Sunday, January 31, 2016

Book Thoughts - Bambi by Felix Salten

Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten
192 pages
first published 1923

Synopsis -

Bambi's life in the woods begins happily. There are forest animals to play with -- Friend Hare, the chattery squirrel, the noisy screech owl, and Bambi's twin cousins, frail Gobo and beautiful Faline. 

But winter comes, and Bambi learns that the woods hold danger -- and things he doesn't understand. The first snowfall makes food hard to find. Bambi's father, a handsome stag, roams the forest, but leaves Bambi and his mother alone. 

Then there is Man. He comes to the forest with weapons that can wound an animal. He does terrible things to Gobo, to Bambi's mother, and even to Bambi. But He can't keep Bambi from growing into a handsome stag himself, and becoming...the Prince of the Forest.

My thoughts -

One of the first piles of books I'm planning to tackle in my year of #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks is the every-growing, nearly mountainous pile of books I've acquired with the thought that "I'll read this to the kids some day". Some of them are Newbery winners, some are remnants from my own childhood, some are just titles that sounded good at the time. Nevertheless, there are a LOT of them, and I'd like to do a little previewing before I start stumbling blindly into bedtime, and find myself stuck with a story I can't stand....

First on my pile was Bambi. This particular copy was from a set given to me as a kid - tan and red hardbacks, all animal stories, with a box for the set that is long gone. I am about 98% sure I never actually read this one growing up, so with only the Disney story in my head I will admit I was pleasantly surprised.

Salten's tale of the forest is much darker and richer than the cartoon version. The animals still talk, but their interactions seem strangely appropriate, as if the author has been given the ability to sense what it actually going on in their minds. This is an unforgiving world, and the weak and hurt do not fair well. It is also a beautiful world, with captivating descriptions of Bambi's word and the creatures who inhabit his forest.

I'm not sure I expected a novel about a deer to be a page-turner, but it was. I found myself eager to return to its pages, and feel emotionally invested in the story from the first chapter. I also felt a genuine amount of tension as I read, which is not a feeling I generally get from chapter book fiction. 

I'm really glad I decided to read this, and will definitely keep it on the shelves to read to the kids. I might wait for a bit - I'm not sure I'm ready for them to hear a book with quite this much death, even if it is about a deer. But this is an excellent novel, and I do recommend it for your little person library.

Finished - 1/30/16
Source - my shelves!
MPAA rating - PG - this has some scary stuff!
My rating - 4/5

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book Thoughts - The Siren by Kiera Cass - on writing and rewriting

The Siren by Kiera Cass
first published 2009, re-released 2016

Original synopsis -

"You must never do anything that might expose our secret. This means that, in general, you cannot form close bonds with humans. You can speak to us, and you can always commune with the Ocean, but you are deadly to humans. You are, essentially, a weapon. A very beautiful weapon. I won't lie to you, it can be a lonely existence, but once you are done, you get to live. All you have to give, for now, is obedience and time..."

The same speech has been given hundreds of times to hundreds of beautiful girls who enter the sisterhood of sirens. Kahlen has lived by these rules for years now, patiently waiting for the life she can call her own. But when Akinli, a human, enters her world, she can't bring herself to live by the rules anymore. Suddenly the life she's been waiting for doesn't seem nearly as important as the one she's living now.

New synopsis -

Years ago, Kahlen was rescued from drowning by the Ocean. To repay her debt, she has served as a Siren ever since, using her voice to lure countless strangers to their deaths. Though a single word from Kahlen can kill, she can’t resist spending her days on land, watching ordinary people and longing for the day when she will be able to speak and laugh and live freely among them again.

Kahlen is resigned to finishing her sentence in solitude . . . until she meets Akinli. Handsome, caring, and kind, Akinli is everything Kahlen ever dreamed of. And though she can’t talk to him, they soon forge a connection neither of them can deny . . . and Kahlen doesn’t want to.

Falling in love with a human breaks all the Ocean’s rules, and if the Ocean discovers Kahlen’s feelings, she’ll be forced to leave Akinli for good. But for the first time in a lifetime of following the rules, Kahlen is determined to follow her heart.

My thoughts -

I'm lucky enough to have friends who love books as much as I do. My friend Megan found out how much I enjoyed Kiera Cass's "The Selection" series, and recommended I read the author's first novel, The Siren. She even let me read her copy - that's true friendship. She was right - it was a beautiful novel. One of the reasons I enjoy Cass's work so much is that she writes intelligent heroines, and she develops relationships that actually make sense. Her leading ladies don't just fall for the first guy, or the most convenient guy, or the easiest choice - they struggle, and ask real questions, and have doubts that seem accurate to an actual person. I appreciate that so much about all of her novels, and The Siren was no exception. It had a depth of emotion that felt true and honest, and it actually had me in tears more than once.

Because this first novel was self-published, before Cass experienced the major success of her Selection series, she was recently given the opportunity to re-release The Siren by her publishing house. She chose to rewrite the book before release, got herself a fancy new cover, and now this novel is currently the #1 New Release for Teen & YA Sci-Fi/Dystopian romance. Clearly, this re-release is doing well for the author.

But how is it doing for the fans of her work?

I will admit I have not read the entire re-write yet. I'm just under 50% through, if my Kindle is telling the truth. And my impression so far? It's fun, and entertaining, and sure to be a hit - and honestly, nowhere near as good as the original.

In choosing to rewrite The Siren, Cass seems to have removed the core of what made the original novel so impressive - the depth of relationship her main character, Kahlen, built with her fellow Sirens, with the young man she falls in love with, and especially and unexpectedly, with the very Ocean that has taken so much of her life. Kahlen's relationship with the Ocean is such a central part of her story, and this new version seems to gloss over that almost entirely. It feels like a book written for a younger audience, an audience that the author doesn't trust enough with her story, so she has to water it down to make them satisfied.

And I think that's what makes me the most sad - since the re-release, the novel in it's original form is almost impossible to find, and when you do find a copy it's priced ridiculously high. It makes me sad that readers will think this is the story - that they will miss out on the rich, emotional, and inspiring read that The Siren used to be. It makes me sad that the author seems not to have trusted her first instincts - that she felt like her readers wouldn't appreciate or understand the complexity and thoughtfulness she had gifted to them in that first novel.

Will I read more books by Kiera Cass? Absolutely - as many as I can get my hands on. Is The Siren a bad novel - honestly, no. It continues to be an interesting idea with a feisty heroine, and I am sure it will be hugely successful. Will I always mourn the passing of the novel it could have been? I will.

My friend Megan writes about The Siren and it's re-release here....

How do you feel about authors re-writing earlier novels? Have you had a good experience with a rewrite? Is there a book you loved that seemed too much changed? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Re-Education of a Book Lover - Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

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, until 4 years ago, 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.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

(first published 1915)

44 pages

Synopsis -

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes." 

With this startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. 
It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing -- though absurdly comic -- meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction. 

Thoughts -

The choice of reading this short work came about after a conversation with my husband - "What do you mean you've never read Metamorphosis?" I realized it was less than 50 pages and couldn't think of a good reason not to, so here we are.

Knowing this was a work of absurdist fiction (and understanding what that means) made this much easier for me to digest. I'm not sure I would have had any idea what the author was trying to do if I'd read it in middle school or high school. As an adult, the symbolism is easy to grasp and fairly overt - as a tween, I'd probably have needed a fair bit of direction from my teacher to figure this whole thing out.

I was surprised at how easily the story flowed - for some reason I expected it to be "harder" to read. I also, honestly, didn't realize quite how depressing the story was. There are no happy endings here, folks. None.

I would say I'm satisfied I read this. It's a good work to be familiar with, and it was quick and easy enough that I'm glad I didn't put it off for another 20 years. 

Finished - 1/23/16
Source - Kindle
MPAA rating - PG-13, I guess, because they make kids read it in junior high apparently?
My rating - 3/5

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book Thoughts - The Irresistible Blueberry Bookshop and Cafe' by Mary Simses

The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop and Cafe' by Mary Simses
341 pages
published 2013

Synopsis -

A high-powered Manhattan attorney finds love, purpose, and the promise of a simpler life in her grandmother's hometown. 
Ellen Branford is going to fulfill her grandmother's dying wish--to find the hometown boy she once loved, and give him her last letter. Ellen leaves Manhattan and her Kennedy-esque fiance for Beacon, Maine. What should be a one-day trip is quickly complicated when she almost drowns in the chilly bay and is saved by a local carpenter. The rescue turns Ellen into something of a local celebrity, which may or may not help her unravel the past her grandmother labored to keep hidden. As she learns about her grandmother and herself, it becomes clear that a 24-hour visit to Beacon may never be enough. THE IRRESISTIBLE BLUEBERRY BAKESHOP & CAFE is a warm and delicious debut about the power of a simpler life.

My thoughts -

My daughter has started getting excited about picking out books for me to read - she really likes picking just about anything, and for the past couple of years picking out a book to give me at Christmas has been great fun. This year's choice - The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop and Cafe'. 

So let's be honest - she picks books based solely on the cover, with somewhat mixed results. I can't really fault her - she can't read yet, and who doesn't see a pretty cover and get a bit drawn in? She does seem to tend toward romance, which isn't normally a genre I choose for myself, so that has been a bit of a nice change to my reading habits. Additionally, you might notice that THIS cover compares this particular book to "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" - ummmmm, no.

This book was sweet and fairly predictable, with the only major surprise coming on behalf of the main character's grandmother 3/4 of the way through the novel. I don't always need to "like" the main character of a book, but in a romance novel it helps - if I don't like you, why do I care if you wind up happy? The biggest problem here, for me, was how long it took me to find Ellen anything but annoying. Her self-centeredness in every possibly situation made me wonder why anyone put up with her, frankly, and it wasn't until her (possibly even more self-centered) fiance' and mother showed up that she started to seem sympathetic in comparison. 

That said, I was genuinely interested in finding out the secrets of her Grandmother's life - in fact, I would have loved much more of her grandmother's story. Reading how much she loved her Gran made me see the first glimpses of a woman I could root for, so I was thankful for those moments.

The best part of this book? It came from my OWN shelves, so it's the first book in my year of #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks. YAY for staying on task!!

Finished - 1/16/15
Source - my shelves (via my daughter)
MPAA rating - PG-13, mostly just because you don't want your daughter to pick up any of Ellen's snottyness
My rating - 3/5

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book Thoughts - The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
published 2012
386 pages

Synopsis -

Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart--he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm, she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season's first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone--but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful, violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.

My thoughts -

I think this might have just been the perfect book to read as my first of 2016. This is a gorgeous novel, full of snow and cold and the type of story that is perfect for curling up under and blanket and letting yourself get lost. 

I've seen this book described as magical by several friends, and I think that word is perfect. In particular, the juxtaposition between the harshness of life in Alaska in 1920, and the ethereal, fairy-like girl who appears in Jack and Mable's life with no explanation or origin, and then disappears as quickly. I was captivated by the setting, the characters, and the inevitable heartbreak throughout the entire book.

“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?”

This was a wonderful novel - one I can see myself reading again. Do yourself a favor and get a copy, and spend some time this winter getting to know The Snow Child.

Finished - 1/3/16
Source - South side library
My rating - 5/5

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Book Thoughts - The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner
published January, 2016
336 pages

Synopsis -

Ruth Wariner was the thirty-ninth of her father’s forty-two children. Growing up on a farm in rural Mexico, where authorities turned a blind eye to the practices of her community, Ruth lives in a ramshackle house without indoor plumbing or electricity. At church, preachers teach that God will punish the wicked by destroying the world and that women can only ascend to Heaven by entering into polygamous marriages and giving birth to as many children as possible. After Ruth's father--the man who had been the founding prophet of the colony--is brutally murdered by his brother in a bid for church power, her mother remarries, becoming the second wife of another faithful congregant.

In need of government assistance and supplemental income, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States, where her mother collects welfare and her step-father works a variety of odd jobs. Ruth comes to love the time she spends in the States, realizing that perhaps the community into which she was born is not the right one for her. As Ruth begins to doubt her family’s beliefs and question her mother’s choices, she struggles to balance her fierce love for her siblings with her determination to forge a better life for herself.

My thoughts -

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but in the case of Ruth Wariner, truth is definitely more compelling than fiction. I don't think I read another story in 2015 that so completely grabbed my attention from the beginning, and kept me reading quite so feverishly until the very end. 

Wariner's style is not flashy or showy - she tells her story simply, recounting both daily tasks and startling deprivations clearly and without embellishment. In giving equal weight to both the everyday and the extraordinary, Wariner shows us the importance of both in molding her into the woman she is today. 

This book was not an easy read. The mom in me was horrified over and over as I read the details of her life without electricity, adequate food, and appropriate adult supervision. And yet, even with all the tension and struggle and darkness, Wariner manages to convey the sense that her childhood, difficult as it was, held moments of magic. I've seen comparisons to Jeanette Walls' "The Glass Castle", and I think they are accurate. This is not the type of book that one enjoys reading, but it is certainly a book that it is nearly impossible to put down. I could definitely see this being a fantastic read for a book club as well.

The Sound of Gravel will without a doubt be on my list of best reads of the year. This is a memoir for readers who think they don't like memoirs - this book will keep you up at night, bring tears to your eyes, and make you believe in happy endings again. Highest recommendation!

Finished - 11/23/15
Source - ARC from the publisher - thank you Flatiron Books!
MPAA rating - PG-13 for mild descriptions of abuse and death
My rating - 5/5

Saturday, January 2, 2016


Because seriously, the books collecting dust on my shelves are getting WAY out of hand. And then there are the books on my Kindle.....

So I'm joining my friend Andi, and a whole bunch of other bloggers, and calling 2016 the year to #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks. This is a completely customizable reading effort, so here are my rules for myself -

1 - the MAJORITY of the books I read this year will already exist on my own bookshelves.
2 - I can finish up the small stack I currently have from the library.
3 - I can read the books I've agreed to read for a few book launches in 2016
4 - I can read books from series' I have already started, or new books by authors I've been looking forward to for a long time,
5 - I am gonna be ruthless in culling my shelves - we need to get the old stuff out of here.

It is going to be HARD not to check out a stack from the library every week, and it's going to be painful not to grab every new book that catches my eye. But I have SO MANY good books that I want to read that haven't made it off my shelves. So 2016 is the year.

Does anyone else have any reading plans for 2016?