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2021 Literary Escapes Challenge

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

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

My Progress:

28 / 51 states. 55% done!

2021 Fall Into Reading Challenge

My Progress:

0 / 24 books. 0% done!

2021 Children's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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

My Progress:

6 / 25 books. 24% done!

2021 Popsugar Reading Challenge

My Progress:

32 / 50 books. 64% done!

Booklist Queen's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

35 / 52 books. 67% done!

2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

2021 Craving for Cozies Reading Challenge

The 52 Club's 2021 Reading Challenge

My Progress:

39 / 52 books. 75% done!
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Normal: It's All Relative

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Addison Schmeeter knows what normal is. Or maybe she doesn't, but at least she knows what it's not. It's not a mom leaving her kids for nights on end without letting them know where she is or when she'll be home. It's not a mom refusing to get out of bed for a week. It's not a 12-year-old doing all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. It's not a parent acting like a child. The way Addie and Mommers live - nothing about it is normal. Addie knows their situation's unconventional (to say the least); she also knows she can't tell anyone about it, not if she wants to avoid ending up in foster care. Besides, Mommers needs her. Addie can't abandon her mother, no matter how crazy Mommers acts sometimes.

So, Addie hides the truth about her mother's violent mood swings - from her teachers at school, from her grandfather, and from her new friends across the street. Only Addie's ex-stepfather knows how bad Mommers gets sometimes, but no matter how hard he tries, he can't really help Addie. She knows he'd take her to live with him and her little half-sisters if Mommers would let him, but she won't. No way. She hates Dwight. And since he's not Addie's biological father, he can't legally force the issue. So Addie waits. And waits. For normal to make an appearance in her increasingly wonky life.

At least, Addie's in a new neighborhood, attending a new school. No one in this part of Schenectady knows her or Mommers. It's easier to hide. Until things get complicated. Suddenly, along with daily survival in an always-unpredictable home, Addie's got to deal with a friend's devastating secret, Dwight's new romance, and the intense stage fright that grabs hold of her every time she thinks about her upcoming violin solo. She'll have to face it all, while, at the same time, trying to predict what her mother will do next, where she will (or will not) show up, and how she's going to keep Mommer's erratic behavior a secret from prying eyes.

Although not as hard-hitting as other novels about children dealing with a parent's mental illness, Waiting for Normal is nonetheless affecting. The 2009 Schneider Family Book Award Winner by Leslie Connor takes a poignant look at one girl's brave fight for normality despite living with a mother whose manic-depression makes her life anything but. While I didn't love the book, I do think it's a well-written story about an important issue.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Miles From Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams, You Are My Only by Beth Kephart, and Small As An Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, and A Blue So Dark by Holly Schindler)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: I waffled between PG and PG-13, but finally settled on the latter because of mild langauge, intense situations, candid discussions of female issues associated with puberty and references to homosexuality.

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Waiting for Normal from the generous folks at Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of Harper Collins). Thank you!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gone Satisfying End to Wake Trilogy

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: Although this review will not contain spoilers for Gone, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from the first two books in the trilogy. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After reading her late mentor's files, 18-year-old Janie Hanagan knows the truth about her unique dream-catching abilities. She knows what her future will look like if she keeps using her "talent" to help the police track down criminals - she'll be a blind cripple before she reaches her 30th birthday. She'll be useless, a lifelong burden to anyone stupid enough to love her. Janie might be able to handle that fate, but she can't doom Cabel Strumheller to a life like that. He deserves someone normal. The best thing to do, the kindest thing, is to break up with him now, freeing him to go off to college and find himself a normal girlfriend.

Janie's still mulling it all over when she gets a frantic phone call from her best friend, urging her to get to the hospital as fast as she can. It's not Janie's alcoholic mother who's been admitted - not this time - but her father. Henry Feingold's a stranger to Janie and, now that he's in a coma, she may never get a chance to know him. Not that she wants to chitchat with the man who abandoned her as a baby. Still, his bizarre dreams beckon to her. In spite of herself, she's drawn into them. As she walks through Henry's injured mind, Janie becomes obsessed with making sense of the man who helped give her life. But when she discovers the shocking truth about her father, Janie's already bleak future begins to look downright dismal. She can't subject Cabel to that. Heck, she's not sure she can subject herself to that. As Janie tries to make peace with it all, she'll have to make some gut-wrenching decisions - about her future, about Cable, about herself.

Although nothing in Gone, the final book in Lisa McMann's Wake trilogy, really surprised me, it still kept me entertained. McMann, I've realized, is a master at pulling readers into her books, seducing them with quick action and snappy chapters that beg to be whipped through as fast as possible. It helps that she writes well, creating sympathetic characters who grapple with problems that are realistic, yet unique enough to be interesting. And then there's the paranormal twist, which gives this story an added intrigue. Still, as much as I liked the first book in the series, I wasn't impressed with the second. As for Gone, even though I found it predictable, I still thought it a satisfying end to Janie's story. Maybe I didn't love, love, love it, but I liked it well enough.

(Readalikes: Wake and Fade by Lisa McMann)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Fade: An Original Series Gets A Little Too Generic

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

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

Life's not getting any easier for 17-year-old Janie Hannagan. She's still being sucked into people's nightmares, still dealing with her drunk of a mother, still trying to figure out what makes Cabel Strumheller tick. Working for the police department isn't helping matters, either. Janie's stressed, almost to the point of breaking. She can't tell anyone outside of Cabel and the Captain Komisky about her little ability, no matter how many crimes it solves. And she can't risk blowing Cabel's cover by revealing their secret romance. Then, there's her mother, who doesn't even care enough to remember Janie's birthday.

As Janie doesn't have enough to worry about, there's something sinister going on at her high school. The police suspect a school employee might be preying on female students. Janie's job is to lure him out of hiding. It's a dangerous job, one that's stressing Janie even more, especially since Cabel won't stop giving her crap about it. Doesn't he realize she'll do anything to solve the case, even offer herself up as bait?

Complications aren't what an already-frazzled Janie needs right now, but that's what she gets when Captain Komsky hands her files belonging to the late Martha Stubin, Janie's dream-catching mentor. In her notes are startling truths about the business of dream-catching - truths that are disturbing, dangerous, even deadly. As Janie uses her unique skill to sniff out a dangerous predator, she must also come to terms with what she is - and what she's about to become.

Fade, the second book in Lisa McMann's popular Wake trilogy, didn't excite me nearly as much as the first novel did. Fade kept my attention, for sure, but the plot turned generic pretty fast. While the revelations Janie finds in Martha Stubin's files definitely added an intriguing twist to the story, the rest of the book suffered from complete and utter predictability. Also, there's a pretty significant ick factor involved. McMann still writes well, using vivid prose and short snappy chapters to entice readers into turning pages. Overall, though, this one didn't do much for me. Except convince me to read the next book. Ahem.

(Readalikes: Wake and Gone by Lisa McMann)

Grade: C

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Monday, November 28, 2011

Feed Offers Not-Very-Subtle Wake-Up Call For Our Plugged-In World

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I'm not sure why I thought Feed, a 2002 National Book Award finalist by M.T. Anderson, had to do with zombies. Maybe because of the title? Or maybe because the closer we creep to 2012, the more nervous I get about an undead apocalypse? Anyway, whatever the reason, I was totally wrong. No zombies shuffle their way through this book. Except, sort of, in a way, they do. Only they're not the slobbering, walking dead variety. Not exactly.

In this futuristic YA novel, almost anything has become possible. Spring Breakers can party on the moon. Jet-setting off to Mars is completely doable. And no one has to go offline. Ever. Feeds are transplanted straight into people's brains, allowing them to not just stand, but live their entire lives, at the very center of the information superhighway. A constant stream of content pours into their heads, meaning they never have to sound ignorant, never have to wonder about anything, never need to bother with learning or thinking at all. Ads flash through their minds continually, keeping them up-to-date on the latest fashion trends, celebrity breakups and cool, new gadgets. With a functioning feed, they can fit in anywhere, with anyone.

But what happens when a feed malfunctions? Titus is about to find out.

When the teenager and his friends go looking for a little lunar fun, they discover something: the Moon kinda sucks. In no time, their little excursion has gotten totally null. They're bored out of their feed-blasted minds. Then, Titus meets Violet Durn. Not only is Violet stunningly beautiful, but she's different. Like, somehow she seems more real than anyone else Titus has ever known. She's a little out of the loop, sure, but she's unique, something exciting to brighten his dull vacation. Titus convinces a reluctant Violet to come party with him and his friends at a night club his feed assures him is hot. He's having a good time (even if she's not) when the unthinkable happens - a raging doomsayer hacks into both their feeds, spamming them with angry extremist mumbo jumbo. In order to get their systems back online, both their feeds will have to be shut down. Immediately.

Without the noise in his head, Titus experiences an unsettling quiet, a kind of clarity he's never known before. Between the weird emptiness in his brain and Violet's odd observations about life (""Everything we've grown up with - the stories on the feed, the games, all of that - it's streaming our personalities so we're easier to sell to ...'" [97]), Titus literally does not know what to think. Even when the feed doctors reboot him and everything's back to normal, he's out of sorts, a feeling which only increases when Violet gives him some very disturbing news. Suddenly, Titus is asking questions he's never even considered before: What, in his life, is real? Who is he - his own person or some kind of product manufactured by the wily feed gods? If he didn't have his feed to stuff him full of info, would he be worth anything at all?

The allegorical Feed offers a chilling commentary on our Internet/Facebook/Twitter-obsessed times. In alternately frenetic (when he is on feed) and calmer (when he's off) chapters, Titus explores concerns that plague all of us with our increasingly virtual lives - realitiy vs. the online world; genuine human conversation vs. instant messaging, Facebook status updating, and Tweeting; true scholarship vs. copycat research; and developing authentic personality vs. allowing marketers to tell us who to be. The book's lesson isn't very subtle, but the plot's entertaining and Anderson's point comes across in a way that's both vivid and affecting. I can't say I loved Feed; I can say I appreciated it. And I haven't stopped thinking about it. Must be the zombie thing ...

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Girl Parts by John M. Cusick and, oddly, of the movie Wall-E)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Frigid Dystopian Novel An Intriguing Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I tried to resist reading After the Snow by S.D. Crockett. I really did. Not for forever, just until it got closer to the book's publication date (March 2012). But everything about the book intrigued me - the setting (an arctic dystopian England - haven't seen that one before), the cover (chilling, no?), and the plot (teenager's family gets taken, leaving him to fend for himself in a frigid, empty world). So, you see why I had to read it, right? Right? And, of course, I could just post-date this review, but where would the fun in that be? This way, you can get just as interested, just as excited about the novel as I did!

The story begins on a cold, icy day - because that's how every day dawns in Willo Blake's eternally white world. The 15-year-old is a straggler, one of the few people who live outside the enclosed cities, staying well below the government's radar. He, along with his father, stepmother, younger sister, and an assortment of friends, eke out a life in the hills, eating the animals they kill and trading their furs to a trusted outsider in order to purchase other supplies. The stragglers may not play by the government's rules, but they're not doing anything wrong. Just trying to survive.

On this particular afternoon, Willo's out hunting in the hills. When he returns, he senses right away that something's wrong. His home looks and feels deserted. Creeping closer, he discovers that everyone's gone. Judging from the tire tracks in the snow and the half-eaten breakfast abandoned on the kitchen table, his people have been discovered and apprehended by police. Willo knows they could be back for him at any time, could even be hiding somewhere on the property waiting to nab him. Not sure what to do or where to go, Willo takes off into the mountains. He's been hiding himself, masking his scent and noise for as long as he can remember - he'll do that now while he figures out a plan.

It doesn't take long for Willo to hit a snag. As he tromps through the frozen land, he comes across a young girl. Stick-thin and starving, she's waiting for her father to return. Willo's already found the man - he's dead in a shed out behind the hovel where the girl is waiting. Thirteen-year-old Mary, now an orphan, is so distraught, so far out of her mind, that Willo can't reason with her. He also can't leave her by herself, especially not with a pack of wolves circling outside, just waiting for another carcass to tear apart. He also can't drag her along with him, seeing as she's a city girl, unused to living in the wild. Now, he has a plan: Get Mary back to the city, then figure out how to get to his own family.

The city, though, isn't what Willo thought it would be. It's much bleaker, much more dangerous. As Willo tries to navigate his way through its filthy makeshift streets, he'll learn some shocking truths - about life in the dingy city, about his own family, and, mostly, about himself. With these revelations comes the realization that he's now in more danger than he could ever have imagined. Maybe he's no match for the animals that stalk the hillsides, but in the city, it's a whole different kind of hunt. Here, in "civilization," Willo's the prey.

The narration in After the Snow is a little hard to follow at first (Willo's speech resembles that of Todd in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness), but once you get used to it, Willo tells a gripping post-apocalyptic tale. Which is grim, to be sure. Also fast-paced and exciting. It's a chilling dystopian/survival story, set in a unique climate, which makes it even more fascinating. After the Snow might not be my favorite YA dystopian novel - still, it's an engrossing, well-written adventure that kept me flipping pages well into the night. Bottom line: I liked it.

(Readalikes: The Road by Cormac McCarthy; The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch; The Chaos Walking trilogy [The Ask and the Answer; The Knife of Never Letting Go; Monsters of Men] by Patrick Ness; also reminded me a little of Trapped by Michael Northrop)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence and intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of After the Snow from the generous folks at Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan). Thank you!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Korman Tackles Titanic As 100th Anniversary of Sinking Nears

As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic nears, a rash of books on the subject are being published - fiction, non-fiction and everything in between. With hundreds of volumes about the disaster already on the market, you'd think the story would be getting a little stale. Not so. At least not for me. No matter how many times I hear Titanic's tragic tale, I find it fascinating. Even though I know how the story ends, I'm riveted every time. It's not really about the history for me - although I find that interesting, too - but about the humanity. The heart-wrenching drama of it all never fails to move me.

When I heard Gordon Korman would be writing a middle grade trilogy about the greatest maritime disaster in history, I knew I needed to read it. I have to confess right up front that I haven't read a lot of Korman's books (especially considering the fact that he's written 50+) and the ones I have read haven't been all that impressive. Still, like I said, Titanic intrigues me. And guess what? Korman did the subject justice. I have my complaints, sure, but Unsinkable, Collision Course and S.O.S. are the best stories I've ever read by Gordon Korman. As a whole, I enjoyed the series - the characters, the action, even the writing. The series makes for a very decent introduction to the always compelling story of the great R.M.S. Titanic.

Book One: Unsinkable
The first volume in the series introduces us to four teenagers: Paddy Burns, a 14-year-old pickpocket from Belfast; Sophie Bronson, a wealthy Bostonian, who is also 14; Alfie Huggins, a 15-year-old cabin steward from England; and Juliana Glamm, the 15-year-old daughter of a British earl. All are aboard the Titanic for various reasons. The girls are both traveling in the luxury of First Class, while Alfie bunks with other White Star Line employees and Paddy, a stowaway, hides in whatever corner he can find. Although rules aboard the ocean liner prevent any mixing among the different classes, the kids form an unlikely friendship when their fates tie them together in what will become a desperate fight for survival.

For now, though, the teens have their own problems to worry about. Paddy's running away from the bloodthirsty Irish crime boss who just killed his best friend when he accidentally becomes a stowaway on Titanic. The ship's so enormous, he knows it's unlikely anyone will discover his presence. Except people do. Now, Paddy's got to keep out of sight or risk capture by enemies both old and new. Sophie's mortified when she and her mother are escorted onto the ship by police. She's had enough drama and just wants to get home without calling any more attention to herself. In truth, though, she's terribly lonesome. When she meets three new friends, she'll get caught up in new adventures in spite of herself. Alfie's happy to be working aboard the same ship as his father, a stoker down in Boiler Five, even if he did have to lie about his age to snag the job. He won't do anything to jeopardize his position as a junior steward, especially not aid a stowaway. Unfortunately, the stowaway knows Alfie's secret - and will go straight to Captain Smith about it if Alfie refuses to help him. As part of England's uppercrust, Juliana seems to have no problems. What people don't know is that her family's fortune has run out due to her father's incessant gambling. If she can't convince him to stop betting away the last of their money, they'll lose everything.
As each member of the quartet struggles with his or her own personal problems, they get entangled in each other's as well.

Book Two: Collision Course

Titanic's voyage has barely begun and junior steward Alfie Huggins already has a lot on his plate. Between serving his demanding First Class passengers; keeping an eye on Paddy, the stowaway; and trying to make time to hang out with his Da, he's got plenty to do. Then, he finds a strange object in the baggage hold: a macabre scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about Jack the Ripper and weird souveniers that seem to have been collected by the killer himself. Alfie's certain that England's most notorious murderer is on Titanic. What's worse, he's one of the people the junior steward is being paid to attend to. His friends aren't convinced, but Alfie knows that if the violent criminal isn't stopped, no one in America is safe. It's up to him to expose the man's real identity. But what if he's wrong?

Meanwhile, Paddy's stirring up trouble all over the boat, Juliana discovers the real reason her father's taking her to America and Sophie's helping Alfie track down a killer. Danger seems to be lurking in even the most unexpected of places. But when Titanic hits an iceberg, danger takes on a whole new meaning ...

Book Three:S.O.S.
As Titanic begins to fill with water, Paddy, Sophie, Alfie and Julianna scrabble to understand what's going on. Chaos reigns as all the passengers begin to realize that the "unsinkable" ship is really and truly going down. With not enough room in the lifeboats for everyone on board, hasty, life-or-death decisions must be made. Who will live? Who will die?

The teenagers' concerns aren't only for themselves. They must find their loved ones - Sophie's mom, Juliana's dad, the kindly Mrs. Rankin and, of course, Alfie's father, who's stuck in the boilers with the rest of the "black gang." As time runs out for the great Titanic and all of her passengers, our four young heroes will face the fight of their lives - to save their friends, their families and, if they're lucky, themselves.

My thoughts on the series:

Although the story of the Titanic brings its own drama, Korman enhances the story with some extra mystery and adventure. This keeps the tale exciting, while getting the reader even more invested in the characters' fates. While Korman focuses mostly on the action/adventure aspects of the story, he doesn't skimp on his story people - they're sympathetic, interesting and relatable. I cared about them, rooted for them and wanted them all to make it to safety. While the second book gets a little too copycat for me (not factwise, but fictionwise - some of its scenes/plot devices come straight out of Titanic, the movie), overall, I enjoyed this series quite well.

(Readalikes: Dear America: Voyage on the Titanic by Ellen Emerson White; I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic by Lauren Tarshis; and The Watch That Ends the Night by Allan Wolf)

Series Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received copies of all the books in this trilogy from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

(Book images are from Barnes & Noble)
Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pray For Me - And My Turkey

So, I've realized that Thanksgiving is a lot more work when you're doing all the cooking yourself. It's a revelation. Seriously. Usually, my talented-in-so-many-ways MIL does all the cooking and all I have to do is show up. Bring a vegetable tray, maybe, or help peel potatoes, but nothing more strenuous than that. This year, though, she's out of town, as are most of my other turkey-making relatives. Thus, Thanksgiving's all on me. Are you worried? You should be. At least I can console myself with the knowledge that even if I totally screw up the meal, only my immediate family will know about it. And, sadly, they're no strangers to my cooking catastrophes.

But, enough about the food. That's not what Thanksgiving's really about, right? Right? Of course not; it's about counting one's blessings. I have so much to be thankful for, including a large, lively group of blog readers. Thank you so much for supporting BBB this year - for your comments, your emails, your Likes on Facebook, your recommendations and, most of all, your friendship. It truly does mean a great deal to me.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone! And, if you're offering up prayers tomorrow, send one up for me and my turkey, won't you? We're going to need all the help we can get.

(Photo is courtesy of my SIL)
Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You Are My Only Moving Story About Strength, Resilience

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Sophie Marks doesn't want much really, just the things the average 14-year-old takes for granted: school, friends, laughter, an occasional trip to the mall or the movies. It's so little to wish for, but Sophie knows she'll never get any of those things. Not as long as she lives with Cheryl Marks. Her mother is so afraid of the outside world, so paranoid of what she calls the "No Good," that she refuses to leave the house any more than she absolutely has to. Since Sophie doesn't work or go to school, she's never allowed to stray outdoors. Her mother insists she remain inside, with the door locked and the shades drawn against prying eyes. Sophie obeys, as she always has, because it's the only way to keep her mother calm. But she can't stop hoping, wishing things were different.

As isolated as the Marks' new rental home is, it's not the only one hidden back in the woods. When Sophie spies a boy about her age playing outside with his dog, the urge to reach out to him is so strong that she does the unspeakable - she talks to him. Soon, she's creeping outside to play baseball with him. Then, she's sneaking over to the house where Joey Rudd lives with his two aunts. Their home life seems so sweet, so normal, that lonely Sophie can't stay away. She has to be extra careful, though - if her mother knew she was consorting with strangers, Cheryl would pack up their meager belongings and drag Sophie onto the next train out of there.

Sophie's small rebellion sparks a curiosity she's never felt before. Now, she's wondering about her mother: Why is Cheryl so afraid? As she sifts through the few momentos her mother's kept from their life together, Sophie discovers a shocking truth, one that has her questioning everything she's ever known to be true.

The premise of You Are My Only, a new YA novel by Beth Kephart, intrigued me from the moment I heard about it. The novel's execution, unfortunately, doesn't quite live up to its potential. Still, I enjoyed this bittersweet story about the awakening of a girl whose spirit refuses to be broken, no matter what. It's a tale about desperation, fear, hope and, ultimately, healing. The book's not as affecting as similar titles (Miles From Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams, say), but it's definitely a moving novel that shows how damaging a parent's mental illness can be for a child. Our heroine's bravery, though, teaches a more powerful lesson, one that celebrates the strength, resilience and courage shown by all the real-life Sophies who struggle with this problem every single day. and, somehow, manage to survive

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs) and mature themes/situations

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Monday, November 21, 2011

Last Norma Fox Mazer Novel Leaves Me Feeling Dreary, Disappointed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's easy to get lost in the shuffle when you come from a large family, especially one as dysfunctional as the Herberts. Just ask 11-year-old Autumn. She's the youngest of five - all girls - and nothing about her stands out. She's not mature like 17-year-old Beauty; she's not nurturing like 16-year-old Mim; she's not passionate like 14-year-old Stevie; and she's not mentally challenged like 12-year-old Fancy. Autumn's just ... ordinary. Well, as ordinary as it gets in her family.

Even the man who secretly watches the Herbert girls doesn't pick her as a favorite. He's not sure which sister he prefers; he likes watching them all. Everything about them intrigues him - from the way they prance about town, to the way their chatter fills the air around them, to their bright eyes, shiny hair and youthful innocence. If he didn't keep himself under rigorous control, he'd let them know just how he feels. But he can't, he can't. No one can know about his little problem. He doesn't want to go back to jail. Better to stay anonymous and admire his girls from a distance. And wait.

His patience pays off. When Autumn takes off one day after a particularly intense day in the Herbert household, fate delivers her right to his door. He's delighted. She's terrified. He wants her to stay forever. She's desperate to get back to her family, however screwed up they may be. As the days of her captivity wear on, Autumn realizes it's up to her to save herself. Digging deep for the inner strength she needs to survive, Autumn's determined to prove - if not to her family, at least to herself - that she's not invisible, not helpless, not ordinary. Not at all.

The Missing Girl, a chilling psychological thriller by Norma Fox Mazer, is told in alternating voices that give an already intense story added depth and intensity. The Herbert sisters, all realistically flawed, are sympathetic characters, which makes their plight even more affecting. Still, I found their story a little too generic, a little too predictable, a little too reliant on coincidence to be believable. Like all books of this sort, it's also disturbing. Although it does end on a hopeful note, I still found this one too dreary. Ultimately, The Missing Girl - the last book, incidentally, that Mazer wrote before her death in 2009 - left me feeling more disappointed than anything else.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Stolen by Lucy Christopher, Girl, Stolen by April Henry, and Circle Nine by Anne Heltzel)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs) and disturbing images/content

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dear America Titanic Story Familiar, But Still Entertaining

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
When Margaret Ann Brady's older brother sails to America, leaving her in a London orphanage, she's devastated. Well-cared for certainly, but lonely for the only person in the world she can truly call family. The 13-year-old has been in the orphanage for five years when, in March of 1912, a golden opportunity falls in her lap: A wealthy American woman who will soon be traveling home is in need of a companion to help her on the trip. Margaret's only a little reluctant to leave England. Mostly, she's thrilled for the chance to earn some money, live in America and, of course, be reunited with her brother. The fact that she'll be aboard the R.M.S. Titanic, the most glorious ship ever built, is just frosting on the cake.

Margaret's amazed by the enormous ocean liner and amused by the wealthy toffs who inhabit the Titanic's First Class staterooms. Her employer, Mrs. Carstairs, is just as ridiculous as the rest, but at least she gives Margaret plenty of time to herself. Margaret spends those hours exploring the ship; visiting with Robert, a 16-year-old cabin steward from Liverpool; and writing all about her adventures in her diary.

Just when Margaret's getting used to all the luxuries of the great ship, the unthinkable happens: the Titanic hits an iceberg. Suddenly what was supposed to be an exciting pleasure ride turns into a desperate struggle for survival. Margaret's caught in the thick of it. As everyone fights to save themselves, she experiences firsthand the fear, the horror, and the heroism that occurred on the fateful night of April 14, 1912.
With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic coming up, a slew of books on the subject are being released. First published in 1998, Dear America: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady: Voyage on the Great Titanic by Ellen Emerson White, was recently re-issued as part of Scholastic's effort to update its popular historical fiction series. Like the other books in the series, this one is written in diary entries which use well-known facts to provide an eye-witness account of a famous happening. Although Margaret Ann Brady never lived, breathed, or traveled on the Titanic, she represents the children who did - her "thoughts" allow readers to put themselves into the shoes of the people who really did sail on the great, "unsinkable" ship.

So much has been written about the Titanic tragedy that creating an original account of it may be impossibile. Indeed, this one tells a familiar tale, one that didn't add any new information to my collection of Titanic lore. Still, it's an exciting story, told in an engaging manner. Margaret's a plucky heroine, funny and brave, who will capture readers' interest with her playful mischeviousness. Her dual place in the working class and First Class worlds of the Titanic make her universally appealing. Her story moves quickly, keeping readers entertained with action, adventure, humor, even a little romance. It wasn't enough to completely blow me away, but I enjoyed this ride on the Titanic - especially since I experienced the voyage in my recliner, safe at home in 2011.

(Readalikes: I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912 by Lauren Tarshis and the Titanic trilogy by Gordon Korman [Unsinkable; Collision Course; S.O.S.]; also, the Dear America series reminds me of the American Girl historical novels)

Grade: B-

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Dear America: Voyage on the Great Titanic from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!
Thursday, November 17, 2011

Creepy Cryer's Cross An Entertaining Spine-Tingler

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When a high school freshman from Cryer's Cross, Montana, disappears, it rocks the tiny town to its core. Despite days of searching the area, no one can find a trace of the missing girl. It could be she just ran away, but, to 17-year-old Kendall Fletcher, the whole thing feels sinister. Kendall knows she won't rest easy until she finds out what happened to her classmate - not because she was particularly close to the girl, more because her OCD makes coping with ambiguity difficult. To say the least.

The town's still reeling from the first disappearance when another local teen vanishes. This time, it's someone much closer to Kendall's heart. This time, she knows it's foul play, because 17-year-old Nico Cruz - her boyfriend - would never leave without telling Kendall. Even with the rumor mill suggesting Nico ran off with the missing girl, Kendall's resolute: Something terrible happened to Nico. It's only when Kendall realizes the two missing teens both used the same school desk that she starts to connect some dots. When she notices messages scratched into the desk's wooden surface, messages that plead for help, she knows she's found a vital clue in the mystery of the lost kids. It's when she starts hearing their voices seeping out of the desk, though, that she begins wondering if she's completely crazy. Because if she isn't, then she's dealing with something old, something evil, something not of this world. It's all tied to a dark Cryer's Cross secret - one that no one wants to acknowledge, let alone let out. The closer Kendall comes to figuring it out, the closer she comes to becoming the next victim ...

Cryer's Cross by Lisa McMann is a creepy little tale, with some original touches that make it memorable (I don't know about you, but I've never read a story about a haunted desk before). It moves quickly, keeping the reader interested, if not surprised. Kendall's a sympathetic character, whose OCD makes her unique, while giving her personality added depth. Predictability and a rather anticlimatic ending did sour this one a little for me - overall, though, I found the book entertaining, albeit in a Halloween-ish, nightmare-inducing sort of way. Which is why I read it during the day. With the lights on. While hiding under my bed. Ahem. You know you're a wimp when ...

(Readalikes: Um, I should be able to think of lots, but nothing's really coming to mind. Ideas?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (a few F-bombs plus milder invectives) and violence

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Searing, Provocative Dystopian Scarlet Letter Begs to Be Discussed

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Imagine a world where, instead of being sentenced to prison terms, criminals are chromed, their skin tinted different colors to announce their status as thieves, swindlers, pedophiles. That's the punishment given to all but the worst offenders in the dystopian U.S. of Hillary Jordan's thought-provoking new novel, When She Woke. A re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter, Jordan's book raises the same questions Hawthorne's did: Does one sinner have the right to judge another? When has one suffered enough for the act he/she committed? Who is more free - the incarcerated individual, whose crimes are publicly known, or the one whose guilt must be endured alone and in silence? How do "faithful" Christian people justify shaming, instead of forgiving, one who has wronged another? How much of a role - if any - should religion play in the formation and upholding of a country's laws? And, perhaps most relevant, what is the most effective method of punishing and reforming a wrongdoer?
For Hannah Payne, a 26-year-old seamstress, chroming is just a part of life. She sees Chromes frequently on the streets of Dallas, but like any good girl, she stays far away from them. A devout woman like Hannah, whose almost cloistered life revolves solely around her church and her family, has nothing in common with outcasts like them. At least that's what she thinks. Until a secret affair with a prominent minister leaves her pregnant. By law, she can't have the baby without naming its father. Not willing to risk her lover's pious reputation by exposing him as an adulterer, she seeks an abortion instead. The act, considered murder by both church and state, earns Hannah a sentence of 16 years as a Red.
When she's released from the hospital, where her chroming procedure was not only performed, but televised to the public, Hannah stumbles out into a world grown suddenly cruel. Her flaming red skin seems to render her inhuman, making her both a target for lewd jeers and a danger to be avoided at all costs. Shunned by her family, Hannah must make her way in a world where she has no rights, where discrimination colors her every interaction, where she's judged - instantly and harshly - by the crime she has committed. It's a bleak, tortorous existence, one made even more difficult by the fact that Hannah can't see her family or acknowledge the man she loves or live any kind of normal life. The shunning, the humiliation, the hardness of the punishment are all designed to teach Hannah one thing - how it feels to be victimized.
Hannah knows she could end it all by choosing suicide over endurance, but she doesn't have the courage to do to herself what she did to her unborn child. Besides, her new life is showing her things she never saw before: hypocrisy, lies, hate, and truth. As she struggles to come to terms with life as a Red, Hannah "unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love" (quote from jacket copy).
The premise of When She Woke intrigued me from the second I heard about it. It's a fascinating concept, explored in a way that is raw, searing, yet sympathetic, too. Much to my surprise, Jordan made me care about Hannah, even though I found her crime repugnant and her "selfless" justification deplorable. I didn't agree with the majority of Hannah's decisions, but I still found her story riveting. Jordan writes so vividly, so provocatively that I literally could not stop myself from turning the pages of When She Woke. In the end, though, I disagreed so strongly with Hannah's conclusions that I found myself ultimately disappointed by a novel I thought I might love. My own beliefs just differ too strongly, I guess, although I still think this novel would make a great book club choice. Like Hawthorne's masterpiece, When She Woke just begs to be discussed.
(Readalikes: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Small-Town Sinners by Melissa Walker)
Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, sexual content and adult situations/themes
To the FTC, with love: I bought When She Woke at Changing Hands Bookstore with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Simple, But Profound: Locomotion Another Winner From Jacqueline Woodson

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When a fire kills his parents, everything changes for Lonnie Collins Motion (aka "Locomotion). With no relatives available to care for them, he and his younger sister are placed in foster care. In different homes. Lonnie vows to keep what's left of his family together, but it's becoming more and more difficult. It's been four years since his parents died and he and Lili are still living apart. They've both got decent foster moms - Lonnie just wishes they could live under the same roof. But, judging from the evil eye he gets from Lili's foster mom whenever he comes around, that ain't gonna be happening anytime soon.
Lonnie's full to bursting with suppressed emotion. So, when his teacher suggests expressing his thoughts through poetry, he decides to give it a try. Soon, his poetry notebook's full of verses - about himself, his sister, his nightmares of the past and his dreams for the future. Letting it all out helps Lonnie make sense of his jumbled-up life, giving him a measure of peace, even when things aren't working out quite the way he wants them to.
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson is a short, but powerful book about one boy's quest to understand himself and his place in a world that has changed so irrevocably he barely recognizes it. Through the verses he pens, Lonnie becomes not just knowable, but sympathetic and admirable. If you've read Woodson before (and if you haven't, you really must), you know she has a knack for creating interesting, relatable characters who make her stories about family, friendship, race, and identity all the more personal. Locomotion is just such a tale. With a beautiful simplicity that's both sensitive and realistic, Woodson has penned yet another memorable middle grade novel. It's a quick read that's definitely worth the time.
(Readalikes: Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson)
Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library

Woodson Does It Again With Touching Companion Novel

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(Note: Although this review will not contain spoilers for Peace, Locomotion, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from Locomotion, its predecessor. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After a fire kills their parents, Lonnie Collins Motion ("Locomotion") and his younger sister, Lily, are placed in foster care. Separately. Now, it's been five years since they've lived under the same roof. Maybe they never will again. Maybe Lili, with her doting new foster mama, will forget everything - her real parents, her real brother, and her real life. Lonnie can't let that happen. To help Lili remember who she really is, he's writing letters to his sister, sharing his memories, reminding her of the close, loving family of which they were both a part.

Even though Lonnie's not with his sister, he's happy enough with his own foster home. Miss Edna may be a little grouchy, but she's kind and takes good care of him. He's finally feeling comfortable living with her when the situation changes. With her son coming home from an overseas war, it's going to get a little crowded at Miss Edna's. Too crowded for Lonnie? As he fights to maintain control over his own life, Lonnie worries about his little sister, worries about forgetting, worries about being displaced once again. As he pours it all out in his letters to Lili, Lonnie's soul finds an unexpected peace - even if his happy ending isn't coming in quite the way he thought it would.

Peace, Locomotion, a companion novel to Jacqueline Woodson's award-winning Locomotion, is told with the author's trademark simple, but profound, style. Because it's composed entirely of Lonnie's letters to Lili, the story's intensely personal. The 12-year-old's love for his sister comes through loud and clear, as does his changing definition of the meaning of family and his great longing for peace. I love Woodson's books for so many reasons - this one shines because of its engaging hero, its (mostly) positive exploraton of foster care, and, of course, that unique warmth that radiates out of every novel the author writes. Like its predecessor, Peace, Locomotion is another gem from the incomparable Jacqueline Woodson.

(Readalikes: Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find
Monday, November 14, 2011

The Talk-Funny Girl Bleak, But Powerful

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"I had my protective shell of funny talk and shyness, but underneath that lived a wilder me, a girl who would take punishment, and take it, and take it, but who would never let go of herself all the way, never completely surrender" (87).

Marjorie Richards knows all about fear. The 17-year-old can't go home without feeling it, she can't walk the school corridors without experiencing it and, now that teenage girls are disappearing in her rural New Hampshire community, she can't go anywhere at all without constantly looking over her shoulder. Marjorie's reclusive parents have always told her the outside world isn't safe - she's starting to believe them.

Unlike her parents, though, Marjorie can't hide out in the hills. She's required by law to attend school. Even though her classmates snicker about the way she talks, her teachers raise their eyebrows at her bruises, and more than one boy makes it clear what he wants from her, Marjorie craves the normality of it all. When she's hired to help Arturo "Sands" Ivers, a 24-year-old stranger in town, build a church, she spends even more time basking in the freedom of life away from her cruel parents. As intoxicating as it is to be out from under their constant supervision, Marjorie's afraid to step too far away from her mother and father. She pities them, but mostly she fears what they will do if she dares defy them. The paycheck she brings them every month may be the only thing that keeps them from killing her outright.

As Marjorie grows more comfortable with her job as an assistant stonemason - and with her inscrutable boss - she feels her confidence growing. But will it be enough to save her from her parents' escalating sadism? Or the vicious murderer, who may be closer to Marjorie than she knows? Will it be enough to rescue her from the squalid fate for which she seems destined? Or will she become just another victim - of poverty, of abuse, and of a violent killer?

The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo is as depressing as it sounds, but it's also an evocative, intimate novel about one girl's resilience in the face of unspeakable abuse. It's personal, painful, and, ultimately, hopeful - although in a way that's imperfect enough to be believable. The story is not an easy one to read and yet, I couldn't put it down. While I can't say I loved The Talk-Funny Girl, I can say I won't forget it anytime soon.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a lot of Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell and a little of Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for mild language, sexual innuendo/content, and violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Talk-Funny Girl from the generous folks at Crown Publishers. Thank you!
Saturday, November 12, 2011

Superzero A Gem All Around

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Eight-grader Reggie McKnight's not exactly the biggest mover and shaker on campus. In fact, the last time his smarty-pants Brooklyn school offered him a big, be-somebody moment, he ended up puking all over the principal's shoes. Onstage. With the whole student body looking on. Now, "Pukey" McKnight's determined to keep a low profile in the hopes that his classmates will just forget he exists.
Naturally, Reggie's not planning to participate in the upcoming school elections, but when he gets roped into managing the campaign of a pushy classmate, he wonders if this might the perfect opportunity to make the school elections really mean something. He's been volunteering with his church youth group at a homeless shelter, an experience that's changing his whole outlook on life. The project is so important to Reggie that he wants to recruit more volunteers to help out at the shelter - if only he could convince more of his classmates to show up, Reggie knows it will make a huge difference in a lot of people's lives. And, in spite of himself, he does want to make a difference. The problem is no one else does, especially not Clarke's presidential candidates, who are more concerned about throwing parties and creating scholarships for themselves. If Reggie's going to get his classmates' attention, he's going to have to do something drastic. Something more convincing than spewing onstage.
So much for keeping a low profile. Suddenly, Reggie's got more worries than he can handle. It's not just winning the election that's got him fretting, it's his dad, who's still unemployed; his best guy friend, who doesn't seem to get him anymore; George, the homeless guy who's gone missing; and, of course, pretty Mailone Davis, who's making him nervous with all the attention she's suddenly paying to him. With so much on the line, Reggie can't afford to choke - or puke - but that's just what he feels like doing ...
As generic as 8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich may sound, it's not. Or maybe the story is, except, really, it isn't. Oh, I don't know! All I can say is I loved this funny, upbeat novel about a boy who learns to stand up for himself, believe in his own potential, and use his influence, however meager, to make a difference. Reggie is a likable everyman whose voice and struggles will ring true with anyone who's ever trudged his/her way through middle school. Perkovich writes with humor, authenticity, and confidence, making 8th Grade Superzero a gem all around. Did I mention how much I adore this novel? Seriously, people, it's a must-read.
(Readalikes: I should be able to think of a million readalikes, but I can't. Suggestions?)

Grade: A

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

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of 8th Grade Superzero from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!
Friday, November 11, 2011

The Iron King Entertaining, Even Without the "Wow" Factor

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
Meghan Chase has never quite fit in - not in her tiny Louisiana hick town, not with her classmates at the high school, not even in her own family. Only goofy Robbie Goodfell seems to get her. Everyone else thinks Meghan's weird, but it's not until Meghan turns 16 that she starts to believe them. Because, suddenly, she's seeing things that can't be real, hearing things that make no sense, and feeling the oddest sensations. The shivery feeling reminds her of the day when her six-year-old self watched her father disappear without a trace. It's not a happy feeling.
When Meghan expresses her worries to Robbie, he tells her the shocking truth: Meghan's half faery. The things she's seeing are glimpses of the Nevernever, a realm filled with creatures straight out of storybooks - and not the pleasant kind. Meghan wants nothing to do with the weird, alternative world, but when a terrifying creature sucks her 4-year-old stepbrother through some mystical faery portal, she has to follow. With Robbie (or something sort of resembling Robbie) as her guide, Meghan wanders through a strange fantasy world, learning why Robbie's always called her "Princess" (she's the daughter of a fabled faery king), why he kept the truth from her (to protect her from the king's enemies), and why her presence in the Nevernever could be disastrous (the king's enemies will, no doubt, use her as a pawn in their budding turf war). No matter how dangerous the Nevernever may be for her, Meghan refuses to leave until she finds her brother. Only then will she be able to leave the faery world behind. Only then can she turn her back on this magical, terrible world. Forever.
The Iron King, the first book in Julie Kagawa's popular Iron Fey series, introduces a lush fantasy world that is at once familiar and distinct. The satyrs, gremlins, sirens, goblins, even the Cheshire-ish cat won't surprise anyone, but Kagawa's secret race (I can't go into detail without being spoiler-y) bring in a little freshness. Plotwise, the story's quick-paced and exciting, even if it is mostly predictable. As for the characters, well, they tend to be either cliche or flat or both. All in all, though, The Iron King kept me entertained, if not exactly wowed.
(Readalikes: Reminds me of Need and Captivate by Carrie Jones and a little of The Mortal Instruments series [City of Bones; City of Ashes; City of Glass; City of Fallen Angels] by Cassandra Clare)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence and sexual innuendo)
To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Hannah Fans Can Rest Easy - The Lake Eden Cookbook Is Here

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Fans of cookie baker and amateur sleuth Hannah Swenson (heroine of Joanne Fluke's popular culinary mystery series) can finally rest easy. After many requests for a cookbook made of all the delectable recipes found in her novels, Fluke complied. The result? Lake Eden Cookbook: Hannah Swenson's Recipes From The Cookie Jar, which released a little over a month ago. Just in time for holiday baking, the cookbook contains all the recipes from the books as well as a "generous sprinkling of new never-before-published" recipes. Since the majority of Fluke's/Hannah's recipes cannot be found online (at least not officially), this is a real treat for those who love Hannah and/or those who love to bake.

Since Hannah is, primarily, a cookie baker, the majority of "her" recipes are for just that. From drop cookies to bar cookies to cut-out cookies to a cookie pizza, the variety is dazzling. Hannah's specialty might be cookies, but that's not all she does - "her" cookbook includes instructions for making several different types of candy, muffins, cakes, cupcakes, pies, even soups and salads. All of the recipes look delicious, are clearly worded and seem to be doable even for newbie bakers. Oh, and did I mention the substitutions list that starts on Page 323? I've never seen the like - who knew there were substitutes for brown sugar, self-rising flour, even eggs? I didn't.

Those bakers who also love the Hannah Swenson books will enjoy the story that runs through the cookbook. It's nothing terribly exciting (no one gets killed anyway) and you won't miss any important plot developments by ignoring it, but it's kind of fun to read about Hannah's catering woes during an oncoming snowstorm. Also, on the inside book covers is a quaint, colorful map of Lake Eden - something I, at least, have never seen before. It's a fun visual that helps bring Fluke's stories to life.

My complaints about the cookbook are few. I would have liked a bigger, spiral-bound version, which would make the book much more kitchen-friendly. As is, it's formatted like another volume in the series - hardbound, with no color (except on the map). Also, it would have been really nice to see color photos of each of the finished products, since, without a picture, I'm never sure if what I baked looks like it's supposed to look. Additionally, the recipes do not include any nutritional info at all. Considering how much fat and sugar are in many of them, maybe it's better that I not know!

Despite those little annoyances, I've been really pleased with Lake Eden Cookbook: Hannah Swensen's Recipes From The Cookie Jar. I can't wait to try more of the recipes, since they all look fantastic. If you've got a Fluke fan or a baker or both on your Christmas list this year, search this one out. Seriously. Just thinking about baking more of Hannah's sweet treats makes me salivate. Mmm, mmm, mmm. I hope Fluke's coming out with a diet cookbook next - I'm definitely going to need it!

(Readalikes: All the books in Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen series, including Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Strawberry Shortcake Murder, Blueberry Muffin Murder and Lemon Meringue Pie Murder)

Grade: B

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

To the FTC, with love: I bought The Lake Eden Cookbook from Amazon with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.)

I must have been really overloaded on Halloween candy when I selected the recipes I wanted to make for this blog post. Usually, I go straight for the chocolate, but the two treats I selected both involve fruit (which totally makes them healthy, right?). Enjoy!

Oh, and in the recipes, comments in parantheses are Fluke's/Swensen's, comments in brackets are mine.


3 cups orange juice (you'll need 6 cups in all)

1 envelope dry Dream Whip (the kind that makes 2 cups)

1 package dry vanilla pudding mix (the kind that makes 2 cups)***

3 more cups orange juice

Pour the 3 cups of orange juice into a blender. Add the envelope of dry Dream Whip and the dry pudding mix. Blend for one minute on LOW and then for another minute on MEDIUM speed.

Pour the mixture into a 2-quart pitcher. Add the remaining 3 cups of orange juice and stir well.

Yield: Makes almost 2 quarts

*** Since this recipe is not cooked, you can use sugar-free vanilla pudding mix if you wish.

My thoughts on the recipe: Yum! The drink was easy to make and tasted really good. My husband thought it was a little too tart, but I liked it a lot. I think next time I'll try blending it with crushed ice to make a more smoothie-like Julius.

- Sorry about the blurry photos. My 2-year-old wouldn't stop moving. I'm pretty sure the cup didn't move an inch, so I'm not sure why it's so fuzzy. There's a distinct possibility that the photographer didn't know what she was doing. Nah, couldn't be that :)


DO NOT preheat your oven - these cookies require NO BAKING

1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces, 1/4 pound) salted butter, softened

1-pound box (approximately 3 and 3/4 cups) powdered (confectioner's) sugar

6-ounce tube frozen limeade concentrate (You'll find this in the frozen juice section at your market - I used Minute Maid Limeade)

1 T. key lime juice***

2 drops green food coloring (optional)

1 box (14 ounces net weight) vanilla wafers (I used Nabisco Nilla Wafers)

1 cup shredded coconut (I used Baker's Angel Flake Coconut) [I needed 2 cups.]

*** If you can't find key lime juice, you can use regular lime juice. Of course, it's best if you squeeze it yourself.

Prepare a cake pan by lining it with wax paper. You're going to use it to hold and refrigerate your lime balls once you've made them.

Hannah's 1st Note: You can use an electric mixer to make these little treats, or you can do it by hand.

Hannah's 2nd Note: Let the tube of frozen limeade concentrate thaw on the counter while you start mixing the first few ingredients.

If you don't want to wait for your cold butter to warm to room temperature, you can soften it in the microwave. Here's how you do it:

Unwrap a stick of refrigerated butter. Put it on a paper plate. Heat it for 5 seconds on HIGH in your microwave. Roll it forward so the topside is now on the side. Heat it for another 5 seconds on HIGH. Roll it forward again and heat it for another 5 seconds on HIGH. Roll it forward for the 3rd time and heat for another 5 seconds. take the plate out of the microwave and transfer the softened butter to your mixing bowl.

Hannah's 3rd Note: Check the powdered sugar to make sure it doesn't have lumps. If it does, you'll have to sift out the lumps by using a flour sifter or putting it through a fine wire-mesh strainer.

Sprinkle the powdered sugar on top of the softened butter in your bowl and mix it all up.

If the frozen limeade has thawed, add it to your mixing bowl. If it hasn't, spoon it out of the container, put it into a microwave-safe bowl, and heat in on HIGH for 20 seconds. Stir to see if it's melted. If it's not, heat it in 20-second increments, stirring after each increment, until it's melted. Add the melted limeade concentrate to your bowl and mix it in thoroughly.

Add the Tablespoon of lime juice and mix it in.

Add the green food coloring (if you decided to use it) and mix that in thoroughly.

Crush the vanilla wafers. You can do this easily with a food processor and the steel blade, or in a blender. You can also do it by putting the wafers in a two-gallon-size freezer bag, placing it on the counter, and crushing the wafers with a rolling pin. If you use the rolling pin method, crush half of the box of wafers at a time.

Add the crushed wafers to your bowl and mix them in.

Place the coconut in a medium-size bowl. You'll be coating your lime balls with it. (I like to put my coconut in the food processor and use the steel blade to chop it even finer. I've found that most people who say they don't like coconut are really not objecting to the way it tastes, but the tendency it has to stick between their teeth.)

Use your impeccably clean hands to form little balls from the mixture. (Lisa and I use a 2-teaspoon scooper at The Cookie Jar.) The balls should be about 1 inch in diameter, approximately the size of bonbons.

When you finish forming each ball, roll it in the bowl of coconut to coat it, and then place it in the cake pan.

When you've finished forming and coating all your lime balls and placing them in the cake pan, cover them with another sheet of wax paper and refrigerate them for 2 to 3 hours before serving. If you're not serving them for several days, place a sheet of foil over the cake pan and secure it tightly. keep the cake pan in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve.

If you're giving these as gifts, you can place them in pretty cookie tins. You can also put them in little paper mini muffin cups and place them in a candy box. Remember to tell your lucky recipients to keep them refrigerated.

My thoughts on the recipe: Scrumptious! These have the curious tendency to be both refreshing and totally rich. My husband and I both enjoyed these, especially after the lime balls had been chilling for a day or two.

My only problems with the recipe were (1) I used the "rolling pin" method for crushing my Nilla wafers and I should have used the food processor method since mine were not fine enough. My bad on that one. I was too impatient. (2) I must have been super generous with my coconut coating because I needed at least 2 cups. (3) Not all of my lime balls fit in my 9 x 13 pan. I used an additional 8 x 8 inch one. Other than that, I made it exactly as written and the lime balls turned out pretty and very yummy.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dark Psychological Thriller A Little Too Dark For Me

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Abby wakes up in an alley next to a house engulfed in flames, she remembers nothing - not her name, not her age, not her address, not anything. But when a guy tries to help her up, she feels a flicker of ... something. He says his name is Sam, says Abby knows him, says he'll help her. And he does, taking her to a hidden cave in the middle of a lovely forest. It's like something from a fairy tale and sharing this cozy new home with Sam makes her almost delirious with happiness. She doesn't exactly remember the world outside their secret woods, but she trusts Sam, knows he's telling the truth when he says it's not safe for her to venture too far beyond the cave.

It's only after several weeks in the cave that Abby begins to feel uneasy. She loves Sam, but his abrupt mood shifts frighten her. With memories from her former life creeping into her mind, Abby's confused, worried. She doesn't want to anger Sam by asking questions and yet, she needs to know who she is, where she came from, and how she ended up sprawled in an alley next to a burning building. Even if the memories cause her pain, she has to know. The closer Abby gets to the truth, the more she begins to doubt the reliability of her own mind. The questions cramming her brain shouldn't be so confounding, but they are: Who is she, really? Who is Sam, really? What is real? What isn't? Where is safety? Where is danger? As Abby fights to make sense of it all, her fairy tale illusions crumble, leaving only the awful truth and the most important question: How will she escape?

Circle Nine, a debut novel by Anne Heltzel, is a dark, psychological thriller that examines a whole slew of curious paradoxes - identity, dependency, even the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome. For such a sinister story, the writing really is quite lovely. Still, I found the whole novel depressing and more than a little disturbing. I kept reading since I had to know how the story ended, but I'm not sure I actually enjoyed Circle Nine. Let's just say it unsettled me - a lot - and leave it at that.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Stolen by Lucy Christopher)

Grade: B-

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

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Extras Creepy-Cool; Story Needs Work

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Everyone's afraid of something. Will Besting knows this, knows he's not the only person in the world with irrational phobias. But, sometimes - okay a lot of the time - he feels alone, like he's the only 15-year-old alive whose fear keeps him from living a normal life. More than two years of therapy sessions with Dr. Stevens haven't helped a bit. Nothing does. It's only when the psychiatrist suggests a radical solution that Will feels even a glimmer of hope. Dr. Stevens believes the program at Fort Eden, a facility for phobia-ridden kids like Will, might be able to cure him. The idea frightens Will, but if the treatment works, it's worth it, right?
Will heads out of Los Angeles with six other 15-year-olds, all of whom should be complete strangers to him. They would be, if he hadn't stolen all of their confidential therapy notes off Dr. Stevens' computer. Thanks to that little act of kleptomania, he already knows Marisa Sorrento, Alex Chow, Connor Bloom, Ben Dugan, Avery Varone and Kate Hollander way better than he should. He knows each of their fears, but that doesn't help Will connect with the other kids because his fear, the one that rules his every waking moment, is of people.
Seeing Fort Eden, an isolated concrete bunker hidden deep in the woods, sends a chill down Will's spine. There's something sinister about the place. Will hides in the forest, vowing to escape at first light. Then, he gets a taste of the "program" that's curing kids at Fort Eden. Will knows he wants no part of it. He also knows he has to find a way to convince the other kids to leave. But how? Fort Eden's far from any town, far from a police station, from from everything and Will's alone with only his fears to keep him company. He's the most unlikely hero in the history of the world. And yet, the fates of six teenagers lie in his trembling hands. Now, it's up to the boy who can't deal with people to save them all.
Dark Eden, the newest YA novel by Patrick Carman, is another one of those great-premise-disappointing-execution books for me. I love the idea of teens being lured to a secluded spot in order to serve as test subjects in sinister experiments (not for real, of course, but the setup makes for great stories) but this type of novel has to be done well in order to satisfy. And, well, Dark Eden just isn't. The characters are flat, the writing stale, the plot twists (mostly) predictable. Plus, Will spends the majority of the book watching the action instead of participating in it, which made me, as a reader, feel too detached to really care what was happening.
On the plus side, the book's got a cool website. Since YouTube is blocked on our computers (It's scary what a curious 12-year-old boy can find on that site!), I couldn't watch any of the videos, but I did take The Fear Test, which is kind of creepy-cool. The free Dark Eden App looks fun, too.
Overall, though, I found Dark Eden disappointing. No matter how dazzling the extras for a book are, the story itself needs to be topnotch in order to earn my recommendation. Unfortunately, I found this one quite lacking. Maybe the series will get better as it goes on, maybe it won't. I doubt I'll stick with it long enough to find out.
(Readalikes: Reminded me of Variant by Robison Wells and a little of The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials by James Dashner)
Grade: C-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo and intense situations
To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Dark Eden from the generous folks at Harper Collins. Thank you!
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