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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review: Shiver

Title: Shiver
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Page Count: 392 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre: Paranormal Romance, Young Adult

50 words or less: After a brutal mauling by wolves, Grace is enamored with the one who saved her. Sam is that wolf; he's a werewolf who struggles to stay human. The love is instantaneous, but what sacrifices have to be made for them to be together?

Perhaps the hardest thing I'll have to do today is find some way to describe the way I feel after reading Shiver. I may indeed be the last person on the planet to read it; reviews and commentary and contests are everywhere; I tried to read without letting what I'd heard and read influence my opinion of the book.

Nothing I'd read, anywhere, could possibly have prepared for actually sitting down and reading Shiver cover to cover. Shiver is unlike anything else I've read in recent memory, which is fantastic, because there is a tendency with reading books of the paranormal ilk to fall into the "if you've read one, you've read them all" mentality.

Sam and Grace as both individual characters and as a couple are richly drawn and function well independently of each other, something that's always attractive for me in any novel, but especially in one marketed for young adults. Grace is smart, responsible, independent, and observant; she deals with life's quirks in a believable way that makes her wise beyond her years, accepting and tolerant. All of these characteristics jive together to make her love for Sam and her acceptance of him totally believable, because admittedly, one big issue that paranormal books have to overcome is characters either being too accepting of the paranormal issue and coming off as dumb, or too disbelieving and thus grinding the plot to a dead halt.

Sam, on the other hand, is frequently described in the book as being "beautiful and sad," and truly that's exactly what he is. He has a heartbreaking backstory that's introduced at perfect times throughout the story for maximum impact but his quiet strength always shines through. There is none of that "me Tarzan, you Jane" claptrap that all too often finds its way into books unchecked, and his absolute reverence for Grace and for their blossoming relationship is beyond adorable. Also, can I just say that the scene where they go to the candy shop together is easily my favorite one of the entire book? I seriously wanted a cup of hot chocolate after reading it; in fact I read it a couple of times before I was ready to move on to the rest of the novel.

To be fair, I can definitely see Shiver as being a love it or hate it kind of book. This is a book that simmers without boiling, flows without flooding, and there is a lot of talking and many scenes of Grace and Sam just simply enjoying being together and being in the first stages of a relationship. Shiver is a hot cup of tea, not a shot of espresso. The action takes awhile to build and some issues don't get resolved, which may rub people the wrong way. If you're looking for spine cracking action and people who kick ass and take names then for sure, there are other books that are more up your alley. If you're looking for something that's off the beaten path but still definitely within the realm of paranormal romance, though, Shiver is highly recommended.

Overall Grade: A

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: The Big Over Easy

Title: The Big Over Easy
Author: Jasper Fforde
Page Count: 383 pages
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Fiction, for lack of a better description

50 words or less: Mary Mary is assigned to work with Jack Spratt solving crimes for the Nursery Crimes Division. She thinks it's a crap job; he's made it his life's work. When the death of vagrant Humpty Dumpty falls (ha!) into their laps, neither is prepared for the wild ride that's about to unfold.

The 2009 Fall into Reading Challenge is now in full swing, and I'm ready to cross the first book off my list! The Big Over Easy was the perfect way to get started with this challenge. It was an enjoyable read that didn't require too much time or effort.

One key thing to know about Jasper Fforde's books is that they're all set in a kind of parallel reality where fictional book characters of all shapes, sizes, and characteristics are actually real people. The setting first emerged in the Thursday Next series of books (the first one is The Eyre Affair) and the device is here again in the Nursery Crimes series. This means that half the fun of the book doesn't come from what happens to Jack Spratt and Mary Mary and all the rest of the characters, but in trying to catch the sly literary references that are liberally sprinkled throughout the entire book.

The Big Over Easy is a mystery for people who like mystery novels, but are not so attached to them that they can't laugh at the absurdity that finds its way into the genre all too frequently. I mean, I grew up reading Agatha Christie novels, and even when I was a kid I'd marvel at how Hercule Poirot would find a piece of dog snot on the carpet or whatever and then MAGICALLY, the entire case would unravel and he would proceed to explain the whole thing to us, the audience, as we sat there in dumbfounded silence. Then again, spending some time in a world where a mystery is just a question waiting for an answer and everything has a nice, neat solution if we only look hard enough is one of the biggest appeals of detective novels, for me anyway.

There were times, I'll admit, when The Big Over Easy was a tad too clever for its own good and sort of tripped over its own feet, so to speak, but for the most part it was funny, clever, and made me want to revisit Mr. Fforde's other novels as soon as possible. There's one side plot wherein Jack Spratt has to sell a painting of cow for his mother and ends up getting beans for it that really made me smile, and the way the ending ties up all the loose ends from the rest of the book was a thing of beauty, indeed.

Overall Grade: B+

Up next for me is Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, and then Green by Jay Lake. I'm also good to go for the next installment of Blog With Bite and getting ready for a contest that will truly be a lot of fun. It's hard to believe September is already pretty much a thing of the past, but it is! There's lots of fun stuff ahead though, I'm excited already.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: The Darkest Whisper

Title: The Darkest Whisper
Author: Gena Showalter
Page Count: 406 pages
Publisher: HQN
Genre: Paranormal Romance

50 words or less: Sabin's possessed by Doubt, and Gwen is a Harpy who hates to harp. They need each other but don't want to admit it, and now all the Lords of the Underworld are in danger if everyone can't work together.

I was already a fan of the Lords of the Underworld series and this, the newest installment, definitely does not disappoint. The story moves quickly and the overall arc of the series advances a whole lot, while Sabin and Gwen's story wraps up nicely with a thoroughly excellent happily ever after.

Sabin is possessed by Doubt, who causes everyone, including Sabin, to feel such doubt and self-loathing that they're driven to desperate acts of all shapes and sizes. Sabin's managed, through bazillions of years of discipline and self-impose isolation, to keep a leash on Doubt for the most part, but all that changes when he encounters Gwen and liberates her from a secret lab run by the baddies.

Gwendolyn the Timid, on the other hand, is a Harpy, who's supposed to revel in blood and gore and violence and all that stuff, but she's not that into it and never has been. For that, she's been ridiculed and pitied, and it was her searching for a "normal" life that led to her being captured by the hunters in the first place.

Other characters make appearances in the book as well- we finally find out what's going on with Cameo and Torin, for example, and that's one of my favorite side plots of the entire book all on its own. Paris is still brooding around, but a spark pops up that makes me think there might be good news for him in store after all. Nix, from Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series, makes a thoroughly enticing cameo that makes me wonder what that's all about. I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting but it just means I get to go back and reread the story!

Gwen and Sabin are an excellent couple and their characterization and well-developed backstories definitely contribute to the overall strength of the book. Sabin is protective and strong, but he makes mistakes, big ones at that, and has to deal with the consequences in a believable way. Gwen on the other hand, is shy without being weak, timid without being annoying, and she has steel in her that comes out at the most important times. She perfectly counterbalances Sabin and their relationship and attraction is believable from the beginning.

I would advise, though, that if this book sounds intriguing, and I certainly hope it does, you'll definitely want to start with the beginning of the series and read in series order, which is The Darkest Night, The Darkest Kiss, The Darkest Pleasure, & The Darkest Whisper. All of the books are excellent, but in order to get the bigger picture and enjoy the storylines that carry over from book to book you'll want to read in series order.

Overall Grade: A

Up next: The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, and then Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater! I also have some surprises in store in the coming weeks which will be super exciting indeed.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Illustrated Friday: The Tale of Urso Brunov: Little Father of All Bears

Okay, let me start off by saying that the Redwall books are my closet guilty pleasure. I've been reading them for years and even though the stories are pretty much the same except for the character names, I'm completely in love! Redwall was probably the first fantasy novel I read; I loved the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the songs, the descriptions of the food, everything! Every book in the series since then has never disappointed.

I was beyond excited to find out that Brian Jacques also had some picture books available! The Tale of Urso Brunov is a longer illustrated book with lots of text, so it's enjoyable as a silent read for grown ups or a read loud for older kids. The watercolor illustrations are vivid and engaging, and their arrangement on the pages highlights the text and the story and grabs the reader from the first page. Plus, Urso Brunov is a bear the size of your thumb, and what's not to love about that?

The story consists of many little vignettes woven together into one longer story. There's one segment where Urso Brunov faces off against Caprix, the chief mountain goat, and (naturally) emerges victorious that's quite amusing. Also, the top right corner of every page makes a flipbook of Urso Brunov dancing! That kind of detail is one of my favorite things about really excellent illustrated books.

What are your favorite illustrated books? What things make an illustrated book truly unique in your opinion?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: Scent of Darkness

Title: Scent of Darkness
Author: Christina Dodd
Page Count: 400 pages
Publisher: Signet
Genre: Paranormal Romance

50 words or less: Years ago, a bad dude made a deal with the devil- changing into a wolf in exchange for a buttload of souls. Ann wants more out of life. Jasha wants to keep his family and their secrets safe. They have to work together if they want to end up together.

Scent of Darkness is the first book in the four book series Darkness Chosen, and overall I'm pleased with the book and how things turned out.

The cast of characters is very well developed and the gaps in characterization lead to questions that can be answered in future books. To be fair, I think I would find this annoying if I was reading this book right when it came out back in 2007, but now that I know that there are three other books I don't mind it at all.

Ann Smith, the heroine of the story and Jasha Wilder's administrative assistant, is a pretty complicated lady. She has a very tragic past that's had a huge role in shaping her present reality, but it hasn't stopped her from being successful in her own right. And yet, she's not really all that happy or content- what she really wants is a relationship and love from the dude that she's seriously ga ga for- her boss, Jasha Wilder.

Jasha, on the other hand, is successful, talented, handsome, and with business acumen to spare, but he's got a nasty, dirty little secret: he and all the dude in his family can turn into predators because of a deal one of his ancestors made with the devil. Ever since, all of their souls have been in jeopardy because part of the deal was the destruction of holy objects held dear to Jasha's family. When Ann inadvertantly discovers one of the holy objects previously thought to be lost forever, all hell brokes loose (no pun intended) and a host of problems and possibilities immediately present themselves.

The sparks definitely fly between Ann and Jasha, even though they both try to deny certain facets of their relationship, albeit in their own way. One of my favorite things about the book, though, was the dynamic that existed between Jasha and the other members of his family, and the unique and funny way in which Ann fit right into that dynamic. They joked together, stood by one another, annoyed the crap out of each other, and basically acted just the way that lots (dare I say, most) families act in real life. The family dynamics alone made me want to read the
rest of the series.

I waxed positively vitriolic in my review of Desire Untamed about victimization of characters in books. Scent of Darkness is a good illustration of how a book can feature a strong hero and an on-the-timid-side heroine without either of those characters being demeaned. Do both characters screw up and make decisions that are misinterpreted throughout the course of the book? Sure, but there was never a moment while reading that I felt as grossed out and disgusted as I did with my previous book. Ann is struggling to find out what she wants from a relationship; Jasha is struggling to be a better person than his pedigree allows for. Both of them find strength and encouragement from the other, which is always nice.

My biggest criticism of the book, and it tends to happen for me with most first books in a series, is that there are a lot of loose ands and facets of the story that don't fully get explained. What's up with Ann's tattoo? What's the deal with Firebird? The fourth son? The dude at the end of the book? Hopefully all this will get explained in the next three installments.

Overall Grade: A-

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Waiting on Wednesday!

The next review will go up tomorrow, but in the meantime, here's a gem that's on my auto-buy list for November!
Shadowlight is the first book in Lynn Viehl's new series and is slated to come out November 3rd. It's set in the world of the Darkyn, and for the most part that's all that's available on it, except for reviews of advance copies posted on other people's blogs. Here's the scoop from PandaBaby's blog:
Deeper into the world of the Darkyn. Wider views of their various talents and relationships. Fuller development of their beginnings and the threats to their survival. That is where Lynn is taking her loyal fans in Shadowlight - A Novel of the Kyndred, to be released November 3, 2009.

Although preceded by seven best-selling novels of the Darkyn, Lynn's latest supernatural romance/thriller is plenty strong enough to stand alone, with new characters and plot twists marking the existence of a more complex world of Darkyn than the one I already knew. The fast-paced plot picks up speed and heat as Min and Matthias battle first each other and then the most deadly enemy the Darkyn have ever yet known.

Rowan, their friend, sparkles so brightly in her scenes that she nearly steals their show. It is a good thing that Lynn has already written a book just for her, and I got to read the ten page preview today. Pre-order, here I go again - Dreamveil is scheduled for publication in June, 2010.

Meanwhile, I have Shadowlight to ponder, and to read at least once more, before then. Another five star from Lynn Viehl.

I guess the release date used to be October 6th but got moved back, more's the pity. I guess it gives me more time to revisit the seven Darykn novels before this one comes out!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: Desire Untamed

Title: Desire Untamed
Author: Pamela Palmer
Page Count: 384 pages
Publisher: Avon
Genre: Paranormal Romance

50 words or less: Feral Warriors are shapeshifters who need a Radiant to keep their power batteries charged. Kara MacAllister is the new Radiant, but she doesn't know it. Lyon's going to get her to understand and go along with the plan...right? Ha ha WRONG.

Well, you win some and you lose some, and my first reaction upon finishing Desire Untamed was that I, and women everywhere for that matter, definitely lost.

This book had such potential! I'll admit, the similarities to the Black Dagger Brotherhood books jumped right out at me, except change vampires to shapeshifters, but not in a bad way! I was okay with all of that. I was okay with Kara finding out that not only is her mom not her mom and that she's not really human, but that she has some gigantic and heretofore completely unknown cosmic destiny to fulfill- that's a pretty common element in paranormal romance and one that doesn't usually bother me. I was even okay with the spontaneous violence that seemed to erupt at Feral House on a near constant basis (so maybe it wasn't all that spontaneous.)

What I was not okay with, and what I will never, ever be okay with, was the horrific treatment Kara received at the hands of Lyon (the "hero") and the other characters in the book. Lyon is dishonest with Kara basically from the word go. He tells half-truths, decides for himself what Kara does and doesn't need to know about her situation, which by the way, she wouldn't have to worry about at all except for him and his bungling, and then has the nerve to go all brooding when his bad judgment comes back to bite him. And meanwhile, Kara's been kidnapped from her childhood home and her life (literally- Lyon renders her unconscious and tries to abscond with her in the back of his car- ick!,) forced to watch her terminally ill mother die in front of her, is carted off to some random location and told "you'll like it once you get used to it," and when Lyon finally gets around to telling her stuff (like that she's supposed to have sex with her "mate" in front of the other eight members of the group, but don't worry because they won't be looking) she's chastised for not wanting to help these people! By one of the only other female characters no less! When she dares to voice some kind of objection to the ridiculous rules and rituals being spun out all around her, all she gets as a response is "well you're human, of course you don't understand." In the end, she does fulfill this giant cosmic promise because she feels some deep-seated sense of obligation to these creeps. Hello, Stockholm Syndrome.

Seriously people, you can barely go five pages in this book without a female (specifically Kara) being brutalized in some way. Why is that acceptable? This book reminded me of the real bodice-rippers of days of yore that are the stuff of jokes, memes and legends on other blogs now. It would appear that stuff like this never truly goes out of style, and just so we're clear, I don't buy into the "well the characters are part animal so sometimes they act like animals" line of logic one bit.

Bottom line: victimization is not cool and it is not sexy. It does not make for interesting story lines and it does not make for gripping drama. I can safely say that I won't be reading any more books in this series. There are plenty of paranormal romances out there that don't debase the characters and don't treat them like crap, so I think I'll stick to reading those.

Overall Grade: F

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bonus Feature- BWB Discussion Questions

One of the neat parts of the Blog With Bite community is that each book will feature discussion questions to facilitate people talking about the books that we're reading. I've already got my review posted and all that jazz, but now, hot and fresh, here are my personal answers to the discussion questions we're all ruminating on as we speak.

Question #1: What do you think about stereotypical characters? Do characters like "Honey Bun," the evil stepmother, and Shelby, the teen acting out, bother you, or are you accepting of them?

My Answer:
It really depends on how the stock characters are used, I guess. Sometimes it's easier to use an archetype that everyone is familiar with in order to jump start a story or to keep a story moving instead of bogging it down with unnecessary details, but other times, using the stock characters can water down the story. Honey Bun is a good example of that- for someone who's so evil (at least from Shelby's point of view anyway) she does things that are ultimately in Shelby's best interest, even though Shelby doesn't feel like it at the time.

Question #2: How do you feel about the immediate attraction and relationship between Shelby and Austin? Do you think it worked in this story or not?

My Answer:
This was actually one of my favorite parts of the story, and usually is one of my favorite parts of any romance or love story. I think it definitely works in this story, especially since the whole shebang is set at summer camp, where flings and romances are always cropping up all over. The brevity of the book almost necessitated a kind of whirlwind romance for this pair, and I think it worked for them.

Question #3: What did you think about the attempts the camp staff made to connect with Shelby? Were they at all effective? Did the staff have a point in their position on her personal life?

My Answer:
Having had my own share of simultaneously hilarious and awkward summer camp experiences I can definitely relate to the portrayal of the counselors at the camp. Even though Shelby's at "brat camp" and is supposed to be seeing the error of her ways and all that jazz, the counselors there are usually present in some capacity at every camp, ever. With regards to their attempts to connect with Shelby, though, I think their biggest accomplishment was in helping Shelby to realize that moderation is not necessarily a bad thing, and that maybe some self reflection isn't so horrible, either. A huge part of growing up when you're a teenage is admitting that the grownups around you might have a point in their opinions, and that's definitely something that happens to Shelby over the course of her camp experience. And hey, Shelby's decisions so far had caused her nothing but problems, so maybe trying things a different way wouldn't be so bad.

Question #4: What is your opinion on parents who send their kids to reformation camps- the ones who need to be "reformed" and the ones who don't?

My Answer
: In real life, I do most of my work with students with special needs, some of whom experience a wide variety of behavioral and mental health issues. I can say with all seriousness that there are families out there who are truly at the end of their ropes when it comes to dealing with these issues and are looking for help from any available source. With that said, I think in real life a lot of these boot camp type places are scams, where the staff have no training or knowledge or anything that would help them with these kids. The camp that Shelby went to seemed a lot more like sleepaway therapy than anything else, so I'm not sure how helpful it would be to anyone who didn't really want help. Isn't the first step of solving a problem admitting that there is one?

Question #5: Do you wish there had been a bit more mystery regarding Austin's being a werewolf, letting us get to know his character, and then the big reveal?

My Answer:Honestly? Not really. I mean, the book was a short one, and drawing it out too long would have not really been in the best interest of the story. I would definitely have appreciated getting to know Austin's character a little more, but I don't think Shelby not knowing there was something different about him would have helped with that.

Question #6: Do you think this novel has enough momentum for a sequel? There was some hinting at the possibility (the scratch) do you think this would be a good follow-up?

My Answer: I definitely think there's the possibility for a sequel, since there really isn't any explanation of the scratch or its implications offered at the end of the book. I don't know if there's enough left over material or unanswered questions to merit a sequel, but I can see the potential if the characters are allowed to grow and develop a little bit more.

And now, because I just can't resist, another treat from Werewolf, and end credits for the first outing of Blog with Bite:

Review: Never Cry Werewolf

Title: Never Cry Werewolf
Author: Heather Davis
Page Count: 215 pages
Publisher: Harper Teen
Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy

50 words or less: Teen girl extraordinaire Shelby ends up at rich kid rehab with rockin' rebel boy Austin. True loooove results and of course there is ANGST. Oh, and Austin is a werewolf.

Did you ever wonder what life would be like if you somehow ended up stranded in the woods with Jack Osbourne and Miley Cyrus? What if you weren't stranded at the woods, but were in fact imprisoned at SUMMER CAMP? And what if Jack Osbourne wasn't actually a human being at all, but a human being who could turn into a wolf? If so you are indeed in luck, as that right there is basically the story of Never Cry Werewolf.

I'm going to come right out and say it, so set your phasers to stun please: I did not enjoy this book.

I came into this book excited to read it, interested in the premise (I love werewolf stories,) wanting to like it, wanting to enjoy the hijinks of the characters and the ultimate resolution of the story, and I don't know whether it was because the whole shebang was only 215 pages or if I've just left that phase of my life where I can connect to stories like this, but I felt just as uninspired and unimpressed on page 215 as I did on page 1.

Shelby by herself isn't unlikeable; she's boy crazy, self absorbed, and unable to conduct a conversation without naming every label on every piece of clothing that she's wearing (don't call her a fashionista though) but she does have a few moments where her personality starts to shine, and she's definitely had to overcome some serious things in her past. I don't know if she's an accurate portrayal of girls in high school now or what, but hers was definitely the most developed character of the story.

I honestly have no opinion of Austin whatsoever; he didn't really receive a lot of character development and all we really learn about him is that his dad is a rock star who certainly reminds me of Ozzy Osbourne (accident? on purpose?), he's superdreamycute, and he has some bizarre "medical condition" that other kids think is just straight-up drug addiction. As the story goes on, it also becomes clear that he and Shelby share a lot of the same issues and emotional baggage.

I think I would be hard pressed to recall a single other character's name. Seriously. I can't recall anything about the camp where the kids all stayed or anything else that happened in the story. Oh, apparently Austin's lycanthropy can be pharmeceutically controlled! I'm not really sure why this was a necessary part of the story. There a couple of plot points that revolve around that little tidbit before the story just gives up on being about anything and fast forwards to the epic fight scene and the stunning makeouts, also known as the conclusion.

Let's take a moment and talk about the conclusion. I appreciate that the target audience for the book is probably not my demographic and that concepts of relationships are certainly different for everyone, but I guess a dude surprising me at boot camp, sucking on my tonsils and then that being the end of the story just doesn't appeal to me. If Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured the song that reminded me of the book as a whole, the ending of the book reminded me of a warped version of John Cusack holding up the radio at the end of Say Anything.

Despite my hopefully obvious lack of connection with the book, it wasn't a complete wash. I can definitely see a much younger audience enjoying the story and connecting with the characters, and anything that keeps people reading at an age when reading isn't a cool thing to do is certainly okay by me. If someone was reading this, I wouldn't slap it out of their hands or anything, but will I be recommending it to anyone I know? Probably not. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Overall Grade: D-

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: The Good Humor Man

Title: The Good Humor Man
Author: Andrew Fox
Page Count: 282 pages
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Genre: Satire, Fiction

50 words or less: In 2041, fat is out and emaciated is in whether you like it or not. Vigilantes burn junk food in the street, nobody wants to get pregnant because then they'll be fat, and twelve pounds of liposuctioned Elvis might be the key to saving all life on the planet.

My favorite book in the entire world is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins. I fell in love with that book the first time I read it years ago, and I keep revisiting it over and over again. Every time I read it, though, I take something new away from it, whether its the musical language of the book, the hilarity of the storyline, the incredibly serious themes, the outrageous characters, or just the overall experience of reading it.

I had exactly the same experience reading The Good Humor Man. There's definitely plenty of comedy to be had here. although it's definitely of the funny hmm hmm and not the funny ha ha variety. The cast of characters is colorful in the extreme: Dr. Louis Schmalzberg, an aging plastic surgeon who joined the Good Humor Men, a band of dudes who confiscate "bad" food and your health insurance while they're at it, after the death of his wife from cancer. There's Margo, a reclaimed member of a liposuction cult, Eric Trotmann, the leader of said liposuction cult, Oretha Denoux, the driving force behind keeping Carnival alive in New Orleans after all fatty foods and their associated debauchery were banned, and many, many others.

What really resonated with me, though, was the artful way that Mr. Fox used all the absurdity to tell a truly frightening story. If you're a conspiracy theorist, you'll definitely want your tin foil hat before reading this book, and if reading the book left you without anythin to consider, you might want to consider reading it again. Seriously.

The themes and issues that come up in the story are as far-reaching as, what impact does Elvis and his memory have on the American psyche? Is fat (the substance) really as diabolical as we all think? Do we really know how relying on technology for quick fixes for our problems is going to affect the future? What will limited biodiversity mean for us in the future? What happens when you realize you've been living a lie?

I seriously could go on and on and on about this book, but the highest recommendation I can give it is this: read The Good Humor Man when you are ready for something totally different and are bored with what you've been reading. You won't want to put the book down until it's over, and even then you'll want to read it again. I got this copy from the library and I'll be adding it to my keeper pile in the near future.

Overall Grade: A

Up next for me is my review of Never Cry Werewolf (uh oh.....) and I just started The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (talk about a change of pace,) and some other books too!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Illustrated Friday: Moon Rabbit

I actually first saw this book in the book/magazine aisle of the grocery store! Moon Rabbit is the story of a little rabbit who wonders if there's more to the world than the hustle of the big city. A serendipitous nap in the park leaves Little Rabbit out in the moonlight and in a prime position to make a new friend! But what will happen when Little Rabbit wants to leave the park and head back to the big city?

The language of the book is simple but elegant; no words are wasted and the story is conveyed succinctly and beautifully. The block print backgrounds and sketchbook-esque characters tie everything together.

Moon Rabbit would be lovely as a bedtime story and will probably be finding its way into my classroom library in the near future.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fall into Reading 2009!

September 22nd is almost here, which means it's time for the Fall into Reading 2009 challenge to start! It's a really low stress contest, with the parameters being whatever you want them to be really, so it's a great way to get involved in a challenge if (like me) you've never done one in the blogosphere before.

My challenge to myself, as I said in a previous post, is to read the Dead Last But Finished. Ten books that have been on my TBR pile for longer than I can remember. There isn't any particular reason these have languished for so long, but now I'm ready to finally do something about them. So, in no particular order, here are my ten books that I selected for the challenge:

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
Handling Sin by Michael Malone
Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux
Freedomland by Richard Price
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald
The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

I'll update this post with links to reviews as the challenge goes on. If you're not doing a challenge right at the moment, I definitely recommend heading over to Callapidder Days and signing up!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Prelude to a Review: Never Cry Werewolf

I just finished the first book chosen for review over at Blogs with Bite and now I'm trying to fit all my reactions into a review. While I'm doing that, though, I'll share the first thing that popped into my mind while I was reading the book, which may end up summing up my feelings better than I can in real life.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Fragile Eternity

Title: Fragile Eternity
Author: Melissa Marr
Page Count: 400 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Urban Fantasy

50 words or less: All is not well in Faery-World. Ash is trying to be a good queen, Seth is trying to fit in, Niall and Donia are trying to move on, and Keenan is trying to grow a conscience. After all that, war between the courts looms on the horizon! The plot thickens...

Fragile Eternity brought to fruition all the hopes that I had after reading Wicked Lovely. I've heard from a lot of people that this is truly the second book in the series, instead of Ink Exchange, and for the most part I agree. However, I appreciate Melissa Marr's way of telling the story, through bits and pieces and from different peoples' perspectives. I like that we as readers get to see the same world and same events from a number of different perspectives.

If the monster theme of A Great and Terrible Beauty was the need for choice, Fragile Eternity's was a cautionary tale about the danger and unexpected effect of inaction. There are several huge decisions that have to be made by various characters: Ash has to choose between Keenan and Seth, Seth has to choose whether to go the distance to pursue a relationship with Ash, Donia has to decide whether to protect her heart from Keenan, Niall has to decide where his loyalties lie and whether or not to articulate them, and Sorcha has to decide whether or not to become involved in the politics and goings-on at the other courts. Some of the characters rise to the occasion and make their own decisions; some of them refuse to act and have the decision made for them. The lesson of the story is definitely that choosing not to act is still a choice, and if you don't make decisions then someone else will definitely make them for you.

One of my favorite things about Melissa Marr's characters in these novels is that they are richly drawn, struggling, and definitely not perfect. I spent a sizeable amount of time while reading Fragile Eternity wanting to smack the stupid out of Ash and Keenan. I understand completely that Ash has had a lot thrust on her in a short amount of time and that Keenan has been around for centuries and views people as disposable for a reason, but their apparent surprise at the outcomes of their treatment of other people was frustrating to the extreme. I will admit, too, that the constant "I love you Seth but I'm attracted to you Keenan, I don't love you Keenan!" business did get tiresome after awhile, and it was difficult to be sympathetic to Ash. She relegated the supposed love of her life to basically being a combination therapist/pool boy, and then was surprised and brokenhearted when he took his fate into his own hands! Keenan treated Niall and Donia like crap with a capital C, whether it was on purpose or not, and then he's shocked and heartbroken when they are looking out for themselves and their courts. These aren't necessarily flaws in the writing, though, just illustrations that everyone had their own imperfections that had to be dealt with and overcome.

I'm definitly interested to see what direction the series will go in next, and will definitely be reading Radiant Shadows (the next book in the series) when it comes out in April 2010. I would advise, though, that if you're interested in Fragile Eternity that you start at the beginning of the series with Wicked Lovely and go from there.

I've been really fortunate- lots of good books in a row! I'll be heading in a different direction for my next book and reading The Good Humor Man by Andrew Fox. Hopefully my streak of good books can continue!

Overall Grade: A

Monday, September 14, 2009

A sad day for libraries.

UPDATE TIME!!! Courtesy of Boing Boing, the Philadelphia Public Library is staying open! Imagine that, the public finds out about stuff like this, takes action (read the article, it's insane) and magically, these situations seem to get resolved. Way to go people!

According to this article the Philadelphia Public Library system will be closing all offices and ending all activities, effective at the close of business on October 2nd. This renders me absolutely speechless. Granted, this is assuming there isn't some eleventh hour budget action that will restore the funding they need to keep operating, but still, the possiblility that something like this might actually happen, let alone in a major city with a large population, is horrifying. I can't even imagine it.

Have you ever stopped and truly considered all the services the library offers to a community? Beyond the obvious of circulating books, magazines, music, and providing reference materials, libraries are a pillar of a community. They are safe places for people to gather. They are havens of ideas. They inform us, educate us, and give us the information we need to be effective members of our society.

Cory Doctorow, a frequent contributed to Boing Boing (indeed a directory of wonderful things,) had this to say on the subject, and it resonated so strongly with me that I wanted to share it with everyone here:

"The Philadelphia Free Library system is broke, and they're shutting it down, including cancelling "all branch and regional library programs, programs for children and teens, after school programs, computer classes, and programs for adults" and "all children programs, programs to support small businesses and job seekers, computer classes and after school programs" and "all library visits to schools, day care centers, senior centers and other community centers" and "all community meetings" and "all GED, ABE and ESL program."

Just look at that list of all the things libraries do for our communities, all the ways they help the least among us, the vulnerable, the children, the elderly. Think of every wonderful thing that happened to you among the shelves of a library. Think of the millions of lifelong love-affairs with literacy sparked in the collections of those libraries. Think of every person whose life was forever changed for the better in those buildings.

Think of the nobility of libraries and librarianship, the great scar that the Burning of Alexandria gouged in human history. Think of the archivists who barricaded themselves in the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad, slowly starving and freezing to death but refusing to desert their posts for fear that the collections they guarded would become firewood.

Think of the librarians who took a stand during the darkest years of the PATRIOT Act and refused to turn over patron records. Think of the moral unimpeachability of those whose trade is universal access to all human knowledge.

Picture an entire city, a modern, wealthy place, in the richest country in the world, in which the vital services provided by libraries are withdrawn due to political brinksmanship and an unwillingness to spare one banker's bonus worth of tax-dollars to sustain an entire region's connection with human culture and knowledge and community.

Think of it and ask yourself what the hell has happened to us."

Indeed. More on this story as it develops, hopefully in a less dismal direction than the current one.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Dark Slayer

Title: Dark Slayer
Author: Christine Feehan
Page Count: 401 pages
Publisher: Berkley
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Year of Publication: 2009 (Came out 9/1!)

50 words or less: This is the 17th full-length installment in the Dark series and is the story of Ivory Malinov, a true living dead girl, and Razvan, a truly misunderstood former bad guy.

Let's see if I can manage to write a review about this book without spoiling the previous sixteen installments for anyone. Seriously, the best compliment I can give this book is that I'm thankful there are sixteen other books plus three novellas, so maybe it won't be so painful and hard to wait for the new one to come out next year!

For any newcomers to the series, and if you are indeed a newcomer I suggest you get to the library ASAP to rectify the situation, the Dark series is a paranormal romance series about the Carpathians, a race of supernatural tough guys (and ladies) fighting grossly horrible baddies at every turn and trying to save their race from extinction. There are about a million other storylines woven in and, naturally, a love story in every book, and the happily ever afters are the stuff that saccharine headaches are made of; with winter and foul weather days just around the corner I definitely recommend these books as a great way to wait out a blizzard.

This book grabbed me from the word go and absolutely refused to let go. Seriously, I stayed up way too late on the night before the first day of school reading until I literally could not keep my eyes open anymore. So many story arcs from previous books get resolved in this book, and all it did was make me even more excited to see what direction the series is going to go in next. I definitely applaud the author for keeping the series going so strong after so many volumes. I think a lot of other authors would have (and let's face it, have) jumped the shark a long time ago (cough cough Janet Evanovich yeah I went there cough cough.) There's action, suspense, romance (of course,) fear, love, you name it.

Easily my favorite thing about this book was the relationship between and characterization of Ivory and Razvan. Ivory is a truly kick ass lady who absolutely does not accept no for an answer. She is strong and has overcome a truly awful past to become a strong and vibrant power in her own life in the present. Even though she has every right to be rabidly pissed off at the world and everyone in it, she isn't! She goes out of her way to do what's right on a cosmic level, even if that puts her at odds with other people.

Razvan, on the other hand, is a completely chill dude, which is (I'll admit) a departure from the norm for Carpathian novels. Typically Carpathian guys are alpha almost to an annoying degree and toe the line between interesting and "if I knew you in real life I'd punch you in the face." Razvan is completely different- he has a well-defined sense of self and is defintiely no pushover, but he doesn't stomp around and boss people around and brood and do unattractive things like that. Instead, he treats life as an opportunity and seeks to enjoy every minute of it, an attitude which, given the horrific backstory he has to deal with, is indeed remarkable.

I'm really trying to think if there's any criticism I have of this book. Um, it ended too soon? Does that count? If you're into paranormal romance and haven't started this series yet or are interested in exploring what the paranormal romance genre has to offer, do yourself a favor and start with the first book in the series (Dark Prince) and read in series order. As with any series, some are better than others, but I think you'll find you enjoy them as a whole.

Overall Grade: A

Saturday, September 12, 2009

BONUS illustrated book and more blog news!

It's not Friday anymore but I couldn't resist sharing this book with everyone, it's seriously the cutest thing I've come across in a long time.

Keith Baker's Just How Long Can a Long String Be? is not only too cute for words, it's a great conversation starter to get young children talking about multiple uses for the same object as well as different lengths and even the concepts of length and measurement in general. In the book, an ant asks a bird the title question, and the bird retorts with a variety of beautifully illustrated answers. The pastel colors of the illustration draw attention to detail, like the stamps on a package, the twining of vines growing, and even a lamp being turned on. This would be a great read-aloud book for really young kids too- short, sweet and to the point.

On to the blog news! I'm pleased as freaking punch to announce that I'll be a part of the group blogging at Blog With Bite! The focus of our reviews will be paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels, which will definitely be a lot of fun. Here's all the details on the first book, Never Cry Werewolf:

Moonlight can totally change your life.

And it all starts so simply.

You. Him.

The moon.

You're toast.

Okay, so maybe Shelby has made a few mistakes with boys lately (how was she supposed to know Wes had "borrowed" that Porsche?). But her stepmother totally overreacts when she catches Shelby in a post-curfew kiss with a hot senior: Suddenly Shelby's summer plans are on the shelf, and she's being packed off to brat camp. It's good-bye, prom dress; hello, hiking boots.

Things start looking up, though, when Shelby meets fellow camper (and son of a rock star) Austin Bridges III. But soon she realizes there's more to Austin than crush material—his family has a dark secret, and he wants Shelby's help guarding it. Shelby knows that she really shouldn't be getting tangled up with another bad boy . . . but who is she to turn her back on a guy in need, especially such a good-looking one? One thing's for sure: That pesky full moon is about to get her into trouble all over again.

I'm excited already! Tomorrow I'll have my review of Dark Slayer by Christine Feehan, and right now I'm reading Fragile Eternity by Melissa Marr, so there's lot of good PNR and urban fantasy stuff coming up.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Illustrated Friday: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Today is definitely a somber day and a day for thinking and reflecting, so I wanted to share one of my all-time favorite illustrated books- The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is the story of Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The towers are featured in many of the illustrations in various stages; under construction, fully completed, in ruins, and, finally, in memory. Philippe Petit's accomplishment of walking between the towers is presented as a dream the towers inspired and an accomplishment they helped make possible.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is a brilliant book because it can be used in so many different ways: as a story of one man's goal made into reality; as a work of art (the illustrations are truly breathtaking); perhaps most importantly, as a way to bring about conversation about a day that even years later is truly painful for many people. However it's used, though, it's an enjoyable true story with beautiful illustrations, which is ultimately what Illustrated Friday is all about.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Page Count: 403 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: Gothic, Young Adult
Year of Publication: 2003

50 words or less: After her mother's death, Gemma Doyle is sent to Spence Academy to learn social graces and prepare to be a society wife in Victorian England. While there she begins to learn about her own powers, as a woman and beyond, and struggles to find out her place in the world.

I received my copy of A Great and Terrible Beauty as a Christmas gift last year and I finally started reading it. I had a hard time deciding at first how I felt about this book and came dangerously close to shelving it several times, but ultimately, I'm glad I stuck it out.

Gemma Doyle is an interesting protagonist. I've read a lot of commentary that says that she's unusually and, some would say, unbelievably wise for not only her age but the time time period she calls home. I found that I enjoyed Gemma's voice as a narrator quite a bit, but I found it hard to understand why she would want to be friends (other than out of necessity) with the other girls at Spence Academy. First impressions of the girls at Spence were as follows: Ann, the doormat, Felicity, the conniver, Pippa, the wannabe, Elizabeth and Cecily, the sheeple. None of them seemed like appealing prospects for friends, especially to someone who comes off as savvy as Gemma does in the beginning of the book.

As I kept reading, though, I realized that the personas that were given to the girls at Spence were necessary for the theme that the book is trying to convey. In a way, the girls at Spence represent a spectrum of personalities. Felicity is one extreme, flamboyant and carefree, but assured in the fact that her family and social position can buy her way out of pretty much any scrape she might get into. As far as Felicity is concerned, there's no such thing as a check her mouth wrote that her butt can't cash.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ann. Downtrodden, ignored, and screaming out for sensation and companionship, Ann's low opinion of herself is only reinforced by the expectation that she's going to school for no other reason than to be able to find employment later on, probably as a nanny to future generations of Spence Academy students. The world of society balls and prosperous marriages that awaits the other girls at Spence is pretty much off limits to Ann; the social conventions that Felicity enjoys defying are the same ones that smother Ann at every turn.

In the middle somewhere, then, is Gemma. Gemma is aware that the high society version of a short drop and a sudden stop are what awaits them; watching Pippa struggle with the notion of marrying an old guy with whom she shares no interests simply to save herself from the ruin her father's gambling is ensuring only reinforces that idea. But what else exists for them? Servitude, like that which waits for Ann? Tedious, anonymous indolence, like that which appears to wait for Felicity? A sham of a marriage to a guy that makes Bartleby Bumble look like a caricature, like that which waits for Pippa? Gemma isn't satisfied with any of that, but doesn't see any other way out for much of the book.

The theme of choice is easily my favorite one of the many present throughout the book and is an element that I found way more interesting than any of the supernatural ones. The escapades in the realms teach each of the girls that they are responsible for the choices in their own lives, no matter how small or how mundane. The power of choice is a tremendous responsiblitiy, though, and that's a lesson that each of the girls has to learn in her own time. The entire book can also be taken as a commentary on the choices that women were forced to make during the Victorian times, and what choices were and were not available to them. The theme of power, and what it takes to achieve power, is a strong message as well.

A Great and Terrible Beauty has the definite burden of being the first in a series. The premise is incredibly interesting, the prose is beautiful and engaging, but there are a lot of loose ends and facets of the story that weren't fully explored. Be that as it may, I finished the book and was interested enough in the story to get the next two books out of the library, which I'll post about here. I'm definitely interested to see if/how my opinion of the story changes with the two additional volumes.

I'll leave you, then with a quote from my favorite character in the book, Miss Moore, the drawing teacher. I've heard that she features again in the other two books, and I sincerely hope that's true, especially if I get to read more gems like this:
'I know because I read.' She pulls back and stands, hands on hips, offering us a challenge. "May I suggest that you all read? And often. Believe me, it's nice to have something to talk about other than the weather and the Queen's health. Your mind is not a cage. It's a garden. And it requires cultivating.
Something to ponder indeed.

Overall Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: The War Against Miss Winter

Title: The War Against Miss Winter
Author: Kathryn Miller Haines
Page Count: 317 pages
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Year of Publication: 2007

50 words or less: It's 1943 and WWII is going full throttle. Rosie Winter, a struggling but determined actress, shows up to work one day to find her boss dead in his office. When she tries to close out the last of his business, she ends up taking on way more than she bargained for.

I grabbed this book on a whim at the library and I'm so excited that I did. I devoured this book- the language was engaging, the story was exciting, and the mystery kept me guessing almost until the end. Rosie Winter is a sassy lady, and rest assured she does not take crap from anyone about anything. Her snappy retorts to the people around her who would try to bring her down are thoroughly entertaining, and her voice as a narrative keeps the story moving at just the right pace. Plus, how can you not love statements like this one, where she's describing a snotty, obnoxious fellow actress's role in the play they've both been cast in:
Ruby played the saintly WAC, which was the best of the eight parts, though given the overall shortcomings of the play, that was a bit like being the whore with the nicest teeth.
Rosie Winter shines as a narrator and a protagonist, but the other characters are just as worthy of mention: Jayne, the best friend and, all too often, the voice of reason; Tony, Jayne's mobster boyfriend who may (or may not?) actually be a nice guy, Al, one of Tony's tough guys who really just wants to make his mom proud; Belle, the house mom at the boarding house where Rosie, Jayne, and Ruby live; Harriet, probably my favorite character, who's juggling a career as an actress with also being a budding political activist. Oh, and Churchill the cat!

The war is a constant presence in this book, and the author provides lots of period details that enhance the story on almost every page. Additionally, the author's experience in the theater world makes the setting and tone of the book very authentic, and makes the reader actually care about the resolution of the main mystery, that being who murdered Rosie's boss, and all the side mysteries that emerge along the way. Speaking of side stories, several of them, such as Rosie's relationship with Jack, her (maybe) fiance, Rosie's rollercoaster acting career, and her relationships with the other girls in the boarding house, leave lots of room for future books in the series. I know of two others, The Winter of Her Discontent and Winter in June, and I'll definitely be reading both of those and reviewing them here.

If you're looking for something different to read that's funny, engrossing, and completely satisfying, I highly recommend this book.

Overall Grade: A

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Nick of Time

Title: Nick of Time
Author: Ted Bell
Page Count: 434 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Year of Publication: 2008

50 words or less: The story starts in 1939, on the eve of WWII. Nick McIver and his sister Kate find out their father is a spy for England, gathering information about German submarine activities. When they discover a mysterious sea chest, they find their spying adventures taking on another dimension altogether, literally.

I promised after my last review that I'd be taking a break from paranormal romance for a short while, and Nick of Time went a long way in cleansing my palate. This story was almost impossible to put down from the very beginning. The first chapter deals almost exclusively with A Sailing Mishap, and I was so engrossed in what happened I barely remembered to blink. The imagery was very vivid and it was easy to imagine the places and items being described in the opening chapters.

Pre-war England in 1939 was a gloomy place. This book does an excellent job of inspiring interest in the period and also in setting a mood that's appropriate for the story being told. Nick and his family are spying for England against the Germans; the reader can feel their devotion to their cause and their investment in what they're doing.

But this isn't just a WWII novel, not by a long stretch! There are pirates! Nazis! Naval fleets! Leonardo da Vinci has a cameo! Evil Parrots! This book reminded me a lot of old Hardy Boys stories, with the nonstop action and evil lurking around every corner.

That brings me to another thing that I truly enjoyed about this book. Maybe it has something to do with it being marketed towards a younger audience, but I find that in many books, the reader gets bogged down, either in lengthy treatises about why technology works the way it does, or in endless descriptions or conversations about what makes the bad guy so bad. I'm not saying that those elements don't have their places or their purposes, but when I'm reading for entertainment, I can trust that the bad guy is bad, or that technology works in a certain way, without pages and pages of explanation on either subject. With both subjects, Nick of Time has just enough description to be acceptably fantastic. It is fiction, after all!

One final thought- I've found, especially with books marketed towards young adults, that there seems to be a lack of books that present as appealing to boys. While Twilight is definitely a worldwide phenomenon in every sense of the world, it's definitely one that's marketed towards young women. Where's the corresponding appeal for young men? I'm not saying that books have to be for one gender or another, or that being a certain gender means you have to read certain books, but I can honestly say that when my brothers (for example) ask me to recommend a book, Twilight usually isn't the first thing that pops into my head.

With that said, Nick of Time is a book that would appeal to readers of any gender, and of any age. Swashbuckling, adventure, sailing, time travel, history, there are so many elements here that there's something for everyone, and that's a rare feat, indeed.

Overall Grade: A

Saturday, September 5, 2009


I'm happy to announce that Terra at Terra On the Bookshelf and Amy at My Overstuffed Bookshelf have graciously both given me the Lemonade Award! It's great to see other people enjoying the content here, it makes me want to do more!

You'll have to tune in to a future episode to see who I pick for my 10 recipients of the award, this is going to take some careful consideration.

In other blog related news, I'm finally assembling the blog roll to be included here. I would love to feature links from other book bloggers in exchange for a spot on your blog roll, comment or shoot me an email and we'll work something out.

I'll also be participating in the Fall into Reading 2009 Challenge over at Callapidder Days:

Since it's a relatively short challenge, from 9/22/09-12/20/09, my goal will be to read and review the Dead Last but Finished, or as I like to think of them, the books that have been on my TBR pile for so long that they ought to be paying rent at this point. They are:

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
Handling Sin by Michael Malone
Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux
Freedomland by Richard Price
The Eight by Katherine Neville
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald
The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

Oh! I'm also on board for the Re-Read Challenge at We Be Reading as well. I hope this will be a chance for me to share some of my all-time favorite books, since those seem to be the ones that always end up at the bottom of the TBR pile, just like old friends we forget to call. No more of that, I say!

Anyway, what are your reading related plans? Are you involved with challenges? What kinds of book-related things do you like to read and share?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Illustrated Friday: Brundibar

One of my favorite parts of other people's blogs, and one of the things that makes me decide to read a blog in the first place, is the recurring features. I love Waiting for Wednesdays, Beefcake Mondays, and Good News Fridays, so in honor of all these fun things that spice up my lunch break while I'm at work, I'm going to use Friday as a day to spotlight illustrated books!

I chose to use the term illustrated books because I don't subscribe to the belief that a book with illustrations is automatically a children's book. My pick for this week is a good example of this. Without further ado, this week's pick is Brundibar, retold by Tony Kushner and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

The original Brundibar is a Czech opera by Hans Krása and Adolf Hoffmeister, and, according to the cover of the book, was performed 55 times by the children being held in the concentration camp at Terezin. Krása himself was imprisoned at Terezin for being Jewish and was ultimately killed in Auschwitz in 1944. Without that piece of information, Brundibar is just the story of two children who defeat the town bully and save their mother, retold in a colorfully illustrated, comic book-esque style. With that piece of information, however, the book takes on another feel entirely. It isn't a book I'd choose as a read aloud, but I would definitely recommend because of its incredible color palate and use of symbolism in the illustrations and for the haunted feeling that goes along with reading it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review: Sacrament

Title: Sacrament

Author: Susan Squires

Page Count: 357 pages

Publisher: Love Spell

Genre: Gothic Romance (according to the book spine anyway)

Year of Publication: 2002

50 words or less: In Regency England, a destitute little lady (Sarah Ashton) has to defend her failing property from nosy neighbor Julien Davinoff (tall, dark, and brooding.) Once that’s settled, Sarah has to work on finding out what’s so strange about Mr. Davinoff, escape certain doom, and fall in love. Hypothetically anyway.

Oh, Sacrament. Sacrament, Sacrament, Sacrament. I’d heard such good things about you before I finally read you, and I seriously feel let down, in more ways than just one.

This book had an identity crisis almost from page one. What kind of book is Sacrament? Who knows? Frankly, who cares? As a whole, this book had such potential, and all of it was squandered mercilessly.

The first part of the book introduces the motley crew of characters and sends Sarah Ashton, a supposedly independent and self-sufficient woman who in fact had all the appeal and personality of vegetable peelings, on a wild goose chase, trying to find some proof that she owns Clershing, her family home, and can thus successful defend her claim against that of her creepy neighbor, Julien Davinoff. We also meet Sarah’s psychotic friend Corinna, who is completely unlikeable and plainly has Sarah wrapped around her little finger, a fact that is pretty much an instant turnoff for me in any book whatsoever.

So Sarah finds out what happened to the deed (sorry to ruin that for you) and through a series of banal but painfully detailed social functions, manages to not only repeatedly run into Davinoff but also to watch Evil Corinna become completely obsessed with him. Sarah wears a dress with a waist! Her boring pseudo-suitor George babbles about blood! Corinna finally goes off the deep end and kidnaps Davinoff and almost kills him! Then we find out that the alleged reason why Sarah puts up with Corinna’s nonsense is because back in the day, Corinna convinced Sarah to lose her virginity to some strange underage boy while they were all under the influence of magic mushrooms. It was a creepy interlude that did nothing for the characters, ground the plot to a standstill, and left me feeling like I wanted to get my tongue scraped.

Once Sarah finally (of course) rescues Davinoff, she carts him off to yet another English countryside locale and helps him kick the drugs Corinna had him on. She finds out he’s a vampire but doesn’t seem to care. Immediately after that Davinoff tries to bail on her because converting people to vampires is wrong; never mind that he’s done it twice already. Sarah traverses Europe to finally track him down and convince him of her true feelings; at this point I had covered so much of the book that, no matter how much I wanted to bury the book out in the yard, I made myself finish it.

Sacrament was easily the most disappointing book I’ve read in a long time. I kept reading, page after page, chapter after chapter, hoping the book would get better, but it never came close. The silver lining to all of this: it was a library book, so at least I didn’t spend money on it!

Overall Grade: F

I’ll be switching to something else for my next book, I think I’ve had enough paranormal romance for a little bit and I definitely need a change of scene.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How to learn to read.

So the Sunday edition of the New York Times featured an article on reading workshops, where students pick books to read for English and literature classes, instead of being assigned books from a mandatory list. I have to admit, reading the article made me wonder how using methods like that would have made English a more enjoyable subject for me personally while I was in school. I love to read, and always have, but I’ve never enjoyed reading novels as a class, and I remember spending most of high school English reading another book during class time instead of whatever it was we were supposed to be doing.

Anyway, I read the article and moved on to other things, only to see that Meg Cabot had posted a response to it in her blog, where she waxed positively vitriolic against the many and enumerated evils of mandatory reading lists. Fast forward to Candy at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, who posted a response to Meg Cabot’s response!

Now we have an argument that looks something like this:

NY Times: What if students could choose the books they wanted to read, read them, write and interact regarding them, and still learn as well as if they had read something traditionally assigned to the entire class? What a wonderful world it would be!

Meg Cabot: Reading lists are the source of all evil and are the reason why so many people hate to read! And another thing, what’s the point of literary analysis since hey, we didn’t write the book and we weren’t there when it was being written, so how do we know what something is supposed to mean to the author anyway? Hmm?

Smart Bitches: Maybe the issue isn’t a book being on or off a list, it’s how that book is being taught and how it’s being presented to students! Maybe if a book was presented as something to sink your teeth into instead of something to be endured, reading wouldn’t be like getting said teeth ripped out, as it sadly is to so many people. And hey, maybe those stodgy old required books are required books because they’ve been around for a long time and have something to teach us! Ever thought of that?

Now here we are, with two clear issues on the table: one, what needs to be done so that reading is an enjoyable activity for students while still teaching what needs to be learned, and two, how does one decide what needs to be learned anyway?

For me, and I say this as a teacher, the most important thing about learning through literature is being able to use it as a tool for articulating what one sees in the big wide world. I’ve never been a huge fan of literary analysis, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it should be taught—instead, I think it should be taught as a way to talk about the books you read, as a way to agree or disagree with a particular point or theme, and as a common language that all readers can share. I also don’t think that formal instruction in this needs to take place all the time, day after day, year after year.

I believe that, once you’ve mastered the basics, you read by reading. You write by writing. You speak by speaking. The most frustrating memories I have of literature classes were arriving at the class period that marked the last day we were spending on a particular work and nobody having anything to say about what we just read—nothing positive, nothing negative, just nothing. What a waste of time and energy!

Would exclusively relying on student choice solve this problem? Probably not. Would having a scripted literature curriculum solve this problem? Probably not. What would go a long way to solving that problem would be a teacher who was extremely well read, not just in genres he or she enjoys, but in a variety of genres, who was ready to recommend books, and then, wonder of wonders, actually having access to those books, either through a classroom/school or public library! And hey, some of those recommendations could be the very same books we’ve spent years trying to get kids to read in large groups! Student choice is a wonderful thing and gives students ownership in their learning; student choice harnessed to thoughtful recommendations and interactions with teachers who actually know what they’re talking about is another, more powerful thing entirely.

Ultimately, if we as teachers and we as readers are going to convince kids at any age that reading is something fun that they should be doing for its own sake, we need to be ready to connect them to works and resources that they actually care about. At the same time, we as teachers need to be ready to encourage students to try books that are challenging for them! So what if a book is long, or has words we might have to look up, or deals with themes and ideas that make us think? That’s not the scary part of reading, that’s the fun part! We need to remind kids that it’s okay to push yourself and to ask for help and to try new things. If we model participating in a literate society by reading a variety of works, not just brain broccoli and not just brain bonbons, we can encourage students to read the books we wanted them to read anyway.

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