Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Dozen Years of Marriage and Two Winners

It's my anniversary today (12 years!) and that can only mean one thing ... I'm going to announce the winners of my latest giveaway. Without further ado, here they are:


The winner of 1 copy of Secrets of Truth & Beauty by Megan Frazer is Tiffany (whose email begins td.ss...)!




The winner of 1 copy of Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson is AMPM of Wicked Fun Reads!

Congrats, ladies! Shoot me an email (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]) with your snail mail address and I'll get your books in the mail ASAP. Thanks for playing, everyone. More giveaways are coming soon, so check back often.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This Book's A Keeper - Savvy?

Turning 13 can be an adventure for anyone, but when you're part of the Beaumont clan, it's a

little more ... um, exciting ... than usual. When Rocket Beaumont hit 13, he created a crackling, lightbulb-popping electrical storm; with his brother, Fish, it was a swirling, whirling hurricane. Now, it's Mibs' turn to discover her "savvy" - will it be electricity, hurricanes or something less destructive, like her mother's perfect-in-every-way savvy? Whatever it is, one thing's for certain - no one outside the family can know about it. A Beaumont's 13th birthday is, and always has been, a very private affair.

Savvy by Ingrid Law begins two days before Mibs' big day. Even though Rocket insists that "Girls don't get the powerful jujubes," Mibs can't wait to see what she will get. She's excited, nervous and most of all, thrilled that she won't have to attend public school any longer. Since savvies can't always be controlled, she'll be homeschooled until she learns to "scumble" her powers. She can definitely do without a bunch of snotty kids reminding her what a freak show her family is. Mibs is delighted to spend her birthday at home in the midst of that very freak show - the people she loves the most.

When the Beaumonts receive an urgent phone call, all plans are thrown out the window. Poppa's been injured in a 10-car pileup on the freeway. Their beloved, non-savvy father lies in a coma at Salina Hope Hospital, 60 miles away. Momma and Rocket rush to Poppa's side, leaving Mibs, her grandpa, and 3 of her siblings, in the care of the preacher's wife. Miss Rosemary Meeks "had her own matching set of rights and wrongs - like suitcases she made other people carry - and she took it upon herself to make everything and everyone as shipshape and apple-pie as she felt the Lord had intended them to be" (17-18). Part of her plan includes a very public, 3-ring circus of a birthday party for Mibs. The birthday girl knows any crazy thing can happen - and it does. Before she realizes it, she's stowing away on a pink bus, convinced she can save her father with her new-found savvy. But, the bus is headed in the wrong direction; she's unexpectedly taken along a whole crowd of hostages; her savvy's not performing quite like it should; and Poppa's getting worse by the day. Despite all the magic inside her, Mibs has managed to get herself into the biggest pickle of her life. Is she savvy enough to get herself back out of it?

Savvy's gotten a lot of buzz in the book blogosphere; I, for one, think it's well-deserved. This quirky story charms from its colorful front cover, to its jacket flap plot summary, to the story itself, to Law's author bio. I loved this description:

Always on the hunt for her own savvy, Ingrid Law has dabbled in costume design, floral design, and fiber arts. She has sold shoes, worked in a bookstore, helped other people get jobs, and assembled boxes for frozen eggplant burgers. Today, she writes and imagines with her thirteen-year-old daughter in a lovely old mobile home called "Poppy," which they like to believe is a cross between a spaceship and a shoe box. They enjoy writing on its walls and painting on its ceiling, and have filled their home to the brim with wonderfl things like good books, fluffly pillows, a ukulele, and the aroma of baking muffins.

I tell you what, I've never wanted to live in a funky old mobile home more than I want to right now! Law's own charming brand of sorcery infuses her book with what can only be described as magic. Her characters are loveable, her story engaging, her writing bewitching. I adore Savvy, and can't wait for the sequel (coming Fall 2010).

Grade: A

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

A Reminder and A Meme

First off, don't forget to enter my giveaway. I've got two YA novels up for grabs - don't miss the chance to nab them. I will be drawing the names of two winners (one for each book) tomorrow. All the info is on my right sidebar. Good luck!

Next, I found this meme over at Book Gazing, a blog I discovered recently. I haven't done one in awhile, so I thought it would be fun. I'd love to hear your answers.

Here's the deal: Answer each question using the title of a book you've read this year. Try not to repeat titles. It's not as easy as it looks!

Describe yourself: Lucky Girl (by Mei-Ling Hopgood)

How do you feel: Savvy (by Ingrid Law)

Describe where you currently live: The Other Side of Paradise (by Stacey Ann Chin)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Honolulu (by Alan Brennert)

Your favorite form of transportation: Wings (by Aprilynne Pike)

Your best friend is: Time Managment in an Instant (by Karen Leland and Keith Bailey)

You and your friends are: The Mighty Queens of Freeville (by Amy Dickinson)

What's the weather like: A Crooked Kind of Perfect (by Linda Urban)

You fear: Angels of Destruction (by Keith Donohue)

What is the best advice you have to give?: If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (by Pseudonymous Bosch)

Thought for the day: Handle With Care (by Jodi Picoult)

How I would like to die: Just Take My Heart (by Mary Higgins Clark)

My soul's present condition: Paradise Valley (by Robyn Carr)

Give it a try :)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Resistance Is Futile (Or, Why I'm Joining Another Reading Challenge When I Already Have Enough Review Books to Outfit A Small Library)

Since last year saw me fail SPECTACULARLY at all the challenges for which I signed up, I have been trying to restrain myself from joining any in 2009. I've literally been sitting on my hands to stop myself from doing Carl's RIP Challenge. I've got waaaayyy too much to read and review right now. So, when I heard about Linda Ellen's Middle Grade Book Challenge, which doesn't end until next year at this time, I thought, "Now, that's one I can handle." Since I'm already reading so much MG literature, it should be "easy cheesy" as my kids say.

If you're interested in joining me, you can find all the info here.

Even though a list is not required, I love lists, so I'm making one. Just try and stop me :) Here goes:

1. This Book Is Not Good for You by Pseudonymous Bosch - my review

2. The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

3. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

4. Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko - my review

5. Palace of Mirrors by Margaret Peterson Haddix - my review

6. Ever by Gail Carson Levine

7. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall - my review

8. The Penderwicks of Gardham Street by Jeanne Birdsall - my review

9. My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath

10. Heaven Eyes by David Almond

11. Skellig by David Almond

12. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

13. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

14. Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke

15. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

16. The Book of Story Beginnings by Kristen Kladstrup - my review

17. Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

18. The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

19. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

20. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy

21. The Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

22. Beauty by Robin McKinley

23. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

24. The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

25. Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What the Hale? (Or, An Open Letter to My BFF)

(This letter was written in response to a post on Shannon Hale's blog about book blogging. Check it out, then come on back and tell me what you think of my brilliant comments. Hee hee.)

Dear Shannon,

May I call you Shannon? I know we've never met, but I've read two of your books and I peek at your blog occasionally, so I feel as if we know each other already. Practically BFFs, you know? Okay, if you really want to see me gush, go here and here. See what I mean? I'm a fan. Anyway, since we're such pals, I'm not embarrassed to ask why you, an author who has been praised to high heaven all over the blogosphere, feel the need to shake things up by questioning time-honored book blogging practices. It's the tiniest bit ... insulting. You're a very nice lady, so I'm sure you don't mean it that way. I know you're only trying start a discussion. A conversation. Between friends. So, since you asked, I'm going to give you my opinion (us being so close and all).

I'm going to start with the last question first: What do you feel is your role as a reviewer?

Easy - it's to tell the truth. When I'm buying a book, or any product really, I don't necessarily trust the publisher/manufacturer's descriptions. Since its only aim is to sell the product, publishers will spin a book's flaws any way it wants. Thus, a sex-heavy tome becomes "provocative" instead of just vulgar; a plodding storyline's sold as "gently flowing;" a cookie-cutter action book's marketed as "in the tradition of James Patterson" instead of as the uninventive copycat it really is. Think about it - who do you trust more? The publisher, who promises "Thrilling!" "Luminous!" "Captivating!" or your neighbor, who cuts the crap and tells it like it is: "I was asleep by the second page," or "It's just like every other vampire book out there" or "Yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is." I'll choose my neighbor every time. Because I know my neighbor, I know her tastes, her prejudices, so I take her opinions with a grain of salt, but still ... I'm much more likely to pick up a book recommended by an unbiased friend than by a money-hungry publisher.

So, what's my role? I'm your neighbor. I'm the one who's going to tell you whether a book's really worth your time. Because you know I'm a prudish Mormon, you know I don't like novels with excessive profanity or sex; because I'm politically conservative, you know books about certain issues anger me; because you know that cozy mysteries aren't really my thing, you realize I'm not necessarily going to give your favorite cozy writer high marks. Considering all of this, you read my review, think about it, and buy the book if you think it's something you will like - whether I've praised it or slammed it. I'm not going to lie. I'm your neighbor - I'm going to tell it like it is. After all, that's why you like me so much :)

Now, because I'm not only a reviewer, but also a passionate booklover, I feel that part of my role includes promoting the art of reading. I recommend compelling books, I champion exciting new authors, I invite discussion about plot, characters, themes, etc. Books are my passion, my obsession, and my greatest desire is to share that with the world.

Lastly, I think my role as a reviewer is the same as any writer's - to engage my intended audience. I hate a stuffy book review as much as anyone. If I wanted to read dry, endless diatribes on plot construction, symbolism, and thematic development, I'd pull out my old English papers (not that I have them hanging around or anything). Instead, I write the type of reviews I'd like to read, which isn't to say that I don't occasionally get long-winded. Still, my goal is always to keep a reader's attention until I can make my point.

You asked: Do you find that the anticipation of reviewing the book has changed your reading experience?

I do, actually. Knowing I'm going to be reviewing a book makes me read it more actively. I consciously watch for phrases that speak to me, characters that appeal, and plots that suck me in. I examine how a writer accomplishes these feats. If a book has the opposite effect on me, I look for reasons why - has the author resorted to stereotypes instead of unique characters? Has he settled for re-telling a familiar story in a way that's only slightly his own? Or is it simply poor editing that's driving me nuts? It makes me do more than just decide if I like a book or not - it forces me to examine why. Because of this, I can no longer read a book without a notebook and pen handy. Sometimes this makes me sad, but mostly I think it makes me a better, more active reader.

You query: Are you rating the book even as you read? Or do you wait until the end to sum it all up?

I'm your neighbor, remember, so I'm not going to lie: I usually have a "grade" in my head by the time I reach a book's second chapter. By that time I can tell whether a book engages me or not, whether I care about the characters or not, and whether it deserves a general A B C D or F grade. Still, I would never determine a final grade without reading a book through to the end. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. Sometimes I'm not. But just like a teacher wouldn't grade an essay based solely on the first paragraph, I won't judge a book until I have a complete picture of its merits and flaws.

Your inquiring mind wants to know: Does knowing you'll be reviewing it (or rating it) publicly affect which books you pick up in the first place?

Yes and no. If I'm reading purely for pleasure, I experience no guilt over putting down a book I don't care for. If I don't like it, I won't finish it and therefore, won't review it. However, I read lots of books at the request of authors, publishers and publicists. Because I don't get off on hurting people's feelings or dissing authors simply for my own pleasure, and because I don't want to waste my own time, I try to choose books I think I will enjoy. If, for instance, I know a certain author pens profanity-filled novels about violent crimes, I'll probably deny his request for a review. If I find that I can't evaulate a review book fairly, I always let the author/publisher/publicist know. My aim is never to vilify an author, but I will always be honest. If a book sucks, I'm going to let people know.

Critiquing books on the Internet, I think, is a lot different from doing so in a newspaper or magazine. The Web allows authors and their fans to snap right back at reviewers who snipe and harp. Because of this, I think book bloggers are more gentle, more thoughtful, and more careful about what they write. Does it influece me when I know an author's going to be reading what I write about his/her book? Yes and no, but that's a discussion for another day ... (Give me a call, BFF, we'll dish.)

You ask: Does the process of writing the review itself change how you felt about the book?

Occasionally, but not often. In general, I have my review written in my head before I sit down at the computer. Sometimes, as I'm hammering out my ideas on the keyboard, I come to new understandings and conclusions, but that doesn't happen very often.

The thing that can change my view on a book is the discussions that grow out of my reviews. For instance, when I reviewed Kay Lynn Mangum's YA novel about a girl dealing with her brother's alcoholism, I criticized it for wrapping up too neatly, because my family's experience with the same issue was markedly different. When Kay Lynn explained that she based the character on the real-life experience of someone she knew, I realized that maybe my own experience wasn't the only one that was "real." Readers bring their own baggage, their own religion, politics, morals and life experience, to each book they read. It absolutely affects how they judge a book - like I said in a recent post, the best I can do is acknowledge those prejudices, be open to others' views, and re-evaluate a book if necessary. That's what's so wonderful about book discussion.

You query: What is your motivation to assign a rating to a book and declare it to the world?

I started "grading" books only recently. Why? For two reasons: to clarify my thoughts in my own mind and to make my opinions crystal clear to my readers. Like lots of book lovers, I read hundreds of reviews a week on blogs and websites, as well as in newspapers, magazines and trade publications. How many of them do I read word-for-word? Very few. Mostly, I skim to get to the pertinent information - Is this book worth my time? Will it entertain/teach/move/excite me? If I have to slog through a long, dull, overly-analytical discussion that ends with, "Well, I kind of liked this book. I mean, the characters were boring, the plot was sort of exciting, but pretty far-fetched, and my 4th grade daughter could have written more colorful dialogue. On the other hand, that one part kind of made up for the sappy ending, but I don't know if it's really for everyone ..." then I'm not going to be very happy. So, again, I try to give my readers the kind of review I would want to read. I don't mind analysis, but I want it to be clear, interesting, and end with a rock-solid opinion. Ambivalent about the book? It happens. Just say so and get on with it. For those who do enjoy stuffy, long-winded analyses, I've got some English papers for you ...

In general, a reader wants to know one thing: Will I like this book? So, I cut the wimpy, wishy-washy crap and tell it like it is. My readers appreciate my honesty. I also understand that my audience may not have time to read through my occasionally wordy reviews, so I boil my opinion down to a letter grade. If pressed for time, readers can scroll to the bottom of my post and easily find my "at-a-glance" conclusion.

A grade is always subjective. Readers are smart - they know that. I can't count the number of times people have said, "I know you gave this book a D, but it sounds like something I might like" or "How could you give that novel an A? It's the dullest, most appalling piece of tripe I've ever had the misfortune of reading." My grade = my opinion. Everyone understands that.

You say: So, I wonder if book evaluation is trumping self-evaluation. I wonder if we get so caught up in gushing or bashing, shining up those stars or taking them away, that the reading experience is weighed too heavily on the side of the book itself and not enough on the reader. After all, reader is more important than book. Reader is the one who changes from reading, not the book. Reader is the one who lives the magic of storytelling.

First of all, the magic has to be there in order for a reader to live it. I don't care how classic a book is, if I'm yawning through the first chapter, I'm unlikely to enjoy it. Does the fact that I'm bored with a text have to do with me as the reader or you as the author? An interesting question. I blame you. No, not really. Well, at least not totally. I think the author's responsibility is to provide solid entertainment, which doesn't mean an action-packed plot or over-the-top characters or heart-pounding cliffhangers. It means telling a story in a way that is engaging. Because I'm paying for this entertainment in cash and hours, I expect it to be worth my time. So, I better get some interesting characters, a compelling plot and a story that twists my heart in some way. As a reader, my job is to be open - intellectually as well as emotionally - to the experience. As a reviewer, however, my task is to evaluate whether or not a writer has done his/her job. That's book evaluation. It's based on things like logic and mechanics - Does the plot make sense? Would this type of character really talk that way, act that way, make that kind of decision? Would stricter editing have made the text more powerful? Of course, reviewers are also readers, so the emotional connection comes into play, maybe more than it should. I don't care how well-edited a book is, if it doesn't move me emotionally, I'm not going to recommend it. Truly and honestly, though, I don't think readers care how well-written a book is, they only care if it's going to speak to them. If I want an opinion on how well a book is structured or what kind of symbolism is being used, I'll ask an English professor; if I want to know if it's going to touch my heart, I'll ask a book blogger.

I know that doesn't really answer the question, so here's my opinion in a nutshell: The bulk of the responsibility lies with the author. Readers are paying for your books in hard-earned money and precious hours. Your job is to make those sacrifices worth it. Book reviewers are here to advocate for readers, to stop them from paying for shoddy work, and to encourage them to expend their energies where they will be most fruitful. Are we biased? Do we judge books based on emotion stemming from our own prejudices, politics, morals and experience? Do we sometimes get too carried away in our criticism? Absolutely. Do we need to 'fess up when our bias precludes fair judgment? Definitely. Authors should extend the same courtesy - I've had writers tell me, "You're right, I published that sappy story because I knew it would be an easy sell" or "I realize my first book lacks authenticity. It took me awhile to find my voice." A writer's honesty only makes me respect them more.

All in all, book bloggers are a responsible lot - we try our best to be honest, to give authors the benefit of the doubt, and to extol the virtues of the books we love. We often don't get the credit we deserve, but we keep on truckin' anyway. We love our books, we love the people who write them, and we love having a voice. Ask most bloggers why they write and the answer will be because expressing an opinion starts a conversation. Sometimes the talk is calm, sometimes it's angry, sometimes it's unfair, but it's a discussion none of us would be having if it wasn't for this crazy old blogosphere. The beauty of it for an author is that you can talk back to the critics - and they'll only love you more for it.

You insist: I'm very curious about all this and hope you feel free to speak freely (and kindly and respectfully, of course) even if you disagree with me.

Just by bringing up this subject, you've shown that you care. I didn't think it was possible for book bloggers to love you more than they already do, but I have a feeling your popularity around here is about to skyrocket. Just remember who you're real BFF is, you hear?

Sincerely,

Susan

Woodson's Black/White Tale Pops With Life, Color

(Image from Amazon)
Once I asked Miah if he ever forgot he was black. No. I never forget, he said. But sometimes it doesn't matter - like I just am. Then he asked me if I ever forgot I was white.
Sometimes, I said.
And when you're forgetting, what color are you?
No color.
Then Miah looked away from me and said, We're different that way (p. 174-175).

Elisha ("Ellie") Eisen and Jeremiah ("Miah") Roselind have a lot in common: They live in spacious New York apartments; both are new students at Percy Prep; they're smart, serious and lonely; neither of them quite understands their parents, and both fear the dissolution of their families. When the two literally run into each other, a spark ignites; the spark becomes a fire and soon the two are spending every possible moment together. Since this sometimes involves cutting class, it's a bit of a problem. But not their biggest one: Ellie's white and Jeremiah's black.

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson introduces this modern Romeo and Juliet, who are determined to be together despite the comments, despite the stares, despite what's considered "appropriate" in their respective neighborhoods. Both keep the relationship secret, unwilling to subject it to the scrutiny of their families. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize how little their differences matter - regardless of the color of their skin, they're best friends, best friends who are falling more in love every day. Not only do Ellie and Miah have to deal with the not-always-positive attention of being an interracial couple, but they're also coping with family issues as well as questions about their own identities. Their relationship sustains them, but why does something that feels so right to them look so wrong to everyone else? Can a friendship like theirs survive in a world that is anything but color blind?

I had to laugh when I started this book and realized how much it has in common with my last read. Honestly, I didn't plan this. In fact, I plucked If You Come Softly off the shelf based on the author's name alone - I've seen Woodson praised so many times, I knew I had to read her. My library had two of her novels on the shelf - I didn't bother skimming the jackets, I just grabbed them. Although the stories are far from identical, they both occur in fancy, mostly-white prep schools, where black students feel distinctly out of place. Many of the issues are the same, but I felt Woodson's version so much more. For one thing, she creates relationships that feel geniune; peppered with easy, natural conversation; inside jokes; and the subtle nuance that exists in actual interaction, she makes it all feel so real. With seemingly little effort, she builds characters who pop off the page. They're ordinary, but complexly, compellingly so. Black, white, male, female - Pop! Pop! Pop! Maybe it's because the players are so real that this familiar story feels so fresh. Woodson also manages to make this quick, almost abrupt story, feel complete somehow.

Like Bil Wright, Jacqueline Woodson faces the black/white issue head-on. Her style may be more brash, but it's also more powerful. Now, I'm not saying I agree with everything she says (there are some definite white people cliches in the book); overall, though, I think she got things mostly right.

Whatever else it is, If You Come Softly stands out mostly as a love story. It celebrates first love, the kind of passionate, all-consuming feelings that glue two people together no matter what the rest of the world thinks. It's a serious, sad story, but one that is beautifully-written and deftly-rendered. Woodson's at the top of my "Read More of This Author" list.

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG - Although this book is mostly clean, it talks about issues (including a brief discussion about homosexuality) that are more appropriate for young adults than children.

Monday, August 24, 2009

When the Black Girl Sings Leaves Me Wanting More

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In my quest to find new book blogs, I stumbled across Reading in Color, a spunky new blog written by the lovely Ari (aka Miss Attitude). She's young, black and committed to promoting books written by, for and about People of Color (POC). After scrolling through her posts, I knew she was the perfect person to help me with another of my quests - ever since I adopted my daughter (who is part African-American, part caucasian/Cajun), I've been trying to find books featuring bi-racial, adopted and/or black characters. My baby's not even walking yet, but I want her to have a library of books featuring interesting people whose experiences might be similar to hers. Who knows what will happen as she discovers her own, individual identity - I just want to make sure she's exposed to every side of her unique heritage. Ari came through in a big way, recommending sites like The Brown Bookshelf and Color Online as well as a whole list of books. Among her suggestions was When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright. While I didn't love the book, I think it offers a lot of insights into adoption, race, family, identity and life itself.
The novel stars Lahni Schuler, a black teenager who lives in Connecticut with her adoptive parents, who are white. Although her mom and dad adore her, they're having trouble getting along with each other. With their impending divorce, Lahni feels her world crumble even more. She's already dealing with a new school - a private one full of snooty white girls who make her feel very, very black. Plus, she's being stalked by a wannabe gangsta. Not only is he white, but he's also a complete whack job. Angry at her dad, worried about her mom, and feeling sorry for herself, Lahnie's not exactly a happy camper.
One day, Lahni's mother finds just what they need to put their lives back together: religion. Resigned, Lahni trudges along to the Church of the Good Shepherd, hoping it will cheer up her mom. She's amazed to find herself moved to tears by the congregation's resident choir, led by a flamboyant black pianist and an equally black diva named Carietta Chisolm. Lahni enlists their help in training for an upcoming school talent competition. In the bosom of the choir, she finally feels a sense of belonging. Still, she's got issues: How does she deal with her parents' dissolving relationship? Will she survive in a school that seems bent on ostracizing her? How is she going to shake her creepy stalker? And, should she even be entering a singing competition when the other girls seem so much more talented? As Lahni tackles her problems, she'll learn a thing or two about who she really is - and how, in the end, that knowledge is all that really matters.
As much as I wanted to love this book, I found the writing a little lackluster, the characters a little too flat and the plot a little too predictable. What I do appreciate is Wright's straightforwardness in tackling issues of race, specifically how a black child might feel growing up in a white family and community. Despite the conflicts Lahni faces, her adoption is portrayed in a positive light - her parents couldn't care less about her ethnicity, they love her for her. But it also shows how different a parent's view can be from that of a child who feels like an outsider every day of her life. I also enjoyed the characters of Marcus Delacroix III (the choir director/pianist) and Carietta Chisolm - although both are larger than life, they come off as both interesting and believable.
So, yeah, there's lots to love about this book, I just wanted a little more depth. When the Black Girl Sings starts off so strongly; I mean, the first two lines read: "I never once let any of them see me naked. Until that Friday, when I had no choice" (2). Who can resist reading on? Unfortunately, the writing fizzles along the way, making it a weaker story than it could have been. I'm still glad I read it as it gave me a lot to think about - I just wanted more from the author.
(Note: I'm still looking for books with bi-racial, adopted and/or black characters to add to my list. Bring on the recommendations! And thanks again, Ari, for all your help!)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for sexual content (in conversations, not action)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Got a Big Brood? Need Advice? Mary Ostyn's The Mommy to Ask.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

To offer some counterpoint to my last review, I decided to read a book that swings in the complete opposite direction from What I Thought I Knew. A Sane Woman's Guide to Raising a Large Family by Mary Ostyn comes recommended by my younger sister, who knows a few things about the topic in question. At 30, she manages a brood of 5 kids aged 10 and under. To say I admire her is like saying I kinda like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups - vast understatements, both. She's a kind and loving mother who runs a very tight ship. Even the best of moms, though, may feel a little bit crazy sometimes, which is where Ostyn comes in. If you think your family life is a little hectic, try this on for size: Ostyn runs a household of 12. She feeds her brood on $80/week, homeschools all 10 (4 biological, 6 adopted from Korea and Ethiopia) of her children, and might even want to adopt more. She calls herself a sane woman - you be the judge.

Ostyn addresses the pesky FAQs mothers of large families face most often: How do you afford to feed/clothe/educate 10 kids? Are you really able to meet the needs of each child when you have so many? Do you ever feel done? And, most common of all: Are you out of your mind? Curiously, she doesn't talk about the ever popular Are all those kids yours? To the other questions, she calmly explains that her family lives frugally; shops sales; cultivates a garden; gratefully accepts hand-me-downs; and avoids expensive vacations, all in an effort to cut costs. Yes, she's able to aid each child by limiting extracurricular activities, encouraging communication, playing together, and emphasizing family over everything else. Does she feel as if her family's complete now? Not necessarily. In fact, she says, "I have a long history of lobbying for just one more child" (12). Is she just the teeniest, tiniest bit crazy? Mum's the word on that one, but she certainly sounds sane. Her advice is so clear, so practical, so doable you'll find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about - if Ostyn's got her family of 12 under control, your clan of 6 should be a snap.

Ostyn hits on so many different subjects that I'm just going to highlight the ideas I especially liked:

15 Minutes Better - Feeling frazzled, Ostyn decided to spend just 15 minutes a day focusing on being a better mom. She plays card games, starts tickle fights, helps with projects and initiates real conversations with her children, all of which put her more in tune with her family.

Disciplining Through Service - When Ostyn's children pick on each other, she "punishes" them by making them perform an act of service for the sibling they've wronged. I love this idea!

Division of Labor - Ostyn goes into depth about her method of assigning chores and getting her children to help around the house. The key, according to her, is to focus on the must-do tasks and keep a laidback/flexible attitude about the rest. As delegation is something I struggle with as a mother, I especially appreciated this section of the book.

Celebrating Each Child - This is by far my favorite chapter. Citing Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, Ostyn encourages parents to figure out which "language" speaks most effectively to each child. She says:

Children all need opportunities, but they don't need the exact same opportunities. Our children are unique. Our parenting of them should honor that uniqueness rather than trying to cram them into one mold that doesn't quite fit anyone (179).

Quality Time - Ostyn encourages bonding through good, old-fashioned, unplugged kinds of ways - playing board/card games; enjoying bike rides together; shooting hoops in the driveway; talking; listening. "Quality time," she insists, "is more than mere proximity" (182).

Now, I'm not saying I didn't have any issues with the book. I wish Ostyn had gone into as much detail about how she handles all the food (shopping, cooking, even recipes) as she did about housework. I also would have liked to see photographs of her family as well as how she organizes things like her pantry, laundry room, etc. Questions kept popping into my mind that I would have loved to ask her, most pressing of which is, "How in the world do you fit in time to manage your Ethiopian daughters' hair while taking care of so many other things?" Luckily, Ostyn maintains an extremely helpful website, where she tackles all kinds of questions, going into further detail about how she manages her household. Check it out here. Want recipes? She's authored a cookbook called Family Feasts for $75 a Week. Who knew?

A couple other issues - Ostyn makes a lot of references to God, faith, prayer, etc. If you're a non-religious type, this might drive you crazy. I'm very religious, and it still made me a little nuts. Also, I objected to some of her views about public schooling. I also think Ostyn's a little too serious. I mean, a mother of 10 children has got to have some good stories. Tell them, sister! If you prefer your advice in a more funny, down-to-Earth style, check out Because I Said So and my friend Charlotte's blog - both are hilarious, very real looks at mothering a big brood.

Overall, though, I enjoyed A Sane Woman's Guide to Raising a Large Family. It's chock-full of good, practical advice. Mary Ostyn deals with the day-to-day details of parenting with the end in mind - she's dedicated to raising kind, hard-working, responsible adults. Her devotion to her children is obvious. If you're looking for advice from someone who's been there, Ostyn's your man, uh, mom.

Grade: B

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

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Announcing ... Another Winner!

I never did hear from Stacie/Darcie, so random.org picked a new winner ...


... it's Karin. Congratulations! If you'll email me (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]) your snail mail address, I'll get your book in the mail as soon as I can. Stacie, I'm so sorry :(
Don't forget to enter my newest giveaway. I have two newly-published YA novels up for grabs. If you haven't already entered, do it now. Good luck!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Aw, Shucks

So, I've been seeing posts all over the book blogosphere announcing nominees for different BBAW awards. The excitement is palpable. I love it. True, I may have been the teensiest, tiniest bit green-eyed, but really, I've been so happy for all of you. I mean, I would have been delighted to have been nominated for best giveaways ('cuz I've been rocking them this year), or best design (you gotta admit, it's cute), or best anything at all. But, no. Nothing. I sniffed a little, then got over myself (well, kind of). So, imagine my surprise when an email arrived in my inbox today reminding me to submit 5 of my best pieces to the judging committee. Huh? Turns out, I never received the first email letting me know I've been nominated in the category of Best Writing. Can I just tell you that I'm thrilled beyond words? I work hard on this little ole blog of mine and I'm honored - not to mention surprised - that anyone clicks over here at all. So, thank you, thank you for this. It means so much to me!

What I Thought I Knew Meets My "Morally-Tinted Glasses"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Last month, Melissa over at One Librarian's Book Reviews asked, "Do you find yourself viewing books through morally-tinted glasses? Do you think this detracts from your enjoyment of certain types of stories (those that grate against your personal beliefs)?" These questions kept rolling around in my mind as I read What I Thought I Knew, a memoir by Alice Eve Cohen. The truth is, there are several issues in her book that I find morally reprehensible. Because of this, I wondered if I could evaluate it fairly - not only am I "grading" her book here, but I'm also judging it against five other memoirs to determine which Elle magazine will deem best non-fiction book of 2009. This is the conclusion I came to: No matter a book's subject, I can judge its merits fairly when it comes to writing, editing, plot construction, character development, originality, etc. Of course, the best books are not always those with the best editing, or the most exciting plot - for me, the greatest are those that capture me and proceed to thrill my heart and soul. Connection is key, but when it comes to that, my "morally-tinted glasses" can sometimes be problematic. I, like all of you, approach every book I read carrying my own moral, religious, and political ideas, as well as the breadth of my personal experience - no matter how open-minded I tell myself to be, all of these things color how I view a book. This is especially true in the case of Cohen's book. Technically, it's well-written; truthfully, it turned my stomach.

In 1999, Cohen is finally happy. After battling infertility, enduring a divorce, fighting for custody of her 3-year-old adopted daughter, struggling as a single parent, and trying to make enough money to pay the bills, she's finally feeling some of her burdens lifting. She's engaged to a man 10 years her junior - Michael's her own personal fountain of youth. He's kind, creative, in love with both her and her daughter. At 44, she's found success in both her personal and professional lives; there's no reason to believe her future will be anything but bright. In the back of her mind, though, lurks her Jewish mother who constantly warned against tempting the Evil Eye by enjoying too much happiness. Turns out, her mother knew what she was talking about.

Cohen's joy drains as illness takes over. She's nauseated, sore, and completely exhausted. Any woman who's ever been pregnant recognizes these sypmtoms for what they are, except that Cohen is infertile. Because of a Bicornuate uterus, she can't get pregnant. Her doctors search for a diagnosis, offering everything from early menopause to "middle-aged loss of muscle tone" (14) to a bladder disorder. Finally, an emergency CAT scan reveals the truth: she's 6 months pregnant. Considering her advanced age, plus the fact that she's taken estrogen for years, received no prenatal monitoring, and unknowingly put her baby at risk, she's not surprised to find that the fetus is not developing normally. Terrified, Cohen considers abortion, suicide, adoption. She wrestles with herself over the ramifications of "killing ... what might be a viable baby" (55), of dealing with a preemie or a special needs child, of not raising her own baby, and of bringing to life a child she already detests. "I try every day," she writes, "to want a baby" (66).

The pregnancy ends in an unexpected way, which throws everything into a completely different light. Suffering from severe post-partum depression and an "unforgivable ambivalence" (135), Cohen makes her way blindly through this confusing, new landscape. Doubting herself, despising herself, and ultimately learning to trust herself, Alice Eve Cohen comes to revise everything she thought she knew.

Like Cohen, I possess a malformed uterus; I've dealt with infertility; I've worried over raising a premature or special needs child; I've hated myself for providing an inadequate incubator for the fetus growing inside me; and my life has been changed by adoption. Considering all that we have in common, I should have found in Cohen a bosom buddy. Maybe our differences are just too glaring: she's a liberal agnostic from New York, I'm a conservative Mormon from the west. I abhor abortion, and find the whole idea of wrongful life lawsuits (which comes into play in What I Thought I Knew) repugnant on so many levels. While I admire Cohen's courage (it takes a lot of guts to admit you hated your baby on sight), to me she came off mostly as a selfish whiner. I know that's harsh and will probably earn me an angry comment or two, but that's how I feel. I've been told I don't understand depression and chemical imbalances, and that's probably true - I've always been a happy, positive person who tends to believe that if I can deal with the crap of life without complaining, so can you. So, while I didn't enjoy this book (in fact, much of it made me sick to my stomach), I can at least appreciate the fact that it helped me empathize with another woman's heartbreak. I'm sure there are hundreds of women out there who will find that Cohen says everything they've thought and felt. I am not one of those women. But, I can admit that this book made me think. It's haunted me since I put it down. Do I recommend it? I don't know.

Technically speaking, What I Thought I Knew is well-written. Not beautifully, not brilliantly, not lushly. In fact, it's very stark and unsentimental. Honest. It's also choppy and frenzied in places. The story's engrossing, if not engaging. Cohen describes herself and her circle of family, friends, and associates in ways that make them interesting, human and sympathetic. It's an affecting story, but not necessarily a touching one. Does that make sense?

I think what I'm trying to say is this: What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen is technically well-written, but I wouldn't call it enjoyable. Many will connect with this novel (see Melissa's review, for instance). I didn't. If it were possible to remove my "morally-tinted glasses" or if I wasn't the person I am, maybe I would have liked it better, but it isn't and I'm not. The most I can do is admit my prejudices and move on.

(Note: If you're interested in reading more about wrongful life lawsuits, try Jodi Picoult's novel Handle With Care, reviewed here.)

Grade: C

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Warning: Avoid Pseudonymous Bosch At All Costs

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Warning: While this review contains no spoilers for If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, it may inadvertently spill the beans about events in its predecessor, The Name of This Book Is Secret. Take my advice and read the books in order. Consider yourself warned.

The mysterious Pseudonymous Bosch had some issues with me calling his first book "fun." So, I'll be avoiding the "F" word when I talk about his second mystery, If You're Reading This, It's Too Late. Instead, I'll use PB's adjective: dangerous. As in troublesome, hazardous, unsafe. Avoid this book at all costs. Don't read it. Don't recommend it to your friends. And definitely, definitely don't give it to a child.

Of course, as the title suggests, if you're reading this book, it's already too late anyway. So, I guess a quick plot summary can't do too much harm. If you've read The Name of This Book Is Secret (click here to see my review or just scroll down), you already know our heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. When the story opens, our favorite pair is waiting anxiously to hear from the Terces Society, which has been silent since their adventures at the Midnight Sun Spa. A coded note in Cass' lunchbag seems to be exactly the communication for which they have been waiting. However, following the instructions on the note puts the kids in hot water once again - well, actually it's cold, ocean water, but still, they're in trouble. Ever resourceful, pair manages to find some clues to the Secret so desired by Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais. When Cass and Max-Ernest finally make it back to land, they have several mysteries to solve: What exactly is The Sound Prism they found aboard the Midnight Sun's yacht? What is a homunculus and why are the bad guys so intent on finding it? And, most importantly, how are they going to find it first?

Obviously, it's a dangerous tale. One Pseudonymous Bosch probably should never have unleashed on the world. Really, you shouldn't read it. Okay, really you should, because it's just so fun dangerous. With an irresistible mixture of magic, secret codes, adventure and mystique, If You're Reading This, It's Too Late is a perfect read for kids. Which is why it should, of course, be kept out of their reach. Anything children find irresistible pretty much equals trouble, so parents, protect your offspring - keep this one for yourselves. Preferably on a high shelf or in a locked cabinet. Just don't let them get to it. If you're reading Mr. Bosch, it's too late for you, but you still have time to save your kids (and all that money for which they're going to be begging you now that his third book is out). You've been warned.

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for images that may be frightening to kids under 8 or so.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The One Where Darcie's Name Is Actually Stacie

Okay, duh. I told Darcie she needed to email me by midnight or her copy of The Lost Summer by Kathryn Williams would go to another winner. Turns out, there's a reason Darcie didn't contact me - her name is actually Stacie. I announced it correctly the first time, but not in my second post. So, Stacie (whose private blog is called DLiddels), I have no way to get a hold of you. Would you please shoot me an email (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTCOM) and claim your prize? Because I'm an idiot, I'll give you until Sunday. After that I will have to draw another name, so please get a hold of me ASAP. Thanks!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Name of This Book Is So Much Fun

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you're still mourning the end of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books, you might want to check out his literary twin - Pseudonymous Bosch. It took a little Internet sleuthing for me to believe they aren't actually the same person. I mean, c'mon, they write under fake names and tell their stories via anonymous, secretive, and overly-protective narrators. Both warn readers not to pick up their books, ensuring that they would, in fact, become bestsellers. Okay, okay, there aren't many similarities between their respective stories, but still ... twins, I tell ya.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself, although The Name of This Book Is Secret may not need much of an introduction. Most of you have already read it. For the two of you who haven't, it's the story of Cassandra (Cass), an 11-year-old "survivalist," who embraces the Boy Scout motto ("Be Prepared") with fervor. Although she's never experienced an actual disaster, she's always ready in case one should descend. And so it does, in the form of a mystery that comes knocking on her door. Not literally, but in the form of an odd box brought into her grandfathers' junk shop. Labeled "The Symphony of Smells," the box has been rescued from the home of a recently-deceased magician. Upon examination, Cass and her friend Max-Ernest discover a message which leads them to an even bigger discovery. It's a find that will attract the (very unwelcome) attention of a strange couple, who are intent on stealing it for themselves. Not only do Cass and Max-Ernest need to protect the magician's secret, but they also need to figure out exactly what the secret is - before it's too late.

This story is so fun and inventive that I don't want to give any of it away, thus the bare-bones plot description. I'll just say that it's quirky in a Lemony Snicket kind of way, but without all the doom and gloom. It's different, it's original, it's thoroughly enjoyable. Read it. Warning: You might want to hide it away until you're done, though - I'll guarantee your kids will be fighting you for it. Yep. It really is that good.

Oh, I almost forgot. Two quotes I love from the book:

"Generally speaking, books don't cause much harm. Except when you read them, that is. Then they cause all kinds of problems" (from the introduction).

"Only bad books have good endings.

If a book is any good, it's ending is always bad--because you don't want the book to end" (314).

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some mildly scary scenes (may be too frightening for the under-8 set)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Darcie! Are You Out There?

First off, thanks so much to everyone for answering all the questions I've been throwing out lately. It's been fun to see all your recommendations. I'm going to compile all the suggestions into a list and let it be my guide! Keep 'em coming - I'm loving all the comments.

Secondly, Darcie, you won a copy of The Lost Summer by Kathryn Williams. I would love to sent it out to you, but I need your address. It's been almost a week - if I don't hear from you by midnight tomorrow, I'll draw another name. So, please contact me! My email is blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM].

That's it. I'm still in the middle of The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. It's lots of fun. I should have a review up by tomorrow or Wednesday. In the meantime, happy reading! I'm off to bed. Getting up early to get my kids off to school is killing me (they leave for the bus stop at 7:20). *Yawn*

Falling For Laura Moriarty

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Things are not going well for Veronica Van Holten. For starters, she hates her job. It's bad enough that she's a junior and still living in the dorms, but as a resident assistant, she's in charge of controlling the drama on her floor. She doesn't have time for her neighbors, she has no car, she's barely keeping up in her pre-med classes, and she's devastated over her parents' impending divorce. Veronica does have a very nice boyfriend, which is wonderful until he asks her for a little more commitment. Now, she's freaking out. While I'm Falling by Laura Moriarty is Veronica's coming-of-age story. It's also a novel about family, about mothers and daughters, and about how to cope when one's life is falling apart at the seams.

For our heroine, everything collides one fateful morning on a deserted highway, leaving her shaken. Her cries for help prove just how much her family has disintegrated. Veronica's frayed nerves lead to a string of remarkably bad decisions, landing her in a heap of trouble. Then, just when she needs her mother, who's always been her biggest support system, Natalie Van Holten shows up at her daughter's dorm - with an overnight bag, an arthritic dog and all of her worldly belongings sitting in a minivan in the parking lot. Can things possibly get any worse? This is Veronica Van Holten we're talking about - of course they can. And they do. Along the way, she has to figure out how to pick up the pieces of her broken family life, her fledgling future, but most of all, herself.

Veronica's crises aren't exactly original, and neither is she for that matter, but you know what? It doesn't matter. She's authentic, so real that my heart ached for her. Physically. I was so engrossed in her story that I felt actual dread balling up in my chest. I had to keep telling myself, "It's only a book. It's not real." That's how strongly I identified with her. The thing that drew me to her, I think, is the following passage. I'm pretty sure I've had this conversation before:

Jimmy Liff had actually looked me in the eye and explained that I was simply the most boring person he knew. "I don't mean you're like, boring to talk to. I mean you seem boring in a good way. In a way that would be good for my plants and my car. You don't even smoke, do you?" (34)

I guess what I like about Veronica is that she's a good girl, but she's also funny and real. Kind of like me - minus the funny part.

Although Moriarty's written two other books, this is the only one I've read. Believe me, I'll be remedying that real soon. If While I'm Falling is any indication, the author creates everyday plots with surprising curves; believable, but interesting characters; and well-plotted, well-written novels. Although this one is a mite bit despressing, it turns into a hopeful, empowering story. It's just a good read all around. My one complaint is the copyediting - it wasn't horrible, but there were enough typos to be distracting. Otherwise, I really, really liked this one.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language and sexual content (more inferred than described)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

There's Nothing Like a Little Paranoia on a Sunday Afternoon

I don't know if you've noticed, but I seem to be getting a little paranoid in my old age. Yesterday, it was sci fi/fantasy books I missed out on as a child; today, it's book blogs. I've been around the book blogosphere for awhile now, but I'm still finding new ones. I love it. I'm just stressed about all the wonderful blogs I might be missing out on. I know you're wondering, "Doesn't she have anything better to worry about on a Sunday afternoon?" Well, I stayed home from church with my sick 10-year-old; my husband took two of the others to church; the baby's asleep; I have ground beef thawing in the microwave so I can have dinner ready by the time the hubs gets back; I'm caught up on reviews, so no ... I guess I don't have anything else to worry about on a Sunday afternoon.

Last week, my Microsoft feeder went all wonky on me, refusing to update and such. So, I showed it by converting to Google's reader. I'm sure there's a way to export feeds from one to the other, but I haven't the foggiest idea how, so I typed in each and ever one of my blog URLS manually. I have hundreds. It took hours. The good news is I have all my favorites together and Google's working fabulously for me. Since I was overhauling my feeder, I also cleaned up the links on this blog. So, would you do me a favor and give the list a glance? It's on the bottom of the left sidebar. If you write a book blog, make sure I haven't forgotten it. Also, tell me which ones I'm not reading that I should be reading. I just don't want to miss anything. See what I mean about paranoia?

Oh, and if you haven't commented on yesterday's post, I'd love to hear your recommendations :) And, yes, some day I will post an actual book review.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Forgotten Fantasy (Yes, I Do Know That Sounds Like a Trashy Romance Novel)

The other day, my 7-year-old closed her Nancy Drew book and sighed. "You know what I hate about mystery books?" she asked. "You can't re-read them until your memory gets old." True, that. Even though my memory has gotten very old, I still can't re-visit anything I've read in the past 2 decades or so. Fortunately, though, my memory's aged enough that I can re-read books I enjoyed as a child. Thanks to Melissa's fabulous Top 100 list, volunteering with my kids' school reading program, and a recent IM chat with a friend, I have been re-visiting books I loved as a kid. In doing so, I've come to a grim realization - I seem to have skipped over an entire genre of children's literature. Yep, it's true. My reading repertoire included Nancy Drew, Amelia Bedelia, Babysitter's Club, Pippi Longstocking, etc. but few princesses, wizards, dragons or robots. In other words, no science fiction/fantasy. Looking back, I can remember reading only two books that fit into this category: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time. That's it, unless my memory's really, really, really bad. Once I had this epiphany, I raced to my computer and promptly put Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper and The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander on hold. Then, concerned that I might be missing newer children's sci fi/fantasy, I stuck the first Spiderwick book on my list, too. I'm still worried that I'm missing out, so I thought I'd ask all of you a question. It's this:

What science fiction/fantasy books did you love as a child? Which modern books are worth a look? Which titles should I go out and get right now?

Help me remedy the mistakes of my past. I'm working on The Dark Is Rising books as well as the Chronicles of Prydain (all of which I will review when I'm done with the series). I believe I still need to finish the Chronicles of Narnia, but at least I've read The Hobbit and LOTR (although I experienced both of these as an adult). So, what am I missing? Help out an ignorant reader, will you?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Watch the Skies Just Good Endertainment

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Think about how many times a day you switch on your t.v., log on to your computer, scroll through playlists on your iPod, or answer a call on your cell phone. Now imagine that an evil alien - say Number 5 on The List of Alien Outlaws on Terra Firma - decided to use popular technology to hypnotize humans into doing exactly what he told them to do. Well, it wouldn't be pretty.


That's exactly the freaky kind of situation in which Daniel finds himself in Watch the Skies, James Patterson's second book (the first with contributor Ned Rust) starring the cool-headed Alien Hunter. Although Number 5 professes to be melting humans merely for alien endertainment, Daniel senses the slimy monster has ulterior motives. He just has to figure out what they are. And, oh yeah, stop a notoriously bad, bad alien outlaw. Luckily, he has the help of his super powers, a minivan decked out with every high-tech gadget imaginable, and his butt-kicking imaginary friends. Yes, I did say imaginary. How exactly are they going to take down Number 5? Very, very carefully. And with some rocking, superhuman stunts. He may even capture the heart of Judy Blue Eyes in the process. That's if he survives to take her on a second date, of course.

If you liked the first book in this series (you can see my review here), you'll enjoy this one, too. It's got everything readers love about James Patterson - fast action, snappy dialogue, quick humor - without any of the racier elements found in his adult books. If you're looking for developed characters, a complex plot, or writing that will make you swoon, you'll definitely want to look elsewhere. But if you - or the tween boy in your life - long for a light, action-packed, funny read, this is your (or his) series. Oh yeah, and if you want to frighten said tween boy away from technology overload, Watch the Skies just might just do the trick. After all, what's scarier than a bloodthirsty alien bent on taking over the world via iPod? It's enough to make you pop out your earbuds - a least long enough to devour the 250 pages of this fun, thrilling adventure. It's just plain ole' good endertainment.



Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for fantasy violence and a few (non-graphic) reference to "stoners," making out and a "booty call."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Oops! I Did It Again. (A Winner and Another Giveaway)

First off, can I say what a happy day this is? My two oldest are back in school. My preschooler starts tomorrow. As I was snapping the kids' official First Day picture, I told them to pretend to smile and I would pretend to cry. Ha ha. Seriously, though, we're all so ready for this.

The good news for you is that today is the day I pick the winner of The Lost Summer by Kathryn Williams:

Random.org did its magic and the winner is ... STACIE! Unfortunately, I don't have an email for you and your blog is private, so please jot me a note (blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM]). If I don't hear from you within a week, I'll choose another winner. Congratulations!

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

If you didn't win this time, don't fret. My airheadedness has again worked in your favor. Lest you think I do this on purpose (I really, truly don't), I have to say that I received two copies of one of these books in the same mailing envelope. So, I don't think it's that I'm a complete idiot, I think it's that Disney is just amazingly efficient and generous. So, thanks again, Hallie!

I got double copies of both these YA titles, so I'm giving away one of each. I haven't had a chance to read either, so click on the book cover for plot summaries courtesy of Barnes & Noble.

Here we go:

1. Secrets of Truth & Beauty by Megan Frazer (Published July 2009)


2. Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson (Published August 2009)


You may enter to win only one book or both - either way, just specify which in your comment. Contest is open internationally. When you comment, PLEASE leave a valid email address, especially if you don't have a public blog. I need some way to get in contact with you :)

Okay, here's the nitty gritty: Now that summer's over (for me, anyway), I'd love to know what books you read and loved during the long, hot break from school. I'm always looking for recommendations, especially now that I'm going to have so many hours of free time on my hands (I wish!). That's it. Easy, right? If you post about this contest on your blog or on Facebook (sorry, I don't know anything about Twittering or Tweetering or whatever it is), I'll spot you an extra entry. I will draw the names of the winners on August 30 (my 12 year wedding anniversary!). Good luck, everybody.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mormon Mentions: Keith Donohue

It's been awhile since I've found a Mormon mention, but here's one from the book I just finished, Angels of Destruction by Keith Donohue:

"'We've got problems in this country. Black men in Watts without jobs, poor people living like dogs, Tricky Dick Nixon in disgrace, gas shortages, and Whip Inflation Now buttons, and all you see is the rich man in the country club, the white-shirt crewcut Baptist, the jelly-doughnut-eating Mormons, the cannibalistic Catholics --'" (169-170).

Usually I like to affirm or rebut Mormon myths I find in books, but these lines are uttered by a character who's already a little bit crazy. He's hopped up on the idea of a revolution, crazy with his desire to deconstruct the world - he's not supposed to be making sense. I'm not even sure what "the jelly-doughnut eating Mormons" means exactly. Probably nothing good. Ah well - I did mention the character's crazy, right?

Whether or Not You Believe, Donohue's New Novel Will Have You Looking at Angels in a Whole New Light

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Do you believe in angels?

That's been the question on everyone's mind ever since 3rd grader Norah Quinn announced she's a messenger of God. No doubt, strange things have been happening ever since the child arrived in town, but an angel? Certainly, her presence has brought widowed Margaret Quinn back to life - still, an angel? Her classmates know she possesses a strange kind of magic - Is it good or bad? Of heaven or hell? No one knows for sure.

Even Margaret Quinn doesn't know what to make of the foundling who arrived on her doorstep in the middle of a bitterly cold night. The child stood there shivering, bedraggled, alone, claiming to have no parents, no home. Margaret did what any mother would - she took the girl in. For the older woman, Norah represented not just a child in need but a "blank slate upon which, at this late hour of life, she might begin again" (10). Still reeling from the loss of her own daughter who ran away with her boyfriend at 17, never to be heard from again, Margaret sees a shot at redemption. To waylay any suspicion, she invents a background story for Norah - she's Margaret's granddaughter, the child of her own missing child, sent to grandma's while her parents patch up a dissolving marriage.

Slowly, Norah seduces the town. Margaret's frozen heart thaws when she hears the girl's laughter; young Sean Fallon would traipse to the end of the Earth for his friend; even Margaret's suspicious sister falls under her spell. At school, she performs magical tricks that go way beyond illusion or sleight of hand. The children adore her, even as they struggle to understand her. She befuddles the adults, who find her strange ways unsettling. All children are capable of concocting stories, but when Norah tells her class she's an angel, her oddities become sinister. Now, she's deranged. When she leads a group of children to the railings of a high bridge, she becomes a threat, a dangerous pied piper sent from the devil to lead the innocent astray. Again, the question: Who is Norah Quinn? What is she, really?

Angels of Destruction, Keith Donohue's second novel (after The Stolen Child, reviewed here) explores the question of angels through the enigmatic Norah. What does an angel look like? From where does one come? What is their purpose? Is the idea of angels anything but utter insanity? Donohue advances his ideas while mining the hearts and souls of his characters, solving the mystery of Erica Quinn's disappearance, and telling an unpredictable, wholly compelling story. It's not quite as otherworldly as The Stolen Child, not quite as captivating, but still magical in its own way. It's a unique story that will linger in your mind long after you've finished it.

Even more than the story itself, I like Angels of Destruction for its craftmanship. Donohue creates sentences, paragraphs and scenes meticulously. He excels at setting and maintaining tone, using only subtle shifts to morph chilling into charming. This passage sent a shiver down my spine:

Nothing more than the substance of prayer, the fear to complement hope, he tested the limits of his new form, shifting his weight from one leg to the other and cracking the stiffness in his muscles and bones to break the icehold ... To free his hands, he flexed his fingers in the leather gloves and touched the brim of his hat goodnight to mother and child asleep in the house. Before departing, he carved with his fingertip the name Noriel in the frost of the windshield, and breathing once up on the glass, he melted the word (10).

This one made me smile with delight:

They fell in love with her. Each day illuminated some new aspect of her character that caused the children of the Friendship School third-grade to wonder what strange character had landed in their midst. Ordinary marvels abounded. She seemed to know just which questions to ask Mrs. Patterson to make their lessons clear and discussion lively. A pop quiz produced the unexpected result of perfect scores all around, an anomaly that puzzled the teacher well after her second cocktail that evening. A spelling bee dragged on past its appointed hour with no child left out, not even the recalcitrant boys who usually could not accomodate the spelling of their own names correctly ... Her crooked smile bestowed a spark of glee to January, as if she were lit within and could cast off gloom (46).

Such is the brilliance of this unique writer. While I wouldn't call Angels of Destruction my favorite novel, it certainly grabbed my attention. It chilled me, charmed me, and kept me guessing. Unusual, but compelling, magical and ultimately hopeful, it's a book that shouldn't be ignored. Whether or not you believe, it will have you looking at angels in a whole new light.

Grade: B

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

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Under Construction

See that cute navbar up yonder? I did that all by my baby self - well, with some help from my friend Charlotte and some great links. It still needs a bit of work, so be patient. Eventually, it will not only look beautiful but function perfectly. I hope.

Polly Horvath's MG Tale As Entertaining as ... well, Everything on a Waffle

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Didn't you ever believe anything just because you knew it was true?"

Young Primrose Squarp's plaintive question drives the residents of Coal Harbour, British Columbia up the wall and back down again. The truth is: her parents drowned when their boat collapsed in a typhoon. Sitting on the dock every day watching the ocean won't bring them back. Frankly, think most townspeople, the child needs to face the facts.

Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath tells Primrose's story. After her parents' disappearance, Primrose lives with a doddling old woman whose mothball smell permeates everything she touches (even her tea cookies). Eventually, a relative is located and she moves in with her bachelor uncle, Jack. Not one for close supervision, he lets her roam at will, which leads to all sorts of trouble. As Primrose wanders the town avoiding her taunting classmates, collecting recipes and waiting for her parents, she somehow manages to start the class pet on fire, get hit by a truck, tangled in a fishing net, and almost incarcerated. Her endless hope is about the only thing saving her from a completely miserable life. Well, that and The Girl on the Red Swing, a homey dive where you can get everything served on a waffle. And I do mean, everything. If you're Primrose, you also get some affection and life lessons from the chain-smoking cook, Miss Bowzer.

Primrose is the kind of narrator you can't help but love. Her naivete makes her vulnerable, but her faith keeps her strong. Her observations on life are downright hilarious. Take this note she jots down next to a recipe for tea biscuits:

This is really two recipes. One is the recipe for delicious tea biscuits and the other is for Miss Perfidy's tea biscuits. For delicious tea biscuits ... If you prefer Miss Perfidy's tea biscuits, double the baking soda and leave out the vanilla. Then age for ten days in a drawer full of mothballs They won't be tasty but they'll be authentic. (64)

The narration is pitch-perfect, as fresh as a child's take on life always is. Plenty of funny situations balance out the tragedies that befall Primrose, cushioning them for the reader as well as our intrepid heroine. What results is a funny, but subtly poignant story about a girl who refuses to give up on what she knows in her heart to be true.

Everything on a Waffle is a thoroughly enjoyable story, filled with eccentric characters and a very engaging narrator. The only thing that soured it for me was the odd, rushed ending. It just felt like a cop-out to me. I'm not sure what kind of ending I imagined, but it definitely wasn't the one Horvath supplied. Did it work? Not for me. Ah, well. You win some, you lose some. It's still a fun, different book that kids should find as entertaining as ... lasagna on a waffle ... or shepherd's pie on a waffle ... or, well, everything on a waffle!

Grade: B-

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

Monday, August 03, 2009

Al Capone Does My Shirts Crackles With Authenticity, Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's January 4, 1935, and 12-year-old Moose Flanagan's the newest inmate at Alcatraz Island. At least that's how it feels. Leaving friends and baseball behind in Santa Monica to come to a "twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water" (3) isn't exactly his idea of a life. But, Moose is one of those kids who follows the rules, dutifully doing whatever he's told. He's also a boy who loves his sister, however odd she may be. He knows the move to Alcatraz will allow Natalie a chance to attend a special school for kids like her, while giving his father a steady job to help pay the pricey tuition. So, here he is. Okay, he's grumbling a little bit - after all, his dad's working all the time, his mother's stressed out caring for Natalie, and there's no one on the island with whom to play ball.

It's not as if there's no one else on the island. After all, the prison's home to a mess of the worst criminals alive, including the infamous Al Capone. Even the worst of the worst need cooks, doctors, guards and so on and those workers have families - all of whom live on Alcatraz. There are plenty of kids, too - 25 counting Moose and Natalie - so it's not like there's nothing to do. Still, hanging out with a pesky 7-year-old and her sports-challenged brother hardly counts as great times. And then there's the warden's daughter. Snooty Piper's as conniving as the criminals her father oversees. When she gets an idea, Moose soon learns, it's best to just watch out. Of course, when she taunts him for being a chicken, he has to prove that he's not, which is how he winds up searching for convict baseballs, spying on the inmates, and running a laundering scam. All with his weird sister trailing after him. Not that she notices anything amiss - Natalie's too busy counting her buttons, obsessively arranging and re-arranging them, solving complex math problems in her head, and sometimes, zoning out completely.

When Moose accidentally puts his sister in harm's way, he realizes just how dangerous Alcatraz is for someone like Natalie. She needs help, the kind of help only professionals can give her. But she's a teenager (despite his mother's insistence that she's ten) with a severe disability - most would dismiss her as a lost cause. Moose knows he has to help her, even if it means enlisting Piper's help, even if it means angering the warden, even if it means breaking the rules. Moose doesn't want trouble, but c'mon, he lives on Alcatraz - it's not as if trouble's hard to come by.

Although Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko brings Alcatraz to vibrant life, the book's not really about the island. It's mostly a story of a boy and his sister. It's the story of a brother forced to deal with conflicting feelings of shame, resentment, guilt, but also love and devotion. It's also a funny, very readable tale of adventure. Lots of historical detail makes it crackle with authenticity and life. It's unique, engaging, heartbreaking, brilliant. I loved it. The sequel will be out in September - guess who'll be first in line to buy it?

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and one disturbing situation

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Wings Lacks Enough Life to Really Fly

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

So ... sci-fi/fantasy for young adults ... Time was when the genre barely existed, languishing in obscurity among the geek/Goth set. These days, you can barely open a teen novel without encountering some kind of wizard, vampire, demon, werewolf or djinn. All it takes, it seems, is an inky black cover, an allusion to an otherwordly creature and bam! You've got yourself a bestseller. But, while that may be enough to grab a reader's attention, is it enough to sustain it? Shouldn't there be some substance behind a book's sexy jacket? Dabbling in a trendy genre may get an author published, it may get a writer read, but without memorable characters or vivid writing, it won't get him remembered. In a post-HP/Twilight world, it's just not enough to stick in a faerie and call it good.

All this is my roundabout way of explaining why I wish I'd spent my $9.99 on something other than Aprilynne Pike's debut novel, Wings. I've been eyeing this book for awhile now, even though it looks like every other teen fantasy novel Borders carries. You know what I'm talking about - it's got the dark cover, emblazoned with a single object and a mysteriously succinct title (Yes, just like Twilight; actually, very like Tithe by Holly Black). Its jacket also boasts not one, but two recommendations from none other than Stephenie Meyer. Add to that the fact that Pike's (1) LDS and (2) an Arizonan and you understand my intrigue. So, on Saturday, I headed to my favorite bookstore armed with $7 in coupons and Borders Bucks. I made a beeline for the YA section, plucked Wings off the shelf, and proceeded to make it mine. Since I had 30 minutes to kill before the rest of the mall opened, I plopped down to read. A few chapters in, the realization hit me - I'd just wasted 10 bucks. Clearly, this was a novel I should have borrowed from the library for free. It wasn't terrible (trust me, I know terrible), it just failed to dazzle me. In a genre based on magic, I expected to find at least a spark. But it wasn't there. Not for me. Why not? Patience - I'm getting there.

First, let's talk plot. Our heroine, 15-year-old Laurel Sewell is new in Crescent City, California. Having been homeschooled her whole life, she's understandably nervous about her first day at high school. After all, she's nothing like the other kids. Not only has she never attended public school, but she's also never had a zit, never been to a doctor, and never taken any medicine not mixed by her mother. She's never hungry, rarely cold, and she gets antsy if kept inside too long. Oh yeah, and the Sewells found her in a basket on their front porch when she was 3. Did I mention she's a little different?

Despite these idiosynchrasies - or perhaps because of them - Laurel gains the attention of nice guy David Lawson. Feeling both flattered and suffocated by his advances, she allows him to show her the ropes. Pretty soon, the two are best friends. So, naturally, Laurel turns to David when she discovers just how different she really is. Although she's freaking out about the wings that have suddenly sprouted from her back, David reacts with his usual calm. A science nerd, he promises to approach the problem logically - they'll do research on the Internet, collect some samples, study them under his microscope, figure things out. Whatever their origin, David thinks the wings are beautiful. Laurel sees the growth as just one more sign of her freakishness.

A trip to her old house, a cabin on woodsy land her family's owned forever, brings the real revelations. It's there that she meets Tamani, a handsome faerie with mischief in his dancing eyes. Somehow, the stranger feels familiar. She soon learns why - she was once a faerie, too. Before she's really had time to process that little tidbit, she's also informed that they're smack dab in the middle of a faerie/troll war. And that she's the key to keeping their world safe. As if that isn't enough, she also has to deal with biology, her parents, and the jealousy that's so palpable between David and Tamani. Then there's the whole identity thing - which is she, human or faerie? In which world does she belong? And how exactly is one girl, with gauzy wings and no magic to speak of, supposed to save the world?

So, okay, the story's pretty familiar. Pike's faerie world is slightly different from the norm, but not enough to be truly original. And the whole idea of a teenager realizing he/she's not exactly of this world's been done a million times (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Schyler Van Alen, etc.). Unfortunately, the same goes for her characters: Laurel's interesting (especially at first), but not really captivating. David's so nice he's boring, and Tam's nothing more than the stereotypical sprite. Don't even get me started on the villains. Let's just say they're such caricatures, it's laughable. Because the characters don't come alive on the page neither do their relationships. Where there should be warmth, where there should be sparks, where there should be passion, there's canned dialogue and an awkward attempt at romance. Plot-wise, things move too slowly in the first half of the book, then too quickly toward the end. We get the truth about Laurel in one fell swoop; one minute she's cramming for a bio test, the next she's being threatened by trolls. There just wasn't enough of a set up - Laurel's change from (semi) normal high school student to troll-hunting faerie was way too abrupt for me. Plus, I kept asking myself, "Why is all this happening now? What's the urgency? What's the point?" So, yeah. I found too little life, too little cohesion to make Wings truly enjoyable.

On the bright side, I think Aprilynne Pike's got lots of potential. Judging from her blog, she's got personality to spare - I just wish she'd use some of it to liven up her story. Since Wings is the first book in a series of four, we can except to hear more from this first-time novelist. Let's just hope she improves with time.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and some sexual innuendo.

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