Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Host: An Invasion of the Bodysnatchers Copycat You Won't Want to Miss


(Image from publisher's official website)

If you liked Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you're going to love Stephenie Meyers' newest novel, The Host. In this, her first book for adults, Meyer takes the body snatching thing to a whole new level.

The story takes place in the U.S. following an invasion by parasitic aliens. Since the alien "Souls" need host bodies to live, "Seekers" hunt down humans, then force them to undergo an operation whereby a Soul is implanted inside them. Erasing individuals creates a harmonious world full of peaceful Souls who work toward the collective good always. Trifles such as locks, money, and highway patrolmen no longer exist as they are simply not needed.

There's just one problem with the Souls' perfect little world - not all humans go down as easily as they should. Case in point: Melanie Stryker. When the Seekers capture Melanie's body, they implant her with an experienced Soul called Wanderer. Having lived multiple lives on several different planets, Wanderer expects to have no trouble on Earth. She's never met resistance in a host body before, but Melanie is different. She won't leave. The Seekers know Melanie worked with a rebel cell, and they want her memories - Wanderer tries to retrieve them, but Melanie blocks her every attempt. Such a blockage occurs so rarely that no one knows quite how to help Wanderer. Meanwhile, the rebel human assaults her with confusing memories and thoughts. Despite Melanie's mental defenses, Wanderer discovers her secret - her brother Jamie and boyfriend Jared are hiding out, desperately protecting their humanity. Their exact location eludes Wanderer, although she does manage to extract a sketchy map from Melanie's mind. She turns this information over to an aggressive Seeker, although it fills her with guilt to do so.

As Wanderer mines Melanie's memory for more information, she finds herself empathizing with the human, even caring about the males who dominate Melanie's thoughts. Before she knows it, Wanderer's driving east to Arizona, desperate to find the humans before the Seekers do. After a harrowing journey, she finds exactly what she is looking for, but she doesn't receive quite the welcome she was expecting. Instead, the humans dump her in a remote cell in the warren of caves they inhabit. Most of the group find her presence repugnant - they prefer to kill her or hand her over to Doc, who dissects infected bodies to gather information about the Souls. Only Jeb, Melanie's cantankerous uncle, gives Wanderer the benefit of the doubt. Jeb proves to be a powerful advocate - with his protection, no one dares harm her, but that doesn't mean they accept her either. Jared, especially, can't stand the monster with his lover's face. Others lurk in the dark caves, just waiting for an opportunity to gun her down.

While Wanderer fights to stay alive, she learns a great deal about the rebels and about human nature in general. She sees their brutality ("They might have been human ... once, but at this moment they were something else. They were barbarians, monsters. They hung over us, slavering for blood" [120].); their duality ("Humans were deceitful, treacherous creatures. I couldn't anticipate their darker agendas when such things were unthinkable to my species" [225].); and their great capacity for love ("So great was his compassion, he seemed to bleed internally with it" [322].). For the first time, Wanderer questions the deeds of her species. Is it right to take over different species, forcing them to act as the Souls see fit? Is it ethical to erase individuals for the good of the collective? Who, exactly, are the monsters here? The Souls, who steal bodies for their own purposes, or the humans, who annihilate each other with startling regularity? Where does Wanderer fit in - can she, a kind-hearted Soul, really be the monster the humans think she is? These are questions she must answer before The Seekers find her and force her to choose a side.

While The Host teems with moral and ethical questions that will have book clubs atwitter for days, the book really isn't about philosophy. It's not even about the action, or the adventure, or the sci-fi trappings - at its heart, The Host is a love story. Personally, I didn't find Jared that appealing, and I didn't understand how Wanderer could fall in love with him simply based on Melanie's memories, but the story really is about their relationship. Is it as passionate and exciting as that of Bella and Edward? Uh, no. But, it's compelling enough to keep you reading. Of course, romantic love isn't the only kind Meyer explores here - there's also love of home, love of family, love of community, love for a child, etc.

If you're more about the issues than the love story, there's plenty to discuss here: What does it really mean to be human? Without will/agency, are we anything more than slaves? Is the good of the collective more important than individualism? Will our compassion conquer our brutality? Like I said, there's plenty to discuss ...

While I really enjoyed reading The Host, I did have a few issues with it (of course). I liked the character of Wanderer, but I couldn't stand how helpless Meyer made her in certain situations. I mean, Melanie is a brave, resistant human and Wanderer is a strong, spirited Soul - together, they should make a steely being who can take care of herself. But, no, she has to be constantly rescued and carried about by the men in the tunnels. I'm no feminist, but c'mon! Bella (of the Twilight books) actually has this same tendency, but it's more endearing in her somehow. Like with Bella's Edward/Jacob love triangle, I also got a little tired of Wanderer's Jared/Ian issues. That's all small potatoes compared with my biggest issue, which is this - I really did not like the ending. I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't read it, so that's all I'm going to say, but dang, I wanted something more satisfying.

Is The Host my favorite Stephenie Meyer book? No (that would be Twilight), but it's one of those "unputdownable" novels that keeps you turning pages at lightning-speed. Sure, it's a bit of an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers copycat, but it's one you won't want to miss.

Grade: B+

(You can watch Stephenie Meyer talk about The Host here.)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Manic Monday: Garth Nix' Adventure Tale Drags Under Details

Arthur Penhaligon is supposed to die on Monday. The asthmatic 7th- Grader should breathe his last during a run in P.E., right under the nose of his unsympathetic teacher, but it doesn't happen that way. Instead, something odd occurs. Something very odd that saves his life, but propels him into a bizarre world where paper, clocks and Victorian-style clothing converge in strange and baffling ways.

So begins Mister Monday, the first entry in Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series. As Arthur sits on the grass, grasping his inhaler, he sees a flash of light. Out of the brightness strolls a butler, pushing a handsome young man in a kind of wheelchair. Arthur believes the strange duo to be a hallucination, but the items they leave behind are very real. When Arthur examines the two objects - the minute hand from a clock and a small notebook with magical properties - he can't make heads or tails of them. He only knows that somehow they are making him see an alternative world that he never knew existed. Suddenly, he notices weird buildings on familiar streets, dog-faced creatures following him to school, and the fact that everyone around him is falling ill from a deadly virus. A surprise visit from a menacing winged goon convinces Arthur that it's time to do something. He slips inside one of the strange, newly-visible structures in town, a "bizarre castle-like monstrosity that had replaced several suburban blocks" (60) - and enters a completely new world.

As Arthur soon finds out - via the resourceful Suzy Turquoise Blue, a girl with a (literal) frog in her throat- the House is a universe in and of itself. Created, then abandoned by the Great Architect, it is now ruled by 7 entities - Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday - all of whom are in charge of different sections of the House. In the Secondary Realms (a.k.a Earth, or the outside world), each controls events on the day bearing his/her name. No one has all of the power needed for omniscience, but they all want it. The world of the House is in chaos. Since Arthur has a portion of one the 7 Keys to the Kingdom, he has become a Rightful Heir, someone who can gather the Keys and bring the House back to order. Arthur has no intention of becoming a hero, but the Will (in the form of a green frog) assures him that helping reunite the House's world will give him the power to stop the disease plaguing his own land. Reluctantly, Arthur accepts the challenge. With help from Suzy Blue and the Will, he traverses the alternate universe, where absolutely anything can happen. He'll take on dinosaurs, a chained beast, treachorous geysers, a high wire made out of spider webbing, writhing snakes, and much more to save not one, but two worlds.

Mister Monday features loads of fast-paced action sequences, and an overall exciting adventure story. However, the details of House history and politics complicate the novel, making it confusing and slow in places. I spent most of the story trying to figure out if it is an allegory of some kind (the Great Architect = God; the Will = God's Will, etc.), because the details seemed to be important and well thought out. Still, I thought they detracted from the story. The characters, on the other hand, kept the tale lively and fun. Arthur Penhaligon is the kind of hero everyone loves - a friendless orphan forced into a situation which will prove his inner strength to himself and others. The Will and Suzy Blue prove to be entertaining and (mostly) helpful sidekicks.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, although I found myself very confused for the first half of the book. Maybe deep thinking is just beyond me this week, but I had trouble wading through all the details and the symbolism that I think is there. When I finally decided to stop overanalyzing, I was able to lose myself in the story. I like the characters and am anxious to see what happens to them in the next 6 books - I just hope the subsequent novels will shy away from all the minutiae of the House and focus more on action and character development. After all, what are Mondays for if not to pave the way for the busy, fun-filled week ahead?

Grade: B

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Excuses, Excuses

GONE FISHIN'

Well, not really. I've never actually been fishing in my life. I don't even like fish all that much (and I grew up on the Columbia River!), unless, of course, it's deep fried with a side of tartar sauce. Still, I needed some kind of an excuse when my friend accused me of lagging behind on my reading and book blogging. She's waiting for me to read The Host by Stephenie Meyer (her mother's brother's sister's cousin, or some such), so she can discuss it with "someone who likes it" - LOL.

It's true - I haven't been reading at my usual pace. I know I don't have to give excuses, but I'm going to anyway. Here goes:

** My kids are out of school. We have been playing like crazy, going to the drive-in, swimming (our pool's up to a balmy 78 degrees - brrr), eating out, "camping" on the trampoline, working out with Wii Fit, etc. We have a few days until public swimming lessons start, so that should help us get into a summer schedule. For now, I'm just trying to keep my kids entertained without going insane myself. I used to read a lot while my kids were in school; now that they are home, it's going to be a little tougher. Don't you hate it when real life gets in the way of your reading??

** Today is our home study for our adoption. It's the last item that needs to be completed before we can get certified by our state. I know it's not a white glove check of my house, but I want everything to look nice, so I've been cleaning like a madwoman. It's amazing how dirty one house can get! My kind husband told me to hire a cleaning service to do it - he promised me he wasn't insulting my housekeeping, just trying to help - but I procrastinated and now it's all on me. So, I'm sore from scrubbing, mopping, dusting and vacuuming, plus my stomach keeps lurching in anxiety. I shouldn't be so stressed - our social worker is a wonderful, completely non-threatening kind of person - yet I am.

** Is that it? Really? Hmm...

I know a lot of authors and publicists are waiting for reviews from me. I promise they are coming! Right now, I have about 30 books on my review shelf, with at least one more arriving every day. I'm also trying to sneak in some personal reading, so bear with me ... I will get to them all. I also have copies of Booklist, The New York Times Book Review and Bookmarks waiting for me to peruse. Perhaps it's telling that I'm currently reading two books at a time, instead of my usual one. I'm enjoying both Mister Monday by Garth Nix and First Day by Allyson Birthwaite Condie - reviews are coming soon!

Anyway, I didn't mean to ramble. I just wanted you to know that I'm still reading, but I'm also living! Summer is my least favorite season (something about 120 degree temperatures, trying to squeeze into a swimsuit, and hearing, "I'm bored" 500 times a day makes me a little crazy) - I'm hoping to break it up with some good books. So, don't give up on me - I'll be back from "vacation" soon - that is if it doesn't kill me first :)

For now, I'm going to leave you with a question to mull over - Is your public library a nice, quiet oasis or a roaring madhouse? I took my kids to the library yesterday to grab info on its summer reading program and the place was teeming with noisy, rambunctious kids (mine not included, of course). Summer vacation has barely started, so I know people are stocking up on books, but I've noticed this trend all year - my public library is NOT a quiet place. Ever. Patrons are constantly clicking away on the computers, gabbing on their cell phones and talking loudly. What happened to quiet libraries? Are they a thing of the past? Do you care? Comment away, folks - I've got to get back to my fishin', uh, cleanin'.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fly By Night Celebrates the Power of Words

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Quillam Mye didn't leave his daughter with much - just an old pipe and the outlawed ability to read. While the pipe proves useful only for chewing on thoughtfully, Mosca Mye's love of words makes her long for adventure and most of all, books. Of course, there is one more reason she must escape the town of Chough. She explains the situation to outlaw Eponymous Clent, whom she agrees to free from the stocks only if he will take her with him:

"Purely out of interest," Eponymous Clent asked, "what so
bewitches you about the idea of the traveling life?"

There were many answers Mosca could have given him. She
dreamed of a world without the eternal sounds of glass beads being shaken in a
sieve and goblins chuckling in the ravines. She dreamed of a world where
her best friend did not have feathers and a beak the color of pumpkin
peel. She dreamed of a world where books did not rot or give way to green
blot, where words and ideas were not things you were despised for
treasuring. She dreamed of a world in which her stockings were not always
wet.

There was another, more pressing reason though. Mosca
raised her head and stared up the hillside toward the ragged treeline. The
sky was warmed by a gentle redness, suggesting a soft but radiant dawn.
The true dawn was still some three hours away.

"Very soon," Mosca said quietly, "my uncle will wake up.
An' when he does ... he's likely to notice that I've burned down his mill"
(26-27).

So begins the delightful adventure that is Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. The plucky Mosca grabs her "homicidal" goose Saracen, and follows Clent, a storyteller with a great many secrets. As the two travel toward the city of Mandelion, Mosca discovers several disurbing things about her traveling companion. Still, her choices are few - stick with Clent or return to Chough and face punishment for arson. So, despite her misgivings about the wordy Clent, she accompanies him to the city. When he attempts to abandon her, Mosca knows she needs to "get the dirty on 'im. Somink big" (45). She discovers letters from the Stationers' Guild naming Clent a spy - now she can blackmail the wordsmith into letting her stick around.

While being held up by highwaymen on the road to Mandelion, Mosca comes face-to-face with the powerful Lady Tamarind. Through Clent's snores, the powerful lady asks for Mosca's help. She explains that her city of Mandelion is on the brink of a guild war - with no current king or queen, the people swear allegiance only to their various guilds. The city crawls with spies, cutthroats and dangerous men. How can "Mosca the Housefly?" be of service? Lady Tamarind charges her with spying on Clent. So, Mosca's goals in Mandelion are now two-fold - find Mandelion's hidden school and report suspicious activity to Lady Tamarind.

Little is what it seems in Mandelion, and Mosca soon finds herself wondering who she can trust. Can she put her faith in Clent, or is he a scoundrel better left to the gallows? And, what about Lady Tamarind - is she a friend or a foe? With all the guilds fighting amongst themselves, which one is right? Most importantly, who runs the secret printing press that has everyone up in arms? And how can Mosca save it before the Stationers' outlaw it along with all the books in the land? Can Mosca save words, the secret school, and most of all, herself? The plucky 12-year-old will risk everything to restore words and free thought to the illiterate city.

In the tradition of Inkspell, Fly By Night entertains while celebrating the power of words and books. It also looks at the devastation that can overtake a land ruled by censorship and superstition. Regardless of its heavy themes, Fly By Night is a first-rate adventure story peopled with quirky, lovable characters. Its lengthy discussions of politics in The Realm detract from the overall story, confusing the reader with too many character and place names. Still, it thrills with continuous action and masterful writing. If you read the book for no other reason, read it for this - Hardinge's prose is absolutely delightful.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. The political passages really did weigh it down for me, and I actually abandoned the book at one point because I was so confused as to who was who and where was where. Since I loved Hardinge's writing and her subject, I eventually picked the book up again. I'm glad I did, because Fly By Night is a fun, quirky little book that delights on so many levels. Like Inkspell, The Book of Lost Things, and The Book Thief, it reminds us that words are little things, with great and sometimes terrible, power.

Grade: B+

Some of my favorite bookish passages from the novel follow:

"Words, words, words. This was her gingerbread cottage" (133).

"Clent shuddered. 'That is a judgment upon me for seeking to extend your vocabulary. If I hear you using such words to describe a duke in my hearing again, I shall put you on a diet of dry verbs and water until you have learned to speak more wisely. In Mandelion, an ill-chosen word in the wrong company may cost you your neck" (110).

When Mosca was asked why she took up with Eponymous Clent, she explains: "Because I'd been hoarding words for years, buying them from peddlers and carving them secretly onto bits of bark so I wouldn't forget them, and then he turned up using words like 'epiphany' and 'amaranth.' Because he made words and ideas dance like flames and something that was damp and dying came alive in my mind, the way it hadn't since they burned my father's books. Because he walked into Chough with stories from exciting places tangled around him like maypole streamers ... " (288)

"Words were dangerous when loosed. They were more powerful than cannon and more unpredictable than storms. They could turn men's heads inside out and warp their destinies. They could pick up kingdoms and shake them until they rattled. And this was a good thing, a wonderful thing ... " (480).





Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dark Lost Souls Leaves Me Yearning For the Light


Reading Lisa Jackson's Lost Souls reminded me why I don't usually read crime fiction. While the ex-psychology major in me finds it fascinating to delve into the corroded mind of a serial killer, my naiver side just wants to dive under the bed and forget that such monsters exist (even in fictional form). Exploring a killer's mind means sinking into his dark, macabre world. As I read this novel, I had a tough time shaking that darkness - suffice it to say, I was glad to close this book and come back into the light. I guess I hadn't realized how atmospheric and engulfing the story was until I finally resurfaced!

Anyway, the novel features Kristi Bentz, the 27-year-old daughter of a New Orleans cop. After living through some nightmarish experiences (detailed in previous books, although I'm not sure of the titles), including a near-death experience, Kristi just wants to get on with her life. Packing all of her stuff into her aging Honda, she turns her focus to All Saints College, the Baton Rouge school where she studied as an undergrad. Her father begs her not to go - after all, she's still recovering from a run-in with a serial killer, and he's heard about "some missing girls" (11) at All Saints. Unbeknownst to him, the girls are the exact reason for her interest in the school. An aspiring true-crime writer, Kristi smells a story. She knows the girls met with foul play, even if the police dismiss the disappearances as flighty coeds eloping with their boyfriends. If finding the truth means going "undercover," Kristi is willing.

It's been a few years since Kristi strolled the grounds of All Saints, and plenty has changed in her absence. Courses now range from English 101 to Introduction to Forensic Science to the very popular The Influence of Vampyrism on Modern Culture. The faculty, too, have undergone an extreme makeover - the English Department, especially, seem to have been selected from a stack of "Hollywood head shots" (43). Since Kristi knows the missing girls all took courses from the same handsome professors, she packs her own schedule with classes on Shakespeare, forensics and vampires. Before she even steps foot in Vampyrology, Kristi gets a warning from an old roommate turned associate professor - Lucretia Stevens hints that a vampirism cult has invaded campus, and the missing girls may have been a part of it. Shocked, Kristi begins investigating the claims, only to be brushed off by nearly every person she suspects of involvement. Only a withdrawn girl named O seems to validate Kristi's suspicions - she wears a vial of blood around her neck. The deeper she looks, the stranger the situation gets. Kristi can't escape the feeling that someone is watching her, tracking her every move.

As if her life doesn't have enough creepy in it already, Kristi's also been plagued by visions - strangers, her father, and girls on campus turn a green color before her eyes, as if they have been completely drained of blood. Kristi fears these are premonitions of imminent death. Maybe she's crazy, but she knows of one person who will believe her. She turns to Jay McKnight, a criminologist whose heart she crushed when she left for All Saints as a freshman. Together, the pair continue to probe the school's dark underworld, while trying to resist the attraction that has already led to heartbreak once. While battling their feelings for one another, they descend deeper and deeper into All Saints' bizarre world of vampirism. It's a dangerous place ruled by a bloodthirsty killer, a sadistic psychopath who wants Kristi to be his/her next victim.

As I mentioned before, Lisa Jackson sucks the reader in with this atmospheric novel. Post-Katrina Baton Rouge provides a haunting background, which adds a sinister air to this story of vampires, cults and lost souls. Neither the writing nor the plot provide a lot of originality, but the characters are interesting and sympathetic. Again, not very original, but believable. Fast pacing keeps the reader turning pages, despite stomach-churning descriptions of necrophilia and literal blood baths. The ending leaves a lot to be desired. I was surprised by the killer's identity, mostly because it came out of the blue. I had to flip back through the book to even remember who he/she was. Also, the author makes the killer a psychopath, but never really explains how he/she snapped. While the tone of the novel fit the story, I found it dark and depressing. Lost Souls is one of those dark, hard-edged stories that isn't for the feint of heart. It's fast-paced, engrossing and suspenseful, but I had a hard time stomaching it.

I know Lisa Jackson has written many best-selling books, so obviously, other people really enjoy her books. I'm a bit of a wimp, so I probably won't read her again. Despite my weak stomach, there are a few series in this genre that I enjoy, including Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan books and Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme/Amelia Sachs novels. You may (quite rightly) say that Deaver's books, especially, are just as twisted as Lisa Jackson's, but I've decided that I like these kinds of books only when they offer more than just a gory suspense story. Both Deaver and Reichs serve up mysteries perpetrated and solved by fascinating characters. Lisa Jackson seems to focus more on the gore. So, I'll take my crime fiction in small doses, thank you very much, and only when it's tempered by well-crafted, interesting characters.

Grade: C


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Self-Published West Across the Board Makes Me Eat My Words

In a review I wrote yesterday, I very insensitively slammed authors who self-publish. Lest you think I am completely callous, I have to explain that the last few self-published titles I have read have been terrible. After reading Andrew Jalbert's West Across the Board, however, I am happily eating my words. This touching story proves that great books can come from anywhere - even the world of self-publishing.

The story begins in 2000 with 86-year-old Lazaro bumping down the road in the dusty old pickup he hasn't driven in years. Undaunted by his lack of a valid driver's license, Lazaro heads for the Florida Keys, where his old friend Dominic withers away from cancer. Although the men haven't seen each other in 60 years, they have unfinished business - the chess board they have played on since the 1930s, faithfully recording the winner of every game, shows a tie. Lazaro won't let his old friend go without a rematch.

As Lazaro drives, his mind wanders over the "single, nearly complete, linear memory of his life" (6). He remembers losing his mother in Cuba, then migrating to the Keys with his father. As a young man, Lazaro yields to the pull of the sea, cutting through the water on his runabout, fishing for grouper, exploring the reefs, and basking in the Florida sun. After working in the fishing camp one day, Lazaro enters a local saloon to find a stranger sitting at the bar. The man proposes a game of chess. As the men play, Lazaro discovers the stranger's name is Dominic, and he works as an engineer for the Overseas Railroad and Toll Commission. Dominic's warm, friendly manner draws Lazaro to him, and the men quickly become friends. Despite marriage, divorce, tragedy and sorrows, the two continue to play, always finding common ground over the board.

It is on Labor Day 1935 that things start to change. On that day, a deadly hurricane hits the Keys (the hurricane actually occurred, although it claimed no victims in the Keys) and Lazaro's life is forever altered. Plagued by guilt, he flees the tropics and makes a life for himself in Chicago. Although Dominic writes often, begging Lazaro to return to the Keys and their chess games, Lazaro stuffs his past onto the cellar shelf and tries to forget his former life. It is only when Lazaro receives a call from Dominic's nurse begging him to visit before Dominic dies, that Lazaro returns to the Keys. The chessboard comes out of the cellar and makes the trip as well.

As Lazaro reconnects with his old friend, he realizes not only how much he's missed Dominic, but also how much their friendship has shaped his life. As the old men reminisce, Lazaro realizes he must come to terms with his past in order to grant his dying friend's final wish. Can he face the pain of the past? And what will it mean for his future? Will the chessboard that started it all lead to a reconciliation? Or will the final game remain unplayed?

I loved this sweet story about two elderly men reconnecting over a chessboard. It's a simple, touching tale set against a vibrant Florida background. Andrew Jalbert paints his setting with authority, clearly building on his own experience as a mariner, fisherman and explorer to create an intriguing backdrop for his story. Still, it's the relationship between the characters that makes the novel. The beauty of their friendship makes the story a warm, engaging read. Even as the novel draws to its inevitable conclusion, the tale resists sappy platitudes and celebrates lives well lived.

West Across the Board won't win a Pulitzer for the brilliance of its writing, but it's one of those books that makes you remember why you read. It's simply a lovely book that reminds you of what's really important - goodness, friendship and the "games" that make life worth living.

Grade: B


When the Bough Breaks Looks at Families In All Their Twisted, Imperfect Glory

(Image from Amazon)

For me, there are three things that kill an LDS YA novel: Molly Mormon/Peter Priesthood-type characters, unrealistic situations, and preachy passages. Kay Lynn Mangum's When the Bough Breaks passes on the first two, but falters a little on the third. Still, it's a thought-provoking book that should resonate with readers.

The story revolves around 17-year-old Rachel Fletcher, whose life falls apart when her father dies in a car accident. Because he was coming to fetch her from a friend's house, she feels responsible for his death. Although Rachel desperately needs reassurance from her family members, they are in no position to offer it. Her mother sleeps all day to escape her pain, while her brother Ryan numbs his feelings with alcohol. Despite her own feelngs, Rachel knows it's up to her to keep the family functioning, at least enough so that no one sees how much it's disintegrating.

Rachel's testimony keeps her afloat, but her constant prayers don't seem to be helping. Ryan's drinking spirals, causing increasingly violent situations. Her mother has risen from her bed, but she's still in the dark about Ryan. Plus, she's marrying the father of one of Rachel's classmates - and her dad's been gone for less than a year. Living with her new stepbrother is awkward enough, but it gets much worse when Rachel realizes she might actually have feelings for him. Rachel's only escape from her "twisted Brady Bunch" world comes when she writes poetry. The crazier her life gets, the more Rachel begs God for help. Will she ever get the answers she needs? And will they come in time to save her and her family?

I have my issues with this book (don't worry, we'll get to those in a minute), but I applaud the author for daring to portray a very flawed LDS family. She takes taboo subjects like teenage alcoholism and crippling grief and shows the heartbreaking toll they can take on an ordinary family. The scenes in which Rachel spends her morning dumping booze down the sink, then prodding her mom to eat, then tackling laundry and housework are especially poignant. As someone who has lived with a self-destructing sibling, I can say that Mangum's descriptions ring with authenticity. Like all LDS novels, this one also strives to be uplifting - the ending exudes hope (although things are wrapped up a little too neatly) as Rachel learns that God does answer prayers, just not always in the way we're expecting. I also have to mention the cover of When the Bough Breaks - it's both beautiful and provocative.

Probably my biggest problem with this novel lies in the flatness of the characters. While the reader comes to know Rachel fairly well, many members of her supporting cast remain merely facades. Each one could have used more depth to add realism and interest to the story. I also thought the plot suffered from lack of direction, which made tit seem overlong. After awhile, I got tired of reading about Ryan's latest incident - I wanted more than just a play-by-play. Again, I longed for more depth. The other thing that bothered me - and I think it will be even more annoying to teenagers - is the preachiness that seeped into the story. Long passages of lecture from Rachel's seminary teacher lacked subtlety and her religious conversations with Dallin seemed stilted and contrived. I'm guessing the hardest part about writing LDS fiction for young adults is inspiring while avoiding overt preaching. When the Bough Breaks tips a bit toward the latter, but it's not ooey-gooey enough to make your teeth hurt.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It drew me in, made me care about Rachel, and kept me reading to find out what happened to her. Of the three story "killers" I mentioned, When the Bough Breaks suffers only from a tendency toward preachiness. In my mind, 2 out of 3 ain't so bad. The story definitely has its flaws, but I think readers will appreciate the novel's honesty. Its message will ring true to anyone who was absent the day God handed out perfect families - oh wait, that's all of us.

Grade: B-

Monday, May 19, 2008

I'm Putting The Heretic Where It Belongs - In The Trash

If a 17-year-old boy wrote a book detailing his deepest, darkest fantasies, it would probably read just like Andrew Feder's The Heretic. After all, what young man doesn't want a life like main character, Jerry Fletcher's? By day, Jerry works as a senator in a future version of L.A., drives a convertible Caddy, makes love to his girlfriend (who is, of course, a "hottie") and goes out for Korean with his ex, all in one day (Naturally, the ex is also a hottie). He's a foul-mouthed, take-no-prisoners kind of guy, who's respected by men and women (the former want to be just like him, while the latter line up to bed him).


Given his circumstances in the present, it is perhaps not difficult to believe that Jerry had it going on in a series of past lives as well. In The Heretic, he discovers his late career as a military hero in the army of Alexander the Great. Through a psychic, Jerry regresses back to his former self - Aias, military hero and husband of the beautiful Nefertiti. The remainder of the book consists of Aias telling his children (in great detail) about his prowess both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. In war, Aias conquers all, fighting like a machine to earn Greece the respect it deserves. His amazing combat skills cause the soldiers to wonder if he isn't a God descended from heaven. Predictably, he wins all his battles, never forgetting to give the glory to his buddy Alexander. So humble is the mighty Aias that he even insists his name be kept out of Alexander's journal, preferring to pass his heroics off as belonging to Hercules or other generals.

All of Aias' victories bring him women by the dozens, but he, of course, will have only the greatest beauty by his side - Nefertiti. They marry and have children who revere their father as a hero.

Ahhh ... sounds like any boy's fantasy, right? The problem lies in the fact that The Heretic is just that - a fantasy, not a story. It has no plot, no character development, no original word choice, and no moral. The only thing it has - and it has it in spades - is profanity, crappy dialogue and revolting sex scenes. Perhaps a talented writer could have crafted something worthy out of Feder's idea, but this author gives us only gems like this:


I began to thrust my sword, disembowling their insides before them. Those who stood along their disembowled brethren were in shock. With mercy, I quickly took them out of their shocking misery with a slice and a dice of my sword, allowing their falling beheaded bodies to next amongst the corpses of their companions (77).

To be fair, Feder published The Heretic himself (via AuthorHouse), so perhaps I shouldn't expect too much. Still, my 6-year-old just self-published a picture book (via IlluStory) and it's both more imaginative and better written than this one.


The funny thing is, Andrew Feder's bio makes him sound like a fascinating man, who has done plenty of interesting things. Part of his "education" included studying under psychic Janaeu St. Clair, which is probably where he got the idea of regression as a way to write historical fiction. Although I don't believe in psychic mumbo jumbo, I actually think this device is quite clever. I just wish Feder had put some effort into writing a real story - with a plot, rounded characters, witty dialogue and fresh writing. As is, The Heretic reads like a teenage boy's fantasy, complete with filthy language (Did ancient Greeks really use the F-word in every other sentence?), a hero without weakness, and women who will do anything he pleases. Like all teenage fantasies this one should have stayed where it belonged - safely inside the dreamer's head. Since it didn't, I'm going to do the world a favor and give The Heretic the funeral it deserves - in the bottom of my trash can.



Grade: F



Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Janeology Well Written, But Ultimately Dissatisfying



It's a little ironic that I picked up Karen Harrington's Janeology right after Mother's Day, considering it's the story of a mother who drowns her son. Like the book's title character, all of us moms have felt weary and overwhelmed. In fact, most of us have probably uttered the words "I'm going to kill that child" at one point or another. Janeology asks the question, What happens when a mother goes from venting to actually committing falicide?

The story is told from the perspective of college professor Tom Nelson, whose world shatters when a police officer interrupts his lecture, urging him to go home immediately. Shock envelops him as he learns these chilling facts: his wife, Jane, drowned the family dog, then held her twin toddlers under water, killing one and leaving the other on the brink of death. When Tom demands to know why, his wife casually replies, "I had too much. I was done being a mother, you know?" (15). Jane's subsequent trial ends with a verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity." Committed to a mental health facility, Jane descends further into madness, while Tom tries to pick up the pieces and parent his remaining child singlehandedly.

Three years later, Tom is horror-struck to find himself on trial. The charge: failure to protect. Awash in guilt over his son's death, Tom dissects his marriage, wondering how he could have missed the signs of Jane's mental illness. Sure, she had been down after a miscarriage, but at what point had she turned dangerous? Had he somehow missed the warning signs? Noticed them, but denied them? Is he guilty?

Tom's lawyer, Dave Frontella, proposes a strategy: If the defense can find evidence of mental illness in Jane's family history, they can prove Tom's innocence by showing she was predisposed to suffer a mental break. To achieve this end, Dave introduces Mariah, a clairvoyant relative of Jane's. The psychic instructs Tom to bring her an antique trunk Jane inherited from her mother. Using the objects inside, Mariah channels Jane's ancestors, finding cold mothers, "oblivious fathers" (133) and "parental models of inaction" (114), as well as deeper psychiatric problems. All of it proves Dave's point, but will it be enough to convince a jury? Will it be enough to wash away Tom's guilt? Can it - can anything - fully explain Jane's break?

Each time a mother kills her own child, I want to know why. What could possibly make a woman snap like that? I was hoping Janeology would offer a Jodi Picoult-like dissection of the killer, allowing me to understand and even empathize with Jane. But, it doesn't. In fact, Jane's voice is never heard. The little bit we learn about her comes from Tom and a clairvoyant's version of her family history. In fact, the whole Mariah thing rubbed me the wrong way. I actually love the idea of telling a story through family heirlooms, but not in the middle of a legal thriller. It just didn't fit. I kept wondering what Mariah's "visions" of Jane's ancestors had to do with the story. Plus, who can trust the accuracy of a psychic's visions? I sure don't. Some of the chapters about her family (especially her mother) shed light on Jane's psyche, but most of them don't. What results is a study of Jane (Janeology) using only secondary, tertiary and even more remote sources, when what we really crave is information from the primary source.

The bulk of the book is taken up by these glimpses into Jane's family history, but they have very little bearing on its conclusion. In fact, the book ends ambigiously, dissatisfactorily. I did, however, love the Epilogue.

While I was disappointed with the format of this novel, I still think it's a good read. Harrington writes well, especially when penning character sketches. She chose a fascinating subject, and she kept my interest with her examination of it. Unfortunately, the psychic subplot felt disparate, making the book ultimately dissatisfying for me.

Grade: B

Author Chat: An Interview with Kate Jacobs

Me: Hi Kate. Thanks so much for stopping by Bloggin' 'Bout Books today and answering some quesitons about your books (The Friday Night Knitting Club; Comfort Food), writing, and

life in general.

KJ: Thanks, Susan.

Me: You write about the comforts women use to soothe and ground themselves. Why do you think women need such activities in their lives? What is your comfort object/activity?

KJ: It’s all about making chocolate chip cookies for me. Two nights before I was going on tour to promote Comfort Food – when I had a million things to do – there I was, making cookie dough to soothe my nervousness. Another thing I like to do is just walk. I always do my best thinking when I’m strolling around. I think we all need something, a go-to that soothes and comforts. We all have so much going on that we’re stressed and overtired and mentally exhausted. So we need to recharge. I want my books to feel like an escape, a soothing bit of comfort.

Me: The main characters of both your novels have been single moms, who succeed in life by finding their passion and following it. What is your passion and how has it enriched your life?

KJ: Writing. Sharing stories is my craft, my passion, and my work. It’s a great privilege to be able to combine all of those things, and I’m very grateful to write full-time. When I started the first book I was still working as a freelance editor so, believe me, having the time to write is a luxury. That said, there are days when it is hard to get pages done, and working at home means there are always lots of chores to distract me!

Me: Piggybacking on the last question, are these strong, capable "mompreneurs" based on anyone you know? Yourself, perhaps?

KJ: All the women I know are such smart people. It’s important to me that the female characters in my stories are strong, proud, and intelligent. Even as they have struggles and challenges that keeps the story interesting. As for me being a mompreneur? I don’t qualify: My husband I don’t have any kids yet!

Me: In both of your books you mention people dyeing their hair with Kool Aid and having trouble driving on the left side of the road while in Europe. Do I sense some personal experience there??

KJ: Insightful readers like you are the ones who are going to find the real me in my stories; I’m going to have to watch out! Well, I did not ever color my hair with Kool-Aid. That, unfortunately, became trendy after I was a bit too old to get away with trying it. But I would have quite enjoyed doing so. Instead, I spent my allowance at the drugstore and purchased colored hair mousse – I remember that I had a sunshine yellow and a deep purple – and it would imbue my hair with that color. It was temporary but that suited me because then I could change my mind based on the day. And, of course, I used blue and green mascara and a lot of eyeshadow, but then again I’m talking about the 1980s. Who didn’t do that stuff? As for driving on the left side of the road in Europe, I haven’t done that either. I’ve only been the passenger – more like the backseat driver, if you know what I mean – screeching with concern over narrow roads and worrying the way through every roundabout.

Me: Which of your characters is most like you? Which one would you most like to have for a best friend?

KJ: Like Aimee, I have a deep love of game shows. There, I admitted it! And, like Hannah, I nibble on candy when I write. I was really enjoying hard lemon candies when I was writing Comfort Food. And I found my way to Gus by thinking about when my husband was seriously ill and the emotions during that period. (He’s all better now, I'm pleased to say.) That's why Gus is a widow; I imagined what a different outcome would be like. But, that said, the characters are really and truly themselves. They have their own personalities and quirks and are like real people to me; they are my imaginary friends, I guess. I am almost thirty-five and I have a career based on imaginary friends. Well, that's pretty fun. As for who I want to be my best friend…hmmm, I wouldn’t mind hanging out with Oliver, that’s for sure. He’s a hottie!

Me: LOL. I hear you on that, sister. Thanks so much for chatting with me today!

(Author image from Kate Jacobs' official website)

Take A Bite of Scrumptious Comfort Food

Considering all the rave reviews I read about The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, I thought I would love the story. I didn't. I liked it well enough, I just didn't love it (especially not the ending). You can read my review here. Anyway, I wondered how I would feel about Jacobs' new book, Comfort Food. Would it be her first novel all over again? Or would she bring something new to the table with her sophomore effort?

Although there are definite similarities between the two books (mention of Kool Aid as hair dye, for one), Comfort Food stands on its own. In fact, I liked it better than The Friday Night Knitting Club. I'll get back to the whys in a bit...

Comfort Food stars Agustus "Gus" Simpson, host of food TV's popular Cooking With Gusto! show. The program airs in her living room, so Gus spends the majority of her time in her expansive home cooking, entertaining and plying guests with treats from her kitchen. A long-time widow, Gus has two grown daughters who still need babying, not to mention husbands. Organized and efficient, Gus has everything in her life under control. That is, until her ratings start to plunge. To boost the numbers, her producer decides to bring in a co-host in the form of ex-beauty queen Carmen Vega. The former Miss Spain knows her way around the network president's bedroom and, Gus reluctantly admits, the kitchen. Of course, that doesn't mean Gus has to take her usurpation laying down. Still, the on-screen tension on Eat, Drink and Be produces the desired effect - ratings spike, website hits skyrocket, and Gus' future burns brighter and brighter.

A freak snowstorm adds another element to the show, widening the cast to include: Aimee, Gus' older daughter, whose shoulders sag under the weight of responsibility; Gus' younger daughter Sabrina, who changes fiancees almost as often as she changes her shoes; Troy, Sabrina's still-pining ex; Oliver, the easygoing chef whose flirtations make Gus nervous; and Hannah, Gus' neighbor, who hides a painful past beneath her signature grey hoodie. Together, they make the show a success. Still, there's tension simmering between all parties, tension that threatens to boil over. During a weekend retreat to build team unity, conflicts come to a head with less than scrumptious results. While Aimee and Sabrina express long-held anger toward their mother, Gus gets a shock that will make her re-think her whole life and career. She is forced to ask the question that forms the backbone of the story: How far will a person go to get what they want, and is the sacrifice really ever worth it?

Like I said in the beginning, Comfort Food has a lot in common with The Friday Night Knitting Club - both books feature a strong, single mother who finds her passion, then uses it to create a successful career. Both protaganists are hardworking women who have to learn to give up some of the control in their lives in order to be happier, healthier human beings. Both novels also have a "club" feel, in which a large cast of characters each narrate a portion of the story, giving us insight into their different personalities. Despite the similarities between the books, there are also big differences. Comfort Food has a much stronger star, for one. Gus Simpson's personality is far more vivacious than Georgia Walker's, making her far more interesting. Also, I felt that Gus had more depth in general. Where Jacobs' first book seemed meandering to me, Comfort Food remained focused. The writing seemed smoother in the new book, and the ending was more realistic and satisfying than The Friday Night Knitting Club's conclusion. For all these reasons, I liked Comfort Food better. It's a solid book that stands on its own merits.

I was a little surprised that there were no recipes included in the book (I read an ARC - maybe that's why?), but even without the "whipped cream on top" this story bakes up as nicely as one of Gus Simpson's famous scones. Go on - take a bite. You'll love this satisfying read.

Grade: A-

The Friday Night Knitting Club Not the Cozy Afghan I Expected

Knitting may be the newest trend on the Upper East Side, but Georgia Walker learned the art as a child. Tutored by her Scottish Gran, Georgia has become a master knitter, turning her passion into a successful yarn shop. Walker and Daughter (a fictional business) becomes even more popular when an informal gathering of women knitters of all ages, backgrounds and skill level solidifies into The Friday Night Knitting Club. Members include the reserved Georgia; her baking-obsessed daughter Dakota; Georgia's 72-year-old mentor Anita; Peri, a promising handbag designer; Lucie, a single woman whose biological clock has stopped ticking and is starting to alarm; Darwin, the cranky college student; and K.C., Georgia's boisterous friend from publishing. Beginning as mostly strangers, the women soon become friends who share their triumphs, aspirations and heartaches, of which they all have plenty.

The Friday Night Knitting Club, Kate Jacob's debut novel, discusses all the women, but focuses mainly on Georgia Walker. The single mother has worked exhaustively to make her business, and her life, a success. Almost singlehandedly, she has done both. True, she's a little lonely, but that starts to evaporate as the club becomes more and more important to her. Her life is far from perfect, though. For one thing, Dakota's father has returned to New York and is working hard to buy his way into his daughter's life. Georgia is stunned to find that her philandering ex-boyfriend wants to wheedle his way back into her good graces as well. Dakota finds her father enchanting, even as Georgia promises herself she will not fall under his spell again. All the tension is getting to her. She's exhausted. Then, an old rival breezes into the shop, flashing her Platinum card and demanding Georgia create a custom evening gown for her. Knowing she can't refuse the commission, Georgia suddenly finds herself slaving away for the woman whose betrayal ended their childhood friendship.

As if Georgia doesn't have enough woes, she's also caught in the drama of her friends' lives. Anita, whose health seems to be fading, refuses to slow down. She's also ignoring her crush on the kind deli owner downstairs, afraid a new romance will tarnish the memory of her long-dead husband. Then there's Darwin, the enigma who comes to club meetings, but doesn't knit. Everyone's surprised to hear the story of her long-distance marriage to a harried medical intern who barely has time to call his lonely wife. Always upbeat K.C. can't seem to find her niche, or anything resembling knitting skills. When she decides to aim for a law degree, her friends tutor her, but can she really make it work? There's also Peri, Georgia's part-time assistant, who's defying her parents in pursuit of her own passion. Lastly comes Lucie, who's looking decidedly peaked. What's her secret, anyway? As the women struggle through their own crises, the one thing that sustains them all is their knitting club.

The Friday Night Knitting Club concerns needlework, but it's really about friendship. It's about women gathering to shake off loneliness, learn together and support each other through thick and thin.

I enjoyed this story in general, but there were a few things that annoyed me. For one thing, the way Jacobs used the omniscient point of view made me crazy. She shifted POV in the middle of sections, even in the middle of paragraphs. I think when a story involves as many characters as this one, it's important to keep their voices separate, otherwise the reader becomes confused (and irritated, in my case). Especially considering the ending of the novel (which I'll get to in a minute), I really think Jacobs should have divided the women's stories into clear sections, and given all of the players equal "speaking" time. Perhaps that would have fleshed out some of the characters more, allowing for a warmer tone and a better flow to the story. The most frustrating aspect of this book for me, however, was the ending. I don't want to give anything away, but let's just say Jacobs employed one of the most overused plot twists in fiction. Not only was the ending sappy, but it made everything that came before it look contrived. In light of the ending, certain happenings (like the arrival of both James and Cat) are just a little too convenient. There were other situations I thought were unrealistic, but the finale bugged me the most.

Despite these issues, The Friday Night Knitting Club kept me entertained. I didn't love it, but I liked it well enough. Let's just say it wasn't the nice, soft, cozy afghan I wanted - it was more like the one that looks pretty draped over the sofa, but itches too much to be truly comfortable.

Grade: B-

Monday, May 12, 2008

Brilliant Speak Has Lots to Say

For a book about silence, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has a lot to say. It's the story of Melinda Sordino, a teenager who begins high school with "seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache" (3). The last comes from her anxiety over facing the friends she betrayed when she called the police and broke up an upperclassmen's summer party. Now, she's Public Enemy #1. Friendless, she's reduced to slinking through the halls, hoping to float under the radar of bigger fish in the treachorous pond that is her high school.

Melinda hears whispers from the other students - she's a weirdo, a freak, a nark - but no one understands what really happened the night of the party. No one knows the horrible truth. Melinda wants to tell, but her throat turns to cotton every time she tries. So, she clamps up, speaking only when absolutely necessary. But, the secret she hides tears Melinda up inside. When she sees her former best friend at risk, she knows it's time to choke out the truth, but will her confession be enough to save her friend? Will anyone believe her? Most importantly, will speaking up be enough to save her from self-destruction?

The plot of Speak is deceptively simple. It's only when you peel back its many layers, that you see the complexity of this novel. Masterful use of symbolism, metaphor and language in general imbue it with power and meaning. Still, the most finely crafted element in the novel is, without a doubt, Melinda herself. Her voice rings with authenticity, even as it drips with sarcasm and disappointment. She's surprisingly real, someone who is alternately funny, awkward, scared and confused. Melinda Sordino's inner dialogue will make you laugh, seethe, grit your teeth and pray for this brave girl to find the courage to Speak.

To prove how engrossing Melinda's voice is, I offer you some of my favorite passages from the book:

Older students are allowed to roam until the bell, but ninth-graders are herded into the auditorium. We fall into clans: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big Hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders. I am clanless. I wasted the last weeks of August watching cartoons. I didn't go to the mall, the lake, or the pool, or answer the phone. I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don't have anyone to sit with.

I am Outcast. (4)

My parents didn't raise me to be religious. The closest we came to worship is the Trinity of Visa, Mastercard and American Express. (29)

The first essay this semester was a dud: "Why America is Great" in five hundred words. She gave us three weeks. Only Tiffany Wilson turned it in on time. But the assignment was not a complete failure - Hairwoman runs the drama club and she recruitedseveral new members based on their performances as to why they needed an extension. (84)

See what I mean? Melinda Sordino is irresistible in all of her bitter, angst-ridden glory. Her story lacks warm fuzzies, but it is ultimately hopeful. I guarantee it will mesmerize you from its first word to its last.

Grade: A

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The House of Scorpion Stings With Power



(Image from Wikipedia.org)

Whenever I read, I take notes. For a mystery/thriller, I will maybe use one page of my small yellow legal pad. Literary fiction, classics and non-fiction usually garner 2-3 pages. The fact that I jotted down 4 pages of notes while reading Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion tells you just how much this young adult novel preyed on my mind. As I peeled back each of its many subtle layers, I found more and more to ponder. Don't worry, action fans, it's not as cerebral as I make it sound. In fact, it's one of those books that has it all - action, mystery, adventure, and even a little romance.

The hero of the tale goes by the name of Matteo Alacran. When the story opens, 6-year-old Matt is living in an isolated cottage in the middle of a vast poppy field. His caretaker, Celia, works at the "Big House," home of the legendary drug lord who owns all the fields, which supply the opium he exports all over the world. Although Matt has lived on the estate all his life, he has never ventured beyond the cottage's front door. Celia warns him to stay safely inside, "hidden in the nest like a good little mouse" (5), but he can't help being curious about the outside world. When a trio of children come traipsing through the fields, Matt can't help himself. He has never seen other children, and he longs to play with them. Escaping from the cottage requires him to smash a window and leap to the ground; in the process, he slices his legs, prompting the other children to drag him to the Big House. Foggy from pain, Matt hovers on the edge of consciousness as a team of maids rush to extract glass from his wounds. When they discover the tattoo on his foot, proclaiming him "Property of the Alacran Estate," the servants recoil in horror. Despite his injuries, Matt is whisked away and dumped roughly outside.

As Matt lies abandoned on the ground, he learns the truth of his existence from the children who discovered him. They say he is a clone, created in a lab for El Patron. Cloning happens regularly in the futuristic world of the Alacrans, but clones' brains are always destroyed at birth. Matt is the exception. Elderly El Patron wanted Matt raised as a real boy, but insisted his existence remain a secret. The children view him as a freak of nature, except for Maria, who sides with any suffering creature. The Alacrans' servants know better than to dismiss anything of El Patron's, but they refuse to acknowledge Matt's humanity, locking him up in a filthy room where he sleeps on sawdust and plays with cockroaches and chicken bones. When Maria, who visits the estate only on vacation, learns of Matt's deplorable situation, she runs straight to Celia, who rats out the other servants to El Patron. Outraged, the old man esconces Matt in a luxurious apartment, where he receives care from Celia. El Patron also appoints Tam Lin, a Scottish outlaw, to guard Matt against the rest of the household, who view him as a filthy animal.

Once Matt learns the truth about himself, he starts to see all of the ugliness around him. He finds that the numerous field workers are really eejits - people who have had computer chips inserted into their brains to keep them docile enough to perform long hours of back-breaking labor. Matt's horrified to discover this "mindless army of slaves" (171), who will starve themselves unless told to eat. Likewise, Matt sees that many of the Big House's occupants have become just as dazed by consuming opium and alcohol. His most startling discovery, however, concerns himself, and the true reason El Patron protects him so savagely.

As Matt struggles to come to terms with the cruel world he inhabits, he must also come to terms with himself. Is he really an animal like everyone says he is? Or is the truth more in line with Tam Lin's belief that "No one can tell the difference between a clone and a human. That's because there isn't any difference. The idea of clones being inferior is a filthy lie" (245). Or is it the way someone is treated that truly makes them an animal? Who is more human, after all - the boy who "nailed frogs to the lawn so they could be devoured by herons" (213) or the one who confesses to a crime he doesn't commit so he can save the girl he loves from feeling more pain than she has to?

When Matt finally sees the Alarcans as the scorpions they truly are, he knows it is up to him to save the land and the people he loves from their violent rule. He embarks on a brave journey that will take him through the dangerous borderlands, into hells of all sorts, and back into the treachorous Alacran estate where he must make a final stand against the very people who gave him life.

A quick synopsis simply doesn't do justice to this chilling, multi-layered novel. On one level, it's a straightforward sci fi mystery/thriller; at its heart, however, it's a haunting reminder of what happens when one group of people tramples another. El Patron's hateful treatment of the eejits recalls both American slavery and Hitler's annihilation of Jews during WWII. The House of Scorpions decries intolerance and demands individual courage as well as freedom over mind-numbing substances. It's a powerful book that will chill you to the bone and haunt you long after you've finished it. Despite its hopeful conclusion, the book remains a troubling testament to the great inhumanity of which man is capable.

The House of Scorpions deserves every award it has received. It's masterful, complex, and powerful. The characters ring true, the plot races along, the ending satisfies - in short, it's an excellent book. Personally, I prefer warmer, fuzzier stories, but this one deserves top marks despite its bleakness.

Grade: A

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Cookin' the Books: Slammin' Slimmed-Down Strawberry Daiquiri

(Image from Amazon)

We all know that trying to lose weight is pure torture, so it's nice when someone comes along who can at least make the process a little more fun. Meet Lisa Lillien, a 39-year-old gal who lost 30 lbs. by making over her diet. Food-obsessed Lisa decided that her "bizarre passion for guilt-free foods could somehow help the world" (viii), so she started an e-mail list to share her knowledge with subscribers. What began as a small list (less than 100 subscribers) turned into a whole Hungry Girl (Lisa's name for herself) empire, with 400,000 subscribers, a sassy website and now, a cookbook. She still sends out e-mails, all of which are packed with diet food news, product reviews, recipes and tips for keeping extra pounds at bay. Her fun, sassy voice ensures that nothing she writes is boring. My sister recommended the website to me a year or so ago, and I have been receiving Lisa's emails ever since.

I'm a big Hungry Girl fan, so I just had to get my hands on Lisa Lillien's first cookbook, Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World. It features a bunch of guilt-free recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. The recipes all appear to be pretty simple, using widely available ingredients (although there are some that require specialty products). Each recipe includes nutritional facts. Interspersed with the recipes are Lisa's tips for eating, cooking, and living "guilt-free." True to the Hungry Girl format, the whole book is colorful, upbeat and fun.

While I loved the cookbook in general, there were a couple of things I found annoying. For one thing, Lisa always lists Weight Watchers Points values when she offers a recipe online; perhaps it's a legal matter, but the Points are not listed in the book. Also, there are only a few photographs included in the book; if you're like me, you need a nice, full-color picture showing how the dish is supposed to turn out. The good news is that you can find all of this information on the book's website - I just wish everything was in one easy-to-find location. One thing you won't find either in the book or on the website is recipes for family-style meals. Perhaps this is because Lisa is a single woman (I couldn't find much info on her personal life), or maybe she is just acknowledging the fact that most dieters are going it alone. Whatever the reason, most of the recipes make only a single serving. In the FAQs section of the book, Lisa does explain that e-mail recipients raved about how easy it was to make her single-serving recipes, so she wanted to stick with her winning formula. However, she says, "it's easy to double, triple, or quadruple ... recipes - so you can adjust them to feed as many hungry people as you like" (5).

Although I've only tried one of Lisa's recipes so far, I'm eager to try more. The one I did sample is listed below. The photo comes from the book's website, since all of my pictures turned out blurry.

P.S. I'm gaining new appreciation for the art of food photography. I never realized how difficult it is to make food look as delectable as it does in magazines. Of course, it's a given that the problem likes in my photography, not cooking, skills :)


Slammin' Slimmed-Down Strawberry Daiquiri


Ingredients


1 1/2 oz. rum (I don't drink alcohol, so I omitted this; Lisa says that saves about 100 calories)

1 packet (two 5-calorie servings) sugar -free powdered drink mix (any strawberry blend)

3 frozen strawberries

1 T. lime juice

5 to 8 ice cubes or 1 c. crushed ice


Directions

Dissolve drink mix into 4 ounces of water. Stir thoroughly.

In a blender, combine drink mixture with all other ingredients. Blend to desired consistency.

Pour, add a straw, and slurp that baby up!

Makes 1 serving. Per serving: 121 calories (this includes the alcohol), 0 g. fat, 10 mg. sodium, 4 g. carbs, 0.5 g. fiber, 2 g. sugars, 0 g. protein. In case you're like me and like to have all your information in one place, that comes out to 2 Weight Watchers Points (according to my calculations).

My thoughts on the recipe: I thought the daiquiri was refreshing and yummy. I did use 1 packet of sugar free Kool Aid, which actually makes 3 5-calorie servings, so mine was a little heavy on the Kool Aid taste. Also, since my blender tends to be a bit wimpy, I will probably use crushed ice next time, just to make the daiquiri smoother. Other than that, the recipe's a keeper.

Overall, I enjoyed this cookbook a lot. It has a lot of variety, and the recipes seem very easy to make. I am disappointed there aren't more family-style meals, and that I have to look online for Points and pictures. Other than that, I liked it a lot. If you're trying to lose weight, or simply eat healthier, I recommend both Lisa's emails and this fun, "guilt-free" cookbook.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Wanted: A Few Good Editors

(Image from Amazon)

So, I'm just curious: Is there a book editor's strike going on or something? Embittered Justice by Michaela Riley is the second book I've read in the last week or so that could have been an okay read if only the manuscript had reached the hands of a thorough editor before its publication. In Riley's defense, her book was published by the controversial Publish America, a company that's been accused of operating a vanity press (click here for Wikipedia article). If it does employ editors, they should probably be fired, considering the kind of crap they let fly in Embittered Justice.

The short novel (novella?) stars Jennifer Campbell, a former Army nurse, who moves to Norfolk, Virginia to start a new life. She's got a good job, a fun-loving fiancee, and now a house near the beach. It's a bit of a fixer-upper, but Jennifer believes a little elbow grease will turn it into the perfect family home. The only problem is the oddball owners, who turn on her when she insists they move out within the time frame they originally promised. Her angry eviction of the couple earns Jennifer persona non grata status in her new neighborhood, but she's unperturbed. If her community won't welcome her, she'll just spend more time at the beach.

Things are beginning to look up when Jennifer spies a box by her front door. Even though she hasn't ordered anything, she opens the package. Shocked, she discovers a pile of firearms and ammunition inside. Unsure what to do, she calls her special agent fiancee, who advises her to keep the box until someone shows up to claim it. Suddenly, all kinds of people are turning up on her doorstep, including a nervous neighbor and a trio of men claiming to be Norfolk police officers. Fear keeps Jennifer from admitting she has the guns, which lands her in jail for grand larceny. Detectives pointedly ask how her fiancee is involved, even as Jennifer insists that he isn't. As Jennifer tries to make sense of the whole thing (Are the former owners of her house getting their revenge by framing her for a crime? What happened to the guns the police insist are missing from the box? What, if anything, does her fiancee have to do with all this? And, most of all, why her?), her life spins rapidly out of control. A series of bumbling lawyers and cold-hearted judges do not help her case in the least. To top it off, Jennifer's fiancee refuses to see her, her co-workers start stirring up trouble, and she fears her house might be haunted. Jennifer's new start has turned into a nightmare. Can she find justice from a system that keeps letting her down? Will she, an innocent person, really face a prison sentence? Or will her lawyer manage to clear up the whole, convuluted case?

Okay, there were some plot twists I found pretty unbelievable, but basically the story has good bones. I really do think it has potential. However, it needs some major cosmetic surgery before it can be considered a "good read." Riley sent me a "first print" edition of Embittered Justice as well as a PDF file containing considerable revisions to the book. Although the revisions took care of editing problems (like typos and Riley's penchant for changing tense several times in one paragraph), they left plenty of problems uncorrected. For one thing, the characters have no substance, no personality. We get descriptors like "tall," "balding," "arrogant," but no real depth. Even the heroine comes off as whiny and dull. She seems to have an interesting past (there are hints of rape, abuse and divorce), but Riley never expands on Jennifer's former life. This only makes the character seem more unformed. Awkward sentence and paragraph structure also plague the novel, making it flow about as well as rush hour traffic. Passages like these are both clumsy and confusing:

"Officer Burtrant did not tell my son about the dog food as promised. It seems funny that they seemed concerned about calling animal control and not even give important information for the dogs" (67).

"I have always had a hard time talking when I was upset. My dad could always tell from the sound of my voice if there were something wrong. The person before I was before the whole home invasion ordeal was strong and unemotional, stress-free; I just dealt with it. My dad, though, could ask me that one question, 'What's wrong?' And the strong, stoic woman instantly became a daddy's girl" (71).

There are other problems, but my biggest beef with the book is the ending. Although Jennifer's future is decided satisfactorily, we never get answers to all our questions. The case is never solved. Riley concludes the book with a generic, disappointing "Love conquers all" message that summarily dismisses all of the drama that took place in the previous 195 pages.

I do think Michaela Riley makes it clear how passionately she feels about her subject. The anger and cynicism Jennifer feel seem authentic. Riley's biography mentions she had "the misfortune of spending time in a local court house," so I'm guessing she has some firsthand experience. Her patriotism also comes across loud and clear. I also found myself chuckling over Riley's Norfolk-bashing, since my sister complained about the city for the whole time she lived there.

So, although I admired some things about the book, it mostly just annoyed me. I truly think the story could have been really compelling (although it seems bizarre and unrealistic, despite the fact that it's supposedly based on a true story) if it had been edited well. Mere editing wouldn't have solved all of its flaws, but it would have made Embittered Justice a much better read. The book really does have good bones - it just needs an extreme makeover. Let's hope that editor strike comes to an end sometime soon; it looks like more than one author needs a good one.

Grade: D


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Rackety-Packety House Is Simply Enchanting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I remember reading both The Secret Garden and A Little Princess as a child, but I had never heard of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Rackety-Packety House until my mother-in-law bought it for my daughter. We've been reading this gorgeous 100th anniversary edition (pictured above), and it has been a pure pleasure. I worried that my daughter would be a little bored with the old-fashioned story (since she's used to the non-stop action of books like the Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse series), but it enchanted us both. The story even captured my 9-year-old son's attention - for a few pages, anyway!

The Rackety-Packety House concerns a family of Dutch jointed dolls, whose shabby, old house gets relocated to an "unfashionable neighborhood" (2) in the far corner of the nursery when their owner gets a sparkling new dollhouse, called Tidy Castle. Next to the new "neighbors" the old dolls look especially scruffy in their crumbling home and patched-up clothing. Despite their down-at-heel circumstances, the residents of Rackety-Packety House manage to make the most of what they have. According to our narrator, Queen Crosspatch, they

went through all sorts of things, and if they had not been such a jolly lot of dolls they might have had fits and appendicitis and died of grief. But not a bit of it ... they got fun out of everything ... When Meg's pink silk flounces were torn she pinnned them up and didn't mind in the least, and when Peg's lace mantilla was played with by a kitten and brought back to her in rags and tags, she just put a few stitches in it and put it on again; when Peter Piper lost almost the whole leg of one of his trousers he just laughed and said it made it easier for him to kick about and turn somersaults and he wished the other leg would tear off too (9).

Their jovial nature makes them popular with the other nursery creatures, so everyone worries when they hear that Rackety-Packety House and all its occupants are headed for the trash bin. For the moment, however, it is hidden behind a chair so it "won't disgrace the castle" (19). Relieved to be forgotten, the old dolls carry on with their fun and dancing. Although they are content in their shabby home, spying on the snobby castle dolls provides the Rackety-Packetys with plenty of entertainment. When Lady Patsy arrives at the castle (after having a leg mended), the Rackety-Packety dolls become enamored with the pretty girl who "neither turned her nose up, nor looked down the bridge of it, nor laughed mockingly" (40). She, in turn, becomes enamored of the Rackety-Packetys, especially cheerful Peter Piper. In no time, Patsy happily ensconces herself with the shabby dolls, whom she finds so much more exiciting than her own relations.

When scarlet fever hits Tidy Castle, its inhabitants have no choice but to rely on the low bunch at Rackety-Packety House. They prove their worth to the snooty gentry, and reap a delightful reward. The Rackety-Packety House sends its message loud and clear: If you're kind and good, you will always be happy regardless of your circumstances.

Francis Hodgson Burnett writes brilliantly, bringing to life a whole slew of fun characters. Her words sing with a charming, old-fashioned cadence that will enthrall anyone (even a 9-year-old boy). It's simply a beautiful, fun story that carries an important (if a bit transparent) moral. Didacticism be darned, I love this enchanting tale.

Grade: A+


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Letter of Love from China Scores Big With Resident Kid Lit Expert

Although I read a lot of picture books to my kids, I've never reviewed one on BBB. So, I was really excited to get this one in the mail. Since adoption has been a big topic of discussion at our house lately (if you don't know why, click here), Letter of Love from China by Bonnie Cuzzolino (illustrated by Jax Bennett) struck a chord with our family. It especially touched my 6-year-old daughter.

On her website, Cuzzolino explains that she wrote the book in response to a question from her daughter, Jillian Mei. The child, who was adopted from China in 2001, wanted to know what her birthmother might tell her given the chance. So, Cuzzolino imagines a Chinese mother writing a letter to the baby girl she is placing for adoption. The mother explains Chinese law, which limits family size, requiring many babies to be placed in orphanages. She talks of wanting her daughter to have a "prosperous life, filled with much happiness," wishes that can come true only through her adoption into a new family. Still, the birthmother tells her baby, China will always be a part of you. She goes on to describe the country's landscape, traditions and celebrations. It ends with a plea to "look to the light of the moon ... and there you will see my face, which is the reflection of your own beautiful face."

I found the story sweet, although not spectacularly written or illustrated. The writing is very simple and straightforward, with no real images or phrases that stand out. It's a nice story, but it lacks the kind of sparkle that makes me want to read it over and over again (or at least not groan when my child hands it to me for the 50th time that week). I feel similarly about the illustrations, which are chunky and rough - I don't hate them, but they don't particularly move me either. The thing I do like about the book is the perspective it gives on birthmothers, especially those in China, who bravely choose to place their daughters in orphanages rather than take extreme measures to "honor" Chinese law. I also liked that Letter of Love from China offers loving affirmations that will help adopted children empathize with the mothers who gave birth to them.

While the book garnered a lukewarm response from me, my daughter loved it. The story stuck with her (she explained it in detail to her grandma a couple hours after she read it), and she loved the bright pictures, especially the one of the dragon parade on Chinese New Year. In fact, Letter of Love from China inspired her to write her own adoption story, which ends with our family adopting the infant (have I mentioned she has baby sisters on the brain?). So, while I thought Cuzzolino's book was nice, but not outstanding, my daughter clearly disagrees. And, I have to say, if there's a kid lit expert in my house, it's my little girl. Cuzzolino scores more points with her than she did with me, but we both agree that Letter of Love from China carries a sweet and important message. We recommend it for anyone who is adopting, has adopted, or just wants to better understand the process.


Grade: B


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