Sunday, January 31, 2010

28 Days of Winter Escapes: A Book A Day Giveaway

Have I mentioned lately how much I love HarperCollins, especially their YA division, HarperTeen? Well, I do. I heart them big time. HarperTeen features fabulous books, authors, contests, quizzes, etc. - just so much fun. All throughout the month of February, they're running a contest called 28 Days of Winter Escapes: A Book A Day Giveaway. You'll definitely want to check it out.




Today's featured author is the fabulous (I think fabulous is going to be my official word for February) Melissa Kantor, author of The Amanda Project: Invisible i as well as several other YA books. The following is a little Q & A HarperTeen put together:

1. Callie, Nia and Hal were from different social circles before they found their one commonality. When you were in high school what were your friends like, and did you ever venture outside of that group?

I had a lot of friends from different groups when I was in high school. I was in the plays, so that made it easy for me to meet people in different grades, which was cool. I was very conscious of being popular, of who was and who wasn’t and whether I was or I wasn’t. Pretty embarrassing to admit now, but sadly true.

2. Amanda is very mysterious—did you base any aspects of her character on anyone you know?

I WISH I knew someone as awesome as Amanda. She’s like a best friend, a sister, and a protector rolled into one. She’s got all the most fabulous traits you can imagine someone having, but she is not based on one specific person.

3. Amanda leaves her friends clues because she can’t communicate with them directly. Have you ever put together or participated in a scavenger hunt for fun?

I am the absolute WORST at scavenger hunts. You could give me a clue that said, basically, “look in the kitchen” and I’d be all, “Do you think we should look in the kitchen?” Let’s just say Amanda is lucky she’s not relying on me to figure out how to find or help her. . .

4. In which spot would you be more likely to curl up with a book: by a roaring fire or in a cozy bubble bath?

DEFINITELY a roaring fire. I’m way too impatient to sit in the bathtub for a long time.

5. If he/she needed you, who’s one person you would drop everything for?

The truth is, I’m someone who drops things for people. According to the “What’s Your Animal Totem” quiz at theamandaproject.com, I’m a total deer. It means I might not be all dangerous and adventurous (oh, to be a tigress!) but I’m super loyal.

6. If you could disappear, where would you go to get away from it all?

Not the bathtub, that’s for sure. . .

For more Melissa Kantor fun, check out the interview I did with her last month, as well as my reviews of Invisible i (here) and If I Have A Wicked Stepmother, Where's My Prince? (here), and Confessions Of A Not It Girl (here).

Fabulous February

So much is going on in the next 28 days that I don't know whether to celebrate or jump under my covers and hide. It's going to be a busy month, both in my personal life and here on BBB. Family-wise, we've got some big events coming up - our baby's adoption will be finalized (after a year of waiting), we'll finally be able to have her sealed to us, and our 8-year-old is being baptized. For those of you who aren't LDS, the last two things probably don't mean much - those of you who are, know what a big deal these two religious ceremonies are. After those joyous occasions, I get to go through a not-so-happy one. At the end of the month, I'll be having a total thyroidectomy to remove what my doctors suspect is a cancerous cyst. Yippee for me. I don't know what the recovery process will be like, so if BBB's a little neglected then, you'll understand why. Don't abandon me, though - I've got some fun stuff coming up. Read on for all the details:



  • Right now, I'm running a contest for some Angela Morrison goodness. I have 3 books to give away - 1 signed, hardcover copy of Sing Me to Sleep (which I reviewed here) and 2 hardcover copies of Taken By Storm (read my review here) as well as signed bookmarks. Click here to read all about the contest.

  • I'm working hard to clean up my sidebars and make BBB more user-friendly. I've added a few things, deleted others. Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be debuting some new features. The very talented Jerilyn is working on some buttons for me. When she's done, I will unveil all the fun new stuff. Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out her website. She's fabulous.

  • I've talked a little about my blogg-y plans for Black History Month. My intention was to review a book every day that met the following criteria: (a) It's written by a person who is Black or bi-racial; (b) It's illustrated by a person who is Black or bi-racial; (c) Its main character is Black or bi-racial; or (d) It deals with Black culture/history/heritage in some way. Then, The Big C came along and rocked my world a little. So, while I'll still be posting lots of reviews of books that fit the above criteria, I won't be doing it every day.

  • However, I'm going to unveil a little somethin'-somethin' I've been thinking about for awhile. It's called Baby Steps to Understanding: Celebrating Black Culture One Book At A Time. This feature was inspired by my beautiful daughter, who's bi-racial (her birth father is Black, her birth mother is white). It wasn't until I adopted her that I realized how vastly underrepresented Black/bi-racial people are in modern literature. I want my baby to grow up loving books, I want her to find characters with whom she can identify, I want her to see girls who look like her on book covers. To that end, I've created this feature. Every time I review a book that meets the criteria I listed above, you will see this button:
The drawing is based on this scrumptious child:


I mean, really, don't you want to just eat her up?

I'm working on creating a list of the "Baby Steps" books I've already reviewed. Eventually, the button on the right sidebar will link to it.

  • I'm working on similar lists featuring LDS Authors, Arizona Authors and "Stories for a Sunday." More on that later ...
  • My reading year is off to a pretty good start. I read 14 books in January. How'd you do? Oh, and I reached 100 followers this month. Thanks, everybody, that's an exciting milestone for me!

Phew! Okay, I think that's it. Just typing all this is making me tired. It's going to be a busy February - you won't want to miss a minute!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lord of the Flies Meets Heroes in Gripping, Post-Apocalyptic Gone

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Imagine a world with no adults. No parents, no teachers, no police, no firefighters, no doctors. A world in which children must fend for themselves as best they can. Danger crouches in every corner of their strange, new world. How can they possibly survive?

This is the question Michael Grant explores in Gone, the first book in his post-apocalyptic, dystopian series for teens. When the story opens, it's a normal day in small town Perdido Beach, California. Fourteen-year-old Sam Temple is sitting in history class dreaming of the beach while his teacher drones on about the Civil War. Then, without any warning, Mr. Trentlake disappears. And he's not the only one. All the teachers in the school, all the administration, all the janitors, all the lunch ladies - all the adults in town are just ... gone. Cars are smashed into each other, stoves are still on, meals are steaming on tables - it's as if everyone evaporated all at the same second. Sam; his best friend, Quinn; and beautiful, smart Astrid head straight to their homes, where the enormity of the catastrophe hits them - not only are their parents gone, but all over the town, there must be helpless babies laying in cribs, confused toddlers without caretakers, and kids like Astrid's brother, Pete, who can barely understand the world on a typical day, let alone one gone mad.

As kids mill around town in shock, new problems are revealed - they have no phone service, no t.v. signals, no Internet. No way to communicate to the outside world. Even if "outside" still exists, the kids can't leave: there are cars all over the place, but no one knows how to drive. And Perdido Beach is getting more dangerous by the second. With no one to stop them, kids are looting the stores, school bullies are taking charge, fires are breaking out, and children are screaming for their mothers. Sam doesn't want to be in charge of this mess, but he knows someone has to do something. Besides, he has a sinking suspicion that he may have caused the disaster in the first place.

Sam's been keeping a secret, something so weird, so crazy that he hasn't dared tell anyone. He doesn't know how it happens, but somehow, Sam can generate balls of light with his hands. Dangerous light. Light that burns people. As he watches a sinister crowd of kids descend on Perdido Beach from the exclusive Coates Academy, Sam discovers he's not the only one with powers. In this strange new world, everything seems to be mutating - people, animals, even the weather and tides. With a menacing new bully in town, it's up to Sam to protect his people. As reluctant as he is to reveal his powers, they may be the only thing that can keep him and his friends alive in the crazy new world they've labeled the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone).

It's a whole new world, one in which regular rules no longer apply. Bullies patrol the streets with metal baseball bats, kids who step out of line get beaten, freshmen become surgeons, snakes fly, and ordinary children turn into superheroes, villains, saints and monsters. Civil War is no longer a boring history lesson - it's a way of life. It's just the way it is, now, in a place called the FAYZ.

So, it took all of one sentence for this story to grab me. Actually, enslave me. If I didn't have to eat, sleep, bathe or take care of my family, I probably would have devoured this whole series in one sitting. Gone is such a tense, action-packed, furiously-paced thrill ride that I actually had to force myself to breathe. Talk about an adrenaline rush. Whew! I'm sure there are flaws in the book, but my heart's still racing too fast for me to think of anything major. All I know is that Gone kept me thoroughly entertained and has me completely addicted - I've got the next two books in the series sitting on my shelf. I think I feel a bad cold coming on ... I should probably stay home from church ... you know, lay in bed and read a book to soothe my poor, aching body ... *cough* *sniff* *cough*

You can find out more about Michael Grant and this superb series by visiting http://www.thefayz.com/ .

(Readalikes: Life As We Knew It series by Susan Beth Pfeffer)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and sexual innuendo; violence; and scenes of danger/peril

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the very generous folks at HarperTeen. Thanks!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Singing Her Own Song: Angela Morrison On Writing Lyrics

As promised, Angela Morrison is here to guest post today. Remember that she's available today to answer questions, so leave some good ones! And don't forget to enter my giveaway for copies
It's all you, Angela ...

A lot of people have asked how I came to include the lyrics Beth writes as part of SING ME TO SLEEP's narrative. Nope. I'm not a song writer. My daughter is. She's the musician in the family.

My editor writes poetry when she's not editing, so Leesie's poems in TAKEN BY STORM were a big hit with her. She has amazing confidence in my poetic abilities. When we were working through the proposal for SING before I started writing, she asked me to make Beth a songwriter and weave her lyrics throughout the story. And of course, Derek would be the brooding composer. Good twist. I agreed.

As I got into the project, I realized I needed more than just Beth's lyrics. I also had to come up with original lyrics for the songs the choirs perform that I use in a scene. Yikes! Could I pull this off? Song lyrics are a far cry from free verse.

My first attempts were pathetic. Sing-song rhymes. Simplistic rhythmic structure. In a bit of a panic, I started studying song lyrics. Pop songs. Gospel choral numbers. The music from "The Phantom of the Opera." I listened to every CD in our apartment. Downloaded more. If I didn't have note liner lyrics, I jotted them down with headphones on. Then I took away the words--wrote out blanks like a giant game of hangman that rhymed. I wonder if Shakespeare's sonnets started that way? No way. Shakespeare breathed sonnets. I sweated those lyrics.

I did happen to have a copy of Leona Lewis's CD that we'd bought in London, England before we left Switzerland for Singapore. We watched her win on X-Factor when all we got was UK TV. (It's a great show, by the way. I'm glad Simon is bringing it to the US.) Her songwriters are incredible. The lyrics are intricate and created a marvelous structural challenge for me. And to test my lyrics out, I got to sing along with Leona! As long as no one was listening. (No one can hit any of those notes.)

As you can imagine, I was an emotional wreck the whole time I worked on SING ME TO SLEEP. The material is so powerful. And "Beth's Song" is the culmination of all that emotion. I wrote it with a box of Kleenex under my arm and Leona wailing on the stereo. We were living in a tiny apartment in Singapore. Close quarters. But my husband was traveling a lot for work, and my son was in school all day, so I had the apartment to myself tons. Otherwise, I wouldn't have finished this book.

One afternoon I was barricaded back in my bedroom, singing through "Beth's Song" at the top of my lungs, blotched swollen face, runny nose, tears choking me up-- And my son walked in!
"Mom, what are you doing?"

I jumped. Screamed. Almost had a heart attack.

He shook his head and left me to my madness.

Ah, the things we do for our art! But now when I hear Shayna Follington from the Amabile Youth Singers, backed up by both of the Amabile men's choirs (the Young Men's Ensemble AND Primus: the Men's Choir)--one hundred gorgeous male voices--I figure it's worth freaking my kids out every once in awhile.

Enjoy the tease you get of it on my trailer. Amabile will release "Beth's Song" on iTunes soon. Everyone please buy it. Harriet and I are waiving our royalties, so all the proceeds will got to Amabile in honor of the Matt Quaife Leadership Award. My tiny way of saying, "Thank you."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sing Me to Sleep A Thing of Beauty (With a Giveaway!)

Today on BBB, we're celebrating young adult author Angela Morrison. I first heard about Angela from her sister, who's a friend of mine. I agreed to review Angela's first novel, Taken By Storm, even though I had some misgivings about doing it. Critiquing books by your friends, or friends of your friends, or family members of your friends is always more difficult than reviewing books by strangers. I mean, what if I hated the book? What would I tell my friend? Would we still be friends afterward? Luckily, I loved Taken By Storm (you can read my review here). Since posting that review, I've had the chance to meet Angela and get to know her a little. Let me tell you, she's sweet, interesting and just cool.

Naturally, I was thrilled when she told me about her newest book, Sing Me to Sleep (to be released on March 4). As you will soon see, I loved it, too. Not as much as Taken By Storm, but still ... it's good.

Angela has generously provided me with several books to give away (read all the details at the bottom of this review). She will be guest posting here tomorrow, AND she's agreed to answer readers' questions. So, read the review, enter the contest, check out Angela's website and come back tomorrow with your most burning questions. I can't wait to learn even more about Angela.

Read on ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"If this was about sex, it would be so much easier.

But that's not what he wants.

He wants my soul."

I know, I know, the quote makes the book sound like another blood-sucking Twilight ripoff, but it's not. You will not find a single vampire in Angela Morrison's new YA romance, Sing Me to Sleep. I know, right? An about-to-be-published book for teens with no paranormal activity whatsoever. What's this world coming to? If you're tired of vampires, werewolves, pixies, zombies and the like, or if you just want to read an ultra-romantic story about two mere humans, well, this book is for you.

Sing Me to Sleep stars Beth, a junior who's always been The Ugly Duckling. With her tall, gangly body, spotty skin and thick glasses, she's a natural target for high school bullies. Nicknamed the Beast, she's mocked, teased or completely ignored. Only one student shows her any kindness: her old pal, Scott. Short, nerdy Scott has been her best friend since preschool. He's always been nice to her, steady as a rock. Suddenly, though, things are changing. Scott's changing. A growth spurt and some serious hours in the gym are turning him ... well, hot. He even seems to be flirting with her - another kindness, obviously, since no guy would ever fall for a Beast.

Beth's only escape is music - singing along with divas on her iPod, admiring the smooth sounds of the world-renowned Amabile Boys Choir, and scratching out song lyrics whenever they pop into her head. No one - not even Beth - realizes just how good she is until a soloist opportunity with her all-girls choir falls into her lap. Suddenly, she's getting some diva-like R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Her solo just might be the clencher her choir needs to compete at the Choral Olympics in Switzerland. There's only one problem: While Beth might sing like a diva, she doesn't look, move or behave like one. Thanks to snooty Meadow, who barely gave Beth a glance before, all of that is about to change.

When her transformation is complete, Beth realizes she may not be as hideous as she thought. In fact, she may even be beautiful. At least that's the message she's getting from Derek Collins, Amabile's gorgeous soloist. Thankfully, he's never seen the real her, the Ugly Duckling her, the Beast that still crouches behind her straightened hair, acne-free, Lasik'd facade. His attention makes her think she may have been wrong - maybe a guy, even a hot guy like Derek, really could love her. Even though everyone warns her away from Derek, Beth can't resist. She knows there's something he's not telling her. She also knows she doesn't care. Maybe he truly is dangerous, maybe he is leading her on, but isn't it worth it to feel adored, even just for a few weeks? And what of Scott? Newly hot, completely devoted Scott, who stood by her even before her extreme makeover? Is it really possible that he wants to be more than friends? What's a girl, especially one with no guy smarts whatsoever, supposed to do? Derek won't tell her anything, Scott says things she doesn't want to hear, and her mom's revelations about Beth's absent "bio-dad" really aren't helping. She's never been more confused in her life. Beast or Beauty - which one is she really?

Although it's predictable and cheesy in places, Sing Me to Sleep is a gripping, passionate story about dreams, self-image, first love, and trusting one's heart. Beth's voice is pitch-perfect; she's a character to whom everyone, even Beast-free Beauties, can relate. With her awkwardness, her sarcasm, her self-deprecating humor, she's hard to resist. Plotwise, the story moves along at a fair clip. Although you can see the big surprise coming a mile away (unlike Beth, who doesn't figure things out until it's almost too late), Morrison manages to keep some suspense going. Sing Me to Sleep actually becomes one of those stories where you know what's going to happen, but you don't really care that you know. You know what I mean? Beth's voice is strong enough to transcend predictability, occasional cheese, and some underdeveloped characters (all the boys, basically) - she makes the story unique, vibrant and compelling.

Sing Me to Sleep starts with three words - Damn, she's ugly - and that's all it took to ensnare me. Beth's voice is magic. It seduced me into caring, believing, hoping. As desperately as Beth wanted to write her own song, I wanted to hear it. There's nothing Beastly about it - Sing Me to Sleep is a thing of beauty. Now, who's being cheesy?

The trailer for Sing Me to Sleep was recently released on YouTube. I don't love it - I think it makes the book look more melodramatic than it really is, but the music is really beautiful. The song in the background is "Beth's Song" from the novel. The single will be available for download on iTunes soon.



Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and some mature content (see note below)

To the FTC, with love: I got this ARC from Angela Morrison. The fact that she's a friend and generously provides me with free copies of her books didn't influence this review in any way. I swear.

Note: Like Morrison's first novel, Taken By Storm (which I reviewed here), Sing Me to Sleep is what I call "mostly clean." It has a bit of mild swearing, no sex, and only vague references to things like drugs, partying, underrage drinking, etc. It does deal with these issues - especially Beth's almost overwhelming desire to be intimate with Derek - but it does so in a realistic, open way. Instead of being racy or graphic, it's honest, an approach that may open doors to some much-needed mother/daughter chats.

----------

Now, for the fun part: I have some Angela Morrison goodness to give away. Here's what's up for grabs:

1 - signed, hardback copy of Sing Me to Sleep

2 - signed, paperback copies of Taken By Storm, Angela's first novel

7 - glossy, signed bookmarks featuring Angela's books

This is what you have to do:

Answer this question: If you could choose any musician to write a lullaby for you, who would it be? Who would you most like to sing you to sleep?

Leave your answer in the comment section of this post. Also, let me know which book you'd like to be entered to win. You may enter to win copies of both books. The winners of the books will each receive 1 bookmark. The remaining bookmarks will go to whomever Random.org chooses :) If you spread the word about the contest (post it in your Facebook status, Tweet about it, blog about it, stick it on your sidebar, etc.), you will get 1 extra entry per word-spreading tactic. This contest is limited to readers in the U.S. only. I will choose winners on February 14th.

Good luck!

----- SPOILER ALERT------DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN'T YET READ SING ME TO SLEEP-----

A couple of notes I didn't want to put in my review for fear of spoiling plot surprises:

  • Sing Me to Sleep reminds me a lot of A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. Anyone else think so?
  • The character of Derek Collins was inspired by Matt Quaife, a real Amabile singer who died of cystic fibrosis in 2007. To learn more about the disease, visit The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The Cradle: Skip the Tissues, Bring Prozac

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Matt Wilson's pregnant wife demands pickles at midnight, he heads to the store. When she insists the baby needs to sleep in the same cradle she used as a baby, he hops in the car. He's learned from experience that there's no use trying to talk her out of things - what Marissa wants, Marissa gets. Never mind that Matt really can't afford to miss a day of work at the factory, never mind that he hasn't a clue where Marissa's mother or the cradle might be, never mind that the last thing on Earth he wants to be doing is chasing down his wife's nutty family - what Marrisa wants, Marissa gets. Thus, the quest begins.

Finding a clue to his mother-in-law's whereabouts turns out to be easy - her sister lives in nearby Minnesota. Finding the woman herself is a whole 'nother story. As Matt zigzags across three states tracking the woman and the detritus she's left in her wake, he realizes just how much damage she's caused to those left behind. Ruminating on his own rocky childhood, Matt examines the meaning of family and parenthood as he edges ever closer to becoming a father himself. His quest turns into a more complicated journey than he ever thought it would be - it becomes the journey to find himself.

Alternating with Matt's story is that of Renee Owen, a children's author who's paralyzed by her son's decision to join the Marines. As he ships off to Iraq, regrets of the past come closing in on Renee. While watching one son go off to war, her thoughts turn to another boy, one whose very existence haunts her. As her story and Matt's collide, both will find answers, more questions, and, for one of them, a surprising shot at redemption.

Mysteries with family secrets at their centers are my favorite kind, but I still had a hard time liking Patrick Somerville's debut novel, The Cradle. I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what bothered me about the book. There are several things, really: (1) I could never quite wrap my head around the fact that Matt would up and leave to do his wife's bidding without any real argument or discussion. It all seemed a little ridiculous; (2) The story gets bleaker by the second. Although the story is hopeful in the end, the rest of it is just kind of depressing; and (3) Most of the characters are greedy, cold-hearted, conniving, pathetic excuses for human beings. Depressing.

On the bright side, this short novel (only 200 pages) remains readable, interesting and unique throughout. It's disturbing, but also compelling. What really stands out in The Cradle is the characters - not Matt, Marissa or Renee so much, but the minor leaguers. Somerville describes these quirky folks so aptly that the reader sees, hears and smells them in vivid detail. It doesn't matter if they're only on stage for a page or two, they come alive. In some cases, frighteningly so.

Still, I can't say I really enjoyed this one. It was just such a downer. Somerville's a talented writer, but unless he chooses some happier subjects, I won't be reading him again. Not without popping some Prozac anyway ...

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: Another one from the library. Sorry, boys.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Clean, Touching June Bug Packs A Wallop

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Living life in an RV 24/7 has its drawbacks, especially for a 9-year-old. June Bug Johnson has never gone to a real school, never made a real friend, never lived in a house without wheels. Still, she has her notebooks, her father, John, and, of course, Wal-Mart. Things could be worse. And soon they are. When June Bug sees her face on a "Missing Child" poster, she discovers that everything she's ever known is a big, fat lie. Her dad's the kindest man alive, so why is he lying to her?

June Bug by Chris Fabry is the story of a little girl looking for the same big answers everyone seeks: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Only in her case, the questions are very literal. The poster says she's Natalie Anne Edwards, her father calls her June Bug - who is she, really? June Bug knows from experience that asking her dad questions about the past is futile. So, she waits. And watches. And hopes. When a kind-hearted Wal-Mart employee offers the duo a place to stay until John can fix the RV, June Bug hopes they can stay forever. When John sets out across the country without her, she hopes he'll come back with answers. Although she enjoys life on the road, June Bug begins to crave the things she's never had - a permanent home, a mother, a friend. She hopes it will all work out.

New discoveries in the case of one Natalie Anne Edwards lead John and June Bug back to where it all began - Dogwood, West Virginia. Here, a big-hearted sheriff won't rest until he finds out what happened to the little girl. A local thug stands accused of orchestrating the child's disappearance. The answers to June Bug's questions lie in Dogwood, but does she really want to know the truth? Can she face the past John's been running from all these years? Does she truly want the things she craves if it means losing the father she loves?

While June Bug sounds like a thriller, it really isn't. It does have mystery, a splash of suspense, and a few curves in the road, but mostly, it's a gentle tale about a girl and her dad. Themes of imperfection, salvation, sacrifice and devotion weave throughout the story. The mystery keeps things moving along, although at a canter more than a gallop. In fact, the story can be compared to an RV trip - meandering; smooth in some places, bumpy in others; more about the ride than the destination. Although it's longer than it needs to be, June Bug is very readable. The characters are not rounded enough - except for June Bug, she's pretty irresistible - but they're recognizable and for the most part, likable.

All in all, June Bug's a nice read. It's clean, uplifting, and touching. Technically, I think it's classified as Christian fiction, and while there is a fair amount of God-talk, it's not over-the-top irritating. This is one of those sweet (but not sickening) books that make you realize how depressing your usual reading choices are. Put simply, it's a novel that makes you believe - in kindness, in forgiveness, in love and in redemption. June Bug's not perfect, but it still packs a wallop. A word of advice: Bring tissues.

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I borrowed this one from the library on the recommendation of my friend over at Inside a Book. Thanks, Gaye!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some Invisible Winners

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway for Invisible i by Melissa Kantor. This was one

of my favorite reads from last year - I'm excited to share it with three of you. The winners are:


Victoria

&

Congratulations, ladies! If you'll email me (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom) your mailing address, I'll get the information to my contact at HarperTeen right away. She'll be sending out the books. Unlike some people, she's great about getting books in the mail fast.

Stay tuned for more contests. On the 28th, I'll be giving away some goodies from my friend, YA author Angela Morrison. I'm also cooking up a little writing contest with A LOT of help from a prolific mystery writer (okay, he's doing all the work). Lots of fun stuff is coming up, so keep checking back!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Last Call for Entries

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Time is running out to enter my giveaway. Three copies of the wonderfully inventive Invisible i are up for grabs. So far, only 15 people have entered. I'm no math whiz, but even I know these are some good odds. Plus, the publisher will be mailing the books out, so the winners should actually get their prizes this decade! You have to admit, it's a win-win situation. Click on over here and enter. I'll draw three names tomorrow. Good luck!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pirate Latitudes: Even Crichton's Gotta Do Better Than This

I started off the new reading year with a bang, but this week I hit a bit of a snag. Out of the 8 books I'd finished in 2010, 6 were middle grade or young adult fiction, so I thought it was time to delve into a "grownup" book. I picked one up, put it down, chose another one, got bored ... nothing grabbed me. In desperation, I finally plucked Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes off my shelf. Although I've never actually read any Crichton, I've seen enough of the movies (Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Sphere, etc.) to know he writes "guy" books. Not really my thing. Still, the generous folks at HarperCollins sent this one along, so I thought, "Why not?" And guess what? It did the trick. My funk disappeared.

I'm not saying Pirate Latitudes is great literature. It's not. But if you're looking for some mindless entertainment, you could do worse than Crichton's newest. (Quick note: Crichton died in 2008. His assistant found the full manuscript for this novel among Crichton's computer files. It was published posthumously in November of last year.)

The swashbuckling adventure takes place in 17th Century Jamaica. Port Royal to be exact. The city is a bustling port, a popular place for privateers to make and spend their fortunes. With taverns and "bawdy houses" on every corner, it's a rough, raucous city of sin. Although much is tolerated on its mean streets, pirates are not. Enter the privateers: these intrepid plunderers raid ships and strongholds belonging to the Spanish empire, "earning" treasure for the Crown, the royally-appointed governor of Jamaica Colony, and themselves. The most notorious of these is Captain Charles Hunter.

When Hunter learns of a Spanish galleon resting in a nearby harbor, he dreams of one thing: getting his hands on the treasure she carries. The only problem will be breaching Matanceros, an impregnable island heavily guarded by the sadistic Cazalla and hundreds of Spanish soldiers. Amassing a crew to join Hunter on his suicide mission isn't easy. Getting the treasure will be even tougher still. Braving rough seas, scaling sheer rock faces, fighting off jungle predators, and blowing up Spanish garrisons are only the beginning of Hunter's wild adventures.

Pirate Latitudes is not a complicated novel. It's basically about a captain, his ragtag crew, and their daring, greedy quest to steal a galleon full of gold. There's little subtlety, scant originality, and no real depth. Crichton's cast leaves much to be desired - his characters are interesting, but not terribly unique or even particularly likeable. Pirate Latitudes is about one thing: Action. The plot races from one crisis to the next with dizzying speed, always pitting Hunter against exciting, death-defying odds. It's entertaining, no doubt about it, but the story offers nothing really new or different. With Jack Sparrow commanding center stage in the 21st Century pirate world, even Crichton's gotta do better than this.

Even without reading previous Crichton books, I'm pretty sure this isn't his best work. I'll shelve my disappointment in Pirate Latitudes and move on - to Sphere, perhaps? Or maybe I'll find some old episodes of ER to watch, although I admit my fascination with the show has always been more about Clooney than Crichton ...

As far as book trailer's go, I think this one is pretty good. It's actually the UK version, which I like better than the US one:



Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I received this book for review from HarperCollins.

(Book image is from Barnes & Noble)

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Big Words" for Small Readers

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was a small boy, he discovered the power of "big words." He determined to use them to do good. Words like love, peace, equality, and courage flowed from his mouth. They flowed through his actions, defining the way he lived. His words uplifted, inspired, soothed, united. His martyrdom only made his "big words" more powerful. Today, we celebrate more than just the words - we honor the man who had the courage to speak them.

Martin's Big Words by Doreen Rappaport offers a brief biography of the Civil Rights leader in language that is - like King's - simple, direct and effective. Although the book focuses on his words, it also highlights the ways in which his actions pushed the fight for equal rights forward. It paints him as a man of the people, always willing to help, to encourage, to protest peacefully the injustices suffered by black people in 1960s America. With quotes from King's speeches intertwined with the text, Rappaport proves just how mighty his words really were. As relevant today as they were 50 years ago, King's "big words" still resonate with passion, truth and power. Rappaport's book gifts his ideas of peace, unity and equality to a new generation. Pray it listens.

Almost more affecting than Rapparport's prose are Bryan Collier's illustrations. In a style described as "a combination of collage and watercolor," he brings Dr. King to vibrant life. With great beauty and subtle symbolism, his pictures enhance every word Rappaport writes. Although Collier's portraits of King are strong, the most moving pictures in the book are not of the leader himself, but depictions of his ideals (I particularly love the one of a young woman standing in front of the American flag, which you can see here).

The combination of colorful pictures and stirring text makes Martin's Big Words a simple, but impactful summary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. From the little boy who dreams of using "big words" to change the world to the man who campaigns tirelessly for equal rights to the martyr silenced by an assassin's bullet - King's story is always inspiring. Rappaport and Collier boil it down to a child's level: simple, pure, powerful.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G (not because it's a Disney fairy tale, but because it's written in a way that is appropriate for young readers)

To the FTC, with love: Disney/Hyperion kindly sent me this book off its backlist. It was published in 2007 under Hyperion's Jump at the Sun imprint.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fun, Innocent Penderwick Stories Have Old-Fashioned Charm

It's nice to know that sitting among bookshelves full of vampires, werewolves, zombies and gangstas, a reader can still find stories full of old-fashioned innocence and charm. In fact, I purposely chose The Penderwicks because I needed a happy book to read after sinking myself into the bleak world of California gangbangers. Jeanne Birdsall's books about the quirky Penderwicks lightened my heart perfectly. As enchanting as classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, these books simply should not be missed.

The Penderwicks introduces us to the family: There's Rosalind, the pretty, responsible 12-year-old; stubborn, tempestuous Skye; dreamy, romantic Jane; and their 4-year-old butterfly wing-wearing sister, Batty. Since the death of Elizabeth Penderwick, the sole captain of the "troops" is Martin Penderwick, a Latin-spouting botany professor. And, of course, there's Hound, their giant, misbehaving dog.

One summer, the lot of them pack themselves into the car headed for Cape Cod. Since their usual cottage has been sold, they're renting a vacation home they've never seen before. When they arrive at Arundel, they find an enormous mansion with extensive gardens (much to Martin's delight), a friendly teenage groundskeeper (much to Rosalind's delight), large fields perfect for soccer (much to Skye's delight), a sunny-perfect writer's room (much to Jane's delight), two rabbits (much to Batty's delight) and the young master of the house who, much to everyone's delight, turns out to be a grand friend. Jeffrey is nothing like his snooty mother or her nasty boyfriend, Dexter, both of him come to despise the rowdy girls who have invaded their guest cottage. The children, however, have a marvelous time exploring the giant house, playing soccer, shooting arrows at Dexter-shaped targets, and plotting how to get Jeffrey out of going to military school. Unfortunately, everything the Penderwicks do seem to have the exact opposite effect. They aren't about to let Jeffrey become a stiff-backed boy soldier, but how are they going to stop the dastardly plan? Two words: Penderwick Power.

When The Penderwicks on Gardam Street opens, the family is back in Cameron, Massachusetts with a brand new dilemma, one that will require even more plotting than rescuing Jeffrey from soldier school. When Aunt Claudia arrives on Gardam Street bearing a blue envelope - one which Rosalind remembers her mother giving to Claudia on her deathbed - it throws the household into a frenzy.
The letter inside, written by their mother before she died of cancer, encourages Mr. Penderwick to begin dating again. Horrified, the sisters hatch a plan to find the worst possible women for their father to court. That way, their father will not fall in love and they will never have a stepmother (shudder). Though limited to fairy tales and one summer with the dastardly Dexter, their experience with re-marriage has not been pleasant. They're not about to soil the Penderwick Family Honor by allowing it to happen to them.

In addition to putting the Save-Daddy Plan into action, the Penderwick sisters have several other mysteries to solve: What's eating Tommy Geiger? Who is the mysterious Bug Man? And how is Skye going to get herself out of a little disaster known as Sisters and Sacrifice?

Both books are written in such an appealing style that it's easy to overlook their faults. Jeanne Birdsall is just that kind of storyteller - she weaves the kind of magic that makes you care not at all about plotless storylines and predictable endings. Her characters are believable, fun and entirely lovable (except or Dexter, of course). The girls' misadventures will keep you reading, laughing and wishing you had more sisters in your life. Both books are treasures - for the young, the old and everyone in between. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Grade: A

If these were movies, they would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: One of the books came from my private collection, the other is from my kids' school library.

(Book images are from Barnes & Noble)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gangsta Novel Just Not My Kind of Book, Homez

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Michelle Peña is one tough chica. Her friends in Inglewood have seen her burn up the track with record-breaking speed, go head-to-head with the best minds on the Academic Decathlon team, and compose poetry stirring enough to win awards. She's a smart, skilled, beautiful freshman with some serious attitude. Her future looks very, very bright. There's only one thing holding her back: her past. No one in her new neighborhood knows about her days as a gangsta princess. And she'd like to keep it that way.

When Yxta Maya Murray's newest novel, The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Kidnapped, opens, Michelle is in the zone. She's feeling strong, confident that she'll kill in the All-American track and field championship regional qualifications. Everyone's rooting for her, including a few unsavory home boyz that she recognizes from the old days. When she dares to look at them, one of the thugs makes a gun with his fingers and mimes pulling the trigger. Suddenly, her ugly old life comes crashing right through her sparkly, new one. Her former gang, the Snakes, are on the prowl, hungry for blood money owed to them by Michelle's brother, Samson. Obviously, they're willing to use her to get to him.

All Michelle wants is to put the past behind her, win a scholarship to a fancy prep school in Burbank, and life a normal kind of life. Now, she'll have to face her "destiny" - with her mother (the Queen) in jail, her father (the King) dead, and her brother on the run, she's the Snakes' reigning princess. Can she channel her old self long enough to pacify the gangstas and save her brother? Or is her old self - powerful Princess P - the only self that actually makes sense for someone like her? Is she only fooling herself to think she could ever be prep school material? And then there's Silver, the big, strong boy she's loved since she was a child - can she ever be whole without him? With Samon's life on the line, this is no time for an identity crisis, but Michelle has to make some difficult choices. And fast. Her brother's future - and her own - hang in the balance.

I had a hard time "grading" The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Kidnapped. On the one hand, I have to give Murray credit for creating a unique novel. I don't know how many gangsta novels for teens exist out there, but this is certainly the first one I've ever read. Murray's main character breaks barriers - Michelle's a gangbanger, but she's also smart, athletic and ambitious, commanding just as much respect on the mean streets of L.A. as in an Ac Dec competition. Although, in the beginning, I found Michelle too in-your-face to be truly likeable, by the end I cared about what happened to her. Also, I have to say that this book kept me guessing until the very end. On the other hand, I found the narration jarring. It's full of lingo that, while probably authentic, makes the story difficult to read. Unless you happen to speak Mexican gangsta girl, you'll probably miss at least half of it. Plotwise, the novel's pretty simplistic, and the only character who really develops at all is Michelle. Michelle's single, gay foster father stands out, but the rest of the story people are pretty blurry - Michelle's "boyz" are the brainless gangstas you'd expect, her best friend has no real personality, and the prep school folks are exactly what you assume they will be - white, class conscious snobs. So, in the end, I decided the novel deserved a "C." While I think it's different and engrossing, it also has some major cliche and flow problems. Not to mention all the gangster talk - not only did it seem over the top, but it also just drove me crazy.

I do think this book will appeal to teens. Even though it makes gangbanging look about as appealing as licking a toilet seat, it gives an interesting glimpse into "Da Life." The plot lacks depth, but it's the kind of action-packed, keep-'em-guessing that should appeal to guys as well as girls.

So, yeah, maybe it's a generational kind of thing, but this just isn't my type of book. I was glad to finish it and move on to lighter fare. Guess I'm not as "super fly" as I think I am. So there, homez.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence, underrage drinking, partying/drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received this ARC from Razborbill.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Author Chat: An Interview with Melissa Kantor (With a Giveaway!)


Today, I'm chatting with Melissa Kantor, author of several teen novels including Invisible i, one of my favorite reads of 2009. Welcome to BBB, Melissa!

Me: Tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a published author. You've said that you knew as far back as 7th Grade that you wanted to write, but how did it all come about?

MK: I have an embarrassingly easy path to getting published. I was teaching English (which I still do) and doing some freelance magazine writing (which I really didn't enjoy). Out for dinner with an old friend who was also an editor at Hyperion books for children, I started complaining about writing articles (I wasn't excited about the editors' ideas, they weren't excited about mine, etc.), at which point my friend demanded, "Write me a YA novel." I did, and Hyperion bought that book ("Confessions of a not It Girl") and two (at the time unwritten) others.

Me: What made you decide to write for young adults? What elements do you think books for teens absolutely must have to be effective? What do teens seem to find most appealing about your books?

MK: I think the lives of teenagers are, in some ways, much more exciting and difficult than the lives of adults. If you're an adult, you probably don't have to sit next to the guy who dumped you every day in biology. And you don't have parents telling you what to do. I'm forty and married with three children, so I understand that adult life is complicated and scary in ways that teens can't anticipate or understand. But the drama of being a teenager--I'm not sure there's anything more difficult than that. Teens have a lot of adult problems but few adult resources. That makes for exciting story lines.

You ask what elements a book must have, and the more I think about it, the less sure I am. Teens like an appealing character and a great plot as much as adults, but they'll definitely forgive a bad plot if they love the character, and they'll read about someone they dislike or can't relate to if the story's exciting enough.

In terms of what teens like about my books, that's a great question. Most of the letters I get from teens tell me they feel I understand what they're going through, be it with a difficult step-parent or a break up or their own general insecurities. That's a huge compliment to me, a teen saying I got it right.

Me: I know you're a teacher. What age/grade level do you teach and what effect does your career have on your writing, if any? What do the kids think about having a *celebrity* for a teacher?

MK: I teach middle and high school English. Many of the girls have read my books, and we're all a little shy about it. Once in a while a student will say, "I read your book over vacation!" or something like that, and we'll both be pleased and a little embarrassed. My students are really generous--if they don't like my books, they're not telling me.

Me: The young adult market is so hot right now. What's your best advice for authors who want to write for teens?

MK: I give all would-be writers and authors the same advice: Write a book you would want to read. So if you enjoy reading teen fiction and/or have an idea you think would appeal to teens, by all means develop it. But I wouldn't pitch or write a YA novel just because it's a hot market. There's truly nothing worse than writing a book you don't want to be writing.

Me: I've read your first book (CONFESSIONS OF A NOT IT GIRL) and your newest (INVISIBLE I), and thought the latter was so much more interesting and clever. How do you think you've evolved as a writer since the publication of your first novel?

MK: I think I've learned a lot about plot over the past few years. I feel deeply loyal to "Confessions of a Not It Girl" (ti's my baby), but since then I've written increasingly complex plots with many more variables. I think the characters in my books have a lot in common and probably haven't changed all that much.

Me: Speaking of INVISIBLE I, how did the whole idea of The Amanda Project come about? What can readers expect in the upcoming books?

MK: The Amanda Project is the brainchild of Lisa Holton (a publisher) and JillEllyn Riley, an editor. Lisa developed the concept and JillEllyn did much of the story, and they hired writers to write the books. I met Lisa for coffee a couple of years ago when the project was just really getting underway, and she told me the idea--a girl, Amanda Valentino, shows up at a high school, turns everything upside down and then...disappears. I immediately knew I wanted to be one of the writers on the project.

In terms of where the books go from here, In "Invisible I," the mystery of Amanda seems more or less focused on Amanda. In the next book, "Signal from Afar," we learn that it's a much bigger conspiracy and that all of the guides (Callie, Hal and Nia) are involved...

Me: What are you working on now?

MK: Right now I'm finishing up the first book of a three-book series. Tentatively called "The Secrets of the Darlings," it's about three best friends in New York City who were in elementary school together and are now going off to different high schools. Their friendship is real and deep and true, but it is put to the test as they navigate the very different worlds they find themselves in.

Me: Not that this has anything to do with anything, but I'm a Capricorn, too. What does that say about us? And Happy Birthday!

MK: I'm a TOTAL Capricorn, are you? I think of Capricorns as the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady...

Me: I AM a total Capricorn, almost to a fault ... Back to the serious stuff, I ask this question of every author I interview, just because I find the variety of answers so fascinating: What's your writing routine? Or do you have one? Do you write at a certain time every day or just when the mood strikes? Do you outline or let your writing flow more freely? Where do you write? Do you have any writing habits that are uniquely yours? Is there anything you absolutely HAVE to have by your side when you write?

MK: I have three young children and a full-time job, so I don't have the luxury of having things I "must have" when I write (silence, large blocks of time, inspiration from my muse, etc.). I can't really write at home because there is usually a child or two there, so I write at a cafe nearby, but I've written on the steps of my building when forced to. I'm learning to be a better outliner by necessity. For years I let the book take shape as I wrote (though I always knew the ending ahead of time), but I see now that means a lot of wasted time and doesn't necessarily result in a better book. What I learned from working on The Amanda Project is that a good, tight outline frees you up to do a lot of fun stuff like focus on dialogue, character, setting, etc.

Me: Lastly, what has surprised you most about becoming a published author? How does the dream you had as a 7th Grader differ from the reality (if at all)?

MK: A good friend once said to me (about writing), if you're successful, all it means is that you've earned the right to keep writing. I think about that a lot since I'm pretty sure my 7th grade idea of being a writer probably had more to do with being famous and doing interviews like this one than it did revising a manuscript that refuses to come together. I really love writing, but when you're a professional writer, you can't just write when you want to or what you feel like writing. You have contracts to fulfill, readers to satisfy. I think being an amateur writer is like dating and being a professional writer is like marriage. It's not quite what you imagined before you signed the papers, but it's a wonderful and exciting ride.

Me: Thanks so much, Melissa!

-----

You may remember me gushing over Melissa's newest book, Invisible i. It's fabulous - so fabulous that I wanted to share it with you. The kind and generous folks over at HarperTeen have agreed to give away three copies of the book to BBB readers. I'm seriously so excited about this! All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this post. I won't even make you answer any questions. As always, you can earn extra entries by spreading the news about the giveaway - post about it on your blog, Tweet about it, chat it up in your Facebook update, whatever! Just let me know what you've done to help get the word out. Deadline to enter is Saturday, January 23. Since Harper will be mailing out the books, the contest is only open to readers in the U.S. Good luck!

(Author photo from Melissa Kantor's official website; Book image from Barnes & Noble)


Life With A Big Butt and A Beautiful Best Friend - Can Things Get Any Worse?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Rebecca Larkin is an official New York It Girl. Jan Miller is not. Rebecca Larkin is wealthy, beautiful and sophisticated. Jan Miller is not. Rebecca Larkin knows exactly what to say to guys, even those of the gorgeous, college boy type. Jan Miller does not. Sometimes it's tough being the best friend of someone like Rebecca. Especially when you're devastatingly average. With a very large derriere.

Jan's butt isn't her only problem, of course. There are her parents. One word: embarrassing. Plus, they won't quit nagging her about filling out the college applications she's been collecting. Then, there's Josh Gardner, a transplant from Seattle who's quickly overtaking Tom Richmond as Best Supporting Crush in the tragicomedy that is Jan's life. Josh is sweet, just not exactly on her. And, of course, there's Rebecca - Jan's worried about her best friend. She's courting disaster in the form of the very handsome Brian, who's not just a second-year law student, but also a summer associate in her father's law firm. Jan's anxious for her best friend, who's lying about her age, her experience and everything else just to keep the older boy interested. Life's not easy for a Not It Girl like Jan, but she's coming to realize that it may be even tougher for a real It Girl like Rebecca. The girls' senior year will bring crushes, complications, college applications and change - these two very different girls will have to depend on each other to make it through.

There's not a lot to Confessions of a Not It Girl. It's funny, lighthearted, and not quite as fluffy as I first thought it would be. Still, the plot doesn't have a lot of depth or mystery to it. The characters are likable, although Jan's boy craziness gets old PDQ (Pretty Darn Quick) and her misconceptions get a little ridiculous. All in all, though, she comes off as an Every Girl with the usual insecurities. You can't help but laugh with her, root for her, and wish you had a best friend just like her. This isn't a book that's going to enthrall you with its mystery, make you swoon over a vampire, or give you creepy nightmares. It's a sweet, simple story that's easy to read and easy to enjoy.

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: Disney/Hyperion sent me this book for review. Getting the book for free did not influence my opinion of it in any way.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Green Goop On My Porch, Or, Why I Should Stick to Reviewing Books

Books have so many admirable qualities, not the least of which is that they're virtually indestructible. We all know they don't stand a chance against a bathtub, a swimming pool or a 5-year-old, but I'm talking about the mail. In a knock-down-drag-out fight between a book and good ole USPS, I'd put my money on the book.

Salsa is not like a book. I found this out the hard way.

I rarely use this blog to review anything other than books, but occasionally, an offer comes along that I can't refuse. MomCentral, for which I often do reviews, was offering samples of Rosarita's new line of salsas. I like salsa. The hubs likes salsa. It paid 20 bucks. Clearly, a win-win situation.

Then came Christmas Eve. The time: 5:55. Our annual family party started at 6 and I still had to cover the 15 miles to my in-laws' house. I had just plopped my 13-month-old into the bathroom sink for "hair time" when the doorbell rang. Sculpting my baby's curls into Rudy Huxtable-perfect puffs requires the kind of coordination and concentration rarely found outside a hospital operating room. I wasn't about to interrupt such a delicate procedure to answer the door. When we finally reached puffy perfection - complete with red and white striped bows - I remembered to check outside my front door. I expected fudge. Or homemade candy. A white FedEx box lay on my doormat. Nothing's better than an unexpected present, right? So, I reached down to grab it ... and the box fell apart in my hands. Blobs of gooey green stuff glopped out of the ruined box onto my porch, the doormat and my jeans. Shards of glass bit into my hand. From the smell of the goopy mess, I knew my salsa had arrived.

Cursing Rosarita, FedEx and the God of Mexican Condiments, I dumped everything into a garbage bag, wiped up the green stains with a paper towel and went on my not-very-merry way. I actually grumbled - out loud - "This is what I get for reviewing something other than books."

I got over the salsa disaster - eventually. I haven't quite forgiven FedEx yet, though. I mean, the driver transferred a soggy, dripping box from the back of his truck to my doorstep. On Christmas Eve! The nice people at MomCentral and Rosarita did send me three new jars of salsa, packaged neatly in a sturdy cardboard box. And, even though I had resolved never to look at the stuff ever again, I tested it anyway. What can I say? It's hard to hold a grudge at Christmastime.

So, Rosarita sent me three kinds of salsa - Salsa Mexicana (mild), Salsa Verde (medium) and Salsa Taquera (hot). I'm not big on spices, so I figured the first type would be the one for me. Um, no. The "mild" was hot enough to bring tears to my eyes. A lick of medium had me racing for my water glass, and the hot ... well, it was the least spicy of them all. In fact, it's the variety I ended up liking the most. Weird.

I like salsa, but I'm no connoisseur. My husband, on the other hand, is fairly choosy. Here's what he had to say:

Salsa Mexicana - Too onion-y, and I usually like onions. The taste just isn't that good.

Salsa Verde - Good stuff!

Salsa Taquera - It's more like hot sauce than salsa. The heat goes to a whole different level, like to my core. I think my bald spot is sweating.

To recap: Neither one of us was impressed with the Salsa Mexicana. I thought it was way too spicy for a "mild" salsa. The hubster didn't like the taste. The Salsa Verde burned my taste buds off, but my husband liked it a lot. Surprisingly, I liked the Taquera. It was the least spicy and the most flavorful. The hubs liked it as well.

I like Rosarita (it's the only brand of refried beans I buy), but its salsa can't touch our favorite - Safeway Select Southwestern Syle Salsa (mild). If you're feeling adventurous, pick up some Rosarita salsa for your next fiesta. It's only available in a handful of cities - Phoenix, L.A. Dallas and Denver - and only at select Wal-Mart and grocery stores. Having it delivered via FedEx is not advised.

I wrote this review while participating in a blog campaign by Mom Central on behalf of Rosarita and received a sample to facilitate my candid review. Mom Central sent me a gift card to thank me for taking the time to participate.

And since we're talking Mexicana, I should mention that I'm reading an interesting new book from Razorbill - it's called The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Kidnapped. Since I don't speak Mexican Gangsta Girl, I only understand about 1/4 of the dialogue, but it's turning into an interesting book. Look for a review soon.

Buenos Noches, amigos.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Unique Coal Mining Story Deserves Better

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Life in The Patch is not easy - not for the men and boys who spend their days mining coal, not for the wives and mothers who pray constantly for their safety, and not for the children who swallow toxic coal dust with their every breath. For the McCaffertys and the other immigrant families, ekeing out a living in northeastern Pennsylvania beats starving in their native Ireland. But only just. Not only are the patch families barely scraping by, but the miners' jobs are becoming more and more dangerous as wealthy mine owners scrimp on safety precautions in order to fill coal carts more quickly. The shriek of the breaker whistle comes too often - "accidents" maim, kill, and orphan.

Call Me Kate, Molly Roe's debut novel and the first book in a projected trilogy, starts with the siren's wail. When her best friend charges into the schoolroom one morning, 14-year-old Katie McCafferty knows it can mean only one thing - her father has become the mine's newest victim. Although he survives, his injuries leave him bedridden. Although she loves school, Katie has no choice but to leave the classroom and find work as a servant. When she lands a coveted position in the household of Ario Pardee, a rich mine owner, Katie must prove herself to the demanding houskeeper. Any missteps could mean termination, which will equal no income for her family back in The Patch.

Although Katie works in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, her thoughts are never far from The Patch. With the enactment of the Northern draft (October 1862), tensions are running high between the immigrant miners and the nativists. Rumors of her best friend's involvement in the resistance movement alarms Katie enough to risk her job - not to mention her life - to save him. Can a young lass like her really make a difference in the increasingly dangerous conflict? Can she rescue her friend from his own hard-headedness? Does she have the strength, the courage, to carry out the subterfuge necessary to accomplish the impossible task?

Call Me Kate brings this tumultuous period of history to life, blending period detail with the fictional (but historically accurate) adventures of Katie McCafferty. It's a fascinating glimpse into the stark realities of life as a miner in the late 19th Century. The story's compelling in and of itself, which is a very good thing since Roe's characters leave much to be desired. With little personality; stiff, unnatural conversations; and no real depth, Roe's story people might as well be cardboard cutouts. It doesn't help that the author spends most of the novel telling rather than showing. The tale is rich, exciting, compelling - the characters and storytelling need to be equally so. Flat characters and lackluster prose weigh down what could otherwise be an excellent novel. Molly Roe has a unique story to tell - let's hope the next two novels imbue it with the richness it deserves.

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: Tribute Books send me a complimentary copy of Call Me Kate for my review. The "price" of the book didn't influence my opinion in any way.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Marketing Schmarketing: Evolution Is What It Is ... Fascinating

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I prefer my family sagas thick and juicy, so reading Diya Das' "fictional family history" was a bit of a departure for me. The Evolution of an Identity isn't thick (it's a slim 72 pages), it's not really fiction, and it's not all that juicy (dang it). It is interesting, though, and definitely a unique read.

Das began researching her family tree as part of a project for a high school American studies course. She wanted to chronicle her own experiences as a first-generation immigrant in the United States, but found the task wouldn't quite fulfill the requirements of the assignment. So, she began digging into her family's history. Although Das was born in India, her parents emigrated to the U.S. when she was still a baby. They left all family behind. At least, that's what Das believed until a discussion with relatives in India led to the discovery that she did, indeed, have some family living in the United States. Communicating with long-lost kin gave Das a much broader sense of her family's history. Finding the writings of two ancestors was especially helpful, as they shed much light on the experiences of early Indian immigrants. For the school project, Das used the diaries she found as well as excerpts from her own journal to offer glimpses of Indian-American life over three generations. Like every story, hers had gaps - she filled the missing spaces using research and her own imagination.

Even though some parts of the book are fictionalized, The Evolution of an Identity is not a novel. It's basically a memoir - although all the details don't come from direct familial experience, they are generally truthful. Most importantly, the accounts Das presents provide a meaningful snapshot of the Indian-American experience. It shows the changing face of Indian immigrants - from poor, uneducated migrant workers in the early 1900s to wealthier, better educated career people in the 1960s and '70s to today's Indian-American teens. It examines more than just the evolution of an identity, but also the evolution of an attitude. Das explains how the earliest Indians put up with low-paying jobs, racial slurs, and great ignorance about their religion and culture, focusing only on returning to their native land with money in their pockets. Years later, young doctors and scientists entered the U.S. because their knowledge and skills were in high demand. Along with them came a wave of non-professionals who set up shops, restaurants and services specifically designed to cater to this wealthy new class of Indian-Americans. Unlike their predecessors, these immigrants practically shouted, "We're putting down roots. We're here to stay." Representing Indian-Americans of the 21st Century, Das describes her own attitude toward her "double heritage" (60). Since Das dwells in both worlds, she must assume a split-personality disorder, acting more Indian in the Indian community and more American with the outside world. She accepts both sides of herself while at the same time admitting to feeling intruded upon by "Americans" (read: white non-Indians) who come to Jackson Heights (New York's "Little India") to gawk during religious festivals. She acknowleges the irony, saying, "It is somewhat hypocritical that I wish for the acceptance of Indian culture but have an aversion to explaining it to others ... I do not feel as if I have the patience or the time required to explain what it is to be Indian American to someone who cannot possibly understand conflicting value systems and cultural behaviors" (58). A bold statement for someone whose peasant ancestors spent their time kowtowing to the kin of these same American "intruders."

The Indian immigration experience isn't something I've read much about, so I found Das' account fascinating. It's a quick read, but one that inspires a great deal of thought. My biggest complaint about the book has little to with the book itself and more with the way it's being marketed: The Evolution of an Identity is not a historical novel for teens. Young adults are not going to grab this one off the shelves. I'm not saying they shouldn't, I'm just saying that this marketing tactic is not going to work. The book is a serious work, with a personal, but very non-fiction-y feel. If you're interested in Indian history and culture, or just in another perspective on the immigrant experience, pick it up. But don't expect a novel, or a rich family saga. It is what it is, and what it is is fascinating. It's a quick, thought-provoking read that will appeal more to adults than teenagers. And that's okay.

Having said that, I have one suggestion for 18-year-old Diya Das: write a real novel. In a lot of ways, I think a nice, thick saga based on her family's unique history would have been more compelling and satisfying than this thin, essay-type volume. I would definitely be interested in a more fleshed-out, historically-rich story exploring the plight of the Indian immigrant from the early 1900s until now. Indian-American authors are sorely underrepresented in popular literature. It's just a suggestion, Diya, but I think it's a pretty good one.

Until Das becomes a best-selling novelist (who owes all her fame to moi), you can purchase her work here on Tribute Books' website.

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for themes of persecution, revolution, and racism

To the FTC, with love: I received a copy of this book from Tribute Books in exchange for this review. The fact that I got it for free didn't influence my opinion in the least.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Pregnancy Guide Too Much For A Fuddy Duddy Like Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The other day as I scanned the stories in the online edition of my hometown newspaper, I gasped aloud. An announcement in the "Births" section indicated that a kid I vaguely remembered from way, way back when had just become a father. "I just can't believe he's old enough to have a baby," I told my husband. "And you're too old to have any more," came his less-than-sensitive reply. Indignant, I retorted, "I'm only 34!" C'mon, I spend my days chasing a 13 month old around - I may have one foot in the ground, but I'm not dead yet.

Still, as I read Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? by Claire Mysko and Magali Amadei, I began to think my husband may have a point. Perhaps I have been in the trenches too long. Eleven years of full-time mommyhood has turned me into a practical, no-frills kind of girl. So, reading about how to create a stylish maternity wardrobe, when to schedule preggo pictures, and how to deal with celebrities getting their pre-baby bodies back within 6 weeks of giving birth made me want to scream. I mean, seriously, who cares? Not me. I appreciate the authors' tell-it-like-it-is approach to the nitty gritties of pregnancy and childbirth, but I think I've been there enough times to know the drill. In fact, having birthed three babies and adopted one, I've got a whole lot more experience than either of the authors. I'm not saying I don't have more to learn - of course I do - but I'll take my advice from veterans not amateurs, thank you very much.

I don't mean to devalue the message Mysko and Amadei are trying to spread. They yearn to convince women with negative body images to come to terms with the problem before they become pregnant. They encourage potential mothers to toss out the scale, practice intuitive eating and seek professional help before their body misconceptions get dangerous (i.e. in pregnancy). This is where the book offers something unique - a look at the connection between negative body image, especially severe cases, and pregnancy. I've never seen this issue addressed in any kind of literature, so I found the sections dedicated to this topic to be fascinating. Since both Mysko and Amadei suffered from eating disorders, they have an insider's perspective. Here, they speak with authority. Here, they write with passion. I would have gladly skipped the chapters on accessorizing maternity tops and battling au pairs over a child's lunch to read more about how anorexic/bulemic women deal with pregnancy and childbirth.

Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? rubbed me the wrong way for several reasons. Some of the material just seemed beyond ridiculous for an old fuddy duddy like me; many of the comments from "real women" were so frank as to be almost offensive; and lots of the topics covered weren't relevant to a practical, no-frills gal like me. I do like the message the authors are sending. I think it's important, especially for women who have struggled with eating disorders, to seek the help they need without feeling unworthy or ashamed. I also agree that women need to stop beating themselves up and accept the fact that there is no perfect mother, no perfect body, and no perfect woman. Ignore the tabloids. Focus on your health, your kids, your real life. Amen.

Every woman has body issues - I'm no exception. Still, this book is not for me. It might be for you, though. If you need a little pick-me-up, some inspiration or a resource for help, check out the authors' websites, 5resolutions.blogspot.com and http://www.insidebeauty.org/ . You can find more opinions on Does This Pregnancy make Me Look Fat? by following the authors' virtual tour with TLC Book Tours. Click here for a schedule.

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: TLC Book Tours provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Ruined About As Fresh As Second Hand Smoke

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've only been to New Orleans once - and it wasn't a sightseeing kind of trip - but Paula Morris has me convinced: it's a creepy place. She sets Ruined, her first YA novel in the city's Garden District. Right next to a cemetery. Graveside settings are always spooky, but this is one is especially so: Most of the bodies in Lafayette Cemetery reside above ground in huge tombs or in vaults set into the cemetery wall. It's also the alleged site of mass burials during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. If ever there was a place for ghosts to be haunting, this would be it.

Maybe it's no surprise then, that the first real friend Rebecca Brown makes in New Orleans is a ghost. Rebecca's not happy about being dumped in a strange city, attending a snooty private school, and living with an "aunt" she barely knows. All her classmates seem to care about is the upcoming "season," when teenage girls make their "debuts," exclusive "krewes" parade their wealth and power in the streets, and everyone who's anyone receives invites to fancy balls and parties. She misses her dad (who's on an extended business trip in China), longs for her New York apartment, and pines for her friends in the city - since, unlike anyone at her new school, they actually like her. Rebecca's so lonely that she wanders into the one place Aunt Claudia has forbidden her to go - Lafayette Cemetery. There she meets a young black girl named Lisette. It takes her awhile, but eventually Rebecca realizes the reason no one else can see or hear her new friend: Lisette is a ghost.

Rebecca doesn't believe in ghosts. Or voodoo. Or family curses. It has to be the weird New Orleans vibe getting to her, right? Because all these things seem to be alive and well in The Big Easy. One minute she's taking an eerie ghost walk, the next she's actually considering the validity of the Bowman Family curse, and the next she's wondering why her aunt is so insistent that she stay away from handsome, well-mannered Anton Grey. Secrets are swirling in the Garden District, and Rebecca doesn't understand any of them. Why does Aunt Claudia warn her away from the cemetery, the glitzy balls and the descendants of some of the oldest families in New Orleans? Why can't Lisette pass on like other ghosts? What is the Bowman family curse and what does it have to do with Rebecca? Most importantly, will life in Louisiana ever make sense to her?

Ruined combines two of my favorite story elements: mystery and history. Unfortunately, the former is pretty generic and therefore, predictable. The latter, on the other hand, is what makes the book worth reading. Although the historical detail is not woven into the story as seamlessly as it could be, Morris makes her point: The story of New Orleans is, and always will be, a fascinating one. It's a turbulent tale, for sure, one ripe with racial tension, class segregation, and violent natural disasters. Beyond the conflict, of course, is a city of magic and music, one that refuses to be kowtowed by vicious storms or the apathy of outsiders. As Rebecca Brown becomes familiar with the city's biography, she learns that some of its battles - especially those between races and classes - are still being fought. Can she put right the mistakes of the past? Can she save Lisette from an eternity of wandering the cemetery? And what about herself? What do Aunt Claudia's tarot cards say about Rebecca's future? The more she digs into the past, the more disturbing her present becomes. How can she save herself when she's not even sure who she is anymore?

I love the idea of this story. It has all the elements of a perfect novel - I just wish it got them all right. By describing both the city's history and its modern vibe, Morris paints a vivid picture of her adopted city. It's an intriguing setting, even though she insists on populating it with dull, one-dimensional characters who neither progress nor move beyond the confines of their cliches. The plot moves along at a fair clip, but the storyline's about as fresh as secondhand smoke. Ruined is not a bad novel. In fact, it's clean, fast-paced and brimming with all the right elements. It's just that unlike it's setting, the book lacks the originality, the flair, the ju-ju, if you will, to make it stand out from the crowd.

Still, I don't doubt Paul Morris at all: New Orleans is all kinds of creepy. It's also all kinds of fascinating. Pardon me while I phone my travel agent ...

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for suspenseful scenes

To the FTC, with love: Sorry, boys, I bought this one with the Border's gift card I got for Christmas.

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