Thursday, December 30, 2010

Howl's Moving Castle: Diana Wynne Jones

An award-winning animé film called Howl's Moving Castle was released in 2004. Not being a fan of animé, I chose not to see the film, despite my piqued interest. It wasn't until last month when I found this copy of the middle readers novel that I realized the film was based on a book. Here was my chance to experience the story in a media I fully enjoy! Having absolutely no idea what the book was about, I toted it home and immediately cracked the cover.

To read Howl's Moving Castle you must suspend your adult need for disbelief and acknowledge that there might be places, times, planes of existence where magic exists and is a part of daily life. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and she is quite aware of what that means for her--doom. Every fairy tale ever told has made it perfectly clear that if the eldest of three sisters goes out to seek her fortune, she will be doomed. It is with this knowledge that Sophie resigns herself to a quiet life. Upon her father's death, Sophie and her sisters are sent to three different locations where they will be able to learn a trade and earn their keep. As expected, Sophie is kept on as an apprentice in the family hat shop. As she creates artful hats for the customers, Sophie entertains herself by talking to the hats (if you read the book you'll realize why this is an important note). After not so long, Sophie goes to visit her sisters and finds that they have swapped places (also important to the overall story). On the same day, she encounters the Witch of the Waste who casts a spell on Sophie, turning her into an old crone. Deciding not to return to the hat shop, Sophie wanders until she finds a great looming castle that moves about the countryside. Sophie soon meets the Wizard Howl and his apprentice, Michael, as well as the fire demon Calcifer, who all inhabit the moving castle. In no time at all, Sophie is embraced into the heart of their home and made a member of their quirky family. The adventures they have together and the characters they meet toss Howl and Sophie together until she finds that she loves the pompous wizard, in spite of his conceit. After a great battle with the Witch of the Waste, Sophie is finally able to make a choice for herself, regardless of her role as the eldest of three sisters.

Diana Wynne Jones has an extraordinary imagination. In every minute detail there is a hint of magic, bringing her story to life. While a castle that moves about the countryside at a leisurely pace seems entirely impossible, it takes no more than a chapter or two for the reader to completely accept that the door will never open to the same place twice. And while Howl is a conceited snot, Jones has also given him touches of sincerity and made him a likable character.

However, the most lovable character is the ever-present Calcifer. He has entered a contract with Howl and is now obligated to stay in the moving castle's fireplace. He essentially keeps the place running. For only being a flame, Calcifer has a wonderful personality. He is called a fire demon, so it seems like we're not supposed to like him, but he's actually the most enjoyable character in the book!

This was a delightful read that offered an escape similar to The Mysterious Benedict Society (a borrowed review since I read it before The Reader's Book Blog was a thing). Howl's Moving Castle is wondrous and exciting, at times surreal, but not entirely foreign. It was very exciting, but also very safe for readers of all ages.

Rating: $$

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Mistress of the Art of Death: Ariana Franklin

I have no idea why I picked up this book. It was on sale and then also on clearance. I was in a mood to read something Victorian. The cover art was interesting. I honestly don't know what compelled me to pick up this book, especially since it's not the kind of thing I normally read, but I'm glad I did!

The story begins with a band of travelers on their way to Cambridge in the twelfth century. Among the travelers is a killer. A murderer and sodomizer of children who has been kidnapping, raping, and murdering children of Cambridge and blaming it on the Jewish community. Also among the travelers is a woman doctor from Salerno, trained in the Art of Death--we would call her a coroner. Adelia, along with Jewish detective Simon and Muslim eunuch Mansur, has been sent to Cambridge by the King of Italy to quietly assist in the case. Determined to unearth the deranged killer and clear the Jews of any wrongdoing, the trio embark on a covert mission to infiltrate the community and learn as much as they can. The list of suspects quickly thins out until even the reader thinks they know whodunnit. However, as any good mystery will do, this story takes a wild turn for the unexpected that will likely leave you shocked and disgusted.

This isn't a new story. It's not even a sort-of-new story. In fact, as the author writes in the Author's Note, there was in fact a string of kidnappings in the twelfth century that was blamed on the Jews. However, what makes this novel so refreshing is the pure talent that Franklin delivers. At first I thought she was simply verbose. So many, many words! And yet it is obvious that author and editor alike have combed this novel within an inch to ensure that every word is necessary. The descriptions are intensely satisfying, reanimating an entire era and culture. The characters are colorful and independent; there is no confusion with overlapping traits as are so often found with lazy contemporary authors. And the villain. It has been awhile since such a monster made it's way into mainstream media. I don't remember an antagonist so humanly grotesque since George Harvey of The Lovely Bones. And I do mean grotesque. Sensitive readers should steer clear!

By far the most interesting character in this novel is Adelia. An educated woman in the twelfth century was most likely to be hanged/drowned/burned for witchcraft. To be a competent woman, trained to put together the pieces of a body's death, carries a stigma even in our "enlightened" 21st century. Adelia is also without faith, believing instead in science, which is one more mark against her favor. She is also young, unmarried, and intentionally celibate. Realistically, she seems more like someone who would exist on the Sarah Lawrence campus in the late 1990's.

While The Mistress of the Art of Death is gruesome, it is also a fantastically crafted thrilling mystery.

Rating: $$.5 (The gore kept it from receiving $$$)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Borders Conflict

Most bibliophiles will recognize the name Borders as the franchise that peddles new books at discount prices, which brings up an array of emotions in readers. Movies like The Shop Around The Corner and You've Got Mail are known for villainizing large box stores as evil entities, out to devour small independent shops. While I am a proponent of buying local, I am also a low-wage employee who simply can't always afford to pay $15 for a book that Borders can sell for $4.99. But that's an argument for another day.

The big news is that the downtown Portland flagship Borders is closing. As of January 7th, there will cease to be a downtown Borders. Fortunately, Portland, Oregon is a city of readers in a saturated market. There are many, many other options for affordable reading (and I'm not even mentioning the plethora of well-kept libraries!). And yet, somehow, I feel like Portland is losing something valuable. While this closure will surely mean higher profits for our locally-owned and locally-beloved Powell's, it is also a sign of something much larger happening in the book world. Is it possible that ebooks really are effecting book sales? How long will it be until bookstores are an archaic piece of our history? Regardless of your feelings about franchise book stores, surely we readers can all agree that the closure of a book store is a loss to it's neighborhood.

On the other hand, bad news for the company is great news for me. I stopped in at the closing Borders last night and took great advantage of the 30-40% off closeout sales. I picked over everything in the store. I bought brand new books for $1-5 each. A giant plastic bag of perfectly good books for $55! I was gleeful about my purchases, as I lovingly inspected each book in the comfort of my own home. But this morning brings new light to my book spree. That was $55 given to a failing company. $55 I could have spent on full priced books in an independently owned, local bookstore that needs the revenue to keep it's doors open. Have I just further hindered the stability of my local economy? Did my spending at a closing box store mean that a local bookseller will be that much closer to going out of business?

I can't know how much impact I have on my local economy. I can't foresee what will happen to my neighborhood bookstores. What I can do is commit to, and encourage readers to seek out the independent booksellers in our communities. We need to support the invaluable trade of knowledge by buying books from stores in our neighborhood. The higher cost we might have to pay just doesn't compare to the possibility of books becoming obsolete.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Aria of the Sea: Dia Calhoun

Sometimes a person is given the gift of knowing exactly what it is they are meant to do. Not everyone is so lucky; most people struggle their whole lives, trying to figure out their purpose in life.

Cerinthe wants nothing more than to be a dancer in the royal court. To please her mother who died from infection, to make a life for herself full of wealth and notoriety, and most importantly, to please the Sea Goddess. When Cerinthe is accepted to the Royal Ballet School, her life is turned upside down. She is little more than a poor child from the Northern Reach with no real dance experience, thrust into a world of intensity. After leaving the world of folk healing behind her, Cerinthe makes every effort to leap forward into the life of a royal dancer. Yet something keeps drawing her back to the world of medicine, leading her toward a choice between dance and healing. How does one decide what she is meant to do in life?

I picked up Aria of the Sea at the library book sale. Something about the title intrigued me, and I stuffed it in my bag before even reading the book cover. Dia Calhoun has created a new era and a new region, vaguely familiar, but ultimately unknown. Without using archaic or verbose language, Calhoun sucks in her reader with characters that are people we would like to know: Cerinthe--the fiesty young woman chock full of determination, Elianna--the exquisite "highness" who rules the school of ballet, Tayla--the sweet underdog who befriends Cerinthe. Sure, there are a few thin characters, and I would have liked to see more of a few, but basically it's a well developed cast.

This is a young reader novel, and as such, very effective. The heavy-handed moral is simple--listen to your heart. It may sound juvenile, but I know that there are many people who still need to learn this lesson!

Rating: $.5

Thursday, November 11, 2010

City of Bones: Cassandra Clare

A friend of mine recommended "The Mortal Instruments" series to me, claiming that it was her new favorite series of books. As an avid reader of anything that makes my friends squeal, I got a copy of book one, City of Bones, and delved in.

If you're anything like me, you enjoyed Harry Potter, you maybe even mildly enjoyed Twilight, but you haven't been able to get into any of the bazillion ensuing series about wizards or vampires or other "underworld" type creatures. City of Bones is the answer. Clary is a pretty chill girl who has this geeky friend Simon. They go to a punk/goth club one night and Clary meets some very interesting people. Alec, Isabelle, and Jace are not like anyone Clary has ever met. There are some unnerving events and Clary discovers that she's not the normal girl she always hoped she was. Her life is turned upside down when Clary learns that she is the child of a Shadowhunter and that she has it within her power to fight demons. While she's crushing on Jace, Clary is also learning how to master her skills as a Shadowhunter. This story has everything--magic, romance, battles, drama, family, and a queer character or two. City of Bones takes place in current times, on the perceived plane of perception (for the most part). There's no time warp or separate universe to contend with, which I think is part of the reason I was able to get so involved so quickly. I wasn't forced to wrap my brain around a whole new world as well as a whole new cast of characters.

Cassandra Clare has garnered much success from her mold-breaking series, but I'm not convinced she's the best writer. Her talent is good and her storytelling ability is phenomenal, but her writing technique is just good. She gives a solid performance, and I'm hooked by her story. Her characters are engaging, though they're not all fully developed. The most important character is Clary and she is a believable young woman with all of her quirks and total misunderstanding of teenage boys.

I enjoyed this book, and I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series. City of Bones is addictive and the new ideas it presents are exciting and enticing. I've heard that Clare will be adding more to this series, and I've no doubt she will be met with continued success.

Rating: $$

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Sharper Your Knife The Less You Cry: Kathleen Flinn

Maybe it was the thumbnail picture of  the Tower d'Eiffel  on the cover. Maybe it was the enthusiastic quote by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat Pray Love). Maybe it was the mysteriously dangerous title. Whatever the reason, I picked up The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn at the library book sale. The back cover said something about a woman on an adventure to pursue her passion at Le Cordon Bleu. I am only vaguely interested in cooking, but I am over-the-moon-in-love with all things French, so I hoped this read would immerse me in all things Parisian.

The story is somewhat familiar. Kathleen Flinn is unhappy with climbing the corporate ladder. She's a journalist who has been swept away into a career she doesn't even like. Fortune smiles on her and she is fired from her job. It turns out to be the best possible thing because it allows Flinn to finally pursue a lifelong dream--to earn a diploma from THE Le Cordon Bleu, in the beautiful City of Lights, Paris, France. She writes about her experiences, which vary from the mundane to the comically absurd. She meets an array of people from all walks of life, and is challenged in every way possible.

As a memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry isn't eventful. There are no real life lessons to be learned from this book, except maybe that we should always follow our bliss (which I'm hoping we've all learned by now, after the avalanche of uplifting memoirs about how great life can be when you do what you love). There is drama, there is comedy, there is love, there are shed tears and peals of laughter. There are eccentric chefs, and bizarre house guests, and friendly shop owners. There are also pages and pages of mouth-watering French recipes.

In short, unless you are passionate about France, food, or French food, this book doesn't have much to offer the average reader. However, if you get excited by a good cheese and wine pairing, or if you lose yourself in daydreams about walking the Seine by moonlight, this is a book to get lost in.

Rating: $$

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Doomed Queen Anne: Carolyn Meyer

After reading Beware Princess Elizabeth and loving it, I went to my favorite used book store and bought two more books from The Young Royals series. Carolyn Meyer has written four novels in The Young Royals series, each about a different notorious woman in King Henry VIII's court. These are young adult novels, written as historical fiction. Each novel is narrated with the youthful tone of their title character. Blending historical accuracy with all of the emotional teen drama we expect from young adult fiction, Meyer has created a special voice in her writing that makes centuries-old royalty seem as accessible as the girl next door.

If King Henry VIII is the most memorable King in English history, certainly Anne Boleyn is the most memorable Queen. Her life story has been told and retold so many times that the truth seems unobtainable. The younger sister of one Henry's many mistresses, Anne Boleyn has long been accused and suspected of being motivated not by love, but by aspirations of royalty. Her rise to--and subsequent fall from--royalty was aided by family members with political agendas. There are some historians who question if Anne loved her king at all. Meyer writes about Anne with more honesty than you will see in the movies by illustrating her physical flaws and her emotional insecurity. In this novel Anne is not a confident, manipulative femme fatale, but a young woman with a girlish crush on her king. As she gets closer to Henry, she narrates her fear of his temper. Her frequent blushes and flusters give her a sense of propriety not often associated with Queen Anne.

Despite it not being a new story to me, I was riveted by this telling of Queen Anne. I love Carolyn Meyer's writing and how accessible she has made the Tudor history.

Rating: $$$

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Alice Hoffman:Fortune's Daughter

Fortune's Daughter is not an uplifting, fast-paced, feel-good novel. It's actually the exact opposite. It is slow, internal, and melancholy. And yet...

Alice Hoffman has written many noteworthy novels, and this is one of her quieter publications. Fortune's Daughter is a novel about motherhood, loss, empathy, relationships, story-telling, and ultimately, about human connection. Lila is a young woman who learns how to read tea leaves from an old fortune teller named Hannie. When Lila becomes pregnant, she aches for Hannie's companionship, but Hannie can see that Lila's future will be a struggle. Lila flees her home and does indeed struggle, only to find herself faced with Rae, who is a young pregnant woman in nearly the same position Lila once experienced. The lives of these two women intertwine and weave a beautiful, though heartbreaking story of love and loss, all for the sake of revealing just how important true connections are in each life.

Now the footnote. Do not read this novel if you have ever experienced a stillbirth or had to give a child up for adoption. The platform for this novel is the loss of a child through adoption or stillbirth. It is a difficult read, but I found it rewarding. There is also an underlying theme in this novel that illustrates how we sometimes perceive other's to be more like ourselves than they are. Lila relates to Rae so strongly that she fears for the life of Rae's child for no reason other than their similar circumstances.

Hoffman is a great writer, obviously well educated in the ways of breaking the hearts of her readers. She first pulls you in and makes you empathize with the characters until you care about them so much that your heart breaks as they discover the dark truths they had hidden from themselves.

Rating: $$

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I haven't been reviewing lately because I haven't read much that got me excited. I can't tell you how many books I've read a few chapters of, only to put them aside for later. And then I picked up Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie has long been a favorite author of mine, and he has yet to fail me. He writes about his experiences growing up on a Spokane reservation in Washington. Alexie is intelligent and witty and his writing is so wonderful that it has the ability to pull me back into my interest in reading.

Junior narrates Alexie's latest novel with all the candor and wit of a middle school boy. Junior is about as average as one can get. He's not tall, he's not a bully, he's not the smartest. He's just average. Until he decides to go to school in Reardan where all the kids are middle class and white. Suddenly there's nothing average about Jumior and he is faced with the fact that he no longer fits in anywhere. The indian kids at home think he's a traitor, trying to be a white kid. The white kids in Reardan think that he will always be a strange indian kid. Junior finds himself struggling with his identity while also handling real-life situations that only further alienate him from the two worlds he lives in.

I can't recommend Sherman Alexie enough. His writing is so unique and so charming. His stories are so real and so relatable. Alexie gets me excited about reading again!

Rating: $$$

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pretty Dead: Francesca Lia Block

Everyone has one author whom they crave. That one writer who speaks to your soul. The author whose work you wait upon with bated breath. For me, that author is Francesca Lia Block (FLB). Her amazing language skills take me away to a surreal universe where everything is intense and technicolor. FLB has the ability to make the grittiest, most disgusting places on earth seem magical and beautiful. These are all sentiments used to describe her newest novel, Pretty Dead, but I'm afraid I have to disagree.

Oh Francesca, how could you?! The woman who was writing about fairies and magic and angels long before they were part of a young adult genre has succumbed. I can only assume her publisher offered her lots and lots of dollars to use her incredible skill for the insipid writing of a vampire novel. The story goes something like this... Charlotte is a beautiful twin. She and her brother are living happily, going about life apparently carefree. And then her brother dies and Charlotte is understandably devestated. So of course, the obvious choice is to choose immortality so that she can live forever without her brother. Wait--what?! Sure enough, she begs a vampire to turn her, and they proceed to spend countless years, wandering the world, sucking the life out of people. How romantic. At some point she leaves her maker and decides to go it alone. She goes to high school. She makes some new friends. And when tragedy strikes, Charlotte's world is turned upside down and she begins to feel differently than she has in about a hundred years.

I will admit that FLB gives this vamp novel a sweet little twist. But ultimately, it is a tired romance about a vampire and a human. What's worse is that Block doesn't even utilise her best writing skills. The eras pass as clothing descriptions. There is a flood of narration and very little dialogue or action. And while it's not entirely predictable, it's not very palatable either. I still adore Francesca Lia Block and will continue to read everything she writes. I'm hoping we can just put this one under the bed and forget it ever happened.

Rating: $

Beware, Princess Elizabeth: Carolyn Meyer

I randomly stumbled across a marvelous Young Adult series called "The Young Royals" and decided to start with my favorite royal--Elizabeth I. This series is meant for classroom use, to teach young adults the history of the royals before they became rulers, and how they obtained their throne.

It is a young Princess Elizabeth who narrates this slim historical novel. She briefly explains the situation of her father, King Henry VIII, and how his trail of wives left a short list of suitable heirs. Elizabeth has been denied the throne and is forced to watch as first her little brother Edward, and then her older sister Mary are crowned in succession. While she endurs the torturous treatment of Queen Mary, Elizabeth quietly vows that she will restore her fathers kingdom when she becomes Queen of England.

I hesitate to judge Carolyn Meyer just yet, as I've only read one of her works. However, I did grow slightly bored with the lengthy narration. There was very little dialogue which meant a lot of "telling" and not nearly enough "showing" for my taste. I enjoyed the story though, and find Elizabeth to be a very endearing and sympathetic character. I look forward to reading the rest of this series.

Rating: $$.5

Under The Dome: Stephen King

There is no denying that Stephen King is a master. So much so that with only a few exceptions, I have avoided his gorier novels. Under The Dome has practically no gore, but instead delivers loads of terror through psychological and sociological evil.

In the middle of a perfectly lovely day, the town of Chester's Mill, Maine is suddenly encapsulated behind an imprenetrable barrier. This barrier has come down on the city lines on all edges, leaving a wake of destruction where it was placed. The following 1000+ pages of King's novel are dedicated to illustrating the town of Chester's Mill and it's inhabitants during their time under the dome. They are a cast of diverse folks, not unlike any other small town. The most frightening character of all is second town selectman, Big Jim Rennie. Power hungry and manipulative, Rennie sees the dome as a tool to further his plan for domination. During the short period of imprisonment beneath the dome, the people of Chester's Mill face the best and worst of each other, baring all secrets, and struggling to simply stay alive.

This novel has so much depth that I can't begin to rightly review it. It is mindblowing. The characters are terrifying. The situation is surreal. The horrors are gut-wrenching. I couldn't put it down. The end of every chapter begts the reader to continue. The mystery is engaging. In short, Stephen King has created what may be the perfect thriller novel.

Rating: $$$

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sea Glass: Anita Shreve

I have unwittingly become a fan of Anita Shreve. For one thing, her writing is so easy and quick to read, yet there is an elegance about her stories that offer just what a novel ought to be--an escape. Sea Glass is no different, and if anything, epitomizes Shreve's skill.

In 1920, Honora and Sexton are a Very young newlywed couple who have just moved into a beach house somewhere not too far from Boston and not too near Nantucket. Honora is a naive twenty year old from a small family. Sexton is twenty-four and is a traveling typewriter salesman with no discernible family. In the beginning, as with all marriages, everything seems absolutely blissful. A few other characters are sewn into the mix, including a well-to-do single lady called Vivian, an extremely poor mill hand named McDermott, and the young Franco boy he has taken under his wing, Alphonse. Anita Shreve beautifully intertwines the lives of these characters and builds a very realistic picture of the pre-depression era. As we all know, the roaring twenties were followed by a very bleak depression filled with unionized strikes and tent cities. What begins a story about excitement and love quickly becomes a woeful tale of deceit, struggle, and famine.

The "sea glass" part of the story is really just a very nice poetic touch. Living on the beach, Honora frequently walks the shoreline and soon discovers that the sand is littered with small, smooth pieces of glass that have been softened by the elements. She finds them in a multitude of colors and sizes, and it soon becomes her hobby. In the midst of chaos, she finds peace and calm in the small bits of glass, wondering how they came to be. I am sure there is a beautiful metaphor that Shreve was aiming for, but I can't quite connect the dots. In any case, I love love love the idea of walking in the sand, looking for sea glass.

As I've already mentioned, Shreve's writing is beautiful and elegant. She illustrates an entire era with a few well-developed characters. I won't give away the ending, but it is a surprise, and that impresses me. I find that it's hard to surprise me anymore, so when an author is able to blindside me with a turn of plot line, I admire it.

Rating: $$$

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Highest Tide: Jim Lynch

Here's an interesting fact for my readers...before I chose to major in English, I scoped out the scene of a few other areas, including oceanography. I have long been fascinated by the ocean and the vast unknown number of species living in it. My unconditional love for all things ocean-related may be what first lead me to this quietly fantastic read.

I have to start at the beginning with this book, which is the book flap. It has this to say about Jim Lynch's debut novel...
On a moonlit night, thirteen-year-old Miles o'Malley slips out of his house, packs up his kayak and goes exploring on the tidal flats of Puget Sound. But what begins as a routine hunt for starfish, snails and clams turns into a televised spectacle after Miles finds a rare deep-sea creature stranded in the mud. When he continues to discover more exotic ocean life in the quiet backwater bays near his home, Miles becomes a local sensation. Soon he is shadowed on the flats by people curious as to whether he is just an observant boy or an unlikely prophet.
While the sea continues to offer up surprises from its mysterious depths, Miles navigates the equally mysterious passage out of childhood. He clumsily courts his former babysitter, nurses his elderly psychic friend and searches for the words that will keep his parents together. And as the days shorten and the water begins to rise, his summer-long attempt to understand the muddy flats becomes an examination of life itself, and this enchanting debut novel about obsession and natural wonder surges toward an unforgettable ending.
I don't usually include book flap writings, but this one is important because it sets a tone. I picked up this book thinking it was going to be mystical and magical, with sea creatures and a prophesying pre-teen. What's interesting about this book is that it is mystical and magical in it's own way, but not quite in the ways I expected.

So Miles is a runt of a kid who is a bit of a loner. He's super smart and he loves living on the mud flats of Skookumchuck Bay (which is in fact a real place). His hero is Rachel Carson, and he suffers from insomnia, which allows him to wander the mud flats in the early morning low tide. He begins his narration by talking about the beauty and poetry seen in the natural landscape of the ocean, which hooked my right away. Within the first chapter, Miles has indeed found a sea-creature, though not the mystery hinted at in the book flap. What follows is a media whirlwind, that removes all the magic from this story and grounds it in reality.

I feel like Lynch was trying to say something about conservation with this book, but his message was muddled by the somewhat mundane conflicts of Miles' life. The characters are fantastic people, and the descriptions are phenomenal. If you can read this book while near a body of water, I highly recommend it. I read this book while camping at the beach and it made my evening walks along the tide line so much more interesting.

Rating: $$$

Summer Sisters: Judy Blume

My mom is an excellent book shopper. She is always on the lookout for new books for me. As a result, my bookshelves are overflowing with little gems like this one. Honestly, I think the only reason she picked this one up was because of the cover. When I was a kid I was unable to articulate Adirondack, and instead called these lovely beach chairs "Adirdondack" chairs. To this day, she and I point to them and gleefully announce that we've spotted an Adirdondack chair.

Summer Sisters is one of Judy Blume's adult novels. Anyone familiar with her early readers books will recall her easy and familiar writing style. That same writing talent is present in this story about two girls who have nothing in common. Victoria--called Vix--is a shy, quiet girl, living a quiet life with her family until she meets Caitlin in the summer of 1977. Caitlin is fun and vibrant and exciting. The new girl in school, Caitlin is instantly popular, so Vix is shocked when she is chosen as Caitlin's summer guest. They spend that first summer together on Martha's Vineyard with Caitlin's family, sharing secrets and creating pacts that will last a lifetime. As they grow up, Caitlin and Vix have a tumultuous friendship, full of betrayals and promises. Caitlin's family takes Vix in as one of their own, so she is forever linked to the vivacious girl of her childhood summers, long after the excitement of their friendship has dimmed. As Vix matures, she begins to see Caitlin for what she really is--flighty and selfish. However, when Caitlin calls, asking Vix to be her Maid of Honor, Vix knows she'll say yes to her summer sister.

So, of course, I can't argue with the incomparable storytelling skill of Ms. Blume. The writing is terrific and the story...well, the story is what gets me. Frankly, I would have expected more intrigue from Judy Blume. This was little more than your average airplane paperback. The plot wasn't exactly notable. Some of the plot elements were hard for me to swallow. And I had a hard time liking Caitlin. She seemed bossy and selfish, and I couldn't understand why a sensible girl like Vix would fall for someone like that.

I can't totally discredit this book though, because I really like some of the secondary characters. For example, Caitlin's step-mom, Abby, is wonderful. She's nurturing, and she tries so hard to open up her heart to her blended family, and she welcomes Vix into her home like her one of her own children. Except Caitlin is resistant and totally snubs Abby, which is just one more reason not to like Caitlin.

For me, this book is middle of the road. It's great writing, and it's certainly interesting. But I'm not gonna lie, I kind of expected more.

Rating: $ 1/2

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Weetzie Bat: The Movie!

I think I've mentioned that my all-time favorite author is Francesca Lia Block. I just find her writing so vivid and alluring. Well there's fantastic news for FLB fans...the Weetzie Bat story has been written as a screenplay!

I only wish I could go! Francesca, come do a reading in Portland! I'm sure Powell's would love to host you!

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Design

Well readers, I decided to change it up a bit. I was getting bored with the old gray-blahness of my blog, so I took a cue from Blogger and gussied up a bit.

What do you think? Is it too much? Too bright? Too....different?

The Red Pyramid: Rick Riordan

When I finished the Percy Jackson series, I was anxious to see what Riordan would do next. To be honest, I was a little nervous that there wouldn't be anything "next". So when I first sighted stacks and stacks of the newly released The Red Pyramid, I must admit to a feeling of glee. I could hardly wait to dive into a new Riordan series. This one, The Kane Chronicles, bears some similarities to The Percy Jackson series, except instead of Olympian gods, this series is all about ancient Egyptian gods.

Carter and Sadie Kane are unlikely siblings. Fourteen-year-old Carter takes after his African-American father, with his dark skin, while twelve-year-old Sadie maintains a much fairer complexion. Furthering their differences, Carter has spent his childhood traveling the world with his archeologist father, while Sadie has been stuck with her grandparents in London. After a tragic accident killed their mother, the children were sent their separate ways, only seeing each other twice a year. They are basically strangers when we meet them. That's all about to change as they are united in an attempt to rescue their father and defeat the evil Egyptian god, Set. It turns out that their father has released 5 of Egypt's most powerful gods, and those gods have all taken hosts. Carter and Sadie soon discover that they are descendants of Pharaohs and that they carry enough magic within them to defeat Set. What follows is a pulse-pounding race, filled with gods and magicians, and a lot of unbelievable tricks.

So Riordan has returned to his extremely successful formula. Young people+gods+magic=giant climactic battle. I'm not gonna lie, it's all very familiar. There are elements of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. There are even some hints of the paranormal romance that the Twilight series made so popular. And yet, I couldn't put it down! I devoured this book. I was a little annoyed by the narration style (Carter and Sadie take turns narrating chapters), but I got over it. The gods characters are some of the most wonderful people I've met in YA fiction lately, and I can't deny that I learned a lot about Egyptian mythology.

Ultimately, I can't wait to find out what happens next. And if you want my honest opinion, I think this series would make for a better movie than the Percy books!

Rating: $$$

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Author Interview: Emma Michaels

Emma Michaels is about to see her first novel, The Thirteenth Chime, published on August 13th. Is anything more exciting to a writer than seeing their words first put into print? It is my delightful opportunity to interview Emma, which is somehow fitting--her first novel, my first author interview, and a publication date that is also my Birthday! Without having read the novel yet (I'm hoping for an ARC), I've asked Emma a few questions, and here are her answers.

10 Every-Author Questions

with Emma Michaels

1. Do you write with pen and paper or on a computer, and what are the tools you require for your writing process?
Computer. I don’t think my hands would survive if I didn’t have a keyboard.
2. Do you maintain a regular writing schedule, and can you tell me about it?
I try to make sure to write every day. If I am not in the mood to work on one of my novels then I will write future blogs, and if I don’t want to write blogs then I work on future story concepts. Though, I do feel that Earl Grey tea really helps me. I have no idea why but it does.
3. Do you heavily self-edit, or do you write it and forget it?
I have to let everything flow out of me and onto the pages without stopping but then at the end I need some editing.
4. What makes you a unique writer?
Love and hope. I hope for more in everything I do and I really love to write. When I started writing, it felt like a part of me was finally released and suddenly story after story was flowing out of me. It is just what I love to do. I love being published and I really want to be able to bring hope to other aspiring authors and readers in general. So overall, I guess being an author is just a perfect fit for me. You have to have faith and do what you love.
5. Where do you find your inspiration?
Everywhere! It depends on the novel, but to me it is like sitting there with a puzzle box in your hands. None of the pieces seem to fit, but then, suddenly, you look at it again and they come together to create a bigger picture, a story that then turns into a novel. It can be the smallest thing like the chime of a clock, or something bigger and life-altering, but I honestly believe that inspiration can be found in everything.
6. Can you name one writer that has most inspired you?
Tamora Pierce. She was my first introduction to Young Adult Fantasy and I have never looked back since.
7. What is the one book you could read over and over again?
I have a lot of books I read over and over again. I guess my most worn down book would be Tamora Pierce’s In The Hand of the Goddess.
8. What is the most important relationship a writer needs to create and maintain?
A relationship with their publisher is extremely important but that one is normally obvious. The one relationship a lot of writers don’t think about is with their editor. It is actually extremely important because your editor is the person who can help you most in trying to grow as a writer and author. They can show you what changes you could make to better yourself and normally they really know the genre of your novel if they have been assigned to edit it, which means they are almost always full of amazing advice.
9. How do you approach the editing process, and do you have any creative ways of overcoming editing-block problems? 
To be perfectly honest, I do not like editing and at first, I did not want to do it. Then I had a talk with someone who I care about who told me not to view it as something bad but as a learning experience. Going through and implementing the editor’s changes is actually really important and once I started viewing it that way, it was amazing. I learned so much!
10. What is the hardest step in the publishing process, and how do you navigate that step?
Rejections. I received over one hundred rejections from agents before going straight to a publisher and receiving terrific offers. I kept thinking it was because of my work, until my very wise friend pointed out to me that nearly all of them had only asked for queries, so they had never even seen my work - my actual writing. I just kept going and eventually went straight to querying publishers who would take unsolicited works.
The Thirteenth Chime Questions

1. The Thirteenth Chime, is a Young Adult, Paranormal/Fantasy novel. Can you tell me a little bit about the story?
Here is the teaser we have been using:

No one knew of its existence until it was removed from the attic upstairs.
In a beautiful house that overlooks the sea, an antique clock has the power to change the course of their lives.
The power the clock resonates will not only force Destiny and ex-boyfriend David on a journey into the depths of one man's mind long dead, but into the mind of a man filled with hatred and bent on revenge.
With the only clues to the nature of the clock having disappeared into the sea, Destiny and David must retrace the steps the man had taken into the darkness, before they fall prey to the trap he had set in motion over half a century ago.
Hatred never dies.

Beyond that, I can’t say too much, yet... But there is nothing else like this being currently released, so I’m hopeful that a lot of people will really enjoy it!
2. I have to say, the cover of The Thirteenth Chime is incredibly alluring. How much input did you have on the design?
I was surprised at how much input they allowed me to have once I showed them my concept idea. It turned out completely amazing! I am thrilled with it and I am so happy that I got to be included in the process. I even had a hand in on getting to choose the font and even the artist! The publisher has been really great.
3. This novel will be released on a Friday the Thirteenth. Was that just a clever marketing ploy, or is there some significance to that date?
Hint: 13 is an ongoing theme in my ‘A Sense of Truth’ novels, so keep your eyes out for more 13’s in my series, although not in the titles.
4. What inspired you to write a YA novel?
Reading Young Adult novels helped me a lot in life and I wanted to be able to do that for others.
5. Your website mentions that you have some other projects on the line. Are you're future novels also YA Fantasy? What can we expect from you in the future?
The Thirteenth Chime is the first novel in my debut series, ‘A Sense of Truth’, so expect more novels in this series to come out in the future. I also have another series in the works that my publisher is thinking of taking on upon the completion of ‘A Sense of Truth’ novels. I think I have really found my place writing Young Adult Fantasy/ paranormal/ urban fantasy.

Thank you so much for you time and for having me and thank you to everyone who read this interview. Your support means the world to me!

Every-Author Questions

Dear readers, I am breaching unknown territory! I have been looking for an opportunity to begin conducting author interviews, and I think I have finally found my breakthrough. In preparation for what I hope will be dozens (dare I dream, hundreds?) of author interviews, I have decided on a formula. I have created ten "Every-Author" questions which are exactly what they sound like--ten generic questions that I will pose to each author. I intend to supplement these questions with author-specific questions. So it seems only fair that I answer my own questions, right? Without further ado...

10 Every-Author Questions

With Baley Petersen

1. Do you write with pen and paper or on a computer, and what are the tools you require for your writing process?

I am almost strictly a pen and paper writer. I find that writing on the computer limits my creative flow. That may be a bunch of horse pucky, but if I feel more connected to paper than to screen, where's the harm, right? The only tools I require are pen and paper. Preferably a ball-point.
2. Do you maintain a regular writing schedule, and can you tell me about it?

I write at night, right before my head hits the pillow. It's a kind of mental purge for me, to release all of that creative mess from my brain onto the paper. If I don't write before I sleep, I am haunted by seriously weird dreams.
3. Do you heavily self-edit, or do you write it and forget it?

I hate editing. I know, I know, I'm a nightmare writer. The truth is that I write primarily for myself, so I just write to get the confusion out of my head and onto the paper. Once it's written down, I'm more prone to just forget it.
4. What makes you a unique writer?

I was told once by a professor of fiction that because of my poetry background, my fiction is concise. I learned to say the most with the fewest words through poetry, and that skill translates itself well into fiction writing. I believe that my fiction is emotionally charged with direct language. At least...I like to think so!
5. Where do you find your inspiration?

I am inspired by EVERYTHING! Music, poetry, children, sunshine, scents, movies... I am an observer at heart, so everything I see becomes a story.
6. Can you name one writer that has most inspired you?

Francesca Lia Block. That woman is incredible!
7. What is the one book you could read over and over again?

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Cliche? Maybe, but it's just such a wonderful novel. And I do read it again and again, every December.
8. What is the most important relationship a writer needs to create and maintain?

In my limited experience, a writer most needs a strong support. We experience all kinds of crises, from a total loss of self-confidence, to inflated ego. It is so important to have that one person who will remind us of who we are and what's most important.
9. How do you approach the editing process, and do you have any creative ways of overcoming editing-block problems? 

Again, I hate editing. It is not my friend. I get so attached to my words that when I'm presented with critique I find myself at a total loss. I've tried the straight-forward style of receive critique, re-write, repeat, and I find that I usually end up with a weaker version of what I started with. So I work at creative editing methods. My favorite is letter writing. I have a fantastic friend who is always willing to read my stuff, so when I get stuck, I sit down and write her a letter about what I'm working on and where the trouble lies. When I can talk about a piece of my writing objectively, I can see the major fault lines and start over on the problem areas.
10. What is the hardest step in the publishing process, and how do you navigate that step?

I wish I knew! I haven't yet put my foot through the proverbial publishing door, which I suppose is the hardest step for me. The shameless self-promotion and constant rejection is a lot to handle.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Tell Me Lies: Patrick Cooper

I'm not gonna lie, I sometimes pick out books based on their covers. Tell Me Lies was one such find. I'm a hippie at heart, so I was intrigued by this book cover and the flap that describes a story about 1969 and an enlightenment driven commune.

So this is usually the paragraph I dedicate to explaining the story. Except I have no idea where to start! Because this book is about so much more than a guy named Stephen who has some Interesting Experiences. It is about Truth and Love and Community. It is about personal truth and a little bit about personal enlightenment. It is about knowing who you are and what you want and where you belong. All of this is expressed through the story of Stephen, a young English man in 1969. He's the son of conservatives, and has a brother, Rob, who has wrapped himself in anti-war activism. At first, Stephen has a Plan. He is going to work at the pub and live at home until he does whatever he's going to do. All well and good (and dull), until he visits Rob in London. It's kind of like Stephen suddenly realizes there's more to life than living at home. And so begins a Journey. He falls in love and gets his heart broken, he meets a lot of hippies, he does a fair amount of drugs, he seeks enlightenment, he joins a commune, and he falls in Love For Real. Actually, a Lot happens. Too much to recap.

I liked this book. It was a lot to take in, but that's how life goes. Underneath all the things that happen, there is an underlying theme of Stephens search for purpose, which is such a universal experience. Aren't we all searching for a place to belong and feel important? And the way Patrick Cooper writes, I had no problem identifying with Stephen. He's just an ordinary bloke, totally accessible.

My chief complaint about this Young Adult novel is that for a book about Truth and Lies, it takes awhile to get around to how important the truth can be. It's not until the very end of the book that Stephen is forced to question who has given him Truth and who has given him Lies. In fact, until the last two or three chapters, I didn't have any idea what the title referred to. Also, I'm not sure how "young" is appropriate. There is a lot of content in this book that would not be appropriate for middle readers, and maybe even some of the more immature high schoolers. However, I think that most adults would appreciate this novel, if only because Stephen is so accessible.

Rating: $$

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Singletini: Amanda Trimble

I picked up Singletini at the library booksale. The bright cover and basic storyline about a matchmaker caught my interest. I can now tell you, dear readers, that is where my interest ended.

So the story is about Victoria. She's a flat narrator who punctuates her ever sentence with "Ooh" and "Right?" Highly obnoxious. She loses her desk job and becomes a Wingwoman for hire. Essentially, she goes out with men who hire her to help them meet women. Meanwhile, one of her dearest friends from college just got engaged and wants Victoria to be her personal assistant. And of course there is a love interest (what else could possibly motivate this weak piece of chick lit?).

As you can probably already tell, I am not a fan of this book. As a story it is trite, but tolerable. As a novel, it is ridiculous. It's part "Shopaholic", part "Coyote Ugly". The characters are one-dimensional and the writing is amateurish. It turns out that Trimble is a copywriter. I don't recommend she give up her day job.

Rating: $...or less

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

a) 5 posts that you feel best represent your blog in terms of the niche category for which you registered, and b) 5 posts that best represent EACH featured category for which you registered (i.e., Best Written Book Blog). You may use the same links for multiple categories if you wish, but please separate the list of links so that the judges know which links pertain to which category.

Should Be Reading alerted me to this awesome event, Book Blogger Appreciation Week. My hubris has got the best of me and I've nominated myself for Best Eclectic Blog and Best Written Blog. To qualify I have to link 5 blog posts that represent how mine is the best eclectic blog, and 5 posts that represent how mine is the best written.

Best Eclectic Blog:

Best Written Blog:

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Quickening: Michelle Hoover

My continued gratitude to Other Press, who sends me delightful, brand new reads like this one.

Michelle Hoover's debut novel, The Quickening takes place during the years of The Great Depression in a Midwest farming town. The two narrators are neighbors--Edidina Current and Mary Morrow--and they could not be more different. While Edidina is a sturdy and plump, hard-working woman, Mary had dreams of something a bit more cosmopolitan. Despite their differences the women form a tenuous friendship that waxes and wans through births and deaths, prosperity and poverty. Theirs is a friendship built of necessity. When Edidina struggles with birthing, Mary is the only woman around for miles. And when Mary is craving some female company amid a houseful of husband and sons, Edidina is her only female companion. So they have this delicate friendship which is hindered by Mary's husband, Jack, who does some pretty evil things. Mary finds solace in the new preacher, Borden which also proves to be troublesome for everyone. Ultimately, there are a lot of "your-folk-done-my-folk-wrong" finger pointing scenarios and some truly devastating events that will surely make you pick a side.

First of all, I have to admit that when I first read the book flap and saw that it was about farmers during the Great Depression, I was none too excited. My grandma was born in 1904, so I've heard enough Great Depression stories to last a lifetime. And I find that most books about farming life are sloooooow. You know, on account of farming life being slooooow. However, there was something about this story, with it's family strife and neighborly secrets that had me curious. I devoured this book in a matter of hours, folks. Quite simply, I was riveted.

Hoover has an amazing gift. While it's not fair to either book to compare, I found myself enjoying The Quickening in the same way I enjoyed The Good Earth. It is a character-driven novel in which events surround the characters opposed to a story where characters surround an event. As a result, I relate. I feel connected to Edidina and Mary as each woman narrates. Hoover has given each woman an individual voice that oozes emotion with such subtlety that she can only be called an artist.

Rating: $$$

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Last Dance at The Frosty Queen: Richard Uhlig

Another book sale buy, Last Dance At The Frosty Queen was a surprise. I had no idea what it was about, but the cover was catchy and the title was quirky. I figured that for 50 cents, it could be a total dud and I wouldn't have lost anything.

Uhlig makes his debut with this teen novel about Arthur Flood (aka, Arty), an eighteen-year-old high school senior living in tiny Harker City, Kansas. Arty has big dreams about moving away from Harker and living a bigger life, surrounded by people he's never met. Arty turns out to be a very complex character. He's sleeping with his Drama teacher, Mrs. Kaye, while also dating Geraldine Bottoms from the Ichthus club (it's a bible study group). Arty works for the Stileses who own Stiles' Styles--a design shop in town that was intended to put Harker City on the map. Arty's best friend is a theater buff named Barry, a closeted gay boy who works at the Frosty Queen--the first fast food shop in town. Arty's life seems pretty dull until he meets Vanessa from California. She's dark and mysterious and irresistibly beautiful. And of course, she's a little bit crazy, which is probably what Arty likes about her. This is all background noise to the real Arty Flood story though, which is the death of his drunk mother some years previous, which he's never fully dealt with.

I think I'm still processing this book. For being marketed for teens, it's got a lot of intense emotions and some very graphic sex. The language is also a little rough at times. This book is just like an eighteen-year-old boy in many ways. It's funny and a little bit painful. It's awkward and self-conscious. It's also tender-hearted when you start to learn some of it's secrets.

Rating: $$

The Geography of Bliss: Eric Weiner

The title alone was enough to catch my interest, but it was the subtitle that really hooked me: One Grump's search for the Happiest Places in the World. That pretty much sums up The Geography of Bliss. Ten chapters, ten counties, and a whole book of ideas on what it means to be happy.

Eric Weiner is a world news correspondent for National Public Radio and self-proclaimed grump. He has lead a successful career in the midst of a fairly unhappy life. After reporting stories from some of the most miserable places on Earth, Weiner wonders what it would be like to instead search the globe for the happiest places in the world. This leads to a consultation with Ruut Veenhooven, a Dutch professor and world renowned scholar of Happiness. Veenhoven and his cohorts have compiled a database that measures the overall happiness of every country in the world. Weiner travels to various counties and meets with locals (and some non-locals) to find out what makes a county happy, or more specifically, what makes for a happy person.

Though I took a long time getting through this book, I loved it. I'm a travel nut, and Weiner has an immense talent at describing a scene. He also writes with humor that had me laughing out loud on almost every page. The characters he meets--despite being real people, they are in fact characters--are wonderful, wise, charming people who each have a different set of beliefs and feel differently about Happiness as a goal. I couldn't possibly list all ten countries and tell you what Weiner learns about happiness in each one, but I can give you some highlights.

  • Switzerland is one of the Happiest places in the world. This is largely due to their excellent timing, their large quantities of good chocolate (that would do it for me!), and their impeccably clean public toilets. Envy is the root of unhappiness, so the Swiss are very careful not to boast their wealth.
  • Iceland is also one of the Happiest places in the world. They live in perpetual darkness and slide around on treacherous ice half the year. They drink themselves into a stupor on the weekends, and have faith only in their history rather than in any god. Icelandic people believe that trust is the key to happiness, so they choose to trust one another and therefore, behave in a way that is trustworthy.
  • Moldova is one of the unhappiest places on Earth. It is a county without culture or money. The people are resigned to the way things are. They are neither Russian nor are they Soviets. The Moldovan people are all doom and gloom and don't work very hard at making any changes.
  • Thailand is often thought of as a Happiness Paradise. It is tropical, with lovely beaches, and all of that Buddhism floating around is very relaxing. Because Thais believe in reincarnation, they aren't all that worried about what they do or don't do in this lifetime. They believe that thinking is the enemy of happiness. The moment that you think about what will make you happy, you have already lost happiness. Therefore, the Thais simply go through life trying not to think too much about anything, but just enjoying what IS.
Unfortunately, Weiner never did tell me exactly how to be happy. But his travels explained a lot about how the world views happiness and how people expect to achieve it. I may not have the answer yet, but I certainly have something to think about.

Rating: $$$

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Swimming Pool: Holly LeCraw

I finished reading The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw about two weeks ago. At first, I had no idea where to begin in my review. What a complicated story! And then, just as I was really picking up some steam on my review, my computer crashed. And I mean it CRASHED. I tried to do a system restore, but alas, the only treatment was to re-start the system from scratch. So. Obviously I lost the beautiful, poetic, righteous review I was working on. And of course, now that it's gone into the silicon Neverland and no one can read it, I can tell you that it was my best work ever! Okay, it wasn't really, but you'll never know, will you?

So. This book. It's confusing. That's all there is to it. Because it starts out as a story about one thing, but it ends up being a story about something totally different. Which, really, is just like life. We start out our day thinking it will just be about work, and it ends up being about the kids and the dog and the co-workers mother-in-law who doesn't approve. In that sense, LeCraw is a fabulous writer. She easily captures a slice of life. The life she has captured, though, is chaotic at best.

So there are all these people who have intersecting lives. Marcella was married to Anthony and they have a daughter named Toni. Marcella had an affair with a man named Cecil who was married to a woman named Betsy. Cecil and Betsy have two kids; Jed and Callie. Betsey ends up getting murdered, Marcella and Anthony get divorced, and Cecil eventually dies. That's not what this story is actually about though. Because some years later, it's summer on the Cape and Toni is hired to nanny for Callie, who now has two kids of her own. And brother Jed is spending the summer at the Cape with his sister. I know, right? Marcella's kid is nannying for the daughter of Marcella's former lover? Crazy. But wait, it gets worse. What could be worse, you ask? Oh, I don't know, maybe if Marcella and Jed become lovers! That's right, first she's lovin on the papa, then she's lovin on the son. Sick, ya'all, sick! It appears this woman has no boundaries. And to complicate things further, back at the Cape house, Toni keeps coming on to Jed, and he's trying desperately to deny that he finds her attractive. Because after all, she's the daughter of his lover!

So, if you've swallowed all of that information, now I can tell you that this book isn't really about those wicked relationships. It's about Callie and how postpartum depression is nasty. Because she's got this beautiful baby girl, right, but she's so totally unattached. And she's too scared to talk about it, because she's kind of WASPy and doesn't want anyone to know that she's not perfect. So what happens? Nothing, actually. She does not drown her baby in a bathtub. She does not shake her baby to death. Nothing like that. She just locks her baby in the nursery, where she is safe from crazy mamma, which is the best thing she could have done. But none of this happens until the last part of the book! There are all of these subtle little paragraphs about Callie's unhappiness, but reader is so tied up with Jed and Marcella that we don't realize it's all about Callie!

Now, I'm not gonna lie and say I loved this book. Because I was kind of into it until I figured out that I had been misled. But I can't lie and say I hated it, either. Because the characters are fascinating people! And I am a sucker for stories that take place on The Cape. New England is super foreign to this NW girlie, so I'm always interested to read about those folks. I guess I'm just not keen on the plot devices LeCraw utilizes. However, this is her debut novel, and I am mildly curious to see what she does next. Will she continue to be a tale-twister, or will she change it up next time?

Rating: $$

Monday, May 24, 2010

Library Lion: Michelle Knudsen

My darling little friend, Miss E, got a new book for her Birthday. I spotted the exquisitely illustrated hardback as soon as I stepped into her room. Library Lion is, on top of being a wonderful story, one of the most beautifully illustrated picture books I’ve seen in awhile. Written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, it is not just a story, but a work of art.

As we all know, libraries have Rules. You know the sort—no running, no being loud, and certainly, No Roaring. However, there is no rule about lions in the library. So when a lion casually enters the library one day and wanders into the story corner to await story time, there is nothing to be done about it. Soon enough, the lion becomes an institution in the library. He assists the head librarian and the small children. He participates in story time. In short, he makes himself at home in the library. All goes well enough until an Occasion arises that requires he Run and ROAR! But it was an emergency! So, you know, sometimes there are good reasons for breaking the rules.

I am a sucker for stories about animals and I am a sucker for stories about libraries. Put them together and I’m plumb giddy. Library Lion is one of those wonderful, timeless stories that has entertaining characters, adult-themed nuances, and of course, those beautiful illustrations. If you are fortunate enough to have a child in your life, buy them this book! You will love reading it together.

Rating: $$$

Ten Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You: Rev Oliver Buzz Thomas

Ten Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You was reviewed by my friend over at This Week At The Library some time ago, but I must admit, I didn’t pay much attention. He’s always reading theological books and those don’t generally interest me. However, this little volume found itself in my hands after an interesting conversation with a devout believer friend of mine who said that Rev Buzz had really got her thinking about some things. I zoomed through it in about an hour and a half, which illustrates just how conversational the writing is.

Rev Oliver “Buzz” Thomas is a Southern Baptist minister who faces ten big fundamental questions people have about Christianity and the bible including topics like other religions and homosexuality. Rev Thomas is able to knowledgably cite scripture to support his arguments. He essentially brings the bible into the present by pointing out that the books of the bible are not meant to be read literally. I think my favorite reference was to the many laws in Leviticus that would now be ridiculous—selling one’s daughter, for example.

My feeling about this slim read is that fundamentalists will detest it and liberals will love it. Being a spiritualist myself, I found it interesting and engaging. I have read many reviews that state Rev Thomas is a blasphemer and that his word is not gospel. Well, it certainly isn’t, and I don’t think he ever intended it to be so. Thomas is simply a man educated in the bible who has made a valiant attempt at communicating Christian principles to folks who are on the fence about their beliefs.

Rating: $$

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hit By A Farm: Catherine Friend

Almost as an afterthought, at the very end of a book sale spree, I picked up Hit By A Farm by Catherine Friend. The back cover mentioned something about a modern woman and her partner deciding to become farmers, and the numerous boundaries she faced down while handling ram testicles and assisting in lambing. As a backyard farmer myself, I found immediate humor in Friend’s casual assumptions that farming would be fun and easy. I remember having those same thoughts!

Catherine is a self professed “guppy”—gay urban yuppie. She writes children’s books and teaches some writing classes. When she met and fell in love with Melissa, she had no idea that it would result in a Minnesota farm. It turns out that Melissa’s lifelong dream has been to be a farmer. When faced with this new fact, Catherine thinks it sounds like a good time! Living off the land and all that jazz. So they buy 50 acres of land in Minnesota and become farmers. Except it’s not quite that easy. There is a lot to learn about farming and shepherding. There are a lot of personal boundaries that have to be crossed. There are a whole lot of expectations that have to be considered and subsequently shattered. What starts out as a sweet, countrified dream soon becomes a rural nightmare.

There are so many wonderful, memorable tidbits in this book and I wish I could remember more of them to share with you. I particularly enjoyed any of the scenes involving the llama they purchase to protect the sheep. Because after all, who wouldn’t think to buy a llama to watch over a herd of sheep?! There are also some hilarious scenes involving the chickens—or more specifically, the roosters who compete for the role of top cock.

The beauty of Friend’s memoir is that it is realistic. Amidst the humor there is tragedy, and with every unexpected turn, her relationship with Melissa suffers a little more, causing her to question their future together. Their relationship is tested, as are Catherine's boundaries. Eventually, Catherine must decide what is important to her and what she needs to do for herself to make herself successful in life and love. I laughed out loud, I sighed with complete sympathy regarding farming boundaries (because you see, there are no boundaries on a farm), and my heart beamed for the obvious love Catherine and Melissa share. I think this book is totally enjoyable for everyone, even if you’re not a lesbian farmer in Minnesota.

Rating: $$$

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies: Lizabeth Zindel

Another book sale find, The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies attracted me with the beautiful blue butterfly on the cover. I should know better than to judge a book by it’s cover.

Maggie is a high school senior whose parents just split up. She and her mom moved to the big city—I mean The Big City of NYC—and Maggie was sent to the very prestigious Berkley Prep for girls. So she’s the new girl and of course she’s all nervous and trying to fit in. Except she’s not really that nervous and there’s nothing about Maggie in the first few chapters that makes me believe she’s desperate to fit in. Then again, she’s a teenage girl in The City. So when a chain of events leads to her invitation into a super special clique called The Revelers, she jumps at the chance to be uber popular. The clique isn’t what it seems though (are you surprised, readers?), and Maggie soon finds herself with top secret information about everyone in school. She begins to feel the inkling that it’s not right for a group of girls to know so much private information about the entire school, but she somehow manages to brush off the feeling of unease, because after all, being popular is more important than anything as silly as ethics. So Maggie is living the high life, dating a cute boy, hanging with the popular girls, blah blah blah. Surely you can see where this is going. There has to be conflict. Which comes so late in the story, I began to wonder if it was coming at all. The secret stash of secrets comes to light and Maggie has to face the fact that she placed popularity above good reason and ethical standards.

I imagine that those thirteen and fourteen year old girls who love love love to watch Gossip Girl because they think being seventeen and popular is the greatest thing on Earth, would love this book. It’s dishy and girly and emphasizes the importance of fitting in. Honestly, the underlying moral is a little too “under” for my taste. Maggie is basically a flat character who doesn’t seem to have any personality of her own. She’s uninteresting, and worse, she’s a bad friend.

The group dynamic was interesting in the sense that it was akin to “Heathers”. There’s a leader of the pack, and the other girls are basically interchangeable. Lexi, Sydney, Maggie—they’re all just following what the Queen Victoria demands they do. But hey, who doesn’t love a story about high school lemmings?

There is this really fascinating nugget of story that makes the book somewhat redeemable. The store of secrets—called The Wall—poses the question, when is information Truth and when is it just Gossip? It’s certainly a redeemable plot line, but the delivery is too weak. Lizabeth Zindel writes in a way that panders to the middle school crowd. It feels like she is more concerned with not offending the kiddos than she is with making a statement about gossip. Which is just plain confusing for an adult reader.

Overall, I don’t think much of this one. There’s definitely potential, but the language and the delivery of the plot are just too juvenile. I’m not sure it would even communicate any kind of message to young readers who might find the story engaging.

Rating: $

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events-The Bad Beginning: Lemony Snicket

I have wanted to read the Lemony Snicket series since I first saw them on the shelf. I finally found volume one at a book sale last weekend for the measly cost of a whopping fifty cents. The Bad Beginning introduces us to the Beaudelaire children and the devious Count Olaf.

The Beaudelaire children consist of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. To start the book, the children become orphans when their parents both perish in a house fire. The very sad children are shuffled off the Mr. Poe, who is the executor of the Beaudelair estate. Mr. Poe’s house isn’t as comfortable as their own home, but the children are about to learn the true meaning of uncomfortable. As directed by the Beaudelaire will, the children must be awarded to a relative. Mr. Poe chooses Count Olaf as the closest—geographically—living relative. It doesn’t take long to realize that Count Olaf is a heartless, greedy nut-job who only takes in the orphans to get his hands on their sizeable fortune. What ensues is a terribly sad story about the misery of three orphaned children, Olaf’s disgusting plot including a marriage, and the triumph of a very smart trio of children.

It’s obvious that I am a fan of young adult fiction. I love the vivid characters, the simple plots, and the creativity of youth authors. Lemony Snicket is no different. He has created larger than life characters and put them into unbelievable scenarios. He writes as an adult telling a story, using an adult vocabulary, rather than talking down to his young readers. Snicket writes as though he assumes his readers are intelligent which I find incredibly refreshing.

I’ve had a really difficult time reviewing this book, and I think it’s because I was neither thrilled nor disgusted. It was a quick read, the characters were enjoyable, but I already knew the story from having seen the movie. I imagine young folks would dive into the story with vigor. I imagine most adults would slip over the pages with some interest.

Rating: $$

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Last Song: Nicholas Spark

The Last Song is a bit labyrinthine, with about a dozen plot lines to follow. I’ll try to touch on all of them, but don’t blame me if I forget to mention some of the finer nuances. To start with, there’s Ronnie; a seventeen-year-old New York teenager with anger issues who only wears black—even in the dead heat of a humid summer. She’s the bitter child of divorce who hasn’t spoken a word to her father in three years. Ronnie is now being shuttled off to her father’s house on the coast of Connecticut, along with her ten-year-old brother, Jonah. Ronnie is predictably pissed about it. Ronnie’s dad, Steve, is a pianist. A great one, apparently, and he taught Ronnie how to play. Ronnie has some God-given talent for music, but she quit playing piano when her father left. So she arrives in Connecticut and ignores her father for three solid days. She falls in with the wrong crowd, including people named Blaze and Marcus. There’s jealousy and crime and Ronnie ends up in trouble with the law. Turns out, her dad’s cool about it and believes her when she says she’s innocent. Ronnie is shocked! An adult who trusts a teenager?! There’s no such thing on Planet Teen! And so begins the reparation of Ronnie’s relationship with her father.

Meanwhile, Ronnie meets Will who is a preppy rich kid. They are intrigued by each other. Will turns out to be a volunteer at the Aquarium and he shows up again after she reports a sea turtle nest behind her house. What a coincidence. And so begins a brand new relationship between Ronnie and Will. No wait, it’s not a relationship, it’s Real, True Love. Between teenagers. Excuse me while I doubt the validity of teenage romance for a moment.

There are a dozen or so other little storylines, including a wedding, a girl set on fire, and a kindly pastor of the church that was burned to the ground. In many ways it’s far too much like real life—too much happening at the same time. Which is barely manageable in real life, and downright frustrating in a novel.

In my opinion, Nicholas Sparks is a terrible writer, but he is a fantastic story-teller. He tends to directly tell the reader what a character is feeling rather than allow their actions or dialogue to describe what’s going on with them. The Last Song is no exception to this theory, however, it does show some growth of Sparks’ writing abilities. There is definitely a lot more expressive dialogue than some of his other novels, although much of it is so very cliché. Yes, angry teenagers do exist and they say a lot of the same things and do a lot of the same stupid things, but c’mon man, you’re a writer! Stretch the ol’ creativity muscle!

Long before I even considered reading this book, I knew that Sparks wrote it for Miley Cyrus. He wrote the role of Ronnie based on the pop star, and it was obvious on every page that he put very little effort into creating Ronnie’s character, probably assuming that Cyrus would automatically portray the angsty, conflicted teenager without much coaxing. For that matter, the rest of the characters lay flat on the page. If Marcus wasn’t directly described as a sociopath, I wouldn’t have known it to be part of his character. Blaze is a confusing character who makes snarky comments and smiles a lot. Whatever that means. Even the love interest, Will, seems to be kind of bland. He’s basically just a pretty, rich boy who tries to prove he’s more than just a pretty, rich boy.

Overall reaction? It kept me interested enough that I read through it quickly. The story is poignant, and will likely make for a lot of tears at the cinema…which is what we expect from Nicholas Sparks now, isn’t it?

Rating: $ ¾…..meaning if you like this kind of thing, go ahead and check it out at the library. If you prefer less formulaic novels, skip it.