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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

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

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

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

33 / 50 books. 66% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Mean, Seriously, Can Neal Shusterman Do No Wrong?

(Image from Indiebound)

In the not-too-distant future, a second civil war is fought on American soil. This time, the issue isn't slavery - it's abortion. When the long, bloody battle ends, The Bill of Life is signed, making it illegal for anyone to harm a fetus. In fact, a child's life is protected until she/he reaches thirteen and then again, when the child hits eighteen. The years in between, however, can be a bit ... dicey.

Just ask Connor, a 16-year-old from suburban Ohio, who's about to be "unwound." The procedure, a kind of retroactive abortion, will take all of Connor - from his lungs to his eyeballs to his hair - and redistribute the parts to people suffering from asthma, blindness, baldness, etc.. Unwinding is perfectly legal since it helps people live longer, leaves the unwound spirit intact (at least that's what the scientists say), and gets rid of unwanted teens. Connor's not too thrilled about the prospect, but that doesn't matter, since the decision isn't his to make. Same with Risa Ward, a 13-year-old orphan whose presence is no longer cost-efficient for the state. It's cheaper for her to be unwound than for the government to keep paying her living expenses. Then there's Lev Calder, the youngest son of a couple whose religion demands a tithing of 10% - in other words, Lev, their tenth child, will be sacrificed as an offering to God.

The three teens are unexpectedly thrown together when Connor makes a mad dash for freedom. With Juvie-cops hot on their trail, the trio must work together to evade authorities and literally save their own skin. If they can make it to 18, they're home free, but the journey to adulthood is a long, dangerous one in a world where everyone wants to capture you - and your very valuable body parts.

I love Neal Shusterman for so many reasons, one of which is his great skill at exploring controversial subjects in ways that are creative, interesting, and so very, very entertaining. In Unwind, he takes the issue of when a life becomes enough of a life to be worthy of protection and spins it into a story that is original, exciting and thought-provoking. It's also touching in a subtle, unexpected way. I don't know how else to describe Unwind - it's a little bit sci fi, a little bit dystopian, a little bit adventure, a little bit romance, and a lot bit amazing. Seriously. I loved it. I haven't (yet) read all of Shusterman's books, but every one I complete just makes me worship the man more. If you haven't checked him out yet, then, what the heck is wrong with you? Do it. Now.

P.S. This line from Unwind made me laugh out loud (especially considering that it's supposed to be 98 degrees here on Friday):

"We're fine," says the young Unwind. "Where are we?"

"Purgatory," says Hayden. "Also known as Arizona."

Personally, I think this boiling hot state is a little south of Purgatory (if you know what I mean), but still, the line is funny.

P.S.S. Word on Shusterman's blog is he's currently writing a script for the Unwind movie and hoping that it will be made. I'm hoping for that, too. There's a website for the movie - - but it freezes my computer every time I try to look at it, so you
might want to check out Youtube instead. There are a bunch of fanmade book/movie trailers on there - some good, some not so much. I don't know if there is an "official" book trailer. There are some fun fanmade ones, though.

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

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Frank's Newest Lowcountry Tale A Quick, Fun Read

(Image from Indiebound)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Lowcountry Summer, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its companion novel, Plantation. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

It's Caroline Wimbley Levine's 46th birthday and all she wants is a nice, calm celebration with her family. Too bad the Wimbleys don't do calm. Even the dead ones can't resist a little drama, as evidenced by the balloon bouquet Caroline receives from her recently-deceased mother. Then there's her brother, Trip, who can barely handle the woman he's married to, let alone the complicated situation with his girlfriend. It doesn't help the situation when Frances Mae, Trip's redneck, gold-digging wife shows up at the party so sloshed she doesn't remember running her SUV into the ditch or injuring her young daughter in the process. Caroline's only consolation on this bummer of a birthday is seeing Frances Mae's escort - the county sheriff who makes her blood boil. In a good way.

After her sister-in-law's latest drunken escapade, Caroline knows she has to do something since, Heaven knows, Trip won't. Fixing family situations is part of her duty as the matriarch of the Wimbley Family and current mistress of Tall Pines Plantation. Her mother, the flamboyant, outspoken, late Miss Lavinia would have known exactly what to do. Caroline's not so confident. But she is determined, which leads to Frances Mae's commitment to a treatment program and Caroline's commitment to the four hellcats Trip calls his daughters. Dealing with the sullen girls, their helpless father, as well as her own complicated love life, and her son's mysterious new girlfriend is enough to make Caroline completely crazy. To top it all off, Caroline's got her gullah cook forecasting disaster and her mother leaving signs all over the place to show her amusement/displeasure/infuriation with the way Caroline's handling it all. Caroline's not sure she can take any more crazy from the people she loves - and loathes - the most. Can she deal with it all without cracking? Especially when the only people she can turn to for advice are a ghost and a voodoo queen.

If you've read a few Southern novels, you won't find anything surprising in Lowcountry Summer, the newest book by Dorothea Benton Frank. Her characters are typical of the genre, almost cliche really, and the plot gets a bit contrived. What Frank excels at, though, is setting. The places she describe radiate more depth, more personality, more charm than any of her story people. Tall Pines Plantation is like that - it's what stayed in my mind after I finished the book. I felt more connected to it than to its residents, although that could be because Lowcountry Summer is actually a sequel and I haven't read the first book (Plantation, 2001). Whatever the reason for the slight disconnect I felt with the characters, I enjoyed the novel enough to read it in one day. It had enough Southern quirkiness to charm me, enough conflict to keep me turning pages, and enough humor to make me smile. The book didn't blow me away, but it was definitely a quick, fun read, one that kept me entertained and reminded me why I love Southern novels (Light-as-a-feather biscuits. Need I say more?).

(Readalikes: Plantation by Dorothea Benton Frank as well as other novels by the author; her books also remind of Anne Rivers Siddons'.)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Lowcountry Summer from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for which this review was written. To see more stops on Lowcountry Summer's virtual book tour, click here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sweet, Quirky Road-Trip Novel a Very Pleasant Surprise

(Image from Indiebound)

After reading The Way He Lived, Emily Wing Smith's debut novel, I figured I kind of knew where the plot of her newest was going to take me. And I wasn't sure I wanted to go there. Even in a Saab 900 with a nice, clean cut Mormon boy. But, there were so many reasons to give Back When You Were Easier to Love (available April 28, 2011) a try - the cute cover; the fun, road trip story; the skillful wordcraft evident in Smith's first book; Smith, herself, who is so sweet and genuine; and, of course, Barry Manilow. So I did give it a try and, let me tell you, I'm so glad I did. The book surprised me in all kinds of pleasant ways. It's sweet, but not saccharine; fun, but not silly; upbeat, but not fluffy; and overall, just a thoughtful, quirky, life-affirming story. Have I mentioned how much I loved it?

The story goes a little something like this: Joy Afterclien, a 17-year-old high school senior, can't stand life without her boyfriend. Even though it feels like Zan died, he didn't. He just left Haven, Utah, for a college in California. Without explaining himself, without saying goodbye, without taking Joy with him. Zan was the one who made living in Utah, with all its churches, Modest is Hottest t-shirts, and "überconservative nutjobs" (50) bearable. Without Zan to laugh about it all with her, Joy's afraid she'll lose her edge, get sucked into the bland, conformist Havenite culture.

Obsessing over Zan's reasons for leaving is making Joy crazy. She has to have closure. She has to see Zan. A road trip with Zan's best friend (who's such a Havenite she can barely stand to look at him) isn't exactly what Joy had in mind, but, as means-to-ends go, it could be a lot worse. As Noah and Joy travel the 664.08 miles to California in Noah's Saab 900, Joy is forced to examine what she believes, what she knows, and a few things she might have missed completely. The trek, which begins as a simple road trip, soon becomes a journey of self-discovery, one that leads to some very surprising truths in some very surprising places.

You might have to be a Mormon from Utah to fully appreciate Back When You Were Easier to Love, but anyone can enjoy it. It's a story for anyone who's ever felt out of place, trapped by other people's perceptions, or stifled by what they're supposed to believe. It's a story for anyone who's not sure what they believe, or what is actually true, or even who they are. In other words, a story for all of us. I may have mentioned this before, but I adore it. Absolutely adore it.

(Readalikes: A little bit like Taken By Storm by Angela Morrison)

Grade: B+

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

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Back When You Were Easier to Love from the author and the generous folks at Dutton. Thank you!
Saturday, March 26, 2011

So-so Writing Book Helps My Scary-Bad Rough Draft. Kinda.

(Image from Indiebound)

If you, like me, have dreams of publishing a novel some day, you've probably read a few books about writing. More than a few. Probably tons. I know I have. Some writing tutorials are better than others, obviously, even though most cover about the same material. Still, I'm always interested in finding new and different techniques to deal with old and perplexing problems. Since plotting is something I pretty much suck at, I picked up Plot & Structure by mystery/suspense author James Scott Bell, hoping for some good advice. I didn't learn anything completely new from it, but it still offered a few gems.

Bell addresses the topics you would expect to find in a book on plot: beginnings, middles, ends, plot patterns, crafting scenes, etc. Each chapter offers basic information, plus examples from popular novelists (Bell has a particular fondness for Dean R. Koontz), and tips for analyzing the plot of your own novel. Because the tips seem most helpful for writers who already have a rough draft to work with, I recommend reading Plot & Structure at that point rather than before you begin writing. Since a lot of Bell's advice involves studying the work of successful writers, I found them very instructive.

I don't agree with everything Bell says, of course. I mean, seriously, is the following paragraph really "one of the greatest opening paragraphs in any thriller you'll ever read" as Bell seems to think:

"At two-thirty Saturday morning, in Los Angeles, Joe Carpenter woke, clutching a pillow to his chest, cllin ghis lost wife's name in the darkness. The anguished and haunted quality of his own voice ahd shaken him from sleep. Dreams fell from him not all at once but in trembling veils, as attic dust falls off rafters when a house rolls with an earthquake." (From Sole Survivor by Dean R. Koontz)

Yeah, I don't think so either.

Overall, though, I found the book helpful. Not monumentally so, but enough that I enjoyed the reading experience and found it to be a good use of my time. It even helped me write some killer back cover copy for my soon to be bestseller (hee hee). Now, if it could just help me shape my scary-bad rough draft into something that's at least readable, if not publishable, then, well, I'd really be singing its praises.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for a couple uses of mild language

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

Monday, March 21, 2011

Disturbing Sequel Makes Me Think, Dry Heave

(Image from Indiebound)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Mr. Monster, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, I Am Not A Serial Killer. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

In I Am Not A Serial Killer, Dan Wells' disturbing debut novel, 15-year-old John Wayne Cleaver kills a murderer. He doesn't want to kill anyone. Not really. Even if he does have dark, violent thoughts. Even if he studies serial killers obsessively. Even if the dead bodies that arrive in his family's mortuary fascinate him a whole lot more than they really should. John's a sociopath, but he's not a killer. At least he wasn't until he came face-to-face with a foe so unbelievable, so formiddable, that the only way to save his town from more grisly murders was to tap into his violent side and take out the monster. Only this monster wasn't human like Ted Bundy or the BTK Strangler. And this monster, apparently, brought along some friends. At least that's what John comes to believe when dead bodies start turning up once again in his hometown.

Mr. Monster begins with a murdered woman discovered in an irrigation canal. John can't be sure it's the work of another demon, but what else makes sense? As other victims are found, John studies the crimes for evidence of an otherworldly killer. His interest in the killings, coupled with his presence at one of the crime scenes, raises the suspicions of Clark Forman, the FBI agent in charge of investigating the killings. Even though Agent Forman finds John's obsession strange, he can't deny the usefulness of John's uncanny ability to get inside the head of a killer. John can't deny it either - hunting down the killer satisfies the hungry need of his inner demon, who he refers to as Mr. Monster. As much as John resists tapping into the side of himself, he has to unleash it in order to truly understand who - or what - is stalking his little town.

The closer John gets to discovering the identity of the murderer, the more perilous his situation becomes. Not only is the killer hunting John, but unleashing Mr. Monster is making John dangerous to himself and everyone around him. Can he control his inner demon long enough to save the town once again or will this new round of murders finally put John over the edge?

Like Wells' first book, Mr. Monster is a deeply disturbing portrait of a boy at war with himself. John's violent thoughts are jarring, while his deep commitment to being a good person makes him complex and even sympathetic. Like I've said before, the most intriguing aspect of this series is its premise, which basically says that no matter what instincts we may or may not have been born with, the decisions we make are ultimately up to us. It's a fascinating concept, the exploration of which makes for some consistently compelling reads. Still, John's constant thoughts of death, combined with some pretty graphic, violent scenes in the book's finale, make Mr. Monster so dark and disturbing, I could barely stomach it. It made me think; it also made me want to vomit. And take some Prozak. So, yeah, I'm definitely on the fence about these ... Have you read them? What do you think?

(Readalikes: I Am Not A Serial Killer and I Don't Want to Kill You (available in the U.S. on March 29, 2011) by Dan Wells; Wells' work also reminds me quite a bit of Stephen King's)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for mild language, mild sexual content and graphic/disturbing/violent images

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Gail Carson Levine Classic Is, Not Surprisingly, Enchanting

(Image from Indiebound)

If you're like me, you get dozens of book recommendations every week from various places - friends, family, book blogs, newspapers, magazines, publisher emails, etc. - so many that you can't possibly run out and read them all right now. Maybe you prioritize, reserving titles suggested by your sister ASAP, but sticking Uncle Bob's recommendations on the end of your TBR list. My husband is my Uncle Bob (not literally - eeewww). To hear him tell it, I reguarly ignore his book suggestions. Maybe he should take a page out of our oldest daughter's book: the other day, she said to me, "I wish you would read the books I ask you to read so that we could discuss them." Result? Instant guilt. I plucked the story under discussion right out of her hands and began to read it. And you know what? I'm going to pay more attention to her suggestions because Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine really was ... enchanting. Perhaps I should now read a pick from "Uncle Bob" just to see if I get similar results.

At first glance, Ella Enchanted didn't seem all that great. The cover's nothing special, the writing didn't make me gasp, and the story seemed ho hum. Until I got going. Then, I realized how unique and interesting its premise really is. The story goes a little something like this: As an infant, Ella receives a "blessing" from a mischievious fairy that compels her to always be obedient. The spell works, so well that if Ella's mother urges her to eat, she does so until commanded to stop. So total is her obedience that the "blessing" soon becomes a curse, one the tricky fairy refuses to undo. The curse is irritating, for sure, but only a minor convenience as Ella spends most of her time with her mother and the family's housekeeper, both of whom know about the spell and would never exploit little Ella. All that changes, however, when Ella's 14 and her mother dies. That's when a scheming Lady sets her sights upon Ella's father or, more specifically, on the riches that seem to be his. Her two daughters, equally as conniving, soon discover Ella's secret. Unlike Ella's early allies, they have no trouble taking advantage of her. Soon, Ella becomes little more than a servant to her new stepfamily. Her only hope lies in breaking the curse that forces her to obey even the vilest of commands. But that will not be an easy task; indeed, it may be impossible. Can she find a way to free herself or is she doomed to a life of toil with only the cinders to keep her company?

Interesting concept, right? And, as Ella searches for a solution to her predicament - encountering gnomes, giants, knights and, of course, a prince, along the way - the story becomes downright charming. It's fun, clever, and entertaining. I ended up enjoying it immensely.

When I shared my enthusiasm for Ella Enchanted with my daughter, she popped a fist on her hip and said, "See? I told you so!" And she did. Result: Lesson learned. Next time my daughter suggests I read a book, I will do it. Promptly. As for "Uncle Bob?" Let's just say, Man's Search for Meaning is now at the top of my TBR mountain.

(Readalikes: Other Cinderella retellings)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I borrowed this book from my daughter, who received it, I believe, as a birthday gift from her great aunt.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

This One Goes Out to All You Dora Fans: I Did It! I Did It! I Did It! Hooray!

So, you may have noticed it's been a little quiet around here lately. What? You didn't notice? Hm. Well, trust me on this one: it's been quiet. Why, you ask? Because I've been busy writing the suckiest rough draft of a YA novel ever written. But, it's done. It's 200 pages (around 70,000 words) of pure crap, but it's 200 pages! A lot of you believed I could write a YA novel, but I'm not sure I believed it ... until now. Whether or not it's even worthy of evolving into a first draft remains to be seen. Still, I'm proud of myself for getting this story out of my head and onto the computer. I'm also excited to let it sit while I put the rest of my life back together. In a month, I'll read it through and decide what to do with it. For now, though, I'm just going to keep grinning and patting myself on the back.

Or, heck, maybe I'll just let someone else do it for me. You may have missed this comment from michemily but it totally made my day, my month, my year:

Referring to my review of If I Stay by Gayle Forman, she said: After I read this book, I thought, "How did this book make it onto my list? I really don't think that Bloggin' 'bout Books would have suggested it." So I searched for it on my Google Reader and found that it was NPR that suggested it, not you. Thank you for being more insightful about books than NPR.

Take that, Nancy Pearl! (Just kidding, Nancy, you know I love you.) Thanks so much for that, Michemily! I'm still smiling :)

After a fun evening of finishing my rough draft, playing in the park with the kids, and eating Thrifty ice cream at my favorite sub shop, I'm euphoric, but so very tired. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming sometime soon ...

(Apparently, I haven't blogged in so long that I forgot how to do it and published this post before I finished it. Duh.)
Saturday, March 12, 2011

Intriguing New-to-Me Author Pulls Me Into Watery Dystopian World

(Image from Indiebound)

Winter 2099 - Ever since the floods began, people have been climbing upward, resettling in the highest hills and mountains they can find. As the ocean slowly swallows every patch of earth, the people of Wing, a tiny island in the northern Atlantic, are losing hope. There are no safe spots left on the watery planet; even if there were, the islanders' rickety fishing boats can't handle the rough seas. It's only a matter of time before they drown, just like everyone else in the world.

Fifteen-year-old Mara knows the end is coming. If the people of Wing don't evacuate their homeland immediately, they face certain death. It's a prospect so bleak, Mara can't stand to face it. She escapes into an ancient cyber world, the ruins of what was once an interactive superhighway linking people around the globe. Now it's useful only for escaping the real world. Except that in the strange wasteland, Mara spies what looks like a great sky city. Not everything in cyberspace is based on fact, but could this futuristic place really exist? According to a mysterious avatar roaming the cyber ruins, it does. With no choice but to trust the stranger, Mara convinces the people of Wing to flee the island and make for the great city in the sky. It's their last and only hope. Provided it even exists.

When the people reach the sky city after a perilous journey on the sea, they're stunned to find a great walled city, firmly closed to refugees. As more and more survivors anchor themselves outside New Mungo, resources become scarcer and scarcer. If Mara can't find a way inside, she'll die with the rest. She's the reason her people came to the city - she's not about to let them die when salvation is so close at hand. But getting inside New Mungo isn't easy; it may even be impossible. Mara has to try. With the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, in her hands, she takes the plunge - literally - and enters a strange, new world where survival means something different to everyone. Can she navigate her way through this new land in time to save her people? Or will she become just another victim of the hungry ocean that is slowly consuming them all?

I've read a lot of watery dystopians lately, but Exodus by Julie Bertagna brings something new to the table. The book combines an eerie post-apocalyptic setting with a tense survival story, then gives it all a little sci-fi twist. Add in strong prose, vivid characters, and don't-blink-or-you-might-miss-something pacing and you've got an exciting, original story. I loved the first 2/3 of the novel, but the last section seems to zoom by too fast. The romance, especially, comes off as forced. That bugged, but over all I found the story to be compelling and different enough to stand out. I'd never heard of Bertagna before I saw Exodus mentioned on someone's blog - now I'm clamoring to read all her books. She's that intriguing.

(Readalikes: sequels, Zenith and Aurora (available June 2011); also a bit like Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick, X-Isle by Steve Auguarde, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, and Dark Life by Kat Falls)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Charming, Melodious Prose Makes The Oracle of Stamboul Enjoyable, If Not Exciting

(Image from Indiebound)

When a flock of exotic hoopoes descends on the Romanian city of Constanta and two Tartan midwives arrive suddenly at the home of a laboring woman, it's a sign: Something special is happening. It's the birth of a young girl, a cause for celebration, but one that's tinged with sadness as the infant's mother perishes from blood loss. Raised by her devoted father and her stepmother, a woman "dangerously close to thirty, wrung out by life, and profoundly resentful" (8), Eleanora Cohen shows extraordinary intelligence at a very young age. When her parents realize the extent of their child's abilities, they react in different ways - Eleanora's father wants her to study, expand her knowledge, while Ruxandra, her stepmother, insists on limited her learning so as not to scare off potential husbands.

Not at all enamored of her stepmother, 8-year-old Eleanora is distraught when her father announces he's traveling alone to Stamboul (now Istanbul) for a month to sell carpets. Not willing to stay behind, the child stows away in one of her father's trunks. When she arrives in the city, Eleanora's mind fills with the rich sights and sounds of the great city. She's happy spending time with her father, exploring the grand library of his benefactor, and watching the hoopoes who have followed her across the sea. When the Sultan learns of the young savant living in his city, he seeks her company, an invitation that throws the child into the confusing world of politics. As the ruler comes to increasingly rely on Eleanora, she becomes an unwitting adviser to people far and wide on all manner of subjects. When the pressure becomes too great, she must decide how much of herself she's willing to extend to help those around her before she collapses from the weight of so many conflicts. And, of course, there's the matter of her own future ...

The Oracle of Stamboul, a historical novel by newcomer Michael David Lukas, is difficult to summarize because, truly, not a whole lot happens. The story's rich in setting, characters and language, all of which make the book enjoyable, if not exciting. Considering the melodious charm of Lukas' prose, I expected more from his debut - more focus, more story, more magic. As is, the tale lacks that special something it needs to really shine. It's still worth the read, however, for the eloquence with which Lukas writes. Just pack some patience; you'll need it for this slow, meandering trip into the colorful Ottoman Empire.
(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 references to violence

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of The Oracle of Stamboul from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.

Imagination Needing a Workout? Two Words For You: Neal Shusterman.

(Image from Indiebound)

When the cars Nick and Allie are riding in collide one day, the force of the impact throws them both into the forest. Months later, they wake up to discover that not only are they dead, but they're not in heaven. Or in hell. Or really, anywhere at all. As Lief, a young, freckled boy living in the woods, explains, the pair have been flung into Everlost, a kind of middle world between life and death. Not even Lief, who has lived in Everlost for decades, knows why they are all there, what they're supposed to be doing, or how they might escape. All he wants are some friends, other kids to play his favorite games with him.

Allie, however, has no use for playing in the trees, even if the forest offers a safety not assured in other parts of Everlost. She wants to go back home to New Jersey. Convincing Nick and Lief to join her takes a little work, but eventually the trio takes off on an adventure-filled journey through the strange world of which they are now apart. When they reach New York City, they join another band of lost souls, a group led by an enigmatic leader who knows a lot more about the whys and wherefores of Everlost than she's letting on. To "get where they're going" (Leif's term for successfully crossing from life to death) they'll have to pry Everlost's secrets away from those who guard them most fiercely, face the land's most frightening figure, and learn to live their afterlives on their own terms.

For those of you who, like me, think there's too little originality in the world of children's literature, I have two words for you: Neal Shusterman. Everlost, the first book in his highly-acclaimed Skinjacker Trilogy, introduces a world so unique you really have to experience it for yourself. Try as I might, I can't do justice to the wondrous complexity of it. Just as fresh are the characters, who truly come to life as they battle each other to achieve their own purposes. From a religious standpoint (although this is not a religious book, not at all), I appreciated Shusterman's idea of "heaven" as a place of progression instead of stagnation. A vivid setting, engaging characters, subtle philosophy and really, just everything about it, makes this an excellent read that I highly recommend to anyone whose imagination needs a little workout. Mine certainly enjoyed the exercise.

(Readalikes: Although I haven't read them yet, the sequels, Everwild and Everfound [available May 2011]; Also, a little like Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, The Everafter by Amy Huntley and If I Stay by Gayle Forman)

Grade: B+

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

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

Monday, March 07, 2011

Father of Lies: In Salem, Massachusetts, Being Different Can Be Deadly ...

(Image from Indiebound)

Unlike all the other girls in Salem, Massachusetts, 14-year-old Lidda can't stand the thought of spending her whole life trapped at home caring for a husband and children. Her own mother can barely stay awake, so exhausted is she by the requirements of her household. Lidda longs for something more. Her traitorous soul craves frivolous things, forbidden things. Dancing in the sunshine, wearing bold colors, singing out loud - anything but the daily torture of quiet, pious living demanded of her by her religion, her community and her family.

Lidda knows she's different, but when she starts seeing a handsome, otherworldly figure sitting in her room, she wonders if she might be crazy. When she hears his voice in her head, urging her to rip off her stays and run wild, she knows he's dangerous. When he laughs at her obedience, mocks her prayers, and encourages her flights of fancy, she wonders if he may, in fact, be the Devil. Others in town seem possessed by evil, why not she?

When other girls in Salem began convulsing on the floor, claiming to be cursed by witches, Lidda wonders about her impairment. It's not like the plague coursing through her friends, giving them power so great, it frightens Lidda. Plus, the evil in her seems real, while the witch-possessing looks a lot like play-acting. She longs to accuse these accusers, who send innocent people to their doom without a prick of conscience, but if she dares cross the girls, won't she be just as vulnerable as the girls' other victims? Especially since she really is possessed by the Devil? Someone has to stop the madness overtaking Salem. Does Lidda dare confess what she knows, even if the telling the truth could mean swinging from the gallows herself?

In Father of Lies, a new historical novel for teens by Ann Turner, the author expresses the same idea that drives Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill: namely, that the young Salem girls who accused so many of witchcraft did so knowing full well that their insinuations were untrue. Perhaps it was out of boredom, or a desire for power in a society where little girls had none, or simply part of the religious fanaticism rampant in the area at the time. Whatever it was, the results of their tantrums are grim -

"... one hundred fifty women had been accused and thrown in jail ...; nineteen men and women had been hanged; one elderly man, Giles Corey, had been pressed to death by stones; several people had died in jail, two dogs were hanged for associating with witches; and one little girl, Dorcas Good, went mad while confined in irons with her mother in jail" (244-245).

Although I found Turner's story interesting, it didn't give me any really new information about the Salem Witch Trials, especially considering the recent publication of the very evocative Wicked Girls. The one thing that stands out here, though, is the idea of a young girl trying to understand her mental condition in a time when things like bi-polar disorder were not only misunderstood, but seen as curses from God or Satan. As Lidda grapples to understand herself, the reader is forced to ask the question - Is the specter haunting Lidda simply a byproduct of her disease or something far more sinister? The conundrum gives needed depth and originality to an otherwise familiar tale. It wasn't, however, enough to make Father of Lies more than just an average, okay, read for me. Oh well.
(Readalikes: Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill - see review and author links above)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Father of Lies from the generous folks at Harper Teen. Thank you!
Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Invisible Line: Black, White and Grey All Over

(Image from Indiebound)
For an issue as seemingly black and white as race, careful study reveals an awful lot of grey. Vanderbilt University law professor Daniel J. Sharfstein undertook one such investigation, following the histories of three American families as they traveled across the color line, changing the color of their skin, indeed their entire racial identity, from black to white. The Invisible Line, Sharfstein's first book, is their story.

Interwoven throughout the book are the family histories of three families:

The Gibsons, who were some of the first free people of color in 17th-Century Virginia, soon tired of the increasingly oppressive laws being made against free blacks. Although their arrival in South Carolina alarmed settlers who thought they were coming to head a slave revolt, the family settled peacefully in the South. There they were known as neither black nor white, but simply as planters. According to Sharfstein's research, the earliest members of the family were "reputedly ornery, never content with their station, [and]continually challenging attempts to classify them" (23). A generation or two later, Gibsons were graduating from the nation's best colleges, owning large tracts of land, buying slaves, and involving themselves in the political issues of the times.

The Spencers lived in the Appalachian Mountains, a place so remote that neighbors cared more about each others' dependability than about their ethnicity. Although Jordan Spencer's skin was visibly dark, his community accepted him as white. Since he married a white woman, his children, grand children and great-grand children had lighter skin tones, some pale enough to "pass" as Caucasian. While some members of the family left Appalachia, most stayed, finding work as salt miners. It was really only in the early 1900s, after a white man was shot, that the Spencers' ethnicity was called into question. Even then, residents of the family's community realized that the lawsuit brought against the family was more about revenge than anything else. For the most part, the Spencers stayed in Appalachia, straddling the color line for generations.

The Wall Family began with a rich plantation owner in Rockingham, North Carolina. Although Stephen Wall never married, he fathered children with three of his slaves. He refused to free the mothers of his children, but did send his offspring to Ohio, where they were reared and educated by Quaker abolitionists. Wall acquired land for them, paid for them to receive higher education, and left them money in his will. His children became passionate abolitionists, serving in the Freedman's Bureau and the Union Army. Years later, some members headed to Washington, D.C., where they continued to fight for the rights of both blacks and women. Later on, however, they faded into the white world.

Using this trio of families, Sharfstein makes many interesting points about the history of race in The United States. Most fascinating for me was the difficulty different states had in identifying what made a person "black" or "colored." Did a person need to be 1/8 black, 1/4 black or simply look black, in order to be subject to the stiffer laws? If a person hailed from a mixed ancestry, was he black, white or something in between? To what laws was he subject? This confusion led to a plethora of court cases, including one against blonde-haired, blue-eyed Isabel Wall, who, in 1909, was expelled from an all-white school because she was "colored." Strangely, the Appalachian Mountain people seemed to have the most forward-thinking attitude; for them, "The difference between black and white was less about 'blood' or biology or even genealogy than about how people were treated and whether they were allowed to participate fully in community life" (84).

Because of Sharfstein's background in law, he delves deeply into both historical lawsuits and politics to prove his points, so much so that I got a bit bored with it all. Overall, though, The Invisible Line, is a fascinating book that explores a slew of issues related to the black/white experience. Each of the families the author highlights is fascinating in its own right and offers a unique perspective on the subject. The premise (Is there really such thing as black or white?) is eye-opening, groundbreaking and definitely thought-provoking. In fact, I'm still mulling it all over. Suffice it to say, I'm glad I read The Invisible Line, even if I did yawn through a few parts.

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

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Invisible Line from the generous folks at Penguin and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.
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