Friday, December 30, 2011

Australian Murder Mystery Just Okay

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've been trying to write a plot summary for The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty for an hour now and it's just not working. So, I'm going to use the one I found on the author's website since it says everything I'm trying to say. It's much more clever than anything I've come up with, anyway. Here you go:

The Motive

Bindy Mackenzie is the most perfect girl at Ashbury High. She scores in the 99.9th percentile in all her classes. She holds lunchtime advisory sessions for her fellow students. She keeps careful transcripts of everything said around her. And she has been Kmart casual Employee of the Month for seventeen months straight. No wonder somebody wants to kill her.

The Suspects

Bindy is horrified to learn she must take part in the Friendship And Development Project - a new class meant to provide a "life raft" through "the tricky seas of adolescence." Bindy can't see how airheaded Emily Thompson, absentminded Elizabeth Clarry, mouthy Toby Mazzerati, malicious Astrid Bexonville, silent Briony Atkins, narcissistic Sergio Saba and handsome, enigmatic Finnegon Blonde could ever possibly help her. (Well, maybe Finnegan could.)

The Crime

But then Bindy's perfect life begins to fall apart. She develops an obsession with the word "Cincinnati." She can't stop feeling sleepy. She fails an exam for the first time ever. And - worst of all - she just doesn’t care. What could be the cause of all these strange events? Is it conspiracy? Is it madness? Is it . . . murder?

The Truth

Lots of people hate Bindy Mackenzie - but who would actually kill her? The answer is in Bindy's transcripts. The detectives are the members of her FAD group. But Bindy has made every one of them into an enemy . . . and time is running out.

See what I mean? That describes the book much better than I ever could. The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is essentially a murder mystery. Except not exactly. Mostly, it's the story of a girl who sees things through a narrow-minded moral tunnel - until her eyes are opened to the fact that people can't be pigeonholed as easily as she wants them to be. The only problem is that her epiphany comes a little too late. She's already offended the majority of people she knows. And one of them is seeking revenge in a way that's becoming more deadly by the day ...

The thing I enjoyed most about this novel was its format. The story is told through a collection of Bindy's diary entries, letters, transcripts, memos, even telephone messages. This method allows the reader to get inside Bindy's head, seeing her strengths and her weaknesses, her fearlessness and her vulnerability. We may not like Bindy - we may, in fact, want to kill her ourselves - but we also understand her in a way nobody else does. She becomes a sympathetic character, if not a particularly likable one. Bindy's strong voice keeps "her" writing entertaining. On the downside, the plot of this novel leaves much to be desired. The motive behind the crime seemed far-fetched to me, which made most of the plot unconvincing. In the end, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie earns a C from me because, really, it was just okay. Nothing more.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: C

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

One of Those Ho-Hum Reads Where I Don't Love It or Hate It

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Ruby Miliken's mother dies, the 15-year-old has no choice but to move to L.A. to live with her father. She wants nothing to do with the man who abandoned her pregnant mother to pursue an acting career, even if it has made him into a well-known movie star. Despite his money and influence, Whip Logan's never made one attempt to contact his only daughter, so why should Ruby go out of her way to get to know him? Two can play this game.
Living in a mega-mansion in Southern California is so different from everything about her former life in Boston that Ruby can hardly stand it. She misses her BFF Lizzie and worries that her boyfriend back in Massachusetts will forget all about her. Her father's trying so hard to be her buddy that she feels suffocated. It's all so overwhelming and the only person Ruby really wants to confide in is her mom.

As Ruby settles into her new life as a celebrity's daughter, she'll learn a few lessons about her father, her mother and herself. While she's beginning to understand the truth about her past, she'll have to grapple with the reality of the present in order to decide who Ruby Milliken really is and where she truly belongs.

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones is an angsty novel-in-verse narrated by a spunky girl with a broken heart. Delving into Ruby's thoughts, expressed through bits of poetry as well as emails to her best friend and letters to her dead mother, makes this sympathetic character really come alive. The story did skimp a bit on details that were needed to make the setting more realistic. I never felt grounded in Ruby's new world, which, now that I think about it, could be a clever storytelling device. Or it could just be because of the skimpy details. Whatever. At any rate, between that unsettled feeling, a predictable plotline, and the fact that Ruby could never see what was right in front of her made this book a little disappointing for me. In the end, I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. So, another ho-hum read, although I have to say I really do dig the title.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of Love & Leftovers by Sarah Tregay and a little of Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo/content and references to illegal drug use
To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find





Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Give Jance Another Chance? Opinions, Please ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When television anchorwoman Alison Reynolds is fired from her job, she's livid. Especially since her only crime is being over 40 in an industry where youthful good looks count way, way more than talent. Venting to her producer husband gets her no sympathy. In fact, it convinces her of a truth she's been shying away from for years: her marriage is over. To add insult to injury, Ali learns that her best friend from childhood has died in a mysterious car accident. Realizing how few reasons she has to stay in California, Ali heads to her hometown of Sedona, Arizona, to lick her wounds and grieve for her friend.

With nothing else to occupy her time, Ali pitches in at her parents' cafe and keeps up with the blog she's started to chronicle her journey from television news star to ... well, waitress. In the meantime, she's mulling over the details of Reenie Bernard's death. Unlike most people in town, Ali doesn't believe her friend was suicidal, even though she had reason to be. But the alternative is even more unbelievable - who would murder Reenie, a kind, altruistic mother of two young children? Ali has no idea. Not that that's going to stop her. She's spent her career asking questions, pulling answers out of reticent subjects. It's a skill that's going to come in handy as Ali launches an unofficial investigation into her friend's death. And one that will, quite likely, get her killed in the process.

Lots of people love J.A. Jance and since she's a local author who writes books set in Arizona, I thought I should give her a try. Only, I kind of wish I hadn't. It's possible Edge of Evil, the first novel in the author's Ali Reynolds series, was just the wrong book for me, but I had a hard time getting past the stereotypical characters, the predictable storyline, the unrealistic plot twists and the stale writing. All of those things turned me off of this much-lauded Arizona author. Maybe I'm being too critical (who, me?) - what do y'all think? Should I give Jance another chance? Convince me and I will. Otherwise, it ain't gonna happen.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Mary Higgins Clark's books)

Grade: C-

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ever Wonder About Jacob Marley? Wonder No More.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Jacob Marley plays such a prominent role in Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol that it's natural to wonder about him. What was his story? Why was Jacob doomed to wander, dragging his chains for eternity, while Ebeneezer Scrooge got a chance to make things right? What's up with that? In Jacob T. Marley, a new holiday book by R. William Bennett, the author imagines the answers to all these questions and more. Written in the style of the incomparable Charles Dickens, the book tells the familiar story, but from the perspective of Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley. The new angle adds depth to the classic novel, making Jacob T. Marley an entertaining and moving tale in its own right.

While the story starts out with Marley's childhood, it doesn't linger there. It focuses, instead, on his adult life, specifically his interactions with Ebeneezer Scrooge. When Jacob dies, he begs for a chance to redeem himself by saving the joyless Scrooge, for whose black-hearted soul he suddenly feels very, very responsible. Jacob's awarded the chance, although no one believes he can actually accomplish such a daunting task. As Jacob orchestrates the intervention of three ghosts in the life of his associate, he realizes (as does Scrooge) the great impact - for good or ill - that we all have on each other. The conclusion is the same as the one reached in A Christmas Carol: it's never too late to develop a charitable heart. It's never too late to reach out, to give, to make someone's life brighter. It's never too late to become the person you've always wanted to be.

No modern work can ever equal a classic like A Christmas Carol. Still, I found myself enjoying Jacob T. Marley much more than I thought I would. It's a hopeful, warm-hearted story that helped me feel the spirit of Christmas. I can't say I absolutely loved it, but I did like this unique take on Dickens' immortal yuletide tale.

(Readalikes: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Jacob T. Marley from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain (an imprint of Deseret Book). Thank you!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Historic Christmas Eve Story Goes From the Stage to the Bookshelf

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Every year, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square perform a free Christmas concert, which they present as their gift to the public. Enjoyed by the thousands who crowd into the Conference Center to view it, the show is also broadcast on PBS. The concert, which always receives rave reviews, has included performances by luminaries like David Archuleta, Natalie Cole, Jane Seymour, Angela Lansbury and Walter Cronkite. In 2009, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough accepted an invitation to be part of that year's concert. With the choir and orchestra accompanying his words, McCullough told the story of a historic meeting between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt which took place on December 24, 1941. Using that event as a backdrop, he also talked about the stories behind two popular Christmas songs: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem."


The next year, Shadow Mountain (an imprint of Deseret Book) published McCullough's words in a hardcover volume that includes vintage photographs, the texts of the speeches given by Churchill and Roosevelt, and a CD of McCullough's performance at the 2009 Christmas concert. While In the Dark Street Shineth by David McCullough makes a moving story, I actually liked the whole thing better as a vocal performance than as a book. I did, however, enjoy the historic photos and reading the leaders' speeches in their entirety. Churchill's, especially, was so poetic that I wondered why the book didn't use his words instead of McCullough's. Even though I found it a tad disappointing, I still enjoyed the history and the holiday spirit captured in this book.


As I said, though, the actual performance is better. If you missed it, do yourself a favor and watch this:



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


Grade: C


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


To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of In the Dark Streets Shineth from the generous folks at Shadow Mountain/Deseret Book. Thank you!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Have Yourself A Classic Little Christmas

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you're LDS, you probably watched this year's First Presidency Christmas devotional. If you're a book lover (and why else would you be here?), you probably perked up when you heard the topic of the address given by Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If you're not LDS, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. No matter. You should still watch or read President Monson's talk, in which he discusses the two books he re-reads every Christmas. It's a warm, touching holiday message that will help bring the spirit of the season into your book-loving soul.

I bring it up because, while listening to President Monson fondly recall scenes from Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, I came to a startling conclusion: I had never actually read the book. When I think of the story, the scene that comes most vividly to mind (embarrassingly enough) is that of Scrooge McDuck caressing his many stacks of coins. Unforgivable for a woman who calls herself a bibliophile. So, I made a vow, then and there, to read the well-loved story. I began by buying a beautiful, hardcover copy of the book, one that was illustrated by the talented P.J. Lynch and published by Candlewick Press in 2006. Reading the familiar story in Dickens' original words truly was a magical, heartwarming experience. I believe I'll be following President Monson's example and re-experiencing it every Christmas.

You know the story as well as I do, so I won't summarize it here. I'll just add my praise to all that has already been heaped upon this magnificent tale. The movie versions don't do it justice. Only by actually reading A Christmas Carol can you truly experience its charm and timeless message. Do it. At least once a year.

On this merriest of days, I offer all of my friends and readers a heartfelt thank you for making this a wonderful year in book blogger-land. I wish you a joyous Christmas. And, in the immortal words of Tiny Tim, I say:

God bless us, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tomorrow We'll Talk Dickens; Today, We're Talking Derting

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I know it's Christmas Eve and I should be talking about festive holiday stuff, but I'm going to take a little dystopian detour instead. Tomorrow we'll talk Dickens; today, we're talking Derting. As in Kimberly. You may recall that Kimberly Derting has authored two previous books, The Body Finder and its first sequel, Desires of the Dead. I loved the former, found the latter disappointing, and subsequently wondered whether I should bother reading her newest. For about five minutes, anyway. Then, I logged onto my library's website and reserved myself a copy of The Pledge, the first book in Derting's new YA dystopian series. Am I glad I did? Um, yeah. Totally.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, in a country called Ludania. Here, the people are divided by a strict caste system, which prohibits intimate contact between the different classes. Separated not only by custom but also by language, citizens of Ludania don't intermix for anything other than business. The tiniest errors in conduct - like looking straight at a member of a higher class while they're talking in their native tongue - are punishable by death. It's a vicious, turbulent way of life, one that's becoming more precarious with each passing day. Not only is Ludania's queen dying without a female heir to take her place, but the country's enemies are eager to invade. The vainglorious monarch will not suffer anyone's criticism, let alone whispers of treason, so her spies keep a close watch on her subjects, executing anyone who steps one toe out of line.

As a Vendor, 17-year-old Charlaina "Charlie" Hart knows her place in society. She's accepted her position at the bottom, serving her betters with dilligence, if not enthusiasm. It's best, she knows, to keep her head down, to avoid attention, to keep her secret talent hidden from prying eyes. No one besides her parents and younger sister can know the truth - that ordinary Charlie Hart can understand every language she hears. It's a dangerous skill, not to mention a confounding one. Charlie's never heard of anyone who can do what she can. It's not until she meets a mysterious stranger that Charlie begins to understand just how powerful her "gift" really is. Could her little party trick really save her country from a tyrannical leader? Or will it get her sent straight to the gallows?

While some of The Pledge's setup (like the almost Medieval setting, for instance) seemed familiar, I loved the book's original touches. The whole idea of different languages separating social classes intrigued me, as did Charlie's ability to read all the nuances of the spoken word. It's a fascinating premise, one that kept me turning pages just to see how it would all play out. While the storyline gets a little predictable and the characters (especially the males) don't get nearly enough development, I enjoyed this engrossing, dystopian tale. In fact, my reaction is pretty much the same one I had to The Body Finder: Please, God, tell me a sequel's coming ...

Okay, Derting's website says it's going to be a trilogy. Phew. Now I can breathe again!

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of the Bayern series [The Goose Girl; Enna Burning; River Secrets; and Forest Born] by Shannon Hale)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, December 23, 2011

Teenage Pregnancy/Drug Use Mix in Raw, Powerful Glass

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Glass, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Crank, the first book in the trilogy. As always, I suggest reading books in a series in order.)

Some things have changed for 17-year-old Kristina Snow. And some things haven't. Hunter, her beautiful baby boy, has made his entrance into the world. But meth hasn't yet made its exit. Kristina's trying, doing her best to control her use so that she can act alive long enough to make it through her shift at 7-11 and play mommy until the infant's bedtime. Maybe she's not doing so well, but she's making the attempt. Shouldn' t that be enough?


The pressure's getting to Kristina, so she decides to head out on her own. A little road trip to check out college campuses - at least that's what she tells her mom. University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, certainly qualifies as an insititue of higher learning, but Kristina's not there for a campus tour. She's there to hit up an old friend for more crank. Not only does she get the drugs she's looking for, but she also makes a new friend. The best kind, too. Trey's not just hot, he's sweet, fun, and has access to the finest glass Kristina's ever had. She's head over heels and completely ecstatic when Trey promises to look her up the minute he arrives in Reno for one of his frequent meth-buying trips.


With her tantalizing new guy and his even more tantalizing drug connection, Kristina's resolve melts. Baby or not, she's going to get what she needs. Even if it means getting kicked out of her mom's house. Even if it means leaving her baby behind. Or worse, taking him with her. Even if it means leaving behind her goals of working, going to college, living a normal life. Because there's nothing normal - nothing happy - about living with a monster as seductive and consuming as crank. Nothing at all.


Glass, the second book in Ellen Hopkins' best-selling trilogy about teenage drug addiction, continues the raw, heart-wrenching story of Kristina Snow, a good girl whose world changes dramatically when she starts using meth. Loosely based on her daughter's experience, Hopkins tells a vivid, unflinching story that manages to be both honest and sensitive. She describes the reality of drug addiction, never glamorizing it, always showing just how destructive meth can be, not just to the user, but to her parents, siblings and, especially, to her child. It's that last one that makes Glass so harrowing because Hunter isn't just some made-up kid, he's Hopkins' very real grandson. And because he represents the hundreds, probably thousands, of children who are being endangered every day because of their parents' drug abuse. Hopkins writes no easy stories, just the kind that are so raw and powerful you can't get them out of your head. Glass is no exception.


(Readalikes: Crank and Fallout by Ellen Hopkins)


Grade: B


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


To the FTC, with love: Another library
finefind

Thursday, December 22, 2011

True Confessions of a Christmas Baby

This year, I'm proud to be a part of the 2011 Advent Tour, an annual event where book bloggers share a little something about their holiday celebrations with the rest of us. Some people are talking about food, some are talking about music, some are talking about books ... it's a feast of random holiday goodness. Dig in!

When people learn that I was born on December 22, they always ask, "Don't you just hate having a birthday at Christmastime?" The truth is, no, I don't. As a matter of fact, I love it. This is my absolute favorite time of the year. Not only has the desert heat finally faded, but all the houses are lit up with lights and festive decorations. People are nicer, hearts are gladder, and everything feels brighter during the holiday season. Focusing on Christ means our thoughts shift away from ourselves, toward others. That spirit of loving, of giving, permeates the air, making life more joyful, if only for a little while. My birthday falls smack-dab in the middle of all the festivity. What's not to love about that?

Because I was born so close to Christmas, my wonderful father, mother and mother-in-law all started fun traditions to help celebrate my birthday:

Daddy/Daughter Dates

[Imagine a cute vintage photo of me and my dad here. I can't find the darn picture anywhere, so you'll have to use your imagination ...]

Not only did I make my arrival at Christmastime, but I timed it just right: I was born on my dad's 37th birthday. Partly because of this, we developed a very special bond, one I treasure to this day. Growing up, my dad and I always had dinner out on our birthday, just the two of us. Even now, whenever we're in the same place on the 22nd, we head to a favorite restaurant for precious one-on-one daddy/daughter time. Since we live in different states, most years we have to make do with cards and phone calls, but I still relish the memories of all our dinners together (even the one at Skipper's, where I ended up vomiting my fish and chips all over the carpet). Happy birthday, Dad!

The Nutcracker

I first saw the beloved ballet when I was a kid. I'm not sure how old I was (8 maybe?), but I remember sitting in the theater feeling incredibly grown up in my dress clothes. The performance unfolding on stage mesmerized me. Everything - from the music to the costumes to the graceful dancing - kept me captivated. To commemorate the occasion, my mother bought me my first nutcracker. He's a little beat up now, but every time I look at that wooden soldier, I'm taken back to the moment I first experienced The Nutcracker. Almost every year since that time, my mother has given me a nutcracker for my birthday or Christmas. I've got soldiers and snowmen and Santas and bakers and elves and Josephs and Marys and all of them make me smile because of the memories that come rushing in whenever I look at them.

I'm continuing the tradition of attending The Nutcracker (almost) every year with my oldest daughter (my youngest isn't quite old enough yet). Seeing my little girl's eyes light up with delight the first time she beheld the great ballet made the pricey tickets worth every penny. Her joy taught me a simple truth: Christmas is about wonder. Which is why I decorate my house with nutcrackers every December - to add the magic of warm memories to our annual celebration of Christ's birth, the greatest wonder of all.

Snow Village

One year, my MIL took me to a holiday boutique in Scottsdale, where we looked through a display of houses and accessories from Department 56's Original Snow Village collection. I fell in love with these warm, happy Christmas scenes. My MIL bought me my first village piece that year as a birthday gift. Each year since, she's given me a new house or accessory. I've now got a whole city of buildings, which I place in various spots throughout my home to lend a quiet, glowing charm to our holiday decor. While I love my village for its quaint beauty, what really makes it special is what each piece represents - the time my MIL took out of her busy schedule to thoughtfully select a gift for my birthday.

So, what do you think? Can you come up with one reason why I should hate my Christmas birthday? Because I can't. Not a single one. It's a day filled with tradition, memories and happiness. And Olive Garden (thanks to my husband). And Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (my kids' contribution). It's a day stuffed full of my favorite things, all because of my favorite people. I ask you again, what's not to love?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lions of Little Rock Warm, Memorable Story of "The Lost Year"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Marlee Nesbitt never says much. It's not that she doesn't have an opinion, it's just that she can't seem to push the words out of her mouth without tying them into a hopeless knot. So the 12-year-old stays quiet. Most people let her be and Marlee's (pretty much) fine with that. Then, Elizabeth Fullerton swishes into West Side Junior High. The new girl is confident, fearless and never afraid to express herself. She's everything Marlee's not and yet, by some crazy miracle, Liz wants to be Marlee's friend. Turns out, they can teach each other a thing or two - Marlee tutors Liz on holding her tongue while Liz helps draw Marlee out of her shell. It doesn't take them long to become bosom buddies.

When Liz disappears, Marlee gets a shock: the rumor mill says Liz was kicked out of school because she's a "colored" girl trying to "pass" as white. Which simply can't be true - Liz is as white as Marlee. It's only when Marlee ventures into the colored part of town that she confirms what everyone else is saying: Liz really does come from a black family. Even though she looks white, she's not. Meaning Liz can't attend a white school. Meaning Liz and Marlee can no longer hang out together. Meaning Marlee's about to lose the best friend she's ever had.

The 1958-59 school year is a tense one in Little Rock, Arkansas. All high schools in the city - white and colored - are closed to prevent integration. Despite Brown v. the Board of Education. Despite the courageous actions of the Little Rock Nine. Despite the well-intentioned protests of WEC and STOP campaigns. The result is a city rife with anger, emotion and fear, a city where supporting educational equality can be not just dangerous, but deadly.

Marlee knows all this, she just can't understand it. Why should she be kept away from a girl as nice and fun as Liz, just because of the color of her family's skin? It's not fair. And Marlee refuses to accept that "that's just the way it is." Now, the girl who never says a thing is going to take a stand. If only she can find the words. If only she can find the guts. If only she can find the voice that's been eluding her her whole life. If only.

While most books about school integration focus on the tumultuous year of 1957, the year nine brave African-American students integrated Little Rock Central High School, Kristin Levine takes a unique approach. Her novel, The Lions of Little Rock (available January 5, 2012), unfolds in 1958-59, a time known as "the lost year." While I've heard all about the Little Rock Nine, I think I've always assumed that they marched in, integrated the schools, and that was that. Well, as Levine proves in her vivid, well-researched story, that was not it at all. While the issue of school integration was batted about by voters, protestors and politicians, teenage students missed an entire year of instruction. Families were torn apart over the polarizing issue, property was damaged, people were terrorized and Little Rock became known as a hotbed of racism. Through the eyes of Marlee Nesbitt, we see it all, experience it all. Most of all, we feel it all - the injustice, the irony, the hypocrisy - through the heart of a young girl who just wants a friend. Marlee's earnestness makes her story warmhearted, meaningful and, most of all, memorable. I loved it.

(Readalikes: Jericho Walls by Kristi Collier, Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith and With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence, mild language, and racial slurs

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of The Lions of Little Rock from the generous folks at Putnam (a division of Penguin). Thank you!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Searing Crank A Vivid, Disturbing Cautionary Tale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Crank is more than a drug.
It's a way of life. You can
turn your back. But you can never really walk away (537).

I usually shy away from books described as "raw," "edgy," "disturbing" or the like, since such adjectives almost always signify a story with more language/sex/violence/gore than I want to ingest. Considering that Crank by Ellen Hopkins is just such a tale, you may wonder why in the world I picked it up. I asked myself the same thing as I raced through its very gritty pages. Well, first of all, Crank's the first book in a best-selling trilogy that's gotten a lot of buzz around the blogosphere. Second, it's a novel-in-verse and I'm really digging those lately. Third, its kind of difficult to put down. Really difficult, in fact. Because, somehow, this extremely unsettling book is also completely mesmerizing. And very, very affecting.


Loosely based on the experience of the author's teenage daughter, Crank begins the story of 16-year-old Kristina Snow, a good girl from Reno who gets her first taste of crystal meth while visiting her estranged father in California. An addict himself, he doesn't try to stop Kristina from using the drug - he joins her. Partying with her new "friends" makes Kristina feel loose, like a whole different person. Of course, as freeing as it is, this new hobby is only a temporary thing, a vacation thing, something she'll shrug off as soon as she's back in Nevada. She wouldn't even have a clue where to buy drugs back home.

Turns out, though, Kristina's got a real hunger for meth. The need for it doesn't dissipate when she returns home - it multiplies. It also turns out, she doesn't have to go very far to get what she needs. Soon, she's toking on a daily basis, blissing out to take the edge off her worries. It's under control, though. Kristina can stop any time she wants to ... until she can't anymore. As her lust for the drug grows, the good girl turns into someone she hardly recognizes, someone who lies, steals, deals, lets herself be used - anything to score another hit of the monster that's slowly consuming her.

As Kristina battles her all-consuming addiction, every other concern falls by the wayside. She's flunking her classes, draining her savings account, scaring her family, and doing irreversible damage to her body. And she doesn't care. Not while she's in the clutches of the monster. It's that freedom from worry, that sweet release, that keeps her coming back for more. And more. And more. Even when she discovers a new life forming inside her, she can't stop killing herself. Not for nine months. Not for nine days. Maybe not for nine minutes. Not when the monster is calling ...


Like I said, Crank fits all of the descriptions I listed above - it's raw, it's edgy, it's disturbing. It's all of those things and more. It tells it like it is in a way that's vivid, impactful and, surprisingly, sympathetic. Crank never glamorizes addiction, not in the least, but it shows how quickly and easily drugs can consume a person. Since Hopkins is a mother who's watched her daughter destroy herself with meth, the desperation felt by Kristina's family comes through loud and clear, even though the story's narrated only by Kristina. As much as I wanted a nice, clean ending for this troubled anti-heroine, I didn't get one. This isn't an easy book or even necessarily a hopeful one, it's a realistic, down-and-dirty look at the life of a drug addict. And it ain't pretty. What it is is an honest, unforgettable cautionary tale that will, hopefully, find its mark with the legions of teens (and adults) who are tempted every day by the lure of that most ferocious of monsters, crystal meth.

(Readalikes: I'm not sure I've read any other books about teenage drug addiction, so I'm not sure on this one. Any suggestions?)


Grade: B

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


To the FTC, with love: Another library
finefind



Mormon Mentions: Ellen Hopkins

If you're new to BBB, you might be wondering what a "Mormon Mention" is. Heck, you may be wondering what a Mormon is. Here's a hint: My name is Susan. I'm a book blogger. And I'm a Mormon. Since I'm a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often referred to as The Mormon Church), I'm naturally concerned about how my religion is portrayed in the media. This blog deals with books, so every time I find a reference to Mormonism (written by a non-Mormon) in my reading, I highlight it here, along with my reaction to the statement(s). This gives me a chance to explain confusing doctrine, debunk misconceptions and laugh at the peculiarities of Mormon culture (it's true, sometimes we can be a funny bunch).

Not your cup of tea? No problem. Feel free to skip these posts.

So, I know Ellen Hopkins wrote a YA book about a girl who escapes her fanatic Mormon family by moving to another state. However, this reference doesn't come from that book. It comes from Crank, the first novel in a trilogy Hopkins wrote about a teenage girl's struggle with her addiction to meth. It says:

Tried my right side. Kept
seeing the kitchen
cockroach, the one I
tried to pretend was
only a Mormon cricket,
Los Alamos-grown (59).

If you're LDS or if you've studied Utah history, you've no doubt heard the story about early settlers to the state having to fight off scores of crickets to save their newly-planted crops. I thought that's what the character in the book was talking about, but, as it turns out, the Mormon Cricket is an actual animal. The insect (which isn't even actually a cricket, but a katydid) can be found in the grasslands of Utah, Idaho and Nevada. Since the main character comes from Reno, she's no doubt familiar with this particular bug.

The story of the crickets goes a little something like this: After Mormon pioneers emigrated to the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847, they were fortunate to experience a mild winter. Still, realizing how brutal the cold season in that area could be, they prepared for the upcoming winter by planting 900 acres of crops. In late May, swarms of large, black crickets descended, eating everything in sight. Because of the sheer number of insects, witnesses compared the incident to a Biblical plague. Desperate for help, the faithful pioneers prayed for heavenly aid. On June 9, 1848, in what many agreed was a miracle, legions of California gulls swept down on the valley. The birds devoured the crickets, vomited them up, then ate more. Because of the timely arrival of the gulls, enough crops were saved to ensure the survival of thousands of pioneers.

So impactful was the experience on Utah's early arrivals that a monument was erected in honor of the birds (Seagull Monument in Salt Lake City) and the California gull became the state bird of Utah.

(Book image from Barnes & Noble; gull painting by beloved LDS artist Minerva Teichert)

As with any historical event, differing accounts of the incident exist. Even if it has been exaggerated over the years, I don't care. I love the story of the seagulls devouring the crickets because, to me, it represents the inexhaustible faith, hard work and commitment of those early pioneers. Plus, I detest crickets.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Serious, But Warm-Hearted Novel-in-Verse Explores What It Really Means to Love Someone

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Marcy Foster's one of those not-anything girls - she's not model-pretty; she doesn't have any mad athletic skillz; she's not musical or crafty or particularly smart. The 15-year-old's just not ... anything. She's a leftover. But, thankfully, not the only one. Marcy's got a group of Leftover friends, including her "emo-sensitive rocker" boyfriend, Linus, and her anime-obsessed BFF, Katie, who make life in Boise, Idaho, bearable. With her posse by her side, Marcy's getting along just fine, even when her parents' marriage starts to crumble.
Then Marcy's mother suggests a little road trip. It's supposed to be a summer getaway, a little girls-only breather at their lake house in New Hampshire. It's supposed to be fun. Only Marcy's mom won't get out of bed, Marcy's lonely and bored, and, the closer Labor Day gets, the more permanent the situation is becoming. As much as Marcy longs for her old life in Idaho - the one that's seeming more remote by the day - she knows her mom needs her. Plus, there's a boy. J.D. Gallagher's sweet, fun and, most importantly, not in Idaho. Marcy wants to be faithful to Linus, but that's not as easy as it sounds. Not with J.D. so available.
As Marcy struggles to deal with her mother's depression, the anger she feels at her cheating father, and her own romantic entanglements, she'll come to some startling conclusions - about family, about friendship and about what it means to truly love someone.
Love & Leftovers (available January 1, 2012), a debut novel-in-verse by Sarah Tregay, is a quick, hopeful read about one girl's battle to find her place in the world. Especially when the one she's always known is disintegrating before her very eyes. Marcy's an empathetic character with a strong, genuine voice that will draw readers into her world and make them care about what happens in it. Her hardships ring true, as do her reactions to them. She's flawed, but likable and convincing. While the story deals with some difficult subjects, it is, in the end, a sweet, warm-hearted tale about the things that are most important in life. Love & Leftovers is a strong debut that makes me wonder just what else its author has hidden up her sleeve.
(Readalikes: Reminded me of Playing Hurt by Holly Schindler and a little of Back When You Were Easier to Love by Emily Wing Smith)
Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (one F-bomb) and some sexual innuendo/content
To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Love & Leftovers from the generous folks at Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of Harper Collins). Thank you!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It All Started With ... Jack Weyland?

(Image from Deseret Book)

Way back in the Dark Ages, before writing teen lit was the thing for Mormon writers to do, there was Jack Weyland. With snappy dialogue, likable characters and uplifting plotlines, he captured the hearts of LDS readers with his young-at-heart novels. Among the author's many devoted fans were my parents. I'll never forget the family road trip when my mom kept my dad awake by reading Charly out loud to him while he drove. The story, particularly the part about the newlywed couple living in an apartment with a shower in the kitchen, made them laugh so hard they could barely breathe. We kids gaped at them from the backseat, wondering if, perhaps, our parents were completely off their rockers. It was only later, when I started reading Weyland for myself, that I began to appreciate the author's wit and charm.

It's been a long time since I picked up a Weyland novel, but It All Started With Autumn Jones caught my eye. There's just something so wholesome and appealing about that cover, don't you think? So, when the fine folks at Deseret Book sent me a copy of the book to review, I dove into it right away. And ... found it a little disappointing. Actually, a lot disappointing. Maybe I judged the book too harshly, expecting it to be laugh-'til-I-suffocate funny, or maybe Brother Weyland is losing his touch a little or, well, I'm not sure. All I know is It All Started With Autumn Jones felt way too hollow to me - the plot was unrealistic, the characters flat, and the whole thing was just over-the-top preachy. Even for an LDS novel.

The story goes something like this: 21-year-old Nick Baxter is a senior at Gresham University, a prestigious (and fictitious) college near Chicago. If he can make it through his last semester as an undergrad with decent grades, getting into Harvard Law should be a snap. Nick's prepared to coast through Contemporary Issues, a course taught by the notoriously difficult Dr. Penstock. Since everyone knows the only way to get an A out of the insufferable professor is to agree with everything he says - no matter what - that's exactly what Nick plans to do.

Enter Autumn Jones. The pretty, 23-year-old return missionary obviously missed the memo about agreeing with Penstock. She seems intent on disagreeing with everything he says. As an RM himself, Nick knows he should be siding with Autumn, standing with her as she defends her beliefs in front of the class. But he needs an A. He doesn't need Autumn - or does he?

When the two decide to band together to teach their professor a thing or two, Nick and Autumn begin a working relationship that feels like something more. At least to Nick. Autumn's already writing to Elder Perfect and Nick gets the distinct feeling that he's not measuring up by comparison. Can he convince Autumn to give him a chance? Can he convince Penstock to give him a passing grade? Can he convince himself that, come graduation time, he can let go of the most frustrating and stimulating girl he's ever met?

It All Started With Autumn Jones definitely has the potential to be a fun, heartwarming LDS rom-com. And it is funny in places. Unfortunately, though, the story's just not developed well enough to completely pull it off. I wanted the characters to actually have personalities, I wanted them to banter in clever ways, I wanted to be surprised by plot twists, and I really, really wanted the story to be faith-promoting in a non-cheesy, non-preachy way. Didn't happen. So, am I giving up on Jack Weyland? Of course not. Now, I'm even more determined to read him. I may have to go back to his earlier novels to recapture that golden, sitting-in-the-backseat-watching-my-parents-laugh-'til-they-cry feeling, but I will find it. Oh yes, I will.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: C-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of It All Started With Autumn Jones from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

If the Chocolate Mint Brownies Don't Convince You, I Don't Know What Will ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Is there a busy mom who loves to cook on your Christmas list this year? Well, have I got a gift suggestion for you! Earlier this year, Sara Wells and Kate Jones, two young LDS moms, published a cookbook called Our Best Bites: Mormon Moms in the Kitchen. Do the authors' names sound familiar to you? They should. Wells and Jones run Our Best Bites, a cooking blog frequented by hundreds of followers and subscribers. While you can get their recipes for free on the site, I was still excited when the good people over at Deseret Book sent me a copy of the cookbook to review.

As far as cookbooks go, this one's as pretty as it is useful. Retailing at somewhere between $15 and $30, it carries a hefty price tag, but I'm telling you, it's worth it. Hardcover and spiral-bound, the cookbook's got thick, glossy pages that wipe off easily - just in case you happen to accidentally splatter it with chocolate (not that I would know ANYTHING about that). Every recipe comes with a large, colorful photograph, as well as helpful tips about how to make your culinary creation even tastier, easier, healthier, etc. Also included are handy tutorials, which use straightforward instructions and color photos to show cooks how to do things like cut a mango, make a pie crust, peel garlic, pit a cherry, etc. One of my favorite features is the "Rollover Ingredients" index. Got an overabundance of, say, green onions? No problem! Simply look the veggie up in this handy section and voila! you have over a dozen recipes in which you can use your excess green onions.

Oh! I almost forgot the food. True, I've only made two Our Best Bites recipes - Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies (found on the blog, not in the cookbook) and Mint Brownies (see below) - but they were both out-of-this-world scrumptious. The rest of the recipes in the cookbook appear to be the same. Most require common, everyday ingredients and quick, easy preparation. I did mention this was an ideal cookbook for busy moms, right? Even though I haven't made most of the recipes in the book, I plan to try most of them, which says something right there. Don't trust my assessment? This cookbook gets very high ratings on all the sites that matter: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Deseret Book, Goodreads, etc. It really is that good. In case you can't tell, I love it!

(Readalikes: I don't know, it's a cookbook ...)

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Our Best Bites: Mormon Moms in the Kitchen from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

--

Mint Brownies

(Makes about 24 small brownies)

4 (1-ounce) squares unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup butter
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Frosting

1-2 Tablespoons milk
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons peppermint extract
Green food coloring

Chocolate Glaze

8 ounces (about 1 cup) semisweet or dark chocolate chips
6 Tablespoons real butter

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13-inch pan with foil, making sure the foil extends over the edges by at least one inch. Lightly spray with nonstick coooking spray and set aside.

2. Chop both the unsweetened chocolate and the butter into chunks and place together in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until just melted and smooth. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally.

3. With an electric mixer or stand mixer, beat eggs, sugar, and vanilla for 2 minutes. While the egg mixture is being beaten, measure out the flour and combine with the baking powder. While the mixer is running, slowly add the melted chocolate and beat to combine. Turn the beater speed to low and add in flour by spoonfuls. Mix just until combined. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20-30 minutes or until a knife poked in center comes out clean.

4. Cool completely on a metal rack. When the brownies have cooled to room temperature, prepare the frosting. Combine all the frosting ingredients, starting with 1 1/2 tablespoons of milk, and beat until light and fluffy. Add more milk by the teaspoonful as needed. Spread frosting evenly over the brownies and then chill the brownies in the refrigerator.

5. While the brownies are chilling, prepare the chocolate glaze. Place chocolate chips and 6 tablespoons butter in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second intervals, stirring in between, until just melted and smooth. Set aside to cool for about 15 minutes and then carefully spread on top of the frosting layer. Return the pan to the fridge to cool. When chocolate has hardened, use the edges of foil to remove the entire sheet of brownies from the pan. Cut into squares and serve.

My thoughts on the recipe: Can you say decadent? These are rich and so delicious that I recommend cutting them into small pieces so you don't make yourself sick by eating too many. Mine whipped up perfectly. I did keep them in the fridge until serving time (about 4 hours), which made them really easy to cut. They cut nicely and stayed together perfectly, while also remaining nice and moist. Yum, yum and yum! These brownies reminded me of the famous mint brownies made and sold at BYU. The recipes are similar, though not the same. Still, major yum. I loved these.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I Can't Say I Loved It, I Can Say I Enjoyed It

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's not easy for an (almost) high school freshman to land the perfect summer job. Luckily, Jock doesn't have to worry about flipping burgers at McDonald's or scrubbing vehicles at the car wash - his grandpa owns a golf complex, where there's always work to be done. It's fun work, though, and Jock loves it. He especially enjoys working with his grampus, a grouchy old geezer whose life seems absolutely perfect to Jock. Not only does grampus spend his days out in the sunshine, but he often does it sans shirt or shoes. He gets to toodle all over the complex in a golf cart, flirt with the lady golfers, and dig holes with his backhoe. What could be better than that?

Jock's shocked at grampus' reaction when two of his old cronies come to the golf complex, flashing all their money and success in grampus' face. Grampus puts on a good show, but Jock can tell he's ashamed, embarrassed by his unfinished, homegrown golf course. Stunned, Jock watches as a deflated grampus becomes obsessed with turning his business into something glamorous and profitable enough to impress his rich friends. Grampus is working himself to death and Jock just doesn't understand why. Can't he see he already has the perfect life?

As Jock tries to talk some sense into his grandpa, he learns some hard, but enlightening truths about family, friendship and what really matters in the "Big Game of Everything," otherwise known as life.

The Big Game of Everything, a YA novel by Chris Lynch, is skimpy on plot, but big on heart. It's a funny, quirky little novel that's simply about a teenage boy's concern for the grandfather he adores. With no love triangles, no vampires, and no excursions into Faerie land, it may sound a little dull to teenage readers - it's not. Nor is it terribly exciting. However, it's a sweet, entertaining book that will more than likely make you laugh out loud. I can't say I loved The Big Game of Everything, I can say I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for vague (except in the case of Jock's grandma) references to sex

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Big Game of Everything from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Creepy What's-in-the-Woods Story Keeps Me Entertained This Halloween (Er, Christmas)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When they ruin any chance of career advancement in the state of Illinois by having a scandalous affair, college history professor Frank Nichols and teacher Dora Chambers retreat to the countryside. Frank has inherited a home in a small Georgia town called Whitbrow and, while it's a little isolated and creepy, living out in the boonies definitely beats bunking at Frank's brother's apartment. Even though his aunt urges Frank not to move in, to sell the place immediately, Frank dismisses her warnings as the ravings of a senile old woman. He wants to write a history of his family's plantation, which he knows was nearby. What better way to immerse himself in the project than to live on site? Besides, it's not like he and Dora have many other prospects.

Although Dora's divorce isn't quite finalized, the two pretend to be married (this being 1935 and all) and throw themselves into getting settled in. Since Frank's genetics make him a part of Whitbrow, the couple's welcomed in town with less suspicion than the average strangers would receive. The townspeople seem nice, if more than a little quirky, and Frank and Dora soon feel at home in Whitbrow. Which doesn't mean they understand all the strange local customs, especially the one where pigs - prime pork the poor folks in town could surely be eating instead of wasting - are sent into the forest as a kind of sacrifice. Although Frank and Dora question the whys behind this primitive tradition, no one will give them a straight answer. Something, they say, is in the woods. Something that requires payment in order to stay away.

Unconvinced of any danger and determined to find answers to his questions about his family's plantation, Frank ventures into the woods. Maybe it's just the heat playing tricks with his mind, but the forest certainly feels sinister. When Frank sees what he's sure is an apparition, he feels his past and present collide with brute force. He's the great-grandson of a cold-hearted plantation owner, who treated his slaves with sadistic cruelty - and whatever's lurking in the woods seems to know it. Which is a completely crazy thought, of course. Spooked, but more motivated than ever to figure out what's going on in Whitbrow, Frank vows to get to the bottom of the mystery. Even if the monsters are only in his head.

Those Across the River, a debut novel by poet and playwright Christopher Beuhlman, is a creepy story that reads more like literary fiction than horror. Except for all the gore, of course. Nothing poetic about that. The rest of the book, though, focuses more on character, setting and the mystery Frank's trying to solve. It may not be the most original story in the world (although I have to say I like the idea of vengeful slave spirits), but it kept me entertained. It is a little more graphic (sex, language, and gore-wise) than I would have liked. Still and all, I have to say I enjoyed Those Across the River, even if it is more of a Halloween read than a Christmas one.

(Readalikes: A million titles should be popping into my mind, but I'm drawing a blank. Any suggestions?)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought Those Across the River at Changing Hands Bookstore with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bleed Too Plotless, Pointless

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It may be the season of good tidings and great joy, but I've been stuck in bleak, depressing YA drama-land. Thank goodness this stuff's fiction. At least I hope it's mostly made up - otherwise, the teenage world is a scary, hopeless to be. I appreciate the raw honesty in these books, it's just that wow, they're unsettling. Maybe I should stick with cheesy, Christmas tearjerkers instead? Yeah, like that's gonna happen.

Take Bleed by Laurie Faria Stolarz, for instance. The book's about a group of kids, mostly high school juniors, who are floundering around one summer trying to fill the emptiness in their lives. Nicole Bouchard's spending her school-less days obsessing over Sean O'Connell, who just happens to be going out with her best friend, Kelly Pickerel. Meanwhile, Kelly's in California, conveniently forgetting to call Sean while she sneaks out to meet the 21-year-old ex-con she's been secretly writing to for the last 5 years. Maria Krito's got only one thing on her mind: cutting. Just like her mother's boyfriend uses Maria to get what he wants, she uses other people to help her feel something. Anything. The problem is, not everyone wants to pierce her flesh with a safety pin. So, she convinces them. Derik LaPointe's a player, Joy just wants to be loved, and poor Sadie Dubinski - she wants to be accepted so badly that she's willing to do anything, even cut Maria, just to belong. And then there's Mearl Aremian. No one knows what to make of her, least of all herself. As the kids' paths cross and re-cross one sweltering summer in Salem, Massachusetts, they're lives become increasingly more interesting.

The back cover of this book offers very little in the way of story description, which makes sense since the novel itself has no discernable plot. Unfortunately, this aimlessness makes the whole book seem kind of ... pointless. I mean, yes, it's illuminating in some ways and yes, it kept me reading and, yes, I cared about the characters (some of them, anyway), but, overall, it's a depressing read that doesn't offer much in the way of hope or positivity. The writing's solid, but that just isn't enough in this case - I wanted plot, I wanted purpose, I wanted some kind of powerful message. And none of that shows up in Bleed. Bummer.

(Readalikes: Hm, I don't know. Nothing's really coming to mind. Any ideas?)

Grade: C

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

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

Friday, December 09, 2011

Would YOU Survive A Shark Attack?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Little Elm Hills, New Jersey, isn't where Chet Roscow wants to spend his summer, but he has to admit the place isn't all that bad. The 10-year-old likes living with his kind uncle Jerry, enjoys helping the older man out at the diner, and is especially excited about swimming in the cool, refreshing Matawan Creek with his new friends, Dewey, Sid and Monty. It's a good place, really, for Chet to hang out while his parents chase another one of their crazy, get-rich-quick ideas.

Chet's just starting to feel comfortable in Elm Hills when he hears some shocking news: A shark is attacking people on New Jersey's coast. It's a scary thought, even though Chet lives about 20 miles from the ocean. Uncle Jerry says the stories must be a hoax - sharks don't attack humans. Chet's not so sure. Especially when he spies a triangular fin sticking out of the water in the creek. Nobody believes there could be a shark in Elm Hills. No one but Chet, who's about to go head-to-head with the sharp-toothed beast.

I Survived: The Shark Attacks of 1916 is another installment in Lauren Tarshis' educational, but entertaining series about kids grappling for survival during famous disasters like the sinking of the Titanic, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Based on real events, this book recalls what happened in July of 1916, when a shark (or sharks) killed four people along the shores of New Jersey. One of the attacks really did happen at Matawan Creek, which lies 16 miles inland. While Chet Roscow is a fictional character, he helps readers feel the fear and disbelief that must have come over people when they heard news of these horrifying events. Because it's written for middle graders, the book never gets too graphic - it keeps the action going without worrying too much about character development, gripping dialogue or gory details. Still, the story's engrossing. Middle graders, I'm sure, will find it both interesting and exciting. As did I.

(Readalikes: Other books in the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis. Also reminded me a tiny bit of Sharks & Boys by Kristen Tracy and Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham.)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scary scenes/violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of I Survived: The Shark Attacks of 1916 from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Small As An Elephant Another Poignant Portrait of Parental Mental Illness

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Of all the crazy ideas his mother's had during her "spinning" times, 11-year-old Jack Martel likes this one best of all. Not only does he get to spend the last weekend before school starts camping in Acadia National Park with his mom, but he also gets to take an elephant ride at the famous York's Wild Kingdom on the way home to Boston. For a pachiderm-lover like Jack, it sounds like the perfect vacation. And it is. Until the second day, when Jack crawls out of his tent to find his mother gone, along with the small tent she was sleeping in and the rental car they drove to Maine. Any other kid would freak. Not Jack. He's not like other kids. And his mom? She's definitely not like other moms.

Jack's spent plenty of time fending for himself, but usually he waits out his mother's manic phases in the safety of their Jamaica Plain apartment. This time, he's in a whole different state, miles and miles from home. He knows he should call the police; he also knows what will happen if he does. Despite his mother's ping-ponging moods, Jack doesn't want to be taken away from her. If he doesn't want to end up living with his gradma, Jack has to find his mom before anyone realizes she's abandoned him. No problem - he just has to search the entire state of Maine for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed crazy woman.

As Jack traces the sightseeing route he and his mom planned to take, with only a small, plastic elephant for company, he has to battle loneliness, hunger, thirst and fatigue. Not to mention fear. Surviving on his own is tougher than he ever imagined it could be, especially with the whole state of Maine on the lookout for a missing boy. Determined to complete his quest, Jack keeps moving, all the while asking himself some tough questions: How can his mom say she loves him when she keeps disappearing like this? Does it take more than just love to make a good parent? And what does it mean to be a good son? Should he protect his mother? Or get her the help she needs, even if it means he never gets to live with her again? As he examines his own heart and conscience, Jack will learn some big lessons - about family, about fear and about facing the truth, no matter how heartbreaking.

While not as heavy-hitting as other novels on this subject, Small As An Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, offers another poignant portrait of what it means to be a child dealing with a parent's mental illness. Although the story definitely deals with an emotional hardship, Jack's physical struggle for survival will make the book especially interesting to younger readers. I didn't find it mind-blowing or anything, but I enjoyed this middle grade novel about a resillient young boy's journey to find his mother and, ultimately, himself.

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Small As An Elephant from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Perrotta's Newest Takes An Original Look at Grief

(Image from Indiebound)

On an ordinary October day, millions of people all over the world vanish into thin air. Without a warning, just poof! they're gone. It might be the Rapture, although that doesn't really make sense considering the missing consist of every kind of human - young, old, celebrity, average Joe, wealthy, penniless, saint, sinner. Plus, the event isn't followed by the apocalypse or any other sign that the world's ending. It just happens. And then it's over. Three years later, only one thing is really clear: The gone are not coming back. As the rest of humanity, the "leftovers," try to move past their grief and befuddlement, the questions linger. Why were some people taken? More importantly, why were some left behind?

Ever since the tragedy struck, people have been finding their own ways to cope. Kevin Garvey, mayor of the small town of Mapleton, would like to forget about the whole Rapture-ish mess and go back to the life he used to know and (mostly) enjoy. That's impossible now, though. His wife, 46-year-old Laurie Garvey, has joined up with the Guilty Remnant, a group that lives communally and whose members act as silent reminders of those missing from their communities. His college dropout son has followed a polygamous cult leader to who-knows-what part of the country. As for his 17-year-old daughter, she hasn't left in a physical sense, but her good-girl personality has certainly taken a leave of absence. Kevin's not sure how to salvage what's left of his own life, let alone help his beloved hometown recover from its loss.

Just as Kevin struggles to comes to terms with what has happened, so do the other members of his family. As time wears on, each must examine his or her own faith, resolve and commitment to their chosen causes. Each must answer the question (Why, why, why?) for him/herself. Each must face his/her grief and pain in his/her own way - and each must face the consequences of his/her own actions. By doing all this, maybe, just maybe, they can move on into a future that seems less certain than ever.

Considering the great question on which the book hinges, you might think Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, would spend some time actually solving the mystery of what happened to all the people who disappeared. Not so. Because the novel really isn't about those who vanished, it's about those who didn't. It's about the survivors - their guilt, their grief, and the ways they do or do not get on with their lives. And, really, that's all the book's about. It's rather plotless, actually, but I can honestly say I was never bored with it. The characters, flawed and confused though they may have been, kept me intrigued. Overall, though, I found The Leftovers depressing. The characters make selfish choices, which leaves the story with too little optimism or hope. All of which left me feeling disappointed and gloomy. It's a bummer because I enjoyed the book's premise, Perrotta's writing and the in-depth characterization that makes this novel so compelling. I guess I just wanted a little more from it.

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

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Mormon Mentions: Tom Perrotta


If you aren't familiar with "Mormon Mentions," a special feature here at BBB, let me explain: My name is Susan. I'm a book blogger. And I'm a Mormon. (You've all seen/heard these ads, right? I love them.) As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon Church), I'm naturally concerned about how my religion is portrayed in the media. Since this is a book blog, I like to highlight passages about my church that I find in the books I read. I also like to give my opinion (surprised, aren't you?) about those passages - correcting misconceptions, explaining confusing/controversial doctrine, and laughing at the sometimes crazy Mormon culture of which I am apart. It's fun for me, but if it's not your kind of thing, feel free to skip these posts.

Okay, here we go.

Considering that Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, talks a lot about faith and religion, I wasn't surprised to find a couple of references to the church in it. Right at the beginning of the book, are these:

"People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor - a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire - or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real" (2).

"Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the people who'd disappeared on October 14 - Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were - hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. It was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random" (3).

Both of these selections are narrated by 46-year-old Laurie Garvey, an agnostic who's trying to make sense of the Rapture-like event that has recently snatched up millions of people from off the face of the Earth. Naturally, she's skeptical of all religion, including one that embraces the idea of an uneducated American farm boy as a prophet of God. As unlikely as it may sound, members of the LDS Church really do believe that, as a young man, Joseph Smith did, in fact, see an angel, as well as Jesus Christ and God the Father. We believe the angel gave Smith golden plates containing ancient scripture, which he then translated and published as The Book of Mormon. It sounds crazy, I know, but so does feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. I believe it, nonetheless. (To read Joseph Smith's story, in his own words, click here.)

The second passage is interesting because Mormons don't get "saved" or "born again" in the traditional sense. We're taught from birth that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer. It's something that's acknowledged and accepted right from the start. Getting baptized is a way to make our commitment to Him public, but even LDS children who are under 8 (the age at which kids born into the LDS Church are baptized) know who Jesus is and what He's done for them. It's just part of being Mormon. For a much more eloquent explanation, click here.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Dictionary.com defines Zoroastrianism as "an Iranian religion, founded c600 b.c. by Zoroaster, the principal beliefs of which are in the existence of a supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, and in a cosmic struggle between a spirit of good, Spenta Mainyu, and a spirit of evil, Angra Mainyu." Who knew?
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