Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Fuzzy-Headed Update

Sitting at the computer makes me dizzy, but I wanted to give you all a quick update on all the *fun* that's been going on around here:

I went in for surgery on Tuesday. My surgeon found cancer as expected - it was in both sides of my thyroid as well as in some of my lymph nodes. Apparently, the tumor was wrapped around my vocal chords (the biggest risk with this type of surgery), so everyone was relieved when I managed to croak out the word "sore" in response to a nurse asking me how I felt. I spent the night in the hospital reading, resting, gulping Vicodin and crunching Tums. By noon on Wednesday I was recuperating in my own bed. Since then, I've been resting, reading, getting waited on hand and foot, and feeling better each day. I'm still having trouble swallowing/eating - in fact, it feels as if someone's got their hands around my throat and refuses to let go; I still feel lightheaded; and I'm still fighting fatigue, but I feel so much better today than I have all week. I'm not sure when I'll be back-to-normal - for now, I'm just grateful to be alive, able to talk, and able to be up and around a little bit.

I've mentioned that thyroid cancer is slow-moving and rarely fatal. Thus, my prognosis is excellent. I have to undergo an iodine/radiation procedure in a few weeks that will determine if there is any cancer left in my body. After that, it should be a matter of balancing my meds so that I can feel well again.

Even though thyroid cancer is generally seen as "the best cancer to get," it's still been an emotional and traumatic experience for me and my family. I've been blessed beyond measure with a loving family, supportive friends and a ward (my church family) that's always willing to help. My "cyber friends" are also a great blessing to me - I appreciate all of the prayers you've sent up in my behalf. I've definitely felt them this week. Thanks for all your kind words, your support and your patience.

Now, on to the most important part of this post - I've read 3 1/2 books during my recovery. Whether I will review them all or not, I don't know. Vicodin has made my head really fuzzy, so I'm not sure I can recall the books let alone judge them fairly. We'll see how I feel. Anyway, I'll post again as soon as I feel up to it. I've missed hanging out with you all in the big, beautiful book blogosphere!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sticking My Neck Out

Wow, February's just about over. I can't believe it. So much has been going on that I've barely had time to breathe. I did somehow find time to read 7 books, so I guess I haven't been that busy. Since I may be MIA for the next week or so due to family stuff and my thyroidectomy, I thought I should catch up on a few (actually, a lot of things) here on BBB. Let the randomness begin ...


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First off, I have some winners to announce:



Jessy won a copy of Sing Me to Sleep by Angela Morrison



Kelly and Jennii both won copies of Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison

Jenna and Sarah won signed bookmarks

Congratulations, ladies! If you will email me (blogginboutbooksATgmailDOTcom), I'll get your books out as soon as I can. Thanks to everyone for entering the giveaway.

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I'm still trying to decide if I'm going to attend BEA this year. I really want to go, but with all the money it's going to cost and all the time away from my family, I just don't know ... Neither my husband nor I have ever visited NYC, so I'm going to be dragging him along. Every time I ask him, "Sooo, you really want to go to New York?" he answers, "How many times do I have to say yes?" So, yeah, I think I'll be there. Who else is going? Anyone want to give a newbie some advice?

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LDStorymakers


I'm already registered for LDS Storymakers in April. I'm excited about attending. There's still time to join me - you can get more information and sign up here. If you are attending, you might want to check this out. I'd love to meet all you Utah bloggers and writers - shoot me an email if you want to get together.

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I've received a couple of blog awards in the last month or so that I haven't acknowledged yet. Sorry about that. Thanks to Jody and Rae over at With A Good Book for the Blog Monster Award and for the other person who gave me one (I'm so, so sorry, but I can't remember who it was). I appreciate the awards and kind words.

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The talented Jeri Huish has been busy desiging buttons for me, so I can debut some new features. I've already talked about Baby Steps to Understanding. The other buttons will identify:

Arizona Authors (writers who currently live in my state):


LDS Authors (writers who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether their books are geared toward LDS readers or general audiences):



Stories for A Sunday (books that are not necessarily religious in nature, but that are gentle, inspirational, faith-promoting or otherwise appropriate for Sabbath Day reading):



Clicking on the buttons will take you to databases on my supplemental book blog, More Bloggin' 'bout Books, where you can see all my reviews in the categories listed above. I'm still in the process of creating them, so be patient with my works-in-progress.

Be sure to stop by Jeri's website. She's a talented photographer and graphic designer. She's responsible for the design on my blog as well as all the buttons. Her prices are very reasonable - check her out!

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I don't usually review non-bookish items on this blog, but when Sarah from LuShae Jewelry offered to send me a piece of jewelry to review, I couldn't pass up the offer. Usually the only accessory I utilize while reading is a soft blanket, but why not some bling, too?

Sarah offered me my choice of pieces. This pendant caught my eye because of its simple beauty and because I wear lots of brown. It's a white gold rhodium drop pendant featuring a multi-faceted brown topaz briolette in silvertone. Pretty, no? Although the company is based in Australia, jewelry is shipped from its warehouse in Brea, California. I literally had my pendant within three days of ordering. It's a lovely piece - eye-catching, but not overwhelming. It goes with everything and I absolutely love it.

Be sure to check out all the loveliness at LuShae Jewelry. The company offers pendants, rings and earrings. Also, find out how you can win jewelry, here.

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Speaking of my neck, I check into the hospital on Tuesday for my thyroid procedure. Hopefully, it will go smoothly and I'll be back before you even realize I'm gone. I will be checking my email, but may not be able to get back to you right away. Thanks for your patience.

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Have a great week. Happy reading!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Diplomat's Wife: Historical Fiction at Its Finest


(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for The Diplomat's Wife by Pam Jenoff, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its prequel, The Kommandant's Girl. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Apparently, I read too many books.

The other day, I was complaining to my husband about my failing memory. My 11-year-old son and I had just come back from a date to the movies to see The Lightning Thief. Unlike my son, I haven't read the whole series yet. I have read the first book, however, so you'd think that when my son exclaimed, "Hey! That wasn't in the book," I would have been able to respond with something more intelligible than, "Really? I mean, I know, right? Where did that come from?" My husband responded to my rambles with a look that had incredulous written all over it. Then he said something along the lines of, "You read like a million books a year. How are you supposed to remember them all?" The man has a point.

Our little discussion made me feel a whole lot better when I opened Pam Jenoff's The Diplomat's Wife and became immediately confused: Who is the main character, Marta Nederman? If you've read Jenoff's first book, The Kommandant's Girl, you may recognize the name, as she was one of its supporting cast members. However, it's been a while since I read the book (um, yeah, like 3 years - you can read my review here), and I couldn't for the life of me remember Marta. Knowing The Diplomat's Wife was a sequel, I was expecting a continuation of Emma's story, which began in The Kommandant's Girl. Naturally, I had to figure out who Marta was before I turned any more pages, so I read back over my review of the first book, skimmed its last chapter and voila! I had my answer (Hint: She's Emma's friend from the Krakow ghetto. She also had a little something to do with the Kommandant's demise.) Having finally gotten my bearings in the story, I was able to relax and enjoy it. Immensely.

When The Diplomat's Wife opens, Marta lies crumpled on the floor of a Nazi prison. Whether her conditions are any better than those of her comrades in the death camps she knows not, but they're plenty bad enough - she's trapped in a cold, rat-infested cell where she's slowly starving to death. The gunshot wound in her side makes movement agonizing, pain that intensifies with regular beatings from the cruel guards. Do what they may, the Nazis will never beat information out of her. She'd rather die than rat out her friends in the Resistance.

Marta assumes she's delirious when a handsome American soldier rescues her from her filthy cell, but when she wakes up in a clean, quiet hospital she realizes that it's true - the camps have been liberated. She's free. Now what? Thanks to the Nazis, she has no friends, no family, no life left for her in Poland. A chance opportunity gets her to England, where she's soon living with a wealthy family and working for Simon Gold, an important diplomat with the British government. When Marta discovers she is pregnant, and that her fiancee has been killed, she marries the bland Simon. Although not passionate, their union is safe and comfortable enough.

Then, comes the assignment that changes everything. It's a dangerous mission, one for which Marta is uniquely qualified. It's supposed to be a simple get-in-get-out operation, but things get very complicated very fast. Suddenly, Marta's thrust back into a world she thought she'd left behind forever. Once again, she's running for her life through cities devastated by war, countries where peace is as tenuous as a cloud, areas where she's hunted by assasins and haunted by memories so heartbreaking they threaten to destroy any shred of sanity she has left. She's desperate to complete her mission, help her homeland and go home to her daughter, but Marta's past and present are on a dangerous collision course, one that will have her questioning everything she's ever known.

At its heart, The Diplomat's Wife is a love story. It's also a gripping tale about the cruelties of war, the audacity of hope, and the dangerous business of rebuilding nations toppled by violence. With romance, suspense, heart-pounding action and vivid historical detail, it's a book that offers something for every kind of reader. It starts slowly, but builds to the kind of nail-biting conclusion that will keep you turning pages well past bedtime. An intense, engrossing novel, it's even richer when coupled with Emma's experieces in The Kommandant's Girl. I highly recommend both books not only for their engrossing plotlines, but also for the honesty, tenderness and knowledge with which Pam Jenoff writes. This is the best kind of historical fiction - exciting, romantic, suspenseful and satisfying. You won't want to miss it.

(Readalikes: The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff; also reminds me of the movie Shining Through)

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language; sexual scenes (although brief and not graphic); and violence

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

(Book image is from Barnes & Noble)

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Check back on March 12 when I review Jenoff's new book, Almost Home, and interview the author.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sweet, Satisfying Romantic Obsessions A Nice, Light Valentine's Treat

Sarah Howard is the kind of girl who should be in romance novels. She can easily picture herself

roaming the moors, donning gauzy Rengency gowns, and charming her own brooding Mr. Darcy. Too bad reality has to get in the way of her romantic fantasies because the truth is, no one would cast a Medusa-haired, fashion-backward, too-smart-for-her-own-good girl like Sarah to be anyone's leading lady. Her high school "boyfriend" made it all perfectly (and publicly) clear: no one in his right mind would date anyone as hideous as her.

When My Ridiculous, Romantic Obsessions by Becca Wilhite opens, Sarah is beginning her freshman year at college. Nothing is going quite as expected - her parents are a little too eager to have her gone, her best friend found another place to live, and her new roommates are ... interesting. Then, there's her new study buddy: Ben's so drop dead gorgeous that Sarah nicknames him Adonis on the spot. The weird thing is, she's getting some serious romance novel vibes off this fine specimen of manhood. Clearly, he's only after one thing - her class notes. Because, seriously, she's so not the kind of girl that gets this kind of guy. He's obviously hiding some fatal flaw, some cruel secret that will decimate her already pummelled heart - it's better to play it safe, keep her distance, remain just good friends.

Sarah knows a girl like her is never going to have a straight-out-of-a-Jane-Austen-novel type romance; heck, she'll be lucky to have any kind of romance at all. So, why has her life suddenly gone all Pride and Prejudice? Is it possible that her real life could be just as good, if not better, than all the silly romantic nonsense in her head? Can Ben truly be as great as he seems? Or is he just waiting in the wings to dash her every hope - again? Looks like it's time for a little Sense & Sensibility, but will reality have its way with her once more? Or will her unlikely fairy tale finally lead to the Happily Ever After she's always dreamed of?

After reading so much bleak post-apocalyptic fiction and dealing with several family health crises (including my own), I really needed something happy to read. Wilhite's second novel (read my review of her first, here) fit the bill perfectly. My Ridiculous, Romantic Obsessions is bright, fun and hopeful. The story's predictable, the heroine's clueless, and the guy's drool-worthy - it's the perfect combination for a quick, light, easy romance. It's not excessively original, charming or moving, and honestly, I wanted to smack Sarah upside the head on more than one occasion, but I recommend it for some simple, clean, upbeat entertainment. Just in time for Valentine's, it's a tale that will make dreamers fling aside their Jane Austen's and pine for the kind of imperfectly perfect romance that occurs in only one place - real life.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a little bit of Sing Me to Sleep by Angela Morrison [my review])

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG because of minor lusting :)

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain. Thanks! Book image is from their website.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gone Are the Adults, Now Comes the Hunger ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will contain no spoilers for Hunger by Michael Grant, it may inadvertently mention plot surprises from Gone. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

If things were bleak in the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone) before, they're absolutely desperate now. The shelves at Ralph's are empty, killer worms patrol the farmland, and deadly fights are breaking out over one measley piece of beef jerky. With the sadistic Caine temporarily out of the picture, the "townies" are unleashing their fury on each other. An increasingly aggravated Sam gets to hear about every little argument, from quarrels between siblings to fights over food to rumbles about civil war between Freaks and Normals. As if things aren't quite dangerous enough, there seems to be a monster lurking in an abandoned mine shaft just outside of Perdido Beach. A monster of unknown origin who invades kids' minds, bidding them - no, forcing them - to carry out his evil plans.

As things go from bad to worse in Perdido Beach, Sam knows the most important thing is stopping the monster. Caine, Lana and some other kids with important powers seem to be under its control. responding to its frantic plea for "food." Meanwhile, animals and humans are still evolving. Powerless kids are resentful of the "freaks," the "freaks" are being targeted by bullies, and the whole FAYZ is in utter chaos. With no food, no cops, no parents and plenty of pent-up anger, what's to stop the kids from revolting? Can Sam step up and take control or is it simply too much for him this time?

Although Hunger, like its predecessor Gone, features heart-stopping action and engaging characters, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first book. The pacing is a little slower, the story seems a little redundant, and the whole thing's just a little more gory (think of Fido's fate in a community of starving children), a little more disturbing. It's still engaging, just not quite as consumingly so. Like Gone, Hunger is mostly a "clean" book with very little swearing, only a small bit of sexual innuendo and a hopeful tone that helps balance out the bleakness of the situation the characters are facing. Grant does introduce a homosexual relationship in Hunger - while it's a very minor part of the story and not at all graphic, it's still there. Call me a prude, but it's just not something I want to read about. All in all, though, Hunger remains an engrossing, absorbing, multi-layered thrill ride.

I have an ARC of Lies, the next book in the series, that I plan to delve into right after I read some nice, light, happy fiction. The finished book comes out in May. It will be followed by Plague. I'm not sure how long the series will go on, but I'm starting to feel super sorry for the kids caught in the wasteland known as The FAYZ ...

(Readalikes: Gone by Michael Grant, Life As We Knew It and The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language, some sexual innuendo, references to homosexuality, violence and adult themes/situations.

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

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blurbalicious

So, in case you all missed it, Angela Morrison's debut novel, Taken By Storm came out in paperback. The author reached out to book bloggers early on - as a result, look whose quote is featured right inside the front cover. I know - Tim Wynne-Jones! Cool, right? Now, scroll on down the page ... keep going ... keep going ... why yes, that is my name. On a real, live book. Squee! I'll be signing autographs all day today at Border's. Hee hee.

Like I said, Angela's a great friend to bloggers. Plus, she's an exciting new YA author. Show your love by buying this wonderful book (my review is here). Or, sign up to win one of the two copies I'm giving away.

Angela's second novel, Sing Me to Sleep comes out on March 4, so be on the look out for that one as well. You can read my review of the book, see its trailer, and enter to win a copy here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

What's Normal? Hint: Not Your Family.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Mieka Baker doesn't know what a "normal" family looks like, but she's pretty sure hers doesn't qualify. Ever since her mom took off, she's been living with her artist dad in a Chicago apartment decorated in what he likes to call "Salvation Armani." Her maternal grandmother, who owns a secondhand shop nearby, is Mieka's only close relative. As if a fractured, abnormal family isn't enough to deal with, she's also watching her best friend defect to the popular side. Life gets even crueller when she has to stay with her cousin's perfect family for a few weeks. Hanging out with her beautiful cousin Greta only makes Mieka realize what a big, clumsy oaf she is. Between Greta's uber-niceness; her family's big, spotless Texan mansion; and Mieka's chain-smoking, poison-tongued fraternal grandma, Mieka will learn the true definition of "normal." Hint: No family really qualifies.

Wow! A one-paragraph book summary may be a new record for me. Chasing Normal by Lisa Papademetriou is easy to describe because it's really a quick, simple book about learning to accept yourself for who you are. The story's been done a million times, but Papademetriou at least gives us some fresh characters. Don't expect a perfect happily-ever-after ending, but it's a very honest, hopeful story.

(Readalikes: I could name one hundred similar kids-learning-to-love-themselves stories.)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for one scene involving a submerged maxi pad

To the FTC, with love: I received this book from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thanks!

Monday, February 08, 2010

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel ... Riveted

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"New York was more dead than alive, and those people who were still around didn't help anyone but themselves" (250).

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for The Dead & the Gone, it may inadvertently spoil surprises from the first book in the series, Life As We Knew It. As always, I highly recommend reading the first book first.)

After reading about a chapter of Susan Beth Pfeffer's dystopian novel, Life As We Knew It (my review), I knew I had to get my hands on the sequel. Since I hadn't finished the first book in the series, I didn't even read the plot summary for the second. I just put it on reserve at the library. After holding my breath through Life As We Knew It, waiting to see if Miranda and her family survives after an asteroid hits the moon, I couldn't wait to see what adventures she tackled next. So, I settled in to read about Miranda ... only to encounter someone else entirely! Be forewarned: As Gamila says in her review of The Dead & the Gone, it's not as much a sequel to Life As We Knew It as it is a companion book.

The story takes place in the same time period as the first book, except this time, we're in New York when the asteroid hits. Seventeen-year-old Alex Morales doesn't think much of it at first. He's more concerned about studying his way to a Georgetown scholarship. Then, the power goes out; his mom has to stay to help with multiple emergencies at the hospital where she works; and Uncle Jimmy shows up at 4:30 a.m. asking Alex and his sister to help clean out his bodega before looters cart off all his inventory. When reports of widespread disaster - tsunamis, flooding, earthquakes, etc. - reach his ears, Alex starts to worry. His mother still hasn't come home, his father's in Puerto Rico and his older brother is in Texas with his Marines unit. That leaves Alex to take care of his two younger sisters. Phone service is spotty, but surely his parents would have made it back home if they could. They can't really be gone, can they?

As the months drag on, Alex becomes increasingly worried. Not only have his parents not shown up, but the kids haven't received a letter, a phone call, anything. Food's running low, corpses are piling up, volcanic ash taints the air, and New York's becoming more dangerous by the minute. Despite his sister's devout faith, Alex is beginning to wonder if God and la madre even care. With flood waters rising, food disappearing, a flu epidemic raging, and no way out of the wasteland that is New York, Alex must fight for survival. He's determined to keep his sisters safe, even if it means starving himself, even if it means sending them away, even if it means killing himself to keep them alive. He'll do whatever it takes.

Like its predecessor, The Dead and the Gone starts out slowly and builds to a nail-biting, heart-pounding crescendo. The more perilous Alex's situation gets, the more riveting the story becomes. It didn't grab me quite as much as Life As We Knew It, maybe because it seemed redundant or maybe because The Morales' experience in a big city seemed less desperate than Miranda's plight in a small, isolated town. Still, it's an engrossing pageturner, as exciting as it is thought-provoking. Unlike the first book, this one explores themes of faith in the face of chaos; the influence of wealth and power in a catastrophic situation; and the difference between givers and takers in a world gone mad. Like its companion book, The Dead & the Gone also looks at how quickly life can change; how ungrateful we are for the abundance we enjoy every day; and how little provocation it takes for us to revert to animal instincts, erasing every gentle trait that makes us human.

Like I said before, if you think the world's bleak enough as it is, you might want to skip this series. If you're not the depressive sort, or if you happen to have an extra supply of Prozac on hand, give these books a whirl. This glass-half-full girl just can't get enough!

(Readalikes: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer; The Gone series by Michael Grant)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language, mild sexual innuendo and scenes of death/destruction

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Pioneer Story Needs Either Less Fiction, More Facts or More Facts Less Fiction

I've been reading so much dark, post-apocalyptic literature that I decided to find something a little more cheery to read. Naturally, I chose a book about the Willie Handcart Company, because what could be more cheery than that? Ha ha. Maybe you have to be Mormon to understand the irony of this statement. Maybe you have to be Mormon to understand what I'm talking about.

If you know anything about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it's probably our pioneering heritage. Due to religious persecution, members of the church were forced to leave their homes and head for the territory that would become Utah. They called it "Zion," because it was the one place on Earth where they could practice their religon freely. Beginning in 1847, the Saints traveled across the plains of Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming to reach the valley that would be their home. The first groups - which were organized into military-style "companies" - blazed the trail, making notes about the land, the weather, and the various dangers along the way. Thousands of Saints from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia streamed across the plains over the next 43 years or so. From their journals, we know about the many hardships they endured - from sunburn to chapped lips to Indian raids to snakebites to starvation. We also know of their extreme faith in God, a devotion that kept them plodding along mile after mile after mile.

Thousands of Europeans migrated to the U.S. with the express purpose of joining their church family in Zion. Because many of them were destitute, too poor to purchase and outfit wagons, the church gave them handcarts. Resembling large wheelbarrows, the handcarts could carry as much as 500 lbs. of supplies. About 5 people were assigned to each handcart - it was their responsibility to push or pull it across the prairie. Only the very young, the elderly or the infirm were allowed to ride. Everyone else walked the (approx.) 1300 miles to Utah.

Although only about 10% of the pioneers crossed the plains using handcarts, their extreme suffering and unwavering faith of those who did have turned them into legends. Those who traveled in the Willie and Martin companies, in particular, are celebrated today as paragons of pioneer fortitude. Through a series of unfortunate events, the groups started out late in the season of 1856, beginning their treks on August 17 and August 27, respectively. Icy temperatures, snowstorms, torrential rain and too little stocked food, combined with the usual perils of trail life to make it a desperate, difficult, heartbrekingly perilous journey. In the 3 months it took the companies to reach Utah, around 213 of their approx. 1076 pioneers died.

Who was to blame for the tragedy? Brigham Young? Other church leaders? Captains Willie and Martin? God? In the aftermath of the tragedy, many came under fire. Yet, the most famous story to come out of this blame game is this one: During a church meeting in Utah, years after the handcart pioneers crossed the plains, a Sunday School teacher was discussing the event. Criticism of both the church and Brigham Young was flying fast and furious. An old man, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, rose to his feet and demanded that the criticism stop. His name was Francis Webster, and he said, in part:

I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here ... I was in that company and my wife was in it ... We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor utter a word of criticism? Every on eof us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities!

I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand and when I reahced it, the cart began pushing me! I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there.

Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No! Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company. (I've heard this story repeated many, many times. Here, I quote directly from Afterword, In the Company of Angels, pages 387-88)

It's this kind of faith and testimony that make the handcart pioneers such an exemplary and powerful part of our pioneer heritage.


(The painting is "Trail of Sacrifice-Valley of Hope" by the very talented Clark Kelley Price - it's from http://www.lds.org/; Historical details are from the pioneer section on the Church's website and Wikipedia.)

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Still with me?

Okay, now that you know a little of the history, we can talk about David Farland's new book, In the Company of Angels. Farland, a devout member of the LDS Church, has written numerous sci-fi/fantasy books. He decided to tell the story of the Willie Handcart Company because it moved him so much.

As stated above, the company of around 400 Saints, under the direction of English immigrant James G. Willie, crossed the plains from August to November 1856. Farland tells the story from the perspectives of three people, all of whom were real pioneers: Eliza Gadd, Baline Mortensen and Captain Willie. In addition to relating the struggles of the company as a whole, the accounts relate the personal and spiritual experiences of each.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Since I've already described what happened on the journey, I'm not going to go into the plot -it's basically the story of 400 people and what they encounter on the 1300 mile trek to Utah. There aren't any real subplots. The book simply follows the history, using diaries and letters to make the account historically accurate. Because of this, In the Company of Angels reads more like non-fiction than fiction. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it much more if it hadn't been fictionalized at all. The experiences of those in the Willie Company, after all, need no dramatizing. They were exciting, harrowing, tragic and inspiring all on their own.

For me, Farland's historical fiction has too much history and too little fiction. Without any real subplots involving our narrators' personal lives, it's difficult to really get to know them. They're good "characters" - interesting to a point - but they never really come alive enough to be truly memorable. Baline and Captain Willie are, without a doubt, sympathetic and likable, but Eliza comes off as a snobby whiner. Her passages are so grating that I often wanted to skip them altogether. I think the real problem is that Farland's trying to cover too much territory. In attempting to tell the tale of the entire company, he doesn't expend enough energy on the individual, sacrificing that personal connection a reader needs to feel to really care about a character. My other beefs with the book include poor editing, so-so writing, and lack of focus.

Even though I didn't like Eliza Gadd as a character, I like the idea of using her as one of the narrators. As the only non-Mormon in the company (her husband was a devout member of the church, but she did not believe), her perspective is unique. She's openly critical of the church and its leaders, which lets Farland explore the frustration, doubt and fear that many pioneers had to have felt as they buried friends and family in shallow graves, as their limbs turned black from frostbite and as they boiled leather to keep starvation at bay. Farland doesn't shy away from or sentimentalize the pioneers' struggle - he lets the reader see the journey for what it was, mistakes, miracles, murmuring and all. It's obvious that he's done hours of research (even traveling along the Mormon Trail and pulling a handcart) on the pioneers and that he has a deep respect for them. I just think his book would have been much more effective if he'd eschewed the fiction and stuck with the facts. After all, never has the adage "Truth is stranger than fiction" been more apt than in the case of the Mormon pioneers. And that's a fact.

Just for the record, the book wasn't cheery in the least. Guess I'll go back to reading about the end of the world ...

(Readalikes: The Work and the Glory series by Gerald Lund)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: While the struggles of the pioneers can be "rated" no less than an R, this book is not overly graphic. I'm going to say PG for mild language, scenes of peril/death, and violence.

To the FTC, with love: I bought In the Company of Angels from Deseret Book.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The POC Reading Challenge

Even though I resolved not to join any challenges this year, The POC (People of Color) Reading Challenge fits into one of my personal and blogg-y goals, so I'm going for it. I don't care what anyone else thinks (especially the ridiculously hypersensitive blogger who's making such a big deal out of it), I think the challenge is a great idea. So, not only am I joining, but I'm going Level 5, baby! Here's my list:

1. Heaven by Angela Johnson (my review)

2. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (my review)

3. Voodoo Season by Jewell Parker Rhodes

4. Leaving Gee's Bend by Irene Latham

5. Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

7. City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

8. Forest of the Pygmies by Isabel Allende

9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

10. Kingdom of the Golden Dragon by Isabel Allende

11. Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

12. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

13. The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

14. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

15. Monster by Walter Dean Myers

16. Who Am I Without Him? by Sharon Flake

17. Bang! by Sharon Flake

18. Jimi & Me by Jaime Adoff

19. Miracle's Boys by Jacqueline Woodson

20. Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

21. Liar by Justine Larbaleister

22. The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

23. The Fold by An Na

24. A Step From Heaven by An Na

25. Blindness by Jose Saramago

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The First Part Last Unique, Tender, Touching

If there's anything girls need more in their lives than a devoted father, I don't know what it is. How do I know this? Because I have one. As do my girls. There's just something about the bond between fathers and their daughters. Something unique. Something special.

My youngest daughter will grow up not knowing her birth father, but she'll know her real father. The one who snuggles her close, tickles her belly, and tells her every day how smart and beautiful she is. The one who looks nothing like her, who had no part in creating her sweet little features, but who adores every inch of her. Maybe someday she'll meet the man who helped give her life, maybe not. Regardless, she'll always have her dad - the man who's endowing her with confidence, joy and happiness. The man who just can't get enough of his bright-eyed, brown-skinned, curly-haired baby girl.

Why do fathers, especially black fathers, get such a bad rap? You've no doubt heard of The Absent Black Father - it's a cliche, but a prevalent one. I definitely know guys who seem to be doing everything they possibly can to uphold the stereotype, but I also know there are hundreds of thousands of good, supportive, present black dads out there. So, when a book like Angela Johnson's The First Part Last comes along (actually, it came along back in 2003), I get excited. Smashing through stereotypes in an honest, realistic, even touching way is a good thing. In this case, a very, very good thing.

Bobby's a typical teenaged city boy - he likes nothing better than hanging out at the arcade, scarfing down a slice at Mineo's, and playing hoops with his friends. On the day he turns 16, his girlfriend's announcement changes everything: She's pregnant. Bobby's not stupid - he knows about birth control, knows only a fool gets stuck like this. Yet, there it is. Nia's a basket case, vacillating between anger, guilt and shame. Bobby doesn't know what to do. He only knows that he will do right by his girl, and by his unborn baby.

The story alternates between Now and Then. In the Then, Bobby's a scared, confused boy who doesn't know how to deal with Nia's pregnancy. In the Now, he's a single dad juggling bottles, diapers, homework, and well-baby visits. He hardly knows who he is anymore. Saddled with the weight of responsibility, he misses his carefree childhood. He misses himself. The fact is, he's terrified:

This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me. And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing.

It's not going to happen, and my heart aches as I straighten out her hands and trace the delicate lines. Then kiss them. Her hands are translucent and warm. Baby hands. Warm, sweet-smelling baby hands. And all I can do is kiss them and pull her closer so she won't see my face and how scared I am (15).

All Bobby knows is that when he looks at baby Feather, his insides turn to warm honey. He can't give her up, he can't let her down. Despite all the exhaustion, all the worry, all the mistakes, he knows only one thing:

Afterward I always kiss her, my baby, and look into her clear eyes that know everything about me, and want me to be her daddy anyway (81).

Johnson does a whole lot of things in this book to create a uniquely powerful story. First, she tells a familiar tale from a new perspective. Then, she deals with the issue honestly - she doesn't glamorize teenage parenthood for a second, but she allows that a young black father just might be able to do it with some success. She doesn't preach - both abortion and adoption come up in the story - she simply shows the consequences of choices made. Most importantly, she paints a very realistic portrait of teenage parenthood without sentimentalizing. Except when she does. Johnson's tactic is brilliant, perfectly reflecting what every parent goes through when dealing with the reality of a screaming, pooping, barfing baby. The reality's not pretty, but then the baby smiles, and suddenly, it's worth every second.

I've watched my husband cradle both of my daughters in his big hands. I've seen him press their soft faces into his strong chest. That father/daughter bond - so precious, so tender - is why I sniffed through all 131 pages of The First Part Last. It moved me in a way few books have. Whether you are - like me - an avowed daddy's girl or a father who adores his girls or a woman who just needs to believe it's possible, this book is for you.

Note: I didn't realize this when I picked up The First Part Last, but it's actually a prequel to Johnson's Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, Heaven (which I'm putting on hold at my library now).

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

State of the World Got You Down? Life As We Knew It Proves It Could Be Worse ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Megan's right about my being a sinner. But she's wrong about hell. You don't have to wait until you're dead to get there" (196).

For as long as I can remember, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (The Mormons) has strongly encouraged its members to stockpile a year's supply of food. No one's saying the world's going to end tomorrow, but church leaders want everyone to be prepared to survive any kind of disaster, be it a hurricane, an earthquake, drought or just economic instability. This counsel has been preached for so long that members' reactions to it run the gamut - some hoard obsessively, others laugh off the advice, while most do their best to lay in a year's worth of supplies. I'm a middle-roader. I've got a decent stockpile. Up until the other day, I figured it would be good enough to tide my family over in case of an emergency. Then, I read Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It. Guess who's ready to buy Costco out of every can of food it has in stock?

When the book begins, it's May 7, an ordinary day. Through Miranda's diary entries, we learn that she's a typical teenaged girl - she's worried about her French grade, irritated with her best friend-turned religious zealot, obsessed with a local ice skater, and excited to get her driver's license. By May 18, ordinary no longer exists. Forget French and driving and ice skating, Miranda's now obsessed with one thing only: survival.

It's the asteroid that does it. Instead of just providing a spectacular lights display, it smacks the moon with enough force to slam it closer to Earth. "It was still our moon," says Miranda, "and it was still just a big dead rock in the sky, but it wasn't benign anymore. It was terrifying." The impact causes chaos all over the world - tsunamis wash away coastal cities, floods submerge whole states, earthquakes rumble across the globe, and long-dormant volcanoes erupt, clogging the air with ash. As food supplies run out, sickness spreads, gas climbs to $15 a gallon, and the death toll rises, staying alive becomes the only thing that matters. In Pennsylvania, Miranda's family is facing an early winter (it's 42 degrees in August) with no electricity, a few cans of food, and little hope of rescue. Can they survive? Is there even a reason to live anymore?

I keep comparing Life As We Knew It to Gone, which tells a similar story. I've been trying to figure out why the former freaked me out so much more than the latter. I finally decided that Gone's furiously-paced plot keeps things moving so fast there's little time to really consider the horror of the situation the author describes. Life As We Knew It, on the other hand, is a much quieter story. As Miranda pens ever more desperate entries in her diary, we feel her hunger, her anger, her hopelessness. We also see her courage, her strengths and her weaknesses. Considering our current economy and the devastation in Haiti, it's frightfully easy to imagine ourselves in Miranda's place.

Although the story's both bleak and disturbing, it's also undeniably compelling. It starts off a little rocky (the beginning's a teensy bit slow and the writing's bumpy), but Life As We Knew It quickly becomes the kind of story that just takes your breath away. The characters, the setting - everything - is so vivid that closing the book almost feels like waking up. That's how absorbing it is.

If you're already depressed over the state of the world, I recommend you skip this one, but if you're up for some tense, engrossing post-apocalyptic fiction or if you just need some motivation to gather your year's supply of food, Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the book for you.

Readalikes: Gone series by Michael Grant; also reminds me a little of The Diary of Anne Frank)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: This one came from the library.

Julius Lester Helps Slaves Speak. Hear Them.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Some of the slaves cried worse than a baby what's sick. Most of 'em, however, did their crying on the inside, 'cause if you looked real close you could see the sorrow in their eyes. A few, however, looked like they was dead, but their hearts hadn't got the message yet."

- Will, Day of Tears, pgs. 4-5

On March 2 and 3, 1859, in Savannah, Georgia, over 400 human beings were bought and sold like cattle. The highest price paid for an individual was $1, 750, the lowest: $250. It was the biggest slave auction in American history. All of the slaves belonged to Pierce Butler, a plantation owner recently divorced from English actress and abolitionist, Fanny Kemble. He sold his "property" to pay off the debts of around $700,000 he had incurred from dabbling in the stock market and losing at cards. Torrential rain crashed down throughout the proceedings, stopping only when the auction ended. Thus, the auction became known as "The Weeping Time."

Day of Tears by Julius Lester fictionalizes the horrifying event. Through the eyes of Butler's slaves, the auctioneer, other slave owners, and Butler himself, we get not only the details of the auction, but also the strong emotions that must have been felt by all involved. Much of the story is told from the perspective of Emma, a 12-year-old house servant on Butler's plantation. She's spent her whole life there, working alongside her parents, and tending to Butler's young daughters. Although the master has promised not to sell her, he's in desperate financial straits, too desperate to keep a vow made to a lowly slave girl. Thrust into a frightening new situation, far away from the only home she's never known, Emma must learn how to survive. Through her firsthand accounts, we learn of her sorrows and triumphs. Although she never actually existed, her voice is strong and true. Her account is riveting, heart-wrenching, unforgettable. And then there's the rain. The sound of it pounding in the background, mournful and eerie, makes her story even more haunting.

While the majority of contemporary Americans - black, white and otherwise - agree that slavery was an impossibly cruel and inhumane practice, Lester makes a point of showing how widely attitudes differed during the 1850s. From a coach driver who prefers the "safety" of slavery to the uncertainty of freedom, to a young hand who refuses to kowtow to his white owner, to an auctioneer who believes his "inventory" to be devoid of feelings, to a store owner who risks life and limb to help slaves escape bondage - he reveals how slavery both murdered and inspired the human spirit. By remembering the Day of Tears, Lester makes us taste the brutality of which we're all capable, a not-so-subtle reminder that humanity and kindness bring their own rewards.

Lester's "novel in dialogue" is a spare, probing thing. It's disturbing and inspirational, sorrowful and triumphant, a tale that bears witness to the vilest evil and purest compassion known to mankind. Day of Tears will haunt you into hearing - and remembering - the hundreds of voices that never got a chance to speak. This is their story. Hear them.

(Readalikes: Hmm ... I can't think of anything else quite like this book.)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: While the inhumanity with which slaves were treated can be "rated" nothing less than R, the book is not overly graphic. I would rate it PG for mature themes.

To the FTC, with love: I received Day of Tears from Disney/Hyperion. It comes off their backlist of books published under the Jump at the Sun imprint. The purpose of the program is to help all children celebrate the beauty, history and diversity of Black culture. Many thanks, Disney/Hyperion.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Compelling Antihero Saves Plotless Lockdown

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I was innocent, but it didn't matter if the police said I was guilty. Soon as the jury looked over and saw you sitting at the defendant's table, they figured you must have done something" (199).

What does it feel like to be caged up 24/7? To have someone watching your every move, just waiting for you to screw up? Ask 14-year-old Reese Anderson. He landed at Progress (the county's flowery euphemism for Juvie) after stealing prescription pads from a doctor's office and selling them to a known drug dealer. Now, all he wants to do is bust out, be free. He knows a guy like him, a guy living in a crap neighborhood with druggies and gangbangers hanging on every corner, has a decent chance of ending up right back in the slammer, but he thinks maybe, just maybe, he can beat the statistics. Even if he is a lost cause, his little sister - smart, ambitious Icy - is not. She needs him. First, though, he's got to get out of Progress. That means no fights, no back talk, total cooperation. It won't be easy.

Working at a senior citizen's center a couple times a week gives Reese a tiny taste of freedom. When he meets Mr. Hooft, a cantakerous white man who peppers every sentence with "you people," Reese learns that he's not the only one on lockdown. Their unlikely friendship only deepens Reese's yearning for escape, his desire for a better life.

Lockdown, the newest YA novel by Water Dean Myers (available today), tells the story of this compelling young anti-hero. It's a story about boys living hardscrabble lives on the mean streets of New York. It's a story about where they end up, living out their young lives caged up like animals. Most of all, it's a story about making mistakes and paying for them - with your life and your future. Reese is one of those characters that make you believe in second chances, in starting over, in making it when all of the odds are against you. It's because his voice is so strong, so heartbreakingly honest, that I kept reading this book. Otherwise, I might have grown irritated with the story - it's largely plotless, basically just recounting the tedious bleakness of jail life. Lockdown provides an interesting glimpse into a world I've never experienced, but without any real conflict-climax-resolution, it's not much of a story.

All in all, I think Lockdown's an okay book. I can see young males flocking to it, largely because Reese's voice is so true. Myers doesn't glamorize street life, Juvie life, or gang involvement, but he discusses it honestly as a reality plenty of kids face. He offers hope without being sentimental or corny. I enjoy his writing, I just wish this book had a little more story, a bit more plot. As is, it gets a little choppy, monotonous, and tiring. Even though I found Lockdown, my first Myers book, disappointing, I'm not through with him. I spy a Monster in my immediate future.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, racial slurs, and adult themes/situations

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

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