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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

- Alabama
- Alaska
- Arizona (1)
- Arkansas
- California (4)
- Colorado (1)
- Connecticut (1)
- Delaware
- Florida
- Georgia
- Hawaii (1)
- Idaho
- Illinois (4)
- Indiana
- Iowa
- Kansas
- Kentucky (1)
- Louisiana (1)
- Maine
- Maryland (1)
- Massachusetts (1)
- Michigan (1)
- Minnesota (1)
- Mississippi
- Missouri
- Montana
- Nebraska (1)
- Nevada (1)
- New Hampshire (1)
- New Jersey (1)
- New Mexico
- New York (3)
- North Carolina (1)
- North Dakota
- Ohio (6)
- Oklahoma
- Oregon
- Pennsylvania (1)
- Rhode Island (1)
- South Carolina (1)
- South Dakota
- Tennessee
- Texas (1)
- Utah (1)
- Vermont (2)
- Virginia (3)
- Washington (2)
- West Virginia
- Wisconsin
- Wyoming (1)
- *Washington, D.C.

Australia (2)
Canada (3)
England (6)
France (1)
Ireland (1)
Switzerland (1)
The Philippines (1)
Wales (1)

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
(Hosted by Yours Truly!)

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's 3 a.m., Do You Know Where Your Mommy Is?

The only problem with falling in bed at 7 p.m. is that, come 2 a.m., you're wide awake. I'm taking half my usual dose of levothyroxine in preparation for some blood tests and wow, has the exhaustion knocked me on my behind. I've been keeping myself going by slurping copious amounts of Mt. Dew (I'm probably the only person on Earth who considers 1 or less/day copious!), but last night, I could no longer keep my eyes open. I dropped at 7. By 2, I was feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Apparently, my 5-year-old could sense my wakefulness, since he very thoughtfully chose that moment to scream, "Mommy!" Turns out, he'd had a little accident in his bed and couldn't find any dry underwear to change into. I used my Mommy powers to get the situation under control. He's now burrowed under his quilt in my room, snoozing away. And me? Well, I'm enjoying the quiet that is 3 a.m. at my house. It's so peaceful, I just might start making this my usual waking time. Yeah, probably not, but still ...

Anyway, has picked the winner of Come Sunday by Isla Morley. Ole Mr. Random didn't have to work too hard on this one since only 3 people entered the giveaway! I think that's the smallest number of entrants I've ever had. Oh well, fewer players, better odds all around, right? So ... congratulations to Linda, our big winner! If you'll email me with your address, I'll pass it onto Isla's publicist, who will send your book on its way. Thank you to all who entered the contest!

Speaking of contests, don't forget to enter to win a hardcover copy of Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill. It's a creepy YA novel about the Salem witch trials - perfect for Halloween. Click here to enter.

Happy reading!
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shivery Wicked Girls A Perfect Halloween Read (With a Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

None in the Village dare step
on the shadows we forge,
lest their name
be next proclaimed.
For as evening approaches
and heat subsides
our elders shrivel and shrink,
and we girls
grow spine tall (224).
The more I read, the more I'm convinced - nothing is quite as chilling as the truth. Ghosts, zombies, vampires, and demons have their place, sure, but at the end of the day, we know they're not real (okay, maybe not at the end of the day, when monsters easily slip into our dreams; in the light of the morning, then, we know they're not real). Not so with the devils we see on the 5 o'clock news or learn about in the paper. Those fiends are real. And that's terrifying.
History gives us this frightening tale: Between February 1692 and May 1693, 19 citizens of Massachusetts were executed for practicing witchcraft. Hundreds of others were accused, tried, and imprisoned for the same crime. The kicker? All of those acts were performed based on the word of a small group of teenage girls. Considered "seers" by the pious folk of Salem Village, the girls regularly "saw" their neighbors engaging in questionable acts. Although doctors could find nothing physically wrong with the girls, they were afflicted by constant fits, in which they would scream, throw things, contort their bodies into impossible positions, and proclaim that they were being tortured by witches. Boiling over with righteous indignation, the townspeople took it upon themselves to rid their community of anyone the "seers" accused. Concrete evidence hardly mattered when the purest vessels in the land were receiving holy visions. The leaders of Salem Village accepted the girls' accusations as the God's honest truth, a mistake that led to some of the cruelest deaths in American history.
What motivated the girls (Religious fanaticism? PTSD from witnessing violent Indian attacks? Eating infected rye bread? Hunger for power?) is unknown, but Stephanie Hemphill runs with the idea that the "seers" would do and say anything to keep the town's attention focused on them. In Wicked Girls, she introduces the 7 girls who, collectively, caused the deaths of 20 people, and were directly responsible for tarnishing the reputations of scores of others. Although Hemphill uses her literary license to enlarge the characters, the girls she describes are those identified in the history books: there's orphan Mercy Lewis (17), who works as a maid for the Putnam Family; Ann Putnam Jr. (12), a young lady of stature in town; Margaret Walcott (17), Ann's step-cousin; Abigail Williams (12), niece of Reverend Samuel Parris; Betty Parris (8), the Reverend's daughter; Elizabeth Hubbard (17), a niece of the town doctor; and Susannah Sheldon (18), a girl from Salem town who serves a local family. Together, they form a tight clique. As their little fits gain notice from the people around them, they heighten the drama by writhing on the floor with greater agitation, pinching themselves, crying out during church services, and swooning. So poison are their accusations that no one dares cross the girls.
The girls believe in their own visions to varying degrees. Mercy knows she hasn't truly seen a thing, but she'll do whatever it takes to punish the man she holds responsible for her parents' deaths. Margaret's stained by her own sins, yet punishes others with fervor. Ann's more concerned about her own power within the group than about anyone they might hurt with their accusations. Insisting on managing her own outbursts, Abigail struggles to keep her position in the clique. Susannah's too slow to truly understand, Betty too young. Elizabeth is tortured by what she does, but can't stand up to Ann, let alone those who abuse her. All crave the attention and power they get from their stunts. The high is too exhilirating to give up.
As the girls' power builds, crests and eventually diminishes, we witness their every thought and action. Written in free verse, the novel grows more chilling with every sentence. What results is a taut, terrifying story of innocence tainted by greed and power lust. More frightening than any Stephen King novel, Wicked Girls is a perfectly shivery Halloween read. I've still got goosebumps.
(Readalikes: Although I've never read it, The Crucible by Arthur Miller tells the same story. It also reminded me of Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult.)
Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for violence, some sexual content, reference to physical abuse of children
To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Wicked Girls from the generous folks at Harper Collins. Thank you!
Believe it or not, this is the 700th post I've published here at BBB. I know, right? Wow. In celebration, I'm giving away a brand new, hardcover copy of Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill. Thanks to Harper Collins for providing me with it. Since I will be mailing it myself, I'm opening the giveaway to all of my readers, wherever in the world you may reside. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling me how you feel about Halloween. Love it? Hate it? How do you celebrate? What books are you reading to get you into that shivery, quivery Halloween state of mind? I will choose a winner (using on October 15. Please remember to leave a working email address if you do not have a public blog. Thanks and good luck!
Monday, September 27, 2010

Reichs Is Back On Track With Intriguing Spider Bones

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

Spring has arrived in Quebec, sweeping in with all its glory. The scent of apple blossoms floats in the air, baby leaves shimmer in the breeze, the whole place sparkles as if studded with diamonds. But as the world thaws, forcing the earth to give up all the secrets it's been concealing beneath snow and ice, bodies began to appear. And forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan gets very, very busy.

When Tempe's called to examine a body found bobbing in a Hemmingford, Quebec, pond, she's a little surprised - the man's sporting pink lingerie and a homemade breathing apparatus. Unfortunate fashion choice. Unfortunate, but accidental, death. Even though foul play seems unlikely, something strange (well, stranger) turns up: According to fingerprint analysis, the corpse belongs to John Charles Lowery of Lumberton, North Carolina. The same John Charles Lowery who died in a 1968 helicopter crash in the jungles of Vietnam. Was there an error in the lab's testing? Or did Lowery survive the war, letting his family mourn while he lived out the rest of his life in Canada?

The investigation takes Tempe to North Carolina, where John's father insists his son died a hero's death. Not about to disclose the unsavory details of the floater's death without absolute proof of his identity, Tempe keeps digging. Her research takes her back to her old stomping grounds - the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), a facility in Hawaii where teams work to recover the bodies of American soldiers missing on foreign soil. While she teases information from the Quebec bones as well as those of another soldier who could be Lowery, Tempe's summoned by Honolulu's flamboyant M.E., who requests help with a shark-ravaged skeleton. As the cases all come together, Tempe makes some shocking discoveries, not the least of which is that a very dangerous someone wants to put a stop to her investigation. And, quite possibly, her life.

With bodies piling up around her, Tempe's not exactly feeling the aloha spirit. It doesn't help that she's brought along her grieving daughter, Katy, who can't seem to snap back after the death of a friend. The presence of sexy, smart aleck Detective Ryan doesn't help much either (especially with her hormones, which don't seem to understand the meaning of the words strictly professional). Ryan's daughter, Lily, who's trying to put her life back together after destroying it with drugs, is also in attendance. Tempe's idea to let the girls help each other mend while she and Ryan work on their case, isn't going quite as planned. So much for her working vacation. She'll be lucky to get out of Hawaii with her life, let alone her sanity.

I've loved Temperance Brennan from the moment I "met" her back in Deja Dead, but my enjoyment of this popular series by Kathy Reichs has been derailed a little bit by the last few books. Although Spider Bones isn't my favorite of the forensic anthropologist's adventures, I feel like it gets the series back on track with an intriguing plot, an exotic locale, plenty of action, and a heavy dose of the Brennan-Ryan banter I love so much. As in all her novels, Reichs, who is herself a forensic anthropologist, explains the science of her profession in language that is clear and never condescending. Her smart, snappy heroine is always appealing, as is Tempe's on-again-off-again love interest, Andrew Ryan. I enjoyed all of that, as well as Reichs' descriptions of the real-life Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) which performs incredibly important work (read more here). Naturally, I found a few things about the book irksome: I learned more about autoeroticism than I ever wanted to know (um, eeewwww); I'm getting tired of Brennan and Ryan dancing around each other (just get together already, you two!), and I wasn't wild about the inclusion of the partners' daughters in the story (Can you say selfish whiners?). All in all, though, Spider Bones reminds me of all the things I love about this series - it's fresh, fun, and fascinating. And, given this latest entry, it appears to finally be picking up some speed. I'm gladly fastening my seatbelt ...

(Readalikes: The rest of the books in the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought Spider Bones from Amazon using some of the millions I make from my lucrative book blogging career. Ha ha.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Shark Girl's Got An Affecting Bite

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Jane Arrowood never appreciates how normal her life is until suddenly ... it isn't. When the 15-year-old is attacked by a shark while swimming in the ocean, everything changes in an instant. Not only does she lose her right arm, but her plight becomes a very public one. While her hospital room fills with cards, flowers, and sob stories from complete strangers, Jane's boiling on the inside. She never asked to be anyone's role model. All she wants is to rewind her life. If she could only go back, she would avoid the water like the plague. Instead, she has to face high school, her friends, her future as a one-armed freak. Sometimes, she wishes the shark had just killed her right then and there.
As much as Jane has longed to leave the hospital, she's not quite prepared for the real world. Her mother coddles her, her older brother snaps at her, and her friends can never seem to say the right things. All the tasks Jane used to do with ease - drawing, cooking for her family, even tying a trash bag - are now hopelessly complicated. Add in fierce phantom pains, horrific nightmares, and the constant staring, and Jane's life pretty much sucks. Who would want to hang out with someone like her, let alone date her or hire her for a job? The shark, she comes to realize, didn't just take her arm, it took her whole life. Will she ever get it back?
Shark Girl, a debut YA novel by Kelly Bingham, is the affecting story of a girl's loss and her struggle to come to terms with it. Written in free verse, the novel's a quick read, but one that lingers in your mind long after you finish it. While the ending may be a little too tra-la-la, the rest of it seems real enough. Jane goes through all the stages of grief as a completely sympathetic character - the reader feels her suffering keenly. It's impossible not to empathize when we're given passages like this one:
Nurse: "You're so brave, Jane."
Hospital vounteer: "You are a hero."
Physical therapist: "You're a real survivor, know that?"

When people talk like that,
I could get up and slip away
and they'd still stand there,
talking to the cartoon cloud
they've drawn over my body.

Just once,
I'd like someone to say,
"Jane, you are a mess" (52).
Ultimately hopeful, Shark Girl reminds us of the natural resilience of human beings. It's a triumphant story that preaches tolerance, compassion and the futility of self-pity. You don't need to have your flesh shredded by a shark to relate to Jane's story. It just happens as you follow this terrified, tenacious girl who's forced into battle, not with a shark, but against life itself. You won't want to tote this novel along on your next beach trip. You will want to read it. And soon.
(Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of any. Can you?)
Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language (no F-bombs)
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Shark Girl from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!
Friday, September 24, 2010

Confusing Vampire/Zombie Novel Just Kinda Sucks

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It all starts with a deadly virus, a plague that storms through town, killing everyone. Then, it brings them back. Now, herds of vampiric zombies roam the streets, hunting for fresh blood. As far as Robert Neville knows, he's the only warm-blooded creature left in L.A., probably the sole survivor in all of California, maybe the entire world. He spends the daylight hours hunting the undead, fortifying his home against their nightly attacks, and combing the silent library for ideas on how to save what's left of the world. At night, he barricades himself inside his house, numbs his mind with liquor, and prays for the dawn. Even when there's nothing left to live for, Robert refuses to let the monsters take him. He may not win this war, but he refuses to give up.

Robert's been alone for so long that when he spies a living woman darting down the street, he can barely coax his voice into shouting. Is it possible that he's not the only human left on Earth? Can Ruth help him save their world? Or is she the harbinger of a whole new kind of evil? Robert's about to find out ...
With an army of bloodthirsty zombies intent on devouring the last human on the planet, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has the makings of a horror masterpiece. Published in 1954, it was influential in popularizing the idea of a disease-induced apocalypse. That concept, coupled with the idea of zombies taking over the world, makes for an intense and affecting story. Unfortunately, the main character makes a rather abrupt (yet somewhat ambigious) exit before his story has the chance to reach anything resembling a climax. What follows is a weird group of unconnected, macabre little tales that could have been penned by the legendary Stephen King. Although each is shivery in its own right, I kept waiting for the vignettes to tie back into the main story. Never happened. I spent the whole second half of the book wondering if I was missing some big, symbolic statement or if a bewildered editor somewhere had mistakenly glued together two different books. I'm still not sure. Matheson, surely, had a reason for finishing I Am Legend the way he did, but if there's some big message here, it's way too subtle for me. I don't get it. At all.

If you liked the 2007 film adaptation of I Am Legend starring Will Smith, then I suggest sticking to the first half of the novel and dreaming up your own ending. Matheson's, quite frankly, sucks (pun intended).
Grade: C-

If this were a movie (and it is!), it would be rated: R for strong language, gore, and a small amount of sexual content

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Just Can't Get Enough ... of Cassandra Clare

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
All 16-year-old Tessa Gray knows of Victorian England comes from the novels she inhales with unladylike regularity. Expecting the rolling hills and genteel society spoken of in her books, Tessa's shocked when she lands in dreary Southampton. Between the dismal weather, the filthy docks, and the rudeness of the crowds, she's surprised to find herself in a scene more Dickens than Austen. No matter. As soon as Nathaniel whisks her away to London, all will be well. There's only one problem: her brother is nowhere to be found. When a strange man bids Tessa follow him, she has little choice in the matter. If he says he's been sent by Nate, surely he has. It's only when Tessa steps out of the Dickensian bleakness into a waiting carriage that she begins to realize England might hold worse terrors than endless rain and lewd dockworkers. Mary Shelley, after all, had some strange tales to tell ...

Soon, Tessa's embroiled in a waking nightmare. Held captive by two strange sisters, she's being forced to Change into different women, all of whom are dead. The weird magic allows her to assume their bodies, voices and memories. How she's doing this, Tessa has no idea - all she knows is it's a valuable trick, one that is highly desired by the creatures of London's underworld. When an angel-faced rescuer frees Tessa from her awful prison, she's grateful, but wary. Could Nate have sent this unlikely hero? Can she trust a cad like Will Herondale? He says he's a demon slayer, a Shadowhunter with angel blood. After what she's seen, she doesn't doubt him. But that doesn't mean she's willing to put her life into his rune-covered hands.

Will takes Tessa to the London Institute, where he lives with a handful of other Shadowhunters. There's motherly Charlotte; her absent-minded inventor husband, Henry; snooty Jessamine; and Jem, who's open and friendly despite the secret he carefully guards. Her presence in their home causes some obvious tension, especially when Tessa discovers the shocking truth about who she really is. Still, the group seems willing to help Tessa find her brother, who's apparently gotten himself in deep with the wrongest sort of crowd. In turn, she pledges to use her "gift" to help the Shadowhunters fight their enemies.

As Tessa immerses herself in London's strange underworld, she faces enemies she's only ever encountered in storybooks - vampires, warlocks, fairies, goblins, even frightening automatons roam the streets. The most powerful creatures in that dark world are pulling out all the stops to steal her "gift" for their own nefarious purposes. Tessa would gladly give up her awful ability, but not if it means leaving her brother to the mercy of these monsters. Finding Nate, rescuing him, and returning them both to a normal life will be as intense and dangerous as the most rollicking adventure novel. And its ending may not be a happy one.

If you, like me, mourned the conclusion of The Mortal Instruments series, don't despair. Not only is Cassandra Clare expanding the trilogy, but she's also began a series of prequels, the first of which is the newly-released Clockwork Angel. With all the elements that drew you to the first books, plus a little steampunk thrown in, it's hard not to fall for this one as well. With engaging characters, a whole lot of action, and a love triangle almost as hot as the one binding Clary, Jace and Simon, it's sure to please Clare fans. While it didn't mesmerize me quite as much as the MI books, it still kept me royally entertained and left me wanting more, more, more. Keep 'em coming, Cassie Clare, because I, for one, just can't get enough.

(Readalikes: The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language, sexual innuendo, and multiple references to brothels/prostitution and opium addiction

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

Monday, September 20, 2010

Award-Winning Come Sunday A Penetrating Look Into the Dark Well of A Mother's Grief

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As much as her preacher husband has tried to wring it out of her, the superstitions of Abbe Deighton's South African childhood still seep out on occasion. Like now. With a bad moon rising over Honolulu, she's haunted by an unshakable sense of foreboding. If only she could summon a sangoma to chant the gloom away, she would feel much, much better. But African witch doctors are in short supply on Oahu and not even the most powerful magic can change what's going to happen under the unlucky moon. Cleo, the Deightons' 3-year-old daughter, is about to dodge in front of a car. She's about to pass from this life, leaving her parents heartbroken.

While Greg Deighton, a loyal pastor who "pretends he isn't perpetually disappointed with his flock, even though it doesn't afford him the same courtesy" (23) turns to God for solace, Abbe can't find peace anywhere. Her God can no longer be trusted, her friends don't understand, and her marriage is sinking under the weight of her pain. With nowhere to turn, Abbe dwells on her tumultuous past. The ancient curse on her family seems to be alive and well. Maybe putting it to rest will dull the aching in her heart, finally allowing some hope for the future. Or maybe the secrets of the past are better left buried in the shadows of the African night. Desperate for something to soothe her suffering, Abbe travels back to her ancestral home. As Abby's profound grief meets her shocking past, she must sort through the pain of it all to find the hope that abandoned her the day Cleo died. It's a journey both savage and soothing, alarming and affirming, troubling and triumphant, an epic trip into the ruins of her own heart. What she finds will astound her and change her life, once again.

Come Sunday, a heart-wrenching debut novel by Isla Morley, takes a penetrating look into the dark well of a mother's grief. Abbe's suffering is so palpable that a reader would have to be completely heartless not to feel for her. Her selfish moping makes her difficult to like at times, but no less sympathetic. Morley's prose is striking, making her characters and settings come to vivid life. It really is a stunning debut. However, although the book is ultimately hopeful, the overwhelming despair that looms over its pages makes Come Sunday a dark, disturbing read. It captured me with an enticing beginning and end, but lost me a little in the middle when I started to get tired of Abbe's endless moping. Heartless, I know. Overall, the book was well written, thought-provoking, and interesting. Did I love it? No. Will I keep an eye open for Morley's next venture? Absolutely.

While the book didn't enamor me as much as I wanted it to, it's receiving great critical acclaim. The winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for 2009, Come Sunday was also longlisted for South Africa's prestigious Sunday Times Literary Award and became a finalist for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. Like I said, it's a stunning first novel. Just not one with which I really connected.

(Readalikes: Hm, I don't know. Suggestions?)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Come Sunday from Isla Morley's publicist in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Author Chat: Isla Morley (With a Giveaway)

I haven't done one of these in awhile, so I'm especially happy to welcome Isla Morley to BBB today. Her recently published debut, Come Sunday, has received a great deal of acclaim. She's a fascinating person, as you'll see in just a moment. Be sure to read all the way to the end, because that's where the real fun is - a giveaway!

Me: Hi Isla. Welcome to Bloggin' 'bout Books.

IM: Hi Susan. Thanks for inviting me to your wonderful blog.

Me: Tell me a little about your path to becoming a writer. Did you enjoy reading and writingas a child? When did you decide you wanted to write a book? How did your work as an editor prepare you for writing your debut novel?

IM: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was the book that first captured my imagination as a child, and ever since I have loved to read. Not so with writing. In my teens, I really wantedto be that girl who kept a tell-all secret diary. But I kept losing interest after the third of fourth entry. When I worked on a magazine, writing was not all that much thrilling for me either. Bythe time I got married and came to the US, I’d pretty much decided writing was not for me. Ten years went by, and then the character of Abbe Deighton appeared to me one night with a story that needed telling. Subsequently, writing has become exciting and immensely fulfilling. Turns out, those editorial skills are in handy in the rewrites.

Me: You obviously have great empathy for the suffering of women and children. I assume thisis, at least partly, a result of your extensive non-profit work. What kind of impact did thoseexperiences have on your life? How do they influence your writing?

IM: The empathy extends to the downtrodden too, and I’ve had it since I was a little girl. Nobody in my family was surprised I was drawn to those organizations that seek to help others. I think a lot of it had to do with my upbringing in apartheid South Africa. At the age of five, I woke up one night to the sound of terrible screaming. My grandmother’s maid was in the garden, attacking her boyfriend with a whip. I’ve thought about her many times over the years and wondered what drove her to the point of violence, and then what pulled her back from the brink of madness the next day when she served us tea and toast. I’ve seen women suffer in terrible ways, and I’ve seen them turn their suffering into something good, something that benefits not only themselves, but others too. It’s this sacrificial element that inspires much of what I write.

Me: What causes are you passionate about now that you're a wife and mother living in urban America?

IM: I grew up in a society where prejudice and fear went unchecked. It was handed down from one generation to the next, and children were taught to be suspicious of those whose skin was of a different color, whose traditions were different, whose beliefs were different. What I want for my child, and for all children, really, is to live free of the tyranny of fear, and to respect and love others.

Me: COME SUNDAY has received a great deal of acclaim/award nominations, something that's quite unusual for a first novel. How do you feel about all the accolades and awards?

IM: I am completely in awe. Humbled, really. If the book receives a glowing review, I tend to think, “That’s nice, but I bet this reviewer gives everyone five stars.” But if it’s a harsh review,I think, “See, this proves I really should put the writing aside and take up macramé.” An award, like the Kafka Prize, really silences the critics in my head. More than anything, it is an affirmation, an encouraging “You can do this; keep going.”

Me: I loved the exotic settings in COME SUNDAY. I understand why some of the story needed to be set in South Africa, but why did you choose Hawaii for a secondary setting? What does that particular location add to the story?

IM: I lived in Honolulu for seven years, and it was there that I started writing this story. Most people are afforded such a limited view of Hawaii. It’s paradise, and so it’s hard to imagine anything bad happening there. But the story takes you deep into the valleys, literally and figuratively. South Africa, on the other hand, is usually viewed in terms of its ugly past, and its violence. It’s the antithesis of Hawaii in many ways, and yet it’s in the midst of this that the promise of resurrection lies.

Me: COME SUNDAY is about a mother's profound grief over losing her child. How did you channel that kind of pain into such an authentic portrayal of suffering?

IM: That’s a good question, and to this day I haven’t really come up with a good answer to it. “Channel” is exactly the right word, though. I would sit down at my computer and close my eyes, and Abbe would present herself. It would be her voice in my head, her heart beating in my chest. I felt like her story came through me, rather than from me.

Me: Ultimately, Abbe (the MC in COME SUNDAY) has to rebuild her faith/belief system, since whatever she thought she believed was shattered by the death of her daughter. Why is going home so often a necessary part of this healing process?

IM: The gift of suffering, in Abbe’s case, is that it cleared out everything that wasn’t authentic. Much of what was part of her life she had layered in, sort of as a way to cover up past traumas. All of that gets ripped aside and she is left with the gaping wound of her childhood. Going back to the place of her birth parallels her return to a very painful period of her past, which is her only hope of having old wounds healed. But I don’t know that I’d call it going home. As an expatriate, I have returned many times to South Africa and while in transit I always think of it as “going home.” And yet the minute I step foot off the plane, I feel more like a visitor. Home becomes something we carry within. Abbe’s journey is finding her home.

Me: How connected are you now to South Africa (your birthplace)? What did you enjoy most about growing up there? What do you miss?

IM: Both my parents died in the last few years, but I am now connected to the place through a brother I never knew I had. I also correspond with several friends and family friends with whom I am very close. But I am connected in other ways too, by memories, by language, by the land which somehow has knit itself to bone and sinew. I only have to open my mouth for South Africa to come pouring out. I grew up with a deep appreciation of nature. I miss the beauty of the country, the varied landscapes, the beaches, the wildlife. But I also grew up in a multicultural society with so many different artistic and musical expressions. I miss the slang, the satire and humor, African harmonizing, Saturday afternoon barbecues, my friends.

Me: What are you working on now? Will South Africa show up again in future novels? Please say yes :)

IM: It’s hard for me to discuss what I’m working on because I try to give myself permission to fail. This project may fly or it may end up in the compost pile, who knows. But I do want to write about South Africa again at some point, and I really appreciate your enthusiasm about this special location.

Me: Lastly, I ask this of every author I interview because I'm so fascinated by the variety of answers I receive. How do you write? Do you write every day or just when the muse comes to visit? Do you make meticulous outlines or start writing and see where it takes you? Where do you write? Where do you find ideas? Is there anything you have to have by your side in order to write (food, good luck charm, music, etc.)? What makes you, as a novelist, unique from other writers?

IM: I write (or rewrite) every day, after my daughter leaves for school (in summer, all writing therefore comes to a grinding halt). Instead of a muse, for me there is a great, invisible river running above my head, and when I sit down to write, it’s like sticking my finger in the current and letting the energy travel through me and out onto the page. If I want to interrupt the flow of creativity, all I have to do is start working on an outline! I wrote Come Sunday in a closet, and I now write by hand at the patio table on the deck that overlooks the mountains. I am not superstitious, but I can’t seem to part with a little crystal a friend gave me several years ago which is supposed to have good writing juju. I usually say a silent prayer before I start writing. I don’t know what makes me unique. I would say that if I am any good at writing it must be because I have so much in common with other people.

Me: Thanks so much, Isla!

What did I tell you? Fascinating, right? Okay, now, if you want your very own copy of Come Sunday, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post telling me what you miss/love most about the city/country/state where you were born. Easy. The book will be shipped by the publisher - therefore, this contest is not open internationally (U.S. and Canada only). Sorry about that. I will randomly select a winner on September 30. Good luck!
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Polio Story Compelling, Disturbing Look At A Life-Saving Iron Monster

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"And moving thro' a mirror clear

That hangs before her all the year,

Shadows of the world appear..."

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson; The Lady of Shalott

Ever since polio broke out across the U.S., 11-year-old Georgie Mason's been fascinated with the disease. She's read up on its history, causes and treatment. New deaths are chronicled every day in the newspaper, statistics she carefully records in her notebook. As much as she blames polio for the incredible boredom fest that is the summer of 1952 (no swimming pools, no movie theaters, no public events, no nothing), Georgie's obsessed with the epidemic. So, when her family moves next door to a girl in an iron lung, she can hardly believe her luck. When the girl turns out to be a beautiful teenager who welcomes visits from Georgie and her brother, well, Georgie's pretty much over the moon with delight.

According to Georgie's good friend Noah (as in, Webster), an iron lung is "a device for artificial respiration in which rhythmic alternations in the air pressure in a chamber surrounding a patient's chest force air into and out of the lungs" (from Merriam-Webster online). To Georgie, it's a tentacled, glinty-eyed beast straight out of a sci fi film. Even though she knows the contraption is breathing for her new friend, Phyllis, it looks to all the world like the wheezing monster has swallowed her whole. Georgie's as intrigued with the machine as she is repulsed by it.

Georgie's teenage brother, who doesn't notice anything he can't find through a telescope or shoot through a hoop, is suddenly showing a whole lot of interest in not just the artificial lung, but its occupant. It's easy to see why - Phyllis is bright, pretty and as flirtatious as any high school girl. She may view the world only as reflected through the iron lung's mirrors, but she sees clearly enough, apparently, to know what she wants. Since Emmett's a lot smoother on the court than off, Georgie's all for this "starter kit" romance. That is, until the couple stops including her in their star-gazing sessions. Her jealousy makes her tune into things she never noticed before, like how Emmett's completely at Phyllis' beck and call; how, despite the girl's condition, she's got a chilling hold on the people around her; and how her seemingly innocent flirting has a decidedly sinister feel. Is it just the envy talking or is Phyllis up to something? The Kellers' give their daughter everything, so what is it that Phyllis wants from Emmett? Maybe it's just teenage lovey-dovey stuff, the kind of thing Georgie loves to read about in her Archie comics, or maybe it's something much, much more frightening ...

Polio's a disease about which I know very little, so Chasing Orion by Kathryn Lasky fascinated me from the get-go. Lasky's description of the panic that spread along with its outbreak is unnerving as is her depiction of the not-so-helpless Phyllis. As horrifying as the idea of living life in an iron lung is, it's Phyllis' calculating manipulation of the people around her that makes the story so disturbing. Although the book is recommended for ages 9 and up, I would never hand a tale so dark to someone that young. While the book discusses issues that are important for everyone to contemplate - What constitutes a life? Is it right to keep someone alive by artificial means, if all it means is prolonged suffering? Whose happiness is more important - the patient's or her family's? - they're questions that confound even the aged. So, while I recommend this book for the compelling subject matter and skilled writing, it's not something I would pass on to every reader. I'm not even sure how I felt about it. Riveted, yes, but horrified, too. And so very, very relieved to be living in 2010.

(Readalikes: A little like We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language, vague sexual innuendo, and mature topics (see discussion in last paragraph of review)

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Chasing Orion from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

Iron lung image from Wikipedia.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Hoppin', Followin', Book Bloggin' Kind of Day

Wow, so somehow, it's Friday again. Not sure how that happened. The week has just whizzed by. I spent last night finishing Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel. Although it's filled with warlocks, demons, vampires, etc., it's not really scary - still, it made me a little jumpy last night with the husband out of town. Let me just tell you, this big ole house makes a lot of noise after the kids go to bed and it's dead quiet inside. Anyway, Clockwork Angel didn't hypnotize me quite as much as the books in The Mortal Instruments series (maybe because of the steampunk elements?), but it's still an absorbing, quick-paced thrill ride. I definitely enjoyed it, just not quite as much as Clare's other novels. And really, you should be able to get through it even if you're home alone at night. I'm just a wimp. Anyway, look for that review this week.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week is in full swing, if you haven't noticed (and how could you not?). I was too lazy to get myself signed up for it this year. I'm not wild about the nominations/award setup this time around, but I'm interested to see how it all plays out. Click over the the BBAW blog and check out all the fun!

It being Friday and all means it's time for the Book Blogger Hop. This weekly meme, hosted by Jen at Crazy-For-Books is tons of fun. It's a great way to get to know other book bloggers as well as drive traffic to your site.

This week's question is not really a question, but we're supposed to talk about our favorite book blogs in honor of BBAW. I could never name favorites. Seriously, I have hundreds of them on my Reader. With the Hop and Follow Friday, I'm constantly adding more. How about if I list my oldest and newest fave? Will that suffice? Okay:

The first book blog I ever visited is A Patchwork of Books, written by the lovely Amanda. She's a voracious reader as well as a wonderful person. I'm glad to have found her all those years ago. She's been both a friend and an inspiration to me ever since.

Although I added a ton of new blogs to my Reader last week, the one that stands out most is Parajunkee's. She blogs mostly about paranormal books and hosts Follow (My Book Blog) Friday. Be sure to check out her fun reviews.

FF works like the Book Hop. This week, ParaJunkee asks, "Are your favorite books YA or do you stick to adult reads?" My answer: both! Why limit myself, you know? I love adult, YA, middle grade, picture books, etc. As long as it's a book, I'll consider reading it!

Okay, now, click on over to ParaJunkee's blog and start checking out all the fabulous book blogs out there in Cyberspace.

Lastly, I'm only 6 entries away from my 700th post! Can you believe that? I'll surely have to celebrate that milestone with a contest of some sort. I'm still hammering out the details, but you'll definitely want to stay tuned for this one.

Have a wonderful weekend, everybody. Happy reading!
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chosen As Dismal As a Northwest Downpour

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I wanted to tell a story in which there are no heroes or villains, just shades of gray, real people trying to recover from their stumbles with grace."

- Chandra Hoffman, Author's Note

First, a warning: If you are contemplating an adoption, are in the process of adopting, or think you may want to adopt at some time in the future, stop reading now. Just trust me on this one - you don't want to read Chosen by Chandra Hoffman. Why not, you ask? Well, you know all those nightmares you've been having? The ones where your 100% for sure birthparents change their minds in the end, or your cokehead birth couple hunts you down demanding more money for "their" baby, or you're forced into adopting a newborn with a shady health history because you're too old/poor/impatient/unattractive to wait for the robust Caucasion newborn for whom you've been praying? Basically, Hoffman takes all of your worst fears and twists them into a story that's as can't-look-away compelling as it is please-God-tell-me-this-could-never-happen horrifying. Disturbing doesn't even begin to describe it.

Still with me? Okay, but remember, I told you not to proceed.

Hoffman's debut novel opens on a drizzly Thanksgiving Day in Portland, Oregon, with a tireless social worker banging on the door of a seedy apartment, clutching a soggy bag of turkey and all the trimmings. Chloe Pinter, who's working her almost dream job at the Chosen Child adoption agency, is determined to bring a little holiday cheer to a young couple about to place their baby for adoption. Not that it's appreciated. All the violent, ex-con birth father seems to want is more money, whether it be from the agency or the wealthy couple waiting anxiously for his infant's birth. Chloe can't wait to be rid of him, but she's worried about his girlfriend, so vulnerable at 8 months pregnant. Especially when Chloe spies a bassinet tucked away in a corner of their apartment. Jason and Penny can't really be thinking of raising their child, can they? With no money, no job prospects, no nothing? If the placement falls through, Chloe will be disappointing not only her demanding boss, but one of the biggest cash-cow clients the agency's ever had. Not to mention damning a baby to the same miserable life her birth parents lead. As much as she loves bringing families together, it's situations like these that make Chloe question her choice of career.

Since she's not quite stressed enough at work, Chloe also gets to deal with pressure from her boyfriend. A consummate wind maggot, who lives for blowing down the Gorge on a stiff wind, Dan's not exactly cut out for the 8-to-5 gig. He longs to leave the rain behind and set up a kiteboarding business on Maui. Chloe's not about to bring up the marriage idea again, especially when he seems bent on leaving Oregon - with or without her. She adores the Pacific Northwest, but with all the chaos at work, Hawaii's looking more appealing every day. There's only one problem: She loves her job.

While Chloe sorts out her love life and keeps an eye on Jason and Penny, Francie McAdoo prepares to welcome their child into her spacious Tudor. Finally. She and her husband, John, have waited for this moment for so long she can hardly believe it's happening at last. She knows her obsessive pursuit of adoption is at least partly responsible for the distance she's been feeling between her and John, but, she feels sure, he'll come around once the baby's home. A few streets over, Paul and Eva Nova, acquaintances of the McAdoos, are also getting ready for an impending birth. After a dozen miscarriages, Lucky 13's about to make his appearance. Paul should be on top of the world, so why is he feeling so discontented? Why does his body tingle with apprehension? None of them know it yet, but very soon all of them - Chloe, Jason, Penny, Francie, John, Paul and Eva - will be thrown together in a frightening case of kidnapping, an event that will change all of their lives. Forever.

Chosen lacks the pacing to truly be called a thriller, but it remains a riveting, heart-pumper of a drama. In a setup that will be familiar to Jodi Picoult fans, Hoffman examines the adoption issue from all sides, letting us feel, if not completely understand, the experience from several different perspectives. Because of this device, I usually come away from a Picoult novel aching for all of its narrators, even those with whom I disagree. Not so with Chosen. While each of its cast members is flawed, some of them are so much so that my disgust trumps my ability to empathize, making it difficult to care what happens to them. Even the most settled of the main characters are, on the whole, unhappy, which creates an all-around depressing story, despite its ultimately hopeful ending. Add in frequent profanity, graphic sexual content and constant drug/alcohol abuse and the story becomes more dismal than a Portland rain shower.

As someone who's worked extensively with adoption, Hoffman knows her stuff. She's no doubt experienced the situations of which she writes. Still, I found in Chosen a curious juxtaposition of adoption myth and reality (at least as I've experienced it). Although the author goes to great pains to show that few parents "give up" their children without mourning the loss, she still makes her birth couples as stereotypical as they can be - poor, greedy, unmarried, unstable, uneducated, etc. The adoptive parents, especially Eva, are similarly cliched. There's the prospective mother who's so obsessed with finding a baby that she can't find happiness anywhere else, the woman who collects the world's orphans in an effort to assuage her own guilt, the lady who aches from wanting a child, but is outraged when she learns he's of a different race, etc. I'm not saying I've never encountered these cliches - they wouldn't be cliches if they never occurred - I'm just surprised to find so many of them in a book by someone once so connected to the adoption world. As the adoptive mother of a bi-racial daughter, who supports the process wholeheartedly, I may be a tad biased. Still, I wanted Hoffman to show more of the complexity that exists in the adoption triad (birth parents/adoptive parents/child).

On the bright side (because even in the Northwest, there's occasional sunshine), Hoffman writes with great skill and authority. She knows how to hook a reader, keep her reading, and surprise her with twists, turns and an unexpectedly satisfying ending (not the Epilogue, though - there's nothing satisfying about that). Having grown up in the Columbia River Gorge, I loved the setting, especially references to windsurfing, Mt. Hood, Powell's Books, and other Northwest delights. The premise of the book fascinates me as well, I just wish it had been executed in a warmer, more nuanced manner. As is, Chosen is one of those books that captured my attention, but not my heart.

Okay, you adoption-ers, you can open your eyes now. Wait a minute, what are you still doing here? Don't say I didn't warn you ...

(Readalikes: reminded me of books by Jodi Picoult and Anna Quindlen)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, graphic sexual content, frequent depiction of drug/alchohol abuse, and violence

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hunger Leaves Me Wanting More

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Seventeen-year-old Lisabeth Lewis doesn't have the healthiest relationship with food. And she's not much for horses. It's a little ironic then that she, of all people, should be the new Famine. As one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it's Lisabeth's job to ride her black horse into places where famine and starvation run rampant. She's expected to use her newfound power to bring balance to the hungry. For a girl who wages war against her own appetite every single day, it's going to be a bumpy ride. But with Death threatening to finish what Lisabeth started by downing a fistful of pills, it's not as if she has a choice.
Lisabeth's no stranger to secrets - she's always starved herself in private, keeping her anorexia carefully hidden from prying eyes - but this one just might be her undoing. Her boyfriend's already concerned about her, her former best friend's written her off, and her new BFF gets angry when Lisabeth doesn't have time to help her binge and purge. Add in a mother who's either working or issuing backhand compliments ("You'd be really pretty, Lisabeth, if only you'd lose a few pounds."), and the idea of fleeing into the night on a swift stallion is growing on her. In fact, galloping off on her steed gives her a sense of freedom unlike anything she's ever felt.
Playing Famine has its perks, but it's not all fun and games. In order to have the energy she needs to fight hunger, Lisabeth must eat. Eating means stripping off her protective layers, exposing her raw self to her mother's constant needling, the probability that her boyfriend will dump her the second he realizes how screwed up she is, and the poisonous hiss of the Thin voice holed up in her head. It's not just personal sorrow that courses through Lisabeth's emaciated body - she's flooded with the hopeless desperation of children with empty stomachs, mothers who go hungry so their babies can eat, fathers turned to theft to provide for their families. Are her powers strong enough to offer relief? Can she save the starving masses? Heck, she can't even save herself ...
Hunger, the first in a new YA series by Jackie Morse Kessler, puts an original spin on the problem of eating disorders. No issue novel can really escape preachiness, and this one's no exception. However, the creative premise distracts the reader enough to make a point without seeming heavyhanded. Lisabeth is a likable heroine, one who's vulnerable, but funny and strong. It's easy to feel for her, grieve with her, and root for her success. Although I wanted more detail from this appropriately thin book, I still found it compelling and, ultimately, more affecting than I first realized. Kessler's personal battle with anorexia gives Lisabeth's story the power of authenticity, while the paranormal bent lends a dose of levity to an otherwise heavy issue. They work together to make Hunger interesting, original and moving. Although I didn't love, love, love it, it's left me hungry for more from this intriguing series.
A portion of the sales of Hunger will be donated to NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association). The book, which releases in October, is now available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.
(Readalikes: Reminds me of Purge by Sarah Darer Littman and a little of The Girl With the Mermaid Hair by Delia Ephron)
Grade: B-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (one F-bomb + milder invectives), sexual content, and graphic depiction of binging/purging
To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Hunger from the generous folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thank you!
Monday, September 13, 2010

Sorry 'Bout That

For those of you that read BBB in a feeder, I have to apologize for posts going up and then, minutes later, disappearing. This happens because of me, your boneheaded hostess (C'mon now, you can at least act like you're surprised!). A dozen couple of times in the last month I've accidentally hit "Publish Post" instead of "Save Now" while drafting my reviews. Although I delete the unfinished posts from the blog itself, they still show up in the reader, a fact I didn't realize until just now when I subscribed to my own feed. Super annoying, that. I do have an excuse for my airheadedness: I'm off my meds (be afraid, be very afraid). Actually, my doctor ordered me to take half my usual dose of levathyroxine in preparation for blood tests which will determine whether or not I still have cancer cells floating around in my body. If we get the desired results, it will mean no more radioactive iodine treatments this year (In your face, cancer!). In the meantime, I'm trying to keep myself focused and awake without frittering my life's savings away on Mr. Dew. So, anyway, if you noticed anything screwy with my feed, you now know why.

In other news, I'm still working on an index of all my reviews. Some of you have asked why I don't just use one of Blogger's search features. My answer is that, while the search boxes work, they're not specific enough for my tastes. In other words, if you search "Fablehaven," you won't necessarily get the review you're looking for - you'll get every post where I mentioned the book, even if it was just in passing. I think an index, searchable by author name and title of the book, will be much easier to use. If you disagree, feel free to use the search box in the top lefthand corner of this screen.

In other other news, I just finished the most disturbing novel I've read in awhile - Chosen by Chandra Hoffman. Adoptive parents, birthparents, prospective adoptive parents, and anyone even remotely associated with adoption will probably want to steer clear of this one. Sounds intriguing, no? Look for that review sometime this week. After finishing that one, I planned to dive right into Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, but I made the mistake of opening Chasing Orion by Kathryn Lasky. Now, I'm totally immersed in the story of a girl in the early 1950s who befriends a teenager in an iron lung. It's fascinating.

So, lots to come. Definitely stay tuned. And if anything wonky happens on the feed, let me know. 'Til then, Happy Reading!
Saturday, September 11, 2010

You Don't Need to Be Fairy-Smacked to See Fablehaven 2 Is Pure Magic

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Fablehaven. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After spending a summer at her grandparents' preserve for magical creatures, 14-year-old Kendra figures she's seen it all. Still, when a goblin shows up in homeroom, she's a little surprised. Since no one else can see Casey Hancock's Halloween-mask scary face, she figures it's an after effect of her encounter with the Fairy Queen. Apparently, Kendra's still carrying a little Fablehaven magic with her. With her friends falling all over themselves to attract the outwardly handsome goblin, Kendra knows it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt. Enlisting the help of Seth and a mysterious (but exquisitely dressed) stranger, she goes on a mission to rid her school of the menace. Only it doesn't go quite as planned. Soon, Kendra, Seth, their grandparents, and everything good at Fablehaven is in serious trouble.

The sanctuary holds many secrets, the biggest of which is a magical artifact. It's so powerful that no one knows its location. Not that that's stopping anyone from searching. Kendra's grandparents have brought in a team of experts - Tanu, a potions master; Vanessa, a trapper of mystical life forms; and Coulter, the Indiana Jones of the magical world - to help them find the treasure before members of Society of he Evening Star can take it and use it for their own nefarious purposes. As Kendra and Seth learn from the newcomers, they make a startling discovery: someone in the house is a traitor. Is it the jolly poisons expert? The beautiful trapper? The curmudgeonly treasure hunter? Or someone much closer to home?

When the double-crosser is revealed, Fablehaven falls into chaos. Seth is missing, Grandpa and Grandma Sorenson are locked in the dungeon, and it's up to Kendra to keep the sanctuary from falling into the wrong hands. With a little help from some surprising allies, she rushes into the foray to save her family, her friends, and the magical world she's determined to protect.

Rise of the Evening Star, the second book in Brandon Mull's popular Fablehaven series, cranks the intensity up a notch. Although it backtracks a little, explaining some details from the previous book, it mostly runs on pure story. Mull brings back our favorite characters, but adds enough new ones to keep things interesting. With all the new faces, plus twists and turns around every corner, it's a fantastic adventure that proves this series is only going to get better. I can't wait.

(Readalikes: Fablehaven by Brandon Mull and other books in the series; The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; a little like the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling)

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Got Milk? You're Going to Need It for Thrilling Fablehaven Adventure.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Imps, brownies, satyrs, naiads, fairies, blixes, even a golem, oh my! When 14-year-old Kendra Sorenson and her 11-year-old brother Seth arrive at their grandparents' estate, they have no idea that its grounds teem with mystical creatures. All they see is a sprawling mansion with no t.v. or Internet where they will have to stave off boredom while their parents live it up on a 17-day Scandinavian cruise. At least they can jump in the swimming pool or explore the lush, butterfly-filled gardens. Grandpa Sorenson has warned them away from the forest that rings the house, but his explanation seems fishy - ticks? For real? It's almost as if there's something else living in the woods. Something ... magical.

Always obedient, Kendra resigns herself to two weeks of painting, sunning herself by the pool, and trying to solve the puzzle her grandfather left for her. Leave it to foolhardy Seth to plunge right into the one place they're not supposed to go - the woods. His bumbling leads to a shocking discovery: Grandpa and Grandma Sorenson are the caretakers of Fablehaven, a sanctuary for magical beings. Residents of the preserve range from resourceful brownies to playful satyrs to bloodthirsty demons. Grandpa's restrictions are still in place: wandering through the place can be dangerous, if not deadly. Still, it's a land full of wonders. And secrets. Like, what's in the barn? Why do they have to stay hidden on Midsummer's Eve? And, where's Grandma Sorenson?

All the excitement becomes a little too much for Seth, a boy not known for his inhibition. One false step and he manages to unleash an ancient evil into the relative peace of Fablehaven. The centuries-old laws which keep it all in check have been broken. Danger lurks around every corner in a place where spiteful fairies use powerful spells to exact revenge, naiads lure unsuspecting visitors to their watery graves, and something as harmless as a wooden puppet can become a most terrifying foe. Now, the fate of Fablehaven, its caretakers, and every one of its dwellers is in the hands of two children. Kendra's never cared much for adventure; Seth likes it a little too much - can the pair of them rally enough courage and common sense to save the preserve, themselves and, quite possibly, the world? Or will they, too, become victims of the horrors that roam the grounds of a bewitching little place known as Fablehaven?

Children finding hidden worlds in seemingly ordinary places is not exactly a fresh literary device. Still, Fablehaven, the first book in Brandon Mull's popular series, proves that originality still exists in the world of fantasy. While we've seen satyrs and demons and fairies before, we've never met creatures quite like the ones that crawl out of Mull's vivid imagination. They're creative, fun, and rarely predictable. Not unlike this series. Fablehaven's humans need some fleshing out, its prose could use a polish, and a little pep wouldn't hurt the dialogue one bit. Despite that, the book's a fun, action-packed start to what promises to be a thrilling series. Clean, upbeat, and exciting, Fablehaven's one of those series that's sure to enchant all readers, be they children, adults or something in between. Just know that when entering a magical sanctuary, it's best to tread carefully, expect the unexpected, and, above all, drink your milk. Consider yourself warned.

(Readalikes: reminded me a lot of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, a little of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Fablehaven from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain. Thank you!
Friday, September 10, 2010

It's Friday! You Know What That Means ...

It's Friday! You know what that means. Well, I don't know what it means for you, but for me, it means it's time for the Book Blogger Hop hosted weekly by Jen at Crazy for Books. This week's question isn't actually a question, it's a request to provide a link to your favorite of your own reviews. This is kind of tough, so I'm just going to point you to my review of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. If you haven't weighed in on the Hunger Games finale, do it now by clicking here. If you don't have anything to say about MJ, feel free to gush over how cute my daughter is :)

I've never done a Follow Friday, so I thought I'd give it a shot today. Up 'til now, I've never officially followed blogs, except through my Google Reader. So this, my friends, is a red letter day - I'm going to take the plunge and actually Follow my favorite blogs. I know - daring, right? Hee hee. You can join in the fun by clicking over to Parajunkee's blog.

If you're stopping by from either the Hop or FF, please leave me a comment. I'd love to come visit you and become an "official" Follower.

Happy Friday, everybody!

The Nobodies Album Proves Our Endings Are Never Carved In Stone

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Bestselling author Octavia Frost is a woman acquainted with loneliness. Her occupation has always demanded solitary work, her son's no longer speaking to her, and the rest of her family lives on only in memories. As Octavia's career begins to sour just as surely as her personal life has, she takes on a new project, rewriting the endings of all her popular novels. It's an aim both ambitious and indulgent, one that symbolizes the ardent wish of her life - to change the past. Whether or not the book will sell remains to be seen.

On the day Octavia lands in New York to deliver the manuscript to her editor, she receives shocking news via the news crawl on a large billboard: her rock star son is being accused of murdering his girlfriend. Even though she hasn't spoken to Milo in several years, Octavia makes a beeline for San Francisco. Milo refuses to talk to his mother, but she gets in touch with his closest friends, all of whom seem to know more about her son than she does. When Octavia receives a cryptic message from one of Milo's cohorts warning that someone is lying, she knows she has to make every effort to save her son. She's no Nancy Drew, but surely there's something she can do. Getting through to Milo means facing truths about him that Octavia isn't sure she wants to know. Could he really be as cold-hearted as the media says he is? Is he capable of murdering the woman he says he loved?

As Octavia tries desperately to revise her relationship with Milo, she must come to terms with her son as he is now and the events from both their pasts which changed him from a carefree child into an angry, bitter man. In order to save her son, she must confront her own failings as a mother, defy the mistakes of her past, and support her child, no matter what kind of monster he may have turned into. Rewriting novels turns out to be nothing - nothing - compared to rewriting her own story.

Although The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst starts out slowly, it quickly builds into a compelling family drama and murder mystery. As Octavia pries into the details of her son's superstar lifestyle, shocking secrets emerge, each of which offers a clue to what really happend on the night Milo's girlfriend died. The mystery builds until The Big Reveal makes everything clear, if a bit cliched. The inclusion of Octavia Frost's revised novel endings is a brilliant touch, bringing a much-needed freshness to the whole book. It's to Parkhurst's credit that I wanted to read not only the Octavia/Milo story, but all the books that Octavia Frost has "written."

While the book's a tad depressing, what I really like is its hopeful theme. Parkhurst makes sure we know that while some of the plot details cannot be rewritten, our endings are rarely carved in stone.

(Readalikes: Mmm, not sure on this one. Suggestions?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language and depiction of drug/alcohol abuse

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Nobodies Album from Amazon using a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative book blogging career. Ha ha.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Wimpy Kid Loses Something in Translation

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It doesn't happen often, but occasionally, Hollywood surprises me. Every so often, those California filmmakers manage to produce a movie I like better than the book on which it's based. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for example. While Jeff Kinney's novel in cartoons is funny, a fleshed-out storyline coupled with excellent casting, makes the film version hysterical. On-screen, Greg Heffley's story even becomes heartwarming. What never really occurs in the novel plays out in bright Technicolor on the big screen - our scrawny, 7th grade hero learns that there's more to life than following the crowd.

I've watched Hollywood butcher enough novels to know the wisdom of abiding by the timeless adage to Never Judge a Book By Its Movie, but in this case, I think I did. Maybe it's the ole kid to adult lost-in-translation thing, or perhaps because I watched the movie first, the book lost some of its freshness, or who knows? But, when I finally read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I thought, "Really? This is the book that sends my kids into peals of laughter every time they open it? This is what they've been begging me to read over and over and over?" Between viewing the film and listening to my kids' enthusiastic recommendation, I guess I expected more. Which isn't to say the book's not funny. It is. And I can absolutely see why it appeals to middle grade kids (especially boys) - it's just that I like the movie better. Blasphemy, I know. True, though.

If you're not familiar with the book, it follows Greg as he navigates the treacherous waters of junior high school. As the self-professed wimpy kid tries to blend in with his peers, it quickly becomes apparent that his cool factor needs some upping. It doesn't help that Greg's smaller than his classmates, his best friend Rowley insists (loudly and in public) on asking Greg if he can come over and play, and the only other kid who wants to hang out with him is a boy who likes to chase people around with boogers on his fingers. Clearly, Greg's going to have to reinvent himself. Like now. But freeing himself of excess friend baggage isn't going to be easy. In fact, it's going to hurt a lot more than he could ever imagine.

I've only read the first volume of the Wimpy Kid books (there are 4 more - the newest comes out in November), so I can only assume that Greg's character develops over time instead of Hollywood-fast. As is, he comes off as selfish and heartless in the way he treats Rowley. You can't help feeling sorry for Greg, especially considering he deals with an obnoxious older brother and a humiliating younger one, plus all the degradation that comes with starting junior high, but still ... I wanted to like him more. Between the cartoons Greg draws and his preadolescent sarcasm, the "diary" is funny, upbeat, and quick to read. I totally get why people love it. My kids are just baffled as to why I don't love it as much as they do. Maybe seeing the movie ruined the book for me. I don't know, but I stand by my assessment: Diary of a Wimpy Kid is just okay. Unless you happen to be a middle grader - in that case, it's the best book ever!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid moves so fast that there's no reason not to read it before watching the movie. Just don't be disappointed if the latter feels warmer and more complete than the former. It is. I loved the film. Liked the book alright, but loved the film. Of course, if you happen to have a wimpy kid about to enter middle school, you may want to skip the movie altogether. My son sat through the whole thing going, "Junior High's not really like that, is it?" To which I, of course, replied, "Oh, not at all." Apparently, Greg's not the only one who needs a lesson in truth-telling!

(Readalikes: The other Diary of a Wimpy Kid books; the Dear Dumb Diary series by Jim Benton)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie (and it is!), it would be rated: PG for bathroom humor

To the FTC, with love: Borrowed this one from the kids.
Friday, September 03, 2010

Hunger Games Finale Leaves Me As Mute As An Avox (For A Little While, Anyway)

Like the rest of the world, I waited with bated breath for August 24, the day Mockingjay would finally make its public debut. Even though Scholastic regularly sends me books to review, I was a tad skeptical on this one. I mean, it was the most anticipated book of the year. Even if they did send it to me, I figured it would be weeks until it arrived. Imagine my surprise when I got home from a frustrating morning of crossing the city in search of a government agency that would actually accept a social security application (Note to self: Just because a building says Social Security on it or a website claims a certain office will process applications, does not mean that it will.) to find a package on my doorstep. This, of course, is not unusual. In fact, every time the doorbell rings, my husband says, "It's your boyfriend again." The UPS guy would probably be horrified to know that's how we refer to him, but seriously the guy's always around and he always comes bearing gifts. Hee hee. Anyway, this particular package had a very distinctive sticker on it. When I saw it, I seriously squealed out loud. In the immortal words of Howie Mandell, "I might have even peed myself a little." That's how excited I was to get Mockingjay. For free. On its release date. Especially when none of my friends who pre-ordered theirs got them on time because of shortages at all the major book retailers.

Of course, I had to dive into the book immediately. To my dismay, I soon realized I had pretty much forgotten the who's who and what's what of Panem, necessitating a re-reading of both Hunger Games and Catching Fire. It was actually disturbing to realize how much I'd forgotten (early-onset Ahlzheimer's?). It was fun, though, to revisit Katniss' world. Okay, maybe fun isn't the right adjective for the Capitol-controlled Panem, but you know what I mean.

After Catching Fire, I could not wait to tear into Mockingjay. It took me two days to read it and I'm still processing the finale to this incredible series. The book ended pretty much the way I thought it would, although not not necessarily how I wanted it to. Of the three books, I've decided Mockingjay is my least favorite. It's still intense, still riveting, just not quite as satisfying as I wanted it to be.

Regardless, this is a phenomenal series, one that should absolutely not be missed.

(P.S. The pictures above are of me and my almost 2-year-old, who was happy despite the fact that her daddy and I had just dragged her all over kingdom come to get her the social security number she should have had months ago. I swear, her birth state is the most backward in the nation! Anyway, she was happy to ham it up for the camera. Good thing, too, because her mama's looking a little scary. Sitting in a drab, windowless government building can do that to a person. All's well that ends well, though, right? And that particular adventure ended with Mockingjay!)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Mockingjay, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Hunger Games and Catching Fire. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"How ridiculous, how perverse I would feel presenting that painted Capitol mask to these people. The damage, the fatigue, the imperfections. That's how they recognize me, why I belong" (90).

After her dramatic rescue from the horrors of the Quarter Quell, 17-year-old Katniss Everdeen finds herself in an even more precarious position: her rescuers expect her to embrace the role of Mockingjay, becoming the face of the districts' rebellion from the sadistic President Snow and his glittering Capitol. Still scarred from the loss of Peeta, she can hardly place one foot in front of the other, let alone lead people to war. She may have ignited a flame with her defiance, may have stoked it with her determination, but she can't man the blaze any longer. She's seen too much, lost too much. Hiding away in the catacombs of District 13 is the only way she can deal.

Until a broadcast from the Capitol shows her the only thing that could convince her to fight - Peeta. Bruised, battered, but still alive. Seeing him gives her new hope. If filming promos and rallying fighters can bring Peeta back, then she'll do it. Even if Gale disapproves. Even if it means she's still a puppet. She'll do anything to rescue him, even - especially - killing President Snow herself. If only she can find some way to shove her pain behind her, find the fire that once burned so fiercely inside her, and rally the courage to risk her life, once again, in the bloody battle against tyranny.

In the midst of it all, Katniss must examine her fickle heart. Does she love Peeta, even though the Capitol's turned him into someone she no longer recognizes? Or does her allegiance belong to Gale, her lifelong friend whose passion for the cause is endangering them all? Or is it better for everyone if she remains, always, alone? In this strange new world where everyone's got an agenda - including herself - Katniss must play the most important game of her life. And win. With everything on the line, the fiercest competitor Panem's ever known will step into the arena for the last time ...

Although Mockingjay has all the intensity and suspense of the first two books, certain parts of the story started to wear a little thin for me. The love triangle, especially, grated on my nerves. I've been a Gale girl from the beginning, but by the end of Mockingjay, I wasn't that fond of either boys. They both come off as wimpy and interchangeable, always needing to be rescued by Katniss. It's pretty clear she doesn't really need either of them. By the time the book ended, I don't think I really cared which one she ended up with. Likewise, I knew where the story was heading and was only really surprised by an unexpected death. As I mentioned before, it ended pretty much how I thought it would, which disappointed me a little. I wanted a sweeping, stunning conclusion, and Mockingjay didn't really provide it. In fact, it left me as mute as an Avox. My first reaction was, "Hmmmm ..."

Don't get me wrong - Mockingjay is still a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thriller, it just wasn't quite as powerful as I wanted it to be. Oh well. Maybe it was all the hype that built it up so impossibly. Maybe it's just me. Who knows? Who cares? Like I said already, this is a phenomenal series. If there's anyone on the planet who hasn't read it yet (Tobin, this means you), do it now.

What did everyone else think? Did the series end the way you thought it would? Were you satisfied with the ending? Agree with me or disagree with me? Gale or Peeta? C'mon now, dish!

(Readalikes: Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for violence/gore and sexual innuendo, including references to prostitution

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

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