set us free? These questions are explored through the eyes of a fascinating cast of characters in lovely, lyrical language. Although the plot is surprisingly predictable, the book clips along at a fast pace, propelled by the complexity of the characters and White's gift for speaking directly to the heart. It's compulsively readable, hauntingly beautiful and deeply resonate. I guarantee you won't be able to forget this book.


Grade: A-


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Don't Hang Up Your Glass Slippers Yet! Dr. Denkin Has the Answer to Happily Ever After.

If your "Happily Ever After" isn't turning out quite the way you planned, you may want to check out Edythe Denkin's new book, Relationship Magic. Denkin, a marriage counselor with 30 years experience, uses the parable of a prince and princess whose kingdom needs some tending to to teach readers about finding happiness and fulfillment in marriage. It sounds hokey (my 6-year-old daughter asked me if the book was about how to be a princess - we've been watching a lot of Enchanted at our house), and it is. In fact, I would have liked this book a lot better if it used real-life examples instead of a fairy tale, but I appreciate the author's attempt to make her material more readable.

Anyway, the book follows Prince James and Princess Cinda, a couple whose marriage has hit a brick wall. Already stressed with the pressures of ruling the kingdom, James doesn't have the energy left to deal with Cinda's neediness. Feeling rejected, Cinda spends even more time collecting the material possessions that just never seem to fill her empty heart. Cinda's spending stresses James out even more, leaving him feeling bitter and unsuccessful. Tension mounts until the prince decides he has to seek some help before his marriage crumbles. Enter Satori, a wise old sage, who knows exactly how to help the royal couple.

Through a series of counseling sessions, Satori shows the pair how the hurts they experienced in childhood affect the way they communicate and relate to one another as adults. He also points out the ways in which James and Cinda unconsciously mimic their parents' tense marriages, creating a rocky union of their own. As he helps them acknowledge their fears and take responsibility for their own contentment, the couple is able to create a stronger, less contentious marriage.

As an Imago Relationship Therapist, Dr. Denkin believes that most marital problems begin long before the wedding. In fact, they start in childhood. She says children who feel ignored, abandoned, and misunderstood by their parents grow into adults who feel they must control their spouses to avoid more abandonment. Furthermore, kids watch their parents interact, and internalize what they see. Because of this, Relationship Magic dwells a lot on James and Cinda's parents (Cinda scolds James for wanting to hang out with the guys, because she feels as if he is abandoning her like her father once did; James feels hurt when Cinda criticizes him because he could never please his father either). Although I understand the concept, I don't necessarily agree with it. The idea that most of our problems stem from our parents' bad examples seems to place too much blame, and leave too little room for accepting responsibility for our own actions. Plus, I don't understand how it applies to me. My parents have a strong, loving relationship (that has spanned 37 years). As far as parenting, they were always kind and supportive. Maybe I'm in denial, but I really don't my parents scarred me emotionally, so I don't get how this idea relates to me.

The concept I did find enlightening was this one: When your spouse barrages you with angry words, those words "are not about you, but about your partner's own feelings" (96). The key to handling the criticism is to avoid taking the harsh words personally. By mirroring your spouse's words (or, basically, repeating their words back to him/her, which feels awkward and corny, but still ...), you begin to understand what your partner is really saying. As Satori explains to Cinda:

It is a difficult concept, my child. What James says may be his reaction to what you say and the feelings it triggers within him, but what is happening is not about you. It is about him (97).

Overall, I thought the book was okay. The whole fairy tale idea put me off, as did the parental blame thing. Still, I thought there was some valuable information in the book. I think I would have preferred a more traditional self-help approach with real-life cases and examples. Perhaps this format was more entertaining, but it was just a little too corny and contrived for me.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Insomnia, Or More Accurately, Indigestion

So, it's 2:36 a.m. and I'm awake with an upset stomach (note to self: Mountain Dew and Reese's is not the best combo to partake of before bed). I am exhausted, too, since my 3-year-old woke me up at 5 a.m. yesterday morning. Ugh. Oh well. The house is quiet, and what else do I have to do but blog surf (fold laundry, clean off my desk, unload the dishwasher, polish my toenails ... )?

I found this on Marg's blog and thought it was interesting:

Entertainment Weekly has come up with a list of the 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008. Just for fun, I highlighted the ones I've read in blue.

1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)

3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)

4. The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr (1995)

5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)

6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)

7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)

8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)

9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)

10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)

11. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)

12. Blindness, José Saramago (1998)

13. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)

14. Black Water, Joyce Carol Oates (1992)

15. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)

16. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1986)

17. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel GarcĂ­a MĂĄrquez (1988)

18. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike (1990)

19. On Beauty, Zadie Smith (2005)

20. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (1998)

21. On Writing, Stephen King (2000)22. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot DĂ­az (2007)

23. The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1996)

24. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry (1985)

25. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan (1989)

26. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)

27. Possession, A.S. Byatt (1990)

28. Naked, David Sedaris (1997)

29. Bel Canto, Anne Patchett (2001)

30. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson (2004)

31. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (1990)

32. Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch (1988)

33. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2005)

34. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (2002)

35. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

36. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)

37. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (2003)

38. Birds of America, Lorrie Moore (1998)

39. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)

40. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)

41. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1984)

42. LaBrava, Elmore Leonard (1983)

43. Borrowed Time, Paul Monette (1988)

44. Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene (1991)

45. Eva Luna, Isabel Allende (1988)

46. Sandman, Neil Gaiman (1988-1996)

47. World’s Fair, E.L. Doctorow (1985)

48. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (1998)

49. Clockers, Richard Price (1992)

50. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)

51. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcom (1990)

52. Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan (1992)

53. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)

54. Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware (2000)

55. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2006)

56. The Night Manager, John le Carré (1993)

57. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1987)

58. Drop City, TC Boyle (2003)

59. Krik? Krak! Edwidge Danticat (1995)

60. Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

61. Money, Martin Amis (1985)

62. Last Train To Memphis, Peter Guralnick (1994)

63. Pastoralia, George Saunders (2000)

64. Underworld, Don DeLillo (1997)

65. The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993)

66. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace (1997)

67. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (2003)

68. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel (2006)

69. Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)

70. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)

71. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Ann Fadiman (1997)

72. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon (2003)

73. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving (1989)

74. Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger (1990)

75. Cathedral, Raymond Carver (1983)

76. A Sight for Sore Eyes, Ruth Rendell (1998)

77. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

78. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)

79. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

80. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney (1984)

81. Backlash, Susan Faludi (1991)

82. Atonement, Ian McEwan (2002)

83. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields (1994)

84. Holes, Louis Sachar (1998)

85. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004)

86. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts (1987)

87. The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)

88. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (1995)

89. Close Range, Annie Proulx (1999)

90. Comfort Me With Apples, Ruth Reichl (2001)

91. Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003)

92. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987)

93. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)

94. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001)

95. Kaaterskill Falls, Allegra Goodman (1998)

96. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003)

97. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (1992)

98. The Predators’ Ball, Connie Bruck (1988)

99. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (1995)

100. America (the Book), Jon Stewart/Daily Show (2004)

Wow! I've only read 16 out of 100. In my defense, a lot of these books are on my TBR list. Has anyone made a challenge out of this yet? It would be a good one. In the meantime, I think I'll make it a personal challenge (of the open-ended-no-pressure variety).

How many of these have you read? Which ones do you consider must-reads? Which could you have done without?

It's amazing how much better a nice, long list of books makes me feel. I think I'm ready to go back to bed. Let's just hope my toddler lets me sleep in until at least 5:30!

Thanks for the early-morning diversion, Marg!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Spring Reading Thing 2008 Wrap Up

I mentioned that I didn't exactly finish the Spring Reading Thing 2008 Challenge. As of today, I only have one book left to read; of course, the challenge ended on June 19, but who's keeping track, right?

Katrina asked all the participants to write a wrap-up post about the challenge, so here goes:

Did you finish all the books you had planned to read? If not, why? Uh, no. Mostly because I bit off more than I could chew.

Do you think the challenge helped you read more? Or maybe helped you read books you otherwise wouldn't have? No, I don't think it helped me read more, but it did help me clear some books off my TBR mountain that I may not have gotten to so quickly otherwise.

What was your favorite book you read this spring? Least favorite? My favorites were Specials by Scott Westerfield and Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan. My least favorite was Pretties by Scott Westerfield.

Did you discover any new authors or genres that you now love? Two of the books I read were by authors new to me - Katherine Hannigan and Michelle Richmond. I don't think Hannigan has written more than one book, but I definitely plan to read Richmond's others.

What did you learn about your reading habits or interests? One thing I've discovered is that having a deadline helps me to read books faster, but it also makes them less appealing somehow. A lot of times, I find I have to force myself to read challenge books. Is that weird?

Are you interested in another "Fall Into Reading" challenge this fall? Absolutely. I love your challenges, Katrina. Thanks for hosting!

The Year of Fog A Mesmerizing Look at the People Behind the Statistics


(Image from Amazon)

Each year, around 800,000 children go missing. Sixty-thousand of these are non-family abductions; 115 are long-term, news-getting kidnappings. Of the 115 victims, half are sexually assualted, 40% are killed, and 4% vanish into thin air, never to be found.* Imagine if your child was one of them.

Abby Mason, a 33-year-old San Francisco photographer, doesn't have to imagine. She's living the nightmare. The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond begins with the abduction of 6-year-old Emma Balfour, Abby's soon-to-be-step-daughter. While the pair wander Ocean Beach, the little girl disappears into the fog, throwing Abby into a panic. She scours the beach to no avail - Emma is simply gone. "This is what I know," Abby tells the police, "I was walking on the beach with Emma. It was cold and very foggy. She let go of my hand. I stopped to photograph a seal pup, then glanced up toward the Great Highway. When I looked back, she was gone" (9). Although volunteers search the beach, no clues point to where the child has gone, or who has taken her.

As the days wear on without any sign of Emma, Abby and her fiancee put all of their energy into finding her. They set up a command post; plaster fliers all over the city; visit news and radio stations; anything to keep Emma's name in the news, anything to find her. Nothing works. Others suggest a drowning, but Abby cannot accept that, knowing the fearful Emma never would have strayed that close to the waves. She's convinced Emma was kidnapped. Even though she knows the statistics - only 57% of the victims of long-term abduction are ever found - Abby determines to find the child she lost.

Months pass with little news and no leads. Abby's life becomes an impossible, obsessive-compulsive search. Her wedding has been postponed; her relationship with her fiance is strained and tense; her photography business is falling apart; Abby's drinking too much; and for all of the frantic searching, Emma seems to be nowhere at all. Abby has patrolled every neighborhood in San Francisco; the only place that eludes her is her own memory. She knows there is a clue somewhere inside her head, but the more she searches, the less details emerge. "What I want, above all," she says,

is too remember, to see with absolute clarity the events of that day on Ocean Beach. I would gladly trade a lifetime of memories - birthdays and Christmas mornings, first dates and splendid vacations, wonderful books and beautiful faces - for the one memory that matters, the one that would lead me to Emma" (56).

Finally, Abby remembers one detail - a golden frog on a longboard. She clutches the idea with the desperation of a drowning woman. Even as the police close Emma's case; the command center shuts down; and Emma's father plans a memorial; Abby pursues the clue. With everyone questioning her sanity, she flies to Costa Rica to track down the golden frog and its owner, whose identity swims vaguely in her mind. She prays the trip that seems futile to everyone else will give her the one thing she needs to assuage her guilt and repair her life - Emma. The grim statistics stare her in the face, but Abby will not stop until she defies them, until she brings home the little girl she loves.

When I saw The Year of Fog compared to a Jodi Picoult novel, I expected a fast-paced thriller. It's not. In fact, I only agree with the comparison in the vaguest sense. While Michelle Richmond certainly matches Picoult in skill, her style differs significantly. Her pacing is slower, her words more ponderous, her description more atmospheric. Not that The Year of Fog has no action - it has plenty, it just takes a backseat to the characters and their emotions.

Although it is ultimately hopeful, the bulk of Richmond's novel is as moody as a fog-laden San Francisco morning. Richmond succeeds in recreating the sorrow and hopelessness that must accompany real-life searches for missing children, but she almost does her job too well. Much of the story is dark and depressing. Again mirroring real life, the book sags in the middle as Abby deals with an investigation that drags on at a maddening snail's pace. I know Richmond wanted to echo reality, but matching that inaction in a novel really slows down the plot. I never read the last chapter to find out what happens in a book, but with this one, I was sorely tempted. The action does pick up in the last third of the story, after which I raced through the pages, riveted right up until its satisfying end.

If you've ever wondered about the people behind the statistics, this book is for you. The mystery will keep your attention, while the characters behind the statistics will speak to your heart. It lacks the lightning-quick action of a true thriller but it makes up for it in solid, luminous writing. Despite the drag in the middle, The Year of Fog is a mesmerizing story that will have you teetering off the edge of your seat in anticipation.

Grade: B+

*Statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

We Have A Winner!


Congratulations, Becky! My son (the recipient of the RAOK that started this whole thing) picked your name out of a hat (actually, a mixing bowl). Send me an email (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT]com) with your mailing address, and I'll get it out ASAP.

Thanks to all who entered this giveaway. Reading all of your comments made me smile. I have never liked the term "Random Acts of Kindness" because I don't believe kindness should be random. Hopefully, it's just a given that you open the door for the mom struggling to push her stroller through; or retrieve an item for a senior citizen who can't quite reach it; or resist the impulse to park in a busy parking lot's handicapped spaces. Sometimes, however, someone will do something so unexpected that it looks random. But, I don't think it is. I truly believe the world is filled with thoughtful, generous people performing countless acts of kindness just because it's the right thing to do. Obviously, they make a difference in our lives! Thanks again for sharing your stories - they make me want to be a kinder, more giving person.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Groggy Update

I threw my husband a big BBQ/pool party for his birthday last night, so I'm a little groggy. Hopefully, this post makes sense :) Anyway, I just wanted to mention two things really quick before I go back to bed energetically start my housework.

First, I joined two new challenges. Yes, I am aware that I just FAILED to complete two that I signed up for, but I just can't help myself. You can laugh at my challenge addiction here on my challenge blog.

Also, I updated my list of book blog links. I entered about a dozen, but I still feel like I'm missing people. If yours isn't on there, would you let me know? Don't be shy - one of the best way to drive traffic to your blog is advertising! Plus, I love reading book blogs - I don't want to miss any.

That's it. I'm gonna run out for a smoothie, then I'm hitting the hay. I'm SO not a party animal. *Yawn*

Friday, June 20, 2008

Stand A Powerful Little Book

Stand by Debbie Williamson is one of those books that make you want to grab your kids, hug them as hard as you can, and tell them how much you love them. Like Dave Pelzer's memoirs, Williamson's details a life of neglect, abuse and family dysfunctionality. Her story compels in the same way a roadside accident does - morbid curiosity makes us stare, empathy makes us shake our heads, and relief lets us flee, thanking God that we escaped similar tragedy.

Debbie's story begins long before her birth. Stand tells the stories of her mother and grandmother - two women who suffer from parental neglect as well as emotional and sexual abuse. The family's horrific "legacy" persists into Debbie's generation. Not only is she raped by a trusted uncle, but her mother ignores her, and both parents cheat on each other repeatedly. Her home life in shambles, Debbie turns to drugs, sex, and partying to fill up her life. Not surprisingly, she finds herself pregnant at 16.

Because it is "the right thing to do," the young couple marry. At first, Debbie adores her new life as a wife and mother. It's not long, however, before the union begins deteriorating. Joe turns to alcohol and prostitutes to escape the prison of married life. At home with her children all day, Debbie suffers from depression, which is only exacerbated by the daily insults Joe screams at her. Overwhelmed by both her past and her present, she loses control. When she owns up to how much time she's spending drinking, arguing with her husband, yelling at her kids, and sleeping around, Debbie realizes she's become the one thing she never wanted to be - her mother.

Finally at the end of her rope, Debbie enrolls in a kind of therapy boot camp. The program empowers her, giving her the strength to overcome her struggles. It doesn't make her life perfect, but it marks the beginning of a bright, new future.

On her website, Debbie explains that her original intention was to write out her experiences as a sort of journal for her children. Stand certainly reads more like a diary - with grammatical errors; fluctuating tense, shifting points of view; and lack of organization - than a polished book. Simple and heartfelt, Debbie's words do get the message across, just not with the panache of a well-written memoir. It also has a psychic/voices of the dead aspect that tarnishes the author's credibility - at least for those of us who don't believe in such things.


What I do admire about this book is Debbie's honesty. She explains on her website how reluctant she was to share her story with the world. Although she didn't want her family to suffer from the exposure of its dark secrets, she bravely took the risk. She doesn't sugarcoat her experiences or try to make herself look like the perfect wife and mother. Admittedly, she lays much of the blame for her family's dysfunctionality on the males, but she doesn't sugarcoat her own shortcomings either. She confesses that not all of her relationships have healed, but that through forgiveness, honesty and time, she's sure they will. The chapter on forgiveness particularly moved me. In Debbie's words:


He wasn't a monster to me anymore. Instead, he became a little person who had made a horrible mistake. I forgave him. I didn't have to ask God anymore how to forgive. I finally knew how (131).


Child abuse does not rank highly on my list of Favorite Subjects to Read About, so I haven't read a lot of books like Stand. I have no doubt there are better-written books on the subject. However, I don't regret reading this one. It could use some serious editing, but all in all, it's a pretty powerful little book.



Grade: B-




(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Spreading Some Bloggy Love

So much fun stuff is going on the book blogosphere right now that I just had to mention a few things:

** I just received an email from up-and-coming YA author Kamilla Reid asking me to review her sci fi/fantasy book The Questory of Root Karbunkulus. The novel hasn't reached me yet - and trust me, I'm waiting breathlessly for it - but the website and trailer look fabulous. Next month, I'll be bringing you some fun stuff related to the book; for now, click here to visit Kamilla's gorgeous site.

** Stephanie over at The Written Word is giving away a copy of Nefertiti by Michelle Moran. She raved about the historical novel in her recent review. To enter, click here.

** Amanda at A Patchwork of Books has 5 copies of The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson to give away. Enter here for a chance to win.

** Don't forget about my own giveaway. You can win a brand-spankin'-new copy of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. I loved the book (you can read my review here). Even if you're not interested in winning, join in the conversation about RAOK you've given or received. Leave your comments here. Reading all the great stories just makes me happy!

** So many great challenges are going on right now that I really want to enter them all. Unfortunately, I'm already drowning in challenges, so the only one I'm actually going to join is the ARC Challenge. You can get all the info here at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time. Check it out. If you are shopping for a challenge, stop by A Novel Challenge - it lists the info for all current challenges. Wow! How many times did I use the word "challenge" in that paragraph?

** Speaking of challenges, I'm just not going to make the deadline for Katrina's Spring Reading Thing or Carl's Once Upon A Time II Challenge. I'm bummed. I will finish my book lists, just not by June 20 :(

** And still speaking of challenges ... Karlene tells me she's got a fun one in the works. Stay tuned for more info at Inksplasher.

Okay, that's all I can remember. Check out all the links and help me spread the love!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ida B Sparkles With Warmth and Whimsy


Fourth grader Ida B. Applewood, heroine of Katherine Hannigan's first novel Ida B, lives an almost perfect life. She spends her days roaming her family's farm with her trusty dog, stargazing with her father, or cuddled up with a good book. No playmates live nearby, so Ida B. shares all her amazing ideas with her family's apple trees and the brook that trickles through the farm. According to her:


Some people might stop me right there and say, "Ida B, you could wait for eternity and a day and you're not going to hear one of those trees talking to you, let alone a brook. Trees don't have mouths and they don't speak, and you might want to take yourself to the doctor's and get a very thorough check-up real soon."


And after I took a minute to give my patience and forbearance a chance to recover my mouth from the rudeness that was itching to jump out of it, I would just say this: "There's more than one way to tell each other things, and there's more than one way to listen, too. And if you've never heard a tree telling you something, then I'd say you don't really know how to listen just yet. But I'd be happy to give you a few pointers sometime" (8-9).


The contented Ida B cannot imagine anything marring her happiness, so she's shocked when the trees whisper about trouble on the horizon. It comes in the form of a diagnosis: her mother has cancer. Before Ida B knows it, her world has transformed from "just about righter than right to a million miles beyond wrong" (143). Her mother, who once sparkled with life, spends all her time sleeping. Her father, once patient and indulgent, snaps at Ida B for anything and everything, it seems. It's bad enough that her parents have become strangers, but when they inform her they will be selling off part of the farm to cover hospital bills, she's stunned. Apparently, it's not quite enough to give away Ida B's beloved trees, because her parents have another bomb to drop: She will have to attend public school. As Ida B accepts her sentence to take the "Yellow Prison of Propulsion," to the "Sacrificial Pit of Never-Ending Agony," she feels her heart twist into a "sharp, black stone that was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. It was so hard nobody could break it and so sharp it would hurt anybody who touched it" (87). She vows to let no one - not teachers, classmates, or parents - inside.

When the new owners of the Applewoods' property starts ripping down trees to make way for a house, Ida B sees it as the ultimate betrayal. Her black heart blames the strangers who have stolen her parents' bodies. Bitter and friendless, Ida B must face the sorrows of her new life. With the help of a kind teacher and a kid who stinks at math, she might just be able to climb out of the pit of her despair. And maybe, just maybe, the trees will start talking to her again.

I'm not sure it's possible to describe the loveliness of this novel. It's a simple story told in the pitch-perfect voice of a brave young narrator. It's also a rich, moving tale that will speak to readers' hearts, however black they may be. The writing sparkles with whimsy and subtlety, making it a funny, heartwarming story you simply won't want to miss.

Grade: A


Monday, June 16, 2008

Randy Jackson Says It All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I avoid romance novels. I guess I'm a bit of a prude, but this genre just does not usually appeal to me. I mean, a love story is great, but I like some mystery or suspense mixed in. You probably also know that I don't like reading books in a series out of order. I prefer to start at the beginning and get to know the characters a little bit at a time. Considering those two pet peeves, I really should not have liked When A Man Loves A Woman by La Connie Taylor-Jones at all. Not only is the book a romance, but it's also the second novel in a series (although the first book focuses on different characters). The weird thing is, I actually liked it. I didn't love it, I didn't even really, really like it, but I didn't hate it either.

The story stars Victoria "Vic" Bennett, a nursing administrator living in Oakland, California. After the devastating end of her first marriage, she swears off men. Even after eight years, she simply will not open her heart to another man. Pediatrician A.J. Baptiste has other ideas, however, and he's not shy about letting his desires be known. His life plan involves making Vic his wife. Sure, Vic's attracted to him (after all, he's gorgeous, wealthy and loves children), but no one is going to boss her around. Besides, falling for him means exposing her very vulnerable heart, and that's something she's just not willing to do. She's so fed up with A.J. and his pursuit that she's leaving the Golden State for good.

When an emotional Vic hits A.J. with her car, everything changes. Although she was rearended, and not technically at fault, she feels responsible. While her brother, a police officer, works to track down the hit-and-run driver, Vic puts all her energy into helping AJ. recuperate. The more time she spends with him, the less control she has. Suddenly, she finds herself spilling all her secrets (and losing all her defenses). Her vulnerability scares her to death, and she can't decide whether to stay or run.

The appearance of a drug-addicted mother in A.J.'s clinic changes things once again. Both Vic and A.J. go out of their way to help her. Working together only strengthens their connection. What they don't know is that the young woman holds the key to finding out what really happened on the day of A.J.'s accident. For that and two other important reasons, she will become a vital part of Vic and A.J.'s lives.

With all this happening, it's no wonder Vic is losing control. Can she keep resisting A.J.'s advances? Does she even want to? Will she finally be able to put the past behind her and open her heart to the man who can't live without her? Or will she run away again?

It's a pretty simple, predictable plot, but there's enough action to keep things moving along. The fiery relationship between Vic and A.J. provides much of the entertainment (and some steamy sex scenes, which I skipped over like a good Mormon girl), although the mystery of the accident also makes up a lot of the novel. It's a quick read - not too complicated, and kind of sweet. I have my issues with When A Man Loves A Woman (huge, confusing cast; flat characters; graphic sex, etc.), but overall, it's not too bad. Still, my opinion can be summed up in the immortal words of Randy Jackson: "I don't know. I don't know, dawg. This one was just okay for me."

Grade: C


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Runemarks Lacks the Harris Sparkle

Books like Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange, and Gentleman & Players keep me reading (and loving) English author Joanne Harris. Unfortunately, her newest book The Girl With No Shadow seems to be earning mountains of negative reviews. I hate to be disappointed by my favorite authors, so I decided to ignore Chocolat's sequel and check out Harris' first YA novel, Runemarks, instead. Here's the story ...

In the village of Malbry, where magic is feared and the goblins in the cellar are routinely ignored, 14-year-old
Maddy Smith stands out like a sore thumb. The "ruinmark" on her palm brands her an outsider, a witch, a Faerie - animals born with similar marks are regularly put down. Because her father is respected in town, Maddy's presence is tolerated ... but not entirely trusted. A one-eyed traveler is, in fact, her only friend.

One-Eye returns only once a year, but he uses his visits to teach Maddy about subjects no one else will broach. He fills her head with talk of runes, glamours, goblins, and dormant gods. He tells her of the epic wars between Order and Chaos, battles that continue to brew. Finally, he describes "the Whisperer," an ancient treasure hidden deep within a goblin-infested hill. As One-Eye warns, "This - treasure - may turn out to be as dangerous as it is valuable. Even speaking of it has its risks. And in many ways it might be safer for it to have stayed sleeping and forgotten" (48). Still, says the old Outlander, it's a key to maintaining Order in perilous times. Because of Maddy's special magic, he asks her to retrieve it.


Thus begins Maddy's journey into the turbulent Underworld, where goblins and other creatures scrabble about and nothing - nothing - is what it seems. Aided by an unlikely crew, Maddy makes her way through dangerous territory. She will face countless goblins, angry gods, an enormous snake, a dangerous enemy and Death herself on the journey. On her way, Maddy will also find the answers to questions that have plagued her all her life: Who is she, really? What does the runemark on her hand mean? What's her purpose? Is she brave enough to fulfill it?

While I enjoyed Runemarks - it had interesting characters, solid writing, and lots of action - it didn't enchant me the way other of Harris' books have. The story seemed overly long and a little generic. It was a fun, fast-moving story, but still a little disappointing for me. I don't know how to explain it - for me, Runemarks just didn't sparkle the way a Harris novel usually does. I could have used just a little more magic.

Grade: B-



Friday, June 13, 2008

Go Ahead, Make My Day

This is an eventful month for my husband since both Father's Day and his birthday fall in June. Because of this, you'd think I'd be a little more on top of things. But, no. As of this morning, I hadn't done any birthday/Father's Day shopping. So, this morning, I gathered the kids, and off we went.

My 9-year-old son has been working hard to save enough money to buy something special for his dad. He finally managed to accumulate $8 - enough to get something for dad and something for himself. So, he packed his wallet, eager to find the perfect gift.

I know you're wondering what this has to do with books, but I'm getting there ...

Our first stop was Borders. As I mentioned, my son had carefully plotted out how to use his money most efficiently. What he didn't count on was finding the exact airplane book he had been wanting - on clearance, no less. The problem? The book cost $5.99, which would leave him with less than $2 to buy a gift for Dad. After seriously considering the problem (for at least 5 minutes), he decided to purchase the book "because Dad likes airplanes too, so we can share it." When we got up to the checkout, he got a very pleasant surprise - the cashier was holding up a gift card. She explained that the woman who had been in line before us hadn't used all of the money on her card, so she instructed the cashier to let us use it. I was astounded. I hadn't been paying attention, so I couldn't even tell you what this Good Samaritan looked like. My son's eyes lit up when the cashier told him the card had $5.60 on it - that meant he could buy the book and still have enough left over to buy something good for his dad. I wish I could have thanked the sweet lady, but she was long gone by this point. Needless to say, she really brightened our day.

Since a kind lady made my son's day, I thought I should pay it forward and make someone else's day. So, I'm giving away a brand-spankin'-new copy of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. This YA novel features a young woman in the 1940s who moves from Iowa to Montana to prove up on her uncle's homestead. It's a fun, clean adventure story that I thoroughly enjoyed (you can read my review here). My 93-year-old grandma liked it as well, which proves it's a story that will appeal to readers of all ages.

To enter the giveaway, make a comment on this post. Just to cheer us all up (my husband swears the world's coming to an end what with all the wars, tornadoes, floods, sky-high gas prices, etc.), I'd like each of you to tell about a time when someone made your day or a way in which you/your family made someone else's day. That's it. I will choose a name at random on the evening of June 22nd (my half-birthday!). Good luck. Oh, I can ship overseas, if necessary.

Just for fun, I'll tell you about a RAOK my family used to perform:

I grew up in a tiny town on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Our town didn't have much in the way of shopping or entertainment, so we often drove over to Oregon to go to movies, eat out, buy groceries, etc. Crossing the river involved driving over a big, green toll bridge. At the time, it cost 50 cents each way. Most residents of our town - including us - made the trip daily, so we would often pass people we knew. If my parents recognized the driver behind us, they always paid the toll for them. It was fun to watch their surprised reactions in the rearview mirror. As my siblings and I started driving, we carried on the tradition. Paying for people we knew was fun, but it was an even bigger kick to pay for strangers (especially if they were goodlooking guys)! Hopefully, the recipients of our RAOKs passed on this simple, day-making tradition.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Extras Fizzles

After the adrenaline rush that was Specials, I couldn't wait to delve into Extras, the fourth book in Scott Westerfield's Uglies series. I really wanted to read more of Tally Youngblood's story. I had to know if Zane was really dead, if Tally and David fell in love again, and I needed to know exactly how the pair planned to change the world. So, it gave me a shock when I opened up Extras and found a whole new story unfolding ... with no Tally Youngblood in sight.


Extras takes place in Japan, a few years after Specials. It follows Aya Fuse, a 15-year-old Ugly who's after only one thing: fame. Her world is all about popularity - the more well-known you are, the more comforts you are given. Despite the fact that Aya has a famous brother, she still dangles at the bottom of the food chain, trying to shake the "obscurity of everything about her" (90). In order to boost her face count (which hovers at 451, 396 out of 1 million), she knows she needs a killer story to broadcast on her personal feed. Everyone in the city has live feeds going constantly, and no one pays the least attention to her little stories. Until now. Aya has finally found a story that's going to make everyone sit up and notice her.


No one really believes the Sly Girls exist. Except Aya. She's been tracking the ultra-secretive clique, determined to reveal their secrets for the city's feed-obsessed residents. Finally, she's been accepted into the group, but spying on them is not going to be as easy as she expected. For one thing, the Sly Girls hate publicity, and are naturally skeptical of a "kicker" like Aya. For another, the girls' crazy stunts are threatening her life span. Still, with the help of her hidden Hovercam, Aya is getting spectacular footage. It won't be long before her face count zips toward the 100s, ensuring her a life of parties and privilege.


One night, as the girls are risking their lives surfing on a train, they stumble upon a truly kicking story. Someone (or something) has hollowed out a mountain and filled it with huge metal cylinders. In a world where metal has to be salvaged from Rusty Ruins (buildings from our era), a cavern jammed with the stuff provides a mystery with a sinister edge. With the help of her brother and friends, Aya realizes just what the cylinders are - weapons. The weapon-makers scare the snot out of her, with their alien-like appearances. Although it means betraying the Sly Girls, Aya knows she has to kick this story to the world.


When the story goes live, all hell breaks loose. Aya's face count soars. She even gets a "ping" from the most famous woman in the world - Tally Youngblood. Expecting congratulations, Aya's shocked by the message, which commands her to run and hide until Special Circumstances arrives. Followed by the paparazzi cams that trail all celebrities, Aya finds hiding difficult, but with aliens chasing her, she has little choice. The arrival of Tally and her team only complicates things, as Aya and her friends soon find themselves being used as bait.


Although there's nothing more "famous-making" than hoverboarding with Tally and her team, Aya doesn't quite trust the Pretty with her cruel face and cold strategy. Worst of all, Aya's beginning to doubt her own story - Are the aliens really bent on destroying the world? Or is there something else going on here? She has to find out before Special Circumstances starts another war. Even if it means her reputation takes a dive-bomb, Aya knows she must find the truth - about the aliens, and about herself. If it requires defying the most famous person in history, so be it.

While Extras features the same taut plotting and fast action as the other books in this series, it veers off in its own direction. This may be refreshing for readers who are sick of Tally Youngblood, but for me, the change was too jarring. It confused me to start off the fourth book in a series with a stranger as narrator, a new setting, and a completely different kind of story. As much as I liked Aya Fuse, the only person I really wanted to read about was Tally. She does show up in the book, but only as a secondary character. This bugged me throughout the whole novel. In addition to that, I found the story somewhat generic (girl betrays friends to boost her own popularity) and contrived (Aya's first night with the Sly Girls just happens to be the one time they discover something really important?).

The biggest complaint I've had with this series is its preachiness. It hammers its themes home with loud, often obnoxious blows. I'm not against a story having a moral (all of them do, after all), but I like an author to preach with subtlety. From the first page of Extras, it's obvious what lesson Aya is going to learn (Fame isn't all it's cracked up to be) - the book follows a pretty predictable path to achieve this end. My friend Charlotte noted that she felt the books to be preachy about protecting the environment, which is true. They are, especially Extras. Again, it's a good message, one we all need to hear, but c'mon, readers can think for themselves.

I have other issues with the book, but I'll spare you the details. In spite of everything, I still found Extras enjoyable. In fact, if it was a standalone novel I probably would have rated it higher, but after Specials, Extras disappointing me. I'm not sure if it marks the end of the series or not - I hope not, because I can't bear to see a series with so much potential fizzle out like this.

Grade: C

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Stupid, Smelly Book Signing

Although I have always been a completely book-obssessed person, I have never actually been to a book signing. Shocking, I know. I have had the privilege of hearing several wonderful authors speak (Patricia Polacco, Amy Tan, Ann Rule, to name a few), but I have never actually stood in line to meet an author and get books signed. Something about crowds and long lines just doesn't appeal to me. However, when I saw that the Junie B. Jones Stupid Smelly Bus Tour was making a stop in Tempe, I thought it sounded like something my 6-year-old daughter would love. So, off we went.

We made a stop at Changing Hands Bookstore to get tickets. Silly me, I thought they would still be available an hour before the show. Uh, no. So, we drove over to the high school where the event was taking place. Plenty of tickets were available, but since we bought them so late, ours were stamped "I," placing us pretty far back in the book-signing line :( We ended up waiting about 2 1/2 hours to get our books signed. It was looong, but since we had stopped at the bookstore first, we had plenty to read. DD read a couple of Fancy Nancy books, and half of her new Junie B. Jones book, while I dived into The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, which I just had to buy after reading glowing reviews on blogs all across the Book Blogosphere.
Since I'm cross-posting this on my private blog, I had to include all the pictures. Enjoy!

DD in front of the tour banner.

I thought the actress playing Junie B. did a great job. She was a little annoying (especially with cymbals in hand), but the kids absolutely loved her show.

The end of Junie B.'s cymbal solo - YES!

DD humoring her snap-happy mother.

The actors playing Junie B. and Mr. Woo stamped books and answered the kids' questions. They were very patient. Too bad they weren't looking at the camera ...

DD and Barbara Park

Completely unaffected by the celebrity sitting beside her, DD shows everyone her wiggly tooth.

Posing with the stupid, smelly bus



Again, with the bus.

My 9-year-old DS and DD are big Junie B. fans - although my son would rather DIE than admit it, hence his absence at the book-signing. I've heard the books criticized because the main character is too sassy and because she doesn't use proper English. I agree with both of these complaints, but I still think they're really fun books. My kids love them.

Despite the fact that it was a very looooong wait to meet Barbara Park, it was lots of fun. So, answer me this: Do you go to book-signings? Are they always worth it? Which ones have you loved/hated?

Specials Is Anything But Average


In my previous reviews of Scott Westerfeld's work, I've accused him of sacrificing character development in favor of constant action. Maybe it's a guy thing? I don't know. It doesn't matter, because after reading Specials, the third book in Westerfield's Uglies series, I'm chomping up my words. The novel delivers heart-pounding - no, heart-stopping - action, plus some serious delving into the characters' psyches. For this reason and more, it's my favorite book in the series so far. It's just totally icy-making, if you know what I mean. You are up on your Pretty-speak, right? Okay. Here we go ...
First off, I have to warn you that this review will probably contain spoilers from Uglies and Pretties. The books in this series just don't stand alone very well, so it's impossible to discuss them without talking about events that happened in previous books. If you haven't read the series, I urge you to start from the beginning.
So, we last saw 16-year-old Tally Youngblood in the clutches of a squadron of Specials, who want to make her one of them. Abandoned by the New Smokies and afraid for her very ill boyfriend Zane, Tally has little choice but to surrender. Before she knows it, her body is remade. Numerous operations leave her with "icy new muscles and reflexes tweaked to snakelike speed" (5), which make her especially adept at her job of "tracking down the city's enemies and bringing them to justice" (25). In short, Tally Youngblood is a Special. In fact, she is a special Special - as a Cutter, she's authorized to defend New Pretty Town on her own terms.
Although Tally received the Specials operations against her will, she loves being Special. Not only is she part of a "connected ... unbreakable clique" (8), but now "everything [is] laid out clearly, like looking down on a forest path from above" (9). Only two things mar her happiness: her uneasy alliance with her double-crossing best friend Shay, and the fact that Zane is not yet a Special. "Ancient dramas" (23) aren't supposed to matter to Specials, but it's clear to Tally that Shay hasn't quite forgiven her for what she sees as past betrayals. As leader of the Cutters, Shay is smug and cruel - she commands Tally to "stay icy" and forget about Zane, who is, afterall, a bubblehead and not a Special. Tally can't quite give him up, especially once she sees how weak he has become. Although the "perfect clarity of her vision" (82) makes all his imerfections stand out, she still feels responsible for him. She knows the passion she felt for him will return ... as soon as he becomes a Special.
The irritating thing is that Zane doesn't want to be a Special. His brush with crude Smokey medicine has left him a shaky wimp, but he still wants to help the rebels. Already, he's passing pills around New Pretty Town that will cure the bubbleheads, reverting them back into independent thinkers. He's as guilty as the other Smokies. Shay finally persuades him to lead the Specials to the Smokies new hiding place in exchange for his freedom. Although Shay mocks her weakness, Tally insists on being the one to follow Zane on his journey into the Wild. As she tracks him day after lonely day, Tally finds herself questioning her new identity. Does she really want to be Special? Even when it requires a "mind ... turned against everything random and average and ... crippled" (191)?
Tally's tracking assignment is supposed to end with a quick takeover of the rebel base by Shay's special forces, but what she finds shocks her. The New Smoke is nothing like she imagined. Suddenly, her whole world is turned upside down and Tally's on the front lines of a war she, herself, started. Her Pretty world does not include military helicopters, hand grenades and revenge killings, but things have clearly changed. Can she save her world from madness? Can she get Zane the help he needs, and turn him into the Special she needs him to be? Can she even save herself? Can she answer the biggest question of all - who is Tally Youngblood? She'll face all of these questions as Specials speeds toward its surprising conclusion.
Like the previous two books in this series, Specials explores some big issues - the meaning of freedom; the perils of cutting and other addictions; the importance of autonomy; superiority v. inferiority - but it's mostly about identity. As always, Tally is searching for herself, never quite knowing where she fits in. As she tells her boyfriend:
I'm not sure what I am anymore, Zane. Sometimes I think I'm nothing but what other people have done to me - a big collection of brainwashing, surgeries and cures. That, and all the mistakes I've made. All the people I've disappointed. (190)
Most YA books deal with this issue, and I think Westerfield makes the "Be yourself" point pretty well. Uglies and Pretties both came off as preachy to me - Specials is less so. Besides, the novel's morals get good and camouflaged behind all the action. When Tally's zipping through the air on her hoverboard, desperate to fling herself into a whirring helicopter, you're not asking yourself, "What does this mean?" - you're just holding your breath, waiting to see what happens.
The only thing about this book that bugged me was the ending. I like that it surprised me, but it didn't really satisfy. I know it's setting us up for another sequel (although I'm about a third of the way through Extras, and it hardly mentions Tally ... ), but it just wasn't what I wanted. Still, I sped through the book, loving the thrilling adventure. Take it from me, Specials is anything but average ...
Grade: A-
Note: In the back of my edition of Specials, there's an ad for Pulse It, Simon & Schuster's new spot for teens. It offers free YA books in exchange for reviews. The only catch is you have to be between 14 and 18 (Dang - I only missed the cutoff by a couple of years). Check it out if you're in this age group - it looks cool.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Pretties Provides One "Bubbly" Adventure

(Image from Amazon)

Tally Youngblood is living every teen's dream: She's gorgeous, has a model-hot boyfriend, and hangs out with the coolest clique in New Pretty Town. Like all Pretties, she spends her evenings bouncing from party to party, sipping champagne and following the newest "pretty-making" trends. She and her friends chase anything that keeps life "bubbly," whether it's a new tattoo, fancy eye "surg," or a fabulous stunt. Tally loves her Pretty life, but sometimes it seems as if her mind has been ... erased. Sure, she can remember her days as a littlie, but the months she spent as a rebel Smokie have faded to almost nothing. Perhaps that's why her life feels "as tenuous as a soap bubble, shivering and empty" (45). When a figure from her past finds her at a party, her memory flares. She knows he represents something important, but what?
As you can see, Scott Westerfeld's Pretties begins almost exactly where Uglies left off (If you haven't read Uglies yet, you may want to stop reading this review as it will probably contain spoilers from that book), but Tally has changed significantly. Having undergone the Pretty operation, she now has the lesions on her brain that make all Pretties dull-witted and docile. Her hazy memory prevents her from remembering why she became Pretty in the first place - to act as a guinea pig for the Smokies, who have designed a pill to erase the lesions which keep the Pretties' brains in bondage. When Tally's visitor leaves her a letter explaining all this, along with 2 pills, she balks - she doesn't want to be a "bubblehead" forever, but can she really leave her life in New Pretty Town? In a moment of panic, Tally and her boyfriend Zane each swallow a pill. The antidote clears her head, but Tally still wavers between the Pretty known and the Ugly unknown. Zane, on the other hand, can't wait to find the Smokies. The crippling headaches Zane suffers decide the issue - in a spectacular trick, Tally, Zane and their friends blow off New Pretty Town and head for the Smokies' outpost.
When her plan goes awry, Tally finds herself slogging through the strange outside world alone. With a little help from an unlikely ally, she finally rejoins her friends. Although Tally has left the Pretty world behind, she's still unprepared for the Smokies' Ugliness. The rebel group is made up of people who hid in the Wild rather than receive the Pretty operation - people with scars, zits and asymmetrical features. In other words, Uglies. Even David, Tally's first love, seems altered. Still, she trusts the Smokies, knows they are the only ones who can help Zane and all the other Pretties.
Of course, Tally's luck rarely holds and it's not long before the cruel, super-strong Specials arrive. With Zane too weak to move, she will have to make a choice - flee with David and the other Smokies or stay behind with Zane? Can she save the Pretties from their hazy existence? Can she even save herself?
I may be in the minority here, but I actually liked Pretties better than Uglies. My biggest complaint with the latter was its preachiness - the former still pounds its messages through, but with more subtlety. The book definitely explores important issues - individual agency v. collective thinking; outer beauty v. inner integrity; clarity v. mind-numbing substances; cutting to feel alive; the complexity of human nature - but action takes the front burner. Pretties provides as much heart-pounding excitement as its predecessor, rocketing to a surprising conclusion that will have you reaching anxiously for Specials, the next book in the series. Sure, there are some problems with Pretties - most irritating is the abundance of "pretty-speak," which gets old very fast - but overall, it's an exciting adventure that totally renewed my interest in this inventive series. I can't wait to see what happens next.
Grade: B+

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Summer Reading Fun

So, summer is in full swing - so far, I'm surviving. My kids have been doing lots of swimming and lots of reading. Our library's summer reading program started on May 27, and my 6-year-old daughter raced through the program, reading 36 books in a week! I was laughing at her in the library the other day - she insisted on checking out 12 American Girl books, plus a couple of picture books. She struggled with her stack all the way to the check out kiosk, where I finally took pity on her. It reminded me so much of me when I was a kid. I remember walking down to the town library, gathering a tower of books and lugging them home. As I trudged up the hills to my house, I would vow to check out fewer next time, but it never happened. Anyway, I'm glad my kids have the same enthusiasm for summer reading that I did.

Lots of fun summer stuff is happening in the book blogosphere, and I wanted to make note of some of them:
First off, is the Summer Book Trek 2008 sponsored by the LDS Fiction blog. I've never seen an LDS reading challenge done before, so I'm really excited about this. There is no set number of books, and you don't have to be LDS (Mormon) to join. You simply have to read books by authors who are LDS. Many LDS authors write for the national press, including: Stephenie Meyer, Orson Scott Card, Jason F. Wright, Allyson B. Condie, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George and J. Scott Savage (to name just a few). If this sounds like fun, hop on over and join. You can see my reading list on my challenge blog.

Have you seen The Page Flipper's new location? Chelsea is sponsoring a Grand Opening Giveaway for helping her advertise the new site. The prizes are reading kits that sound like lots of fun. Check it out for the giveaways and great reviews.



Karlene over at Inksplasher has a lot of fun stuff on her blog. It's all tied to the Summer Road Trip she's taking with her daughter. Check it out - she's got all kinds of contests and giveaways going on.

I mentioned in my previous post that Allyson Braithwaite Condie has a new book out. It's called Freshman for President, and it looks like fun. I'm still waiting for my copy, so I'll review it when I get it. Shadow Mountain, the same folks who did such a great job marketing the Fablehaven books set up a website for Allyson's book. It's great - check it out here. Also, she's giving away copies of the book - click on "Blog" for more info.

I know lots more of you are having contests, giveaways and fun challenges this summer. Let me know what's going on on YOUR book blog.


Author Chat: An Interview with Allyson Braithwaite Condie

Hi Allyson. Welcome to Bloggin' 'Bout Books!

Me: How did you start writing? (What is your background in writing? Did you always love to write? Etc.)

ABC: I always wanted to be a writer, but due to a severe lack of early talent (most of my stories involved pregnant unicorns for some reason, which sounds vaguely obscene as I type this), I decided it would be better to be an English teacher instead. Then I could read books and talk about them and not have to go to all the work of writing them! I ended up teaching high school English and found out that there is still a lot of work involved. Tons of it, in fact. But I loved teaching and didn't think much about writing during that time.After teaching English for several years, I took a break to be home with my new baby (I am still on that break five years and two additional kids later). In the evenings, my husband would work on his PhD dissertation, and I no longer had papers to grade, so I thought, "Maybe I should write something after all." I knew that I didn't want to do dishes or clean the house. :) So, I started writing Yearbook, my first book.I have no "formal" background in writing. I've never taken a creative writing class (which I regret). But I did write for my high school newspaper. Does that count?

Me: It definitely counts. I wrote (and edited) my school newspaper, too :) Which authors do you love to read and why?

ABC: My favorite author of all time is probably Anne Tyler. I remember reading her novel Saint Maybe in high school and feeling like, "This changed my life. I don't know how, but I know that it did." I also love Shannon Hale, Linda Sue Park, Agatha Christie, Karen Cushman, Gary Schmidt...the list could go on and on. I read a lot of YA fiction and there is so much out there right now that is exciting.

Me: Why did you choose to write books for LDS audiences?

ABC: It just sort of happened. I never intended to write LDS fiction. Yearbook was a national market book to begin with, but after being rejected multiple times, I decided to revise it a little and try Deseret Book. They rejected it, too--but the acquisitions editor, Lisa Mangum, wrote a very nice letter and said she would look at it again if I cut out half the characters. Three revisions later, it was accepted for publication. Lisa is still my editor and I trust her very much. Looking back, all the changes she recommended for Yearbook were absolutely what I needed. She mentored me through that first book. Since then, I've enjoyed writing LDS fiction for a lot of reasons. It's fun to use experiences from growing up LDS (having to wait until the age of 16 to date, missions, etc.). I like being able to mention the gospel without having to explain or defend beliefs constantly. The readers and fans who like the books are supportive and great. I also love working with a publisher who understands when you say, "I'm sorry, I'm going to miss this deadline, but as you know my real/full-time job is being a mom, and this week no one napped. Ever. So I didn't get to write much."

Me: So many LDS books are populated by characters who never struggle with their testimonies, never fight with their parents, and never fall under peer pressure. How do you make your characters believable?

ABC: This is a hard balance for me--trying to write realistically but not dragging things down. Sometimes, what I think is realistic doesn't make the cut because of other concerns that the publisher has. For example, I had to cut some "excessive kissing" and also some steady dating from Yearbook at my publisher's request. That was frustrating, but I understand and respect where they are coming from. I do feel that showing the flaws in characters--in their testimonies, personalities, relationships--is important and essential.

Me: Tell me about your new book, Freshman for President. Where did you get the idea for the novel?

ABC: I was talking with a friend about the upcoming election year. He mentioned that he might be writing an election-based novel, and I jokingly said, "Well, too bad I can't, because that wouldn't make sense for a young adult book." Later that night, I thought, "Wait a minute. I could write an election novel. What if a freshman in high school ran for president or something crazy like that?" I started writing just to see what happened and it felt like it was working. It was fun to try something different.

Me: Freshman for President is not an LDS novel - how does writing for an LDS audience and writing for a general audience differ? What made you decide to break out of the LDS market?

ABC: As I mentioned earlier, it was always my dream to write for the national market. So, I wrote Freshman, knowing it was not in my usual genre, and hoped that Shadow Mountain would want it (they publish nationally). I was thrilled when they accepted it for publication. Writing it was not much different than writing any of my other books as far as the process goes-- I felt a little more free, I guess, in some ways. I'm excited to see what happens when it is released in June. The publisher has been very supportive of the book and they have some fun things planned for promotion.

Me: Thanks so much, Allyson.

ABC: Thanks for doing this!

First Day Falls Flat

A lot of book reviewers talk about "sequelitis," and while I don't know its exact definition (I tried looking it up on dictionary.com - no dice), I think First Day by Allyson Braithwaite Condie suffers from it. If "sequelitis" means that a second or third or fourth or whatever book fails to live up to its predecessor(s), then the term fits here. I've mentioned that I don't generally enjoy LDS fiction, but I thought Yearbook was "a very decent effort" (you can see my full review here). Its sequel, First Day? Not so much.

Like Yearbook, this one is told from several different points of view, including those of Andrea and Ethan Beckett. Many of the characters from Condie's first novel don't have voices in this one, although they exist peripherally. The other narrators are actually Andrea's Seminary students and a co-teacher. As in the first book, all the characters have different issues with which they are dealing - from trying to decide which college to attend, to choosing between different grad school programs, to learning how to deal with challenging callings, to figuring out how to catch the eye (and heart) of a dream girl, they all have things weighing on their minds.

Andrea Beckett narrates most of the book, which makes me happy since I think hers is the most authentic character out of all those in Yearbook. The Andrea we meet in First Day lacks the razor edges she had in high school, but she still struggles to connect with others. An upperclassman at Cornell, she misses home (especially a certain RM), making life in New York just a bit lonely. When she's assigned to teach early morning Seminary with nice guy Joel Hammond, things perk up a little. Well, maybe more than a little. Andrea's been burned by love before, so she steels herself against getting to close to Joel. Teaching Seminary has her stomach in enough knots - the last thing she needs is another complication in her life. In the meantime, she's reconsidering her educational and career paths. Then, there's Joel, a Utah boy who's a little lost in New York. Meeting Andrea changes everything for him. The only question is - how in the world is he going to crack the Ice Queen's rock-hard facade? While the college students deal with their problems, the high schoolers have their own troubles - Caterina Giovanni can't decide whether to attend BYU-Idaho or a local school. She's also dealing with the infuriating Steve Ward who would rather sleep through class than pull his weight as co-president. Ethan Beckett also makes a few cameos. A missionary in Brazil, he's struggling to learn Portugese, put up with difficult companions, and keep thoughts of Mikey Choi on the backburner. In the course of the novel, all characters will have to face their problems - with a little help from their friends, families and the Lord, of course. It will take faith, prayer and tenacity to handle the many beginnings and endings that punctuate the characters' lives.

There's plenty of material here, but First Day just fell flat for me. I think all of the narrators are likeable, but not that interesting. Most lacked personality and originality. I kept thinking of that old Writing 101 test - if all of the characters are talking at the same time, can you pick out the individuals without identifying tags? In this case, the answer is no - they all sound the same. Even Andrea, who I found so realistic in Yearbook, loses some of her oomph in this book. It's a terrible thing to say, but I think the more righteous Andrea is, the less impactful she becomes. The other big problem with First Day is that it lacks plot - the stories just kind of meander without any real direction. I think this is why I picked the book up and put it down a couple of times - it's just sort of ... boring. It's a nice story, don't get me wrong, I just didn't find it very exciting.

I did like that Condie narrowed down the number of narrators in First Day - it made the story more intimate for me. I also thought she kept things realistic (if ultimately predictable) - prayers don't get answered without some work, the inactive student remains reluctant, Andrea doesn't impress everyone, and Ethan finds that he's not the stellar missionary he thought he was. The book also sends nice, uplifting messages that will resound with anyone who's struggling to make decisions about their future. Finally, I have to say I love the cover on this one - it's simple and a little mysterious.

Overall, First Day makes for a nice, predictable read. It's positive, uplifting and not overly saccharine. I just wanted something more - deeper character development, more originality and a few twists and turns to keep the story interesting. Let's hope the "sequelitis" runs its course before Reunion, the last book in the series, hits the shelves.

Grade: C

(Book image from Amazon)
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