Friday, December 31, 2010

Got a Money-Saving Resolution? Have I Got A Solution For You!

(Image from Indiebound)

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to spend less money in 2011, then have I got the book for you! Steve and Annette Economides, known locally (they live in Scottsdale) and nationally for their frugality, share their best money-scrimping tips in their first book, America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money (2007). The pair, who embrace a low-tech, back-to-basics approach to finance, maintain a website, write an online newsletter called HomeEconomiser, provide financial counseling to those in need, and have been interviewed for numerous newspapers, magazines and television programs. If anyone knows their stuff, it's the Economides'.

While the couple's strategy strikes me as kind of a rock-bottom plan, most helpful to those either just starting out or struggling to stay afloat, they offer helpful tips for everyone. The book delves into specific money-sucking categories like groceries, housing, utilities, medical expenses, credit card debt, etc. The Economides' give the kind of advice you'd expect - stock up on sale items, use coupons when buying food, shop for clothes at thrift stores, find free ways to entertain your family, etc. - as well as some you wouldn't. Their most revolutionary suggestion is actually the simplest of all: If you don't have money to spend, don't spend it! Genius. I can't count the number of times I've heard couples complain about just scrimping by only to turn around and spend thousands on a week's vacation to Hawaii! Not only do the Economides' make these suggestions, but they offer enough examples to prove they practice what they preach.

If you're struggling to get your finances under control, the Budgeting chapter is especially helpful. While the authors' plan is simplistic, it relies on very basic principles of saving and planning for emergencies. Most interesting for me, though, is the section titled "Kids and Money." If you, like me, have wondered how to teach your children to earn, save and wisely spend their money, you'll want to consult this section of the book for some excellent advice. For most topics, the Economides' ideas can be boiled down to one familiar concept: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. Sound idealistic? With their practical advice, Steve and Annette show how realistic (and prudent) that kind of lifestyle really is.

Now, I have to say that, after reading the book (me) and skimming it (him), my husband and I came to the same conclusion: in some ways, the Economides' are too cheap. Take, for example, a note from 16-year-old Roy Economides who explains that he refuses to plunk down the money for his own cell phone. "If I'm out and need to make a call," he explains, "there is always someone around who will lend me a phone. It's really not a hassle" (119). Or, another suggestion (which I saw in this article, the full text of which appeared in a recent edition of All You Magazine) from Annette Economides to borrow ingredients you need for recipes from neighbors so you don't have to go grocery shopping more than once a month. There's a fine line between being frugal and being cheap - for me, the situations I mention above cross it. (Note: To be fair, the Economides' are strong advocates for reciprocity - see Page 263 of the book)

You can take the Economides' economizing lifestyle or leave it, but you can't walk away from their book without being impressed. And inspired. If this family of 7 can live debt-free while the majority of Americans are dodging calls from creditors, well, they're obviously doing something right. It's worth the cost of the book (I got it for $8.52 at Amazon) to find out what.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Miserly Mom and Frugal Families by Jonni McCoy. It's probably quite similar to the Economides' second book, Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America's Cheapest Family, which I will be reading and reviewing soon.)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought this book from Amazon with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Dystopian Runs On Empty

(Image from Indiebound)

Gwen Jones has never been afraid of the dark or the quiet - until they become permanent conditions in her little town of Sage Valley, New York. As the world's supply of fossil fuels dwindles to nothing, cities all over the globe are running out of gas, food, clean water, medicine, and other necessities. Without electricity, people are cold, bored, and panicked. Gwen didn't have much to begin with, but she's never felt this deprived. Even with her brother's black market connections, she wonders how she'll survive.

Tom Harris knows he needs to get antibiotics for his mother, who's getting sicker by the day. The question is where to find them. He can't locate the medication in Sage Valley and his old truck's already running on fumes. His only hope lies in his family's sailboat. If he can successfully sail it down the Hudson, he just might be able to help his mom, not to mention his elderly neighbors. It's his only hope - well, that and Gwen, the weird Goth girl who just might hold the secret to saving them all.

Niki Barton's never gone without a thing - until the world starts collapsing around her. Suddenly, her stock broker father's out of a job, her family can't pay for electricity to heat their gigantic lake house, and, worst of all, contact lenses are no longer available. Used to getting whatever they want whenever they want it, her parents are paralyzed by the situation. It's up to Niki to make sure they all survive. The world may be ending, but Niki's still got two boys fighting for her attention. If she has to use them both to save her family, she'll do it in a heartbeat.

In this strange, new world, three teenagers will have to put aside their differences and work as a team to save their small town - and themselves - from extinction. Goths, cheerleaders, football players, none of that means anything anymore. Survival is all that matters now.

Empty, Suzanne Weyn's newest, is yet another book that grabbed me with its premise, but disappointed me with its execution. It's not the idea behind the book - a worldwide oil shortage sets a convincing stage for what could have been a truly compelling dystopian story. It's the characters (flat as pancakes), the dialogue (can you say stiff?), the plot (contrived), and the prose (completely overwritten). What results is a story that never achieves the kind of chilling believability that makes dystopian novels like Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It or Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker so fun to read. Unlike other books of this type, Empty actually ends on a positive note, something I would have really liked if it had been at all persuasive. Instead, the whole story comes off as fabricated. I've said this before about other books, but Empty feels more like a rough draft than a completed novel. With a little bit more effort, it could have been a whole lot better. I wanted so much more from it. Oh well, it's not the end of the world ... or is it?

(Readalikes: similar to The Last Survivors series by Susan Beth Pfeffer)

Grade: D

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Empty from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mormon Mention: Gretchen Rubin

I haven't done one of these in awhile, so I was excited to find a Mormon Mention in Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. She's talking about a goal she set for herself to "Go off the path." In an effort to learn about topics she'd never cared about before, she'd go to a magazine store, close her eyes and choose issues at random. In one magazine, she found an article on hosting a "mocktail" party. She mused:

"Is it the case that people in social sets where most people don't drink - observant Mormons, say - a host would serve 'mocktails'?" (129)

Even if you've never met a real, live Mormon, the one thing you probably know about us is that we don't drink alcohol. We prefer hard liquor. Ha ha. Just kidding. Seriously, we follow what's called the Word of Wisdom, which prohibits "strong drinks." You're not going to be kicked out of the church if you sip a glass of champagne, but observant Mormons completely abstain from drinking alcohol.

As for "mocktails," I can honestly say I've never had one. And I've been to plenty of Mormon parties. I guess if you've never tasted a cocktail, you wouldn't be craving a "mocktail," right? We teetotalling Mormons usually just go for non-caffienated soda, non-spiked punch, or plain ol' water. Even on that, you'd be surprised at how crazy things can get.

I'm not even sure what a mocktail is. I do enjoy ordering virgin pina coladas when I'm in Jamaica - does that count?

'Cause, Really, Who Can't Use More Happiness?

(Image from Indiebound)

As 2010 drifts into 2011, I've been thinking a lot about what I did/did not accomplish this year and what I hope to get out of the next 365 days. I've asked myself the big, deep questions: "What did I learn this year?"; "What am I doing right?"; "What areas of my life need improving?"; and "What goals do I need to set now in order to ensure that I'm a kinder/skinnier/smarter/more organized person this time next year?" I didn't, however, ponder how to be a happier person because, really, I'm already pretty happy. Sure, there are things about myself I'd like to improve, but overall, I'm satisfied with who I am, what I'm doing and where I'm going. Happy. That's me. And yet, I suppose I could stand to be happier. Who couldn't, right?

Gretchen Rubin, a New Yorker with a successful writing career, a strong marriage and two adoring daughters, felt much the same way. She was already happy, but wondered if she could be happier simply by revamping certain areas of her life. In other words, as she relates, "I didn't want to reject my life. I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen" (12). To achieve this, she launched a year-long self-improvement program which she discusses in her book The Happiness Project. Using each month to focus on enhancing different aspects of her existence brought Rubin a variety of experiences, everything from ridicule to triumph to aggravation to euphoria. Did it make her a happier person? Yes, she insists, and it can do the same for you.

The Happiness Project is more of a memoir than a step-by-step manual for achieving joy. Still, Rubin's musings offer great insight into what it means and what it takes to truly be happy. The idea which impacted me most was Rubin's discovery that she had to embrace activities she knew would appeal to her instead of those she thought should appeal to her. Above all else, she vowed to be true to the person she already was.

Unlike most volumes of this type, Rubin's guide doesn't read like a self-help book. It's more personal, more readable, more honest, and more forgiving. The author doesn't profess herself to be some all-knowing guru - she's just an average Jane trying to make herself into a better person. Her account is humble, humorous and, most of all, heartening. It's not the most exciting thing I've read this year, but The Happiness Project definitely made me think. And resolve to try my own version of a happiness project. After all, more happiness never hurt anyone, right?

If you're interested in trying your own happiness project, check out Gretchen Rubin's helpful Happiness Project Blog.

(Readalikes: Um, I can't think of any. Can you?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 only because the sh-word is used one time. There are also some vague references to sex.

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of The Happiness Project from the generous folks at Harper Collins. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ship Breaker's First-Class Entertainment

(Image from Indiebound)

In a world that's short on everything, salvaging is big business. Even a scrawny teenager like Nailer Lopez could make his fortune with one "Lucky Strike." While he's fantasizing about the good life, though, Nailer's got to live his real one, which means making quota. Every day, he squirms through rusting supertankers looking for anything that can be sold off for profit - copper wire, aluminum, nickel, steel clips, and, scarcest of all, oil. If he brings out enough of the good stuff to satisfy his boss he'll keep himself employed, earning barely enough to feed himself. It's a hardscrabble existence, but it's the only one he's ever known. A long time ago, he's heard, people lived in mansions, ate whenever they pleased, and traveled the world in gas-guzzling automobiles. That world is gone now, drowned in the sea, and this brutal new existence is all that remains.

When Nailer discovers a luxurious clipper ship run aground after a hurricane, he knows he's finally found his own, personal "Lucky Strike." There's all kinds of scavenge on the boat, not just metal, but food and swank stuff like furniture, art and silk clothing. All of it ripe for the picking. But as Nailer combs through it all, he discovers a different sort of scavenge - a beautiful girl, half-dead, decked out in enough gold to feed Nailer for the rest of his life. He could kill her, take her jewelry, her ship, her food. He'd probably be doing her a favor. His father would do it in a heartbeat, but Nailer's not that cold-hearted. Besides, the girl represents the one thing he wants more than anything else - escape. All he has to do is keep the swank hidden from rival scavenge gangs until her people come to rescue her. Then, he'll have it made.

What should be a simple rescue mission quickly becomes a frenzied race for survival. As Nailer smuggles snooty Nita Chaudhury into the sunken city of Orleans, he'll have to outwit the bloodthirsty bounty hunters who track his every move. Is snobby Nita really worth the effort? Will she keep her promise once she's rescued? Or is Nailer destined to risk his life over and over again in pursuit of the kind of life that just doesn't exist for a scrappy ship breaker like him?

Paolo Bacigalupi's debut YA novel, Ship Breaker, is dystopian at its very best. The National Book Award nominee (2010) combines colorful characters, heart-stopping action, and strong, vivid prose to create a story that comes alive with startling vibrancy. Although the story takes place in a fractured world, it's Bacigalupi's deconstruction of humanity that makes the novel so impactful. To put it simply, Ship Breaker is fast-paced, finely-plotted, first-class entertainment. Blood and rust (as Nailer wold say), I loved it.

(Readalikes: a little bit like The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and The Maze Runner by James Dashner)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), violence and mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Ship Breaker from the generous folks at Hachette Book Group. Thank you!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!


Wishing you nothing but smiles this holiday season.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rules: The Sweet, Simple Novel That Owns My Heart

(Image from Cynthia Lord's official website)

If you make a mess, clean it up.

Knock before entering someone's bedroom.

Don't talk with your mouth full.

Take off your shoes when you come inside the house.

All families have rules. Catherine's does, too. Only they don't necessarily apply to her younger brother, David. He has his own rules to follow:

It's fine to hug Mom, but not the clerk at the video store.

Take your shoes off at the doctor, but at the dentist leave them on.

If someone is holding something you want, ask if you can have a turn.

Keep your pants on! Unless Mom, Dad, or the doctor tells you to take them off!

Most kids David's age just know what to do in these situations. Not David. His autism makes him act differently than other people, something Catherine knows better than anyone. She's seen him freak out over the tiniest issues, things a "normal" kid wouldn't even notice, let alone care about. She's watched his odd behavior attract stares, giggles and cruel teasing from other children. She's comforted him, defended him, tried to teach him about appropriate reactions. She's let him hog their parents' attention, sat patiently through hours of his therapy appointments and missed out on the kinds of trips and vacations kids with regular families go on all the time. Catherine wishes fervently that there were no such thing as autism. Sometimes, she even wishes there was no such thing as David.

When 12-year-old Kristi Peterson moves in next door, Catherine's thrilled. She's always wanted someone in the neighborhood her age to hang out with. It's clear, though, that Kristi's the type of girl who's destined to be popular; if Catherine wants to win her over as a BFF, she'll have to act fast. There's only one problem: David. How can she impress Kristi when he's always hanging around acting so ... different? Real friends understand, that's what Catherine's mother always says. But how can anyone get David? She doesn't even get David most of the time.

Catherine's surprised when she makes another new friend, this one even more unexpected than the last. Jason Morehouse is funny, friendly and seems to enjoy her company, but when Kristi suggests inviting him to the community dance, Catherine hesitates. What Kristi doesn't know is that Jason's confined to a wheelchair and he's only able to speak by pointing to words in his communication book. Catherine gets enough stares when she's with David - what will happen if she's seen with Jason?

Sorting through all the feelings that war in her heart - resentment toward her parents who always put David's needs before hers; guilt over her sometimes hateful feelings about her brother; embarrassment over her "irregular" family; and, most of all, shame for all her horrible thoughts - Catherine's forced to face grim truths about herself. Does she crave Kristi's friendship enough to betray her family? Her wheelchair-bound friend? How far will she go to get a normal life? And what's normal anyway?

As much as I love Cynthia Lord's sophomore novel (Touch Blue), it's her debut that really owns my heart. Rules is a rare kind of story, one that offers truth without bitterness, humor without mockery, and sweetness without sentimentality. Catherine's voice rings with such authenticity that her brother's disability becomes instantly personal and intensely relatable. It's impossible not to feel her heartbreak, not to root for her success. So comfortable is Lord in the world she's created for Catherine and David that their story flows along with a natural ease that just feels right. Middle grade books rarely touch me the way this one did, but Rules grabbed me from the first sentence and hasn't let go yet. If you only have time to squeeze in one more book this year, make it this one.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko; also reminded me a little of Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for content more suited for kids over the age of 8

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Evermore Meets The Mortal Instruments - and Not in a Good Way - In New Angel Novel

(Image from Indiebound)

Q. What speeds across the Earth at inhuman speeds, hears the thoughts of others and craves the taste of blood?

A. Not what you're thinking of.

Sixteen-year-old Ellie Faneuil has always been different from her classmates. Spending her summers working in impoverished countries with her Save-the-Earth obsessed parents has given her a wider world view, one that makes all the petty dramas of high school seem ridiculous. If she could just skip the whole scene and step right into college, she would. Unfortunately, she's stuck in Tillinghast, Maine, with uber-popular Piper Faires and the rest of her snotty crowd. To make matters worse, Ellie has the uncanny ability to see what people are thinking, just by touching them. She doesn't want to read her best friend's mind, let alone wander inside the heads of girls like Piper. The best she can do is stay clear of the Queen Bees and never, ever touch anyone.

When Ellie catches the eye of Michael Chase, the hot new guy at school, she feels an instant connection. Not only does he seek her out, ignoring gorgeous Piper and her friends, but he actually seems to care what she thinks. No doubt about it: Michael's different than the other boys. When Ellie finds out just how different he is, though, she's terrified. No human can do the things Michael can, so what is he, exactly? For that matter, what is she? Michael seems to have at least some of the answers, but his careless disregard for his "gifts" makes her wonder if she can trust him with her darkest secret.

As Ellie questions everything she's ever known to be true, she learns startling facts about herself, her family, and the boy that's suddenly consuming her every thought. Although the details are foggy, Ellie knows both she and Michael have important roles to play in the ultimate battle of good v. evil. The question is, what side are they on? Who's right in this ancient war of wills? Can Ellie figure out her place in the whole mess before it's too late? Or will the Angel of Destruction obliterate everything she knows and loves?

Fallen Angel by Heather Terrell (available December 28, 2010) is another one of those YA paranormals that offers an interesting premise, but fails to deliver. Big time. The problem here isn't the idea - which, although similar to Evermore by Alyson Noel with echoes of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series, is unique enough to be compelling - it's the writing. All of the characters are flat as pancakes, starved of personality, individuality and charm. Since neither Ellie nor Michael are rounded enough to feel real, it's no surprise that the passion they supposedly feel for each other falls totally flat. Their dialogue is stilted, the love scenes cheesy, and the romance never gets the chance to build, it just suddenly is. Plotwise, the story meanders all over the place. It's so contrived in spots that Ellie's ability to fly becomes one of the only plot elements that feels real.

On the upside, the book is pretty clean. Well, it's clean in the way Twilight is clean, which is to say there are a number of make out scenes, but they're not graphic. There's also no profanity, no real sexual innuendo (besides the making out, of course), and only vague references to things like underrage drinking. This, coupled with some serious editing, probably would have equaled a decent book. If only.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of Alyson Noel's Evermore, a little of The Hourglass Door by Lisa Mangum and a teensy bit of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series.)

Grade: D

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 because of makeout scenes, although they aren't graphic

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Fallen Angel from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Native American Coming-of-Age Story Just Okay

(Image from Amazon)

Montana, 1909 - Intent on civilizing Native Americans, the U.S. government is rounding them up, corralling them onto reservations, and cleansing them of their "savage" ways. For young Lionel and Beatrice, Blackfoot orphans who lost their mother to tuberculosis during the brutal winter of 1903, this means enrollment at the Chalk Bluff boarding school. Although Lionel would rather live with what's left of his family, he's not unhappy with the situation. Beatrice, on the other hand, craves the old ways. She defies the Brothers who run the school by speaking her native tongue, refusing to let them cut her thick black braids, and honoring the Creator in the ancient manner. Lionel can't understand why she insists on making trouble not only with the priests at the school but with the soldiers at the Army outpost next door.

On the day Lionel finds a dead man kneeling in the snow, Beatrice turns on two of the soldiers with a vengeance that surprises them all. Stealing the Army's prized stallion, she and Lionel flee into the wilderness. Beatrice thinks she remembers how to get to their grandfather's home, but the way is long and the weather uncooperative. With soldiers hot on their trail, the children try to move quickly, keeping themselves and the big horse safe from harm. Fighting hunger, the frigid winter, wild animals, illness, and the not always honorable intentions of other wanderers, the children's journey is fraught with danger. And adventure. And great revelation for Lionel, who finally begins to see why Beatrice fights so strongly to defend the culture the government's determined to destroy.

Starfish, a debut novel by writer/filmmaker James Crowley, examines two very different characters coming of age in a time when everything around them is changing. As the old ways converge with the new, Lionel and Beatrice must choose which to embrace. The farther their journey takes them, the more they learn - about themselves, each other, and what it means to be a Native American in the white man's world. While I didn't absolutely adore this book, I did find it to be an exciting adventure piloted by two engaging characters. It's not entirely believable and I have no doubt that some people (see Debbie Reese's very thorough review of Starfish here) will have problems with Crowley's portrayal of American Indians, but I thought it was okay. Not unputtownable, not riveting, not jaw-dropping, just okay.

(Readalikes: Apparently, I haven't read too many books about Native Americans. Any suggestions here?)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild, but frequent invectives

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Starfish from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Who Killed Sutton Mercer? Frankly, I Couldn't Care Less.

(Image from Indiebound)


Something's always been missing in 17-year-old Emma Paxton's life. And it's not just because her mother dropped her off at a friend's house when she was five and never bothered to come back. It's more than that. It's almost like a piece of herself is missing. When she sees a You Tube video of a girl being strangled, Emma's shocked - not just because of the violent images, but because the dead girl looks exactly like her. Even if the video's some kind of sick joke, one thing is certain: Somewhere out there, Emma has a twin sister.

Sutton Mercer, also 17, wakes up in a bathtub in a house she's never seen before. Primping in the mirror is a girl who looks exactly like her. Confused, Sutton tries to get the girl's attention, only to be completely ignored. No one in the house can see or hear her. Considering her body seems to be fading, Sutton can only come to one conclusion - she must be dead. Only she can't remember how it happened. She can barely remember anything. All she knows is that she's now somehow attached to her twin sister, a girl she never even knew existed until now.

As Emma digs into her long-lost sister's life, she discovers a girl living the kind of existence Emma's known only in her dreams. Sutton's beautiful, wealthy, popular, loved and, as far as she can tell, not dead. When she receives a Facebook message from Sutton, it's all the encouragement Emma needs - she hops a bus to Tucson. Before she knows what's happening, Emma finds herself living Sutton's life. Since Sutton is nowhere to be found, it's obvious that's something's happened to her, but what? Did she take off voluntarily, thinking that Emma could just step in and take her place or did someone steal Sutton's life from her? The more Emma learns about her sister, the stranger the whole situation gets. Can she figure out what happened to Sutton before she, herself, is discovered? Before she, too, disappears?

Sutton longs to help her sister, tries to remember, but everything's so hazy. Can she harness her beyond-the-grave powers to help Emma solve her murder? Or will she be forced to stand by and watch while someone kills her sister?

As intriguing as its premise is, The Lying Game by Sara Shepard falls flat due to poor execution. The writing's clumsy, the characters are almost wholly unlikable and the story goes nowhere fast. It's the first in a series of four books, so I didn't expect Emma to find the killer in the first book, but still, it seems like she makes no progress at all. Sutton's presence is just irritating since she does almost nothing to advance the story. If you can't tell, I found the whole novel frustrating. Still, I picked it up again after abandoning it twice, so I guess that says something. The premise continues to interest me, but the series doesn't. Frankly, I couldn't care less what happened to Sutton Mercer. And that's no lie.

(Readalikes: A little like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold)

Grade: D

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (1 F-bomb), sexual innuendo, and depictions of underrage drinking/smoking/drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of The Lying Game from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

1 Skinny Sixth Grader + 1 Swirlie-Loving Bully + The First Day of Middle School = Disaster

(Image from Indiebound)

What do you get when you mix one scrawny 11-year-old, one swirlie-loving bully, one ex-best friend and the first day of middle school? A disaster, that's what. David Greenberg isn't exactly thrilled to be starting junior high, especially since he and his closest pal had a big fight. Now, David has to navigate the confusing world of Harman Middle School all on his own. To make things worse, his BFF's now hanging with the biggest bully in town. Their favorite target? You guessed it. David Greenberg.

At least David's troubles give him plenty of fodder for his online talk show. With the help of Hammy, his talented pet, David just knows that someday he's going to be as famous as his idol, Jon Stewart. When a new friend spreads the word about his videos, TalkTime goes viral. Suddenly, David's getting hundreds of hits and comments. He's an Internet sensation. Only his popularity doesn't follow him to school. If anything, it makes him a bigger target for the bullies. What's a short, nerdy sixth grader to do? Can he handle being a star? Can he make it out of middle school alive? As David treads the treacherous waters of middle school, he'll learn a whole lot about family, friendship, and the importance of following your dreams.

How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart is a laugh-out-loud funny story that perfectly captures the ups and downs of preadolesence. David's an engaging narrator, completely lovable and empathetic. Kids will find his woes familiar, his triumphs encouraging. With an engrossing plotline, interesting characters, and an upbeat tone, this charming treat of a novel is perfect for children dreading the jump from elementary to middle school and their parents (who are dreading it even more). I loved it. Hamster and all.

(Readalikes: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney [sans illustrations])

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for very mild sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of How to Survive Middle School from the very generous Donna Gephart. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Warm Family Saga From Trigiani Has Me Pining for Italy (Or, at least, for Baked Ravioli)

(Image from Indiebound)


(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Brava, Valentina, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Very Valentine. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

I can't say this about many authors as prolific as Adriana Trigiani but I've read every book she's written, including the cookbook she created with her sisters. This doesn't mean I've loved every one, but it's convinced me that I can always turn to Trigiani for a hearty, well-written story filled with warmth, humor and a whole lot of heart. I love me a juicy family saga and Trigiani crafts them to near perfection. Not only do her stories make me want to whip up a pan of baked ravioli, but they make me want to gather my big, crazy family together to talk, laugh and argue our way through a heavy Italian meal. Her tales are that convincing, that delicious.

While Trigiani's Valentine books haven't swept me away like her Big Stone Gap series did, I still enjoy peeking in on the Angelinis. They're a funny bunch, those Greenwich Village shoemakers. When Brava, Valentina, the second book in the trilogy, opens, the family is gathered in Tuscany for Gram's wedding to Dominic Vechiarelli. While 34-year-old Valentine Roncalli is thrilled that her grandmother's found happiness with the elderly Italian, she can't stand the thought of returning to New York without the woman who has been her roommate, friend and mentor. She's even more dismayed when she discovers Gram has deeded the ownership of the family's 100-year-old custom shoe business to both Valentine and her brother, a man for whom no one is ever good enough "whether we were born after him, gave birth to him, fathered him, or married him" (130). Valentine, whose dedicated six years of blood, sweat and tears to keeping the business solvent, can't think of a worse situation than working with her least favorite sibling.

To complicate matters, Valentine's lonely without Gram, conflicted over her long-distance love affair with 53-year-old Gianluca Vechiarelli (who is now technically family), and worried about financing for the launch of her newest shoe. She doesn't need an explosive family secret to steal even more of her energy, but that's what she gets when she unearths a design from a long-lost relative. The chance to find a missing branch of the Angelini family tree takes her on a whirlwind trip to Buenos Aires that will open her eyes to a broader meaning of family, an unbelievable business opportunity and the very real possibility that the Angelini Shoe Company will always be more important to her than love.

Torn between a centuries-old craft and modern technology; things she's always believed about her family and new revelations; a mature love and her childhood sweetheart; bucking change or embracing it; Valentine is forced to make life-changing decisions. With advice from her flamboyant best friend, her sanctamonious brother, and her feisty great aunt, as well as the rest of the loud, colorful Angelini/Roncalli clan, of course. Even for a family for whom "The wolf's been at the door so many times over the years that we invite him in for manicotti" (158), this many crises in one year threatens to unravel them completely. Can Valentine, the calm, steadfast one who's always held them together keep their madness at bay long enough to make her own decisions? Or will she go down with the crazy ship, dragging the business she loves along with her?

As I said earlier, the Valentine books aren't my favorite Trigiani sagas, but they hold all of the elements fans love about her novels, including what I like to call the Trigiani Trifecta: Italian families, Italian food, and New York fashion. Oh, and interior decorating. All the detail about the former as well as the art/business of crafting shoes made the story sag a little bit for me. However, it's buoyed by the two things I love most about Trigiani: humor and heart. Even though I still pine for the Big Stone Gap characters, the Roncalli/Angelini crowd keeps me entertained. I'm not ready to say Ciao quite yet (even though the series will end when the last book comes out in February). For keeping me immersed in yet another engrossing drama, I say, Brava, Adriana.

P.S. If you're pining for Italy, click on over here for a chance to win a Adriana Trigiani Tour to Italy for you and a friend (sponsored by Harper Collins).

(Readalikes: Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani; other novels by the same author)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual content/innuendo, and brief references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Brava, Valentina from the generous folks at Harper Collins in exchange for my honest review. This review was written for Adriana Trigiani's book tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours.

Got An Alcott Fan On Your Christmas List? You've Come to the Right Place.

If you've got a Little Women fan on your Christmas list this year, you've just found the perfect gotta-have-it gift idea: it's the Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women DVD. Based on Harriet Reisen's 2009 biography of the beloved author, the PBS film delves into both the commonly and uncommonly known facts of Alcott's life. It recalls her unconventional upbringing; lessons she learned from literary greats; her service as a nurse in the Civil War; her prolific writing career; and the painful physical maladies that caused her early death. The film biography also notes the Alcotts' immense poverty, a condition that forced Louisa to write pulp fiction in order to support her family. Her abolitionism, feminism and fiercely independent spirit are also highlighted in the movie.

Elizabeth Marvel, a three-time Obie winner, plays Louisa to perfection. By turns playful, morose, and determined, the actress shows us all the faces of the writer. Commentary by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks (March) and other Alcott scholars round out the story, offering an absorbing and complete picture of a most fascinating woman. Although the film gets a little long (84 minutes), it really is enchanting. I enjoyed it immensely and cannot wait to read Reisen's book.

For more information on Louisa May Alcott or to purchase the DVD for yourself a loved one, please visit http://www.alcottfilm.com/

To the FTC, with love: I received a free copy of this DVD from the generous folks at Newman PR in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Because, Apparently, I've Learned Nothing From Past Failures ...

When I was a teenager, the only thing that was cool to read - or at least to be seen reading in public - was horror. So I went through a bit of a dark phase that included several Stephen King epics. Not all, though, which is why Book Chick City's Stephen King Challenge caught my eye. Not that I need to be joining another challenge, but hey, why not, right? Plus, I went ahead and bought Under the Dome since I was never able to get it read before the library demanded I return it. So, there you go. I'm joining the challenge. Wanna join me?
Since I can't remember which King books I've read and which I haven't, I'm going to make a tentative list. Six is the minimum required for the challenge; since I'm not sane enough to stick with that and I'm not quite enough of an overachiever to go for 12, I'm going to aim for 10. We'll see how I do.
  • On Writing
  • Needful Things
  • Under the Dome
  • The Shining
  • Carrie
  • The Tommyknockers
  • The Stand
  • Duma Key
  • Insomnia
  • Firestarter
I can't wait to get started! Who else is in?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Through Mother's Poisiealbum, Levy Makes Holocaust Personal

(Image from Indiebound)

For 12-year-old Jutta Salzberg, 1938 is a year of giggling with her classmates, exercising at the gymnastics club, and collecting messages from friends in her poesiealbum (like an autograph book). It's also a year of goodbyes. As Hitler's power grows, Germany's Jewish population diminishes, meaning Jutta's friends are disappearing one by one. Some escape to foreign lands, some simply vanish. While Jutta's family waits anxiously for clearance to travel to America, she turns to her autograph book for solace. Her friends may be gone, but she can still enjoy the sentiments preserved inside the pages of her album. The messages recall happier times, times Jutta hopes will come again soon.

In The Year of Goodbyes, children's author Debbie Levy uses real entries from her mother's poesiealbum to describe the older woman's experience as a Jewish girl coming of age in Nazi Germany. The story, told in verse interspersed with snippets from the album, captures the confusion, anger and abject terror felt by children grappling with a world that's become suddenly and horrifyingly hostile. The tale grows especially poignant when Jutta mourns her lost pals, not knowing that many of the girls are gone forever, brutally murdered in concentration camps. Equally as disturbing are the day-to-day occurrences suffered by Jutta and her friends - they are not allowed to eat at certain restaurants, patronize certain shops, play at some playgrounds or study at some libraries; they are segregated from their Aryan classmates; they are forced to change their names if they sound too Jewish; and, of course, they are forcibly removed from their homes, packed into trains and shipped off to certain death. Because Jutta avoids this grim fate, she's able to relate her history to her daughter many years later, giving us valuable insight into the plight of Jewish Germans during the Holocaust.
Still, because of the fact that Jutta and her family are able to flee Germany, escaping the kind of suffering that ripped others' hearts to shreds, her tale doesn't carry the same weight as, say, Anne Frank's. Compared to many Holocaust survivor tales, Jutta's is, in fact, rather anticlimatic. Still, the poesiealbum entries keep the account personal, reminding us of the delicate innocence the Nazis continually ground to dust under their shiny jackboots. Despite all that, the story also speaks of hope, of "feeling the Nazi hate/and laughing with your girlfriends anyway" (5). While the book didn't move me as much as other Holocaust memoirs, I found The Year of Goodbyes to be a quick, compelling read about friendship, fear and fortitude.
(Readalikes: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; The Hidden Girl: A True Story of the Holocaust by Lola Rein Kaufman with Lois Metzger; and Rutka's Notebook: A Voice From the Holocaust by Rutka Laskier)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG; While stories about The Holocaust can never be rated anything less than R for senseless violence and abject horror, The Year of Goodbyes is written with a young audience in mind. It discusses mature themes, but they are described in a PG manner that should be suitable for children ages 8+.
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Year of Goodbyes from the always generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thank you!

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Sniffly, Sleepy Friday Hop


I usually don't post twice in one day, but I wanted to chat up the Book Blogger Hop before I crawl into bed. I've been (unsuccessfully) fighting a cold, so I'm officially admitting defeat and taking a nap. The baby's sleeping, the big kids won't be home from school for a couple of hours, the house is nice and quiet - yep, I'd say it's a solid plan.

This week's question is: What do you like most about reading book blogs?

- For me, it's all about camaraderie. I love interacting with people who love books as much as I do. It's fun to "meet" so many other readers, peek into their lives (and bookshelves) and swap comments, reviews and recommendations. It's just fun!

If you want to join the Hop, head over to Crazy for Books to get all the details. If you're visiting from the Hop, thanks for stopping by. Please leave me a comment so I can return the favor.

Happy weekend, everybody!

Who Needs Candy Canes and Mistletoe When You've Got Zombies?

(Image from Indiebound)

I don't know about you, but nothing gets me in the holiday spirit quite like ... zombies. Something about rotting flesh, vacant eyes and gaping, hungry mouths just says Christmas to me. Okay, maybe not, but I wanted to read Rot & Ruin, Jonathan Maberry's YA horror novel, before the year ended. Even if its content is more suited to October than December.

The story takes place in central California, 14 years after a zombie outbreak decimates the country's human population. Small enclaves of the living remain, their makeshift towns dotted throughout the state, probably the whole U.S., maybe even the world. Fifteen-year-old Benny Imura wouldn't know; he's lived inside the thick walls of Mountainside his whole life. He knows about the living dead, of course, but he's never been foolish enough to venture beyond the town into their territory. Although its littered with signs of human habitation - smashed cars, crumbling buildings, abandoned homes - the great Rot and Ruin no longer belongs to the living. Only armed bounty hunters journey out into the wasteland, and then only to scavenge for supplies or complete contracted zombie kills. Everyone else stays inside the walls. Safe.

Zoms really aren't Benny's problem. Sure, he collects the trading cards, listens to hired guns brag about their kills, and practices defensive maneuvers in Scouts, but he's content to keep his distance from the brainless monsters. Benny's got enough to worry about. If he doesn't find a job - and soon - his food rations will be cut. The prospect propels him to search for a fulfilling career, something other than the family zombie killing business. Only no one seems to be hiring scrawny kids with poor eyesight. Resigning himself to an apprenticeship with the most boring bounty hunter in town (who happens to be his big brother, Tom), Benny sets about learning the grisly art of executing zombies for cash. It wouldn't be so bad if his teacher was a celebrity hunter like Charlie Matthias, who's always swapping cool hunting tales down at Lafferty's General Store. But it's not. It's his goody-to-shoes older brother. The rest of the town respects Tom's gentle ways, but Benny knows something no one else does - despite his impressive sword-fighting skills, Tom's a coward, the last person on Earth who should be dishing out advice.

As little as Benny respects his brother, spending time with Tom opens his eyes to things he's never even considered before. He learns that things and people are not always what they seem; that zombies aren't the only creatures to fear in the Rot and Ruin; and that true heroes are those who don't let their nightmarish living conditions steal their humanity. What he sees outside of Mountainside will change him. Forever.

While most of Rot & Ruin can be described as typical horror novel fare, there is one thing that sets it apart - the characters' empathy for the zoms. Tom's idea of euthanizing zoms calmly and compassionately is not a concept I've seen explored before in zombie lit. It makes for an interesting aside. The main focus, though, is action, and there's plenty of it. Gore, too. The book's more than bloody enough to satisfy young horror fans without getting as graphic as, say, a Stephen King epic. Even still, the plot sags at times, the players have some cheesy interactions, and the writing's nothing special. All in all, though, it's a quick, enjoyable read. More ghosts and goblins than candy canes and Santa Claus, but still ...

(Readalikes: The Passage by Justin Cronin; The Enemy by Charlie Higson; I Am Legend by Richard Matheson; and The Forest of Hands and Teeth and sequels by Carrie Ryan)


Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), gore, and some sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quirky Debut Unique, Funny and Utterly Authentic

(Image from Indiebound)


When 15-year-old Lucas Swain meets 75-year old Violet Park, he feels an instant spark. Even though he has nothing in common with the elderly lady, it's like destiny has brought them together. He also gets the feeling that Violet's trying to tell him something, that she can't rest until she communicates it to him. The only problem? Violet Park died 18 months ago. The vibes Lucas feels are coming from her urn, which is gathering dust on the shelf of a minicab office in London.

Lucas has always been odd - he mumbles to himself and dresses in his father's old suits - but he's not crazy. He doesn't just go around talking to dead people and corpses don't usually start up conversations with him. Still, he can't deny the bond he feels with Violet. It's so powerful that he steals her urn, probes Violet's past, even visits the home where she used to live. When his obsession with the dead woman leads Lucas to a real, live connection between her and his missing father, he begins to think his crazy quest might not be so insane after all. He's been after the truth behind his father's disappearance for 6 years - now, it looks like Violet's going to help him find it. The only question is: Does he want to know the truth? And can he trust the voice of a dead woman to lead him to it?

Me, the Missing, and the Dead by Jenny Valentine is a quirky book that's hard to define. It's not quite paranormal, but it's not entirely realistic either. I guess it's just its own thing. Unique and funny, the story is about grief, truth, and navigating one's own way through life's little messes. As unconventional as the novel is, I found it entirely appealing. The only thing that bugged me was Lucas' constant, casual references to using marijuana. It irritated me not only because I'm against illegal drug use, but also because the weed mentions seemed to be thrown in as an afterthought to make Lucas seem more relatable to teens. Ridiculous. Lucas Swain's voice is one of the most authentic I've encountered in recent YA literature. Other than that minor annoyance, I adored this funny little book about a boy, a ghost and a wacky, but poignant search for the truth.

(Readalikes: I really can't think of one. Can you?)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Me, the Missing, and the Dead from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Ginsberg Novel Asks, "Do You Know Your Neighbors?"

(Image from Indiebound)

If you're one of the millions who tune in every week to see what new drama's unfolding on Wisteria Lane, you might be interested in Debra Ginsberg's The Neighbors Are Watching. Just like Desperate Housewives, the novel's filled with ordinary people hiding disastrous secrets behind tidy homes and manicured lawns. Their San Diego suburb may appear disappointingly run-of-the-mill, but as Bree, Gabby, Susan, Lynette and the other housewives could tell them, things are not always what they seem, secrets rarely remain such, and skeletons have a funny way of escaping their closets. Of course, none of these things happen quietly or privately, not on tv or in a book, anyway - they explode publicly, violently, blowing everything in their pathways to smithereens. Which, as we all know, makes for some serious entertainment.

The Neighbors Are Watching begins with the arrival of 17-year-old Diana Jones in a quiet Carmel Valley neighborhood. Not only is she pregnant, but her shabby appearance and cafe au lait skin make it perfectly clear that she does not belong on Fuller Court. Still, it only takes one glance for restaurant manager Joe Montana to recognize her as his daughter. He's never been the fatherly type (as his wife, Allison knows all too well), yet he feels compelled to help Diana, who's on the outs with her mother. The girl's presence unsettles Allison, whose anger at Joe and the girl who's allowed to have what Allison never did, turns her into a glassy-eyed lush. None of the Montanas' neighbors know quite what to think of Diana, whose sharp-tongued, unapologetic attitude makes them all uncomfortable. It's like she knows every single one of their carefully-guarded secrets. And maybe she does.

When a wildfire threatens Carmel Valley, forcing the residents of Fuller Court to evacuate, Diana disappears. Leaving her newborn behind. Some, like "equal opportunity bigot" (140) Dick Werner say good riddance to bad rubbish, but others on the street are worried sick about the young mother. Diana may not have been a perfect angel, but she wouldn't abandon her own child, would she? Did she go willingly or did someone drag her away kicking and screaming? The teenager knew hardly anyone in town - could someone on their street have hurt her? Her own father, perhaps? Or the woman who resented Diana's presence in her home? Or maybe the rebellious boy who loved her so fiercely he wouldn't have been able to take her rejection? Or the racist father who didn't want her darkening the neighborhood let alone his son? Everybody on the street has something to hide, but does anyone know what really happened to Diana Jones?

As character-driven as this novel is, it was actually the mystery I found most intriguing. Although I felt no great love for Diana, I still wanted to know what happened to her, and who or what was responsible for her disappearance. That's what kept me turning pages, not the characters, since I found the lot of them unlikable. Sympathetic, maybe, but repugnant nonetheless. Because the cast members are all so unhappy, the book gets awfully depressing. For those reasons, I don't know if I can say I enjoyed the novel. It's definitely a compelling pageturner, if not an overwhelmingly appealing one. Maybe it needs a little Housewives humor to warm it up? Overall, though, it's an interesting, fast-paced mystery that will have you looking askance at all those neighbors you once considered normal.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a bit of Faithful Place by Tana French)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, sexual content and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Neighbors Are Watching from the generous folks at Crown Publishing (a division of Random House). Thank you!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Loved-to-Death Santa Story A Magical Adventure for Kids

(Image from Indiebound)

When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke looks a little different than my other review books. It arrived in pristine condition, complete with crisp pages, a glossy cover and an uncracked spine, but it has now been officially loved to death. My 8-year-old grabbed it as soon as she saw it. She's read it so many times now that the pages stick together (the ones that aren't coming loose, anyway), and the spine's bent. The cover had suffered only minor damage ... until her 2-year-old sister got a hold of it, that is. Upon spying its over-loved state, I figured I better hurry up and read the book before my girls destroyed it completely. Even though I prefer my books unblemished, I can't help smiling every time I pick this one up. To hold in my hands something my daughter's treasured so completely gives me pleasurable little shivers, even if I didn't find it quite as enchanting as she did.

The story opens on a blustery December night. Niklaus Goodfellow, a Santa Claus, the last Santa Claus in fact, is hurtling through the sky in a creaky caravan. Terrified by the storm brewing around him, Twinklestar the reindeer, breaks his reins, sending the lot of them (himself, Niklaus, and a passel of tiny helpers) tumbling to the Earth. The caravan lands on a street called Misty Close, where the ramshackle vehicle and its strange owner soon draw the - sometimes unwelcome - attention of the neighborhood's curious residents. Plenty of rumors circulate about the strange occurence, but no one knows the truth of it.

Then, a dare from the school bully propels Ben to knock on the caravan's door. What he finds inside shocks him. Not only does he meet a real, live Santa Claus, but he's greeted by elves, angels, and Christmas magic like he's never known. So, when Ben finds out that Niklaus is being hunted by Gerold Geronimus Goblynch, an evil Santa bent on controlling the whole holiday world, he knows he has to help his new friend. His vow turns into a dangerous adventure filled with malevolent nutcrackers, a marzipan-loving reindeer, and one very, very angry Santa. Rescuing Christmas from Goblynch's greedy clutches won't be easy, but Ben has to succeed. Otherwise, the season will never, ever be the same.

Although When Santa Fell to Earth isn't quite as magical as I wanted it to be, I enjoyed the fun holiday romp. Funke advances some captivating ideas (angels carrying children's secret wishes to Santa? Yes, please!) while preaching against materialism and avarice. While it doesn't get into the true meaning of Christmas, the story offers kids an exciting tale with a valuable moral. The writing does get awkward, the characters don't develop much, and the author tells a whole lot more than she shows, but I don't think children will notice or care. My daughter certainly didn't. The magical adventure swept her away, time and again. I wasn't quite as charmed. Still, it's an enjoyable book that kids will love. To death, if you're not careful.

(Readalikes: Good question. I can't think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of When Santa Fell to Earth from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Friday, December 03, 2010

A-Hoppin' I Go

I haven't Hopped in a couple of weeks, so I'm excited to get started. Since Google won't let me Follow any more blogs (which is just annoying), I'm going to skip the Friday Follow for the forseeable future. Not that you should. It's a fabulous event. But, lots of the same blogs are listed on both the Hop and FF, so I'll still be able to find a bunch of new ones (*shivers in anticipation*).

If you've never participated in the Hop, click on over to Crazy for Books for all the details.

This week's question is: "What very popular and hyped book in the blogosphere did you NOT enjoy and how did you feel about posting your review?"

- Two books come to mind, actually. I didn't care for The DUFF by Kodly Keplinger or Evermore by Alyson Noel. Most bloggers seemed to enjoy both. Not me. 'Course, I rarely mind expressing my dissent, so posting my somewhat negative reviews really wasn't that big a deal.

If you're here from the Hop, please let me know so I can drop by and check out your blog. For Followers new and old, welcome to BBB and enjoy your stay :)

Okay, a-Hoppin' I go. Have a fabulous weekend!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Award-Winning Chains Exquisitely Engineered

(Image from Indiebound)

I've read plenty of books about slavery, but none as powerful as Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. What makes the story so compelling? Perhaps it stands out because of its unique time period or because of the subtlety with which Anderson weaves the tale of a young girl's fight for freedom with America's own struggle for independence. Or it could be the simple fact that I can no longer read stories like these without picturing my daughter. What would her fate have been, with her milk chocolate skin and tight black curls, in an age of absolute intolerance toward anyone with even a drop of African blood? The mere thought is enough to send ice through my veins. For all these reasons and more, Chains swallowed me whole, ravished my insides, then spat me back out, desperate for more. It's not an easy read, not at all. It is troubling, touching, illuminating and very, very worthwhile.

The story opens with the death of Miss Mary Finch, a passing that both saddens and cheers 13-year-old Isabel. Although her mistress was kind, the slave girl can't wait to be her own boss lady. But before she's allowed to get even a taste of the freedom Miss Finch promised her, Isabel finds herself sold to the highest bidder. Along with her younger sister, Ruth, Isabel sails from Rhode Island to New York, where she becomes a servant in a grand house on Wall Street. Her new owners, the Locktons, are proud and wealthy Loyalists, disdainful of American rebels and slaves who dare use their tongues for anything other than licking the boots of their betters. Isabel's determined to keep her head down, avoiding her cruel mistress whenever possible. It's only when Madam does the unthinkable that Isabel puts up a fight. And is violently punished for her efforts.

Although Isabel cares little for the mounting conflict between the British and the Americans, aiding the Locktons' enemies gives her some small satisfaction. Not only is she fighting back against her hateful owners, but selling their secrets means winning favor with Patriot bigwigs who she hopes will repay her with freedom. Plus, she owes Curzon, the slave boy who once saved her life. Spying is a risky business for anyone, let alone a slave girl whose fate lies at the hands of an already malicious mistress. While the American Revolution explodes around her, Isabel must fight with everything she has - for her freedom, for her sister, for her life.

Every book I've ever read about slavery in America took place during the Civil War era. Somehow, I never even thought about the practice existing 100 years earlier. Anderson dissolved my ignorance with exhaustive research and painstaking detail, painting a heartrending portrait of early American slavery. The irony of a group of people risking life and limb for independence but refusing to grant it to others snakes through the story, bringing home the astounding hypocrisy embraced by so many people throughout the history of our young country. Anderson's message blares loud and clear, although it flows delicately through tight prose, vivid detail, and memorable characters. Although the author takes her time telling the tale, Chains offers a story that's enthralling, empathetic and exquisitely engineered. Historical fiction at its absolute best, this important book is not to be missed.

(Readalikes: Day of Tears by Julius Lester; Black Angels by Linda Beatrice Brown; Numbering All the Bones by Ann Rinaldi; Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson [sequel to Chains])

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for depictions of cruelty, racism and war-related violence

To the FTC, with love: I bought Chains with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Challenge? I Love Me A Challenge!


Since I've actually managed to do okay on book challenges this year, I'm going to go ahead and sign myself up for another one. The 50 States Challenge, hosted by Tasha over at Book Obsessed, involves reading books set in all 50 of the states. Fun, no? It doesn't start until January, but I'm excited right now. I'm not going to make a reading list, I'll just list books as I go. I've always wanted to tour the country :) Join me by signing up on Tasha's blog. Can you say, "Road Trip?"

Things That Make Me Go Hmmm ...

(Image from Indiebound)

You may have noticed that I have a little thing for dystopian fiction. You may have also noticed that I'm participating in the YA Dystopian Challenge hosted by Darren over at Bart's Bookshelf. You may have further noticed that I have only one more book to go before I complete the challenge. I know, right? Go, me! Anyway, when I was trying to decide what to read for YA-D2, I clicked on Bart's list of 50+ Fantastic Young Adult Dystopian Novels and discovered How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. The premise (15-year-old Daisy's idyllic summer overseas turns perilous when England's invaded by an unnamed enemy) sounded so intriguing that I added it to my immediate TBR list. Turns out, the book was nothing like I thought it would be. I'm not even sure it's really dystopian since it reads more like a historical war novel. Although it's not. Historical, that is. So, really, I don't know how to qualify the book. I'm not even sure what I think of it.

The long(er) plot summary goes something like this: Unhappy with her father's new marriage, 15-year-old Daisy decides to spend the summer at her Aunt Penn's farmhouse in rural England. With Penn traveling almost constantly for business, it's up to Daisy and her cousins to care for the farm and each other. The kids spend the long, carefree days swimming, fishing, tending the animals, and, in Daisy and Edmund's case, falling in love. It may be an unconventional romance, but Daisy doesn't care. She's never been happier.

Then, rumors of war become more than just idle gossip. England's been invaded by an unnamed enemy, armies are patrolling the cities, and the whole world's turning upside down. Even though Penn's stuck abroad, little changes at the farmhouse. Until soldiers take over the cottage, ordering the kids out. Since no one in the war-torn countryside can take in five children, Daisy and young Piper are sent one way while Edmund and the other boys go in another. As distraught by the separation as Daisy is, she knows she has to swallow her own grief and take care of Piper. Which she does, through illness, starvation, bloodshed, even death. Through it all, Daisy has only one goal: she must get herself and Piper back to the farmhouse, home to Edmund. The long journey back will be desperate and dangerous, a trip that will convince Daisy that everything - everything - has changed. The idyll days they once knew are gone. Forever.

While How I Live Now definitely has a dystopian tone, it feels more like a WWII novel. Probaby because war seems a lot less permanent than an alien invasion or rabid zombies consuming the human race or some great pestilence destroying the world as we know it. Thus, it's more of a survival story than anything else. It's also a romance, albeit a creepy, incestuous one. The book's compelling for sure, but also troubling, rambling and slow-moving in places. Usually I can't stand stream-of-consciousness narration, especially when it lacks quotation marks - surprisingly, the style didn't bother me much in this novel. It seemed to fit. Of course, that's about the only thing that didn't bug me. So, really, I'm not sure what to say about this one. My conclusion is pretty much this: How I Live Now is engrossing, just not that enjoyable. There were definitely things I like (Piper, for one), but mostly I found it disturbing. And bleak. And kind of creepy-weird.

So, yeah. I don't know. What did you think of How I Live Now?

(Readalikes: Reminded me of WWII novels, although I can't think of a specific title. Can you?)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (I'm pretty sure there are no F-bombs), violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Monday, November 29, 2010

P.B. Does It Again With Fun Dangerous New Book

(Image from Indiebound)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for This Isn't What It Looks Like, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier books. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

If I haven't convinced you by now that reading Pseudonymous Bosch's "secret" series is dangerous for one's health, check this out: When This Isn't What It Looks Like begins, Cass is in a coma. A coma! True, it's self-induced, but still ... she never would have eaten the chocolate in the first place if it wasn't for that most vile of organizations, the Midnight Sun. So, consider this your warning - these books really are dangerous. Don't believe me? Read on and see for yourself what kind of danger follows when innocents dare to tango with the white-gloved ones.

As our story begins, Cass is lying in a hospital bed, lost to the real world. Try as they might, no one can wake her, not her mother, not her grandfathers, not even her best friend, Max-Ernest. Despite all their attempts, she sleeps on. And dreams. At least she seems to be wandering in a dream world - her surroundings are so surreal they can't be real real. Can they? The more Cass explores the medieval world she's somehow landed in, the more she's convinced that the chocolate she swallowed actually worked, sending her back in time to explore her own beginning. It's not just the mystery of her personal history that Cass wants to solve, though; she's also desperate to find a secret. The Secret. The one members of the Midnight Sun will stop at nothing - nothing - to get for themselves. Cass knows she should make herself wake up, but she has to gather information. It's the only way to save herself and her friends in the real world.

Lost without his best friend, Max-Ernest hardly knows how to function. His hands are full enough without adding loneliness and worry to the mix. For one thing, his suddenly lovey-dovey parents have a surprise for him. And then there's a former classmate who shows up out of the blue acting very suspicious. A note written in code confirms his fear - the Midnight Sun is up to something. He needs Cass' help, but he can't rouse her. Will his friend be stuck in a coma forever? Is Max-Ernest clever enough to stop the evildoers on his own? Or will the Midnight Sun triumph at last?

While This Isn't What It Looks Like isn't my favorite book in Bosch's fun (I mean, dangerous) series, it's still a spirited (I mean, perilous) romp that's clever (conniving?), silly (sinister?), and a whole lot of fun (there's that word again - it's not fun, it's dangerous). For your own good, you should probably stay far, far away from this series (the Midnight Sun has excellent spies, one of whom could be posing as your friendly neighborhood bookseller), but I can't because, seriously, it's as addicting as sweet, creamy chocolate, which just happens to be P.B.'s favorite food. Coincidence? I think not.

(Readalikes: the other books in the Secret series; A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received a copy of This Isn't What It Looks Like from Hachette/Little, Brown Books for Young Readers at the request of P.B. himself. Thank you!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lucy the Giant Grabs My Heart in a Big Way

(Image from Indiebound)

"Things Lucy the Giant couldn't even imagine, Barb the Adult has in spades. Barb has everything I ever wanted. Except a way to hold on to it all" (165).

At home in Sitka, Alaska, 15-year-old Lucy Otswego's known for two things: her size and her father. As if being called "Giant" all the time isn't enough to make her into a total freak, she also gets the privilege of dragging the town drunk home every night. Lucy dreams of escape, of leaving Sitka forever, just like her mother did. But, how does a kid disappear like that? And who would take care of her father?

When Lucy loses the only thing that's ever mattered to her, her grief propels her to run away from her miserable life. Before she even knows what's happening, she's boarding a plane headed to Kodiak. The other passengers are college-aged kids looking for work on fishing vessels. As large as she is, Lucy fits right in. With little money and nowhere to sleep, she ends up in a bar facing a surprising challenge. It ends with an even bigger surprise - a job aboard a crabbing boat called the Miranda Lee. No one questions her age, especially when they see how hard she's willing to work. Still, not everyone's happy about having Lucy (who's calling herself "Barb" on board. With the help of warm-hearted Geneva, Lucy finds that the hard work, hefty paychecks, and camarederie of sea life agrees with her. Sitka seems far, far away.

Lucy may be feeling like an adult, but a chance encounter that threatens to reveal her true identity has her trembling like a child. What will happen if she's discovered? She never meant to hurt anyone with her charade - now she's putting others at risk. Coming clean could mean legal trouble, wounding people she loves and, once again, losing everything that's important to her. She can't survive that kind of pain again. It all comes to a head one stormy night when Lucy the Giant has to make a very adult decision, one that could mean losing everything, including her life.

Sherri L. Smith's Lucy the Giant, is one of those You-Had-Me-At-Hello stories. It grabbed my heart from the very first line and hasn't let go yet. Poignant and warm, the novel looks unassuming, but packs a powerful punch. With a unique setting, a cast of interesting characters and a compelling plotline, the book's an all-around absorbing read. Add a heroine who's wholly sympathetic and utterly endearing, and what's not to love? Although I wanted a picture-perfect ending for Lucy, the fact that she has to create her own Happily Ever After gives the story an authentic bent that makes it both hopeful and satisfying. It all works together to create an exciting, yet tender story about growing up, a story I absolutely loved.

(Readalikes: The descriptions of professional fishing/crabbing remind me of The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger and The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw, while Lucy's character reminded me of D.J. in Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen series and Beth from Sing Me to Sleep by Angela Morrison)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs) and mature subjects

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

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