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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

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

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

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Saturday, May 30, 2009

Twilight Meets Pet Sematary in Daniel Waters' Generation Dead Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every high school has its cliques: there are the jocks, the nerds, the preps, the gangbangers, and so on. In Generation Dead, Daniel Waters introduces a whole new subculture - the undead. He's not talking about goths, or even secretive Cullen-ish clans, he's talking dead kids who have come back to life. Like the freaky pets in the Stephen King novel, these re-lifers are not exactly the same, but close approximations. Pretty much. Call them zombies, call them corpsicles, call them living impaired, call them whatever you want, they've invaded the town of Oakvale and they're not leaving. In fact, they're blogging, playing high school football, and lobbying for equal rights. What's a real, live person to do? If you're Phoebe Kendall, you try to hide the fact that you're crushing all over one of the wormburgers. Especially since your friends find the idea creepy as, well, hell. And when you can no longer disguise your attraction - then you better just watch out.

Phoebe, a black-wearing, metal-listening, poetry-writing Goth girl is used to life on the fringe of Oakvale High society. So, when she finds herself drawn to Tommy Williams, a handsome zombie, she figures why not? She can't get any more ostracized than she already is. But even in a world where the dead walk amongst the living, befriending a "differently biotic" kid is not quite kosher, and dating one is enough to cause a serious stir. The more she gets to know Tommy, however, the more Phoebe begins to wonder why live people and zombies can't get along. Tommy's more empathetic, brave and kind than most of the guys at Oakvale High - what's wrong with getting to know him better? A lot, apparently.

While Phoebe's friends are concerned about her growing obsession with the zombie community, one person is downright livid. Pete Martinsburg, a beefy football player, will stop at nothing to keep Tommy away from a living girl. In fact, he'd be happy to see the whole corpsicle population disappear. And he has a plan to make it happen. The only person standing in his way is wimpy Adam Layman, who doesn't even have the guts to tell Phoebe how he feels about her. If the zombie lovers think they're going to win, they've got another think coming.

With Oakvale divided on the explosive zombie issue, it's no wonder things escalate quickly. As tempers flare and violence mounts, things are rapidly getting out of hand. Can Phoebe brave it all to be with Tommy? Does she even want to be more than friends? Will her friends stand by her? Or will she lose everything by siding with the undead? Can anyone stop Pete before it's too late? Or will the zombie rights movement end before it ever gets a chance to begin? The answers come fast and furious as this pageturner guns to its surprising conclusion.

For some reason (maybe because of the cover?), I expected Generation Dead to be a lighter, funnier version of Dawn of the Dead, so I was surprised to find that it actually has a lot of depth to it. Too much depth sometimes, as it tends toward preachy, but still ... it packs a powerful message about the dangers of intolerance. Didacticism distracts from the storyline a bit, but not too, too much. I still managed to get pretty darn entangled in the characters and plot - enough so that I had a hard time putting the book down, especially toward the end. I cared enough that I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I didn't have to wait for the sequel, because my pal (Hallie) at Disney had already sent me a copy. Phew.

For a book that looks like so much teenage fluff, this one turned out to be enjoyable on several levels. Now, don't get me wrong, it's no Twilight (it's not nearly as detailed or compelling), but still - Generation Dead's a sneaky little book that just might get under your skin. And make you think. After you've just about bitten your nails to the quick trying to figure out what's going to happen, of course. It should win over Stephenie Meyer fans who don't mind a little bit messier story (this one's not exactly a clean read, although it's not filthy either). Vampire, zombie, whatever - I get the feeling (maybe I'm "telepathetic," like Phoebe) kids are going to eat this one up. I sure did.

Grade: B

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Help Wanted!

Wow, so the lazy days of summer have already taken over here. We've been sleeping in, wearing our pajamas until noon, swimming and laying on the couch like slugs. I've been neglecting the ole blog a tad, but it's not all my fault: I'm waiting for a couple of emails before I can announce a new giveaway and a reading challenge; I've been reviewing a manuscript for a friend of my husband's; and, well, I've been trying to keep my kiddos from going insane with boredom. Believe me, that is a full-time job.

I wanted to mention a couple of things before I go back to lounging: (1) If you happen to get Elle Magazine this month, check out Page 90. Yep, yep, yep - that is my name! Thanks for noticing. I was only quoted once this time, and on my least favorite book, but oh well ... it's fun to see my name in print. (2) I'm looking for an artist to help me design a blog header and a couple of buttons. I had commissioned a friend of my SIL's to do it, but she's crazy busy with a move to California and can't do it until the Fall. I'd prefer to have it done sooner, so, I'm looking for someone who's willing to do some original artwork for a reasonable price. Anyone know of anyone? Email me for more info (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]). (3) I know things have been slow around here, but hang in there - I've got lots of fun stuff coming up. Stick around for several giveaways, a reading challenge, author interviews and so much more!

Just for fun - What are you reading while lounging around the house/pool?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Have To Be Honest: The New IQ Just Isn't For Me

What if the answers to all the world's problems could be found between the covers of a book?
I'm not talking about the Bible here, but The New IQ by psychologist David Gruder. The author insists that he's found a cure for the planet's ills - it all lies in upping one's Integrity Quotient (IQ, for short).

Before I go on, I should explain Gruder's definition of integrity. I've heard the word used at church my whole life - if you asked me to define it, I would say that it means honesty. Gruder agrees, but takes it one step further: "Integrity is the wholeness that comes when we are fully authentic as an individual, compassionate and effective co-creators with others, and servants of collective highest good. The essence of integrity is this three-dimensional alignment" (41). Thus, according to Gruder, we can be "in" or "out of" integrity. Whereas I thought of it only as something you had or didn't have, I found the author's definition interesting. He goes on to say that every person has three "Core Drives" that must be in harmony in order for them to have happy, successful lives: Authentic self-expression; Connection with others; and Making a positive difference in the world. Balanced Drives bring fulfillment; unbalanced Drives create unhappiness, lack of fulfillment and selfishness.

Obviously, we want the former results, so, the question becomes, how do we create lives that are in integrity with our Core Drives? According to Gruder, we must shake off the inauthentic methods we used to survive childhood (coping mechanisms, survival plans, anesthesias, etc.) and learn to live authentically. Part of this means learning from our experiences. It also means getting away from a "me, me, me" attitude and looking toward the collective good. It also involves embracing Gruder's 7 WisePassions: Teachability; Self-care; Discernment; Harvesting; Power; Synergy; and Stewardship. If everyone lived in accordance with these values - if, indeed, they were taught in schools and modeled by parents, government leaders, business executives, etc. - the world would be cured of its many ills. Says Gruder:

Imagine the kind of world that is created when communities, businesses and countries are populated by unfulfilled people who are out of integrity with themselves, their relationships or collective highest good. The picture you will see is the world in which we live today (268).

Now, I don't know if Gruder's book really holds the answers to global harmony, but a worldwide increase in integrity can never be a bad thing. The idea is certainly intriguing.

The New IQ has its interesting points, but, overall, I was a bit bored with it. I felt as if I had heard it all before. Gruder writes with authority, but his style wasn't engaging enough to keep me interested. Furthermore, all of his labels confused me. I couldn't tell if I was a Natural Developer or a Deliberate Developer, a Do-Gooder or a Self-Improver or a Connector. I wasn't sure if I had a Survival Plan or a Redemption Plan, and couldn't tell if I used my Transformation Periods in the way I was supposed to. So, while I thought Gruder's concept was interesting, I found his explanation confusing and dull. I'm still not sure whether I'm living "in integrity" with my Core Drives, but I'm being perfectly honest when I say, The New IQ just wasn't for me.

Grade: C
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Today's the Day ...

... to announce the winner of Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender. Indigo - it's all you! Drop me an email (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]), and I will get it out to you ASAP.

Thanks to Disney Publishing for the giveaway copy. Thanks to all who entered. If you didn't win this time, don't give up - I have lots more books to give away this summer. I really do have a whole pile, so stay tuned!
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rutka's Notebook: A Young Auschwitz Victim Speaks Her Mind - From the Grave

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
On an ordinary day in 1963, 14-year-old Zahava Laskier discovered a shocking secret about her father's past. She knew he had survived imprisonment at Auschwitz; knew that his mother, 7 of his siblings and their families were murdered there; but she hadn't known about three others whose lives also ended at the infamous concentration camp - her father's first wife, Dvorah; their son, 6-year-old Joachim-Henius; and their daughter, Rutka, age 14. Twenty-eight years later, she learned something just as astonishing: Rutka recorded her experiences during the German occupation of her town of Bedzin, Poland, in a notebook. Now, 60 years later, Zahava - and the world - would finally get the opportunity to know her half-sister.
When Rutka's diary - which had been kept hidden by a friend - came to light, it proved to be a valuable historical document. Because of similarities to her Geman counterpart, Rutka became known as "The Polish Anne Frank." Unlike Anne's writings, however, Rutka's entries cover a very short period, only a few months in 1943. Much of it concerns the normal goings-on of a teenage girl; the fact that those ordinary squabbles, flirtations and outings took place against a backdrop of violent genocide is what makes it so remarkable.
Rutka's Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust is a slim volume (the notebook, itself, only contains about 60 handwritten pages), which includes entries from the diary; explanatory notes; photographs; and brief essays from Rutka's family, friends and modern scholars. The thick, glossy pages lend an authentic air to the book, making it at once haunting and effective. Rutka may not be as appealing as Anne Frank (she's saucy, often caustic and more than a little boy-crazy) and her diary not as affecting, but it's still fascinating. The juxtaposition of ordinary vs. extraordinary makes it unique. In one paragraph, Rutka writes a passage that could have been lifted out of any teenager's diary:
"I will have to settle things with Janek. I'll tell him that if he wants to be my friend, he has to be on time, or else adios! Obviously, not in these words exactly. I couldn't care less about him. But I'm curious to see the look on his face. I'm going to sleep." (January 25, 1943)
Less than a week later, she writes:
"The rope around us is getting tighter and tighter. Next month there should already be a ghetto, a real one, surrounded by walls. In the summer it will be unbearable. To sit in a gray locked cage, without being able to see fields and flowers ." (January 30, 1943)
Then, in early February:
"I am writing this as if nothing has happened. As if I were an army experienced in cruelty. But I'm young, I'm 14, and I haven't seen much in my life, and I'm already so indifferent. Now I am terrified when I see 'uniforms.' I'm turning into an animal waiting to die. One can lose one's mind thinking about this." (February 6, 1943)
Rutka's notebook ends on April 24, 1943. Four months later, she was gassed at Auschwitz along with her mother and younger brother. Today, her voice shouts from the grave, compelling us to listen, to witness, to prevent the kind of hate, the kind of fanaticism, that led to the brutal murders of millions of people. Rutka Laskier always spoke her mind - now, the world will finally hear what one extraordinary girl had to say.
(To watch BookTV's presentation on Rutka's Notebook, click here.)
Grade: B

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Hunger Games Will Eat You Up and Spit You Out Only After Taking You On An Edge-of-Your-Seat Thrill Ride

Remember Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery?" (I thought it was required reading, but when I mentioned it to my husband he just stared at me blankly - so, if you're unfamiliar with it, click here.) Anyway, if that little tale of macabre sent shivers down your spine, just wait. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins combines the subtle horror of Jackson's classic story with the challenge and excitement of a Survivor episode. What results is a completely absorbing story that will eat you up and spit you out only after taking you on a heart-pumping, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. It gives "unputdownable" a whole new meaning.

The story takes place in Panem, a futuristic world built on the ruins of what was once known as North America. It consists of a glittering Capitol and 12 surrounding districts, each of which specializes in a certain industry - agriculture, fishing, factories, etc. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen hails from District 12, an area once known as Appalachia. Like its ancient inhabitants, residents of the district labor in the coal mines. Like their earlier counterparts, the general population is poor, underfed and diseased from the black dust that never quite dissipates. Working in the mines can be perilous, a fact which Katniss knows all too well - the job put her father in an early grave. His death paralyzes her mother, forcing Katniss to keep the family alive. This means sneaking under the city's electrified fence to hunt, trading her spoils in the black market, and risking her life for a meager amount of grain.

The novel opens on Reaping Day, a grim holiday where 2 kids from each district are chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Having traded entries into the Games for grain - multiple times - Katniss' chances of being chosen are dangerously high. As are those of her best friend, Gale. Her only solace is that all of her entries should leave her beloved younger sister virtually risk-free. Through a cruel twist of fate, Katniss becomes District 12's female "tribute." The "honor" means Katniss will compete in a Survivor-style game against 23 other tributes. Only it's a fight to the death. Winning means honor, but more importantly, it means the winner's family will have food, money and shelter. It also means 23 people will die. Just like last year. And the year before. And every year. The Games are a gruesome, televised bloodbath - a gory reminder of who's really in charge in Panem. Participation is mandatory. It's also suicide for a scrawny, undernourished girl from District 12.

Before she knows it, Katniss is fighting for her life in an arena fraught with danger, much of which is manufactured by Games officials for the entertainment of Panem viewers. Katniss can't afford to feel any affection for her fellow competitors, but there's the little girl who reminds her of her sister, the boy from her own district who once showed her an immense kindness, and all the others who are just as terrified as she is. But it's kill or be killed in the Games. Katniss has no choice. She must use every brain cell, every skill, everything she possesses to save herself and her family. Her journey will be fraught with danger, betrayal, loss and her own grim determination. In a battle that defies logic, Katniss must do the impossible - survive.

So much has already been written about this novel that I doubt I can add much. I'll leave it at this - you must get your hands on a copy of this book. It's gripping, it's consuming, it's one of the best books I've read this year. What are you still doing here? Beg, borrow or steal (well, maybe you shouldn't go that far) - do whatever it takes to get yourself a copy. You won't regret it. Or forget it.

Grade: A

(Book image from Suzanne Collins' official website.)
Monday, May 11, 2009

After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Changed Everything

When I was in high school, I attended a writer's conference at which I heard true crime writer Ann Rule speak. I found her so fascinating that I immediately checked out several of her books. Although gritty and raw, the books fascinated me, especially from a psychological point of few. Her experience with Ted Bundy (chronicled in her first book The Stranger Beside Me), especially, made an impact with its underlying question - How well can we ever really know the people around us? As compelling as her books are, their gruesome details soon got to be too much for me. I abandoned Rule years ago and never re-visited the genre she made popular. That is, until Hachette Book Group sent me a copy of After Etan by journalist Lisa R. Cohen. Like Rule's books, Cohen's is interesting and well-written (although Rule's style is less clinical, more readable), but also filled with so much human nastiness that it reminded me why I quit true crime books in the first place.

The book discusses the case of Etan Patz (pronounced AYTAHN PATES), a 6-year-old who disappeared from New York's SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979. The first-grader had been begging his mother all year to let him walk the 2 blocks to his bus stop. She had finally relented. But Etan never made it to school. He vanished, plunging his family - and parents all over the country - into a terrifying nightmare that jolted them out of their innocence. Suddenly, families became all too aware of the acute danger posed by sexual predators who preyed on children, an increasing problem that until then hadn't received enough attention. Fear made parents more vigilant - for a time, anyway. As the months wore on, all the Missing posters, neighborhood canvassing, televised pleas and police interviews came to naught. Blonde-haired blue-eyed Etan didn't turn up. Neither did his corpse.

As the case slowly went cold, new atrocities hit the news, burying the story of Etan's disappearance under fresh horrors. His parents still dutifully recorded every phone call they recevied, traipsed down to the police station for interviews and polygraphs, and investigated every "look alike" the detectives found, but one thing soon became obvious: The case was at a stand still. Federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois knew he couldn't let the case stagnate, couldn't let the Patzes down - determined to figure out what happened to Etan, he spent years in a dogged pursuit of the truth. After investigating several possible suspects, including the parents themselves, he honed in on a drifter with a history of violence toward children. GraBois refused to give up, even when Jose Antonio Ramos denied knowing Etan Patz. Although he never got a full confession out of Ramos, and never learned exactly what happened to the missing boy, the prosecutor's tenacious investigation of other of Ramos' victims put the dangerous predator away for the better part of his life. Maybe GraBois didn't crack the Etan Patz case wide open, but he did the next best thing - made sure Ramos could never again hurt a child. Without solid evidence to prove Ramos killed Etan, the child's case remains one of New York's unsolved mysteries.

Now, you're probably saying, "I guess there's no point in reading the book - Susan's just told me the whole plot." Well, that's correct, although the truth is that although this book chronicles the Etan Patz case, it's almost more about what happened because of the case: Because of Etan's disappearance, parents everywhere got a wake-up call about sexual predators. Because of his parents' ability to turn their own grief into something worthwhile, systems and laws were created that better protect and serve children. Because of young boys who bravely told their stories, a monster is behind bars. What started with man's inhumanity to man (although we don't know exactly what happened to Etan, we can assume it was nothing good) grew into something powerful, something important. It may have been too late to save Etan, but those whom he inspired have worked tirelessly to bring justice for all abused children. And that's what this story is really about.

Curiously, the thing I find most interesting about true crime stories - the psychological history of the perpetrator - was almost absent from After Etan. I think we all want to know what turns an innocent child into a person capable of committing unspeakable acts against another person. The book really didn't go into Ramos' history, which made the story seem incomplete. Maybe the investigators were just never able to turn up much information, but I would have liked to know (or maybe I'm better off not knowing) what made this guy tick. Other than that, I have no real criticisms. After Etan is certainly raw, it's definitely graphic, but it's also powerful and compelling. It's really a tribute to the dedication of law enforcement professionals, the bravery of victims courageous enough to speak out, and the plight of grieving families who allow their lives to be doubly torn apart in pursuit of justice. The fact that this book was published at all speaks volumes about the ability of one child to slip under our skin and into our hearts, pushing us harder to protect the most vulnerable among us - our children.

Grade: B

P.S. Interestingly, After Etan contains a couple of literary references. It includes a quote by Anna Quindlen, who worked for the New York Times between the late 1970s and early '90s. It also talks about Beth Gutcheon, who interviewed Julie Patz (Etan's mother) as part of her research for Still Missing. When the book came out, Julie was startled to find that the story mirrored her own so closely. Although she was grateful to Gutcheon for keeping the issue of missing kids in the spotlight, the novel "felt invasive to Julie, who also worried that readers would confuse the novel's fictional details - the disintegrating marriage of the boy's bereft parents, for example - with the real-life story of her family" (68). Interesting.

(Book image from After Etan's website)

The Hourglass Door Doesn't Quite Deliver

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

You know how sometimes you want so much to love a book, but you just ... don't? That's what reading The Hourglass Door by Lisa Mangum was like for me. When Shadow Mountain offered me an ARC of the book, I jumped at the chance. After all, several LDS authors have praised Mangum's talents to me, her book is coming from a publisher I admire, and, judging by her blog/website, she just seems like a very nice person. I was hoping to add her name to the list of LDS authors I actually want to read - you know, people like Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Sanderson, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George, James Dashner, etc. - but, based on her first novel, that's just not going to happen. Why not? Because this, her first novel, just isn't original enough to keep my attention. It's not different enough to survive in a market saturated by Twilight copycats. No, Mangum's not writing about vampires, but it's close enough to be irritating. Add in flat characters, stilted dialogue and a plot that doesn't always make sense and, well ... maybe you can understand my hesitation.

The story concerns high school senior Abby Edmunds, whose life is busy with college applications; play rehearsal; and her nice - if a tad bit predictable - boyfriend, Jason. A good girl who pretty much does what she's told, Abby longs for a little adventure in her life. So, when foreign exchange student Dante Alexander saunters into her school, she's more than a little intrigued. The sparks fly fast and furious between them, making Abby nervous, seeing as she has a boyfriend and all. Still, she's been assigned to integrate Dante into the cast of the school play, and that's just what she means to do. So what if he's standoffish with the other students, mysteriously absent for days at a time, blatantly avoids physical contact, and seems to be hiding something (Can you say Edward Cullen?) - he's obviously into Abby. Plus, he's about the hottest thing to walk the halls of her high school in about a million years.

Abby does have one slight problem - okay, two. For starters, Jason's not too happy about the time she's spending with Dante. The truth is, she's beginning to wonder if her "safe" relationship with Jason is really worth hanging onto. But hurting the guy she's known since childhood in favor of a wild card like Dante doesn't seem like a great idea either, especially since weird things seem to happen whenever he's around (that's problemo numero dos, if you're counting). Maybe she's crazy, but when she's with him, time literally seems to stand still. She knows there's a rational explanation. She just can't figure out what it is. Dante's cryptic answers to her questions just make things more confusing.

When she finally lands on the truth (well, Dante spills the beans), her world tilts a little. His confession changes things, but how much? Can she still trust him? Even when his secret may put her and everyone she loves in danger? Exactly how far is she willing to go for the one person who can take her away from her safe, predictable life? Is that even really what she wants? With time warping all around her, Abby's got to trust her heart - wherever it may lead.

The Hourglass Door starts with a bang; the prologue is taut, otherworldy and mysterious. It seems to promise an intriguing thrill ride with a little romance, a little sci. fi and a lot of suspense. It definitely left me wanting more. So, when Chapter 1 plunged me into the bland world of teenage Abby, I was a little disappointed. Pacing slowed way down, minutiae crowded out the mystery, and stale characters made it all a little ... dull. The middle of the story dragged, then picked up toward the end, but by that time it had become confusing and unrealistic. I mean, the blurb on the book's back cover states that Abby is "drawn into a mystery whose roots reach into sixteenth-century Florence," so I didn't expect reality reality, but still ... you know how Stephenie Meyer makes us actually believe that there are vampires running around Washington State? Mangum doesn't quite do that. Here, Dante's big secret just feels completely unbelievable. The story also let a lot of things dangle - I didn't understand why Dante bothered going to school, why he chose Abby out of all the other girls, or why no one (like her parents) cared about her obsessive relationship with a virtual stranger. Plus, the ending bugged big time. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this book just didn't work for me. I thought the idea behind the story had a lot of potential, but it just didn't quite deliver. I wish it had, because I really, really wanted to like this one, but it was just okay for me.

Now, once again, reviewers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble disagree with my assessments, so check those out before dismissing the book completely. Just because it didn't work for me doesn't mean it won't for you :)

Grade: C

(The Hourglass Door will be available on May 13)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Mini Mother's Day Review

I had big plans to bring you all kinds of great reviews today in celebration of Mother's Day. I'm especially excited about reading Dr. Laura's In Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms. However, I was too busy receiving flowers, getting my nails done, eating breakfast in bed and sleeping late to get around to it. It's a rough life, I know!

I do, however, have this sweet story - Along Came You by Karona Drummond (illustrated by Estelle Corke) - to share with you. With bright, whimsical pictures and simple prose, the book highlights the impact a child makes when she comes into her mother's world. With before and after comparisons ("Before you, I used to watch the rain/After you, I like to dance in the rain;" "Before you, eating out included candlelight and soft music/After you, eating out includes art and entertainment."), it celebrates the exuberance of childhood and the joy of motherhood. Does it say anything new? Not really, but it's sweet - a simple, upbeat read for Mother's Day.

Grade: B

(Book image from Amazon)

To all you mothers, grandmothers, birthmothers, mothers-to-be and mothers-in-waiting, I hope you had a wonderful day!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Fever 1793 The Worst Kind of Horror Story

(Image from Target)

"Wives were deserted by husbands, and children by parents. The chambers of diseases were deserted, and the sick left to die of negligence. None could be found to remove the lifeless bodies. Their remains, suffered to decay by piecemeal, filled the air with deadly exhalations, and added tenfold to the devastation."

- Charles Brockden Brown (Arthur Mervyn; or Memoirs of the Year 1793; quoted on Page 105)

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is the worst kind of horror story - the kind that really happened and could, in all likelihood, happen again. As its blunt title suggests, the novel concerns an outbreak of yellow fever that swept through Philadelphia in the summer and Fall of 1793. The virus spread rapidly, killing indiscriminately and prompting hundreds to flee the city. Before long, America's then-capitol became a veritable ghost town with terrified citizens barricaded in their homes, thieves pillaging abandoned residences, and corpses lying forgotten in the streets. With armed sentries guarding neighboring towns, sick Philadelphians were left on their own to die of fever or starvation ... whichever came first.

When Fever 1793 opens, however, none of this has happened yet. It's mid-August and 14-year-old Matilda Cook's only concern is escaping chores and her mother's sharp tongue. She does neither with success; in fact, since Polly the serving girl hasn't shown up, Mattie's stuck helping out in her family's coffeehouse. Her grumbling halts, however, when she learns Polly's fate: the girl is dead of the fever. As devastated as the family is by the girl's passing, they know her death is nothing unusual - fever descends on the city every summer.

Soon, however, the church bells are marking deaths daily. A fear as oppressive as the August heat settles over the city. As dozens fall ill, families escape to the countryside; farmers refuse to bring their wares to market; businesses close; and frightened citizens lock themselves inside their homes. When fever hits the Cook Family, Mattie's finally forced to leave the city, but it's not long before she discovers the ugly truth: the citizens of Philadelphia are on their own. It's up to Mattie to fight the fever that threatens to destroy everything she loves. With little food, money or protection to be had, there's only one thing on which she can rely - herself.

Anderson paints a devastated Philadelphia in painfully vivid detail. Through Mattie, we feel the fear, the paranoia, the helplessness of a people left to suffer and die on their own. Through her, we see the ugly side of desperation, but also the beauty. While she struggles against knife-wielding thieves, heartless neighbors and cutting betrayal, Mattie also finds strength and hope in the most unlikely of places. With well-drawn characters (some of whom really lived), a gripping plot, and masterful storytelling, Fever 1793 grabs the reader and doesn't let go. It's as mesmerizing as the fever itself - and just as powerful.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Alender's Old-Fashioned Ghost Story Keeps You Reading Despite the Nightmares (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Warning: If it's dark and you're alone in the house, avoid Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender at all costs. Or, if say, you're up with the baby at 2 a.m. and the house is unnaturally quiet - don't read this book. If you do, your sleep will be plagued with nightmares about malevolent Webkinz, who hiss and bleed purple when bludgeoned with a screwdriver (the only way to kill them). This is just conjecture, of course, because a ghost story written for teens would never scare me that much. Oh no. I'm just looking out for you, gentle readers. So, if the sun's up and you're in a crowded place, read on. If not, I'm telling you, leave this one on the shelf!

Compared to most of the teen horror books I've read lately (Coraline by Neil Gaiman; A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray; Sisters of Mercy by Megan Kelley Hall, to name a few), Bad Girls Don't Die isn't nearly as sinister - or original; it's more like an old-fashioned ghost story with a few modern-day twists. It has all the traditional trappings - a creepy old house; a couple of misfit girls; clueless parents; and, of course, a presence. At least, that's the only explanation Alexis Warren can think of for her 13-year-old's sister's strange behavior - if Kasey's not possessed, then she's gone totally bonkers. There's just something eerie about her obsession with dolls (a 13-year-old!); the way her normally blue eyes sometimes flash green; and the stiff, old-fashioned language she's suddenly using. Plus, Kasey, who normally ignores homework until the last possible minute is completely engrossed in some kind of secret family history project. There's no doubt about it - something is up with Kasey Warren.

In the light of day, Alexis can shrug off all the strange things happening at her house (air conditioning turning on and off by itself; doors opening and closing without human aid; a weird rotten egg smell; the way Alexis just knows things), but when a snooty cheerleader actually states the fact - Your sister is possessed - Alexis knows it's true. With the help of another cheerleader - one who may actually have brains in her head - Alexis does some research. What the girls uncover shocks them. Newspaper accounts support what Alexis somehow knows in her head - something terrible happened in her house. And someone, or something, doesn't want anyone to forget it. The question is, can Alexis stop the evil presence before it's too late? Can she save her sister, who's slipping further away with every passing day? And what about Alexis herself? Doesn't the fact that she's tracking a ghost confirm that she's the freak everyone already thinks she is? Can she save her sister and salvage her own life at the same time?

Like I said, it's an old-fashioned ghost story. It's not even terribly original, but that doesn't mean you're not going to feel some serious shivers running down your spine. The nice thing about Bad Girls Don't Die is that although it keeps the spooky going strong, there's also a lot of levity in it. Mostly it's due to pink-haired Alexis, whose sarcasm and self-depracating humor actually make this horror novel funny. My one issue with the book is that I really don't see how the Warren Family could have lived in their house for 8 years and never have heard about its history. So, it didn't ring true to me that Alexis had never heard any stories about her house. It's a small thing, really, but it detracted a little bit from my enjoyment of the novel.

Mostly, I love that this story is different - it's not nearly as disturbing as the books I mentioned above, but it's still deliciously creepy. It's the kind of book you can't put down even though you know it will give you nightmares. Still, it's the good, old-fashioned kind of scary - the kind that has you running from stuffed animals one night, and laughing at yourself the next.

Grade: B+

Thanks to Disney/Hyperion, I have an extra copy of Bad Girls Don't Die to give away. All you have to do is tell me what book(s) has/have given you nightmares lately. I will draw the name of one winner on May 20. Contest is open to readers everywhere. If you're not a blogger, please include an email address so that I can contact you if you win. Good luck!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mistborn 102: The One Course You'll Never Want to Miss

It's rare that I praise a sequel over its predecessor, but what the heck? I'm going to go ahead

and break tradition. Why? Because, while I enjoyed the first book in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy (The Final Empire - see my review here), I loved the second, The Well of Ascension. The best way I can describe it is thus: Reading the first book is a lot like taking a college 101 class. You learn the basics about Sanderson's fantasy empire - he describes its people, its history, its geography, its social structure, its economy, and the whole Allomancy thing (the process whereby some people get superhuman powers via swallowing certain metals). You get to know the setting, the characters, the conflicts and the themes. The introduction is necessary, of course, but it gets a bit tedious. Picking up the second book is like signing up for a 102 class - you've got the basics covered, so it's time to go wild and have fun applying what you've learned. Tedium no longer enters the picture. Maybe that doesn't make any sense, but what I'm trying to say is: The Well of Ascension rocks. Read it.

Okay, I'm going to say a little more than that, but before I go on, I should issue a little spoiler alert. While this review will reveal no secrets about The Well of Ascencion, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from The Final Empire. This book could be read as a standalone, but I think it would be really confusing. So, do yourself a favor and find a copy of The Final Empire before you grab its sequels. You've been warned.

The Well of Ascension begins one year after The Final Empire ends. The Lord Ruler has been defeated; Kelsier's dead (after a brief resurrection via kandra); Lord Elend Venture sits on Luthadel's throne; and despite his best efforts, the city around him deteriorates into chaos. Outside its walls, an army waits to take Luthadel. At its head stands Straff Venture, Elend's heartless father, who knows Elend's tenuous power can be his for the taking. Still, the young Lord Venture and his band of criminals-turned-civic leaders aren't about to give up without a fight. Letting down Kelsier, with his dreams of freedom from oppression, simply isn't an option. Though severely outnumbered, Elend believes triumph can be his through the use of his not-so-secret weapon, Vin. Her loyalty to Elend may just mean the difference between the city's destruction and its survival.

Vin, however, has pressing concerns of her own. First off, there's The Watcher. A powerful Mistborn, he flits in and out of the city, taunting her. He mocks her with the hard truth - a woman with her power does not belong with an ordinary man like Elend. Vin tries to ignore The Watcher, even as she feels herself drawing closer to him. Then, there's the Mists. Always a part of life in Luthadel, they "were thick and mysterious, even to Vin. More dense than a simple fog and more constant than any normal weather pattern, they churned and flowed ..." (19). While commoners fear the mists, Vin and her kind embrace it. Yet, now, she senses something ominous in it. As if it's grown aggressive, dangerous. Or maybe it's just Vin's growing confusion about who she is and whether or not there's a place for her murderous powers in a land ruled by Elend's stubborn idealism. With all of that on her plate, she's got one more assignment - to track down the traitor inside Keep Venture. This, above all, will shake her, as it means one of her friends has been eaten and replaced by a kandra spy. As much as Vin needs to focus, she can't ignore the pulsings she feels inside - there's something out there in the mists, calling her, pulling her, but what is it? And why does it want her so badly?

With enemies both known and unknown lurking around every corner, it's up to Elend and his crew to save the city they love. Along the way, they'll question themselves, their motives, their chances of survival. Is Elend even capable of leading the people? How much are they willing to risk so that he can keep his crown? Can they avoid all-out war? Who is The Watcher? What does he want with Vin? Is Vin strong enough to protect Luthadel and its uncertain king? And, most importantly, can she ever be the kind of woman he needs her to be?

If The Final Empire feels tedious at times, it pays off in The Well of Ascension, which blows right past the basics into the heart of the story. Sanderson created a rich, believable (well, okay, I know there's no such thing as superheroes, Allomantic pulses or not, but still ...) world in the first book - in the second, he digs even deeper, enhancing every aspect of his fantasy land. Characters gain depth; Luthadel's history expands; creatures of all kinds emerge; mystery and intrigue hide behind every cobblestone - the result is an absorbing, original masterpiece that flies as fast as a pewter-dragging Mistborn toward its breathtaking conclusion. It's exciting, it's addicting, it's amazing, and the best part is, there's still one more book in the trilogy. If you're a sci fi/fantasy nut, or if you're just looking for a blow-me-away kind of read, look no further: Brandon Sanderson's got you covered.

Grade: A

(P.S. Okay, I do have one complaint. I checked The Well of Ascension out of the library [after 2 weeks on the waiting list], and sped through it, only to find that my copy was missing 30 pages toward the end of the book [530 - 560, to be specific]. I wasn't about to put the book down, so I just kept reading, but I feel cheated. If I had purchased the book, I'd probably be angry, but since I didn't, I'm just perturbed. So, just a warning - you might want to check your copy to be sure it's complete!)

(Book image from Indie Bound)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

It's All About The Hair, Part 1

One of the first questions people ask me upon spying my newly-adopted daughter is, "What on Earth are you going to do with her hair?" As rude as it may sound, this seems to be the natural first response of white women undaunted by their daughters' silky straight tresses, but completely perplexed at the sight of the thick, black curls my baby inherited from her African- American birthfather. As a card-carrying member of the clueless white woman club, I share their bewilderment. I've asked myself the same question a thousand times a day - "What am I going to do with her hair?" It doesn't help that my suburban city isn't exactly bursting with racial diversity or ethnic hair salons. My confidence also withers when I read how central a black woman's hair is to her sense of self-worth; or hear that my bi-racial nephew's been teased for having a "white boy's haircut;" or that "A black woman will judge you - often out loud - if you don't take proper care of your child's hair" (this from an African-American woman in an adoption class I attended).

So, with my (admittedly overactive) imagination flashing images of my impending public dressing-down, I have done what any self-respecting Internet addict would do - I trolled through cyberspace desperately clicking on any website that promised to teach me what to do with my daughter's hair. I did find some excellent information, including a Yahoo! group specifically for hair-challenged parents who have adopted transracially. This is all well and good, but I'm the kind of person who needs a simple, but obsessively-detailed and preferably fully illustrated Clueless White Woman's guide to bi-racial hair. So, finally, I'm doing what any self-respecting bookworm would do - checking out every book I can find on the subject. While most of you aren't dealing with this situation, maybe some of you are, so here, for your reading pleasure is my assessment of the hair guides I found at the library, bookstores and on the Internet. I'm going to dish about the volumes I found Very Helpful, Kinda Helpful and Downright Useless. Here we go:

While I learned a little bit from Wavy, Curly, Kinky by Deborah R. Lilly, I'm not going to be adding it to my personal library anytime soon. Lilly, who works as a beautician, obviously knows her stuff, but she also assumes that readers know theirs. Since I definitely don't, I'm putting this one in the "Kinda Helpful" category.

The book gives basic care information for hair at different stages of childhood, with specific instructions for wavy, curly and kinky hair, as the different hair types require different products and techniques. She also gives step-by-step directions for hair pressing, using relaxers, and even trimming hair. Most of the chapters focus on girls' hair, although there's a small section on boys' styles. Probably the most helpful part of the book is the Appendix, where pictures of products like rattail combs are clearly identified. Throughout the text, Lilly emphasizes nurturing the hair by using quality products, avoiding damaging practices and even eating a balanced diet. Overall, the tone is upbeat and encouraging.

Although Lilly explained some basic terms (finally, I know what locs are!), I really needed the entire book to work like the Appendix. Instead of describing "nappy" hair, I could have used a nice, clear picture. Or two. Or three. I think the book provides a fair overview of caring for African-American hair - it just didn't give me the details I needed. Others must have felt this way, too, because the book garnered pretty poor ratings on Amazon. Oh well. I checked this one out of the library, so no harm, no foul.

Grade: C

(Book Image from Target)

I enjoyed my second pick, It's All Good Hair by journalist Michele N-K Collison, a lot more than my first. For one thing, it offered some fascinating insight into exactly why hair is so important to African-American women, the old good hair/bad hair debate (which I don't think I'll ever understand, me being a white woman and all), and how to establish a hair routine that teaches young girls to feel confident about their hair, whether it's curly, kinky, nappy or straight. In fact, the book's title is taken from something one of Collison's friends said: "If there's hair growing on top of a person's head, that is good hair. Now if there's no hair growing, that's bad hair and we have a problem. Otherwise, all hair is good hair" (xx).

Collison, who says she's writing for an audience of African-American women who, like her, have no idea what to do with their daughters' tresses; white women who have adopted black or bi-racial children; and single African-American fathers who haven't a clue what to do with their girls' hair, keeps things pretty simple. She describes basic hair care from pregnancy through toddlerhood and into young womanhood. Again, the book focuses mostly on female hair, with only a small section on what to do for boys. The author gives plenty of ideas for girls' styles, complete with clear pictures and diagrams. I only wish It's All Good Hair came in a spiral-bound edition, since I have a feeling I'm going to be propping this one open on the bathroom counter while I practice with my daughter's hair. The book also includes information on pressing, relaxing, locing and using hair extensions.

While I still feel a little (okay, a lot) clueless, this book definitely helps. I love the step-by-step style instructions, the clear pictures and the chat about black hair in all its glory.

Grade: B+

(Book Image from Target)

While my next selection is not a how-to book, it's definitely a hair book. I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley (illustrated by E.B. Lewis) is the sweet story of Keyana, who hates having her thick, curly hair combed. Even though her Mama tries to be gentle, it still hurts. To soothe Keyana's hurts, Mama explains why she's lucky to have hair that can be woven into a "puffy bun;" braided into cornrows; fashioned into an empowering Afro; decorated with colorful beads; or enjoyed down, free and natural. As Mama explains each hairstyle, Keyana learns a little bit more about her heritage, her family, and herself. A luminous book, I Love My Hair! celebrates the importance of accepting yourself, thick hair and all.

Grade: B+

In short, I found some useful info, but I'm still on my quest for the perfect hair book. I'll keep you posted on my findings. In the meantime, does anyone have any suggestions - either for good hair books or just advice on how to handle a bi-racial baby's soft, but very curly hair? Help a clueless white woman out here, wouldja?

Friday, May 01, 2009

And the Book Goes To ...

(whose email beings with kawaii ...)

Congratulations! You've won a signed copy of Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison. Please email your snail mail address to blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM].

Thanks so much to everyone who entered, and to Angela for donating a copy of her book for this giveaway.

I've got several more giveaways coming up, so don't give up - keep entering my contests. One of these days, YOU are going to end up with a free book!

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