Friday, May 31, 2013

Mormon Mentions: Courtney Miller Santo

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture. 

In The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo, an 89-year-old woman is talking about her husband's family history.  She says:

"His family had been Mormon—his mother married to a man with seventeen other wives until it had become illegal" (276).  

Oh, polygamy!  Somehow, despite all the amazing things the LDS Church has accomplished in its history, the millions of acts of service and love its God-fearing members perform every single day, it's still most widely-known for its polygamist past.  Let me make this as clear as I possibly can:  Polygamy was practiced by early members of the LDS Church, but the practice was officially stopped in 1890.  Members of the modern, mainstream LDS Church do not practice polygamy and have not for over 100 years.  

The best explanation of the history of plural marriage in the church can be found here, on LDS.org: http://www.lds.org/topics/polygamy-plural-marriage?lang=eng

Please understand that when you hear about modern "Mormons" practicing polygamy, they are generally members of "churches" that are offshoots of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but not affiliated with the main body of the LDS Church.  

And, just in case you're wondering (because yes, I have been asked), my father has only one wife, as does my husband.  In fact, although I do have ancestors who were polygamists, I've never met anyone  who was married to more than one person at the same time.  Too bad, because they probably would have been super interesting to talk to!  

So, yeah.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Even With Five Generations of Superagers and a Magical Olive Tree Orchard, this One Falls Flat For Me

(Image from TLC Book Tours)

In California's Sacramento Valley, in the middle of an olive tree orchard, sits an old adobe farmhouse.  Inside, live five generations of Keller women, all firstborn children, all tied to the land where long ago, their Australian ancestor planted his first olive tree.  At 112, Anna Keller is the second-oldest person in the world.  She looks 30 years younger and is often assumed to be her daughter's sister.  Bets Wallace, Anna's daughter, doesn't look a day over 60, although she's 89.  Popping a handful of Vicodin every day for a painful limp caused by an airplane crash, Bets' daughter, Callie Rodgers, is an unhappy woman who owns a gift shop that's slowly going bankrupt.  She may be the only woman in the house who actually looks every day of her 65 years.  Her daughter, 42-year-old Deb Ripplinger, is at least partly responsible for Callie's soured view on life—Deb's in prison for killing her husband 20 years ago.  And then, there's Erin, a 24-year-old opera singer who's come home with a shock for her "grandmas": she's pregnant with the baby of a married man.  

As if the women don't have quite enough problems to keep them busy, a geneticist is sniffing around their gene pool, determined to discover the secret to the family's remarkable longevity.  Dr. Hashmi's nice enough, but his pointed questions and probing research could reveal long-held family secrets the women would like to keep hidden.  Even from each other.  Especially from each other.  As truths threaten to come to light, each of the women must decide if coming clean is really worth the risk.  The bond between them has always been as fragile as it is strong—can their love hold them together in the wake of shocking revelations?  Or will their devastating secrets be the thing to drive five generations of Keller women apart?  

You may have noticed that I'm a sucker for a good family saga.  The key word here being good.  I've read too many lately that go on and on with the family part, forgetting that "saga" means story.  In other words, something needs to happen, there has to be a plot.  The main problem with The Roots of the Olive Tree, a debut novel by Courtney Miller Santo, is that it has none.  There's nothing really driving the novel forward.  The book has interesting (although interchangeable and not all that likable) characters, yes.  Intriguing plot lines, also yes.  Unifying plotline to bring it all together?  Nope.  Which means that, although Santo's prose flows along nicely enough, her first novel's, well, dull.  I had enough interest in the Kellers to keep reading their story, but I was also happy for it to end so I could move on to something else.  Although it had great potential, it just fell flat for me.  And I so, so wanted to love it.  Oh well.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of The Truth About Love & Lightning and Little Black Dress, both by Susan McBride)

Grade:  C

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

TTT: Even When You've Got the Most Important Job in the World, Sometimes You Dream of Demon-Hunting ...

Happy Tuesday!  If you haven't participated in Top Ten Tuesday before, you really should join in the fun.  It's always a good time.  Promise!  Click on over to our hostesses' blog, The Broke and the Bookish, for the details about this always delightful weekly event.

Today's TTT topic is a freebie and don't we all love those?  I debated which subject to choose (Top Ten Books that Scare the Snot Out of Me?  Top Ten Books that Make Me Cry Like a Baby?  Top Ten Books You Couldn't Pay Me to Read Again?), finally settling on Top Ten Books that Make Me Want to Change My Profession.  First, a true confession:  I don't actually have a profession.  I mean, I do have the most important job in the world, but it's not like I get paid to raise my children (darn it!).  And, although motherhood definitely has its drama, suspense, action/adventure and horror, it's not the kind of sexy, book-worthy career that makes readers shout, "Now, that's what I want to be when I grow up."  Just so I'm clear, there's nothing I'd rather be right now than a stay-at-home mom, but these books definitely offer some intriguing career possibilities ...


1.  The Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer—After Captain Jack Sparrow appeared on the big screen in all his strange, but incredibly attractive glory, every female on the planet wanted to be romanced by a pirate.  L.A. Meyer's books, though, make me want to be a pirate.  I mean, the series' heroine, Jacky Faber, makes swinging through the rigging, sailing the open sea, and sword fighting with bloodthirsty savages look like the adventure of a lifetime.  Why she longs to be a proper young lady, I'll never know!


2.  The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter—I've never had any desire to be a female OO7, but I gotta admit, these middle grade books almost change my mind about becoming a spy.  Attending a super exclusive boarding school, going on intense, secret training missions and playing with the newest, coolest tech toys—well, it looks like loads of fun.


3.  The Hannah Swensen series by Joanne Fluke—I'm not the greatest baker in the world, but I do love me some warm, gooey cookies.  So, being a cookie maker doesn't sound bad at all!  I can totally see myself bustling around a warm, bright cookie shop filling display cases with scrumptious goodies, chatting with customers, and baking up a storm in my shiny professional kitchen.  I'd give Hannah Swensen a run for her money, that's for sure!



4.  The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling—Okay, I don't know if wizard (or witch, I guess) counts as a profession, so I'm going to choose Hogwarts professor instead.  Because, aside from the constant presence of that pesky Voldemort (not to mention bratty Draco Malfoy), it looks like a pretty nice gig!



5.  The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare—I'm a huge wimp, but c'mon, doesn't Clare's crew make demon hunting look pretty darn sexy?  I could totally be a kick-butt demon hunter.  Okay, I couldn't, but it's a fun daydream.


6.  Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys—Lots of novels feature bookshop owners and that's a profession I think I'd totally rock at in the real (unlike pirate or spy or demon hunter).  One of my favorite parts of this book is the descriptions of how Josie and Patrick size up potential customers, bet on what kind of book they're looking for, then compete with each other to find the perfect tome for that person.  It reminds me of playing "Guess the Major" when I worked at the BYU Creamery!


7.  The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters—While lots of people find archaeology endlessly fascinating, I'm really not one of them.  Discovering ancient artifacts does sound cool, I agree, but nothing about digging for days and days under a sweltering desert sun sounds all that appealing.  Enter Amelia Peabody.  She's an average Jane who does the whole Egyptologist thing in style.  She makes slipping down the Nile in a houseboat and solving mysteries sound like the perfect profession for an average Jane like me.


8.  Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper—After watching my mom slave away as a passionate, but vastly underpaid teacher, I knew that was one thing I did not want to be when I grew up.  Even when it made a lot of sense for me to earn a teaching degree along with my B.A. in English, I resisted.  And, truthfully, it's probably for the best—I don't think I would have had the patience for it, especially not to be a special education teacher, which is what my mom did before she retired from the profession.  Still, when I hear my mom's stories about touching children's lives as well as reading books like Out of My Mind, it makes me realize how important teachers are, especially those who work so diligently and patiently to help those with special needs receive the best education they can get.



9.  That Time I Joined the Circus by J.J. Howard—Truth is, I find the whole circus thing a little creepy.  Still, Howard made me reconsider (for a second, at least) running off to join up as a trapeze artist or a palm reader.  I would have to pass on the pooper scooper job, even though I actually have some experience in that arena (thank you, summer job at the vet's office when I was 16).


10.  Misery by Stephen King—Okay, so a story about a fiction writer held captive by a psychotic fan should not make one want to be a novelist.  And yet, how cool would it be to know the words you wrote had that much power over someone else?  Very cool, indeed.              

How about you?  Which books make you want to pursue a whole new profession?  Or, which make you proud to be working the job you are?  I'd love to know.  

* Book images are from Barnes & Noble and Fantastic Fiction

Monday, May 27, 2013

Why, Google, Why?

Ever since I heard the announcement about Google taking away Google Reader, I've been a *little* upset.  Reader's probably my favorite Google product of all.  It's a simple, always-functioning way to keep up on all the blogs I follow.  So, of course, the Google gods are taking it away from me.  Waaahhhh!  I've been in denial since I heard the sad news, hoping Google would announce some kind of retraction.  It doesn't appear that that's going to happen, so ... I'm transferring my loyalties to Bloglovin'.  I'm still not even sure how the program works, but I'm trying to "claim" my blog and entice all of my wonderful followers to follow my blog via Bloglovin'.  What exactly that means, I don't even know ... darn you anyway, Google!

Is anyone else using Bloglovin' as an alternative to Reader?  What do you think?  Will I ever get used to this new program?  I hate change!


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Congrats, Tiger Baby, You're a Mommy. Now What?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, came out in 2011, it incensed mothers everywhere.  Including this one.  The book (which I reviewed here) chronicles Chua's experience using traditional Chinese parenting tactics to bully her kids into becoming not just straight A students, but also world-class musicians.  While Chua's oldest daughter did exactly that, her youngest put up some resistance.  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is the story of that daughter's rebellion (she was 13 at the time) and how it forced Chua to examine her unyielding parenting practices against the obvious unhappiness it was producing in her child.  While this may lead you to expect a grand epiphany about motherhood, the drawbacks of stiff, too-strict parenting, and the importance of letting children be children, that's not exactly what happens.  Instead, as I noted in my review: "There's no self-deprecating humor here, no humble admittance of mistakes, just a half-hearted acknowledgment that Chua's dictatorial parenting style might not work for every child."  

So, yeah, the book definitely caused a stir.  And, even though Chua now insists the memoir is "mostly self-parody," it's difficult to see anything funny in it.  The backlash against Chua's parenting, in my opinion at least, was very well-deserved.  Naturally, then, Kim Wong Keltner's new book—a rebuttal to Chua's called Tiger Babies Strike Back—caught my attention.  I definitely wanted to hear what a real-life "Tiger Baby" had to say. 

Keltner is a Chinese-American who was raised in San Francisco by an uncompromising Tiger Mother and an equally strict father.  Between them and a host of Chinese relatives who lived in the area, Keltner grew up under a hailstorm of constant criticism, intense academic pressure, and the absolute belief that she would never—ever—be successful enough to please her family.  When Keltner brings her own daughter into the world, she vows to give the child a very different kind of upbringing, one filled with praise, affection and encouragement.  She wants to keep her daughter safe from the clutches of all Tiger Mothers, including her own.  But what if that means moving away from the only home she's ever known, alienating herself from her family and starting over in some white-washed place where Keltner and her daughter are the only Asians?  How does she give her child a healthy, balanced view of who she is without exposing her to her Chinese side, however self-deflating it might be for the little girl?  That's what Keltner has to figure out as she battles her own Tiger Mother tendencies in order to give her daughter the happy, nurturing childhood she never got to enjoy. 

While Keltner's memoir is not nearly as impassioned or provocative as Chua's, it's still an interesting examination of life under a Tiger Mother's rule.  Keltner's honest and funny, sarcastic and fierce.  Her insights into what it means to be a modern Chinese-American woman and mother are likewise so.  Still, her story's disjointed as well as just a bit over-the-top.  Plus, she whines a lot for being a stay-at-home mom of only one child.  Overall, though, I appreciated Keltner's point-of-view.  It adds another dimension to the whole Chinese-style vs. American-style parenting debate, which is, in itself, quite thought-provoking.  Not to mention infuriating.   

(Readalikes:  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua; also reminded me of The Joy-Luck Club and other books by Amy Tan)

Grade:  B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for language (one F-bomb as well as a couple of others that are abbreviated, instead of spelled-out, plus milder invectives) and mild sexual innuendo/content)   

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Tiger Babies Strike Back from the generous folks at Harper Collins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!         

       

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Too Hurt to Stay A Compelling Eye-Opener

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kids only come to Casey Watson's home as a last resort.  As specialist foster carers, she and her husband house the most challenging children in England's system, the kids other foster families can't handle, those who are often one step away from being committed to secure units—the worst of the worst.  Using a time-tested behavioral modification program, the Watsons have been able to make a difference in the lives of many troubled children.  But, it's not an easy process.  Not at all.  Each experience is dramatic and unsettling in its own, unique way, so much so that Casey has written several best-selling books about the special children she feels called to help.

Too Hurt to Stay is her account of 8-year-old Spencer Herrington, a boy who turns himself in to social services.  His parents don't argue with his placement in foster care, claiming the child is a violent, uncontrollable runaway.  They call him "the spawn of Satan" and insist he was just born evil.  The Herringtons refuse to allow their child to return home until he's been "fixed."  Casey's appalled, shocked that parents would label a child evil, then effectively wash their hands of all parental responsibility toward their own flesh and blood.

Determined to help Spencer, the Watsons agree to foster the angel-faced little boy.  He's unlike any other child they've taken in before—he's polite, well-behaved, and obedient.  It's only after Spencer's settled in a bit that the Watsons start to understand why he has such a difficult reputation.  Several unsettling experiences later, Casey begins to wonder if there's something to the Herringtons' complaints about their child.  Can a person really be born bad?  Or, is Spencer simply a product of a family who appears normal on the surface, but harbors deep issues of their own?  In order to best help him, Casey vows to find out the real story of Spencer Herrington (which is not the child's real name, of course).

True accounts of children being mistreated by adults always make me cringe.  It's difficult to imagine people monstrous enough to hurt kids.  But, books by authors like Cathy Glass, Dave Pelzer, Torey Hayden and Casey Watson (a pseudonym, by the way) prove that they're all too common.  What I actually find fascinating about books like these is the psychology behind the abuse.  What makes a person lash out so cruelly at another person?  I believe we all come into the world pure and innocent, so how do some people turn into such heartless savages?  It's an interesting question, one these kinds of books always make me ponder.

As for Too Hurt to Stay, it was a fast, intriguing read.  I found Spencer an interesting and empathetic child, one whose antics surprised me.  Watson writes well enough that I felt engaged by his/her story—I definitely wanted to know how it ended.  Speaking of the finale, it felt rushed and not all that satisfying.  Realistic, but not as tidily wrapped up as I wanted it to be.  The explanations behind Spencer's family's behavior, the part I was most interested in, were summarized too quickly and left me wanting "the rest of the story."  Overall, I found the book to be a compelling eye-opener, I just wanted it to be a little fuller.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other true accounts about abused children, especially those by Cathy Glass, Dave Pelzer, and Torey Hayden)

Grade:  B-

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Too Hurt to Stay from the generous folks at Harper Collins via those at TLC Book Tours.  Thank you!  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TTT: My Twisted Topic

So, this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is all about book covers.  We're supposed to pick ten favorites from among books we've actually read.  Now, pretty cover art makes me swoon just as much as the next bibliophile, but, I'm drawing a total blank here.  I seriously cannot come up with ONE.  Pathetic.  Therefore, I'm going to twist the topic just a little and highlight the Top Ten Books I've Received in the Mail Recently That I Can't Wait to Read (the title's a little unwieldly, but whatever).  It's going to be kind of like an In My Mailbox/Waiting on Wednesday/Top Ten Tuesday hybrid thingie.  What can I say?  I'm a multi-tasking master like that.  I wish.  

Even though I'm not going to be gushing over book covers this week, I'd love to see the ones that caught your eye.  So, please, hop on over to our hostess' blog, The Broke and the Bookish, and join in the TTT fun.  You won't regret it!

Okay, here goes.  In no particular order, these are the books I've received lately that I cannot wait to dive into (note the swimming pun—it's in the 90s here in Arizona and my kids get out of school on Thursday, so it's officially summer around here):


1.  Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko—If you're a fan of this middle grade series set on Alcatraz during the 1930s, you know it's been WAY too long since a new installment came out.  I'm thrilled to have an ARC of this one, which doesn't come out until late August.


2.  The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey—Pegged as the next big dystopian YA hit, this one's a sci fi alien thriller.  Something like that, anyway.  I loaned my ARC to a friend, knowing I wouldn't be able to get to it until later in the summer, but I'm still super excited to see what The 5th Wave is all about.


3.  Tumble & Fall by Alexandra (neé Bullen) Coutts—This YA novel, which releases in September, is the pre-apocalyptic tale about a group of teens coming to grips with the end of the world.  Sounds like an original take on a familiar theme.  Can't wait!


4.  The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson—I'm a big Sanderson fan, so I was stoked when a copy of his debut YA novel showed up in my mailbox (thanks, Tor/Forge!).  Sounds like another excellent fantasy from the amazingly talented Sanderson.


5.  Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson—Yep, another Sanderson.  This one's about a world overrun by power-hungry superhumans and the boy who's determined to avenge his father by killing the strongest of the lot.


6.  The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen—Although I've yet to read anything by Dessen, I think this one sounds like a perfect summer read.  It's about a girl who's being pulled in all kinds of directions as she tries to decide what she wants for her future.


7.  The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas—I'm reading this one soon for a blog tour and I'm totally stoked about it.  According to Amazon, it "follows a priceless violin across generations—from WWII to Stalinist Russia to the gilded international concert halls of today—and reveals the loss, love, and secrets of the families who owned it."  Sounds intriguing, doesn't it?


8.  The Circle by Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg—The premise of this one sounds a little tired (six teens discover they have magical powers and are the ones chosen to battle an ancient evil), but I like the eerie feel of it.  


9.  Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell—I haven't read anything by O'Farrell yet, but I've heard great things about her.  I'm excited to try her out with this family drama about a husband who vanishes while out getting the newspaper and all the secrets that come to light in the wake of his disappearance.


10.  Find Me by Romily Bernard—This techie teen thriller, which comes out at the end of September, is about a hacker on the hunt for a dead classmate's killer.  Sounds like an exciting read.       

What do you think?  Any of these sound like winners to you?  Which new books are you dying to get your hands on this summer?  And which book covers have you been digging lately?  

Monday, May 20, 2013

NDEs: Convincing or Ridiculous? What Do You Think?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Who are we?  Where did we come from?  What happens after we die?  These are some of the greatest, most important questions human beings have ever asked.  And, yet, they remain the largest mysteries we'll ever encounter.  Because all of us wonder why we're on Earth, how we came to be here and what happens when our lives end, it makes sense that so many people find Near Death Experiences (NDEs) so very fascinating.  Many books, television shows, magazine articles, movies, etc. have been created in order to examine what people claim to have experienced when they "died."  Even to a skeptic like me, these glimpses into the world beyond can be utterly fascinating.  
Considering the religious fervor that existed at the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded, it is, perhaps, not too surprising that many early Saints had NDEs.  These were carefully recorded in letters, journals and oral histories passed down from generation to generation.  Marlene Bateman Sullivan has collected 50 of these stories in her new book, Gaze Into Heaven: Near Death Experiences in Early Church History.  She presents the accounts in the recipients' own words, using scriptures and quotes by LDS Church leaders to give additional insight into the topics under discussion.  What emerges is an interesting picture of NDEs from a uniquely Mormon perspective.  

Even though I firmly believe in life after death, I have trouble taking NDEs very seriously.  After all, any kind of dream or vision is open to interpretation.  And who knows what outside factors may have been in play during the person's "experience"—after all, during a low blood sugar episode several years ago, I became totally and completely convinced my husband was trying to kidnap me and smuggle me aboard his alien spaceship.  So, why should I believe a stranger's account of his alleged visit to Heaven, especially if the details feel "off" to me?

Given how I feel about NDEs, I really tried to approach Gaze Into Heaven with an open mind.  And, I have to say that, overall, I did find the book interesting.  Not convincing, necessarily, but thought-provoking.  The biggest problem with the book, for me, was Sullivan's subjective presentation of the material—she spoke about all the NDEs as if they were the iron-clad truth.  A more objective approach, one that trusted the reader to come to his own conclusions, would have made the book a much more palatable read for me.  Also, Sullivan never answered the biggest question I have about NDEs among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, both in the early days of the church and now—how do they differ from those experienced by non-members?  I'm still really curious about that ...

So, while I didn't always agree with the conclusions Sullivan drew about NDEs, I did agree with this one, which neatly sums up my feelings on the subject:  "...[NDEs] are not meant to 'prove' that the Church is true.  Rather, they are meant to open our eyes to the fact that life will continue, that our sojourn on earth is momentary, and that we ought to refocus our priorities and spend our time productively, with an eye toward the next life" (220).

My husband, who enjoys reading about and learning from NDEs, thinks I'm a terrible cynic on this point.  How about you?  Do you find them inspiring or ridiculous?  Do you think there's anything to be learned from them?  What's your opinion?  I'd truly love to know.

(Readalikes:  I don't normally read books about NDEs, but my husband recommends What's on the Other Side? by Brent L. Top [an LDS professor's perspective on death]; Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, M.D. [an atheist neurosurgeon's NDE]; and Embraced By the Light by Betty J. Eadie [one non-LDS woman's NDE])

Grade:  C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for subject matter most suitable for older middle graders, teens and adults

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Gaze Into Heaven from the generous Marlene Bateman Sullivan via her publisher, Cedar Fort.  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Orleans Sucks Me In, Blows Me Away

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Daniel shuddered.  Orleans was a living city of the dead (163)."

After five years of devastating hurricane after devastating hurricane, the Gulf Coast region has become a half-sunken wasteland.  When Delta Fever breaks out, sweeping through the already ravaged land, the American government has little choice but to contain the epidemic by any means possible.  First comes sealed borders, a quarantine, then, in 2025, a massive wall is erected around the affected areas.  No one is allowed in or out.  It's the only way to protect the uninfected, the only way to survive the deadly Fever.

Decades later, inside the Wall, in a once vibrant city now forgotten by the outside world, teems a turbulent new society, born from tragedy, death and disease.  Gangs, segregated by blood type, rule the moldering streets of Orleans.  Survival is a daily battle.  Fen de la Guerre, a 16-year-old whose O Positive blood means she carries the Fever, but isn't being eaten alive by it, does her best to keep a low profile.  Blood hunters will do anything to get their hands on an OP, who can be sold as a blood slave to the highest bidder.  Fen won't let that be her fate.  She won't.  

When her tribe is attacked one night, Fen loses everything—her home, her best friend, and her (always relative) safety.  She's left with no one, except a newborn baby.  Fen's not sure how she's going to survive, let alone keep a squalling infant safe.  She's better off leaving the child behind.  If only she could, if only she hadn't promised to protect the baby girl.  But she did.  Fen knows the only way to guarantee the baby's safety is by getting her out of Orleans, smuggling her over the Wall into the safer, cleaner Outer States.  The only question is how she's going to travel so far with a baby, few provisions, and a jungle full of enemies thirsty for her blood.  

When Fen meets Daniel Weaver, a scientist from over the Wall, it fills her with new hope—and new fear.  If she helps Daniel, he'll help her.  Or so he says.  But if there's one thing she's learned from living in Orleans, it's that she can only rely on one person: herself.  If Fen can't save the child, no one can.  And if Fen can't save herself, then she—and her two companions— are doomed to a fate much, much worse than death.

I'm a big Sherri L. Smith fan, so when I discovered she had a YA dystopian coming out, I knew I had to read it.  I hoped this very skilled writer would come up with something different than the usual post-apocalyptic fare and guess what?  She did.  While the world she's created has all the grim realities of other dystopias, it's got an even sharper edge to it—the blood trade.  It's a chilling plot element, one I'm not sure I've seen before.  That, along with the whole walled-dystopian-society-inside-the-normal-world and the teen-girl-trying-to-survive-with-a-baby-in-tow thing just made Orleans a much more original story than most of the YA dystopians I've read lately.  Plus, Smith's an all-around good writer.  She's given this story a vivid, haunting setting; a tough, unyielding heroine; and a relentless, pulse-pounding plot.  It's not a perfect book (Daniel's pretty bland; the baby's way more complacent than any I've ever encountered; etc.), but overall, Orleans sucked me right in and blew me clean away.  I loved it.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, as well as other YA dystopians) 

Grade:  B

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), violence, and references to sex (including rape)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Orleans from the generous folks at Penguin Young Readers.  Thank you! 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Out of My Mind An Important Story for Us All

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Melody Brooks hates being treated like an idiot.  Just because the 10-year-old can't walk or talk doesn't mean she can't think.  In fact, with her photographic memory, plus a sensory condition that makes her experience the world more fully than other people, Melody is probably the smartest kid in her elementary school.  Too bad no one but her will ever know it.  Most people, especially other children, can't see past Melody's wheelchair—they don't realize she's not just a gawk-worthy freak, but a real person with feelings, thoughts and ideas. 

Without a way to communicate more complex sentences than "I'm hungry" or "I have to go to the bathroom," Melody's not sure how to share all the things brimming inside her mind.  And it's making her crazy.  She has so much to say, she just needs a way to get it all out.  When an opportunity's presented that will allow Melody to do just that, she's ecstatic.  A little terrified, too.  What if people don't want to hear her thoughts and feelings?  What if her classmates just make fun of her more?  Can Melody find the courage to express herself, even if she says things no one else wants to hear?  

I read Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper not just because I loved its premise, but also because my 11-year-old daughter's been raving about how amazing it is.  The book didn't blow me away quite as much as it did her—still, Out of My Mind offers an important and thought-provoking story about the assumptions we often make about people, especially children, with special needs.  It also says a lot about the need for caring, positive teachers, doctors and therapists as well as parents who believe in their children no matter what limitations they might have.  Out of My Mind is a novel for any child who's ever felt misunderstood and for any adult who's ever wondered what goes on inside the heads of the kids they're rearing and/or teaching.  Really, it's a story for all of us.   

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Wonder by R.J. Palacio)

Grade:  B

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  PG for subject matter most suited for kids 10 and over

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Out of My Mind at Deseret Book.      


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An Excellent Historical Novel—Much to My Surprise

(Image from Walmart.com)

Minnie Bonner knows her father has a gambling problem.  This isn't the first time he's disappeared, chasing grander dreams than any of them can afford.  But, this time is different.  This time, he's not coming back.  This time, a stranger is taking the family tavern and home to pay off her dad's gambling debt.  Because of his carelessness, 14-year-old Minnie and her mother are not just penniless, but homeless, too.  How will they live now?

Mr. and Mrs. Sump, the pretentious new owners of everything the Bonners had in the world, offer the only viable solution:  they will hire Minnie to be a lady's maid for their 16-year-old daughter, Lily.  Minnie can't stand the thought of working for the snobby family, but she doesn't have much choice.  Even when the Sumps announce they'll be leaving Philadelphia to chase their own dreams in San Francisco—the greatest, most progressive city in the West.  Minnie's furious with her mother for "selling" her to heartless Mrs. Sump, but that doesn't mean she wants to leave her only family behind.  And yet, what choice does she have?

It's only when a massive earthquake rocks San Francisco, leveling the city, and setting it ablaze with raging, unquenchable fires, that Minnie's finally able to decide something for herself.  With the city in a chaotic mess, she has a golden opportunity to take on a new identity, one that could change her whole life, not to mention the fate of her fractured family.  But assuming a new life of luxury does not come without a price.  Can Minnie sacrifice her integrity in exchange for a brighter future?  Is the cost truly worth it?  Alone in a broken city, Minnie must make some tough choices.  And soon, before everything she's ever dreamed of is snatched right out of her hands.

I've enjoyed other entries in the Dear America series, but I was a touch leery when Scholastic sent me A City Tossed and Broken for review.  It wasn't because of the format—I usually enjoy epistolary storytelling, which allows for a more intimate reading experience.  It wasn't because of the subject matter either—I like historical fiction and haven't read many (if any) books about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.  So, I was game for that.  My only hesitation on this one had to do with the author, Judy Blundell (who also writes as Jude Watson).  I've read several of her books, all of which left me feeling ... underwhelmed.  Imagine my surprise, then, when A City Tossed and Broken turned out to be a fast-paced, well-plotted historical novel featuring a vibrant, expertly-crafted heroine.  I know!  Took me by surprise.  I ended up really enjoying this one.  It's an excellent novel about a fearless young woman who must make some difficult decisions in the wake of a vicious disaster that rocked a city to its very core.  

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Dear America series; also, American Girl's historical novels)

Grade:  B

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

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of A City Tossed and Broken from the generous folks at Scholastic.  Thank you!


  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TTT: And They Call It "Tough-y" Love ... (Hee Hee)


It's Tuesday, which means it's time for more bookish list-compiling.  Love it!  Before we get to this week's topic, though, let me give a shout out to our lovely hosts over at The Broke and the Bookish.  Be sure to click on over there to get all the details about this fun meme.  If you haven't joined up, do it now!  It's a good ole time, I promise.

So, today's topic is: Top Ten Books Dealing With Tough Subjects.  "Tough" is defined as issue-y type things (suicide, grief, abuse, etc.).  Since conflict is an essential ingredient in every story, most books deal with "tough" things.  These ten, though, are the ones that popped into my mind when I read the prompt: 




1.  The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams—If you've ever been asked how many wives your dad has (and if you're Mormon, you probably have), you know what an uncomfortable subject polygamy can be!  Still, it's a fascinating topic.  In this novel, Williams explores it in a forthright, but sensitive way.  The Chosen One is such a haunting tale that I still get the shivers just from glimpsing its cover!  



2.  The Fault In Our Stars by John Green—What can I say about this one?  It's about kids with cancer.  It's sad, yes, but also irreverent, funny and touching.  






3.  Unwind by Neal Shusterman—I love Shusterman because he's such a master at examining tough issues in new and interesting ways.  Unwind is a discomfiting story about what would happen if parents could "unwind" (basically, retroactively abort) their teenage children.  Lots of people pooh-pooh this book because it's too far-fetched—the way I see it, it's not meant to be "realistic," but symbolic.  To me, it's a very illumination examination of the divisive issue of abortion.  Not to mention an original, fast-paced action/adventure story.


4.  Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler—I just finished this fantastic novel about a white woman who falls in love with a black man.  It's set in Kentucky in the late 1930s, a setting that's definitely not conducive to an interracial friendship, let alone a romance.  Calling Me Home is a heart-wrenching story about racism, motherhood, redemption, and loving someone against all possible odds.  Made me cry.  A lot.  




5.  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand—War stories are always difficult to read.  Especially those that detail the abuses suffered by innocent people at the hands of the "enemy."  Unbroken is no different.  It's a difficult read, but an incredible true story of one American soldier's battle to survive.  



6.  Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum—Another WWII story.  This one's a little bit different, as it's the (fictional) story of a non-Jewish German civilian's experience during the war.  It's heart-wrenching, but totally absorbing.  



7.  After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick—Like The Fault in Our Stars, this is another novel about kids with cancer.  And yet, it's funny, real and unique.  I wasn't wild about the ending of After Ever After, but I did enjoy the rest of the book.  P.S.:  I found out after reading this one that it's actually a sequel to Drums, Girls &  Dangerous Pie, which I probably should have read first.  Oops.



8.  The Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez—Although the ending of this one didn't quite satisfy me, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit.  It's the story of a teenage preacher's daughter who's struggling to deal with the pregnancy of her needy younger sister.  Genuine and real, this one touched me for lots of reasons.



9.  How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr—Another teenage pregnancy book, this novel spoke straight to my (very) tender adoptive mother's heart.  It's a beautiful, authentic story about the true meaning of family.  



10.  Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick—What's a tougher issue than cancer?  How about zombies?  Or, heck, why not do both?  In Bick's apocalyptic zombie fest, the heroine is hiking out to her favorite spot in the mountains to end her own life before cancer does it for her.  Then, the world ends, giving her a startling epiphany: She doesn't want to die after all.  Ashes is an exciting zombie-licious page-turner that kept me reading fast and furious to see what would happen next.

So, what do you think of my choices?  Have you read any of them?  Which "tough issue" books do you recommend?  


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