Saturday, February 28, 2009

Random.org Has Spoken Again *UPDATED*

I planned to post the winners of my giveaways this morning, but ended up dragging my sick daughter all over town. She's got some kind of virus that's giving her nasty cold sores on her lips, inflamed gums and a general feeling of ickiness. Poor kid. Now I've got 6 different kinds of meds to give her. She's been moaning, "Why did I have to get sick? Why me?" all day. It's sad.
ANYWAY, to brighten up your day and mine, here are the winners (as determined by http://www.random.org/):
1 copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin goes to ... Linda! (P.S. Linda is giving away three copies of Drood by Dan Simmons on her blog - enter here) - *Correction: Linda is not the one giving away Drood - Carey is. I mistakenly identified Linda as the author of a blog she follows. Sorry about that! Linda, please email me; the rest of you, go on over and enter CAREY's giveaway (the above link is correct).

1 copy of Freshman for President by Ally Condie goes to ... Stacie!
Congratulations, ladies. Please email your snail mail address to blogginboutbooks@gmail.com so I can forward your info to Ally and Josh. Thanks to the two of them for offering their books for these giveaways.
If you didn't win this time, never fear! More giveaways are coming. In fact, check back tomorrow to learn about my newest contest. You won't want to miss it, trust me.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Lucky Girl Upbeat, Only A Little Bitter

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every year, thousands of babies leave Asia for foreign lands, boarding planes that will jet them off to new countries, new lives, new futures. Chances of the babies ever re-connecting with their birth families are slim to none, a big plus for many adoptive couples. Considering this, Mei-Ling Hopgood's story really is pretty amazing. It's also funny, poignant and compulsively readable.

Hopgood, an American journalist who was adopted from Taiwan as a baby, talks about her reunion with her birth family in her memoir Lucky Girl. Raised in Michigan by her loving adoptive parents, Hopgood lived a happy, secure American life. She thought little about her Taiwanese culture or the family who had placed her for adoption. Mei-Ling knew enough - she was born to poor farmers who could barely support the 6 children they already had - to appreciate the good fortune that brought her to middle-class America. She was, indeed, a lucky girl.

As she grew up, Mei-Ling faced the kind of identity crisis common to transracial adoptees; by the time she graduated from college, however, she simply viewed her Asian roots with "distance and ambivalence" (119). Little did she know that her past was about to come a whole lot closer, demading anything but ambivalence. A recent college graduate, Hopgood was living in Detroit when she got the phone call that would change her life. On the other end of the line, Chris Hopgood, Mei-Ling's adoptive mother, mentioned that Sister Maureen - the nun who had cared for Mei-Ling after her birthparents placed her in an orphanage - was in town. Chris encouraged her daughter to call their old friend, which she did. An invitation to dinner and an off-hand remark about finding her birthparents later, Mei-Ling realized she had opened Pandora's box. Suddenly, Taiwanese relatives were phoning at all hours of the day, pelting her with questions and requests. The family that abandoned her in an orphanage two decades ago now couldn't leave her alone.

In spite of herself, Mei-Ling wanted to meet her birth family. March of 1997 found her embarking on her first trip to Taiwan, a journey that would take her into the heart of a loud, complex family that was, intriguingly, her own. She formed instant bonds with her 5 Taiwanese sisters, who encouraged her to locate another sister who had been adopted by a Swiss couple. Mei-Ling found the sisters engaging with their uproarious, unfiltered personalities. Her birthparents (whom she calls Ma and Ba) were another matter - Ba dominated every gathering with his cantankerous, controlling attitude and Ma let him, much as she had throughout their entire marriage. Language and culture obstructed effective communication, and Mei-Ling struggled to feel close to these parents she never knew. To add to the confusion, she felt a disturbing undercurrent in the family, as if behind their boisterous facade they hid deep, dark secrets. The more Mei-Ling probed, the more she discovered. In the end, she had to decide what to do with this new family and the Asian roots that ran a lot deeper than she'd ever been willing to admit.

Like most stories about transracial adoption, this one touches on themes of identity, culture, and family lost and found. The difference is tone - Lucky Girl is upbeat, funny and only a little bitter. While it pays homage to Mei-Ling's close-knit American family, it doesn't discount her Taiwanese relatives, who, despite the horrors of their past, make the effort to reunite their fractured family. Filled with colorful anecdotes and astute observations on transracial adoption, the book makes for an entertaining, but thought-provoking read. The writing could have been tighter, but, all in all, I enjoyed this one.

Grade: B

(Note: Lucky Girl will not be available until April 28, although it can be pre-ordered at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It will also be featured in the June issue of Elle magazine, probably with comments by yours truly.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This, That and The Other

So, I made the mistake of taking an afternoon nap and drinking 2 bottles of Mt. Dew today (I'm back in the Weight Watchers as of tomorrow), so I'm wide awake at 1 in the morning. Aw well, it's nice and quiet - the perfect time to update the ole blog. I just have a few things this morning:

- First off, I'm sure you've noticed that I have 2 great giveaways going on right now. I'm excited to be offering Matrimony by Joshua Henkin and Freshman for President, a YA novel by Ally Condie. They are two vastly different books - you can read my reviews to find out what I thought of them. Both of the contests end on the 28th, so if you haven't entered, do it now. I did fail to mention that since both books are coming directly from the authors, only those with U.S. or Canadian addresses may enter. If you live outside the U.S., buck up - I have more giveaways coming up for which you will be elgible. Yay!

- I decided to institute a new feature called "Mormon Mentions." Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are often mentioned in books and movies, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in not so good ways. This will be my chance to comment on what is being written - hopefully, I can debunk myths as well as laugh at my own "peculiar people."

- Motherhood and church obligations have left me crazy-busy, so I haven't been trolling book blogs like I usually do. I'm woefully behind on all of your news and recommendations. I did want to mention this contest, however, because the book looks fun: Anne Bradshaw is giving away a copy of Lemon Tart by Josi S. Kilpack. Although Kilpack is LDS, I don't believe this book has anything to do with the church. I've never read her, but I've heard good things.

- Like I mentioned, lots of good things (think: giveaways!) are coming. My reading has slowed a bit, but I'm still at it. So, keep checking back for more reviews, author interviews and such. In the meantime - Happy Reading!

Mormon Mentions: Jodi Picoult and Robyn Carr

One of the main reasons I decided to start this feature is because of this line from Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult:

"He'd been a corn-fed Utah boy, pitching subscriptions to benefit The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" (145).

Now, I love Jodi Picoult - she writes intelligent, thought-provoking books (of which a new one is coming out on March 3 - yay!), but I can't imagine where she got the notion that LDS boys hit the streets selling magazine subscriptions to benefit the church. I have never heard of anyone doing this in my life. I don't pretend to know all the ins and outs of the church's finances, but I can pretty much guarantee that it doesn't rely on magazine subscriptions to fund its doings.

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This next Mormon Mention made me laugh. It's from Second Chance Pass by Robyn Carr:

The scene has a group of fire fighters gathering in Jack's Bar. When he asks about a designated driver, one of the firemen says, "We always try to keep at least one Mormon on the crew - the designated good influence" (353).

Probably the thing we Mormons are best known for (besides polygamy, which hasn't been practiced in 100 years, for Heaven's sake) is good, clean living. I love that we're known as "designated good influence[s]."

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If you come across a good Mormon Mention in your reading, let me know!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Milo J. Wright: Dreaming the Impossible Dream (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you're the kind of person who can't watch a movie or read a book without complaining, "That so wouldn't happen," or "That's so unrealistic," then you're not going to like Freshman for President by Ally Condie. Because, let's face it, the plot requires a little - maybe a lot - of that good ole' willing-suspension-of-disbelief thing. If you can accept the highly improbable, then I think you'll enjoy this sweet novel about following your dreams, no matter how impossible they seem.
The freshman in question here is Milo J. Wright, a "sideliner" extraordinaire. He's one of those guys who's on the soccer team, but never starts; is liked, but isn't wildly popular; does well in school, but will never be valedictorian. In other words, he's a pretty average 15-year-old. Except, he's got plans to push himself into the limelight - he's going to run for class president. So, when school elections get cancelled unexpectedly, he's devastated. Now, how is he going to lose his "sideliner" status?
Fortunately for Milo, his best friend happens to be a genius. Eden James knows exactly how to get him noticed - she's got a brilliant plan to get him elected president. Not just class president, mind you, but President of the United States of America. So, okay, there are a few flaws in her idea - (1) The president has to be 35 years old; (2) Successful campaigns cost more than Milo makes mowing lawns; and (3) Who's going to take a teenage candidate seriously? Even if they find solutions to those issues (and they do), Milo still has to deal with school, Pee Wee soccer, girls, and his sister, who seems to have changed into a different person overnight. Despite all this, Milo is committed to his goal. Not only is he going to make a name for himself, but he's also going to make sure teenagers get a voice in the election. Even if he can't win for real (since he's too young to take office), he can sure as heck try. With a little help from his friends, he may even make a difference in the world. In the process, he'll learn a great deal about friendship, determination, and what it means to reach for an impossible dream.
We've already determined that the plot of this book is a little far-fetched. Still, it's a simple, positive story about teenagers working toward an honorable goal. In a YA market saturated with black-cloaked, doom-and-gloom novels, Freshman for President glows with positive energy. Not only is it a clean read, but it's upbeat and inspiring. I'll take that over vampire-hunting any day. Sure, the book could use some work - characters could be fleshed out, Milo could have more compelling motives, the kids could speak less like 7th graders and more like high schoolers - but really, it's refreshing in its simplicity. Condie picked the perfect election year to publish this book; U.S. citizens just elected a man of color to the presidency, clearly anything can happen. A teenager running for president? Maybe it's not such a long shot after all.
Grade: B+
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If you want your own copy of Freshman for President, all you have to do is answer this just-for-fun-question: How would America change if a teenager did become president? I will draw 1 winner on February 28. Good luck!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Matrimony Satisfies ... With A Little Time and Patience

It's not going to surprise you to learn that Joshua Henkin's Matrimony is about marriage (the

title kind of gives it away), but it's really about one marriage. It concerns the relationship between two average people - Julian Wainwright and Mia Mendelsohn. It's about the things that bring them together, the things that tear them apart, and those every day annoyances that "a person learned to love" (282). It touches on grief, infidelity, sacrifice, fear - but mostly it's about holding on and enduring the lows to reach the highs that are a part of every marriage.

The story begins in 1986, when Julian starts his freshman year at Graymont College in Massachusetts. With plenty of family money shoring up his bank account, he's not worried about finding a career path to wealth - he simply wants to write. Praise from his curmudgeonly writing professor shows he has promise, although he lacks the natural ability of his classmate, Carter Heinz. Although Carter is pretty much Julian's opposite - he's a penniless Californian who "wore a look of aloofness and superiority, which attracted Julian, who was hoping to appear aloof and superior himself" (11) - the two become fast friends. Julian is envious of Carter's skill; Carter resents Julian's privileged East Coast upbringing; but the two manage to get along. Enter Mia Mendelsohn, a pretty coed from Montreal. Julian falls hard while Carter woos high-class Pilar - the four hang out, skinnydipping in the hot tub, smoking weed, and getting through school.

Propelled by a family tragedy, Julian and Mia tie the knot after dating for several years. As Mia pursues a graduate degree, and Julian continues to hack away at his novel, the couple move from college town to college town. Their lives are happy, although filled with the usual challenges and frustrations. About halfway through the novel, Julian hears a startling confession that forces him to move out, abandoning Mia and their marriage. Although the two reunite, it doesn't happen overnight or without some bumpy years. Even with their relationship back on track, though, life treats the couple roughly - Julian's still trying to prove himself as a writer; Mia's frantic about her health; and everyone around them has their own difficulties. The book does end on a hopeful note, implying that matrimony, in all its grime and glory, is still worth the effort.

Matrimony struck several chords with me, allowing me to connect with the book in a way I don't know if I would have otherwise. For one, I felt a kinship with Julian - he's a nice guy who finds his soulmate during his happy college years, making him forever nostalgic about good ole Graymont. I look similarly on my own student days, which brought good times (not of the pot and skinnydipping variety, but still ...) and a happy marriage. I also felt for Julian as a writer, one who never feels quite worthy or successful. If I hadn't formed such a connection with him, I don't know how compelling I would have found this novel. It's well-written, to be sure, but its prose and plot are decidedly languid. Although one reviewer described it as "truly an up-all-night read," (The Washington Post), I found it lacked the kind of pacing that made me want to devour it in one sitting. Not that that's a bad thing - this story is more of the slow, savory type - but not all readers are going to be willing to stick around and savor. For those who value character over plot, Matrimony should please. Characters rule here, and they are complex, fascinating beings, the real driving force behind the story. I did find the cast to be rather a depressing lot, not people I would seek out IRL, but that doesn't mean their stories aren't compelling. In general, I prefer more upbeat, less depressing novels, so this one falls into the like-but-not-love category. It is well-written and I recommend Matrimony for those readers who would rather savor a story than scarf one down without bothering to taste it. It's a novel that satisfies, but requires a little time and patience - not unlike marriage itself.

Grade: B

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Very First Guest Post: A Conversation With Joshua Henkin

Chances are, you've heard the name Joshua Henkin. You know, the one who's been promoting the heck out of his book Matrimony. He's also been vocal about the importance of book clubs, keeping the book industry alive, and the power of book bloggers. The man obviously loves books and writing - watch out, his enthusiasm is contagious!

I've never had an author guest post before, so I'm excited to have Josh chat with us today. If his words sound familiar, you probably read them when he originally posted at Books on the Brain. I'm "reprinting" the post here with his permission. I think he makes some interesting observations about book clubs, especially in the 8th paragraph. What do you think?


P.S. If you haven't snagged a copy of Matrimony yet, leave a comment on this post for your chance to win. I'll choose a winner on February 28. Even if you already have the book, I'd love to know your thoughts about what Josh has to say.

P.S.S. Stay tuned for my review of Matrimony, which will be up tomorrow. Happy Valentine's Day, everybody!
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These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?” My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.

I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, seven months later, I’d have participated in approximately forty book group discussions (some in person, some by phone, some on-line), with fifteen more scheduled in the months ahead. And this is while MATRIMONY is still in hardback. With the paperback due out at the end of August, my life might very well become a book group.

Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups. MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things. There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.

But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups. I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially. I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it.

I make no bones about this: I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book. But there’s a paradox here. On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY. You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher last month, is nowhere near complete. I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.

I say this without a trace of resentment. I lead a charmed life. I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it. And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.

So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes. First the good news. From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful. I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.

Speaking of passion: I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups. I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised. I’ve been trying to determine patterns. Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself! Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions. First, where are all the men? True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do. Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes. And women join book groups and men don’t. Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting. And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.

Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following. Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters. Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The novels of Martin Amis. Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions. That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science. The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.) But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!

Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it. This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books. Eat, Pray, Love. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Water for Elephants. Kite Runner. I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read. I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about. There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers. This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the demise of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages. For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Enna Burning Alight With Passion, Intensity

So many reviewers rave about Shannon Hale; after reading two of her novels, I can certainly see why. I loved The Goose Girl for its gentle, poetic telling and its endearing characters. It also had an innocence to it that left me thoroughly charmed. Its sequel, Enna Burning, thrills for the same reasons - lush language and an enjoyable cast - but it's not nearly as innocent as its predecessor. In fact, it's a little dark. And almost ... erotic. Okay, I'm blushing now, but I don't know how else to explain it - this book is passionate, intense and absorbing.

Not surprisingly (given the title), Enna Burning focuses on Enna, Isi's friend from The Goose Girl. After her escapades in the city, Enna has retired to the forest, where she tends house in the place of her dead mother. Although she's glad to care for her brother Leifer, she misses the excitement of the city. Unbeknownst to her, more excitement than she ever dreamed of is about to waltz right through her front door.

When Leifer comes home one night, clutching an old piece of vellum, Enna senses that he has changed. Indeed, the fabric holds the key to fire-speaking, a gift which allows one to command fire. Having witnessed Isi's gifts with wind and animals, Enna is no stranger to such skills, but Leifer's sudden abilities scare her. The fire seems to burn within him so fiercely that he's not exactly himself. When war breaks out in Bayern, Enna witnesses Leifer's powerful skill, a scene that brings about great tragedy. Still, she wants the fire-power for her own. When she can no longer resist the vellum's lure, she devours its secrets. As it burns inside her, she comes alive with a passion she's never before known. The fire takes over - she can barely resist the excitement, the release, the thrill that the blazes bring.

Enna's greatest desire is to carry on Leifer's legacy by aiding the war effort. Knowing she will never be accepted as a soldier, she begins launching secret attacks on the enemy. When she loses control and sets fire to a human being - something she swore to herself she would never do - she realizes she needs help. To her rescue come two loyal forest boys - Razo and Finn. Together, the threesome scour the countryside, setting enemy camps and arms alight. It's not long, though, before Enna sees fear in her friends' eyes - her all-consuming power scares them.

It scares the Tiran as well, so much so that they would do anything to use it in their fight against Bayern. They capture Enna, drug her, and threaten her with death if she will not spill her secrets. As she lays in a stupor, only one shows her kindness - the handsome Sileph. As the days pass and the two grow closer, he urges Enna to teach her the fire-power. Only then, he promises, can she be free. Weary from captivity, Enna must decide - help the Tiran and save herself or rescue her people? She can't forget the fright in the eyes of her friends - do they even want such a monster living among them? Sileph offers her everything - power, acceptance, love - more than any poor forest boy could. She has to make a decision, even as the fire blazes inside her, distracting her with its seductive flame. What can she do? How can she save her friends, herself, before the fire burns her alive?

Enna Burning, as you can see, gives readers plenty of dizzying action. The characters - most of whom we know from The Goose Girl - continue to delight. Hale's writing has a fairy-tale quality that makes her words charming and readable. Together, these elements make for a fast-paced adventure story that is absorbing all on its own. However, it's the whole fire thing that gives Enna Burning that extra somethin' somethin'. I spent the entire novel trying to figure out the metaphor - Is Hale telling us to bridle our passions? That if we step too close to the fire, we're bound to get burned? - then wondering if I was reading way too much into the text. I love this kind of multi-layered story that not only makes me feel, but also makes me think. I adore The Goose Girl for its innocence; I love Enna Burning for its depth. Just what will the great Shannon Hale do next? I can't wait to read River of Secrets and find out.

Grade: A

Disreputable History Interesting, But Not All That Likeable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Frankie Landau-Banks wants what most sophomore girls desire: a good education, a hot boyfriend, and entrance into her school's most exclusive group. This year, she'll get all three. But at what price? Through the antics of the title character, E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks asks the eternal question: How far would you go to get what you want?

After an unremarkable freshman year at Alabaster Prep, Frankie's returning with a vengeance: she's sprung out from under her sister's shadow; developed a killer figure; and sharpened her natural wit. This year, she's determined to get noticed. Her plan succeeds far better than she ever expected it would - she lands a place with the in crowd, courtesy of rich, gorgeous Matthew Livingston. Frankie loves the camarederie between Matt and his buddies, loves being a part of his inner circle. As time goes on, however, she notices a disturbing trend - whenever Matt's friend Alpha beckons, her boyfriend goes running. Even when it means breaking dates with her. Worse, Matt's vague about his whereabouts, leaving her to wonder where he and his buddies are sneaking off to all the time. So, Frankie follows him one night. What she discovers gives her a shock and a thrill - he's part of a secret society called The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.

Frankie knows all about the Basset Hounds thanks to her father, Senior Banks. When he and his high school cronies get enough wine in them, they love to reminisce about the secret, decades-old club to which they once belonged. Frankie knows enough about the club to know it's a silly, boys-only society that exists mainly to let its privileged members "experience the thrill of rebellion, a glimmer of unconventiality, and plain old naughtiness without risk" (151). Still, she can't help herself. She wants in, if only so that she can have Matt's full attention. There's only one problem - whenever she drops hints about joining, her boyfriend denies the club's existence. Clearly, there's only one way for her to be a part of the exclusive group - beat them at their own game. Frankie sets her brilliant plan in motion - soon she has the Basset Hounds barking at her command. Finally, she's got a little of the power the boys wield so easily over her. Only, someone else is taking the credit for her genius, stealing the spotlight she deserves. Will her greed prove to be her undoing? And what happens when silly pranks carry serious consequences? Frankie is about to find out.

Although I finished this book last week, I'm still mulling over my opinion. On the one hand, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is an absorbing, fast-paced read that kept me turning pages. It stars a smart, independent young woman who goes after what she wants with a vengeance - endearing traits that mark her as a stand-out heroine. Plus, the book makes a powerful statements about individuality and the dangers of power and obsession. On the other hand, I didn't find the characters that likeable; in fact, some of them were downright annoying. I also got tired of the feminist rant, the teenage angst, and the melodrama. Lockhart also has a tendency to go off on odd tangents (like the whole "neglected positive" thing), which are not only distracting but also confusing. So, I don't know ... I'm really ho hum about this one. It's an engrossing read for sure, but did I like it? I'm not sure. Would I recommend it? Maybe, maybe not. I guess I feel about Frankie as I do about this entire book - interesting, but just not all that likeable.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Whole Lotta Humor and A Whole Lotta Heart

(Image from HarperCollins)

Most 30-year-old's would envy Emily Rhodes' life - she works for a prestigious law firm; owns her own Manhattan co-op; and dates a loyal man who's ready to commit - so why is she ready to run for cover? This is the question that permeates Jill A. Davis' second novel, Ask Again Later. It's the story of a woman who lives life with one foot out the door, always ready to bolt. But when her mother receives a shocking diagnosis - cancer - Emily knows she can't run. She has to face the fact that she may lose her mother. Facing that fact makes her face several others - 1.) She's a workaholic, whose career sucks away all her time, 2.) She's going out with a great guy to whom she's terrified to commit, 3.) She's still grieving the father who took off when she was a kid and 4.) Her most satisfying relationship may just be with her coffee machine.

Desperately needing a change, Emily quits the job, walks out on the boyfriend, and vows to take care of her mother. If she thinks that's going to be easy, she's forgotten with whom she is dealing. Joanie Rhode may be dying, but she's certainly not going to go quietly. First, she has to phone everyone she's ever known - including her arthritic former hairdresser, and the exchange student who lived with her in the early '90s - to suggest they stop by to pay their final respects. Of course, the cancer is only Stage 1, and the oncologists fully expect her to beat it without even undergoing chemo, but Emily's determined to do what she can. So, she hangs out with her mom watching soap operas and sipping green tea. Eventually, she takes a job at her father's law firm, even though it's a receptionist gig where nothing's really expected of her. With help from her therapist, Emily uses the time to evaluate her family, whose history is "a never-ending surprise party" (69); her relationships; and her own future. With a whole lot of humor and a whole lot of heart, she just might make it out alive.

I'll be honest - it took me a little while to get into this book. In the first chapters (which are incidentally, short, fast and very readable), I couldn't help being annoyed with Emily - I mean, seriously, all she did was gripe and make weird observations (like whether or not her refrigerator would be jealous of her new coffee machine). Twenty or so pages into it, though, I was hooked. Davis, who's written obits, a humor column, and Top 10 lists for David Letterman, knows how to write brisk, snappy prose that entertains while keeping the plot moving right along. Her characters are flawed, but endearing. I especially loved Joanie, whose every antic made me laugh. All of these elements combine to create a novel that is both laugh-out-loud funny and subtly poignant. It's a novel about grief, survival, and finding happiness through self-discovery. It's about mothers and daughters, so you know there's going to be drama, but there's also a whole lot of heart in this funny, surprisingly moving little book.

Grade: B

Shadows of Lancaster County Lacks Focus, Sparkle

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Annalise Bailey Jensen can't outrun her past, no matter how far she flees. Sunny California - miles and miles from her hometown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania - seems to be the perfect place to reinvent herself. She shortens her name to Anna Bailey, lands a job as a "skip tracer," moves into a colleague's beach house, and tries to forget her former life. All is well until the fateful day that everything changes. First, she gets a call from her sister-in-law, begging Anna to help her locate her husband. Anna's brother, Bobby, never came home, and his wife knows he wouldn't just leave her and their little boy. While she's on the phone, Anna hears loud bumps coming from upstairs - when she investigates, she finds her roommate unconscious and a masked man searching her bedroom. The intruder demands to know where she's hiding The Beauharnais Rubies, jewels Anna's never heard of. Clearly, it's a case of mistaken identity, but she can't quite put the incident out of her mind.

So begins Shadows of Lancaster County, Mindy Starns Clark's second standalone novel. By the 7th chapter, Anna's winging her way home, plagued by memories of the event that forced her to leave Pennsylvania in the first place. She prays 11 years and a new haircut will be enough to disguise the face - her face - that once dominated the local and national news. All she wants is to slip quietly into Pennsylvania, find her brother, and high-tail it back to California. It soon becomes clear that things aren't going to be that simple. When Bobby's best friend turns up dead, Bobby's disappearance takes on a new connotation. Could he really have killed his best friend? Anna knows that's impossible, but as she traces her brother's steps, she's finding all kinds of crazy activity that seems out of character. When her old flame shows up, complaining of a break-in at his condo, Anna begins to wonder if someone isn't trying to get revenge for her past misdeeds. After all, every member of the Dreiheis 6 - a name the media gave to her and a group of her friends - has been targeted. Is someone trying to harm them because of the horror they caused 11 years ago? Or does it have more to do with Bobby's work in a DNA lab? Did Bobby really kill his best friend? Why? And what - if anything - do the rubies have to do with it all?

Anna, who works as a people finder, has her hands full with leads that take her in every direction. Tracked by the media, she searches frantically for any signs of her brother, who may or may not be a killer. With the help of her Amish in-laws, she sorts through shocking DNA results that point to a crime even more sinister than murder. In the rush to find her brother, Anna almost forgets about the rubies, but a frightening encounter convinces her that they are very much on someone's mind. From the California coast to peaceful Amish country to the high-tech labs of DNA researchers, Anna races here, there and everywhere to find her brother. In the process, she will come face-to-face with the ghosts of her own past.

The plot of Shadows of Lancaster County sounds confusing because it is. Although Anna's search for her brother forms a strong main plotline and the whole DNA research makes for interesting reading, the story gets derailed bigtime by the subplot about the Beauharnais rubies. The whole idea seems hastily tacked on, never becoming fully entwined with the novel's main events. It's as if Clark is just trying to tackle way too much in one story. Without the distracting subplot, this would have been a much better, much tighter novel. Although clumsy plotting is my biggest beef with this novel, I also found the characters lackluster. Most exuded no personality whatsoever, making it difficult to remember - or care - who was who. Likewise, Clark's writing bumps along, without the smoothness it takes to really captivate a reader.

Despite all this, the novel held enough intrigue to keep me reading. I didn't stay up until the wee hours just to finish, but I did finish. The plot holes really bugged me, but Clark did explore some interesting and unique topics. Also, I don't know if this book qualifies as Christian fiction, but it does talk a lot about faith and forgiveness. Anna prays and relies on God throughout the book. This, coupled with a lack of profanity, graphic violence or sex, makes Shadows of Lancaster County a clean read - a novelty I always appreciate. It reminded me of an edgy Beverly Lewis book.

Shadows of Lancaster County has the makings of a taut, suspenseful novel; unfortunately, it sags under the weight of haphazard plotting, indistinct characters and dull writing. It's not a terrible book, it's just not a really good one.

Grade: C

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Theater Mystery Charms Audiences

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The setting: London, 1790

The principal characters: Cat Royal, age unknown; Mr. Sheridan, manager of the Theater Royal and Cat's indulgent guardian; Pedro, a young violinist; Johnny, a mysterious artist; Syd Fletcher, leader of Butcher Boy's street gang, and loyal friend of Cat's; Billy the Boil, rival gang leader, friend of no one.

Act 1: The scene opens on our heroine, young Cat (she doesn't know exactly how young or old she is, only that she was abandoned on the steps of the theater as an infant and, in an act of drunken kindness, was taken in by Mr. Sheridan), whose life is about to take a rather exciting turn. Leaving a rioting audience behind her, Cat slips out of the theater into the alleyway, where she overhears a conversation between Mr. Sheridan and his friend, Mr. Marchmont. Her eyes widen when Sheridan queries, "Do you have the diamond?" As she listens, she hears their plan to sneak the jewel in later that night. Before she has a chance to slink away, Cat is discovered. Knowing her to be loyal, Mr. Sheridan asks her to keep an eye out for would-be theives. She agrees, although she still can't quite grasp how the theater manager, a man of very modest means, could have acquired such a priceless treasure.

The diamond is not the only novelty in the theater. First, a new prompter arrives. Cat's quite taken with kind Johnny, although she suspects he's hiding a secret from her. Before she really has a chance to contemplate the mystery, a young violinist makes his debut. Although his dark, African skin earns Pedro Hawkins contempt from some of the theater's staff, his musical genius charms the lot. He and Cat become quick friends. Determined to keep Pedro from certain death on the gritty London streets, Cat introduces him to her buddy, Syd Fletcher. The butcher's son, Syd runs the gang that keeps Billy "Boil" Shepherd and his boys in check. Soon, Pedro's hanging with Syd's club, although Cat's still forbidden to join because she's a girl. Also new at the theater are Francis and Elizabeth, a young lord and lady who find Cat and her adventures thrilling. The four - Cat, Pedro, Francis and Elizabeth - unite as friends and partners in crime, so to speak.

[Lights Fade. End of Act 1.]

Act 2: The curtain opens to great chaos in the Theater Royal. Word of the diamond has spread, and Cat is finding suspected thieves around every corner. Everyone covets the jewel, and it's up to her to keep it safe. When she catches a good friend rooting around for the diamond, it cuts her to the quick - Is there no one she can trust? Billy the Boil wants it as much - or more - than anyone else, and he doesn't mind hurting Cat in the process. Turns out, the diamond is not the only thing hiding at the theater that needs protecting - Johnny's secret could get him hanged. Meanwhile, Cat and Pedro have gotten Francis and Elizabeth involved, which could mean trouble for them all. It's up to Cat to protect the diamond, keep Johnny from the gallows, and save her own skin from the blade of Billy's knife. Can she manage it all before the curtain closes?

[Lights fade. End of Act 2]

Critic's remarks: While the plot gets complicated at times, The Diamond of Drury Lane races toward its conclusion, spewing plenty of mystery and intrigue along the way. Sparkling performances by Cat Royal and her players bring the script to life, delighting the audience with adventure and derring-do. Perhaps a bit overlong, the piece still manages to charm. It receives a solid B from this reviewer.

For more information on Cat Royal and her creator, check out Julia Golding's website and blog.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Clean, Captivating Billy Creekmore Will Have You Cheering For Its Unlikely Hero

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Billy Creekmore doesn't like to talk about his special gift. After all, it killed his mother and drove his father off to parts unknown. It's pretty much directly responsible for his current predicament - Billy's 10 years old, living at the Guardian Angels Home for Boys, and destined to live out the rest of his life as a penniless factory worker. It's a fact - communing with the spirits of the dead brings nothing but trouble. It can't even bring him closer to his mother, "and wouldn't that be the ghost I'd see if I could?" (1)

Fortunately, talking to spirits isn't Billy's only talent. The title hero of Tracey Porter's Billy Creekmore can also fashion a captivating story out of midair. His imagination keeps things lively at Guardian Angels, where the boys labor under the cruel eye of Mr. Beadle. A good story especially comes in handy when Billy needs to get himself out of a scrape. And boy is he ever in a scrape! Although he hasn't yet reached the tender age of 12, Billy is being sent to work at the glass factory. Every boy at the orphanage dreams of this adventure, but not Billy - after seeing what factory work does to his friend Meek, he wants no part of it. His creative juices stewing, Billy hopes he can find a solution to his dilemma before it's too late.

Just in the nick of time, Billy's savior arrives in the form of his Uncle Jim. Kindly Jim takes Billy to the coal mining town of Holly Glen, West Virginia, where he's given a home and the first he's known of a family life. After questioning his aunt and uncle, Billy realizes they know little more than he does about his mysterious father, who sends infrequent postcards with no return address. Still, Billy's happy in Holly Glen. He'd rather be in the mines with the men than in school with the little kids, but Jim wants to keep him away from the mines for as long as possible. Eventually, Billy gets his wish, but mining brings its own problems. There's the little boy who haunts the mine for one, and union trouble for another. When tragedy strikes, Billy's uprooted once again.

Billy finally stumbles upon members of the Charles Sparks World Famous Circus, a ragtag family who agrees to take him in. Although he loves his job working the advance for Mr. Sparks, a chance encounter with a stranger convinces him to sign on with another circus. It doesn't take Billy long to realize this crumbling operation lacks the sparkle and success - not to mention, morals - of Mr. Sparks'. He longs for his old life, but he can't abandon the stranger, the only person who can help him reconnect with his father. Ultimately, Billy has to make a choice - return to the honest life with Mr. Sparks and give up his search for his father or continue duping audiences in exchange for time with the father he's never known. At the heart of his choice lie the big questions - Who is Billy Creekmore, really? Can the boy who crafts tales out of nothing at all find a happy ending to his own story?

With its engaging narrator and thrilling plot, Billy Creekmore makes for an exciting read. Two major coincidences bugged me, especially since they could have been easily explained. However, while those two happenings are unrealistic, the rest of the novel is achingly real - depictions of child exploitation in the factories and mines of the early 1900s are horrifying. Ultimately, though, this is a story of hope, survival and one plucky little boy named Billy Creekmore. A clean, captivating read, this one will have you cheering for its unlikely hero.

Grade: B

Well Done, Moses, Well Done


Since February brings us Black History Month, I thought I'd kick it off with a book about one of the most well-known heroes in African American history - Harriet Tubman. Moses by Carole Boston Weatherford celebrates the brave slave woman's life and accomplishments with gentle, faith-affirming prose and bright, hopeful illustrations by Kadir Nelson (who just won the Coretta Scott King Award for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball). Although it was published several years ago, I just discovered this gem thanks to my pal Hallie at Disney Publishing.

The story is written in the form of a conversation between God and Tubman. An Author's Note at the back of the book says, "[Harriet Tubman] talked to God as to a friend and she heeded His commands." Her close relationship with her Maker is very clearly depicted in the book. Throughout the story, as Tubman escapes bondage, hides from slave masters and courageously leads her people to safety, she seeks guidance from the Lord and follows His admonitions. Although hers is a story of bravery, love and loyalty, what most impresses me is her profound faith in God.

The text also hints that God foreordained Harriet Tubman to become a hero among her people. I could be inferring too much, but lines like "Harriet, your father/taught you to read the stars,/predict the weather,/gather wild berries,/and make cures from roots./Use his lessons to be free" seem to say she received the exact sort of schooling she would later use to save herself and so many others. I love this idea, because I, too, believe that God specially grooms the men and women He needs to lead His people.

Nelson's illustrations bring the story to life with strong colors and poignant images. His drawings of Tubman clearly reflect the fear, determination and hope she must have felt. One picture, which shows Tubman shushing her followers, bothered me because in it, she looks so unkind. Then I read this in the Author's Note, and realized how apt the depiction really is: "She used medicine to hush crying babies and threatened to shoot runaways who begged to turn back." I guess you don't make repeated successful forays into enemy territory without becoming a tough, commanding leader.

Weatherford's text combined with Nelson's illustrations make Moses a powerful, inspiring book. A Coretta Scott King Award winner (2007), it speaks of faith, bravery and Tubman's passionate fight for freedom. After following her journey, it's plain to see how she became known as "the Moses of her people" and why, at the end of the book, God says, "Well done, Moses, well done." To Weatherford and Nelson, I say the same - Well done.

Grade: A

(Book images from Barnes & Noble)

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