Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Thoughts - Abide With Me by Sabin Willett

Abide with Me by Sabin Willett
published 3/31/13
368 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

As the fog lifts one morning, a lone soldier is walking home. Who is he? The sleepy, gossipy town of Hoosick Bridge, Vermont, has forgotten him, but it will soon remember. He is Roy Murphy, returning to face his violent, complicated reputation. Returning to Emma Herrick, descendant of Hoosick Bridge's first family, who occupies its grandest, now decaying, house: the Heights.

Their intense and unlikely adolescent romance provided scandalous gossip for the town. The young lovers escaped Hoosick Bridge, but Emma remained Roy's obsession long after they parted. Now Roy returns from Afghanistan a changed and extraordinary man who will stop at nothing to obtain a piece of the Herrick's legacy.

My thoughts -

I found this novel to be extremely successful in some ways, and in others much less so. There are really two parts to Abide With Me - Roy's time in Afghanistan, and Roy's relationship with Emma. While the author weaves the two strands of the narrative together throughout the novel, for me they always felt like two very different stories.

I was engrossed in the story of Roy and his military unit in Afghanistan. Those sections of the novel were compelling in a way that felt completely authentic. I have never been in the military myself, but Willett's descriptions of the rag-tag bunch of soldiers and their bond with each other had the ring of truth in every sentence.

"Most of them up there were scarcely more than boys. They emblazoned their arms and chests and backs with the tattoos of warriors; most smoked the same foul cigarettes, laced their language the same way, and tried to outmacho each other, but every one of them feared the day of his death." (p. 168)

I found myself connecting emotionally to this group of brash young men, and the most emotional part of the novel for me came with the death of one of Roy's fellow soldiers -

"At first it was a weeping for everything lost, stripped from a young man who had clambered from the pit to the surface, who would raise himself from that pit and now must surely slip back into it, a weeping from the deepest kind of hopelessness - hopelessness that for an unexpected time in an unexpected place was privileged to see hope itself, to believe in it, and now had it ripped away...He wept and cradled he who had been a man but was now a marionette lying crumpled and broken on a mountainside in Afghanistan, a heap, a pile, with all the strings severed." (p. 262)

Roy and Emma's relationship, however - the "obsessive love" part of the story - never carried the same intensity. Perhaps because I didn't feel that Emma was developed enough as a character, but I was continually less involved in the story of their doomed affair. I found myself wanting to rush through those sections, to return to the war story. I do understand the comparisons to Wuthering Heights, but don't believe the love story was the strength of this novel.

While not completely a hit, I did find much in Abide With Me to enjoy. I would certainly read more by this author, particularly if he writes again about a group of soldiers.

Finished - 3/26/13
Source - review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating - R for violence, adult situations, language, and graphic depictions of war
My rating - 6/10

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Thoughts - Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David Levithan
published 8/28/12
324 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

A has no friends. No parents. No family. No possessions. No home, even. Because every day, A wakes up in the body of a different person. Every morning, a different bed. A different room. A different house. A different life. A is able to access each person's memory, enough to be able to get through the day without parents, friends, and teachers realizing this is not their child, not their friend, not their student. Because it isn't. It's A. Inhabiting each person's body. Seeing the world through their eyes. Thinking with their brain. Speaking with their voice.

It's a lonely existence — until, one day, it isn't. A meets a girl named Rhiannon. And, in an instant, A falls for her, after a perfect day together. But when night falls, it's over. Because A can never be the same person twice. But yet, A can't stop thinking about her. She becomes A's reason for existing. So each day, in different bodies — of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, walks of life — A tries to get back to her. And convince her of their love. But can their love transcend such an obstacle?

My thoughts -

Oh, friends. If I had read this book as a teenager, I would have been devastated. This is how I wanted to feel after the John Green novel. This book twisted my heart around in ways I couldn't have imagined. I laughed, I cried - I loved it.

A is technically genderless, and throughout the novel the reader indentifies A as both male and female in different spots. This gives Levithan an interesting telescope through which to examine gender roles and stereotypes, as well as the issues that each gender faces. For the most part, I think he handles the gender issue well. There were a few places where it felt a bit simplified, but I didn't ever feel like he became overly preachy or heavy-handed.

Levithan takes on a host of issues - relationships, teen depression, gender identity crises, sexuality, bullying, the list could go on - and if the novel has a weakness, this is where I would identify it. It became almost predictable - okay, what teen crisis is A going to have to deal with in this body - and having so many made each just a bit less impactful.

I enjoyed Levithan's writing very much. He gave A just the right voice - funny and wise, but not every beyond his years. Sometimes I've noticed YA authors want their teen characters to "be" smart, or sarcastic, or empathetic, and it can feel more like an adult saying their words - it seems like they are trying too hard. I never had that feeling with A - Levithan got the voice just right, and I was completely charmed by this unique young person.

"There is a part of childhood that is childish, and a part that is sacred. Suddenly we are touching the sacred part - running to the shoreline, feeling the first cold burst of water on our ankles, reaching into the tide to catch at shells before they ebb away from our fingers. We have returned to a world that is capable of glistening, and we are wading deeper within it. We stretch our arms wide, as if we are embracing the wind." (p. 14)

Every Day is a unique and compelling novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you are a YA fan and haven't tried Levithan's work, don't wait any longer - I know I will be seeking out more of his novels to read soon! Recommended.

Finished - 3/21/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for teen sexuality, and some tense situations
My rating - 9/10

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tried it and Tossed it

Not every book works for every reader - and I tend to be a particularly impatient reader. Here are a few books I tried that just didn't work for me.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
published 5/12

Synopsis from publisher -

What if your life was upended in an instant? What if your spouse or your child disappeared right in front of your eyes? Was it the Rapture or something even more difficult to explain? How would you rebuild your life in the wake of such a devastating event? These are the questions confronting the bewildered citizens of Mapleton, a formerly comfortable suburban community that lost over a hundred people in the Sudden Departure. Kevin Garvey, the new mayor, wants to move forward, to bring a sense of renewed hope and purpose to his traumatized neighbors, even as his own family disintegrates. His wife, Laurie, has left him to enlist in the Guilty Remnant, a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence but haunt the towns streets as “living reminders” of Gods judgment. His son, Tom, is gone, too, dropping out of college to follow a crooked "prophet" who calls himself Holy Wayne. Only his teenaged daughter, Jill, remains, and shes definitely not the sweet "A" student she used to be.

Through the prism of a single family, Perrotta illuminates a familiar America made strange by grief and apocalyptic anxiety. The Leftovers is a powerful and deeply moving book about regular people struggling to hold onto a belief in their futures.

My thoughts -

I can't remember if I liked the other Perrotta novel I read a while back - I have a feeling he might be one of those popular authors that just doesn't click with me. I was listening to this on audio, and when my mp3 player died I couldn't seem to find the motivation to return to this novel after my replacement arrived.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow
published 2008

Synopsis from publisher -

A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?

When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave — "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" — wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

My thoughts -

I generally don't read books like this, but one of my students REALLY wanted me to try it, so I reluctantly agreed. Really, nothing wrong with it, but I'd already seen a documentary about Mr. Pausch, so after 2 chapters I felt like I had already read the whole book.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
published 2012

Synopsis from publisher -

Oct. 11th, 1943 — A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun.
When "Verity" is arrested by the Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

My thoughts -

I know, I know! This should have been everything I loved about reading, but I just could not get into the story. I am keeping this one on the back burner, though, and will try it again at a later date.

So there you have my true confessions - what have you read lately that just didn't work for you?

Photo credit: justmakeit / / CC BY-NC

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Book Thoughts - Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors

Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors
published 2/13
512 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

When his land is taken by force, Prince Jayavar of the Khmer people narrowly escapes death at the hands of the conquering Cham king, Indravarman. Exiled from their homeland, he and his mystical wife Ajadevi set up a secret camp in the jungle with the intention of amassing an army bold enough to reclaim their kingdom and free their people. Meanwhile, Indravarman rules with an iron fist, pitting even his most trusted men against each other and quashing any hint of rebellion.

Moving from a poor fisherman's family whose sons find the courage to take up arms against their oppressors, to a beautiful bride who becomes a prize of war, to an ambitious warrior whose allegiance is torn--Temple of a Thousand Faces is an unforgettable saga of love, betrayal, and survival at any cost.

My thoughts -

One of the reasons I love to read historical fiction is the opportunity to lose myself in a place and time that I know nothing about. Case in point - I just spent 30 minutes browsing Wikipedia learning about Angkor Wat, the Khmers and the Chams, and the history of Cambodia. This novel takes place in a country and time I knew virtually nothing about, and now its history is part of my life.

Shors' cast of characters is not well known - the historical facts are somewhat sparse, so he is free to create beliefs and motivations for his characters that would be harder to do if he were writing about, say, Elizabeth I. While it would be interesting to see a bit more nuance - his good guys are very good, and his bad guys solely bad - I thought the story he weaves together felt true and organic.

Shors' novel is very much a collection of love stories, and the one I felt most connected to was the family of Boran and Soriya and their two sons. I quickly grew to care for this family that chooses not only to survive, but to resist their invaders, and I have to admit I got a bit emotional as their story drew to a close.

"He reached for her, and suddenly it was as if the years had gone backward. He was simply a boy who needed the comfort of his mother, of the person who had brought him into the world and who understood the beauty of turtles and memories and togetherness." (p. 362)

I enjoyed Shors' writing style very much. It was never flowery or overly-descriptive, but he always allowed me to see the amazing sights that would be before my eyes. There were a couple of times I felt like perhaps he gave his characters a bit too much insight - everyone was very wise, and on a few occasions it seemed to impede the flow of the novel just a bit. I wasn't surprised by any of the events of the novel, but it didn't feel predictable, and I found the reading experience enjoyable.

If you are a historical fiction fan, I definitely recommend this book. I will certainly be looking for more by this author - he has won himself a fan here!

Finished - 3/18/13
Source - review copy from the publisher- thank you!
MPAA rating - PG-13 for adult situations and violence
My rating - 8/10

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
published 2010
audiobook - read by Orlagh Cassidy and Bahni Turpin

Synopsis from publisher -

Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan with no memory of her past, arrives on a tobacco plantation where she is put to work as an indentured servant. Placed with the slaves in the kitchen house under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her new adopted family, even though she is forever set apart from them by her white skin. As Lavinia is slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles an opium addiction, she finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds.

My thoughts -

Reading this book made me tense. That's actually a compliment, though it might not seem that way. I found myself waiting in the car when I got to work, not wanting to stop listening. I thought about the characters and their situations throughout the day. I felt actual anxiety about the dilemmas they found themselves in. That's how wrapped up I was in Grissom's story.

Lavinia was a fascinating narrator - clearly unreliable from the start, but so believable that I couldn't help taking her story at her word. Belle was so strong, and fearless - I was amazed by her resilience and ingenuity. Grissom did draw clear lines between who was in the right and who as in the wrong - her readers never wondered about who they should root for. But within those lines, she gave her characters subtle nuances and shades that kept them from seeming too perfectly scripted.

I found myself captivated by Grissom's unique perspective on the life of a plantation - as Lavinia grew, so did her world, and it was fascinating to learn more with her. There were several places where I was able to anticipate what would happen next, though that didn't spoil the story for me. I did think the ending perhaps a bit rushed, but it was satisfying.

The audio production of this novel was magnificent. The two narrators absolutely nailed the voices of Lavinia and Belle, and were surely a major factor in my ability to lose myself in this story.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, give this one a try - it's a page turner for sure, and I don't think you will be disappointed.

Finished - 3/14/13
Source -
MPAA rating - PG-13 for violence and adult situations
My rating - 8/10

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sunday Shorts

The Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn
published 4/31/12
338 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

For fifteen years, Maria Devane has been desperately, passionately in love with Dante Romano. But Maria knows that Dante can never give everything of himself back—at least not all of the time. Every month, Dante shifts shape, becoming a wild animal. He cant choose when he shifts, the transition is often abrupt, and, as he gets older, the time he spends in human form is gradually decreasing

Maria has kept his secret since the beginning, knowing that their love is worth the danger. But when a string of brutal attacks occurs in local parks while Dante is in animal form, Maria is forced to consider whether the lies shes been telling about her life have turned into lies shes telling herself...

My thoughts -

Sharon Shinn is absolutely my guilty pleasure author. When I say I don't read romance novels, I mean I don't read romance novels UNLESS they are written by Sharon Shinn. I just love the way this woman tells a story, and this new novel did not disappoint. I don't think it's my favorite of her work, but I sure hope she plans for this to be a series, because I can't wait to find out what happens to Maria and Dante next. Recommended for fans of fantasy with a healthy dose of romance tossed in.

Finished - 2/27/13
Source - South side library
MPAA Rating - R for adult situations and violence
My rating - 8/10

Scarlet - The Lunar Chronicles, #2 by Marissa Meyer
published 2/5/13
384 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She's trying to break out of prison — even though if she succeeds, she'll be the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive.

Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit's grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn't know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother's whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

My thoughts -

While I didn't enjoy this quite as much as the first in the series, this was certainly a fun and quick read. Scarlet seemed much more "romancy" than it's predecessor, which is really the part of this story that I'm the least interested in. I'm still looking forward to the rest of the series, however, and this was a fun way to spend a weekend.

Finished - 3/3/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG-13
My rating - 7/10

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Thoughts - The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
published 3/31/12
480 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

1845: New York City forms its first police force. The great potato famine hits Ireland.

These two events will change New York City forever…

Timothy Wilde tends bar, saving every dollar in hopes of winning the girl of his dreams. But when his dreams are destroyed by a fire that devastates downtown Manhattan, he is left with little choice but to accept a job in the newly minted New York City Police Department.

Returning exhausted from his rounds one night, Tim collides with a girl no more than ten years old… covered in blood. She claims that dozens of bodies are buried in the forest north of Twenty-Third Street. Timothy isnt sure whether to believe her, but as the image of a brutal killer is slowly revealed and anti-Irish rage infects the city, the reluctant copper star is engaged in a battle that may cost him everything…

My thoughts -

Full disclosure? I almost didn't read this book. I saw it on the Publisher's Weekly best of 2012 lists and got it from the library, but when it came time to actually read it, I was torn. I just didn't know if I was really that interested, and sometimes these "thrillers" aren't really that well written.....

Boy, am I glad I took a chance on Gods of Gotham. This book is seriously good, folks. Faye tackles a lot - a real historical event, a fairly tense mystery, the slang used by the underworld in 1840's New York, a bit of romance, politics, and religion - and not a single aspect fell flat. I was engrossed from page one, and didn't want to put this excellent novel down until I'd turned the last page.

I was actually quite concerned by the novel's use of the "flash talk" that was starting to permeate society at the time this story takes place. I often struggle with books that rely heavily on a specific dialect - until I can get the flow, it is extremely difficult for me to actually enjoy the story, and I've been known to abandon a book simply because I couldn't crack the dialect "code". Faye does such a masterful job of integrating this slang into her story - with contextual clues and some small bits of explanation, I always felt like I knew just what each character was saying, and the dialect set the stage so well that I fell right into it and never looked back.

Faye's characters were rounded and interesting, with lots of interesting shades that made them quite real. I also found her writing style to be excellent - just perfect for the setting and voice of her novel. Because of her vivid descriptions of place and time, I was easily lost in the world of the Five Points, and felt the tension of each character trying to solve the tragic mystery.

"People tell me things. They tell me all sorts of things. About their finances, their hopes like torches in the dark, their tiny rages, their sins when the sins feel too much like shells and they want to break out of them. But never in my life had the new facts made me feel I weighed less instead of more, caught me op on a breeze. Maybe I would never understand Mercy, grasp why she spoke so glancingly or guess what she was thinking. Still. I only wished for decades to keep trying." (p. 203)

I only hope Faye plans to continue the story of Timothy and Val, Bird and Silkie - they are fantastic characters, and I can't wait to read what happens to them next!

Finished - 3/2/13
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - R for violence and adult situations
My rating - 9/10