Friday, July 31, 2009

Paradise Valley: It's Everything I Love About the V.R. Series - and More

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
(Note: While this review will not contain any spoilers for Paradise Valley, I may inadvertently spill the beans about previous books. My recommendation, as always, is to begin at the beginning of the series. Trust me, you don't want to miss a thing!)

Boy howdy, does Robyn Carr's newest novel ever start with a bang. It's a literal bang - a bomb explodes in far-off Iraq, the effects of which reverberate all the way to little Virgin River, California. When hometown hero Rick Sudder returns from war with a prosthetic leg and a barely-concealed rage, his friends and family hardly no how to handle him. The carefree boy they once knew is long gone. In his place stands a man haunted by war, destroyed by grief, and boiling with anger. A man who pushes away anyone who tries to get close to him. Neither Jack, who loves Rick like a son, nor Liz, who's stood by him through thick and thin, can get through to him. Will the Rick they know and love ever re-surface? Or has he left his true self in Iraq along with his leg?

Paradise Valley, the seventh novel in Carr's Virgin River series, focuses mostly on Rick. But, he's not the only resident carrying a load of trouble. There's Cameron Michaels, the local pediatrician, who's desperate to be a part of Abby's life. After all, she is carrying his children. If only she weren't still reeling from her ex-husband's betrayal. With no reason to trust, can Abby ever let the gentle Cam into her life? Walt Booth isn't faring so well in the romance department either. Muriel's jetsetting off to Montana to film a new movie. Is Walt an idiot for thinking a Hollywood starlet (even an aging one) would ever trade the glitz of Hollywood for the country? Is he fooling himself that she could love a dusty old general when she's hobnobbing with the likes of Jack Nicholson? Most intringuing is the appearance of one of Carr's most mysterious characters - old Shady Brady. Just what in the world is he doing in town? And why is he so interested in the likes of one Rick Sudder? The good folk of Virgin River have dealt with their share of drama - How will things play out this time?

Rick's struggle adds new intensity to the V.R. story, threatening the HEA (Happily Ever After) that has become Carr's trademark. One thing, however, remains the same: her setting and characters exude such charm that it's impossible not to care about them. Okay, okay, the women not so much (with the exception of Mel and Muriel, the V.R. girls are all kind of interchangeable), but the men ... boy howdy! Mel describes them best:

Where do you find men like these? Men who will do absolutely whatever it takes to help people, no matter what? She'd chosen this profession; she'd chosen to be up to her shoulders in whatever medical problem or mess came her way. She'd been bled on, crapped on, peed on, puked on and it never discouraged her from providing whatever was needed medically. But Jack was just Jack. Preacher, a cook! They weren't nurses, doctors or medics, and yet she couldn't count the times they jumped in and helped, even if it left them covered with blood or amniotic fluid or -- this time -- the wet accident of a woman he barely knew who was in a traumatic, life-threatening situation.

They were made of gold. (140)

As much as I adore the steady, predictable men of V.R., I have to say that I'm delighted by Shady Brady's appearance in Paradise Valley. He adds an element of mystery, shaking up a storyline that could have otherwise fizzled with predictability. Instead, he stars in one of the funniest, most surprising scenes I've ever encountered in a Carr book. He may have a dangerous edge, but ole Shady Brady might just be one of my favorite characters yet.

The amputee angle, coupled with Shady Brady's surprise appearance, makes Paradise Valley an intense, exciting new chapter in the V.R. story. It's charming, it's engrossing, it's everything I love about this series - and more. Keep 'em coming, Robyn, 'cause this series just keeps getting better and better.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and sexual content

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's All in the Details

So, I had a great plan for today. I was going to get up early, spend some time cleaning up the sidebars here on BBB, then take care of all life's minor details - ya know, like housekeeping and child care. Thanks to staying up too late, a horrifying nightmare, and just plain ole exhaustion, I got a bit of a late start. Then, just as I was working on my list of "Book Bloggin' Buddies," I heard a zap and my computer died. I've been having some trouble with its power supply. Today, I guess it just gave up the ghost. Irritating. Because the hubs is a wee bit tech-obsessed, I'm not without a computer. I'm just without MY computer, which means I can't access my feeds, which means I'm not going to be able to finish my list today. I'm not even close, so don't panic if your blog isn't on there yet. If I know about it, I'll stick it on my sidebar. Since I check blogs through my feedreader, I don't know most of your URLs off the top of my head. Hopefully, I can take care of my technical difficulties and get back to sprucing up the blog. If you really want to help me out, you can leave a link to your blog in the comments. Thanks!

My computer problems are probably fortuituous, because those "minor details" definitely need some attention. Unplugging for awhile (hopefully just for the rest of the day) should greatly increase my productivity. Anyway, this is a random post, but I just wanted to make sure you all know how much I love your blogs. Eventually, you will see a nice, long list of updated links on my sidebar, as well as some other additions. Just try to contain your enthusiasm, now.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Naylor Provides Good, Clean, Boys vs. Girls Fun

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

After reading Columbine, I needed something light and happy to read, something that would let me sleep at night. The Boys Start the War by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor couldn't have been more perfect. It's not exactly Newbery material, but it's a quick, fun story that left me smiling.

The book kicks off a series featuring the Hatford Hooligans and the Malloy Musketeers. The former is a group of brothers mourning the fact that The Bensons - their neighbors and best friends - have moved to Georgia. Using their mother's field glasses, the boys watch intently as their new neighbors move in. Yes! They spy kids. Unfortunately, they're kids of the female variety, who call themselves the Malloy Musketeers. It's bad enough that the Bensons are gone - now the Hatfords have to live next to three girls. Although their parents encourage the boys to get to know the girls, they will have none of it. The only way to get their friends back is to run the girls out. How hard can that be? A few good pranks and they'll be begging to move back to Ohio. But, as the boys soon find out, the Malloys have a few tricks up their own sleeves. Pretty soon, the kids have waged an all-out war. Who will emerge victorious in this battle of wits? Who knows, but it sure is fun to watch (um, read).

I picked this book up because a friend mentioned the series during a discussion about clean stories for middle graders. She said it's a popular read aloud at the charter school her kids attend. Well, she was right on the money - both my 10-year-old son and my 7-year-old daughter loved the story. In fact, when we went to the library last night, my daughter made a quick beeline to the "N" shelves. She plucked out all the Boys vs Girls books she could find, and plunked right down to read them. Can you say, "Kid Pleaser?" So, while The Boys Start the War doesn't have a lot of depth to it, it's quick, easy-to-read and squeaky clean (although there is an incident involving some Jockey shorts). Since it's an older series, you get an added bonus - the books should all be available at the library. Unless you live near me. Then, you might have to wait awhile.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

Monday, July 27, 2009

Columbine Ensures No One Will Ever Forget



Where were you when ...

... President John F. Kennedy was assasinated (November 22, 1963)?

... Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon (July 21, 1969)?

... the Twin Towers fell in New York City (September 11, 2001)?

... Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas (August 29, 2005)?

Some events are so momentuous - either because of tragedy or triumph - that they remain frozen in our minds forever. While I didn't experience the first event, my mother-in-law did. She remembers - vivdly - watching the news coverage in the sweltering heat of her living room. I wasn't alive when JFK was shot, but my mother recalls getting the news while heading to class at BYU. The last two, however, played out before my eyes on the t.v. screen. I remember the horror, the disbelief, the fear - and that was just from seeing images on the news. At that point, I had visited neither New York City nor New Orleans. I knew no one who lived there. Despite the distance, I grieved for the victims. I'll never forget 9/11 or Katrina.

April 20, 1999 saw a tragedy of another kind. Two high school seniors open-fired on their classmates at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. The news sent my heart straight through the floor. My teenage nieces attended high school in Littleton. Although I'd visited them only 5 months earlier, I couldn't recall the name of their school; I prayed it wasn't Columbine. It wasn't. Still, I remember being glued to the t.v. watching terrified students stream out of the school, an injured boy falling out a window, anchormen/women trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. In the days following the murders, the media ranted about cause: bullies; violent video games and movies; Goth culture; lax gun laws; and inaction by police. Eventually, other news stories captured the nation's attention. Those who, like me, were swept away by other headlines probably remember only a few things about Columbine: teenage killers worn down by constant bullying; a boy falling out a window; a girl martryred for her belief in God; tearful reunions. According to journalist Dave Cullen, we don't know the half of it. In fact, we know even less than we think we know.

Cullen, considered the leading expert on the tragedy, recently published Columbine, a hefty, in-depth look at the event he spent 9 years researching. In it, he writes:

"We remember Columbine as a pair of outcast Goths from the Trench Coat Mafia snapping and tearing through their high school hunting down jocks to settle a long-running feud. Almost none of that happened. No Goths, no outcasts, nobody snapping. No targets, no feud, and no Trench Coat Mafia. Most of those elements existed at Columbine - which is what gave them such currency. They just had nothing to do with the murders" (149).

Cullen's book seeks to set the record straight. With information culled from personal interviews, police reports, journals, video tapes, court records, etc. he leads the reader through the tragedy. He paints the killers in a new light - as intelligent boys who thought, dreamed about and planned "Judgment Day" far in advance. Eric Harris, especially, emerges as a cunning psychopath with a "preposterously grand superiority complex, a revulsion for authority, and an excruciating need for control" (234), who mowed down his peers gleefully, and mostly just to prove that he could. Cullen tracks the police response from initial actions to astonishing cover-ups to lawsuits charging gross mishandling. He talks about the victims - from the controversy surrounding Cassie Bernall's supposed martyrdom to Coach Sanders' undisputed courage to Patrick Ireland's (the boy who pushed himself out the window to safety) painful recovery. Columbine's administrators, faculty, students and their families are also represented - Cullen discusses the fear, the anger, the emotional distress that shook everyone's lives. Exhaustively researched, unflinchingly candid, and absolutely mesmerizing, Columbine offers a riveting look at the nightmare that still haunts so many today.
I
'm going to be honest: I couldn't wait to finish this book. Every time I picked it up, I felt a shiver run down my spine. I'm not sure I've ever read anything so chilling. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes (read the review here), a novel about a Columbine-like school shooting. In conclusion, I wrote: "This book scared me to death." That book was fiction. This book is not. I wish it was. Disturbing does not even began to describe Columbine. Still, it's a fascinating, compulsively readable book that will linger in your nightmares long after you've turned the final page. It brings up questions that will churn endlessly in your mind: Could Columbine have been prevented? Do parents ever really know their children? At what point does typical teenage angst turn dangerous? Are some children really born bad? There are no easy answers. Even Cullen can't fully answer the biggest question that sprang out of the Columbine tragedy: Why? He simply presents the evidence - a staggering amount of it - and lets us draw our own conclusions. And what conclusion have I come to? Columbine is unparalleled in its scope, its detail, its research. It's fascinating on every level. But, I've never been more relieved to finish a book. Although some events must be remembered, sometimes all you want to do is forget. Thanks to Columbine by Dave Cullen, I never, ever will.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for violence, language and very disturbing content
(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Merry Christmas in July (With A Giveaway)!

So what if it's a sweltering 110 degrees outside? Who cares if the mere thought of putting on a sweater makes me break out in a heat rash? Does it really matter if Christmas is 5 months away? Let's celebrate now. Merry Christmas in July!

One of the great things about Disney is that not only do they provide me with newly-published books, but they also allow me to make selections from their backlist. That's how I ended up with 2 or the 3 holiday picture books I'm going to review here. The last book was just published - it's so new I couldn't find a picture of it on the Internet.

Now, what would Christmas be like without presents? Probably filled with more peace, gratitude and love ... ANYWAY, read all the way to the bottom of this post to find your "gift" - a chance to win a free book.

Let the festivities begin ...

I'm really excited about this first one. A few years ago around Christmastime, I was looking for a new holiday read aloud. I noticed Are You Grumpy, Santa Claus? by JibJab creators Gregg and Evan Spiridellis. It looked funny, so I bought it. It didn't take long for it to become a favorite around our house.

So, when I saw that the Spiridelli brothers had penned another holiday tale, I had to have it. While The Longest Christmas List Ever isn't nearly as funny as the first story, it's just as engaging. With bright, colorful illustrations, it tells the story of Trevor, a boy who wants to make sure he gets everything he wants for Christmas. Soon, his list's so long it bursts out of his house and winds down Main Street. When he attempts to mail it to Santa, Trevor will learn an important lesson about Christmas.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G



I'm not familiar with Jonathan Allen's other books, but apparently he's written several others in the "I'm Not" series. In "I'm not Santa!," Little Hare mistakes fluffly Little Owl for Santa Claus. The more Little Hare insists, the more frustrated Little Owl grows. It takes a special visitor to calm them both down. Simple illustrations and a funny storyline make this a fast, enjoyable read. It's sure to get some laughs from the 4-5 year old set.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

If you're a Tim Burton fan, you'll enjoy this next one: The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Steven Davison and Carolyn Gardner (illustrations by Tim Wollweber and Sherri Lundberg). This ghoulish version of The Twelve Days of Christmas features characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas counting down in their own special way. Tim Burton's style is a little too bizarre for me, so I wasn't all that impressed with this one. I requested it because my 10-year-old is a fan. If you are, too, chances are you'll appreciate it more than I did.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scary images


You all know that it's better to give than to receive, so get ready for some giving! Actually, I received two copies of The Lost Summer, a newly-released YA novel by Kathryn Williams from Disney, so I'm giving one away. I haven't read it yet, but here's the blurb from the jacket flaps:

For seventeen-year-old Helena Waite, summer means more than just a break from school - it means Southpoint. Each July, Helena returns to the summer camp with its familiar routines, landmarks, and faces. This year, however, she is returning not as a camper but as a counselor. The only downside? Her best friend, Katie Bell, is still a camper.

As the days begin to heat up, Helena discovers that the innocent world of bonfires and field days has been pushed aside for late-night prans on the boys' camp and skinny-dipping in the lake. To fit into this new life, Helena finds herself turning her back on Katie Bell, and when a longtime crush becomes a romantic possibility, life gets even more confusing. With the carefree summers of her past slipping through her fingers, Helena begins to wonder why growing up means having to change.

Told with honesty and heart, Kathryn Williams's second novel tackles the timeless themes of coming-of-age, summer romance, and, of course, the power of friendship.

Like it or not (and I'm in the not camp), summer's not over yet, so I thought this would be a good Christmas in July giveaway. If it sounds like something you'd be interested in, all you have to do is complete this sentence: All I want for Christmas is ... I'll draw the name of one winner on August 12 (the day my older kids go back to school - woo hoo!). If you blog about the giveaway, I'll even give you an extra entry. See, how that giving thing works? Nice, eh? Oh yeah, the contest is open to readers everywhere. Good luck!

(All book images from Barnes & Noble)

Friday, July 24, 2009

It's Not the Bible, But It'll Do In A Pinch

I have a confession to make: Like many a BYU student, I spent my college years toting around a Franklin planner. Like many graduates, I continued to lug it around long after my student days ended. For a good 12 years or so, it accompanied me everywhere. My husband affectionately dubbed it my Brain. A couple years ago, I realized I wasn't using it enough to justify the high cost of yearly refill paper, so I abandoned it. Now, I scratch out my daily To Do list on a legal pad. It's not nearly as pretty, but it's much, much cheaper. Despite the fact that I no longer carry around a Franklin planner, I still consider Stephen R. Covey to be a time management God. I swear I haven't read anything original on the subject since the publication of his Bible, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in 1989. Every time management how-to I've read since then seems to simply parrot Covey's ideas. Just so we're clear - if you're only going to read one book on the subject, make it Covey's.

Considering my Franklin/Covey obsession, it's probably not hard to understand why I approached Time Management In An Instant with skepticism. Could it really contain anything new? Since it's a slim volume promising learning "in an instant," I asked myself, "Hey - what have you got to lose?" The answer was nothing, so I gave it a shot. Did this Steven R. Covey devotee learn anything new? Not really, but I did gain some new insight on some old time management techniques. And while it didn't happen "in an instant," it did happen pretty darn fast.

The authors of Time Management In An Instant, Karen Leland and Keith Bailey, run Sterling Consulting Group. As consultants, they have advised such companies as Microsoft, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and Marriott Hotels. They've co-authored several books together. With such success under their belts, it's safe to assume they know a little something about effective time management. According to them, increasing efficiency boils down to 3 core principles: Planning, eliminating distractions, and accomplishing tasks through doing or delegating. In 60 quick chapters, they tell you exactly how to accomplish this. Each section contains exercises, tips and Hot Hints on relevant topics, like how to set realistic goals, how to make the most of business meetings, the importance of taking real vacations, and how to delegate effectively. While it doesn't say anything you don't already know, it does underscore the importance of basic time management principles.

Most of the information in the book applies directly to business professionals, which means it doesn't quite translate into my life as a SAHM (I only wish I could convince my kids not to distract me simply by hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign on my cubicle). However, there were a couple of concepts that really rang true to me. One is the idea that "time can't really be managed (an hour is an hour) [but] your energy can" (41). They emphasize that completed tasks boost your energy, while lingering jobs zap it. Hence, when I straighten my house before I go to bed, I wake up feeling better than if I don't. The other is the importance of getting a good night's sleep. Yes, I know this is as basic as it gets, but I can't think of anything else that effects my efficiency as much as exhaustion. So, while Time Management In An Instant offers plenty of great advice on filing systems, how to deal with e-mail, and how to choose the right planner for you (Go, Franklin!), this is what jumped out most to me.

Yes, I'm still a Steven R. Covey groupie. Still, if you want to learn the basic principles of time management and you don't have a lot of time, Time Management In An Instant is the way to go. It's fast, to-the-point, and the perfect size for toting along in your briefcase. It can't replace a Bible like 7 Habits, but it's excellent as a quick, basic reference guide.

Now, to prove what a good little student I am, I'm headed off to bed. Watch out, world - tomorrow, I'm going to be a laundry-folding, cookie-baking, dust-sweeping machine. Now, where did I put that "Do Not Disturb" sign ...

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G (although the subject matter might be a little dull for children)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Schooled Looks at Life On Mars, I Mean, Middle School

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Claverage Middle School might as well be Mars for 13-year-old Capricorn Anderson. Raised on an isolated farming commune, he's wholly unprepared for the noise, the bullying, the chaos that defines junior high. But with Rain, his grandmother and guardian, in the hospital, Cap really doesn't have a choice - it's either Claverage (dubbed "C Average" by the student body) or a group home. He'll take Claverage, even if it embodies everything that's wrong with the "money-hungry rat race of modern society" (4) from which Rain has tried so hard to shield him.

Schooled by Gordon Korman tells the story of tie-dye wearing, peace-loving Cap, as he navigates his way through the alien world of C Average. His hippie clothes, scraggly hair, and complete innocence (When a teacher accuses him of being a regular Jerry Seinfeld, he replies in all seriousness, "You must have me confused with another student. My name is Capricorn Anderson." [19]) make him the perfect target for some good, old-fashioned bullying. Because he's never experienced meanness in his life, Cap can't understand why he keeps finding spitballs in his hair, why kids direct him to classrooms that don't exist, or why he's suddenly been elected eighth grade class president.

For Zach Powers, the most popular boy in 8th Grade, Capricorn Anderson provides the perfect opportunity to prove exactly who's boss at C Average Middle School. As the Big Kahuna on Campus, it's his right to find the biggest nerd around, electing him class president, and watch him stumble through the job like an idiot. Cap's too perfect - when Zach informs him that the class president has to hold press conferences in the geography lab, the hippie kid searches the school for the fictional classroom. When Zach tells him the president has to know the name of every kid in school, Cap memorizes the yearbook. Cap's utterly guileless, and it's irking Zach to no end. It's just no fun picking on a kid who has no idea he's being picked on. The worst part is, some of his posse actually feel sorry for Cap - weirdly enough, the oddest kid ever to walk C Average's halls, is quickly becoming Zach's biggest rival.

Capricorn Anderson hardly realizes there is such a thing as a middle school hierarchy, let alone his changing place in it. All he wants is to get back to the commune, where he can breathe fresh air, harvest his fruit, and live in perfect harmony with nature and the one person who really understands him, his grandma. Zach wants nothing more than to grant him his wish. What happens when the Kahuna and the hippie kid collide? Well, Bob Dylan's immortal words describe it pretty well: The Times They Are A'Changin'. With Capricorn Anderson in the house, C Average will never be the same again.

Fresh and funny, Schooled provides a unique take on the familiar subject of identity. Capricorn Anderson - a boy who's too pure to be anything but authentic - shows readers exactly what it means to be true to oneself. Never preachy, the story's simply different, fun, and entertaining - with a message that comes across loud and clear. I adored it.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some junior high-type humor (nothing really crass, just a lot of talk about wedgies and such).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Magic Done Gone, Y'all

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Generations of Beth Hayes' family grew up on the shores of Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. Their rambling old beach house - Island Gamble - has seen all their tragedies, triumphs and downright disasters. As much as Beth loves the old house, it's really her mother's refuge, not hers. So, when she's asked to housesit for a year while her mother flits off to Paris, she grumbles. A lot. Not only has she just graduated from Boston College, but Beth's got plans to attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Now, the family's asking her to put her life on hold to babysit their crumbling house of horrors. True, there are worse places to write than the beach. But, still ...

In Dorothea Benton Frank's Return to Sullivan's Island, Beth Hayes does just that - returns to the island where she's spent countless days roaming the dunes, searching for crabs, and watching the tide roll in from the Gamble's back porch. With the relatives pursuing their various dreams in faraway locales like France and California, Beth has the place to herself. Well, kinda. She has Lola, her miniature Yorkshire - plus all the cranky dead Hamiltons who just can't seem to pass peacefully to the other side. Beth's not about to put up with all their antics - slamming doors, creaking floors, creepy turn down service - but the spirits aren't necessarily cooperating with this uppity new generation.

With characteristic (inherited?) aplomb, Beth sets about making a life for herself on the island. Her job search yields opportunities for friendship, even career advancement. It also leads her into the arms of handsome Max Mitchell, a developer who's determined to introduce Sullivans Island to the modern age. Sure, he's a little distracted, but it's not long before Beth's imagining what their kids would look like. Her new friend, Cecily, who also happens to be the granddaughter of Livvie Singleton (The Hayes' beloved Gullah maid), cautions Beth against falling too hard. But, it's too little too late. Soon, she's got so much going on even she can hardly keep things straight - with two jobs to work, a man to keep, and a family of haints to appease, her hands are full to overflowing. Then there's her family - her cousin's drinking heavily; her Aunt Allison seems to have gone off the deep end, and Aunt Sophie just doesn't sound like herself. Beth, always the responsible one, must handle it all. But, what about her own needs? When is her life ever going to begin? Is there really a place for her on Sullivan's Island?

Sullivan's Island (which I reviewed here) charmed me with its Southern magic, but its sequel just doesn't have the same juju. The new characters aren't nearly as appealing (except for Cecily, who sparkles, just like Livvie did); even those from the first book seem duller somehow. I spent a lot of the book asking, "When did Beth turn into such a brat?" It was only toward the end that she started growing on me. A little. Frank's wild swings in point of view also drove me crazy - the majority of the book comes straight from Beth, but occasionally, Frank would linger in another character's head, giving his/her POV. I hate that. Plotwise, Return to Sullivan's Island is generic and predictable, even a little boring. I still love the authenticity of the setting, with that hint of Gullah magic in the air, but it doesn't leap off the page like it did in the first book. Conclusion? I wanted more from this sequel, and it just didn't deliver. Sorry y'all, but the magic's gone 'eah.

Grade: C

If this was (were?) a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language, some sexual content, some violence, and references to drug use and underrage drinking.

This review is part of Dorothea Benton Frank's virtual tour with MotherTalk. For more opinions, check out this page.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Roll Out the Red Carpet ...

... 'cause I snagged an award. The lovely Katie over at 101 Books in 1001 Days bestowed this on me:

Thanks so much, Katie. I'm constantly surprised that anyone even reads my blog, let alone gives me awards for my work. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
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Speaking of awards, did you know Book Blogger Appreciation Week is rolling around again? This is such a fun idea - I had a blast participating in it last year. Click over to the website for more info and to register. Also, stop by Amy's blog and thank her for hosting this great event.
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In other news, summer's winding down here; in less than 3 weeks, the kids will be back in school. I've enjoyed our lazy days, but I'm excited to get back into a routine. Unfortunately, the weather's still wicked hot. We've had some crazy monsoon storms, complete with thunder, lighting, rain and strong winds. They wreak serious havoc (we had to pull a deck box out of the pool last night, plus a couple of our trees doubled over in the wind), but they're fun to watch.

I've been reading like crazy, even though my review pile never seems to grow any smaller. I'm not complaining - I have some great books waiting for me, I just can't seem to get to them all fast enough. I've got two books going right now - as soon as I finish them, I'll have some new reviews up. I'm also planning a fun Christmas in July post, complete with a gift for YOU, so stick around.

For those of you waiting for books you've won, thank you for your patience. I'm planning to mail them out tomorrow.

'Til then, Happy Reading!

Sullivan's Island: When Suzie Gets Her Sassy Back, Y'all Better Watch Out

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Another time, we will shag, I'll teach you a little Gullah poem and we'll argue on how to make use of an entire ham. We will stroll down to the Sullivans's Island beach at dawn, talking hurricanes, tide tables and sand castles. You will spread your arms in the eastern wind and feel the sun rise in every one of your bones. Once the sand of Sullivan's Island gets in your shoes, your heart will ache to return. And return you will. You will be one of us. You won't mind being a little bit Geechee.

As the head and light of day begin to rise and glow, I'll feed you a Lowcountry breakfast of warm salted air, and smiling, you will tell all these stories to your friends until you think they're your own. You will hum this music of so much magic forever. Yes, you will. 'Eah?

- Dorothea Benton Frank
Author's Note

Despite the fact that I'm a complete and utter Yank who's spent barely a week in the South, there are times when I wish I grew up eating grits for breakfast, talking with a soft drawl, and being shushed by a large, loud Mammy-type. Those times pretty much always coincide with me reading a big-hearted Southern novel like Dorothea Benton Frank's Sullivan's Island: A Lowcountry Tale. Something about all that Southern charm just oozing out from between the covers makes me want to start throwing y'alls around, you know? Yankee or not, I do love me a good Southern novel.

Still, Sullivan's Island started out a little slowly for me. I wasn't immediately taken with our heroine, Susan Hamilton Hayes, a librarian who finds her husband of 16 years in bed with another woman. Unlike the dowdy Susan, this pretty young thing's been "chemically enhanced and surgically improved" (5). Blaming herself for her husband's infidelity, Susan turns into a simpering mess, yelling at him to get out, even while packing his toiletry bag so he doesn't strain himself. Her life in shambles, she grabs her 14-year-old daughter and makes for Island Gamble, her ancestral home on Sullivan's Island. With the smell of plough mud in her nostrils and a hint of Gullah magic swirling in the air, Susan finally comes back to herself - and when Suzie gets her sassy back, well, y'all better just watch out. Suddenly, she's a much, much more interesting character. And the story gets saucier, funnier and much, much better.

In chapters alternating between the past and the present, we get Susan's bio: As a child of the island, she spends her days running wild - scaling water towers, filling coffee cans with blackberries, collecting crabs for supper, and swinging lazily on the porch hammock. Outside, life seems free and easy. Inside the Island Gamble, however, is another story altogether - between her father's mean streak; her grandparents' steady decline; and her mother's drug-induced stupor; Susan and her siblings fend for themselves, steering clear of the mine field that is their home. That is, until Livvie shows up. The Gullah housekeeper demands order of the household, offering a breath of cunja-spiced fresh air. Livvie's good-natured efficiency seems to be just what the doctor ordered for a family whose tragedies are about to go from bad to worse. Despite the traumas and dramas of her childhood, Susan survives. Forty-some-odd years later, she's living in Charleston with her daughter, eking out a meager living, negotiating a divorce with her tightwad husband, and trying not to fall apart completely. With the help of her sister Maggie, who's turned the Island Gamble into a happy family home, Susan's just might be able to find the refuge she needs on the island that has cradled her since birth.

But the island holds great mysteries as well. How did her father, a raving hypocrite who terrorized his family, but (very vocally) supported the civil rights movement, really die? Is Susan destined to become her mother - trampled on, discarded, constantly used by men? Is she, who received little affection as a child, even capable of real love? And, most importantly of all, can the island that shaped her then heal her now?

Like the place itself, Sullivan's Island is a little rough around the edges. Frank's prose could use some polish, her two plotlines - Susan's life crisis and the mystery of her father's death - could have been more smoothly intertwined, and she could have tied up all the loose ends in a tighter knot. Still and all, I enjoyed this wild, funny romp. Frank's characters come alive well enough, although the setting upstages them all. Sullivan's Island sizzles with life and color - it pops off the page with a vibrancy unrivaled even by the irrepressible Livvie. There's plenty of drama here, but it's tempered with humor and a whole lotta heart. Oozing with Southern charm and a little Gullah magic, Sullivan's Island makes for good reading. Know what I mean, y'all?

Grade: B

If this was (were?) a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language, fairly graphic (though totally hilarious) sexual content, and some violence.

(Note: I'm not clear on the proper way to write Sullivan's Island. Frank, herself, uses the name both with and without the apostrophe. The book's cover declares it Sullivan's Island, while its sequel reads Return to Sullivans Island [no apostrophe]. I found the name on the Internet both ways. I decided to use the apostrophe since that's the way it appears on the book's cover. I apologize for any error.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lush Hawaiian Epic Celebrates Aloha Spirit

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I'll be honest, I haven't been really thrilled with the books Elle has sent me to review so far. The majority have been depressing, profanity-filled diatribes that I suffered through only out of duty; one was so filthy I couldn't stand to look at it, let alone review it. So, when I opened up the newest batch of books from the magazine, I gasped in surprise and delight: right on top lay a glossy, hardback copy of Alan Brennert's new novel, Honolulu. The cover alone made me sigh. Having been swept away by Brennert's first book, Moloka'i (which I reviewed here), I stepped into this new story with eager anticipation. While it's not quite as affecting as its predecessor, Honolulu draws readers in with the same aloha charm, moving them with a story as dramatic and enthralling as the islands themselves.

The story actually begins in Korea in the early 1900s. Young Regret (so named because she is not a son) lives a life that is"typically Korean" (3). As a girl, she is expected to shadow her mother, learning to cook, clean, sew and otherwise serve the men of the house. Because males and females - even relatives - must be kept separate "like wheat from chaff" (4), she spends most of her time confined to the Inner Rooms of her home; when she does venture out, she must wear a veil so as not to attract male attention. Eventually, she will marry a man chosen by her father, re-locate to his family home, and serve him under the close scrutiny of her mother-in-law. Her future is as inevitable as the rise of the sun.

Or is it? When Regret spies a discarded newspaper, a whole new world opens up in front of her. The words intrigue her. If only she could attend school like her brothers, she would be able to decipher the mysteries of the written word. When her request for an education is vehemently denied by her imposing father, Regret takes matters into her own hands. Clandestine reading lessons allow her to dream of a life away from Korea. Opportunity knocks, and soon Regret ships out to Hawaii as a "picture bride" - a woman engaged to marry a man she knows only through the exchange of photos. Her excitement turns to dread when she realizes her intended is not the wealthy young man he purported to be. In fact, he's a poor plantation worker, who tends to talk with his fists. Still, she's hopeful that life in this exotic new world will give her what she craves - a chance to learn.

And learn she does. Regret quickly discovers that life rarely turns out as planned. From the plantations of Waialua to the brothels of Iwilei to the beach at Waikiki, she will gain her education. Joy and sorrow, shame and pride, fear and peace - she will experience it all as she comes of age on an island that's gradually making its own transformation. The tale that begins with the arrival of a naive picture bride to a "sleepy little port at the end of the world" (328) ends with a woman shaped by experience, beaming with pride at the thriving melting pot that is Honolulu.

Lush and lovely, Honolulu begs to be savored. While the story holds enough twists and turns to keep the story moving, it's largely plotless. Its beauty lies in its sense of place, its sense of culture, its sense of humanity. Character trumps all else here, and Regret is the kind of character we can all cheer - she's kind, hard-working and brave. Brennert paints the sights, smells and people of Hawaii so vividly, that she becomes a character in her own right. We see her rubbing shoulders with Regret as they both come of age in a time of great adventure and chaos. Brennert mixes in enough history to make the story believable, but not boring. The result is an epic story of Hawaii, a fitting tribute to the immigrants who came to her shores and made them their own. It pays homage to a place where cultures collided to create "a whole greater than the sum of its parts" (354). But, mostly, it celebrates life - well lived.

Grade: B

If this was a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, violence, some sexual content, and adult situations.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Help A Pitch-Perfect Southern Masterpiece



It's a well-established fact that I need another book like I need a hole in the head. Still, walking into a bookstore makes me feel all tingly inside. That new-book smell, those glossy covers, and the stories - oh, the stories just waiting to be read. I know I don't have to explain. You're bookworms. You understand. At any rate, when I walked into the BYU Bookstore last week, I saw that Kathryn Stockett's debut novel, The Help, was on sale for 25% off. I've been coveting this book for awhile now, but a brand new hardback isn't exactly cheap, so I've been resisting the urge to buy it. Even with the discount, it was insanely expensive, but I broke down and bought it anyway. I just couldn't help myself. (Funny enough, when my MIL saw my purchase, she just laughed. She'd nearly finished her copy from the library, and had been planning to pass it on! Ah well.) While I regretted parting with that much money, I have to say, the more I read, the happier I became with my exorbiant purchase - The Help is one of those luscious books that makes you want to savor every delicious word. Having my own copy meant I didn't have to rush.

The Help takes place in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. For the city's wealthy white women, life flows along in a whirl of bridge games, League meetings, and tennis matches at the club. Black housekeepers tend to their sprawling homes and neglected children, leaving ample time for social outings. On the other side of town, those same housekeepers come home to another round of cooking, cleaning, and child care - this time for their own families. Just as the society women complain about the ineptitude of their "Help," so do the maids complain about their lazy, always critical bosses. A great, invisible line separates the women - a barrier of race, class and culture - that prevents them from realizing just how similar they really are.

Despite being part of the society crowd, Skeeter Phelan has always been different. With her beanpole figure and woefully frizzy hair, she's neither beautiful nor elegant. Her fingers are more comfortable poised over a typewriter than clasped around a teacup. A degree from Ole Miss hasn't gotten her far - she's living on her family's cotton plantation writing a silly housekeeping column for the local newspaper. Sick of the banality of it all, Skeeter longs to do something with her life. She aches to write about something more meaningful than ring-around-the-collar. When she starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of her beloved maid, Skeeter begins asking herself questions she's never pondered before - What is it like to be a black maid working for a white family? Finally, she's found a worthy subject. Her curiosity leads her to a project that will challenge everything she's ever known. In a city already boiling with racial tension, Skeeter's clandestine meetings with local maids are risky, indeed - discovery could mean anything from imprisonment to death. Yet, she forges on, knowing that her purpose is "For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought." However noble her aims, Skeeter's project will be disastrous. And illuminating. In fact, it will change her life - forever.

Told in the voices of Aibileen, a long-suffering maid with a soft spot for children; Minny, her mouthy best friend; and Skeeter, the white woman who gives them the biggest, riskiest opportunity of their lives; The Help is a pitch-perfect Southern masterpiece. It's this funny:

For four days straight, I sit at my typewriter in my bedroom ... On day three, Mother calls up the stairs to ask what in the world I'm doing up there all day and I holler down, Just typing up some notes from the Bible study. Just writing down all the things I love about Jesus. I hear her tell Daddy, in the kitchen after supper, "She's up to something." I carry my little white baptism Bible around the house, to make it more believable. (155)

And this poignant:

"I give her a good hug. I reckon she don't get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib. Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it's a stray cat stuck in the screen door. See, Miss Leefolt, she dress up nice ever day. Always got her makeup on, got a carport, double-door Frigidaire with the built-in icebox. You see her in the Jitney 14 grocery, you never think she go and leave her baby crying in her crib like that. But the help always know" (4).

And this beautiful:

"All my life I'd been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine's thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe" (63).

If you can't tell, I love this book. I could scour my thesaurus looking for adjectives convincing enough to make you read it, but I think you get the picture. It's a lovely, satisfying novel. Read it. Share it. Recommend it to your book club. I promise you'll never forget it.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13, for some language, sexual innuendo, some violence and adult situations.

(Book image from Barnes & Noble)

Friday, July 10, 2009

You're All Winners Here ...

... but only two of you snag prizes this time around. Thanks to all who entered and to Hachette and Disney for providing books for this giveaway. Without further ado, here are the winners:


Planetbooks wins a copy of The Garth Factor by Patsi Bale Cox.

Valerie wins a copy of A Sweet Disorder by Jacqueline Kolosov.

Congratulations, ladies! If you'll send me your snail mail addresses (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom), I'll get your books out as soon as I can. Thanks again for entering. If you didn't win this time, don't fret - I have lots more books to give away!


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Post-Vacation Notes

So, I'm back from Utah, where we had a fabulous time celebrating the 4th with family and friends. The weather was cool and drizzly - it made coming back to Arizona very, very difficult. It's so hot here that the pool water feels like bathwater. Ugh. I did come home to a large box of books from Disney, as well as a stack of other review books. So, guess how I'll be spending the rest of my summer? Mmm hmm.

Anyway, I wanted to mention a couple of things:

- Tomorrow, I'm going to be drawing the names of the winners of the two book giveaways I have going on right now. There aren't tons of entries, so you still have a good chance of winning. If you haven't entered the giveaways, do it now! Check out my right sidebar for more info.

- On my left sidebar, under the heading "A Note to Authors/Publishers," you may have noticed that I have a link to a list of the review books I currently have in my possession. Apparently, I never checked to make sure the link actually worked. Author Diana Orgain let me know she couldn't access the spreadsheet (Thanks, Diana - you get a good review for sure :) ). I have now fixed it, so you can check out my ridiculously long list of books to review. The crazy thing is, I have a good 20-25 more to add. I've tried to stop myself from accepting new books, but I just can't help it. I'm an addict.

- Okay, time to get back to real life. The worst part about vacation is transitioning back to normality - laundry, housework, bills, a messy desk, etc. *Sigh* So much to do, so little time ...

Dismantled: Too Much "Ick" for True Enjoyment

Have you ever gotten halfway through a book and thought to yourself, "Why am I still reading this?" That was my experience with Jennifer McMahon's Dismantled, except that I repeated the question 1/3 of the way, 1/2 of the way, 3/4 of the way, etc. My reluctance had nothing to do with a slow plot, shoddy writing or dull characters - it had everything to do with McMahon's constant use of profanity, some fairly graphic sex scenes, and the depressing tone of the novel. As much as I wanted to cast the book aside, though, the plot kept me riveted. I had to find out what happened. So, I finished Dismantled, but I can't quite decide what to say about it.

The story revolves around Henry and Tess DeForge, a couple who are drifting further and further apart every day. Emma, their 9-year-old daughter, will do anything to keep them together. When she begins snooping through her father's things, she discovers that her parents were part of a college group called the Compassionate Dismantlers. Reuniting them with their old friends seems like a good way to help them rekindle the passion they must have felt back then. Tossing a handful of postcards into the mailbox seems innocent enough, but Emma's desperate act will have dire repercussions for her and everyone she loves.

As Henry's past comes crawling into the present, he heads straight for the bottle. But Jack Daniels is no match for the memories that have haunted Henry since the Dismantlers dismantled. He remembers the group's beginning - under the seductive leadership of Suz Pierce, five art students assembled to commit meaningful acts of eco-terrorism. Soon, however, what started as a social statement became Suz's tool for exacting revenge on everyone who wronged her. It didn't take long for things to go awry. While living together in a lakeside cabin, the friends commited an unspeakable act. In abject terror, the group dissolved, swearing never to speak of the incident. Now it seems someone wants to reunite the Dismantlers. But why?

Emma has no idea what kind of monster she's unleashed. She's only following directions from Danner, her mischevious invisible friend. All she wants is for her parents to stay together, but with messages mysteriously painted on trees, a P.I. poking around, and the appearance of a strange woman, Henry and Tess are more freaked out than ever. As events spiral out of her control, Emma finds herself caught up in the mess created by her parents' past. The question is: Can any of them escape unscathed?

The whole past-coming-back-to-haunt-the-present thing has fueled plenty of novels, but I still love the device. It makes stories deliciously suspenseful. With a little bit of the supernatural thrown in, McMahon gives her version a nice, spine-tingling twist. Still, it's got the traditional tension build-up, followed by a heart-pounding, truth-revealing finale. McMahon rounds out her story with intriguing, very human characters. They are a tortured, depressing bunch, but they're interesting. If it hadn't been for the swearing, the sex scenes (some of which are homosexual in nature), and the bizarre ending, I probably would have really liked Dismantled. Unfortunately, all the "ick" kept me from truly enjoying the read. I did learn something, though: If I have to ask myself (repeatedly), "Why am I still reading this book?" then I really shouldn't be wasting my time.

Grade: C

If this was a movie, it would be rated: R for excessive profanity, sexual/homosexual content, drug use, and violence.

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