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