Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

This book tells two stories.  First, Carrie McClelland is a successful historical fiction writer working on the story of Slain's castle in 1707 and the attempt of the Jacobites to restore Young King James to his rightful throne in Scotland.  The second story is the novel she is writing.  I really liked the format of the book.  Sometimes books that go back and forth can seem gimmicky, but this worked flawlessly.  Carrie's chapters are told in the first person, while the chapters that focus on Slain's and Sophia's story are told by a third person narrator.  So you kind of hear Carrie's voice as a writer.  They are also marked differently, one with numbers while the others are with Roman numerals.

The Winter Sea provides a lot of history as the story unfolds.  I still can't keep all the nobles straight, but I do feel like I learned something about British history.  Only a couple of times did I feel like the author was giving us too much historical background.  This is a long book, 527 full pages,  but it wasn't overwhelming to me.  I read it quick, but it helped that we are on Christmas vacation.  I really cared about both stories and found them interesting and intriguing.  I think I liked the 1707 story a bit better.

Both stories have romance, but only a couple times did they seem cheesy.  Kearsley treats her characters with respect (and her readers) by writing about grown-up relationships with out having to give us the graphic details.  Both romances are written tastefully, with an understanding that we can fill in what has happened.  I appreciate that.  I was a little nervous about how she would write the scenes that seemed inevitable, and I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the fun magical aspects of the book is that as Carrie is researching to write her story, she hears her characters.  "Watching, I could feel again the stirrings of my characters--the faint, as yet in audible, suggestions of their voices, and their movements close around that strange writer's trance that stole upon me when my characters began to speak."  She always hears and feels her characters as she writes her books.  But, this time the character she writes about is her ancestor and she hears the details of her life through her character's voice.  Carrie is shocked as time after time her research turns up facts that she has already written about.  I think she over analyzes this phenomena a bit, I think it would have been cool to just have it be a little supernatural.  I know it sounds a little weird, but I thought it was a clever way to tell the story.

The story that Carrie is writing is at first focused on an a group of nobles and colonels who secretly meet and plot to return the Scottish king to his throne.  I guess this is one of the lesser known attempts.  She begins to focus on a young girl who has recently come to live in Slain's castle, Sophia.  Again I appreciated the authors restraint to not overwhelm the writer with tragic, graphic details of Sophia's past.  Sophia alludes to a troubled upbringing after both her parents die, but even when the full story is revealed, you are spared the sordid details.  Sophia is a great character, and I grew very attached to her.  When tragedy strikes again toward the end, she makes a decision that is hard to sympathize with.  For me, I took it in stride with the context of her age and station in the early 1700's.  I don't want to reveal too much, but I read in some other reviews that it was shocking to some readers.  I think it is sad, and not the best choice, but  it didn't ruin the story.

I loved the Countess of Earl.  She is a smart woman who keeps her cool and is not fooled by anyone.  She provides a great home for Sophia, and makes lots of wise decisions.  "Her voice, as always, calmed the waters."  She was very influential in the planning and preparations for the '08.  In one of her early conversations with Sophia she says, "Do you not believe that the opinion of a woman is of value?  For I tell you, I would rather have a woman's thoughts on character than those of any man."  Later she remarks to Sophia, "Were it up to God alone, I do not doubt but that the king would have been here already. But God passes His affairs into the hands of men, and there the trouble lies."  See what I mean?  Wise.

In the modern day story, I loved the Keith family.  The sweet charming dad that speaks in a strong dialect, and the two handsome sons.  Carrie says about them, "Stuart might be nice to look at.  Graham was the kind of man I couldn't look way from." (Yes, her love interest is named Graham.  Loved it.)

I love the description when Sophia wades in the ocean for the first time, "though she had come to it reluctantly, it proved to be the greatest pleasure that she could remember since her childhood."  Later she has to have some difficult conversations with men who are playing both sides of the attempt too return King James.  She does great staying calm.  Another great description, "Their conversation was a sort of dance, she thought, with complicated steps, but as the time wore on she grew to know the way of it, and when to step, and when to twirl, and when to simply stand and wait."

This is a good book.  I thought both stories were captivating, and I couldn't wait to get back to reading each time I had to stop.  Susanna Kearsley knows how to write a good story.  If you're up for something a little longer, I would definetly suggest this for a fulfilling read.  And be sure to let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Return Journey by Maeve Binchy

I got a Kindle for Christmas!  Hooray.  I've avoided any type of e-book reader for a long time because I do love books.  But I'm excited for the portability, easy access to library books and the ability to highlight and add notes.  We'll see if it is as helpful as I hope writing this review.

The Return Journey is a collection of short stories that seem to have a thread or two of similar themes running through them.  Years ago, after seeing the movie, I read Binchy's Circle of Friends and really liked it.  I liked these stories too.  I sometimes forget how much I like the short story genre, and these were good examples of what makes a good short story.

There are 14 stories, and I think most are dealing with moments of catharsis or possible turning points in the character's lives.  I've decided to list them and add a little commentary or quote for each.

"The Return Journey" is a collection of letters between a mother and daughter.  It ends on a hopeful note.

"The Wrong Suitcase" is clever and about two people who take the wrong suitcase, then form opinions of each other based on the contents.  I loved the line, "always better to say what you want at the start and say it pleasantly. Alan's motto."  There are several characters in her stories who have strict rules and codes of conduct for themselves.  I liked them and thought they made for quick character development.  You have so little time in a short story.

"Miss Vogel's Vacation" was one of my favorites and has a great story line.  I loved Miss Vogel's attitude and was pleased with her happy ending.

"The Homesitter" wasn't a happy story, but I think poignant.  A couple in a strained boring marriage leaves for a guest professorship for three months.  The woman who comes to sit at their house is kind of the opposite of the wife, Maura.  I could relate to Maura's feelings about Allie because I do see women who aren't that different than me, but seem to be doing it better than me.  Do you know what I mean?  I just thought it was sad that Maura couldn't be encouraged by this, and make positive changes in her life.  "She felt a physical shock, like the feeling you get if you think you've swallowed a piece of glass."  Perfect description.  Even without the happy ending, I liked this story too.

"Package Tour" is another perfect example of the short story form that I love.  A relationship hinges on a piece of luggage.  Really.  It's so well done.  Here's a quote I loved, "suddenly everything looked bright and full of glitter instead of commercial and tawdry as it had looked some minutes before."  I love people or conversations that are great enough to change your opinion of your surroundings in a single moment.  It doesn't happen often, but it is awesome.  Sadly, I think the opposite can happen too.  Someone can totally ruin the mood or event in an instant.

"The Apprenticeship" is a story about two friends who have gone to great lengths to rise above their humble upbringings.  It reminded me of a good friend of mine when I was 12 and all the magazines we read and the people we studied in an effort to unlock what it took to be popular.  Fashion rules, make-up tips and relationship advice.  As Camilla marries into the upper class, Florrie ultimately opts out.  And thankfully, so did I!

"The Business Trip" also compares two women who have chosen different ways of living their lives.  Thankfully the younger one, the niece, takes advice from her aunt and saves herself from a mislead life of heartache.  I really liked this one too.

"The Crossing" is mainly a conversation between two women who are strangers on a ship from England to Ireland.  I loved it.  They pass on advice and words of wisdom and encouragement, but will probably never meet again.

"The Women in Hats" was OK.  It centers on an employee of a cruise ship who wrongly identifies the two thin good looking friends in a trio as the married couple.  When instead, it is the good looking young man and the really fat young lady that are married.  It kind of shakes his reality.  It definitely struck a chord with me, because I can be so judgmental, but the story wasn't that interesting.

"Excitement" was clever because it read to me kind of like a sitcom.  Murphy's law, really, about a woman who is so bored with her life, but her attempt at excitement backfires.  It made me want to say "ha" to her.

"Holiday Weather" also ends on a hopeful note.  It has an affair and traveling in Europe as themes like a few other stories, but the descriptions of the weather in Ireland spoke to me.  "Then one morning the sun came out, and everything was different." That is exactly what it is like here, so many gray days in a row, but when the sun comes out you can't help but feel lucky.  Here's a conversation that Frankie has with the hotel owner about the change in the weather:
     "'It's like heaven.' She sighed....
     'Thank G-- we don't get weather like this all the time,' said Shane
      'Why do you say that?...' Frankie had been about to say the very opposite; she had been on the point of wishing that  every day could be so sunny.
     'Because we would be parched and dry, it would not be a green island, and we'd be so used to it we woldn't be calling out our thanksgiving to the very heaven.'"

I can totally relate to what he is saying and lots of times feel the same about Seattle.

"Victor and St. Valentine" is sweet, and again, I like a happy hopeful ending.

"Cross Lines" is another story about making snap judgements about someone based on their appearance.  It feels brief, and leaves you with just a clue of what might be in the future for the two characters.

"A Holiday With Your Father" seemed like a bad choice to end with.  It felt sad to me, and I like happier endings.  While so many of the other stories leave you hopeful that the characters are going to make a change in their lives for the better, this one ends with the daughter realizing that things aren't going to change.  I wish she had chosen one of the more uplifting stories to go out on.

If you like short stories, or if you don't have a lot of time to read right now, try this collection out!  I think a lot of these stories would be great to discuss.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bookshop Talk

My review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is posted over at Bookshop Talk today.

Check out their cool site with tons of book reviews!

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winner and a Bonus

I visited Mabel last night and she donated a copy for me to giveway too.  Hooray!

So I have two winners. 

I was too lazy to do my own drawing, so I used, and here's the breakdown. 
(Not to make the lower ranking comments feel bad, but I wanted to show them all.)

Random Sequence Generator

Here is your sequence:
Timestamp: 2011-12-19 08:40:28 UTC

Lori and Jill are the winners!

I'm going to have Mabel sign them, so comment below and let me know if you want them personalized.  Otherwise I'll have her keep it generic.

Thanks for playing friends!

Friday, December 16, 2011


I am so excited to announce my second ever giveaway!

You can enter to win your very own copy of Mabel D.F. Cowie's first book, Awakenings.
(See my full review below)

This is a fun young adult fantasy novel that I would recommend for readers 10 and up.  I think it would be enjoyed by even younger kids if you read it aloud.

You can have two entries:

1) Leave a comment, telling me why you'd like to read this book.

2) Link up to this giveaway on your blog, and then tell me you did in the comments.

Deadline to enter is Sunday, December 18 at midnight.  I will draw a number randomly and announce it Monday morning.

Good Luck!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Awakenings by Mabel D.F. Cowie

This is the first book in a trilogy, 'Neath Ancient Ruins Lie, written by my good friend Mabel!  I read an earlier draft 3 years ago, and really enjoyed reading her polished, published version this week.  Her imagination is admirable and she has created an intriguing, fun story.

Young Adult Fantasy is not my favorite genre, but a lot of people close to me love it, so I end up reading a few here and there.  Mabel's book takes place in Scotland, 1932, but the story begins (and ends?) in a parallel world that is integral to the story.  Awakenings has castles, mermaids, fairies, ghosts, selkies and kelpies.  Not sure what a couple of those are?  Well, you'll find out!

The first chapter takes place in Ormiscaig, the parallel world, and the second at the castle in Scotland.  Both of these chapters introduce and describe characters and setting.  For me this can be a little slow, and it really took me until the fourth chapter to get into "don't want to put it down" mode.  So read on if the first couple of chapters seem a bit detailed.  The good news that in true YA style, the chapters aren't very long.

Arran is a young servant girl about to turn 14.  She is at first sweet and kind, but as the story progresses you discover (as she discovers) that she is also smart and brave.  The excitement in the story picks up as a stranger appears in the castle's dungeon, and begins to prove true the legends and folklore that have surrounded the castle.  I liked how the staff and the laird (lord) come together to solve the mysteries and help this stranded stranger.

One of Mabel's talents is in description.  She creates vivid pictures of her characters and their surroundings.  For example,

"The room was plush and beautiful; rich red tapestry curtains hung from the windows, and several tartan rugs covering the floor added warmth to the room.  On the table, lay 24 large pewter plates, each with a pewter goblet by its side, with perfect spacing between."

"The gentle gliding of the gull's wings and the sound of the water on the shore lulled her into a soft, gentle slumber."

"Above the glen, an eagle was stretching its long elegant wings out into the blue sky above soaring high above the tree tops."

The writing is also humorous at times.  A  young relative of the Laird comes to live in the castle (don't castles always need a sweet young ward living in one of the towers?) He is concerned that he might not have anything to talk to her about.  When they sit down to their first meal together, Isla begins talking and doesn't stop.  Her rambling, excited sentences remind me of several children I know.

"One fairy in particular even knew my name.  Her name is Tona, by the way, and she thinks I am a princess.  She has beautiful long wavy hair the color of the wheat fields and..."

The fairies are another part of the story I really liked.  When they talk or sing, those who believe in them are instantly comforted.  They are soothed and filled with peace.  I think this is symbolic of the pureness and goodness that the characters are searching for, but also reminded me of the power of mothers.  Kind of how newborns can be comforted by the sound of their mother's voice.  And how your mother's care and concern can wipe away your worries.  It makes me hope my children feel that way about me!

Toward the end of the book, Arran must make a difficult decision.  As she is pondering her choices, Elgol says to her,

"You have great potential, Arran.  There is much about yourself that you have not discovered yet, but it is nothing that you need to fear."

I think this is going to be important in the next two volumes.  It reminded me a bit of what her former teacher tells Penelope in book two of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.  I always like books in which young protagonists rise to their potential, and become the amazing people that the adults around them know they can be.

I also enjoyed Mabel's use of Scottish landmarks in her story.  When they venture to Loch Ness, it reminds me a bit of Peter and the Starcatchers series which includes an important use of Stonehenge.   I like when fantasy novels tie into mythology and locations that really exist.

Don't you love the cover artwork?  I think it sets the stage perfectly for the novel.
I think this is a fun story that you and your children will enjoy.  And probably your parents and aunts and neighbors.

You can purchase it on Amazon , only 99cents for the Kindle Edition or for your Nook.  You can also read the first chapter online, but I'm not sure that it alone will hook you. 

OR....Enter my giveaway that will be posted shortly, and win your own copy hot off the presses.  (You might even get it in time for Christmas)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, The Hidden Gallery (Book 2) By Mayrose Wood

I don't usually review two books in a series back to back, but I am desperately trying to meet my goal of reading 50 books this year.   It's going to be close!!

I think I might have even enjoyed this second book more than the first.  Because I knew what I was getting into in regards to the pace and length of the book, I was better prepared.

Penelope is just as charming and clever as she was before, and this book picks up right where The Mysterious Howling left off.  However book two doesn't really answer any of the questions that you have after finishing book one.  So you have to keep reading, BUT number three isn't out yet!!!  I was not aware of this fact, or I might not have rushed out to read number two.

All of that aside, I am dying for someone else to read this and let me know if you think they are as great as I do.

Here are some quotes to entice you:

"Oh, my head! Bring me a cold compress, please, I am quite at my wit's end--and some tea--and a chocolate, quick!  Make it a whole box!" (This is Lady Constance, who is hilarious in her ridiculousness.)

"Therefore, she now proceeded to do something quite rare and brave--something you yourself may find it necessary to do someday, if you have not already had case to try it out.  In short she stood up to a person of authority..."

"The London General Post Office as so impressive that Penelope could hardly imagine how Buckingham Palace might surpass it."

"But many forces shape a person's destiny, Penelope," she added.  "And a prophesy made before you were born cannot take into account the greatest influence of all."
"Which is what?"
"You.  Your own character.  The kind of person you choose to be--and that you inspire others to be."
I can't explain why this touched me.  The idea that we are more powerful that we know and that we can have that kind of powerful influence is so inspiring.

"Instead, just as one might use a ribbon to hold one's place in a fascinating book that one is temporarily forced to put down, Penelope simply made a note of her confused and disappointed feelings and then put them gently to the side, for there was nothing to be done about them at present."

The characters are good, the story is good and the writing is good.  Trifecta.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place:The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

I enjoyed this fun story about little Penelope, a 15-year-old orphan who gets her first job as a governess.  This book is written for 8-12 year olds, and I think I would recommend it for the younger half of that.  It felt really short to me, and has kind of a fast ending.  But I think I've just forgotten how books for this age group are. 

Penelope has recently graduated from the "Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females."  The title of the school alone made me determined to love the book.  When Penelope arrives, is hired and then meets the children, she is told that they were raised by wolves and only found a week ago in the woods.  She just takes it all in stride, and goes about what she was hired to do.  The circumstances are almost absurd, and her progress with the children is definetly absurd, but I think it made for a really fun story.  Some moments are completely hilarious in their ridiculousness.

For example, upon realizing that she should teach the children the evils of eavesdropping Penelope thinks to herself,
"I will have the children read Hamlet as soon as it is practical.  There are some useful cautions against eavesdropping to be gleaned from that.  In the meantime, we shall deal with the squirrels."

Another thing I like was how she is constantly remembering little mantras that she learned at school.  Sayings of Agatha Swanburne, such as,

"All books are judged by their cover until they are read."

"No hopeless case is truly without hope."

"A well-organized stocking drawer is the first step toward a well-organized mind."

And I loved how she always thought about what she had been taught. 

"Swanburne girls were encouraged to be confident and bold."  

"Agatha Swanburn would not waste a moment worrying about things that couldn't be helped,"

 or  "She was a Swanburne girl, through and through."

There are some moments that remind me of Anne of Green Gables.  Penelope is picked up from the train station by a quiet older gentleman, and rides in a carriage taking in all of her new surroundings.  The absurdity and kind of deadpan writing reminded me a little of Lemony Snicket.  

The story is told from a third person narrator, who occasionally addresses the reader directly.  It was odd at first, because it speaks to you in present time, referring to the fact that the book is set in the past.  I think it actually works, and is probably helpful for young readers.  Here's one example,

"The truth is that one cannot go through life without being annoyed by other people, and this was just as true in Miss Penelope Lumley's day as it is in our own." 

The ending wraps up one big event, but then drops a couple of clues to lead you into the next book.  I was a little surprised at that, but again I think it's because the audience is intened to be middle grades.  I'm excited to pick up the story where it left off as soon as it comes in at the library!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

Fair and Tender Ladies is a story about Ivy Rowe.  It begins when she is around 12, and follows her whole life until she's in her 80's I think.  Her story is told entirely through letters she writes, no responses.  And I think it works.  I thought the letters were used cleverly to reveal the characters and the plot.  I do wish dates were included on every letter, but I think they were intentionally left off so you had to discover how much time had passed.

The first few letters are kind of hard to read.  They introduce a bunch of characters, mostly Ivy's family, and are written in her vernacular.  It reminded me a bit of These is My Words, and similarly, her voice becomes easier to follow as you stick with it.

I love that Ivy loves to read, and has memorized poems.  She quotes them naturally as she thinks.  Her are a few quotes to give you a feel for her voice.

"I am going to mary somebody that makes me feel like a poem that's for sartin."

"Little Danny just smiled, he is the cutest thing.  I do not think I will have any children ever as they will brake yor hart."

"Oh Molly, I wish you culd see my dress it is so beutiful! It is green with puff sleeves and a round white coller."  Anne of Green Gables, right?

Ivy lives in the mountains of Virgina, and like other books about living in the Appalachians, she has a hard time.  There is a lot of sadness, hard work, and dying.  She has opportunities to get out, but ultimately chooses caring for her family.  Ivy doesn't always make smart decisions, but I do think she is tries to do what is right.

"She is serious, Silvaney.  She hates Sugar Fork when she thinks of it, and yet I love it, now isn't this odd?  us being from the same family and all.  She hates Sugar Fork and all the old ways.  She will not even talk about it..."

"I have lost my spunk some way.  It is like I was a girl for such a long time, years and years, and then all of a sudden I have got to be an old woman, with no inbetween.  Maybe that has always been the problem with me, a lack of inbetween. 
For all of a sudden when I saw those lights, I said to myself, Ivy, this is your life, this is your real life, and you are living it.  Your life is not going to start later.  This is it, it is now.  It's funny how a person can be so busy living that they forget this is it.  This is my life."
I think this tells a lot about how Ivy feels about herself.  Sometimes I feel this way too.

I can't think of another book that covers so much of one person's life in just 367 pages.  I really liked reading her letters, and I enjoyed the book.  EXCEPT that she makes a decision toward the end, that really taints the rest of the book for me.  It's not just her actions, but the way that she feels like it saved her life.  Like it was a turning point, and not really in the way I think it should have been.

But I still enjoy her wisdom on other topics.  For example,
"I guess you would think that when a woman has a lot of children, then each one means a little less.  It is not so.  Children will swell up your heart.  I know you say you are glad that you and Stoney have not had none of your own, that his have been enough of a headache, but I would bet it is not true, Ethel.  You just talk big, in my opinion.  But you are a soft as a featherbed underneath."

There's a letter toward the end that Ivy writes to her daughter Joli, and tells about a visit from her sister and her new husband.  Both Ivy and Ethel are older ladies by now.  Like in their 70's I'd guess.  I don't want to quote the whole thing, but the way she retells their conversation and their interactions, you can tell they are just the same as they were as kids, or in their 20s.  I loved it because it reminds me of getting together with my sisters, or when I see my mom with her's.  How you still feel like giggly girls, even though you have had this lifetime of experience apart.  Do you know what I mean?

I enjoyed this book and I would recommend it, but I didn't LOVE, love it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

I loved it.  I love her.  I was not disappointed. This is the kind of book that I love from the beginning and thought all day about when I could read it again.  Luckily I had a free night to read into the wee hours, and it was so worth it.
This is the story of Pen (Penelope) who is raising her 5 year old daughter, living with her brother Jamie and still grieving from her father's death.  In college she had two best friends, Cat and Will, with whom she was inseparable.  At some point after graduating, the three split up.  It's been 6 years, and the details of the events leading up to that moment are sprinkled through out the story.  Pen and Will receive a cryptic e-mail from Cat, which leads to them meeting up, and ultimately working through the details of their years spent apart.

What's that?  A story about three close college friends?  Lots of poignant reflections on losing your father?  Longing for people you've lost?  This is a book for me.

At the start Pen reflects, "Since you left there's been a you-shaped space beside me, all the time.  It never goes away."

I also love this perspective on harboring hate. "She could imagine sustaining certain emotions at that pitch for that long--love absolutely, grief probably, guilt maybe--but hatred was exhausting and gave so little back.  Once, after her father died, Pen had tried to keep hatred alive, but it kept losing its firm shape, kept smudging and blurring until it became an immense black, impossible heavy sadness that lived inside her body and made it hard to move, so she had given it up."

Doesn't this remind you of college? "They'd walk out of their apartment door, with their lipstick fresh and their hair and eyes lit by the streetlights, and anything, anything would seem possible to Pen."

There are so many great realizations and conversations I enjoyed reading and thinking about in this book.  There's a moment when Pen realized a guy may not be as big a jerk as he seemed at first, and it is written so well.
"It was simply this: for the first time, she understood that it was possible to form an opinion about a person, an opinion based on solid evidence and a vast quantity of justified self-righteous anger, to even have this opinion reinforced by trusted colleagues, and to be, at least partially, wrong."

The book takes them on a journey, literally and figuratively, to find Cat.  I think the story is interesting and well developed.  But really it's the writing more than the story that I fall in love with when I read Marisa de los Santos.

"'I'm beside myself with happiness,' said Pen. "And gratitude.  And relief.  I just came home from work and saw her sitting there with Augusta, and it took my breath away.  It was like someone fixed my television.'.....
the fact was that he knew immeadiately what Pen meant.  'Colors got brighter,' said Will. 'Edges got sharper.'
'Everything gleamed,' Pen said. 'Like sometimes happens after it rains.'"

Just like her first two books, I felt like the prevailing theme was love.  How love, in all its forms, is what is most important.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey

If you really like Tina Fey and think she is hilarious, you'll probably really like this book.  I did.  But it wasn't as funny as I hoped it would be.  It's a nice quick read, and had some really great parts.  It confirmed to me that she is smart and original and just super funny!

She does us the f-word, and there are some jokes that I think of as the easy way out, ie. periods, body humor, crude words, dumb responses to rude comments online.  BUT it could, of course, been a lot worse.  I still feel like she goes for the smarter punchline, rather than potty humor.  But just from a few references, it is always shocking to me that real comedic writers think that kind of stuff is funny.

I think my favorite chapter is the one titled, "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook, or How to Succeed by Sort of Looking Like Someone."  It tells about the weekend that she filmed with Oprah for 30 Rock, first parodies Sarah Palin, all while preparing for her daughter's 3rd birthday.  Having watched both 30 Rock and SNL during that time, I found it fascinating!  Really.

It's shouldn't be surprising that she has some really hysterical lines in this book.  I loved that it really carries an easy narrative voice, and you laugh as you go.  I'll share a couple to give you a taste, but I don't want to spoil the whole feel if you want to read it.

"All the windows were covered, and you had to be buzzed in through two different doors.  This place was not kidding around."

"I hope you enjoy it so much that you also buy a copy for your sister-in-law."

 I also loved the chapter where she explains the step-by-step process of a photo shoot. 

"You must not look in that mirror at your doughy legs and flat feet, for today is about dreams and illusions and unfiltered natural daylight is the enemy of dreams."

"When people say, 'You really, really must' do something, it means you don't really have to...When it's true, it doesn't need to be said."

Because I love 30 Rock, I really liked all the behind the scenes stories about how it became a show, and how different episodes came about. 

Also, Tina Fey includes real life pictures from growing up.  Hilarious. 

I love her non-chalant humor, and I enjoyed reading more about her!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech

A short, sweet book that is written like a young boy's poetry journal for a school class.  Of course the English teacher in me loved the idea of inspiring a student to express themselves in poetry.  I love that Sharon Creech references all those poems that we introduce kids too in an effort to get them to love poetry.  They are the best ones!

I enjoyed reading this book.  I'm going to hand it off to my boys and see what they think about it.  It was a fun change from what I'm usually reading, and  I like books that present their story in a clever way.  This is like a poem of a book.

"Maybe he was just making pictures with words..."
Isn't that a great definition of poetry?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cold Sassy Tree Olive Ann Burns

This is just what I needed this week.  It has been a while since I've read a book that I loved.  Thank you Colby for the advice to "stop what you are doing and read this now."  I loved this book!  Years and years ago (during high school maybe?), I read this after my aunt recommended it to my mom or something.  I remember I liked it, but I didn't remember anything else.  Now I can't believe I could ever forget forget it because I enjoyed reading it so much.
Cold Sassy is a fictional town in Georgia, and this book takes place in 1906.  Will Tweedy is 14, and tells the story about his family and the events that changed them that summer.  I enjoyed his voice and the southern accents, "ast," " 'tweren't," "swannee."  Olive Ann Burns uses her characters' voices to create the whole feel of the town.

In the second page of the book Will Tweedy says, "I and my little redheaded sister, Mary Toy, always followed him down the hall and he usually gave us each a stick of penny candy."  Don't you love how he added that little detail about Mary Toy?  I liked him right away.  Just a few pages later, when describing Miss Love Simpson he says "I had always admired Miss Love, with all that wavy brown hair piled atop her head, and that smiley, freckledy face and those friendly gray-blue eyes.  She was a merry person, like Grandpa."  Wouldn't you love to be described as a "merry person"?

There is a sweet story that his Grandma would tell about his Grandpa, "When he come back to Cold Sassy after the War, he was the handsomest man you ever seen and I was a old maid.  Twenty-one year old and never had a beau in my life.  I was fixin' to go to church one Sunday morning when this good-lookin' feller, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Ain't you Miss Mattie Lou Toy?  You don't need no sermon today.  Stay out here and le's talk.'...So we stayed in the churchyard, like a re'lar courtin' couple, and talked one another's ears off.....Fore that day was over Mr. Blakeslee said he was a-go'n marry me..."  Cold Sassy Tree is filled with these little heart-warming moments. 

I also loved the sweet wisdom that Grandpa shares in nuggets throughout the book.  Like, "Livin' is like pourin' water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle.  If'n you skeered you cain't do it, you cain't.  If'n you say to youreself, 'By dang, I can do it!' then, by dang, you won't slosh a drop."  Later after Will escapes a close run in with a train he is asking his Grandpa if it was God's will that he survived.  His Grandpa said, "What God give you was a brain.  Hit's His will for you to use it--p'tickler when a train's comin'."  Grandpa's religious explanations were especially meaningful.  He offers a "family prayer" right after Will's accident that is so great. 

Cold Sassy is a small town, the kind that makes "small town" an adjective. I loved how when tragedy strikes, they gather together, bring food, and take care of each other.  Of course, the other side of the coin was how when anything happens, there is someone there to judge, report and repeat what had happened.  There are so many examples of this in the story.

I loved the family dynamics, and really how no one is perfect.  Will makes some choices that drive you crazy, and Aunt Loma is such a pill, but by the end they have really endeared themselves to you.  At least they did to me.  I loved the Grandpa's teachings and his critiques of preachin' and where he thought the pastors were getting it wrong. 

This book is getting a spot in my top 10. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

I have seen links to Randy Pausch's last lecture on the internet, and recently noticed that he had also written a book expanding on the lecture he gave at Carnegie Mellon.  I was curious about the hype and drawn to his story of living with a terminal diagnosis, but I was worried it might be too sad to get through.  I got through it fine, but it didn't change my life.  I think Randy Pausch has some great insights and perspectives and he shared them in a really approachable way.  It reminded me of books like Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, or Life's Little Instruction Book.  All fine books, but not really my favorite thing to read.  This book is, of course, set apart with personal stories, and always with the understory that this man knows he only has a few months left to live.

When he was asked to give the lecture, he asked himself:  "What do I, alone, truly have to offer?"  I think that is a worthwhile reflection for all of us.  He also mentions a coach that taught him,  "You've got to get the fundamentals down, because otherwise the fancy stuff is not going to work."  That made me think of teaching.  You have to teach them basic principles and values or the other stuff doesn't stick.

On building self-esteem he says, "You give them something they can't do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process."  I like that, and it resonates with several things I've read lately.  I think about that a lot raising my kids!

There was a section about his habit of leaning back in his char at dinner and how it drove his mom crazy.  I kind of get his point, but my boys have broken a few chairs in our house that way, so it was kind of annoying to read.  I sympathized with his mom more than him!

There's a section where he shares that he would send a box of Girl Scout Thin Mint's with every paper he asked another professor to review, along with a short note.  "Thank you for agreeing to do this...The enclosed Thin Mints are your reward.  But no fair eating them until you review the paper."  Clever.  He finished the section with, "I've found Thin Mints are a great conversational tool.  They're also a sweet reward for a job well done."  I think that is a good example of his "voice" in this book.  I found it annoying sometimes.  But he also mentions that he's aware of his "social" flaws.  A mentor once told him, "Randy, it's such a shame that people percieve you as arrogant, because it's going to limit what you're going to be able to accomplish in this life."  He does sometimes come off as arrogant, but then again, he did accomplish A LOT in his short life.

There are chapters where he says that, "brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough.  They're there to stop the other people."  There's another section titled, Earnest is Better Than Hip.  He explains "the head fake" and then refers to it a few times. Some of these sayings and sections seemed a little too cliche to me.  The seemed dumb.  I think to really do Randy Pausch justice, I need to watch the video of his lecture.  I think in a more concise format, it might move me more.

I was most touched by the chapters about his family that he concludes with.  It is such a tragedy to lose your father or husband, and to loose him at such a young age and so early on in your marriage is really heartbreaking.  He concludes his lecture by explaining that one of the main reasons he wanted to give it, and expand it into a book, is so his children can know him.  So he can pass on the wisdom he won't be around to give them.  I think that is beautiful, and I admire him for taking the time to write the book.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

If You Could See Me Know by Cecilia Ahern

I tried to start reading this a couple times, and I felt like the beginning was just too much.  Too much information, too forced, and I didn't really like the writing.

But because I've put down a few books lately, because the main character is named Elizabeth Egan (!), and because I liked the idea of the plot, I kept reading.  Honestly, the whole first half kind of got on my nerves.  I think the story was OK, but the writing style and the characters kind of bugged me.

Elizabeth has had a sad life.  Her mom abandoned her family, she mostly raised her sister and her dad is emotionally distant.  And now she is raising her nephew because her sister is terrible mess. Elizabeth is kind of a control freak, but is successful in her career and her younger life is revealed haphazardly throughout the book.  Her nephew meets an imaginary friend "Ivan" who take turns with Elizabeth in telling the story.  So because she is lonely and needs him, eventually Elizabeth can "see" Ivan and their friendship helps to relieve some of the sadness and pain in her life.  Imaginary friends come to help children with what they are struggling with and he does the same for Elizabeth.

Because I knew what the story was about, I decided to follow the book through to the end.  I know some people love it, so you might too.  But for me there were just too many annoying things.

There is a meeting of the Imaginary Friends, and they all give a report of their friend they are helping.  The conversation is so trite.  Like maybe the author looked up reasons kids have imaginary friends, then created the profiles by going down the list.  It was dumb.

Then there's this cheesy conversation between Ivan and Elizabeth when she's trying to figure out what his job is.  In fact a lot of the conversations between them are supposed to be clever with Ivan attempting to answer her literally as she misunderstands over and over.  Assuming he's Sam's dad, then assuming he's a silent partner, that he works with children, etc.  It was annoying to me.

So many times I felt like the whole character of Ivan was a copycat of Will Ferrell's character in Elf, and maybe even a little borrowed from Tom Hank's character in Big.  Like a child trapped in an adult's body, but most of what he says seems really profound, and only sometimes ridiculous.  Everytime he says things like, "spinning is my favorite"  I couldn't help but hear Will Ferrell's Buddy's voice.  Not very original.

I will say that the overall idea and story is heartwarming.  The idea that Ivan could fill a void in Elizabeth's life and help her learn to love again, is very sweet.  There is this moment of clarity when Elizabeth relives a tragic moment from her childhood, that seems to embody all her fears, and give her all the answers she's been running away from.  I felt like it was almost great.  It was a little too tidy for me, and the writer was trying too hard for me to really get into it.

Here are a couple of sweet quotes.

"My special power is friendship.  I listen to people and I hear what they say.  I hear their tones, the words they use to express themselves, and most importantly, I hear what they don't say.  Sighs and silences and avoided conversations are just as important as the things you do talk about."

"Those were the best times because her mother would be in one of her happy moods, delighted to be home, telling Elizabeth how much she'd missed her, smothering her with hugs and kisses so much that Elizabeth couldn't remember ever feeling sad."

I read the back flap of my library copy of this book and learned two things that say a lot.

A) Cecelia Ahern is 24.  Or was when the book jacket was made, which means that she was even younger when she wrote this.  Maybe her writing with improve with age.  (PS.  She wrote the book P.S. I Love You)

B) Film rights to this book have been bought by Walt Disney Pictures.  I bet they could make a pretty good movie out of this story.  With the right editing, it could be a really good story, the book just didn't pull it off in my mind.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

I put this book on hold based on Tara's recommendation.  I liked it.

The story begins with a 17-year-old girl, Jenna Fox, who has come out of a year long coma and is struggling to remember everything.  I thought the beginning was a little boring, but I think that is intentional because Jenna is so awkward and confused at first.  It gets better as she makes friends, and begins to solve the mystery of her "accident" and her recently awakened self.

This is science fiction, and poses ethical questions about what might be possible in the future of bio-medical advances.  I thought that aspect was interesting, but really its just not my favorite genre.  What made this book interesting to me was the idea of how parents expectations or dreams for their kids influence their ethics.  I thought the title was very clever. 

"Jenna is so used to every move being recorded at this point that she seems to have surrendered herself to the adoration of Jenna Fox."

"Sometimes a person gets tired of being fixed all the time.  Where every little problem becomes a project.  Where every shortcoming needs to be addressed."

I don't expect my kids to be perfect (have you met my kids?), but I do want them to find one true passion and excel at it.  I want them to be good at something, or a few things, and reading this made me think about my dreams for them.  Do I adore my kids enough as their normal selves?

Although I found it thought-provoking from a parent's point of view, I think the best audience for this book is a female young adult.  Maybe 12-16?  I passed it on to my son who is 12, and he read it on the way too and from an outing and finished it.  He liked it too.  He did point out a few things they mention but don't develop much, but if I mention them it will spoil the book.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels -- A Love Story by Ree Drummond

I'm sure I've visited The Pioneer Woman's blog before, I've certainly heard her name around, and always connected to good things. I keep seeing ads for her new TV show, so I was really interested in reading this book.

I really enjoyed reading this fun story of how she and her husband met. Like so many of us, they met when she was at a crossroads in her life, and their relationship drastically altered her future. She has a pleasant writing style, and while her story could have been too romanticised and gaggy, it's not. Her re-telling made me feel sentimental about my own love story, and brought back those emotions that you feel when everything is so new and so uncertain.

Both Ree and "Marlboro Man" as she refers to her cowboy are like able personalities. I liked the embarrassing stories that she shares of their early relationship, and I understood many of the stresses and heartache in their first year of marriage. I think her writing style is comfortable and relate able, and a nice way to spend a couple of evenings. You can read it fast, and it won't change your life, but you'll enjoy it.

Here are a few of those relate able excerpts:

"To talk about our future would be premature; but to totally dismiss that we'd happened upon something special wouldn't be right, either. Something extraordinary had occurred between us--that fact was indisputable. It was the timing that left so much to be desired."

"And I knew it, even then: Marlboro Man, not only that night but in ht emonths to come, would prove to be my savior, my distraction, my escape in the midst of troubles, my strength in the face of upheaval, my beauty in times of terrible, heartbreaking ugliness."

"I was exhausted, unable to make it through one day without crying or gagging or worrying. I'd fallen in love, married a cowboy, and moved to the peaceful, bucolic contryside. But it was peace that eluded me the most."

"Any identity I'd previously had as a wife, daughter, friend, or productive member of the human race had melted away the second my ducts filled with milk."

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Savvy by Ingrid Law

This is a fun quick read that I would say would be most appealing for 4th and 5th graders.  The story is told through Mibs Beaumont, who comes from a family with special powers.  They refer to them as "savvy" and the special "how-to" usually appears on the child's 13th birthday.  Of course the savvy is powerful, and it takes time and effort for the kids to keep it in control.  As a result, one of her brothers started an hurricane on accident, and another quite often causes power outages.

Right before her 13th birthday, Mibs' father is in a horrible accident.  Most of the book is about the adventure she and two of her brothers go on trying to get to the hospital to see him. 

I think it teaches simple lessons about the difference between what people show on the outside, and what they are on the inside.  It is sweet and simple. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman

Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience

This book was recommended to me during a parent advisory committee meeting by the assistant director of elementary ed of my kids' school district.  She was talking about how gifted kids often have depressive thoughts because their intellect is so far ahead of their maturity level.  Like they are aware of problems and injustices that they don't have the life experiences to cope with yet.  This made sense to me, and I do have some concerns about depressive tendencies in some of my children, and I was very interested in this book.

I have really enjoyed reading it.  It is specific and precise in explaining the philosophies and then how-to's of Dr. Seligman's ideas.  It has taken me a long time to get through the whole thing, but considering the amount of this type of non-fiction books that I set aside and don't finish, my determination to get through it is a testament to it's value in my eyes!  I have taken tons of notes and am going to buy my own copy.

Here's a good quote that comes near the end, "Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them.  It is about identifying and amplifying their strengths and virtues, and helping them find the niche where they can live these positive traits to the fullest."  Yep.

Dr. Seligman's basic idea is that you can vaccinate children against depression by helping them be more optimistic.  He is careful to explain that "optimism will not make the problems disappear.  On the contrary, it allows your child to get to the root of the problem so that she can focus on correcting the situation."  He is also very concerned with the scientific proof that his Penn-Prevention program has been successful.  He gives a lot of data and examples.  I didn't care as much about this.  But I suppose it helps you know he isn't just making things up. 

I've decided not to try to outline his whole book and the philosophies, and instead share with you a few nuggets that rang true with me.

A big part of his program is teaching your kids to evaluate the things they tell themselves.  To notice the dialogue in their head and then take control of it, "we aimed to teach children that thoughts are verifiable and changeable, that they do not need to believe the first thought that pops into their head."  Recognizing what we are telling ourselves, and realizing that it isn't always accurate seems like a really important skill.

"Children who habitually blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem. They feel guilty and ashamed. Children who blame other people or circumstances.....feel less guilt and shame and they like themselves better. They are also angrier children."

One part that I've been talking to everyone who will listen to me about is the "ABC model."  It was developed by Albert Ellis who helped found cognitive therapy (this means nothing to me).  "The A stand for adversity.  An adversity can be any negative event: a failed vacation, a fight with a close friend, the death of a loved one.  The C stand for consequences: how you feel and behave following the adversity.  Often it seems that the adversity immediately and automatically produces the consequences.  Ellis, however, argues that it is the B--the belief and interpretations about A--that cause the particular consequences."  So if I get a D on a test, I might tell myself I am stupid and worthless and won't ever succeed. Or I might tell myself that my teacher is a jerk and writes bad tests. Or I might tell myself that I didn't study enough and I need to work harder next time. Consequently, I would feel depressed, mad or disappointed.

"Although thinking about the worst case--catastrophizing--can be productive in some situations, it is counterproductive in some situations, it is counterproductive when the worst case is actually very unlikely.  In these cases, planning for the worst is a bad use of your time.  It is a drain on your energy, and it ruins your mood."
There is a cool quiz you can give your kids to test their optimism levels.  It is based on bad and good events, and whether your child perceives them as permanent or changeable, whether the responsibility is theirs or another, and how pervasive it is in their life.  That was also very cool.  I gave it to my two oldest, and the results were very interesting to me.

There are three chapters of discussions and role playing and assignments to work on with your kids that are modeled after his Penn Prevention program.  While I haven't followed this, I have had some conversations with my kids using these ideas.  One example is reading a dialogue of a boy at a school dance and what he tells himself after he is turned down for a dance.  Then you explain to your kid, "When Greg thinks___, he is explaining his rejection by Cindy with Permanent thoughts.  This causes Greg to feel sad and he decides....." Then of course there are contrasting dialogues that show other possible reactions.  I liked reading through these, and thought they were valuable in explaining and really spelling out what his program is about. 

There is valuable information about depression.  For example, "The depressive's habit of thinking that the future is bleak, the present unbearable, the past filled with defeat, and the self without the ability to improve matters creates the low mood, the lack of zest, and the somatic symptoms of depression." And, "teach the depressive to change her habits of thinking, to decatastrophize, and all the rest of the symptoms would evaporate."

There is a section about the right way to criticize.  This was perfectly logical and helpful to read.  It goes well with the right way to praise that I learned in NurtureShock. "The first rule is accuracy.  Exaggerated blame produces guilt and shame beyond what is necessary to galvanize the child to change....The second rule is that whenever reality allows, you should criticize with an optimistic explanatory style.....When they blame changeable and specific causes of the problem, the child begins to learn optimism.  Any time you find your child to be at fault, it is important to focus on specific and temporary personal causes....and avoid blaming the child's character or ability."  He uses lots of examples to illustrate his points.

At times phrases are repeated and some ideas even seem repetitious, but it didn't get on my nerves like some books.  And given the length of time it took me to get through this, sometimes I even liked the reminders!

I have more good quotes, and I feel like I'm just barely touching on the content of this book.  But I'm going to stop now.

I recommend you read it, then we talk about it!  I found it enlightening, helpful and I am excited to continue implementing it in my life and my childrens' lives.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees

My mom loaned me her copy of this book.  I liked the story, and I think it's cool that someone would attempt to fill in some of the unknowns about a beloved author.  The idea of researching all they can, finding holes, then using facts and imagination to fill them in appeals to me.  I think that's why I liked this book.

The story is exactly what the title says.  It takes place during the summer of 1955 when the Bronson Alcott familymoves to Walpole, New Hampshire.  Louisa comes alive as a young woman who desperately wants to be a writer and struggles with society's rules and expectations for her. "Why would God give a woman talent if He meant her to be confined to the kitchen and washtub?"  Her character is of course similiar to Jo, and the story for awhile seemed too much like a Little Women copy cat.  But then as I got more into the romance, and the inner struggle that Louisa wrestles with, I felt like it did have merit of its own.

I loved studying the transcendentalists in high school and college, but I don't remember a whole lot about Bronson Alcott.  It was interesting to read the author's ideas, which are probably fact-based, about the effects that having a highly philosophical father might have had on his daughters.  Bronson refused to work for money, and so the family was always poor, however their mother Abagail thought constantly of those less fortunate, and gave away anything they might store up.  I hadn't really thought about how living those transcending ideals would work in a family.  Thoreau could go live at Walden without depriving anyone but himself, but the Alcott daughters didn't have a lot of options themselves.  This theme is mentioned a few times throughout.  Emerson is portrayed well here, and it made me wonder how many of his friends he helped keep afloat!

Joseph Singer is introduced as a young man who might be a intellectually stimulating match for Louisa.  They  connect over Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, so of course now I've got to read it.  Louisa describes it,
"Her father would say that the chaos of life, its unpredictability, existed to challenge one's commitment to improvement, that one must extract himself piece by piece out of the wildness and assemble a spirit that transcends the sum of mere body parts.  Mr. Whitman seemed to say, rather, that the wildness itself was the thing to cultivate.  For him, the spirit and the flesh were one, the physical experience of the world was divinity."
Then she says that men will go on arguing these matters forever, "The women, meanwhile, would continue to peel the vegetables and soak the linens in boiling tubs and mend the torn seams and bring new lives into the world."

Another thing this book reminded me of was how much work there was to be done in 1855.  These young women spent so many hours of each day doing menial tasks.  I feel that way a lot, but reading this made me so grateful for my leisure time.  For not having to mend clothing each day, or wash dishes by hand, and glad to have vacuum cleaners.

As a reader, I wanted Louisa to fall in love, to believe Joseph when he says, "There are some men out there who are charmed by an independent woman, who feel that marriage can be an equal partnership of head and heart.  Who would love you just as you are..."  But I do like her choice at the end better than her choice in the middle.  I don't want to spoil much, but if you read this, lets talk!

I also thought this comment was insightful, because haven't you heard people try that excuse before?
"I think this real love you talk about is only an excuse for selfishness.  It is the love of an inpatient boy, not a grown man.  A grown man knows that in life we may not always simply have whatever we want."

I liked this book and I think it was a fun idea for a story.  I think this qualifies as a fun, light summer read.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

I'm pretty sure I put a hold on this book after hearing about it from my cousin Betsy, but I can't remember.  I haven't written a review for awhile.  I'm still working my way through The Optimistic Child, which I am really liking, and it's just been a busy end of school-start of summertime around here!

This book was a nice dive back into novel reading for me after taking a few weeks off.  You know how I love a spunky 12 year old girl protagonist!  Abilene has been sent to live with strangers while her father works on the railroad for the summer.  She is brave and knows how to take care of herself, but is still lonely for her father that loves her and worries that their separation might not be temporary.  She has a sweet voice, and talks about "universals," the things you can count on in any town.  Things like snobby rich girls, chalky classrooms and things "everyone knows" except the new girl.

Abilene is anxious to learn more about her father's life in Manifest, and is searching for any stories about him.  There's a really poetic part where she notices footprints all over the wood floors, and wonders if any might be her father's from when he lived there.  She sets off to discover the mysteries hidden in a box of letters and mementos she has found.  As she reads the letters, her neighbor Miss Sadie fills in more stories.  So the book switches back and forth from 1936 when Abilene is living in Manifest, to 1918 when her father was living there.  I think the two stories weave together well.

I liked how the characters were nice!  The circumstances were often sad surrounding both Abilene and Jinx, but you could feel that they felt safe and loved in Manifest.  My favorite part was when the town (in 1918) worked together to outbid the coal mine bosses for some property.  It was a perfect example of coming together and making something good out of what seems like a hopeless situation. (Even if it did involve alcohol and a con!)

"'Amen,' they said in unison, these citizens of the world, and they held their breath as the many and varied ingredients that had been simmered and stewed, distilled and chilled, were combined to make something new.  Something greater than the sum of its parts."

There were times when the story felt a little slow to me.  Like there were a few threads going, and many of them weren't going anywhere.  The search for "the rattler" for instance, seemed to go by the wayside, then was wrapped up at the end without much to do.  And Sister Redempta, who I loved, seemed to fade away too.

I liked the characters in this book, but didn't really fall in love with them the way I hoped.  The small town setting, characters trying to discover more about their past, growing up, working together, these are the kind of themes that endear books to me, but this one fell a little short for me. 

BUT, I would recommend this.  It is a good read.  I think it would be great for anyone who likes heart-warming stories, and especially if you like historical fiction.  I would recommend it for kids too.  Maybe 9 and up?  This is Clare Vanderpool's first book and it won a Newbery medal! I'm looking forward to reading the next books she writes and I hope I like them even more!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver

I think this book was OK. Because the characters and the story had so much potential, I think it could have been a really great book, and it fell short. (Mine had different cover art, but I couldn't find the image)

The chapters alternate between three different characters' perspective, but their stories are wrapped up together.  Miriam is mother, whose husband died a few years ago, and she has just moved her daughter out of New York City because she is worried about her. Eva is her 11-year-old daughter who had started shoplifting small items, and is lonely in their new house out in the country.  Burl lives near Miriam and Eva, and runs a little farm.  Eva begins hanging out around his place, and as he teaches her about keeping bees, they become friends.

I really liked reading the dynamics between Miriam and Eva.  They were sad and even painful at times, but you feel like there is hope for their relationship.  You want to sit them down and mediate!  Both were interesting characters.  In Miriam's chapters, she goes back and explains her whole relationship with Eva's father, Francis.  I think that may have been my favorite part, even as it ended in tragedy.  Burl was interesting too, but I got a little distracted by his relationship with Alice.  I felt like I wasn't always getting enough information to really understand who the author intended him to be.

I was also annoyed by what seemed like unneeded little sexual details.  Little shocking phrases or moments.  And there is this one scene that is so unnecessary and so uncomfortable.

The writing was really beautiful at times.  I liked when Miriam heard her deceased mother give her instructions, advice and courage.  I liked the self-reflection in each of the characters. 

Here are a few good quotes: (Which I just realized are all from Miriam's chapters!)

"Watching him, she felt an almost painful tenderness for all the muffled parts of people, all the far, far parts."

"Later, when she thought back on that night, Miriam would be struck by how time was the most elastic, the most flexible of properties, a year in a minute, an hour in a second."

"It's over, she had said, but it was over and not, just like he was Francis and not, just like this was a life she could want an regret at the same time."

I think ultimately, I wanted to find out more about Eva. Is she just going through a tough time in her life, or is she teetering on the edge of mental illness. Is anyone going to try to figure out? Will she please open up to someone about her fear and compulsions? I didn't need a perfect, tidy ending, but I needed more than the writer gave.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I was given this book for my birthday by my fabulous sisters.  When I first read the back of the book, I thought the topic was very interesting, and I would definetly like to read an article about it.  At the same time, I kind of worried that an entire book might be a little too much.  BUT, I was pleasantly surprised.  I would have read this all in one sitting if I lived that sort of life!  I did read it as much as I could during the day, and way later into the night than I should have.  The book focuses more on the human story of HeLa, than the scientific importance.  The science is definitely there, but it is explained in a way everyone can understand and relate too.  I think maybe because I can relate to Rebecca Skloot (really just being the same age and race) more than the Lack family, I enjoyed that her efforts to get the information and write the book were also included in the story.  (I read a couple reviews that did not appreciate this aspect.)

Henrietta was a poor black woman who grew up working on a tobacco farm with her extended family.  Shortly after the birth of her fifth child, she found out she had cervical cancer.  This was in 1951, she was treated, but the cancer spread and she died.  Samples of both her healthy cells and cancer cells were taken by scientists at John Hopkins when she was treated, and the cancer cells were the first human cells to survive and keep reproducing outside the body.  This was revolutionary, and the cell line called HeLa changed the world in many different ways.  Everytime Rebecca Skloot lists off scientific advances that have used HeLa, it is impressive. 

 Even though they were responsible for taking the cells without asking or informing Henrietta and her family, I really enjoyed reading about George Gey and his wife Margaret.  I liked that Gey built his labs out of scrap metal and  invented amazing things for scientific research without patenting them.  He sent the HeLa cells to anyone who was using them for scientific research.  I feel like his motives were good, he wasn't looking for fame, he was just a really smart guy that was obsessed with science.  I enjoyed the simplified explanations of how cells were used, and how specifically HeLa's cells allowed scientists to study so many different things. 

Henrietta's family really suffered after she died.  Her children were mistreated and abused by the cousin who came into take care of them.  I actually skipped a couple of pages that went into detail about this.  Three of her kids were still really young when she died, and an other one had been institutionalized for epilepsy and other illnesses.  Luckily, the oldest brother married a woman, Bobette, that figured out what was going on and rescued the kids.  Sadly, the damage had already been done.  Add to that poverty, un-diagnosed hearing problems and struggles with the law, and her children had really hard lives.  When they were asked for blood samples years later, bits and pieces of the history of their mother's cells were explained to them.  But not explained well.  They each struggled with it in different ways.  I think their reactions are well-justified, and as they slowly confide in the author and explain their experiences, you can really understand why they each reacted they way they did.  Some of the descendants wanted financial retribution, which is also understandable since they are all struggling with different illnesses, and many don't have health insurance.  Ultimately, they just want people to know who their mother was, and better understand themselves.

Much of the story comes from Deborah, who was only 2 or 3 when her mom died.  She has a lot of spunk, and definetly grows on you as she searches for information about her mom.  I think the biggest tragedy in the book is not that the cells were taken, but that those 5 kids lost their mom when they were so young.  I'm sure they would have still had struggles, but if they had had Henrietta to love them and teach them, I think things would have worked out better.

Rebecca Skloot explains different advances in patient privacy and disclosure.  She outlines different agencies' attempts to prevent what happened to the Lacks family from happening again.  But doctors can still store and use your cells without you knowing.  As I read the different issues and concerns, I wondered how I would feel if I found out 20 years later that my cells had been used.  Honestly, if anyone asked me, I would happily donate blood or tissues for scientific research.  I know when different kids of mine were born, we were asked to participate in different studies.  I find that kind of stuff fascinating.  One of them is in a data base for hearing loss, when my last baby was born we were finally able to donate cord blood.  I'm sure if it isn't used for a transfusion, they'll use it for research, and I'm really OK with all that.  One study even says that my appendix that was removed a while back could still be around in a lab somewhere.  But I'm OK with that.

I recommend this book.  It will be different than anything else you've read.  It is very interesting, educational and thought-provoking.  It seems to be very popular, so I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wish You Well by David Baldacci

I really liked this novel and recommend it.  I realized about 30 pages in that I had read this book before.  I went a little crazy trying to remember when, and who had recommended it to me.  I still haven't figured it out.  I enjoyed reading it again, and found I already had all the imagery of the setting in my head.

Lou is 12 and her brother is 7 when they are in a tragic car crash that leaves their mom in a catatonic state, and they move to live with their Great-grandma high in the mountains of Virginia.  Of course Lou is spunky, smart and endearing.  You love her from the start, faults and all.  Oz is a sweet little boy who teaches Lou through his limitless faith and ability to love.

The story is predictable (even if you haven't read it before), but it's still nice.  The main characters learn what you hope they will learn, and their relationships grow as they have to rely on each other.  Life is hard, there's a very real "enemy," and the poor kids have to deal with loss after loss.  BUT overall you leave with a good feeling.  It reminds me most of To Kill a Mockingbird.  And it has a nice storybook ending.

In his Author's Note, David Baldacci says: "Once we reach adulthood, most of us assume we know all there is to know about our parents and other family members.  However, if you take the time to ask questions and actually listen to the answers, you may find there is still much to learn about people so close to you."  I had this type of experience right before my dad died.  My sisters were filling out a little Grandpa book, and I learned some great stories about my dad's life as a child that somehow I hadn't ever heard before.  So I agree with his sentiment.

Here's a quote from one of the new friends they make on the mountain: "See, that why I ain't go to church.  Figger I got me a church wherever I be.  Want'a talk to God, well I say, 'Howdy-howdy, God,' and we jaw fer a bit."

Another one I liked:  "________ had had no material possessions to his name and yet had been the happiest creature Lou had ever met.  He and God would no doubt get along famously."

My favorite, that choked me up a bit:
"One day you're gonna get bigger than me, then I'm going to be running to you when I get scared."
"How do you know that?"
"Because that's the deal God makes between big sisters and their little brothers."

There's an afterward titled, Today, which kind of felt like those updates on the characters that sometimes roll at the end of movies.  It seemed a little unnecessary to me.  I did really like the Letter from the Author, which followed it, that included old photographs of his ancestors that lived in the mountains.

Have any of you read it?  Did you recommend it to me years ago?  Like 6 or 7?  I hate when I can't remember stuff!