Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vampires and Ghosts and Goblins, Oh My

Happy Halloween, everybody!

I'm not one of those people who love Halloween. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy spooky books and movies - but I'm not the dress-up type. I don't think I've donned a costume since leaving elementary school. Still, I suck it up (a little Halloween pun to show I'm not that big of a party pooper) for the kiddos, who can't get enough of it. Plus, I'm pretty big on chocolate.

I didn't read anything spine-tingly this month. Did you?

Oh, and I have to point you to Harper Teen's new Books With Bite feature. You can figure out whether you're a Lover, a Fighter or a Biter; get book suggestions based on your "type;" play Pimp Your Coffin; enter sweepstakes and lots more. It's good, clean Halloween fun. Try it out if you're stuck at home answering the door for trick-or-treaters.

Be safe and have a great night!

A (Really-Not-All-That) Spooky Halloween Review

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Maddy Stanton is dead. At least she thinks she is. There's really no other explanation for her current situation: she's suspended in the darkness, alone and confused. She's not hungry or sore or anything, because well, she no longer has a body. She doesn't have much of a memory either - she can't even recall how she died. All she knows is that it's getting awfully boring floating around in this nothingness. Where are the people she loves? What is this place anyway - heaven, Hell or somewhere in between? And what in the world happened to her back on good ole planet Earth?

The Everafter (my ARC is actually titled The After, a name I think is much more interesting) by Amy Huntley, begins with Maddy's mysterious awakening in blackness. She knows that she's not gone, that she still is, but she doesn't know why or how. All she does know is that she wants to go back. Back to her mom, her boyfriend, her sister, her life. Only that doesn't appear to be possible. When she notices a strange series of objects hovering in space - a bracelet, a handbag, a pinecone, etc. - she realizes they represent things she's lost over her lifetime (and as a certified resident of the Land of People Who Misplace Things, that's a lot of stuff). Moving her non-self toward them helps her divebomb back to Earth. Well, kinda. As Maddy "returns" to moments in her life - some pivotal, some ordinary - she makes startling discoveries about her life, her death and what it all means. But only by visiting each object is she able to get a complete picture. With each one, she remembers more. Will the detritus of her life help her figure out how she died? More importantly, can it help her get back to her loving family, her distraught best friend, her devoted boyfriend and her pregnant sister? Or will she be stuck in this lonely void forever?

It's hard to explain this story, because it's unique in a lot of ways. Not that a hundred other books haven't featured characters going back in time somehow to learn from or change their pasts, but The Everafter (which I really, really want to call The After) takes a little bit different approach. Even though it's kinda sorta been done before, I think the premise behind this book is fascinating. I love the idea of all the memories attached to the things we love in life, the thought that these seemingly irrelevant objects retain a little part of us even after we leave them behind. While Huntley's ideas about the Afterlife don't completely gel with mine, I like her vision of enduring relationships and a purposeful eternity.

Still, perhaps the whole meaning of life and death thing is just too big of a subject, because The Everafter feels underdeveloped to me. The characters are more flat than round, the dialogue's more forced than natural, and some of the scenes seem ... extraneous. It's also more lighthearted than I expected, which isn't a bad thing really, just not what I thought. I wanted an atmospheric spine-tingler - what I got was more of an angsty teen romance with a little bit of mystery tossed in. The life/death thing makes it unique, but that's about all that makes it different. Soooo, I guess I'm a little bit ambivalent. I liked The Everafter, I just didn't love it. And, even though it features a few wandering souls, it's not really a Halloween-ish type book. Next year, I'll stick with Stephen King.

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC with love: I got this ARC from Harper Teen.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hitler Youth A Powerful Reminder for Modern Youth

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I begin with the young. We older ones are used up ... But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world." - Adolf Hitler
Hitler committed so many atrocities against his "enemies" - Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, intellectuals, the disabled, etc. - that it's almost easy to forget those he inflicted on his "friends." Preying on those he perceived to be weak and inferior was the Fuhrer's specialty, so maybe it's not surprising that he bullied thousands of Germany's children into forming an army - one that served only him, of course. In the youth he saw great potential. Although some of them became disenchanted with their leader, many, many kids fought, killed and died for the man they feared, revered and worshipped as much as God Himself. Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is their story.
The book, which is geared toward mature middle graders, gives the reader a good overview of WWII in Germany. It discusses the disappointments that led the German people to Hitler and thus to war - the country's humiliation after losing WWI; bitterness and great debt resulting from the Treaty of Versailles; widespread poverty; and growing unemployment. The people needed hope. It came in the form of Adolf Hitler, a charismatic man who promised change. Though some of his ideas were dangerous - defying the Treaty of Versailles, for example - they seemed to be the exact kind of radical thinking the country needed to rise again. No one could have foreseen how his extremism would lead directly to one of the greatest horrors in human history - the Holocaust. The book follows Hitler's rise to power, as he takes control of every school, church and household, then thrusts them all into another world war. It covers the horror of Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and the mass murders of anyone Hitler deemed unfit to live. It talks about the Allies' entrance into the war, liberation, and, finally, the fates of Hitler, SS men and others responsible for unspeakable crimes against humanity.
Bartoletti's focus is, of course, on the children. Hitler recognized the power of Germany's youth. He saw what a force they could be. So, he set about molding them into loyal servants. Not only did he re-write their textbooks, fire teachers who encouraged independent thinking, and do away with most youth groups, but he also persuaded them to join his own pro-Nazi club. Using snappy uniforms, bold flags, shiny badges, and the promise of adventure as bait, he lured boys and girls into becoming members of the Hitler Youth. Once there, the kids were plied with propaganda. They learned to become "good" Nazis, loyal to and supportive of The Fuhrer. As such, they were required to turn in anyone who made derogatory remarks about the Nazis, including their teachers, priests, friends and parents. The kids also performed hard labor, marched and drilled for hours, learned First Aid, and received weapons training. Above all, Hitler taught "unity" or the sacrifice of individual expression in favor of collective thinking. The stringent rules and demanding physical requirements became too much for some, but many stuck with it, happy to be part of the group.
By December 1, 1936, membership in the Hitler Youth became mandatory. Non-compliance meant fines, jail time, loss of job opportunities, even death. His demands were harsh, but Hitler had a purpose, of course: "A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth - that is what I am after. Youth must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness and tenderness in it" (43). For the most part, he succeeded in grooming his young army to become efficient killers, willing to die for their leader. The children knew they were fighting against the Allies, but most had no idea their revered Fuhrer was murdering millions of Jews. That grisly discovery led some, like the brave Scholl siblings, to take action against the Nazis. Others refused to believe, continuing to battle with blind allegiance.
In the end, although they caused numerous deaths, no members of Hitler Youth were tried at Nuremberg. The international court recognized that the children had been cruelly used by a power-hungry madman. Some were punished in civilian courts, made to pay fees, serve jail time, view gruesome films of corpse-strewn concentration camps, and rebuild what they helped destroy. Interviews of former Hitler Youth conducted by Bartoletti and excerpted in the book, reveal just how horrifying the situation was for the children involved.
No one can judge which victims suffered the most. We can only agree that one man's greed, hate and violent extremism brought about the physical and emotional murders of millions of people. Hitler didn't act alone, of course, but he, above all else, deserves to burn in Hell for what he did, not only to his "enemies" but also to the youth who served him with childlike devotion. With all the power he held over them, Hitler could easily have influenced Germany's children to do good. But, no, he led them away with the evilest of intentions. Hitler Youth shows numerous angel-faced children, arms raised in salute to the devil in brown - it's unbelievably chilling. Reading their stories makes my heart ache for the great loss of innocence, the marring of purity, the depraved indifference of adults toward the most vulnerable of German citizen.
The book never glosses over atrocities committed during the war, but it doesn't go into graphic detail either. Because it's meant for children, Hitler Youth dispenses information in an honest, readable format that allows readers to draw conclusions for themselves. While I don't think any book about Hitler and the Holocaust can be called "clean," I do feel this one is appropriate for older middle grade readers. It contains no profanity, really graphic violence or sexual content. While its subject is disturbing, the book does something very powerful for modern youth - not only does it teach them about what happened, but it also teaches them to question, to think and to never allow themselves to be coaxed down dangerous paths. Children are the future - only through knowledge of the past can they make sure it's a good one.
Grade: A
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and mature themes
To the FTC, with love: I got this one for free - at the library.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Home, Sweet Alcatraz

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Warning: This post will not contain spoilers for Al Capone Shines My Shoes, but it may inadvertently reveal plot elements from its predecessor, Al Capone Does My Shirts. As always, I recommend reading the first book in the series first.

Favors from Al Capone don't come cheap. That's what 12-year-old Moose Flanagan is discovering. After the notorious gangster helps him out with a little problem, Moose discovers a note in his laundry: Your turn. He should have known the favor would come with a price tag, but how much will Capone demand? What will he ask, and what will happen if Moose can't come up with an answer? His friends urge him to tell the warden, but Moose can't risk getting his dad fired, not during the Depression, not when his paycheck's keeping his sister in a good school for "special" people like her. Really, what choice does he have?

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko introduced readers to the kind-hearted Moose and his autistic older sister Natalie. Its sequel continues where the first book left off, taking us back to Alcatraz, circa 1935. The gang's still there - pesky Theresa; Jimmy, Moose's buddy who can't throw a baseball to save his life; Annie, who can; Piper, the warden's beautiful, conniving daughter; and Officer Darby, who thinks The Rock would be a lot better off without the Flanagans on it. With Natalie safely at the Esther P. Marinoff School in San Francisco, Moose can finally relax. Although he hates to admit it, it's nice having his parents to himself, and it's a relief not to have to drag Nat with him everywhere, constantly worrying about when she's going to throw her next fit. Now, he can spend his time thinking about the important things - baseball and Piper.

Then, comes the note from Capone. As worrisome as that is, the next note's even worse. Moose has to figure out how to meet the gangster's demands - failure to comply could mean bad, bad things for his family. The cons who fix his toilets, take out his trash and work in the warden's house seem overly chummy. Are they just being nice or are they Capone's spies? As if he doesn't have enough to worry about, Moose is also trying to keep his friends happy. "Blessed" with the niceness curse, he just can't help worrying about everybody - he doesn't understand Piper's surly moods (which are over-the-top, even for Piper); Jimmy's jealousy over a new friend; Annie's sudden attention; and Theresa's grudge against his intended. Moose's so stressed he's breaking out in hives. Then, he makes the most terrifying discovery of all, a secret that could mean Natalie's not safe at her new school. Things come to a head one terrifying night when Moose finds out - once again - that things are never quite what they seem on the mysterious island he calls home.

Although I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as the first, I still love this series. It's fresh and exciting, but also sensitive and moving. One blogger (I can't remember who - sorry) said she found these books disappointing at first because she thought they were going to be funny. While there are definitely lighthearted moments in the story, the books deal with serious topics and are more drama than comedy. This approach works very effectively, making Moose's adventures both amusing and touching. At its heart, the series is about a big-hearted boy who's devoted to playing baseball, helping his friends and, protecting his family - even when it means calling in a favor from the likes of Al Capone. It's also about dealing with autism, long before anyone really understood what it was. Mostly, it's about a kid doing the best he can to deal with life in his crazy, wonderful hometown - a place that just happens to be "an island with a billion birds, a ton of bird crap, a few dozen rifles, machine guns, and automatics, and 278 of America's worst criminals" (1). Home, sweet Alcatraz. If that's not enough to pull you in, consider yourself a lost cause. Or just read these books already.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some violence

To the FTC, with love: Ahhh ... the library ... I love it so.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Grogan's Memoir All About Coming Home - Via the Scenic Route

(Image courtesy of TLC Book Tours)


Long before John Grogan fell in love with the world's worst dog, he lived life as, quite possibly, the world's worst Catholic. Despite his parents' obsession with keeping him on the straight and narrow, he wandered. A lot. He marred his idyllic childhood by (frequently) partaking of Marlboros, marijuana, sacramental wine, and R-rated thoughts about nuns and neighborhood moms. Terrorizing suburbia became the specialty of what Grogan calls his Secret Society of Smokers, Swearers and Sacramental Wine Swiggers - along with his buddies, he almost managed to burn down a neighbor's house. His early descent into deviancy naturally led to an adulthood of living in sin and skipping Mass, the result of which was a whole lot of Catholic guilt. By the time Grogan's dying father insisted the only thing John could do for him was pray, his heathen lifestyle had caught up with him - how could he possibly fulfill his father's last requests when he no longer believed God answered prayers?

The Longest Trip Home, Grogan's second memoir, traces the author's spiritual journey from altar boy to truant to skeptic to, well, something else. He describes his parents' complete - sometimes comical, sometimes absurd - devotion to the Catholic church. Says Grogan, "To say my parents were devout Catholics is like saying the sun runs a little hot. It defined who they were. They were Catholics first, and then Americans and spouses and parents" (14). As a boy with "abundant energy and few tools to contain it" (9) growing up in the turbulent '60s, Grogan constantly found his baser nature overcoming his Godly one. He was, he admits, "a tireless troublemaker" (289). Reading the first half of his book reveals just how tireless. Perhaps it stems from his childhood ritual of lying in confession, but Grogan seems intent on revealing every sin he committed from about age 7 on. Much of it is self-deprecating and funny, even if most of it is of a sexual nature (the parts about John's busty girlfriend, Becky, are hysterical). Still, the raunchy bits got distracting. I mean, really, I don't need to know how many times lusty young John "self-polluted" (61).

As Grogan matures, so does his memoir. The second half of the book is less about boyish pranks and more about his growing disillusionment with the Church. Despite his blossoming doubt, John could no more confess it to his parents than he could to a priest. Knowing his falling away will devastate his faithful mother and father, he keeps it to himself. When the truth comes out, the issue becomes "our taboo topic ... suffocating our relationship, [as] we all pretended it did not exist" (217). Even as Grogan grew into his own man, becoming a successful journalist, husband, father and memoirist, he lived with the certain knowledge that by abandoning his faith, he had broken the hearts of his parents. By the time his father issues his humble request - pray for me - Grogan has been so far away from the church that he can't even remember the words to the once-familiar entreaties. With his father hovering between the here and the hereafter, John must come to terms with the man he loves and the faith that has kept them apart. What results is a heart-twisting search for understanding, a quest that will, ultimately, lead John Grogan home. Even if it is via the scenic route.

The Longest Trip Home is warm-hearted and witty, tender and true - the perfect choice for children who have strayed from their parents' expectations, and for the folks that love them anyway.

Grade: B


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


To the FTC, with love: Okay, I admit it - this book did not come from the library. It arrived on my doorstep free of charge, courtesy of the folks at TLC Book Tours. I received no compensation for this review other than the pleasure of enjoying a good book and the knowledge that I'm doing my part to keep the love of reading alive. That's enough for me.

Marley & Me: I Laughed, I Cried, I Considered Getting A Dog ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Confession #1: I'm not much of an animal lover.

Confession #2: I still loved Marley & Me.

John Grogan's memoir about life with "the world's worst dog," received all kinds of press. Critics called it heartwarming, funny, enjoyable. And yet, I didn't read it. I added it to my TBR mountain chain, considered checking it out of the library, even had it in my shopping basket at Borders once - but I couldn't quite convince myself to bring it home. "Why in the world not?" you ask. Confession #3: I don't enjoy reading about animals. I know, I might as well admit that I steal candy from small children (which I do, although only at Halloween), but it's true. I generally don't like fiction with animal narrators, animal main characters or overzealous pet owners. You could not pay me (well, maybe you could) to open a non-fiction animal book. It's not that I hate animals, I just don't love them. I feel about pet ownership the same way some people feel about children - it's fun to play with other people's "babies," but I'd never want one of my own. Lest you think I'm completely unfeeling, I'll have you know my family had several dogs growing up and I worked for a summer at a veternarian's clinic. So there. I do know what it feels like to love an animal. And, yes, my childhood was richer because of it. Still, our family remains dogless (because we're certainly not cat people), and that's perfectly fine with me.

Given my feelings on the matter, I didn't think Marley & Me would be my kind of book. So, I avoided it. Then, because I was looking for something light and funny, I picked up the DVD. Verdict? It was utterly charming, and not just because Owen Wilson makes me swoon. Sure, the movie ran a little long, but it was funny, sweet and tender. I reconsidered the book, but it wasn't until I received a request to review Grogan's second memoir that I finally read his first. It took me about a paragraph to realize it was exactly my kind of book. Marley & Me is heartwarming, it is funny, and it's definitely enjoyable. In fact, I loved every word.

Most people have either read the book or seen the movie by now, but just in case you haven't, here's the story: Newlyweds John and Jenny Grogan are enjoying the early days of their marriage when "life seems about as good as life can get" (2). Then, Jenny kills a houseplant. Not intentionally, but irrevocably. In her mind, that failure calls into question her ability to mother anything, especially the human being she's longing to grow in her womb. So, she turns to the classifieds. Weeks later, the couple brings home a rambunctious Labrador retriever. A bitter fight over the puppy's name ends when a favorite raggae song comes on the stereo - Marley seems to be a perfect fit.

With the exuberance of youth, Marley sets about getting settled in his new home. It's not long before the Grogans realize that the Lab they thought would be gentle, calm and obedient is ... well, not. He's happy, alright, stupidly, deliriously so. He's also "young and wired, with the attention span of algae and the volatility of nitroglycerine" (27). Books, pillows, shoes, doors, table legs - everything in the house bears the mark of Marley's enthusiasm. He's "a dog with more energy than sense" (219), who gets kicked out of obedience school, banished from the only dog-friendly beach in South Florida, and almost ruins his one-shot at stardom. Despite all this, the Grogans fall in love with the loopy canine. Says John:

As pathetic as it sounds, Marley had become my male-bonding soul mate, my near-constant companion, my friend. He was the undisciplined, recalcitrant, nonconformist, politically incorrect free spirit I had always wanted to be, had I been brave enough, and I took vicarious joy in his unbridled verve. No matter how complicated life became, he reminded me of its simple joys. No matter how many demands were placed on me, he never let me forget that willful disobedience is sometimes worth the price. (140)

Faithful Marley is there through all of the couples' ups and downs - through a miscarriage, the subsequent births of their children, job transfers, and the various successes and failures that define a marriage. As John helps Marley through the painful changes brought on by age, he's forced to confront his own mortality. Ruminating over his life-changing relationship with his psychotic dog, he comes to a surprising truth - Marley may be the world's worst dog, but he cannot imagine life without him.

In so many ways, Marley & Me is just a simple story about a man and his dog. So surface-simple is it, in fact, that Grogan hesitated to write about in his weekly newspaper column. The overwhelming response it generated convinced him that not only were people interested in his story, but also that they were deeply moved by it. It won't take you many pages to see why. Funny, heartwarming and yes, simple, Marley & Me's also touching in a way that surprised me. It made me laugh, it made my cry, it awakened the ghosts of my childhood pets. And, yes, it made me consider dog ownership - albeit briefly - for the first time in my adult life. Although I'm not making tracks to the animal shelter, I agree heartily with Grogan's final assessment: "A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours" (279). You better believe I did.

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: Another freebie. Ya gotta love the library.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Beagley's Memoir Less Tell All, More Testimony

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ah, polygamy. Every Mormon's favorite subject. I can still remember the first time someone asked me if my dad had more than one wife - I responded with open-mouthed incredulity. Did people seriously believe my father had a couple extra wives stashed in the basement? Sadly, lots of (normally) sensible folks know little of Mormonism except that once upon a time some of its followers practiced polygamy. Forget the pioneers who trudged through inclement weather and life-threatening illness just to reach a place where they could practice their religion in peace; forget the countless hours of service modern church members render every day; forget the army of worthy missionaries that dedicate two years of their lives to serving the Lord; forget church doctrines that urge members to honor their parents, nurture their children and live clean, moral lives - forget all that. When it comes right down to it, all many people remember about the Mormons is polygamy.

I have to reiterate that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have not practiced polygamy since 1890. Fringe groups have kept the practice alive, but not the mainstream church. You'd think after more than 100 years, people would get the idea through their heads. Apparently not. Thanks to kooks like Warren Jeffs, the issue stays in the news, spawning books, t.v. shows and, of course, lawsuits. All of this means that we Mormons get to answer all kinds of crazy, ignorant questions. So, how do today'sMormons respond to the whole polygamy thing? Variously, of course. Some view it as irrelevant (Yeah, it happened. So what?), others treat it with characteristic stoicism (Early member of the church practiced polygamy because they believed the Lord asked it of them. That many found it repulsive only shows how great was their faith.), still others find the whole issue amusing (What's wrong with plural marriage? I could sure use some "sister wives" to help me out around the house.). However we look at the polygamy question, I think we are just as curious as everyone else - I mean, really, how does plural marriage work exactly?

Well, if it's morbid curiosity that brings you to David Beagley's book, you're going to be sorely disappointed. One Lost Boy is no juicy tell-all. In fact, the slim memoir is less about polygamy and more about how one troubled boy gained a testimony of Jesus Christ. Beagley, now a college professor in his 60s, was born into what was once a traditional LDS home. His parents, Jesse and Althea, began their marriage as a typical church-going couple. Their oldest children (they had 12, of which David is the 10th) attended church, participated in Family Home Evening, and did all of the "normal" things Mormon kids do. By the time David appeared on the scene, however, the family's religious life had begun to unravel. Growing increasingly frustrated with the mainstream church, Jesse quit attending, an action that caused great tension with his wife and children. Even more distressing was his decision to lead a polygamist lifestyle. He found a friend's description of plural marriage alluring, so attractive that he wanted to follow suit. Although appalled by the idea, Althea acquiesced, wanting desperately to salvage her crumbling marriage.

Because polygamy went against the laws of both church and state, Jesse Beagley lived a secretive, fugitive life. He divided his time between his 5 wives, but never evenly. David rarely saw his father - when he did, Jesse couldn't even remember his name. Abandoned by his father, and shunned by neighbors who knew about Jesse's marriages and subsequent excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, David had only one person to turn to - his loving mother. Except that she insisted on keeping the family intact, which meant remaining loyal to her philandering husband and the teachings of the Mormon fundamentalist group with whom he had aligned himself. This meant spending summers in Colorado City (a notorious polygamist community on the Utah/Arizona border), avoiding the homes of non-believers, and keeping mum about all the skeletons in his family's closet. Having grown weary of it all, David fled to Arizona when he was 16. Once free, he began a quest to find God - to understand Him for himself. That journey led to experiences and miracles that would change his life forever.

One Lost Boy is an affecting story, simply told. Beagley's words lack poetry or perfection, but come through with the kind of faith and honesty that permeate the heart. While his life experiences are unbelievable in so many ways, the author demonstrates how each - no matter how distressing - became an important piece in the overall puzzle of his life. He gives thanks for his struggles, testifies that his pain made him stronger, and above all, acknowledges God's hand in his life. While this may not be the best book for non-LDS readers - simply because Beagley assumes his readers are familiar with the ins and outs of Mormon life - it will speak to anyone who's asked the big questions: Why does the Lord allow good people to suffer? Does God really know me? Does He even exist? If I'm striving to be the best Christian I can be, why does life keep beating me down? If He really cares about me, why does He allow bad things to happen to me? As David Beagley answers these questions for himself, he develops a powerful testimony of Jesus Christ. One that he shares with confidence and strength. It may not be the most eloquent avowal ever, but it's certainly effective.

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mature themes

To the FTC, with love: This one came from Cedar Fort, with a plea to evaluate it honestly. That's exactly what I did.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Palace of Mirrors Convinces Me: No More Haddix Fairy Tales

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Before I begin bashing Palace of Mirrors, I have to make one thing clear: I love Margaret Peterson Haddix. I really do. She writes original, fast-paced adventures that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. Her forays into sci fi particularly appeal to me. So, why then, can't I manage to get into her fairy tales? I thought Just Ella was okay (in my review, I said, "It's good, but not so good that I have to shout it from the rooftops), but I found its companion, Palace of Mirrors to be merely so-so. Am I the only one who thinks it's a little ... generic?

The story begins Sleeping Beauty-style: An infant princess is whisked off to a remote village, hidden away from her kingdom's enemies. To protect her identity, she's raised in a rickety cottage without any worldly wealth. Her name is Cecilia Aurora Serindia Marie. Unlike the other Aurora, this one knows she's a princess. In fact, she's been secretly tutored in all things royal since she was a child. Now that she's 15, though, Cecilia's getting a little tired of studying to be a princess - she's ready to be a princess. Enough ragged clothes and callused hands, she longs for silk dresses, glittering balls and handsome princes.

When her enemies come sniffing around, Cecilia sees it as a blessing in disguise. Finally, she can come out of hiding, dismiss the orphan who's pretending to be the princess, and claim the throne that's rightfully hers. With her best friend - with whom things are suddenly awkward in a weird boy/girl way - she sets out for the capitol. Obviously, a couple of peasants can't just waltz into the palace; luckily, Cecilia has a plan. Only the plan backfires. Royally. Now, she's running for her life, questioning her identity, and trying to save her kingdom all at the same time. Can she stop her enemies in time, especially when she can't distinguish friend from foe? Will taking the throne mean losing what's most important to her? Is she even up for the job? What if she's more peasant than princess? And the most important question of all: Will she stay alive long enough to get her happily ever after?

I know, I know - it doesn't sound that bad. And it's not. It's a nice little story. It's also a familiar story. There are elements of Sleeping Beauty, The Goose Girl, Just Ella and more, but no trace of that good ole Haddix originality. If you're judging by Disney princess standards, I guess you could call Cecilia's character fresh, except that she's pretty much a carbon copy of Ella Brown (of Just Ella fame). Although the plot gets confusing, it's still pretty run-of-the-mill. Like the rest of the book. It's all just kind of blah, dull, so-so, not what I expect from Haddix. So, I'm going to swear off her fairy tales and stick with the sci fi thrillers I know and love. Lucky for me, the second installment in her The Missing series just came out ... and I've got a Scholastic book fair to attend tomorrow. Talk about happily ever after.

For the record, my 7-year-old daughter adored Palace of Mirrors.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some intense action/fighting sequences

To the FTC, with love: I got this book from my kids' school. The librarian barely has enough money to buy books, let alone compensate me for reading and reviewing them. I did it for free. Gladly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Woodson's Hush Looks at Black, White and Blue

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

No one does prejudice quite like Jacqueline Woodson. Through her novels, she has probed issues like racism, police brutality, homophobia, and discrimination against people with disabilities. Her victims run the gamut: they are rich, poor, black, white, deaf, gay, educated and mentally retarded. The characters, in their infinite variety, serve to underscore Woodson's constant theme - People are just people, despite differences in gender, race, background and creed.

Woodson devotees adore her for her fearless honesty, especially when discussing issues between the black and white communities. Hush, her 2002 novel, is a perfect example, although it adds a new group to the mix - the blue community. Blue, as in cops. The Denver Police Department, to be exact. To 12-year-old Toswiah Jackson, her father's co-workers on the force have always been like kindly aunts and uncles. They've attended her birthday parties, given her rides home in their squad cars, told her silly jokes and patted her head. It didn't matter that her father was the only black officer in the precinct because "it was different there ... Cops were cops. We were all one big family. All on the same side of the law. We were the good guys" (28).

That was then. Before Toswiah's father sees two white cops shoot a black teenager. Before he decides to testify against them. Now, the Jacksons are no more. The Witness Protection Program has re-invented them. Toswiah Jackson of Denver, Colorado becomes Evie Thomas of Someplace Else, USA. Although she and her family look unchanged, Toswiah knows things will never be the same. Her father's a brooding, broken man; her mother's found religion, one that has her praising Jehovah and cancelling holidays; and her sister's itching to leave home ASAP. As for Toswiah - once she knew who she was, knew she was someone special; now, she's not so sure. All she wants is to go back to the life she knew and loved. But she can't. Not now, not ever. How will she make her way in this topsy-turvy new world where everything, including herself, is so very different?

While Hush isn't my favorite Woodson book, I still found it a compelling read. It's quick, but deceptively so. Although I finished it in a couple of hours, the story lingered in my head. I felt keenly for Toswiah, whose life changed irrevocably because of her father's insistence on telling the truth. It made me think about justice, right, morals and obligations. Hush is not the cheeriest of stories, or the most exciting, but it's undeniably affecting. It didn't make me swoon - it did make me think. And think. A great story always does ...

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mature themes

To the FTC, with love: Got this one for free - from the library

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Northern Light: Historical Fiction That Has It All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Drudgery [druhj-uh-ree] - noun, plural -er-ies. Menial, distasteful, dull, or hard work. Synonyms: backbreaker, chore, daily grind, elbow grease, gruntwork, labor, menial labor, rat race, slavery, struggle, sweat, toil, travail, workout. (from dictionary.com and thesaurus.com)

For a girl like Mattie Gokey, who thrills in the discovery of new words and ideas, life cannot get much crueler. With her mother fresh in the grave, she's stuck looking after her grieving father, three rambunctious little sisters, and her family's deteriorating farm. Between cooking, cleaning, milking, tending the crops, and caring for the children, Mattie's got little time for studying. It's 1906 and she's 16, well beyond the age most girls leave school. Still, she's determined. She will finish school, go to college in New York and become a writer. It's the only way to escape the drudgery that rules her life. There's just one problem: She swore to her dying mother that she would take care of the family. Pursuing her dream means breaking that promise, while keeping her vow guarantees a future of hard work and crop talk with her unsophisticated husband-to-be.

Even with her acceptance letter to Barnard College in hand, Mattie knows it's not to be. Her father can't farm 60 acres by himself. Her biggest supporters - her best friend, Weaver, and her teacher, Miss Wilcox - encourage her to go to New York despite her family's protests. Instead, Mattie gets a job at the Glenmore Hotel, a nearby resort catering to wealthy tourists. It's here that a packet of letters is thrust into Mattie's hand by a distressed young woman by the name of Grace Brown. Although Grace insists that she must burn the notes, Mattie forgets about them. Days later, Grace's body is pulled from Big Moose Lake - her fiancee, with whom she went rowing, is missing. As if she doesn't have enough on her mind already, Mattie now has to figure out what to do with Grace's letters. The whole situation is suspicious - should she turn the correspondence over to the police? Reading them seems a breach of privacy, but Mattie can't help herself. As she delves into the young woman's thoughts and dreams, Mattie ponders her own. Is she, like Grace, willing to give up everything she's ever wanted for a man who doesn't appreciate her? Is she destined to live a life of obscurity because she's not brave enough to take a chance? Will duty keep her from living the life she really wants? And then there's the question to which everyone wants an answer: Who killed Grace Brown?

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly tells the parallel stories of Mattie Gokey and Grace Brown, although it's really the former's tale. Mattie's the kind of narrator who's easy to identify with - she's sympathetic, believable, engaging and, most charmingly, word hungry. The reader feels her longing, her desperation, her desire for something beyond the dreary confines of her world. Her voice is so compelling that it makes her story burst into vivid life. And what a story it is. Filled with family drama, mystery, romance and humor, it's one of those historical novels that just has it all. Both entertaining and evocative, A Northern Light is not to be missed.

**

While there are plenty of deep, contemplative passages in the book, as well as fun bookish lines the following are neither. They're a little risque, but so funny that I couldn't help myself:

"I knew a lot of words - a lot more than Belinda, who giggled all the time and said things like "swell" and "chum" and "hopelessly dead broke" - but not the right ones. I kept my eyes on the furrows for a while, but that got to be boring, so I stared at Royal's backside. I had never really noticed a man's backside before. Pa didn't have one. It was as flat as a cracker. Momma would tease him about it and he'd tell her the lumber bosses worked it off him. I thought Royal's was very nice. Round and proud like two loaves of soda bread. He turned around just then and I blushed. I wondered what Jane Eyre would have done, then realized Jane was English and proper and wouldn't have gone around eyeing Rochester's backside to begin with" (53).

**

"[Momma]'d sat me down at the kitchen table ... and told me that I was a grown woman now, not a girl anymore, and that a woman's virtue was the greatest treasure she possessed and that I must never, ever give mine to any man but the one I married.

'Do you understand me, Mattie?' she'd said.

I thought I did, but I wasn't sure. I knew what virtue means - goodness, purity, and excellence - because it had once been my word of the day. But I didn't think men wanted to get ahold of those things because Fran told me all they want to get ahold of is your bosoms" (301).

**

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: I borrowed this book from my local library. I received no compensation for the review - in fact, I paid 40 cents for keeping the book longer than two weeks.

What's Rocking My World Today?

Now that the world has stopped rocking, I can look at the computer long enough to announce that I'm back! Even though the houseboat sometimes makes me queasy, I didn't feel ill at all this time. Until I stepped on solid ground, that is. I've been dizzy and nauseous ever since. The world keeps tilting - I considered swallowing a Drammamine just to make it stop! We had a fabulous time at Lake Powell, though. Really, is there anything better than zooming across the water at 60 mph on a jet ski while taking in beautiful scenery? Or snuggling up with a warm comforter and a good book while watching the sun go down over the water? Or seeing my kids play with their cousins, dig in the sand, and explore nature with (almost) perfect contentment? No, I really don't think so.

Speaking of books, you're probably dying to know how my (slightly) over-ambitious reading plan fared. I know it's all you've been able to think about this week. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I didn't get all my books read. I was actually proud of myself for pulling my nose out of my books long enough to enjoy the water, as well as my family and friends. Still, reading on top of the houseboat felt so luxurious that I just had to spend some hours up there. I managed to finish A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and Hush by Jacqueline Woodson. I also got 1/3 of the way through Palace of Mirrors by Margaret Peterson Haddix, a book my 7-year-old read twice while on the lake. When I reminded her that I needed to read it, she said, "Oh, you're going to love it, Mom!" So far, she's right. Look for reviews of all three of my vacation reads in the next week.

I tried really hard to clean off my feed reader before I left for my trip - now, it's back up over 1000. Yikes! I'll try hard to catch up with all of your blogs as well as my own. For now, though, I'm going to try to make it up the stairs without falling over. Is it just me or is the world tilting a little to the right?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, A Houseboatin' I Go


In Arizona, we have this little thing called October Break. It used to be very little - just a couple days off school. This year, the kids have a whole week of vacation. Our week on our houseboat (a timeshare kind of thing) very conveniently coincides with October Break this year, so we're headed off to Lake Powell for some R & R. I'll be offline, with nothing prepared to auto-post in my absence. If you need to contact me, try smoke signals. Hee hee.

We all know the most important part of taking a trip is planning which books to bring along. This is especially critical when houseboating since there's no access to Border's out on the lake. Thus, you have to choose wisely. I wanted a mix of "beachy" reads and more serious books, but I ended up picking these:

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly - I'm about a third of the way through this one. So far, I'm really, really liking it.

Hush by Jacqueline Woodson - I'm loving Woodson these days, so I want to read all her books. I've had this one out from the library for about a month. About time I got to it.

Palace of Mirrors by Margaret Peterson Haddix - I love me some Haddix. All of the books I've read by her so far have been more the sci fi/adventure/thriller type - this one should be an entertaining departure. I'm reading it as part of my volunteer work for my kids' elementary school.

The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar - My contact at Harper Collins sent me this ARC. I've heard lots about Umrigar, but have yet to experience her work for myself. We'll see if I get to it.

One Lost Boy: His Escape from Polygamy by David Beagley - I got this one from Cedar Fort. It's a slim memoir about a boy whose father abandons his family to pursue life as a polygamist. Polygamy always seems to be a hot topic, especially among Mormon-haters. Beagley is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the mainstream church, members of which have not practiced polygamy in over 100 years) - it will be interesting to read his perspective.

I know, I know - the list is eclectic and not exactly light beach reading. I don't usually care for that kind of fluff anyway. Who knows if I'll get to one book, let alone five, but you know I'm going to pack them all - just in case. Hope y'all have a good week - I'll catch up with you when I return!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Kephart's Newest Like A Railroad Journey - Slow, But Worth the Ride

(Image from author's blog)

Different authors appeal to me for different reasons. Some writers consistently wipe away my cares by yanking me into a heart-pounding world of action and suspense; others create characters so real that I miss them when they're gone; still others make me swoon with the sheer beauty of their wordcraft. An author who can successfully combine all three is a treasure indeed. Since I've only read one book by Beth Kephart, I can't speak to her consistency; however, judging by The Heart Is Not A Size, I'd say she falls solidly into the last category. Why? Because although I thought the novel's plot dragged, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes disjointedly, I hardly noticed because I was too busy savoring Kephart's every word. She sculpts each sentence until it's pure poetry - lovely, lyrical and full of subtle meaning.

Kephart's newest novel (to be released in March 2010 from HarperCollins) features best friends Georgia Walker and Riley Marksmen. For bosom buddies, the two couldn't be more different - Georgia's a giant next to the see-through skinny Riley; the former lives with her parents and brothers in an older home, the latter is a lonely only who dwells in the "biggest house on the tallest hill" (3) with her self-absorbed mother; and Riley's an artist with failing grades, where the thought of not answering a teacher's question correctly can send Georgia into a panic attack. Still, Georgia can't imagine traveling to Mexico without Riley. And Georgia really, really wants to go to Mexico. For her, it's not just about adding another community service item to her college application, it's about releasing herself from the pressure of being herself:

"In Juarez all my little self-imposed rules would be tested, the things I tried to control, my minuscule attempts at doing most things right ... I needed a release from the narrow outlines of my life" (17).

Georgia understands that working in Juarez isn't going to be a walk on the beach. The more she researches the place, the more she discovers

"... there were fuzzy collisions of optimism and despair, opportunity and danger, welcome and barbed fences. The ghosts of murdered women. The faces of children left behind. The chance to help. The possibility of being helpless" (87).

These contradictions only intrigue Georgia, convincing her that Mexico is exactly the cure for the neuroses that ail her. She can't wait to shed her outer skin and discover precisely what lies beneath.

The ever-responsible Georgia can't quite escape all of her duties, however - she has to look after Riley, after all. Although she feigns ignorance, Georgia knows what her friend is doing too herself, how desperate she is to earn not only her mother's attention but also her approval. Georgia can't wait to whisk her out from under Mrs. Marksmen's manicured thumb, to give her the chance to see herself in a truer light.

So, packing different agendas, the girls head to Anapra, a squatter's village south of the border. Along with 9 other teens and several chaperones, the group sets about building a community bathroom for the village's poverty-stricken residents. It's back-breaking work, performed under the blazing Mexican sun. Georgia's exhausted, but thrilled by the landscape, by the smiling children, by the photographs she takes to capture the experience. Then, things take a turn for the worse. Georgia knows she has to help Riley, but the tension between them is palpable. Is she finding herself in Mexico only to lose her best friend? Will the secrets they keep, the truths they dare not broach, keep them apart forever? How can Georgia stop Riley from self-destructing? Can she help her friend find herself when Georgia's not even sure who she, herself, is? Will Juarez be the glue that holds Georgia and Riley together or the one thing that will rip them apart?

It's difficult to describe the plot of The Heart Is Not A Size, because not a lot really happens. The novel is based on Kephart's own transforming experience in Mexico, and at times, it reads more like a memoir than a novel. Her description makes the tiny village of Anapra come alive, makes her characters live and breathe, but also weighs down the story a tad. It's apparent from the first chapter that the novel's not going to be plot-driven, but I still wish it had moved a little faster.

At its heart, of course, the book is about a friendship. It's also about things we see and things we don't see, secrets needing to be kept and truths begging to be revealed, people making themselves invisible when what they really want is to be seen. (If I was reading this for an English class, I'd go through and mark all the references to looking, seeing, losing, finding, remembering and forgetting and turn it into a brilliant essay.) This is not the kind of book you are going to fly through, flipping pages as fast as you can to get to the cliffhanger at the end. The Heart Is Not A Size is the kind of book that will have you combing back through the pages, re-reading passages for the deeper meaning you know is there. It's a multi-layered, ponderous type of tale that will have have you digging into your own heart, wondering what, exactly, it's made of. In short, this is not the dizzying thrill ride so common in teen novels - it's more like a railroad journey, slow and contemplative. Not what you're used to, but worth it. So worth it.




Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some language

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Move Over, Allison DuBois, There's A New Medium in Town

It could be a color, a smell, an acrid taste in her mouth - almost anything can lead Violet Ambrose to a dead body. Unlike other teenage girls, she can sense the "echoes" left behind by those who have died unnaturally. Since any killer, be it a serial murderer, a hunter, or a police officer firing in the line of duty, wears the imprints of his victims, Violet can sense these, too. Her "gift" isn't something she shares with other people. But now that a killer is stalking her small town, she feels responsible - if her abilities can help find this monster, shouldn't she be doing everything in her power to stop him?

When The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting opens, Violet's yet to discover the corpse that will begin her body-finding nightmare. Her current problem is much less mundane - she's starting to feel something for her best friend, Jay Heaton. They've been inseparable since first grade. Theirs is a close, comfortable relationship that Violet's never really thought much about. Until now. Suddenly, she's discovered what her female classmates already know - Jay's smoking hot. The fact that he doesn't seem to know it makes him all the more appealing. Violet's traitorous body reacts every time she's in his presence - surely, he can hear the frantic beat of her heart, see the way she flushes every time he's around. He's already got a gaggle of admirers, including the most popular girl in school - it's a miracle he's still hanging out with her at all.

When Violet spots something weird during an outing at the lake, her other problems fade into the background. The police determine what Violet already knows - a girl has been murdered, her body dumped in the water. As more girls disappear, it becomes apparent that a serial killer is using the small town of Buckley as his personal hunting ground. With her unique abilities, Violet knows she can find the murderer. It's a simple matter of stalking malls, movie theaters and other teen hangouts, letting her senses search out the dead girls' echoes. The only problems are Jay and her parents, who are dead set against her involvement. But, they're not the ones being haunted. Violet knows she won't be able to rest until she stops the killer. She's the only one who can track him down - and she will. No matter what the cost.

With a broody Northwest setting, shivery otherworldly elements (but no vampires, thank goodness) and heart-pounding action, The Body Finder's an unputdownable thriller with a Halloween-ish vibe. Think a younger, sexier version of the t.v. show Medium. Add compelling characters, a sizzling romance, some good ole teenage angst and you've got a book that will have readers turning pages fast enough to cause injury. I couldn't get enough. Please, God, tell me there's a sequel in the works ...

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language and scenes depicting underrage drinking/partying

(Note: The Body Finder will be available in March 2010 from HarperCollins. Thanks to Jana at HarperTeen for the ARC. Book image is from the author's website.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Shattered Silence: Daughter Opens Up About Her Father, the Happy Face Killer

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Parents lie to their children all the time. For the most part, the untruths are harmless - "Don't sit too close to the tv or you'll go blind" or "Yes, of course, Santa Claus is real" - meant to preserve childhood and protect innocence. Sometimes, though, parents lie by omission, by keeping their deepest, darkest secrets to themselves, promising their offspring that everything's fine, it will all be okay. Shrouded in such secrecy and lies, the truth - once revealed - can be utterly devastating, damaging a child's psyche forever. Just ask Melissa G. Moore author of Shattered Silence (co-authored by M. Bridget Cook), a memoir about growing up with the man who would come to be known as the "Happy Face Killer."

As a child, Melissa knew Keith Jesperson only as Dad. He was the strapping, fun-loving man who romped with his children and brought them special treats. His job as a trucker kept him away from home for days at a time, so she and her two siblings were always happy to see him. Well, almost always. Melissa remembers the sadistic delight he took in killing small animals, ribbing her about her fears and insecurities, and the cruel words he flung at her mother. Sometimes he frightened her, but mostly he made her feel special and safe. His huge bulk seemed powerful enough to protect her from any danger.

While Melissa says her father was "the adamant protector of our physical bodies" (10), never laying a hand on his children, he allowed them to suffer from squalor and neglect. After Jesperson divorced his wife, she was left to provide for the family with only occasional help from him. They lived in a succession of tiny dwellings with little food in the cupboards and little affection from their exhausted, distant mother. Jesperson popped in and out of their lives. His visits always meant treats for the kids, items their mother could never afford like Jordache jeans and sugary cereal. While she enjoyed those rare delights, Melissa felt increasingly uneasy around her father. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but she knew something about him wasn't quite right. Her intuition proved correct: During Melissa's childhood, Keith Jesperson brutally murdered 8 women.

Melissa's already troubled existence turned even worse as she dealt with the guilt, shame and abject horror of knowing her father's crimes. Her own life spiraled out of control, spinning her in directions that led to even more traumatic situations. Shattered Silence is, at its core, about what happened next, the process by which Melissa was finally able to heal. It involved hard resolve, fervent prayer and going head-to-head with Mr. Tell It Like It Is himself, Dr. Phil McGraw. Hers is an incredible journey of faith, hope and forgiveness.

Shattered Silence reminds me a little of The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule's book about her friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy. However, if you're looking for a Rule-like true crime story, you'll want to look elsewhere. Shattered Silence is Melissa's story, not her father's. She gives very little detail about Keith Jesperson's crimes, focusing instead on how she went from worshipping her dad, to fearing him, to loathing him, to separating what he had done from what she could become. It's a heartbreaking, ultimately triumphant tale told in an honest, very readable manner. The story sometimes lacks focus and wants better editing to fix typos and tighten prose. Overall, though, it's a worthwhile read that is as compelling as it is memorable.

(Note: You can check out clips of Melissa's appearances on various news programs here on the website of her publisher, Cedar Fort. Many thanks to Liz Carlston for sending me a copy of Shattered Silence to review.)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language, violence and mature themes

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