Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Shorts

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
published 10/31/12
384 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

After decades of service and years of watching her family's troubles splashed across the tabloids, Britain's Queen is beginning to feel her age. She needs some proper cheering up. An unexpected opportunity offers her relief: an impromptu visit to a place that holds happy memories — the former royal yacht, Britannia, now moored near Edinburgh. Hidden beneath a skull-emblazoned hoodie, the limber Elizabeth (thank goodness for yoga) walks out of Buckingham Palace into the freedom of a rainy London day and heads for King's Cross to catch a train to Scotland. But a characterful cast of royal attendants has discovered her missing. In uneasy alliance a lady-in-waiting, a butler, an equerry, a girl from the stables, a dresser, and a clerk from the shop that supplies Her Majesty's cheese set out to find her and bring her back before her absence becomes a national scandal.

My thoughts:

This novel was enjoyable, but felt perhaps just a bit too long. Kuhn's cast of characters was a host of personalities , with The Queen herself the most interesting and charismatic. I enjoyed the writing, and found myself chuckling aloud often. I don't know that I will remember much about Mrs. Queen next year, though, and that is probably the novel's one weakness. A fun, light read for fans of all things British.

Finished: 12/9/12
Source: review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating: PG
My rating: 7/10

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
published 9/31/11
audiobook - read by Jim Dale

Synopsis from publisher -

The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Reves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway - a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a game, in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

My thoughts -

Oh, this book was simply magical. I love the way the author divided the book's sections, with descriptions of the amazing wonders of the circus mixed in between chapters of narrative. I loved the pacing - nothing rushed or hurried, unfolding each mystery in it's perfect time. I loved all the characters - I think Marco and Celia is my new favorite love story. And Jim Dale as narrator of this book was perfection. I enjoyed this so much that I plan to find my own physical copy, and I could see myself reading it again as soon as I have my hands on one. This will definitely be a contender for my favorite book of the year. 

Finished - 12/13/12
Source - audiobook from the library
MPAA rating - PG-13 for adult situations
My rating - 10/10

Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage by Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown
published 5/31/12
288 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

In many ways, the Browns are like any other middle-American family. They eat, play, and pray together, squabble and hug, striving to raise happy, well-adjusted children while keeping their relationship loving and strong. The difference is, there are five adults in the openly polygamous Brown marriage — Kody and his four wives — who among them have seventeen children.

Since TLC first launched its popular reality program Sister Wives, the Browns have become one of the most famous families in the country. Now Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn reveal in their own words exactly how their special relationship works — the love and faith that drew them together, the plusses and pitfalls of having sister wives, and the practical and emotional complications of a lifestyle viewed by many with distrust, prejudice, even fear. With the candor and frankness that have drawn millions to their show, they talk about what makes their fascinating family work, addressing the topics that intrigue outsiders: How do the four relationships differ? What effect does a polygamous upbringing have on their children? What are the challenges — emotional, social, or financial — involved in living this lifestyle? Is it possible for all four sister wives to feel special when sharing a husband — and what happens when jealousy arises? How has being on camera changed their lives? And whats it like to add a new wife to the family — or to be that new wife?

My thoughts -

I think this book took a lot of courage to write. Not from an "outing ourselves as polygamists" standpoint - I mean, at this point, if you don't know who the Brown family is you probably aren't going to, because there secret got spilled a long time ago. I'm talking about the kind of courage it takes to be truly, completely honest about the life you have chosen. About being clear that it isn't easy - that sometimes it even sucks - but that you wouldn't change the decision for a minute. This family works in ways I can't even imagine, and I think they are remarkable. I think they have done immeasurable good for their religious community, and I hope their children have the freedoms that they are fighting for. This was a compelling read - not perfect, as none of these people are authors, so there were issues with flow and pacing, but I found myself completely engrossed nonetheless. Recommended.

Finished - 12/28/12
Source - South side library
MPAA rating - PG - this family is very conservative, and that comes across in their writing
My rating - 8/10

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Shorts - Christmas Books edition

I like to spend time in December reading several Christmas books that I have collected over the years - it's a tradition my mom started with us when we were kids, and I plan to continue it with my kiddos in the coming years. There is something about reading and re-reading these familiar stories that is comforting in these busy days - they are some of my favorite stories, and I look forward to unpacking them every year.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry - illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger
this edition published 1997
32 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

One dollar and eight-seven cents is all the money Della has in the world to buy her beloved husband a Christmas present. She has nothing to sell except her only treasure - her long, glorious brown hair. This warm story of love, sacrifice, and generosity exemplifies the spirit of hope and giving and has earned a place as a timeless piece of American literature.

My thoughts -

It's a classic, and the illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger really make this edition special. Every year I am touched again by Della and Jim, and their silly, extravagant love for each other.

The Bells of Christmas by Virginia Hamilton
copyright 1997
62 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Twelve-year-old Jason Bell waits impatiently for Christmas 1890. Set against the carefully researched background life of a middle-class black family in Ohio a century ago, this ALA-Notable book tells of the wonderful Christmas Jason and his family celebrate together.

My thoughts - I happened upon this book a few years back, and it's quickly become one of my favorites. Jason's family feels warm and alive, and I can't help but get excited with Jason, his sister Melissy, and their friend Matthew, as they wait for their relatives to arrive, and Santa to appear. It's a charming portrait of a family in 1890's middle America, and a fun history lesson as well.

The Little Fir Tree by Margaret Wise Brown - illustrations by Jim LaMarche
this edition published 2009 - original text copyright 1954
32 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Once there was a tree that stood in a field away from the other trees. It longed to be part of the forest - or part of anything at all. After many lonely years, its dream came true, and the little fir tree's life changed forever.

My thoughts - A charming story by the author of Goodnight Moon, this should be on every child's shelf. The illustrations are simply gorgeous, and the story itself is lovely. A delight to read each year.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
published 1972
80 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

The Herdmans are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, steal, smoke cigars, swear, and hit little kids. So no one is prepared when this outlaw family invades church one Sunday and decides to take over the annual Christmas pageant.

None of the Herdmans has ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation of the tale - the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating - has a lot of people up in arms. But it will make this year's pageant the most unusual anyone has ever seen, and, just possibly, the best one ever.

My thoughts -

Imogene Herdman is one of my favorite characters in literature - every year I see the Christmas story through her eyes, and every year I am reminded of what a strange and unlikely story it truly is. This is a book for kids, but it's just as powerful for adults - if you haven't read it, find a copy. "Hey! Unto you a child is born!"

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
this edition published 2008
160 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

The story of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens on a Christmas Eve as cold as Scrooge's heart. That night, he receives three ghostly visitors: the terrifying Spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Each takes him on a heart-stopping journey, yielding glimpses of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the horrifying spectres of Want and Ignorance, even Scrooge's painfully hopeful younger self. Will Scrooge's heart by opened? Can he reverse the miserable future he is forced to see?

My thoughts -

For all the times I've experienced this story, this is the first time I've actually read the entire thing start to finish. I'm not done yet - Scrooge has just survived the first Spirit - but I'm finding it a wonderful read. I might have to wait a few years to share this one with my kids, but it will definitely be a Christmas tradition in our house.

Are you reading anything special for the holidays? Do you have any literary Christmas traditions? What are your favorite Christmas books - my shelves want to know!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sunday Shorts

The Taming of Annabelle by M. C. Beaton
first published 1983
e-book on Kindle

Synopsis from publisher -

From the moment honey-tressed young Annabelle meets her sister Minerva's intended, Lord Sylvester, she develops a secret passion for him that obsesses her. Now she is determined to take him away from Minerva - no matter what.

But Annabelle hasn't reckoned on Lord Sylvester's best friend, Peter, who falls in love with her and decides to tame her growing passions for the wrong man!

My thoughts -

Aaaand, I think this is the end of my foray into the regency romance. I don't mind a little fluff, but I found this heroine to be particularly annoying, and had a hard time forcing myself to care enough to finish the novel. I was planning to finish the whole series, but I don't think I will be revisiting the Six Sisters after this. I definitely remember now why I don't very often read romance novels - they just are not for me.

Finished: 11/21/12
Source: Kindle lending library
MPAA rating: PG-13 - pretty tame for a romance novel
My rating: 4/10

Straightjacket Memories by Jonathan Nelson
published 10/26/12
e-book on Kindle

Synopsis from publisher -

Jonathan grows up fighting “the beast,” but he has no idea that what he’s actually struggling with is bipolar disorder, which can make him feel despondent one moment and allow him to accomplish great things the next. He also suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and his Christian peers say he lacks self-control. Some even claim his behavior indicates a lack of Christian faith and say he won’t be saved.
It isn’t until seven years into his marriage that he is finally diagnosed; by then, bipolar disorder has taken a severe toll on his life. Divorce seems to be the only solution, but faith, love, and a devoted wife point him in a different direction.

My thoughts -

Full disclosure - I have known this author for as long as I can remember. We both grew up going to the same small, conservative Baptist school. His mom played the organ for my wedding. He and his family are just some of those "good people" that you are so grateful to have as part of your life.

That being said, I was completely impressed by this book. It cannot be easy to lay bare such a deep and personal part of your life, and Jon is painfully honest about so many aspects of his past. I remember several of the incidents he writes about, and to hear them recounted from his perspective was sometimes difficult. His struggle also hits close to home because of some of my own extended family, and hearing about his diagnosis from his point of view helped me to understand those family members better.

This is certainly a first book, by someone who hasn't had training in writing, but I thought it was well written and edited, and found the account to be completely engrossing. If you know someone who struggles with mental illness, I would certainly encourage you to pick this up, as it might give you insight that you hadn't previously found. Jon and his family are people of great faith, and his Christian beliefs do permeate the book, so I know it won't be for everyone, but I found it to be a personal and powerful read. I have to admit I'm proud to know this guy!

Finished: 11/24/12

Source: my Kindle
MPAA Rating: PG for adult situations
My rating: 8/10

The Twelve by Justin Cronin
published 10/31/12
audiobook read by Scott Brick

Synopsis from publisher -

In the present day: As a man-made apocalypse unfolds, three strangers navigate the chaos, desperate to find others, to survive, to witness the dawn on the other side of disaster. Lila, a doctor and an expectant mother, has been so broken by the spread of violence and infection that she continues to plan for her child’s arrival even as society dissolves around her. Kittridge, known to the world as "Last Stand in Denver," has been forced by loss of electrical power to flee his stronghold and is now on the road, dodging the infected, armed but alone and well aware that a tank of gas will get him only so far. April is a teenager fighting to guide her little brother safely through a minefield of death and ruin. These three will learn that they have not been fully abandoned — and that in connection lies hope, even on the darkest of nights.

A hundred years in the future: Amy, Peter, Alicia, and the others introduced in The Passage work with a cast of new characters to hunt the original twelve virals... unaware that the rules of the game have changed, and that one of them will have to sacrifice everything to bring the Twelve down.

My thoughts -

Holy cow, Justin Cronin. Holy cow. I have to admit you almost lost me at the beginning - I couldn't find it inside myself to care about these new characters, and I just wanted to know what was going on with Alicia, and Amy, and Peter. But then, when you started drawing the threads together, I was hooked just as tightly as I was in The Passage. I am amazed by the depth of your work - how can a vampire novel be  so thoughtful, and have so much to say about the human condition, and the life of the spirit, and the different faces of love, and the lengths people will go when they don't think they have any other choice.

I believe your novels will be read 100 years from now, and readers then will find as much to astonish and delight them as I have now. You are a master of your craft, and I cannot wait to find out where your story will end. Holy cow, Justin Cronin.

Finished: 12/1/12
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language, and adult situations
My rating: 10/10

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Relative Reads - The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send me some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
published 2002
320 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

In October 1886, Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the British War Office: he must leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma, where a rare Erard grand piano is in need of repair. The piano belongs to an army surgeon-major whose unorthodox peacemaking methods — poetry, medicine, and now music — have brought a tentative quiet to the southern Shan States but have elicited questions from his superiors.

On his journey through Europe, the Red Sea, India, and into Burma, Edgar meets soldiers, mystics, bandits, and tale-spinners, as well as an enchanting woman as elusive as the surgeon-major. And at the doctor's fort on a remote Burmese river, Edgar encounters a world more mysterious and dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

My thoughts:

First Impression - 10/28/12

So. I am feeling somewhat ambivalent toward this novel right now. On the one hand, the premise is quite interesting, and I have a lot of interest in this part of the world. My Grandpa was stationed in Burma during WWII, and it's geography and history are ripe for fictionalization. The author's writing is quite lovely, and there are times that I re-read paragraphs just to take in his words a second time. I loved the novel's first line -

"In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman's parasol."

There is so much imagery and promise in that line, that I am inclined to read the novel just to see if that promise is met.

But I am SO annoyed with the way the author presents dialogue. No punctuation, no line breaks, just wordsandwordsandwords, occasionally separated by a comma, then more words. No indication of who is speaking or when the character changes. As in this example -

"It isn't that, I don't want you to change your mind. You want me to go. I don't want you to go, but at the same time, I know you should go, I have been expecting this. You have been expecting an out-of-tune Erard in Burma? Not Burma, this, something different, It is a lovely idea, to use music to bring about peace, I wonder what songs you will play there." (p.35)

And there are sentences, almost always at the ends of chapters, that are either the most obvious red herrings in the world, or else so much foreshadowing that I already know what is going to happen. And these two little irritations jar me out of the flow of the novel, because everything else is so good, that they just stand out like sore thumbs. Sigh. But I am going to press on, and hopefully it will get better or I will decide I don't care.

Second Thoughts - 11/6/12

Something about this novel is just dragging for me - I think it's fair to say that it is not a terribly plot-driven novel, as it took us over half of the book to finally get to Burma. I still think the author's writing is lovely in many places, and his descriptions of the geography and setting paint quite vivid pictures for me as I'm reading. I also feel like I am learning a great deal - the author's description of tuning a piano was fascinating, and I've been playing the piano for 30+ years.  I do feel like the pace has picked up slightly now that we have actually (finally) arrived at the piano, but I don't know if it is enough to fully sell me on the book.

Last Word - 11/9/12

I think I would have liked this book better if the author had chosen a specific topic and written some nonfiction. I think he has great talent as a writer, but his story did not draw me in. The parts of this novel that I enjoyed the most were the times that he spent a significant amount of time explaining something - the intricacies of tuning a piano, or the complicated history of the Burmese war lords. The story itself just didn't feel developed enough - I kept getting the feeling that the author either didn't care enough, or hadn't developed the characters enough in his own mind to really bring them alive on the page.

And there was the weird dialogue thing throughout the novel which never did stop irritating me. I understand that authors chose that method at times to illustrate some type of point, but this author's point was never clear to me, and it just seemed lazy.

In summary - talented author, disappointing story. If you have an interest in this time period, or the location, or piano tuning, you will find interesting information, but I can't recommend it as a great novel. In this instance, my mom and I definitely do not agree.

Finished: 11/8/12
Source: loan from my mom
MPAA rating: PG for some danger and allusions to adult situations
My rating: 6/10

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Re-Education of a Book Lover - Part Three - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. Recently, however, it has come to my attention that there are some G A P I N G holes in my literary education. For example: I have read every Austen and Bronte you can get your hands on, but somehow had never managed to read a Charles Dickens novel in its entirety. So, with a little help from my mom, the English Teacher, and a couple of good friend, the English Majors, I am setting a course to re-educate myself by filling in some of those gaps.

Next up - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

originally published in April, 1925
160 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Jay Gatsby is a self-made man, famed for his decadent champagne-drenched parties. Despite being surrounded by Long Island's bright and beautiful, Gatsby longs only for Daisy Buchanan. In shimmering prose, Fitzgerald shows Gatsby pursue his dream to its tragic conclusion. The Great Gatsby is an elegiac and exquisite portrait of the American Dream.

My thoughts -

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, read by the actor Tim Robbins, and blew through it so fast I haven't had time to do my normal post "style", so all my thoughts will just be in one long chunk.

I was surprised at how much I really enjoyed this novel. Although I've read a lot of classics, they aren't the novels I think of when I am looking for a "fun" reading experience. Usually it takes me a while to really become engrossed, due to the writing style, or the language, or the subject matter. Gatsby grabbed me from the very beginning, and hooked me in to this tragic story.

Fitzgerald does an excellent job of portraying his characters - none of them are particularly likable in any real way, and yet he manages to give them enough humanity that the reader isn't turned off. Gatsby is not a good guy - he is shallow, and impatient, and probably a criminal, but his demise is not something that the reader rejoices in.

I was most interested in Fitzgerald's portrayal of the lavish lifestyles of the Buchanans and Gatsby, and how hollow he wanted to make them seem. Daisy and Tom, and Jay himself, had attained everything that they could ever want, and yet each was ultimately lonely and bitterly unhappy. As one of the icons for that lifestyle himself, it seemed an interesting and telling depiction.

I completely understand why this novel is considered one of the greatest of American literature. I found it to be compelling and fascinating, and wished it could have gone on much past it's last sentence. If you haven't read it (and I know the odds are slim, but hey - I can't be the only person in the world!), I encourage you to pick up a copy. This is literature at it's finest.

Finished: 11/5/12
Source: audiobook from the library
MPAA Rating: R for adult situations, language, and violence
My rating: 9/10

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Thoughts - Kisses from Katie by Katie J. Davis

Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption by Katie J. Davis
published 10/31/2011
audio - read by Jaimee Draper

Synopsis from publisher:

What would cause an eighteen-year-old old senior class president and homecoming queen from Nashville, Tennessee, to disappoint her parents by forgoing college, break her little brother’s heart, lose all but a handful of her friends (because the rest of them think she has gone off the deep end), and break up with the love of her life, all so she could move to Uganda, where she knew only one person but didn’t know any of the language? A passion to make a difference. Katie Davis left over Christmas break her senior year for a short mission trip to Uganda and her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people and children of Uganda that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. She has given up a relatively comfortable life - at a young age - to care for the less fortunate of this world. She was so moved by the need she witnessed, she’s centered her life around meeting that need. Katie, a charismatic and articulate young woman, is in the process of adopting thirteen children in Uganda, and she completely trusts God for daily provision for her and her family.

Despite the rough conditions in which Katie lives, she has found a life of service to God to be one of great joy. Katie’s children bring constant delight and help her help others by welcoming whoever comes to their door. As the challenges grow, so does Katie’s faith and her certainty that what she’s doing in Uganda, one person at a time, will have far-reaching rewards. It isn’t the life she planned, but it is the life she loves.

My thoughts - 

I think if more people who identified themselves as Christians chose to allow themselves to make a difference in the way Katie Davis has, the world would be a profoundly different place. She doesn't advocate changing the world - she's not trying to start a revolution. She believes in loving unconditionally, always and in every situation. She believes in making a difference for the person who needs help that is right in front of you, wherever you happen to be. She believes that we are not promised tomorrow, so our best option is to do as much good as we can today, because we don't know what the future will bring.

Katie obviously has a passion for caring for the orphaned, and in her story she remarks on it again and again. I have always known that there are millions of children in the world that need parents, but I think this was the statistic that blew me away:

“The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children. And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians. The truth is that if only 8 percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left.”  (Katie J. Davis)

And I know it's not always that simple - and I know there are many wonderful families around the world who would love to help one of these children and are caught up in red tape and governmental regulations, but that still stops me in my tracks. We, who call ourselves Christians, could make that much of a difference - if we chose to.

I admit that I spend a fair amount of time feeling sorry for myself. Circumstances in my family's life have left our current situation difficult, in ways that are completely out of my control. Reading this book has re-adjusted my perspective in ways I couldn't have anticipated. I am sure there will still be times that I feel scared and abandoned and alone, but as I remember Katie's story, I won't feel helpless, and I won't feel hopeless, because this, too, will pass. 

"Sometimes I want to spend hours talking with my best friends about boys and fashion and school and life. I want to go to the gym; I want my hair to look nice; I want to be allowed to wear jeans. I want to be a normal young woman living in America, sometimes. But I want other things more. All the time. I want to be spiritually and emotionally filled every day. I want to be loved and cuddled by a hundred children and never go a day without laughing. I want to wake up to a rooster’s crow and open my eyes to see lush green trees that seem to pulse with life against a piercing blue sky and the rusty red soil of Uganda. I want to be challenged endlessly. I want to be taught by those I teach, and I want to share God’s love with people who otherwise might not know it. I want to work so hard that I end every day filthy and too tired to move. I want to make some kind of difference, no matter how small, and I want to follow the calling God has placed on my heart. I want to give my life away, to serve the Lord with each breath. At the end of the day, no matter how hard, I want to be right here in Uganda." (Katie J. Davis)

I know this book won't be for everyone, but it was certainly the right book for me at this time in my life. I don't generally promote charities or causes on this blog, but if something about this post or Katie's story has peaked your interest, I encourage you to visit her website, Kisses from Katie, or Amazima Ministries, where you can learn more about what she is doing in Uganda.

Finished: 10/28/12

Source: audiobook from the library

MPAA Rating: PG for some scary situations

My rating: 9/10

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Shorts

The Odd Sea by Frederick Reiken
published 1998
214 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

One sunny spring morning, 16-year-old Ethan Shumway walks down his gravel driveway and vanishes without a trace. A gifted athlete and musician, he leaves behind a wake of family and friends who search for understanding in the unbearable presence of loss.

My thoughts:

More than anything I think this is a coming-of-age novel - of a boy, and of a family, who have to learn how to survive and keep going in the wake of a tragedy. Reiken's family rang true to me - each character felt authentic, and their individual reaction to the events seemed appropriate. Watching Phillip travel the bumpy path of grief, loss, and acceptance was difficult at times, but ultimately I found his story moving. I don't know that I will remember this novel's specifics months down the road, but I would certainly give this author a second read.

Finished: 10/6/12
Source: loan from my mom
MPAA rating: R for language and adult situations
My rating: 6/10

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth
published October 2, 2012
272 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

In 1962, Jackie Hart moved to Naples, Florida, from Boston with her husband and children. Wanting something personally fulfilling to do with her time, she starts a reading club and anonymously hosts a radio show, calling herself Miss Dreamsville.

     The racially segregated town falls in love with Miss Dreamsville, but doesn’t know what to make of Jackie, who welcomes everyone into her book club, including a woman who did prison time for allegedly killing her husband, a man of questionable sexual preference, a young divorcee, as well as a black woman.

My thoughts:

This is a very lighthearted novel - really too lighthearted for my taste. Hearth takes on a vast number of social and political issues from the 1960s - race, gender, religion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the KKK - but spends so little time on each that it's hard to take the novel seriously. I would have preferred a few less issues, and a bit more time developing characters. I have a feeling this novel will be pretty popular, but it didn't hit the mark for me.

Finished: 10/14/12
Source: review copy from publisher- thank you!
MPAA rating: PG-13 for discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and violence
My rating: 5/10

The Passage by Justin Cronin
published 2010
audiobook read by Scott Brick, Adenrele Ojo, and Abby Craden

Synopsis from publisher:

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear — of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey — spanning miles and decades — towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

My thoughts:

I read this novel two years ago for the first time, and loved it (my review here), but hated the fact that I would have to wait for the second installment in the trilogy. I decided to revisit the story this fall because the long-awaited second book was released this month, and I am glad I did. The Passage holds up extremely well to a re-read - knowing the plot twists and turns did not lessen the impact of the story, and sometimes knowing what was coming almost made the experience sweeter. I enjoyed listening to it as an audiobook a lot - the first time through, there were some parts that moved a bit slowly for me, but I didn't feel that drag as much as an audio experience. This is such a good novel, and now I am even more excited to start book #2! If you haven't read it yet, do it! It's a great choice for fall/winter, and now you won't have to live through the horrible cliffhanger!

Finished: 10/29/12
MPAA rating: R for language and violence
My rating: 9/10

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book Thoughts - The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
published 1957
203 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

The beautiful, immature girl whom she took home to her husband was a maid only in name. Tomo's real mission had been to find him a mistress. Nor did her secret humiliation end there. The web that his insatiable lust spun about him soon trapped another young woman, and another ... and the relationships between the women thus caught were to form, over the years, a subtle, shifting pattern in which they all played a part. There was Suga, the innocent, introspective girl from a respectable but impoverished family; the outgoing, cheerful, almost boyish Yumi; the flirtatious, seductive Miya, who soon found her father-in-law more dependable as a man than his brutish son.... And at the center, rejected yet dominating them all, the near tragic figure of the wife Tomo, whose passionate heart was always, until that final day, held in check by an old-fashioned code.

In a series of colorful, unforgettable scenes, Enchi brilliantly handles the human interplay within the ill-fated Shirakawa family. Japan's leading woman novelist and a member of the prestigious Art Academy, she combines a graceful, evocative style that consciously echoes the Tale of Genji with keen insight and an impressive ability to develop her characters over a long period of time. Her work is rooted deep in the female psychology, and it is her women above all-so clearly differentiated yet all so utterly feminine-who live in the memory. With The Waiting Years, a new and important literary figure makes her debut in the Western world.

My thoughts:

First Impression - 10/19/12

This is a quiet, subtle novel about a subject I know nearly nothing about - the Japanese concubine culture of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Obviously, the idea of being sent by my husband to pick out his mistress is repellent - but delving into the mindset that causes a woman to agree to such a mission is fascinating. It's difficult to believe that this story can end any way but badly for all involved - Tomo, who has to silently bear her husband's betrayals or risk losing everying; Suga, whose innocence can't disguise the fact that she was literally bought and sold; Tomo's daughter, Etsuko, growing up in a household filled with bitterness. 

So far, the novel has been quite internal - Tomo's thoughts and emotions, with little in the way of forward momentum or dialogue. I think it seems to be more a character study of several women throughout a period of many years.

"As she watched Suga, with the cool skin that harbored an inner light like newly fallen snow and the dewy eyes that were always wide open yet had a misleadingly troubled look, Tomo would experience two unbidden and conflicting emotions: boundless pity as for a charming animal that was about to be led to the slaughter, and fixed hatred at the thought that eventually this innocent girl might turn into a devil that would devour her husband and sweep unchecked through the whole house." (p. 40).

Sometimes novels in translation prove a challenge to read, but this flows quite nicely. "Enjoying" seems the wrong word to use, because it's such a somber novel, but so far it has been fascinating.

Second Thoughts - 10/23/12

I'm finding that it is hard to get myself excited to sit down and read this novel - not because of a flaw in the novel itself, but because of the heaviness it makes me feel each time I open the cover. This is the definition of a woman being trapped - even when the situation seems like it isn't "that bad", these women have no choices, no freedom, no possibility of a future. Even a gilded cage is still a cage, I suppose, and watching each women's dreams and hopes slip away is a sorrowful thing.

Even more, watching each woman's personality change is striking. They are the only ones who can truly understand what living this type of life entails, and yet the bitterness and resentment that develops between them is inevitable. How can you not grow to hate the woman who takes your husband away from you?

"Each time she had such thoughts Suga felt guilty despite herself and strove to brush aside the cobwebs gathering about her heart. It was as though a devil had taken residence within her. At the same time, she felt quite clearly that she never would have been a devil had she not been trapped in her present surroundings.
        Inside the self that achieved expression neither in action nor in words, that seemed so ineffectual, the feelings that could find no relief lay dark, cold, and silent, like snow settles by night." (p. 121-122)

Last Word - 10/25/12

It's an interesting experience to read a novel that is so powerful, and yet makes me feel so sad. I will certainly not forget the characters I've met in these pages, and yet it isn't a novel I can recommend to everyone. It's very internal, and the I can imagine some modern readers being frustrated with Tomo's refusal to speak out or speak up for herself. In researching about this period of Japanese history, I've learned a bit about the "wise mother, good wife" role foisted upon women, and Enchi is clearly expressing her distaste for this institutionalized silencing of Japanese women.

I couldn't help but think of all the blogging challenges this novel would be a good selection for - I don't even know if these all still exist, but the Japanese Literature Challenge; the Woman Unbound challenge;  the Reading Around the World Challenge; the Decades Challenge; this novel would really fit well into any of these, and would certainly be an eye-opening read for the reader willing to have a little patience and persist to the end.

Finished: 10/24/12
Source: loan from a friend
MPAA Rating: PG for adult situations referenced but never explicit
My rating: 8/10

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Sunday Shorts

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
published 9/4/12
304 pages

Synopsis from publisher:
Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences. Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra's help, Hester investigates her family's strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.

My thoughts:

Lesson of the day - apparently there is a whole sub-genre of YA mermaid fiction. I'm not sure why I'm so surprised by this. Also, according to reviews online, Elizabeth Fama is one of the best authors in the category, so take from that what you will.

I thought this novel was a fun read - quick and entertaining for the most part. It did seem incredibly formulaic - I haven't read any other novels in this genre, but I could tell you almost exactly what was going to happen next at every step along the way. I appreciated that Hester seemed to have a better head on her shoulders than many heroines of YA novels these days, and the ending did bring a fair amount of satisfaction.

Finished: 9/6/12
Source: review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating: PG-13 for scary situations, violence, and adult themes
My rating: 6/10

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin
published 1793


(kinda self-explanatory, right?)

My thoughts:

I'm pretty sure I've already read part of this - in junior high or high school, I know we read the section where Franklin talks about his project of Moral Perfection. I'm fairly certain I got more out of the reading this time around.

Franklin is awfully proud of himself, and yet manages not to come across as a pompous jerk. I was quite surprised to learn of everything we have to thank him for - he started the first public library in the US! He made me feel like a horrible underachiever, but I have a feeling he makes most people feel that way. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Franklin's voice. I did lose interest a bit toward the end, mostly as Franklin became more and more involved in politics. I found it to be overall quite a fascinating read, and I'm glad I picked it up.

Finished: 9/26/12
Source: Des Moines public library
MPAA rating: G
My rating: 7/10

The Kingmaker's Daughter by Philippa Gregory
published 8/14/12
432 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

The Kingmaker’s Daughter is the gripping story of the daughters of the man known as the “Kingmaker,” Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick: the most powerful magnate in fifteenth-century England. Without a son and heir, he uses his daughters Anne and Isabel as pawns in his political games, and they grow up to be influential players in their own right. In this novel, her first sister story since The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory explores the lives of two fascinating young women.

At the court of Edward IV and his beautiful queen, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne grows from a delightful child to become ever more fearful and desperate when her father makes war on his former friends. Married at age fourteen, she is soon left widowed and fatherless, her mother in sanctuary and her sister married to the enemy. Anne manages her own escape by marrying Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but her choice will set her on a collision course with the overwhelming power of the royal family and will cost the lives of those she loves most in the world, including her precious only son, Prince Edward. Ultimately, the kingmaker’s daughter will achieve her father’s greatest ambition.

My thoughts:

Philippa Gregory novels are a bit like the General Hospital of historical fiction - over the top, sensational, exaggerated, and yet so much fun to read. They are a guilty pleasure to be sure, and this latest was everything I'd hoped it would be.

Gregory indicates in her afterword that Elizabeth Woodville is her favorite character in this story of the War of the Roses, and I think you can tell - even though Anne is her heroine, I had the feeling that she just didn't like her that well. Anne and Isabel have a quintessential Gregory sister relationship - first loving, then feuding, and nearly everywhere in between. This is not the type of historical fiction that makes you look at events in a new and different way, but it's great at what it's supposed to be - a quick, fun read to keep up busy as the weather gets colder.

FInished: 10/2/12
Source: review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating: PG-13 - adult situations and violence, but nothing too explicit
My rating: 7/10

Friday, September 28, 2012

Book Thoughts - When Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai

When Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai
published 1995
272 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

When Fox is a Thousand is a lyrical, magical novel, rich with poetry and folklore and elements of the fairytale. Larissa Lai interweaves three narrative voices and their attendant cultures: an elusive fox growing toward wisdom and her 1000 birthday, the ninth-century Taoist poet/nun Yu Hsuan-Chi (a real person executed in China for murder), and the oddly named Artemis, a young Asian-American woman living in contemporary Vancouver.

With beautiful and enchanting prose, and a sure narrative hand, Lai combines Chinese mythology, the sexual politics of medieval China, and modern-day Vancouver to masterfully revise the myth of the Fox (a figure who can inhibit women’s bodies in order to cause mischief). Her potent imagination and considerable verbal skill result in a tale that continues to haunt long after the story is told.

My thoughts:

First Impression - 9/20/12

I'm feeling a little bit lost in this novel at this point - not lost as in, I don't know what is going on. It's more like I can't yet see how all these parts fit together into the descriptions I've read. Each character's story is interesting, with the story of the fox being the most compelling for me so far. I can sense that they will all, at some point, collide, but right now I can't quite see how that is going to happen. There are some elements of magical realism going on, and regular readers of my blog will know that's a tough genre for me to crack, so that could be part of my struggle. I'm certainly interested enough to continue, but it's been a bit of a slow go for me to really become immersed in the story.

Second Thoughts - 9/22/12

This novel continues to be just a bit of a struggle for me. I continue to find Fox's story the more compelling of the three narratives. I think it is perhaps because I like Lai's writing style better in those sections. The chapters with Artemis are much more straight-forward storytelling; the chapters with Lu seem so full of mysticism that I don't quite know for sure what is going on. Fox's chapters seem to combine the two styles in a way that feels very comfortable. I am trying to stop worrying so much about "understanding" every single part of the narrative, and just let myself go along for the ride and see where this story takes me.

"There are stories for beginnings and there are stories for endings. There are stories meant for healing and there are stories meant to cause harm. There are stories for explaining, meant to talk away the things that cannot be healed over. There are stories meant for company, when a pebbled soul calls out into the empty, owl-less night. There are stories meant to quench the thirst of the heart." (p. 168)

Last Word - 9/25/12

I think much of the issue I had with this novel was due to the character of Artemis - she was so incredibly passive that it was  nearly impossible to feel any real sympathy for her. I don't dispute that she had many challenges, but so many of them seemed to be a direct result of her refusal to take any real action or responsibility for her life. I could never tell if Lai was trying to make a statement about women in today's society, or specifically Canadian-Asian women, or if she just wrote this character to contrast with Fox's more aggressive personality, but I really did not enjoy the majority of the chapters that featured Artemis.

I think this novel would have worked better, for me, in a more academic setting - I know that much of the mythology and cultural references were lost, and having a group to discuss the novel with probably would help me feel like I could grasp those references more. I did enjoy Lai's writing style for the most part, and found much of the novel to by interesting, but I was never able to really lose myself in it the way I want to when I'm reading.

I read this novel as part of the A More Diverse Universe blog tour - I have been having a great time reading the reviews and recommendations from the other bloggers on this tour. If you are interested in more speculative fiction by authors of color, here is a list of all the books reviewed on the blog tour - so many great ones!

Also, here are some suggestions from Aarti of authors to check out - I have added a bunch to my TBR list!

While this particular novel wasn't my favorite of the year, it was certainly an interesting read, and I will definitely be checking out (a lot!) more books I've been introduced to by this blog tour.

Finished: 9/23/12
Source: my shelves
MPAA Rating: R - for sexuality and violence
My rating: 8/10 for technique, 5/10 for overall story, so - 6/10?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Thoughts - Ten Girls to Watch by Charity Shumway

Ten Girls to Watch by Charity Shumway
published July, 2012
353 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Dawn West is trying to make her way in New York City. She’s got an ex-boyfriend she can’t quite stop seeing, a writing career that’s gotten about as far as penning an online lawn care advice column, and a small hometown in Oregon that’s her last recourse if she can’t make next month’s rent.

So when Dawn lands a job tracking down the past winners of Charm magazine’s “Ten Girls to Watch” contest, she’s thrilled. Not only is she being paid to interview hundreds of fascinating women, but she’s also sharing office space with “Secret Agent Romance,” Charm’s resident dating columnist, and he just happens to be giving her butterflies.

As Dawn gets to know the life stories of these former winners, she’ll discover that success, love, and friendship can be found in the most unexpected of places. And even more importantly, she’ll find that though those who have gone before us can be role models, ultimately, we each have to carve our own way.

My thoughts:

I found this book to be quite delightful. Honestly, that was the word that kept popping into my head as I read - "This book is just delightful." Novels in this chick-lit-y vein can be very hit or miss for me - sometimes they are fun, and sometimes they just annoy me. Ten Girls to Watch seemed like a cut above the rest. Shumway's writing certainly helped - she clearly knows her craft, and she had me alternately giggling and getting emotional several times throughout the novel.

I think what really sold me, though, was how REAL this novel felt. Perhaps because much of it was based on the author's own personal experience (read an interesting interview with Shumway on HuffPost here), perhaps because the author is just a really good storyteller, but Ten Girls to Watch rang true for me in nearly every aspect.

Dawn is a delightful heroine (I know, that word again!), mixing a bit of Bridget Jones with a healthy dose of reality. She makes mistakes, but they don't feel contrived to further the plot - they actually seem like the things a girl her age would do, and then feel bad about. To me, she never presented as whiny or tiresome - she had problems, acknowledged them, and moved on. I enjoyed her sense of humor very much, as well as her ability to laugh at herself.

I particularly enjoyed Shumway's emphasis on the importance of releationships between women. Dawn's relationship with her sister, her mother, her mentor, and her friend were the threads that held her life together, and were a reminder of just how important it is for women to truly participate in each other's lives.

This novel was a breath of fresh air, making me smile on nearly every page. I'm so happy I read it, and highly recommend it!

Finished: 9/13/12
Source: review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA Rating - PG-13 (I know! It's a chick-lit that doesn't make you blush - and it works!)
My rating: 9/10

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Little Stranger Read-along - wrapup post

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

published 2010

audiobook - read by Simon Vance

Synopsis from publisher:

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to see a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules.

Roddie Ayres, who returned from World War II physically and emotionally wounded, is desperate to keep the house and what remains of the estate together for the sake of his mother and his sister, Caroline. Mrs. Ayres is doing her best to hold on to the gracious habits of a gentler era and Caroline seems cheerfully prepared to continue doing the work a team of servants once handled, even if it means having little chance for a life of her own beyond Hundreds.

But as Dr. Faraday becomes increasingly entwined in the Ayreses' lives, signs of a more disturbing nature start to emerge, both within the family and in Hundreds Hall itself. And Faraday begins to wonder if they are all threatened by something more sinister than a dying way of life, something that could subsume them completely.

    My thoughts:   Spoilers Ahead!!!

Alright, reality check time - by the end of this book, Dr. Faraday was just a creeper. I started out thinking he was basically a good guy, but he just got stranger and stranger, more and more controlling, and by the end all I wanted was for Caroline to break free from his obsessive manipulations and get the heck out! 

 I think the Little Stranger was Faraday. And honestly, I didn't think that until the very end, but taking the book as a whole, I think it makes sense. He was always obsessed with the house, wishing he could have it for his own. None of the Ayres' troubles started until he started going to the house. He and Dr. Sealy have that whole conversation about how some sort of psychic projection that desires the house could be taking over, trying to oust its inhabitants. He is the epitome of an unreliable narrator - for heaven's sake, we never even know his name! And at the end of the novel, he says that when he looks for the Stranger at Hundreds, all he sees is himself. 

 I think in the end, Caroline saw him and could only think to get away from him - probably throwing herself off the staircase because she couldn't see any other way of getting rid of him.  I think the only reason she agreed to marry him in the first place was because she was so desparate to get out of a house that she thought was trying to kill her - once she realized he had no plans to leave, she knew she had to break off their ties. Then, when she saw him - or an apparition of him, or something - that last night, she thought the only way she could ever be free - both of the house and of him - was to kill herself.

 I'm still deciding whether or not I liked the book - either way, it's a masterful novel, well written and chilling. This was a great read-along, Andi - thanks for hosting! 

 Finished: 9/16/12
 Source: audiobook from publich library
MPAA Rating: PG-13
My rating: ??? I'm still considering this one...  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Book Thoughts - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
published 1900
159 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

One of the true classics of American literature, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has stirred the imagination of young and old alike for over four generations. Originally published in 1900, it was the first truly American fairy tale, as Baum crafted a wonderful fantasy out of such familiar items as a cornfield scarecrow, a mechanical woodman, and a humbug wizard who used old-fashioned hokum to express that universal theme, "There′s no place like home."

Follow the adventures of young Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, as their Kansas house is swept away by a cyclone and they find themselves in a strange land called Oz. Here she meets the Munchkins and joins the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion on an unforgettable journey to the Emerald City, where lives the all-powerful Wizard of Oz.

My thoughts:

I’ve owned a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on my shelf for a long time, but only knew the story from the Judy Garland version with the ruby slippers and the musical numbers. Apparently, the novel doesn’t contain either.

There are quite a number of differences between the book and the movie – things were omitted, some scenes were combined and others moved from their original location in the story. It serves to make the novel seem somehow both longer and shorter than the movie – longer because there are more things happening, but shorter because scenes I expect don’t ever arrive.

I found Baum’s style to be charming, and quite comfortable to read. I can easily imagine myself reading this aloud to my kids when they get a little bigger. Baum’s characters are endearing, and I would imagine quite appealing to children. It is easy to understand why this novel has become such a classic.

I definitely enjoyed the reading of this book. It is one I am looking forward to sharing with my kids.

Finished: 9/8/12

Source: my shelves

MPAA rating – G – even the “scary” parts are not really scary

My rating: 8/10