Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ireland by Frank Delaney

I love listening to a good story, and I think telling one is an art.  This is one of the ideas that is at the heart of Ireland.  A captivating and mysterious travelling storyteller comes to Ronan's house when he is 9 and it changes the course of his life forever.  Why?  Because he is so drawn by the stories and the man that tells them, that he spends his life searching him out.  The dismissals, near misses and goodbyes are heartbreaking!  But thankfully, after going through so many different moods and emotions, this book ends on a happier note!

The chapters alternate between Ronan's life as he grows up, and stories, most of them about the history of Ireland.  But it's not a history book.  The stories are magical.  Many involve folklore, and have obviously evolved with each retelling.  This concept alone is fascinating to me.  Not everyone can tell a good story.  Knowing what to include, what to leave out, what to embellish, is a talent, and the chapters that include stories from The Storyteller, really stand out as excellent examples.  That is not to say that sometimes I wasn't so anxious to find out what was going to happen next in Ronan's life that I was tempted to skim over a story.  But don't do it!  They are worth reading.

There are so many bits of wisdom woven into the stories.  Here are a few I jotted down:

"Anytime a great man tries to do a wonderful thing, lesser men will try to stop him.  That is one of the laws of life."

"There's nothing braver than a man who knows fear and conquers it."

And because this is the first day of September and that makes me a little sad..."I welcomed August more than any month in the calendar, especially those last ten days when the gold is seeping into everywhere ."

I loved The Storyteller, and so was eager with Ronan as he sought him out and gathered information.  This search brings magical moments of discovery that actually made me gasp as I was reading.  Later in the book, Ronan experiences the death of a loved one, and his emotions are illustrated so well.  I could feel his pain, and loved how those around him recognized and verbalized the sadness this event brought.

I enjoyed reading this book so much.  The stories of Ireland, the art of storytelling, and the mystery that Ronan is trying to solve.  All three elements work together without competing and blended perfectly for me!  I couldn't put it down, but was so sad to finish it off.  The ending is well-
written and satisfying.  I am intrigued to read more of Mr. Delaney's books!

Monday, August 19, 2013

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

This is the kind of book I would like to write.  Each short-short is powerful, pretty and just the right length.  I love to read slice of life, coming of age type books, and Cisneros creates this kind of style in a unique way.  These little stories involve many of the same characters, and the events and emotions overlap.  They weave together to tell us about Esparanza and her life on Mango Street.

I also enjoyed reading Cisneros introduction.  Don't skip it. I found it really insightful into her life, and therefore her writing.

Here are some samples of her writing:

"They are the only ones who understand me.  I am the only one who understand them;.  Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here..."


"In English my name means hope.  In Spanish it means too many letters.  It means sadness, it means waiting.  It is like the number nine.  A muddy color..."

I love the way the words tumble out and create the mood they intend.  I think Sanda Cisneros is brilliant and very good at what she does.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This book is magical!  I was drawn in so quickly and read it every chance I got!  It kept my attention, and even though the ending let me down a bit, I recommend it.

The very first chapter of the story describes the Night Circus.  These descriptive second person point of view chapters are interspersed through out the book and give you the overall affect of the circus. "Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do." The other chapters alternate--randomly--between the lives of a few main players.  Marco, Celia, Herr Thiessen, Bailey, and a few more I'm forgetting.  They are told in third person, but each provides a rich story in itself, and it only gets better as they weave into one another.  The chapters are dated, and toward the middle I found myself remembering to look at these, and they help piece the story together.  At one point you are switching back and forth between two stories exactly a year apart.  Thrilling!

The book itself felt like a magical night circus.  Some parts followed as you thought they would, but others were unpredictable.  "Aspects settle temporarily and then vanish into distorted shadows once more, never remaining steady for more than a moment." You are unsure who is really magic, and who is playing along.  The characters are eccentric, but important.  Heroes, victims, and sometimes they surprise you!  I'm usually the first to be annoyed with description, but the pictures are painted so well in this book!  I felt myself imagining details that I usually don't bother with when I read. Just like every element works together to make the circus,"each part melding seamlessly into a whole,"  so do the parts of the book.  The dreamy, poetic writing, the elegant, quirky characters, and the secretive, illusive chapters all work together to make the book feel magical and mystical.

Sadly, when the book begins its ending, it loses some of its charm.  I felt like I didn't believe or understand how the circus was dependent on Celia and Marco, I never really understood why Marco couldn't leave London to travel with the circus, and even though I loved Bailey--his story was a little muddled.  Maybe I wanted the book to be longer because I was enjoying reading the story so much.  For me it ended too quickly.  While I liked the resolution, it seemed almost sudden and without enough explanation.  I felt like I had to read between the lines too much.

I still think you should read The Night Circus, and I'd love to hear what you thought!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The 100-year-old Man who Climbed out the WIndow and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

This was a fun book to read!  I thought the story was hilarious, and it is reminiscent of books like Candide, or The Alchemist in the way that the main character is taking a life-changing journey.  BUT it doesn't take itself to seriously, and the story borders on ridiculous. 

The chapters rotate between Allan (the 100 year old man who climbed out his window), the chief inspector that is following him, a couple other men who are trying to find him on both sides of the law, and then chapters that are flashbacks.

I enjoyed the stories of Allan's past lives and adventures the most.  These parts are why people compare this book to Forrest Gump, but I really think it transcends.  Through quirky coincidences and choices, Allan has crossed the path of many famous people and had influenced history all over the world!  I thought these episodes were creative and fun to read.  And really well thought out.

It took me awhile to get thorough this book, but not because it was boring.  I was busy, and it is the kind of book that you can put down and come back to.

I recommend it!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

This book came highly recommended to me by my friend Sara.  It is really good.  It is really sad.  I think it would be great to read in a classroom with middle school-ish aged kids because it could lead to so many different discussions.

Sasha is 10 years old and in love with the security Stalin's communism provides for he and his father.  He is strongly loyal and very excited to join the Young Pioneers.  Suddenly everything he knows and believes in is turned upside down.  It is sad and frightening as you realize there is no winning or happy ending possible.  If you aren't turning in others, you are guilty.  Its a theme we've read before, but so powerful when you read it through the eyes of a child.

This was also my first experience listening to a book on CD with a couple other people.  I listened to it with my son and my mom.  We were all mesmerized.  I was stressed the whole time about what horrible thing was going to happened next.  BUT the character is OK.  The ending is promising.

I really prefer reading to listening, so I'll be tracking down a hard copy of this.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Age of Miracles

This story begins with the announcement that the Earth is turning more slowly.  Instead of 24 hours, a day is now 25 and a half hours long, and gaining.  So the conflict and setting are definitely science fiction, but the story is more of a coming of age.  Julia tells the story and the majority takes place when she is in 6th grade.

I loved this book.  It's hard sometimes for me to determine if the book is really that great or if it is just the exact sort of thing I like to read.  I liked Julia.  I could relate to her.  I loved the poignant moments that just seem so true and universal and sad. 

Julia tells the story with maturity, she uses a wide vocabulary, she uses similes, she makes comparisons, but for me it works.  I did keep imagining she was a couple years older, but her age is important to preserve some of her innocence.  She's writing from the future, and sometimes makes comments alluding to the big picture of her life.  For example, "Maybe everything that happened to me and to my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing.  It's possible.  I guess.  But I doubt it.  I doubt it very much."

Karen Thompson Walker uses this scientific phenomenon to illustrate how people interact with each other.  Especially how we respond to change, differing views and having faith.  I enjoyed thinking about how these things would play out, but didn't feel like she was forcing sociological theory on her reader. "I guess every bygone era takes on a shade of myth." and  "This is just to say that as strange as the new days seemed to us at first, the old days would come to feel very quickly the stranger."

I loved the characters, I loved the slow, thoughtful pace of the writing, and I loved Julia's story. Here a couple more reasons why.

"My most recent school picture, in which my eyes were half closed, on the verge of a blink, rendering moot all the time I had spent selecting the cream-colored mohair sweater I wore on picture day."  So relatable! When I was in 8th grade I had PE before pictures, and we had to run the mile. I had probably spend 30 minutes curling my hair that morning, for nothing.  School pictures are so horrible.

"This was the first of the white nights.  We would later learn to shield ourselves, to carve out small patches of darkness amid the light, but that first clock night was ceiling stars were invisible that night anyway, just like the real ones were, every one of them washed out by our nearest, dearest star."  I love the poetic almost sing-song narration.

I really liked this story. It has a few swear words in it, but I would still recommend it to young adult girls.  I was hoping to recommend it to my sons, but because there are scenes where Julia buys her first bra (so good), and many moments where she is trying to understand boys, I think it's more suited for a female audience.

I read this after reading this review (warning: it contains spoilers).

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Spellmans Strike Again Lisa Lutz

So I looked through my archives and figured out that it was WAY back in 2009 that I read the first three books in Lisa Lutz's Spellman family series.  I really enjoyed them at the time because they were so different that other stuff I was reading.

This weekend I read #4, there are still two more in the series, and I enjoyed it just as much.  That being said, it kind of felt like a TV series to me.  The characters kind of do the same stuff and say the same things.  The mysteries are new, and I can never quite figure them out, so that's good, but there isn't a lot of change.  Actually in this book, Izzy and Rae both make some choices and appear to mature a bit.  But for me, this was just sideline stuff, and almost felt forced.  I realize I'm not really selling it.  I like the Spellmans, the characters and their stories.

SO the bottom line is, this is a fun, light read.  If you've read the other Spellmans, this will follow suit.  If you haven't, I recommend you pick up The Spellman Files.  I think you'll like it.  Just beware of a few F-words that come out of left field.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan

My 6th grade son read this book for Battle of the Books at school.  I was intrigued that he enjoyed a book with not only a girl's name in the title, but a picture of her on the cover!  He told me I had to read it, and I loved it!

Naomi lives with her brother and Great-grandma.  They live in a trailer park, Gram makes all her clothes, and her brother has some physical challenges.  So you can imagine Naomi struggles a bit to fit in.  Luckily, she is surrounded by people who love her: her teacher, the librarian, and the neighbor lady, make up for the friends and parents she is missing.  Life is going OK until her mom comes back into town. 

Naomi explains, "One of her (Gram's) favorite sayings was that the good and the bad of any situation were sometimes the same.  When I was little I had trouble holding my brain on that thought, but now it was starting to make sense." Their mother has plans for the future that are scary and lead to Naomi, Owen and the grandma taking a road trip to Mexico.  I liked how the situations have enough conflict to feel real, but they are kept age appropriate, and nothing too horrible happens.

Naomi keeps a notebook full of lists.  I loved this habit of her character.  On the back cover of my copy of the book, it says: "Things I am Good At: 1) S
oap carving 2) Worrying 3) Making Lists.

I love the writing style and the way the words are pretty, but feel natural.  "Her fingers were nimble and gentle.  It felt as though she was playing the piano on my head." or "Gram said Fabiola's mission in life was to feed the world with a smile."  This book has won a few awards, and I think they are well deserved! 

I loved the story, the characters and the writing style!  I recommend it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

My sister gave me this book for my birthday, and I LOVED it!  I recommend it for sure.

The story is told through a series of documents: e-mails, receipts, bills, letters, interspersed between first person accounts written by Bee.  Bee is an eighth grader at a prestigious middle school whose father works at Microsoft and whose mother has become kind of a recluse in their big crumbling home on Queen Anne.  If you're from this area, you'll love the Seattle references, if you're a mother who has ever been involved with PTA, volunteering, or over anxious moms, you will crack up knowingly. 

Here's an example of Bee's mom, Bernadette.  She's describing how her heart starts racing when she lays down to go to sleep.
"It sucks in any benign thoughts that might be scrolling across my brain and attaches visceral panic to them.  For instance, during the day I might have mused, Hey, I should pack more fresh fruit in Bee's lunch.  That becomes, I'VE GOT TO PACK MORE FRESH FRUIT IN BEE'S LUNCH!!!  I can feel the irrationality and anxiety draining my store of energy."  Funny, right?  And sort of relate able?  Thats what I loved about this book.

And a quote from Bee, "We'd pass icebergs floating in the middle of the ocean.  They were gigantic, with strange formations carved into them.  They were so haunting and majestic you could feel your heart break, but really they're just chunks of ice and mean nothing." 
She's thoughtful, quirky and someone you want to be friends with.

As you read, you get to know both of these women, and the documents do a good job of piecing the story together.  You get to see both their perspectives, their Dad/husband's, and a nosy neighbor's.  It is written cleverly and I don't think the story is too predictable.  Some parts maybe, but she manages to develop even stereotypical characters into something more.

This is a story of a family who has been distracted and lost touch a bit with each other.  Through some funny and some tragic events they come back together.   I really enjoyed Maria Semple's writing style and the characters she created.  I laughed, I cried, I hope you'll like it too.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

I really liked this book!  I don't know much about Ernest Hemingway and I knew nothing about Hadley, his first wife..  If you're an expert, you might not enjoy reading this fictional account of their romance and life together.  But, I believe Paula McLain really did the research, and sought to portray an accurate but fresh perspective.

The story is great.  Hadley meet Ernest on a trip to Chicago and there is magic.  She was living a dull life, and suddenly she has this connection and as they develop their relationship, I think she becomes the woman she wanted to be.  Or at least starts on that journey.  I liked her from the beginning and found her so relate able.  I like that she was an ordinary woman, and while she points out flashier girls in her circle, she isn't self-deprecating.  She has confidence and feels worthy of her surprise romance.  I hate reading stories of girls who constantly comment that they can't believe their boyfriend/lover/husband would fall in love with them.  Gag.  Hadley isn't that way at all.  She loves her husband and commits herself from the start.

I also like seeing and learning about people before they came into their own.  Hemingway was nothing, he was broke, he was struggling to make friends and get published.  I like seeing that more vulnerable side of someone you know is going to become so successful. 

This is the first book I've read by Paula McLain, and I really like her writing style.  I'm curious if this is how she always writes, or because it is written in first person, if this is the voice she gave Hadley.  Either way, it was great.  For example, "The nest of fish was crisp under a coarse snow of salt and smelled so simple and good I thought it might save my life.  Just a little.  Just for that moment."  Beautiful!

Or this conversation when Hadley was feeling a little lonely for Ernest and maybe sad.
     I sighed. "I think it's going to rain all day."
     "Don't kid yourself.  It's going to rain for a month."
     "Maybe it won't after all."
     He smiled at me.  "All right, Tiny. Maybe it won't."

It must be hard when telling a story that many of your readers have a pretty good idea of the ending, not to painfully foreshadow.  McLain is careful in her writing, so when she does, it's successful.  This is a good example.  "It was the end of Ernest's struggle with apprenticeship, and an end to other things as well.  He would never again be unknown.  We would never again be this happy."
In this story, Hadley does a lot of thinking and reflecting on their marriage.  I found the underlying thoughts (not the circumstances) very familiar, and thought provoking.  They meet up with one of Ernest's friends and she comments that he "saw and understood what was good in us." Just like those people who you feel the most yourself around, it's great to have friends that make you feel that way about your marriage.  There are a lot of thoughts she has and soul searching she does toward the end that I thought was really good.  But I can't discuss it without giving too much away.  I'll just tell you that I think she does a lot of things right.

Another thing I found really relate able was Hadley's need to feel connected and to feel successful.  I wish so bad she had worked or had something to fill up her days with when they first go to Paris.  Later she makes time to go out with friends even if she's not in the mood.  I think that is so important!  Simple get togethers and events have saved me so many times.When her friend suggests that she give a piano concert, she thinks  "It would take so much more time and effort..." but then "I began to wonder if a concert might be good for me after all."  And "My playing wouldn't change anything about his habits--I wasn't naive enough to think that--but I thought it might give me my own focus and outlet, beyond the details of Bumby's feeding schedule and exercise regimen." AMEN.  I would give this advice to any woman who stays at home with her kids, find something apart from them to work on and feel successful doing.

Right after they get married, Ernest who had been gravely injured in WWI, tells her:
     "After I was shot, when my head was still in pretty bad shape, a very wise Italian officer told me the only thing to really do for that kind of fear was to get married."
    "So your wife would take care of you?  That's an interesting way to think about marriage."
    "I actually took it to mean that if I could take care of her--you, that is--I'd worry less about myself.  But maybe it works both ways."
    "I'm counting on that," I said.
Maybe this is why things didn't last?  Ernest stopped trying to take care of Hadley and was consumed with taking care of himself.

Read this book.  Really, I think you'll like it.  It's the best thing I've read in a while and has put me back in the mood to devour some books!

P.S. When you're reading you'll probably want to look up photos of Hadley and Hemingway.  Here's a pretty one from her wedding day I found.