Tuesday, November 15, 2011

10 MINDFUL MINUTES ~ Goldie Hawn

10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children--and Ourselves--the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happy Lives

I can hear many of your thoughts. What. The. ? Why is she reviewing a self-help? For kids? Parents?

It is so simple. Otherwise, you may end up reducing your stress with a cocktail instead of - I don't know - playing Goth Barbies for the millionth time.

Actually, my sister showed me the book while we were, um, "visiting" at another relative's house (trying to protect the innocent here). With all of my imbibing, I finished reading it during trips to the loo.

I despise stars using ghost writers to push personal agendas, but this seems to have Goldie Hawn's sticky sweetness all over it. Is it the new wave of parenting or psychology? No, but it is a smart way to provide kids with the language to express their feelings. Eventually, it will help both the parent and child develop strategies to deal with those feelings in a zen-Buddhist reminiscent manner.

There are many other books that will help those with teens or to assist in the understanding of human brain development (as in, teenagers do not have functioning pre-frontal cortexes, so they just cannot help text-driving). This book lands on this like a butterfly sipping nectar but prefers to spread its showy wings to spread calm and beauty.

Hey, it might work.

3.5 out of 5.0 Healthy 2% Milks.

Kristin at Books for Breakfast.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS - Vanessa Diffenbaugh


Thorns = Go to hell - who knew?

The Language of Flowers: A Novel

Victoria Jones earned the general last name through the bland child welfare system. She never knew her parents or their circumstances and only remembered disliking touch and her foster families. Until she met Elizabeth, a oak tree against Victoria's hurricanes of hate. Elizabeth began to teach Victoria about the old language of flowers, when gentlemen dared not send red roses to a lady friend.

This is where I will shoot a test tube of some purply vodka mix to avoid giving away the entire story. It is not happily ever after with Elizabeth. And, I wanted to take a horsewhip from my barn to Victoria. The characters behave how they should, however, based on their experiences.

Kudos to a beautiful debut from Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and I look forward to her next work.

4.25 out 5.0 Captain Morgan Silver Sodas.

Kristin at Books for Breakfast

Monday, October 17, 2011

IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY/Bill Bryson

Like most avid readers, I have a large TBR pile. Most of this pile is pertinent to what I do in some way (writing and art), and much of it is training and study material I should complete yesterday. Quite by accident I strayed across Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country (a rather morbid story I’ll not relate here), his book about his travels across Australia. It’s a book that’s had me almost completely sidetracked.

This is one of those books that’s best read when it falls into your lap as a break from other books. One day you’re slogging your way through a tome of ungodly proportions, wondering how in God’s name this book ever got published, when a book like IASC falls into your lap and you pounce on it with the enthusiasm of a bobcat devouring a goat. Soon you find you must shirk all of your daily duties until the book is finished. This, people, is not only the mark of a good book, it is the mark of a good travel book. Even better is one that makes you want to visit Australia—which is remarkable when you consider Australia has more weird and horrible ways to kill you than pretty much any other place on earth. It’s the second most inhospitable climate on earth (the first is Antarctica). But all Antartica can do is kill you with its cold. Australia is home to fluffy caterpillars that can kill you, species of spiders that can kill you with just a pinprick of venom, and the world’s deadliest snake: the taipan. (Interesting fact: the taipan is fifty times more venomous than the world’s second deadliest snake, the cobra. You get bit by a taipan and it’s bye bye baby, goodbye.) (Little show tune humor there you’ll (hopefully) appreciate when you read the book.) Not to mention, there are sharks, poisonous jellyfish (“blueys”), and man-eating crocodiles. And desert. Lots and lots of unforgiving desert. While most Australians aren’t bothered by the rest of the lot, the crocodiles even scare them. 

That said, Bryson makes Australia—a country, he notes, to which Americans pay little attention (Russell Crowe notwithstanding)—sound like the world’s friendliest and warmest place on planet Earth. Australians do sound like a very friendly and welcoming folk. That they managed to make a country at all is to their immense credit, though, according to Bryson, they’ll not thank you for mentioning that their country essentially started off as a penal colony. (The “criminals,” by the way, were not at all a bad lot; many were only there because of harsh sentences that were common for the lower classes in England at the time. If you stole five cucumbers, you could choose between your own hanging or … a move to Australia.)

There were many places in the book where Bryson made me burst out laughing. I tried to read a passage to a friend, but I could barely get it out because I was laughing too hard. And he’s not just good as a humorist, either. He’s great at the factual stuff. What otherwise might be dry and sleep-inducing comes alive in Bryson’s writing, and he kept me as riveted as any high-octane novelist. He truly is a delight to read, and I can’t wait to read more of his books. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

All Hallow's Read

This isn't a book review, so if it's not okay to post, I'll take it down. With it being near Halloween, I was wondering: anyone participating in All Hallow's Read this year? Any scary book recommendations? 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shirley Jackson/THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

Eleanor Vance, 32, lost eleven years of her life to caring for an invalid, mentally unstable mother. As a result, she is lonely and shy and completely without friends. When she receives an invitation to work as an assistant to Dr. Montague (an academic whose "real" work is the study of the paranormal), she jumps at it.

Dr. Montague is looking for evidence of a true haunting, and in Hill House, he appears to have found it. If buildings have psychologies, Hill House is one of complete insanity. The house has a terrible reputation among the town's locals, so much so that they are hostile to anyone asking for directions to it. But along with two other assistants, Eleanor helps the good doctor collect evidence of paranormal activity.

This novel qualifies as a horror novel (in fact, it's considered one of the very best in the genre)—though there's no gore. The horror is all psychological, and Jackson is so skilled as a writer, all she needed to do was paint us a picture of Eleanor's loneliness to show how easily the house could play on it. The others have their moments, too, but it's clear that among them, Eleanor is the easiest target.

No matter how cliché the haunted house trope may be, I've not read anyone who's done it better than Shirley Jackson (nor anyone who does a better job of painting someone who is lost emotionally and psychologically). She's one of those writers who achieved being both a good storyteller and a good writer. Her writing is a study in economy on par with Hemingway's. And I think that's one of the reasons this novel is considered more "respectable" than most others in the horror genre. You really can't fault the writing, even if it's not your style. It's really too bad she didn't publish more before her death. Makes her work all that more a treasure. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Joseph Mitchell/UP IN THE OLD HOTEL

Some books come along in a person's life and becomes a friend that gets her through hard times. This book has been one such friend to me. My copy is bound with Scotch tape, I've read it so many times. If I were ever a victim of a fire, I think I would mourn losing this book. Sure, I could buy another copy, but it wouldn't be the same. 


Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker. Up In the Old Hotel is an omnibus of his four previous books, plus never-before-gathered profiles he did in the magazine. Mitchell had a real talent for picking out truly original characters to profile, but for the most part he writes with such empathy no one comes off as a character at all. These are not caricatures.


Mitchell's nonfiction reads like good fiction, and his profiles of the bums, outcasts, and miscreants of New York are poignant and heartbreaking and sometimes exalting. Ironically, his attempts at fiction fall short of his profiles, but they still retain the same graveyard humor. There are profiles I go back to reading over and over and over again. (The profiles about the gypsy women and the plague scare are two of my favorites.) 


I've read this book many times over. In fact, it's in the list of my top ten all-time favorite books. It just never gets old—even though the New York that Mitchell explored is, for the most part, gone. It takes a writer of real skill to make a reader miss the bygone qualities of a city she's never visited. I don't think I'll ever tire of this book. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Orson Scott Card/ENDER'S GAME

Two and a half years ago, when I put together my Fill-in-the-Gaps list, this was one of the first books. For the sci-fi-fantasy community (on whose fringes I skulk) it's a staple; not to have read it is embarrassing. Plus, my dad, who has always greatly informed my reading list, read it a couple years ago and kept nagging me to get to it. I'm very glad to have read it, because I feel like it's become a cultural touchstone and now at least I can be part of the dialogue.

Premise: in a near-ish future Earth, the most promising of child-geniuses are sent to train in the Battle School, where they learn to fly fighter spacecraft in preparation for a coming war with the Buggers, an insectoid alien race who nearly destroyed the earth 80 years ago. Ender Wiggins, a six-year-old boy, has been identified by government agents as special--a genius with the capability to become commander of the fighting fleet when the war comes. He leaves his family forever (no contact at all until a family visit that's allowed once the kids turn 12) to face the rigorous, often merciless training at fight school, where he is stalked and monitored and presented with challenges the other students are not.

Themes: The book's biggest questions have to do with the nature of humanity (do the aliens have less right to life?), goodness (is Ender a bad person, because he's been hardened by his teachers into taking life opportunistically? is his brother Peter a "bad seed" type?), and education (is it right to design children through such rigorous training? what about if that's the only way to save the world?).

My personal reaction: like I said, I'm really glad I read this book, because not I can be part of the conversations that include it. I hear it referred to pretty frequently. I can't say I loved it, although I enjoyed the story and found myself caught up in it. Certain elements feel dated. For example, outside of the Bugger-Earth conflict, humans are divided in violent political factions that probably felt more plausible during the height of the Cold War than they do now. I also liked Card's writing of the battle training sequences and student interactions better than I liked the more allegorical and discursive parts of the story (long "telling" passages about his sister back home and her clandestine political campaigns, or the highly metaphorical and, in my opinion, not always interesting video games Ender plays to decompress). I also wish the story hadn't been so forcefully gendered. The reader only meets one female student in the Battle School, and she ends up cracking under pressure at one point. The narrative blithely explains that women have evolved differently and aren't as likely to be suited to the Battle Academy way of life. I find that to be another element of the story that seems falsely anachronistic (like the Iron Curtain feeling). But anyway.

Overall take-home: glad I can say I've read it. Didn't love it. Would like to talk more about it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell


Where I got the book: from the library.

I'm going to try to keep away from discussing the theological points in this book, mostly because I barely know what I'm talking about. Love Wins has been making waves in some sections of the Christian community because of Bell's notion (some say heretical) that there is no such thing as a literal Hell. I prefer to see this book not as an attempt to preach a new truth, but as asking questions there's no harm debating. Bell says at the outset that he's entitled to his opinion, and I'd back him up on that.

I enjoyed reading this book. It's an easy read,
although Bell's habit
of making points
by using lots
and lots
of short lines

can be a little irritating at times, but it sure makes the pages zip by. Bell makes some really interesting points that are worth considering, calling, for example, for more action here on earth to make the world a better place. I can't really fault that.

On the whole, I'd call this wishful-thinking theology; if you've read the Bible enough times, you'll know that Bell's claims just don't really line up with all the uncomfortable stuff that's in there. It's a shame, because Bell's version of Christianity would pretty much reconcile the rest of the world to the Christian religion, and wipe out the you're-going-to-Hell-I'm-not attitude adopted by all too many believers. Humility, anyone?

Anyway, NOT getting into the theology, this is a nicely-written addition to some debates that have been going on for the last two thousand years. Nothing to get overly excited about, in my opinion, but I'm glad I read it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL BEGAN AFTER by Simon Van Booy

Literary Fiction
Harper Perennial, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-166148-8
Source: review copy provided by publisher (this in no way affected my opinion of the material)

It isn't often that literary fiction can sweep me away so briskly. So completely. Transport me from my reading chair, from the ordinary detail of my ordinary life, into another place and time--as if I was really there. Simon Van Booy's debut novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, did just that. And more.

The prologue relays the thoughts of an unnamed little girl who is remembering the story she'd been told of how her parents met, how they fell in love, and in wondering about this, she recognizes that there was a world that lived before her time and her parents were in it. There was a world that spun before her parents met, even. And that is the story that unfolds for us--the love that existed before the love that brought her into the world.

We don't know exactly how this little girl relates to the characters until the very end, though. Which personally I thought was brilliant. After reading the final page, I went back and reread the prologue, and it pretty much rendered me speechless. I had to give myself a few days before I could compose a review without it looking like a bunch of gibberish.

This is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read.

It begins by following three people who all happen to be in Athens, Greece at the same time, but none of them are Greek. Rebecca is a French artist. George is an American linguist. Henry is a British archeologist. How they all become inextricably tangled with each other in friendships and romance is fascinating. There is laughter, heartache, and adventure.

Then a major earthquake hits Athens, reducing large portions of it to rubble, and all three of their lives are permanently changed. What they do from that point on is where the real gut-wrenching emotion of the story takes place. Life is questioned. Love is shattered. Death is illuminated. Some of my favorite lines in the novel are reflections on life, love, or death (or any combination of those), such as this one:

But the dead don't come back to life. They sit frozen in our minds, finally free, capable of everything and nothing in a paradise where they can do no wrong.

Part of what made this novel abundantly swoon-worthy for me was the use of language. The poetic prose. But this didn't slow things down. The pacing was kept at a good, energetic clip with concise writing and short scenes. Seem contradictory? Read it and you'll see what I mean. I've never read such a snappy yet flowing style before. It's genius.

Everything Beautiful Began After is a strong contender for my "Best Read of 2011" in the adult fiction category. I highly recommend it for everyone, but especially for those who are reluctant to read literary fiction as anything more than a sleep aid. This story did just the opposite for me. Once I started it, I couldn't put it down, even if it meant reading into the wee hours of the morning. 5 of 5 stars.

~Lydia

Add Everything Beautiful Began After to your goodreads shelf and enter to win one of 10 free copies! Click HERE for details.


Extras:




"Love Is Like Life But Longer", short film written by Simon Van Booy, directed by Poppy de Villeneuve

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel


A quick investigation of Jean M. Auel tells me that she began publishing her Earth's Children series in 1980, and I must have been introduced to the series in about 1985 when The Mammoth Hunters was published. So my impression that I've been reading this series since the dawn of time has some foundation.

The Land of Painted Caves is the sixth and, apparently, the final book in the series. For those of you who don't know, these novels are set in the Ice Age and centered around Ayla, who is orphaned at an early age, lives with Neanderthals who call themselves the Clan, is banished, lives on her own and tames various animals, meets hunka hunka burnin' love Jondalar and returns with him (and some horses and a wolf) to his own people, the Zelandonii.

Having worked through the last two books, I was already beginning to tire of this particular epic, but I'm loyal and wanted to see how the whole thing ended.

I am SO disappointed.

For one thing, have I just grown out of this kind of novel, or did these books always read like an animated textbook? It is pretty interesting to learn about how Ice Age people may have lived, but the author is way too evident in this book, stopping the action every so often to give us a little lecture so that you end up feeling the characters are those models in a museum diorama, spears brandished and hair all over the place.

Then there's the repetition. Seriously. EVERY time someone new meets Ayla (and there is a cast of thousands, most of whose names confusingly begin with J) they HAVE to be awed by the tame horses, scared of the wolf and aware of Ayla's strange accent. And I was starting to yell every time the Song Of The Great Earth Mother was sung.

Oh Yes, The Capitals. They Abound. The novel is larded with titles, the one that really got to me being She Who Is First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, and its many variations. This 700+ page chunkster is ponderous enough without slowing things down by putting Capital Letters on almost every line.

And the whole Zelandonii thing is like some vast New Age commune who take their religion with deadly seriousness. I could never have imagined that sex rites, orgies and drug-taking could seem like so little fun or be surrounded by so many rules and rituals. I'm sure it's quite accurate from a research viewpoint, but hoo boy, I think I'd rather take today's stresses and idiocies over this depiction of a natural idyll.

And I could go on. And I'm really not trying to be unkind to Auel, who has obviously taken huge pains to research and write these books. As I said, I've read my way through the series and, taken as a whole, find it memorable. It's been hugely successful and Auel has legions of fans (don't shoot! Please!)

But what really disappointed me was the ending. No spoilers, but there were so many interesting directions Auel's epic plotlines could have gone, and yet I feel that the whole thing sort of fizzled out, as though she, too, had had quite enough of the Zelandonii (who remind me, bizarrely, of the Federation in Star Trek. Perhaps this is the effect of trying to imagine a simpler world.)

I guess I was looking for a bang (no pun intended, and while we're on that subject the honeymoon is definitely over) at the end - it came, in a sense, as a discovery/observation that would profoundly shake the Zelandonii's worldview, but even that could have been more fully explored in the plot. There's an interesting parallel to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden there, and I'd like to have seen it taken farther. If this had been my book, I'd have cut out all the middle bit about the caves (endless descriptions of cave paintings and lots of repetition of That Song) and finished the series off with a bit more brio rather than repeating a prior plotline.

As a writer, I found myself wondering - would I take on a series that would take me 30 years to finish? I love to read series, but I think it's better for all concerned if the books are written over a shorter period, even if that means the research has to be shallower. The problem of the research eventually dominating the story is all too evident here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

THE ONE THAT I WANT by Allison Winn Scotch



The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch
Women's Fiction
Shaye Areheart Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-46450-7
First edition, hardcover
Source: library


This is the second of Allison's novels I've read (click HERE for my review of Time of My Life), and of the two, I think I enjoyed this one a tad bit more. I loved TOML, but TOTIW had more depth to it. More depth to the characters and more depth to the story.

When we meet Tilly Farmer she is living in a bubble of self-denial. She thinks her life is perfect. She thinks her life plan is perfect. She is married to her high school sweetheart. She works as a guidance counselor for the local high school. She is helping to put together this year's prom and the musical-- fun fun fun! And she is trying for her first baby.

It was clear to me from the start that all of these things she considered "perfect" were no doubt going to blow up in her face at some point. And I was right. Plus a few other things along the way.

In the title, The One That I Want, "one" refers to "life." Tilly's journey makes her question what life she truly wants to live. The one she thinks is already perfect (but clearly not, as she soon discovers)? Or the one she's been too afraid to try?

And who of us hasn't questioned that at some point, in some manner or another?

This story is mainly about relationships. We focus on Tilly and her high-school-sweetheart-husband, Tilly and her alcoholic father, Tilly and her dead mother, Tilly and her two (very different) sisters, Tilly and the baby she wants to have, Tilly and the charming new art teacher, Tilly and her best friend, Tilly and her ex-best-friend-turned-fortune-teller....

It's that final one that pushes Tilly into the events that change her life. After unintentionally finding Ashley in a fortune-teller's tent, Tilly is blessed/cursed with "clarity." She starts having weird visions of the future, visions that portray events involving the people closest to her. Sometimes these are clearly bad things, and sometimes she isn't sure whether it's bad or good.

Although these visions are crucial to the plot, this is not a fantasy story. This is magic realism at it's finest. The story is not about her seeing things in the future. There is no scary voodoo or incantations or anything like that. She simply sees glimpses of things that force her into decision-making.

The thing that kept me turning pages at an accelerated rate was the mystery of what these visions meant, how they all tied together, and ultimately, what Tilly was going to do once she figured it all out. I also really enjoyed her reflections on life and the parallels made between Tilly and the other characters, such as CJ, one of the senior students who frequents her office.

As with Time of My Life, Allison's signature writing style in The One That I Want is pleasantly fluid, easy to digest, and the cover art is equally awesome (so much so that the two almost look like companion novels, but don't be fooled-- these are completely different stories about completely different characters). Highly recommended for adults, especially women. 5 of 5 stars.


Extras:

Author blog - Ask Allison


Preview of Allison's upcoming novel, The Song Remains the Same

The One That I Want will be available in paperback on June 28.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan


Where I got the book: ARC from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Its publication date is 6/28/11 according to Amazon.

In 1920s Ireland, Ellie's husband has been injured fighting for his country's freedom. Ellie makes the tough decision to take a job in New York in order to send back enough money for his operation. The new life she makes for herself in the US changes her, and puts her future life in Ireland in doubt.

I'm trying very hard here not to put in any spoilers, as I think it's pretty unfair to do that for an as-yet-to-be-published novel, so you'll excuse the brief description. The cover suggests that Kate Kerrigan is a new author on the American scene, and she was also new to me.

Ellis Island was a most enjoyable read. Kerrigan is very skilled at describing place and time with a light touch that hides her research, and there are several lyrical moments in this novel that definitely place it a cut above the average.

We see the story from Ellie's point of view, and what struck me was that her voice is Irish, but not overly so. None of the Frank McCourt street Irish here: we're talking about a girl from a good family with a superior education, and I thought Kerrigan got this exactly right in Ellie's voice. The American parts of the story were pretty convincing too, although the idea that Ellie would fall so quickly into such high society strained my imagination just a little. But--again, trying to avoid spoilers here--the resolution of the story was credibly underplayed. I really wasn't too sure which decision Ellie would take, which is unusual as I generally see plot twists coming a mile off.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a dose of romance but a good grounding in reality. Kerrigan is a fine writer, and I'll be looking out for subsequent books.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lisa Brackman/ ROCK PAPER TIGER

First off, at The Book Book I usually write my review very soon (often immediately) after reading the book, so you get my knee-jerk reaction. This time, a couple weeks have passed, so you'll be getting my impression over time, what stuck with me and what didn't.

Second, Moonrat previously reviewed ROCK PAPER TIGER for this blog, thereby saving me the need to write an in-depth plot summary. You can read that and her thoughts here.

Now, let's begin.

This book follows Ellie Cooper, a 26-year-old American Iraqi war vet, as she grows up. Yes, grows up. Ellie may be smart (she's learning Chinese quickly) and tough (or is it numb?) from her time in the military, but when we meet her she's a woman who rarely takes action in her life--she merely reacts, if she does anything at all.

This inertia contrasts with her wry observations and likable personality. She's fun to be around, when she's not struggling with her PTSD. And while she may not realize it, she's a strong person. When she tells one character he's "an asshole" you will want to reach through the book and give her a high five.

Ellie finds herself stumbling and limping through China, pursued by various guys in dark suits. Some are from the government while others work for independent organizations and those are often scarier. Despite her best efforts to disappear, she's suddenly getting a lot of attention. The pace quickens, and everything builds towards what I expected to be a crazy, government-conspiracy type climax.

But that is not quite what you get. And, honestly, it was disappointing. I think as long as you go in knowing that, however, then you can still really enjoy this book. Just remember that (in my opinion, anyway), this book is about Ellie's internal journey, more so than it's about her external journey through China. She is not a badass heroinne in this book. She's got potential, but she's also got PTSD and a tendency to mix beer with percocet. The end of this book is only the beginning for Ellie. In fact, I would welcome a sequel!

Bonus factor: China. You've heard it before, I'm sure: China China China. But, it's true. As corny as it sounds, I really felt like I'd been to China for days after I read this book. A tough, sometimes fragile China that's a work in progress.

Much like Ellie.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

BUT I LOVE HIM by Amanda Grace

 But I Love Him by Amanda Grace
Young Adult Contemporary
Flux, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7387-2594-9
Source: library


This book surprised me. In a good way.

From the back cover:

Sometimes at night, I wake up and stare at the heart for hours. I think of how I collected each piece from the beach, how I glued it all together into one big sculpture. I wonder if Connor realizes what it means, that he'll always have a piece of me no matter what happens. Each piece of glass is another piece of myself that I gave to him.


It's too bad I didn't keep any pieces for myself.

This is not your typical "abusive relationship" story, although it very well could have been, had the author not decided to tell it backwards.

That's right. Backwards. The entire novel is a string of flashbacks. Unfortunately, this is the very same reason why I struggled through the first 50 or so pages. The timeline takes some getting used to. But I'm so glad I stuck with it.

We start with Ann in a very bad place, made clear by the very first sentence: I lie in pieces on the floor. Then we are shown the events that led up to this pivotal moment. Every so often, the story jumps back (ahead?) to the opening scene.

Which, in my opinion, is crucial. If we hadn't kept going back/forward to that moment, the character arc would have collapsed by the end. Because the end is really the beginning, so by that point we already know everything that happened/is going to happen. In any good story, the main character has to make a tough decision at the end. Ann does just that in the final flash forward.

And that was the scene in which I completely lost all my composure, followed quickly after by the final-final scene, the day Ann and Connor meet, and, being already in a state of sobbery from the scene before it, it was just too much to take--all the innocence of that first meeting coupled with the knowledge of the downward spiral that follows...

I pretty much died at the end of this book. It's that good.

But let's go back to the heart of glass in the blurb and on the cover for a minute. I love when stories have an object of value (to the main character) tying everything together. Every time this heart was mentioned in a scene I felt a little closer to Ann, understood her a little more. It starts out broken, as does her figurative heart, and then as we travel backwards through time we see how she put it all together while Connor progressively crushed her heart.

It's an amazing parallel to the story of Ann and Connor's relationship. So fragile, yet sharp-edged like broken glass. And at one time, it was beautiful. But now it's shattered.

The thing I liked even more than the parallel of the glass heart and the brilliance of telling the story backwards, however, was the presentation of the characters. In a book like this it's easy to make the abuser flat. One dimensional. But Connor isn't, and that's one of the main things that kept me turning pages. It's also easy to make the victim unsympathetic. You get to a certain point in a story like this, and you just want to shake her, saying, "Get away from him! Why don't you just leave already?!"

Ann gives the simply-stated-yet-not-simply-understood answer in the title: But I Love Him. A situation like this is never black and white.

If this is subject matter you normally shy away from because you feel the story has already been told in every possible way, then I highly recommend reading this book. It might just surprise you in the good way it did me. 5 of 5 stars, and a contender for my Best Read of 2011.

~Lydia

Sunday, May 29, 2011

INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Hannah Moskowitz

A brief, yet necessary, preamble:

So. My bad. I totally thought I wrote a review here for BREAK, Hannah's debut, which I was going to link in this review... aaaand I didn't. If you follow my blog, though, or follow me on goodreads, you already know I loved BREAK. It was a (well-deserved) 2010 ALA Popular Paperback for Teens, and I highly recommend it for reluctant readers. Easy to read and get sucked into. Quick pace and a brilliant concept. Get on it.

Now for the actual review of said novel in the post title.



Invincible Summer by Hannah Moskowitz
Young Adult Contemporary
Simon Pulse, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4424-0751-0
First edition, paperback
Source: own

First, a word from Hannah. Because she highlights some things in this video that I think are important. One: this novel is difficult to summarize. And two: it's about family. No, really. It's about FAMILY. Just with some sex and the occasional F-word sprinkled in for good measure.





This is probably one of the most difficult reviews I've ever had to write. There is so much about this novel that I want to talk about, but a good majority of it will come off as spoiler-y if I get into it. Yet, at the same time, if I don't, there isn't much to say without coming off as rambly and disinteresting. (I'm getting red squiggly lines under both of those words. Whatever. You know what I mean.)

Let's start with the viewpoint character, Chase. At the beginning of the story he is 14 going on 15. At the end he is nearing his 18th birthday. So that's four years. Or rather, four summers. The presentation of the story solely through the summers spent at the family's beach house is just... amazing. The stuff that happens elsewhere really doesn't matter, and that's a difficult thing to pull off. It includes all of Chase's high school experiences, which in most YA lit is a defining quality, but not so with this novel. The definement (another red squiggly line, wtf? I swear I'm using real words) of Chase's self-perception comes through his summer experiences.

Hence the title, Invincible Summer. It's perfect. Also perfect? Is the cover. This story is told through summers, and I believe the cover presents summer in all its wondrous glory. It's clean and bright. It gets up close and personal with a hot chick in a bikini. That's summer, yes? But for some reason it has been the source of much debate among book bloggers and readers. So there's a girl in a bikini on the cover. Everyone assumes, then, that the love interest (or rather, the sex interest) is the main plot. It SO isn't. The disaster that is Melinda certainly has influence on the events of the story and the realizations of the MC about life--his life--but she, herself, is not the plot. The fact that Chase and his older brother Noah are both "involved" with her is NOT the plot. It's just one element of a much bigger concept.

And that concept is -- family relationships. In my goodreads review I mentioned that this novel is just as much Noah's story as it is Chase's. The perception of Noah through Chase's eyes is yet another item that goes under the "reasons why this book is brilliant" column. Chase calls him "my brother the flight risk", and if that isn't enough to get you interested in the relationship between these two brothers, then maybe this will be: they're both doing the girl next door, and they both know they're both doing the girl next door, and they both continue doing the girl next door in light of this knowledge. It's all very weird and gritty and makes you want to powerwash your brain. Or dry heave. Sorry, but I had a hard time stomaching the idea of so obviously sharing a girl. This didn't stop me from reading, though, and I still love the book enough to recommend it.

But again, that is just one element of the big picture.

Noah is a huge part of the story. He has real issues. Issues I can relate to, and I think that's why I fell for him so hard while reading this. We also have Chase's younger brother, Gideon. Oh God... where do I even start with Gideon. Well, he's only six years old at the beginning. And he's deaf. And stinking adorable. And wildly intelligent. I can't even... seriously, I can't even talk about Gideon without getting teary-eyed. How Hannah managed to portray such a deeply layered character through the eyes of someone else still has me reeling.

Then there's Claudia, Chase's younger sister, who is eleven years old at the beginning. She is, in a word, adventurous. Totally love her. The parents? Mom is pregnant during the first summer. So, another kid is added to this already large family. You'd think the parents just can't get enough of each other, right? Wrong. Hannah added huge parental issues to the mix. Again, brilliant.

The story is just one dynamite layer after another after another after another... until it all explodes.

I can't get into the minor issue I had with the ending without giving anything away, so I'll add one final remark on the Melinda thing. She was raped when she went to college -- I don't think saying that here will ruin your enjoyment of the book. It's made pretty obvious early on in the story.

The thing I want to comment on is that even though she was raped, and subsequently fell into a depression (which is expected), she didn't shy away from sex after that horrible experience. To me, this came across as REALISTIC. Yes, many girls who are raped can't stand the thought of going near a guy for a long, long time, after much, much therapy. But. That isn't always the case. Some girls then use sex as a way of staying in control. They had an "out of control" sexual experience, so they put themselves in situations where they are "in control of" the sexual experience. And that's exactly what Melinda does with Noah and Chase.

And I just want to personally thank Hannah for going that route, when most novels that include this touchy subject go the obvious route of the girl completely withdrawing from all forms of sex. It was refreshing to see something different, yet still real.

Okay, I think I've blabbered on long enough (no red squiggly line under "blabbered"? I give up). All that's left to say is READ THIS BOOK. 4 out of 5 stars.

~Lydia

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Where I got the book: from the library. It's been on my TBR list for a while, but when Holly Tucker started a history and science readalong on Goodreads, I knew its moment had come.

The Ghost Map is, in part, an account of a cholera epidemic that took place in London in 1854. I say in part, because the epidemic is really a springboard for a series of discussions. In a sense, this book is the history of an idea: that a disease could be waterborne.

Back in 1854, this idea was startling, and unacceptable to most of the medical and administrative establishment. Johnson does a good job of highlighting the work of two men, John Snow (who did a lot of the thinking that led to the understanding of how the epidemic grew) and Henry Whitehead, who confronted the disease at street level, talking to the survivors and collecting much of the informal data that helped Snow test his theories.

I found it very interesting to read about the struggle that Snow had with the proponents of the "miasma theory," the prevailing wisdom of the time. Back then, people believed that diseases were spread by smells traveling through the air; I've read a lot of Dickens, so I'm well acquainted with the notion of pestilential or noxious air. The fact that this belief seems so ridiculous to us now is evidence of the inroads science has made into our lives.

I had never really thought about the seismic shift that occurred when science began to understand nature at the microscopic level. And I had never given much thought to the correlation between clean water and the expansion of cities to the multi-million-headcount levels that are normal to us today. So on the whole, The Ghost Map was a pretty enlightening book. It's written in an easy to read style, and is a page-turner in its way.

The book ends with an extensive consideration of urbanization and what it means to mankind. I'm not sure whether this enhances the central story, or detracts from it. It's interesting, in its way, but in the end it's only speculation--and speculation is endless. So the end of the book seemed, well, endless. I probably could have stopped reading at around page 217.

Still, on the whole this was an interesting book, and I'm glad I finally read it.

GUANTANAMO BOY by Anna Perera

"Welcome to Guantanamo Bay Prison. You're now the property of the US Marine Corps. Heads down!"


"It's not often that Khalid can look at his life from a distance. But, instantly, he can see himself clearly for once. He's another meaningless bent orange shape dropped into some weird world game, the sun fixing him here on this lump of tarmac like a dart in his back. He's nothing but an orange heap for soldiers to toss around because they think he's a terrorist who wants to blow up cites. Think he hates the West, even though he lives there and doesn't know anything about weapons of mass destruction or bombs or buildings crashing to the ground in New York."

There’s nothing unusual about 15 year old Khalid. He’d much rather be playing a computer game than polishing his school shoes. He hasn’t got a clue how to flirt with girls, and there is no way he’s leaving England to visit his father’s boring family in Pakistan. Especially when his football team is so close to being promoted.

Unfortunately for him Khalid’s parents disagree, and they soon arrive in the bustling Pakistani city of Karachi. What Khalid finds there is far from boring. The streets are filled with whispers of U.S troops and terrorist informers, and Khalid’s worst fears are horribly realised when he’s kidnapped and detained for questioning by U.S troops.

Surely they’ll quickly realise he’s innocent and release him? They can’t possibly send a 15 year old to Guantanamo Bay. Can they?

This book combines that chilling mixture of everyday normality and unimaginable horror. It’s the kind of story that really haunts you because it depicts a horribe situation that could so easily be true. As the author notes, ‘although Guantanamo Boy is a work of fiction, it is inspired by real events. It remains a fact that children have been abducted and abused and held without charge in the name of justice in Guantanamo Bay and many other secret prisons around the world.’

I certainly couldn’t put this down. I can’t say it was always an enjoyable read, but it was definitely immersive and thought provoking. Whilst this book carries a strong and valuable political message, the overriding sentiments are that of love and the support of family and friends. Khalid is well drawn and Anna Perera does a brilliant job of persuading even the most indifferent of readers to truly care about his wellbeing. She does this subtly over the course of the story, and I found my affection for him building slowly whilst my full attention remained centred on his inhumane treatment.

Unlike many other novels dealing with similar stories of abuse, the narrative of Guantanamo Boy is lightened by lifelike humour and small acts of kindness. This contrast allows the darker moments to retain their sharpness, and it allowed me to keep reading for long periods of time without feeling emotionally drained.

Anna Perera has highlighted the importance of human kindness in a truly remarkable setting. This book needs to be in every school library.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale


In a brutal and archaic punishment a beautiful young Lady is locked away in a rat-infested tower for 7 years. Her father imprisons her after refusing a favoured Lord's hand in marriage. The only one brave, or perhaps foolish, enough to accompany her to this prison is her faithful maid Dashti.

Dashti and Lady Saren live in a mystical land overseen by distant pagan gods who rule through the privileged gentry. Stripped of her family, Dashti has never known luxury and has faced a daily battle to stay alive. In contrast, Saren is a pampered princess to whom the squalor of the tower is a brutal shock.

Despite their differences the girls slowly build a routine and begin to fashion a home for themselves. At times their readiness to accept their situation felt slightly offbeat. However, it soon becomes clear that for both girls the prison develops elements of a sanctuary from the outer world as Dashti begins to suspect that Saren's extreme fear of her rejected suitor is far from natural.

Dashti is a mucker, a peasant class known for singing songs of healing. Her talent and empathy for healing the pain of others renders her blind to her own feelings and she soon becomes unwillingly entangled in a web of deceit and mistaken identities. Think Twelfth night meets Emma with a touch of Brothers Grimm.

Dashti's stubborn respect for the gentry verges on irritating and her patience with the pathetic Lady Saren is beyond understanding. This does make for an interesting take on the corruptability of religious belief but it did feel overdone at times.

That being said, Shannon Hale's engaging and humorous style kept me turning the pages and the book definitely lightens up in the second half. It's a sweet story with slightly gothic moments and a few twists and turns. Would recommend if you've got a weakness for fantasy teen romance

Monday, May 16, 2011

THE BERLIN BOXING CLUB by Robert Sharenow


The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow
Young Adult Historical Fiction
HarperTeen, 2011
ISBN:  978-0-06-157968-4
First edition, hardcover
Source:  library

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Naziera Berlin, it doesn't matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn't practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn't accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.

So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl's father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.

But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max's fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero's sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?

(book cover image and blurb are from goodreads)

This book is not what it seems. It's freaktastically better.

Don't be fooled by the title or the cover. I mean, I totally love the cover (that guy has really nice hands), and the title fits the story, but at the same time, they can be misleading. Although Karl's boxing training is a HUGE part of this story, it is about SO MUCH more than just boxing.

And this isn't just another "Anne Frank" book. In fact, it's nothing like the story of Anne Frank, despite being set in the exact same time period. Karl's experience as a Jew in Nazi-era Berlin is worlds different than Anne's. He doesn't practice religion. He doesn't even *look* like a Jew. This makes things extremely interesting as the story moves along. Secrets are kept and ultimately exposed, and I have to credit the author with how well he kept me guessing--I never knew how any one person was going to react when they learned of Karl's Jewish heritage. It truly kept me on the edge of my seat.

But the thing I liked best about this story was the portrayal of relationships between Karl and every other character he encounters, even the minor ones. Karl is 14 when the story begins and 17 when it ends, and his growth as a character is both external and internal. The relationships I thought were especially fabulous in this story were: Karl and his very Jewish-looking younger sister; Karl and his emotionally distant father; Karl and "the Countess", a homosexual cross-dresser; Karl and his stuttering corner-man, Neblig. I also really enjoyed Karl's sketches throughout the story, especially those of "Winzig und Spatz", as they relate to him and his sister.

The emotional impact of the story is compounded by the ever-increasing hate crimes against Jews. But again, it's not exactly like the story of Anne Frank. It is more outwardly public, since Karl and his family do not (technically) go into hiding. For this reason, and the others I mentioned above, I highly recommend this book for teens and adults. It is a serious contender for my "best read of 2011." 5 of 5 stars.

~Lydia

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Demise of the Soccer Moms by Cathryn Grant


Where I got the book: won a free copy from the author's blog.

The Demise of the Soccer Moms is Cathryn Grant's debut novel. Amy, Jane, Kit and Rachel have been friends forever. Their kids have grown up together, and their lives revolve around soccer and suburbia. But the suburbs aren't as safe as they should be--there's a rapist and murderer on the loose. And then Charlotte shows up: spiky hair, no bra, Doc Martens and a very big camera.

This is a story that starts out feeling very mundane and then quickly turns dark. Amy's and Rachel's insecurities have formed a bond between them, but when Amy's fears of the twin threats of sex and violence begins to pervade their world, the reader is never allowed to recover a sense of normality. I felt as if the characters were all walking along the edge of an abyss, and yet all of them were instantly recognizable types of Suburban Woman, complete with their different insecurities and their ways of coping with the boredom of their lives. The neighborhood is in California, but it could easily have been my own; any affluent suburb in America, in fact.

I found it to be a compelling read, and stayed up late to finish it (always a good sign). Grant is an indie author, so there were some places where I detected technical weaknesses that the rigors of traditional publishing might have corrected (if she'd been lucky enough to get a good editor, which is not always the case). Still, they were comparatively minor and I have to give props to Grant for her professionalism and attention to detail. I have seen far worse products come out of traditional publishing houses.

Grant calls her style of writing Suburban Noir, and I would recommend it to all who enjoy a good psychological thriller made more menacing by its everyday setting. Grant avoids overblown descriptions of gore, leaving much to the reader's imagination, and the story's all the better for it. I'm giving it a "good" rating, and look forward to Grant's next book.

Friday, April 29, 2011

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Young Adult Sci-Fi
Little, Brown and Company, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-316-05621-2
First edition, hardcover
Source: library


Sometimes I wonder why the best books out there get the least amount of hype. If I hadn't seen Maggie Stiefvater talking about this book on GoodReads-- her comment just happened to be near the top of my "update feed" when I logged on-- I would have never picked it up. Her comments were mostly to the tune of, "This book is amazing." She then listed a few specific reasons why she felt that way, none of which gave away the story. So I checked out the book blurb and thought, sure why not? I like sci-fi. I like YA. This seems different from the majority of what's out there now. I'm in the mood for "unique."

From the inside jacket:

Even at night, the wrecks glowed with work. The torch lights flickered, bobbing and moving. Sledge noise rang across the water. Comforting sounds of work and activity, the air tanged with the coal reek of smelters and the salt fresh breeze coming off the water. It was beautiful.

In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging copper wiring just to make quota--and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of life: Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue a lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life....

After reading that, yes, I was intrigued, but it did not prepare me for the journey I took through those pages. The blurb does not even begin to scratch the surface of this multi-layered story. That final line made me think, oh dear, there is a corny romance thrown in the mix. But no, really, there isn't. And what I felt was a major plot point--the messed up relationship between Nailer and his father--is not even mentioned here.

This is not a cupcake read, people. It is DEEP and DARK.

The story is engaging, and the world-building... it's just so NATURAL. It's how I wish all sci-fi would read. It flows without the slightest blip. And the scariest part? The situation presented felt like something our world could realistically be headed toward.

No surprise, this novel won the Printz award and was also a National Book Award finalist. But I am surprised that more people in the YA community are not talking about it. Male protagonists are rare in YA. Even more rare is good YA sci-fi. This book has both, and I highly recommend it for teen and adult readers. 5 of 5 stars.

~Lydia

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grace Interrupted by Julie Hyzy


Where I got the book: by winning an author giveaway. Release date is June 7, 2011.

Grace Interrupted is the second in Julie Hyzy's Manor House Mystery series, set in a large manor house which is one of the main attractions in a town that lives for tourism. The heroine, Grace Wheaton, appears to have just about got her act together as the new manager of Marshfield Manor when the arrival of a large group of Civil War re-enactors throws a spanner in the works. The murder of one of their number implicates Grace's love interest Jack, and Grace has to rely on some of her former antagonists to help sniff out the clues that could clear his name.

Meeting Julie Hyzy early this year was my first introduction to her line of cozy mysteries, and I haven't yet read the first in the Manor House series. But it was easy enough to pick up the gist of the characters: Grace has returned to her childhood home after a troubled past, and is trying to make her new life in her mother's tumbledown old house work, with the help of two roommates and the support of her boss, Bennett (who is interested in Grace, but not for romantic reasons). Her romance with Jack is at the will-they-won't-they stage, and relations with some of the people she met in the first book (Grace Under Pressure) are equally shaky. Plenty of room for growth in a series that looks quite promising.

I enjoyed Hyzy's breezy command of dialogue and skill in quick character sketches. The novel moves along at a good pace, and although I didn't warm immediately to Grace, I really enjoyed some of the other characters. Grace seemed a bit two-dimensional to me: her past troubles were hinted at, but she didn't show a whole lot of vulnerability in this book. Perhaps I need to read the first novel in the series.

I found the Civil War re-enactors very interesting: I've seen re-enactors at work (play?) and was captured by the details about the levels of realism--or not--that can be achieved. I would have liked to have seen more about the realities of running a large tourist attraction with multiple events going on.

The climax of the action was excellent; the pace picked up very nicely, the identity of the culprit was not outrageously obvious, and the overall result was satisfying. There were some plot threads--including the ongoing romance--that pointed forward to some fun developments as the series progresses.

The overall taste of the novel, if I can describe it that way, was of a well-stacked sandwich paired with a glass of fresh, fruity wine--nothing heavy there, but a good, everyday literary meal to refresh me after a hard day's work. This is the kind of escapist story that I enjoy reading when I'm ready to relax, yet still want to engage my mind just enough to keep it ticking over. I think I'll persevere with Grace and see how things develop.

Oh yes, and there was a cat. I'm not one of those people who goes all soft over pets in novels, but the animal-lovers out there will enjoy the furry plotline.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mary Doria Russell/CHILDREN OF GOD

Spoilers alert: This book is a sequel to the same author's The Sparrow, reviewed here a few weeks ago. In that earlier review, I tried not to include plot details which would ruin first-time readers' appreciation of the book. Likewise, in this review, I'll resist including spoilers about Children of God. But I can't promise to avoid spoilers about The Sparrow here; my assumption is that if you're thinking of reading this one, you've already read the earlier book. Fair warning, okay?

The action in Children of God picks up where The Sparrow left off:

Emilio Sandoz has done his big reveal before the Jesuit inquiry into the disastrous mission to the planet Rakhat years before. Sandoz remains a proud but broken (and lonely) man, his faith in God shredded by all that he's been through. The same characters are in place around Sandoz: Jesuits Father General Vincenzo Giuliani, Brother Ed Behr and priest John Candotti, and the others participating in the inquiry and Sandoz's subsequent care and recovery. Sandoz continues to sleep poorly -- as who wouldn't, after having his hands maimed so horribly, to say nothing of years of gang rape by the Rakhati poet-singer Hlavin Kitheri and his carnivorous friends?

As in The Sparrow, Children of God's structure swings back and forth between events on Earth and events on Rakhat (and en route). Chapter headings continue to require both "where" and "when" details. And the "when" bits? Still stretched out over decades, thanks to the strange effects of Sandoz's near-light-speed travel to and back from the distant planet.

But these threads of continuity lead to a very different book.

Remember the surprise -- the shock -- from the first book, the discovery of how different things were on Rakhat than anyone had anticipated? (Alien, indeed.) Those surprises continue in the sequel; in many cases they overturn the surprising conclusions which themselves overturned our expectations while reading the first book. For in this book we spend proportionately much greater time in the lives and minds of the Rakhati themselves.

Particularly, Russell places us for long stretches in the company of the "villains" of The Sparrow. We learn what happens to Supaari VaGayjur, the ambitious merchant who delivered Sandoz to Hlavin Kitheri in exchange for social advancement. And long passages explore the everyday life and motivations of Kitheri himself. We learn a lot more about both the gentle Runa and the predatory Jana'ata, and why Rakhati society has evolved the way it has, and why it's stayed that way.

A less skilled author might communicate all this in long, dry expository passages, as in a history or geography textbook (with big swatches of text excerpted from psychological journals). Russell doesn't do that. She uses characters -- familiar and new ones -- as vessels of history and personality; the context soaks into our awareness gradually rather than being injected forcibly.

(On the other hand, she also continues her practice from The Sparrow, as I mentioned in the earlier review, of telling us about her characters' states of mind rather than revealing them through behavior. It's more understandable here, maybe; after all, we have no built-in inner compass to help us map Rakhati behavior to psychology. But at times it did require -- for me -- long patience.)

Children of God introduces us to new human characters, too, and these additions lead to further upheavals in Sandoz's assumptions about what God might or might not have planned for him. For Emilio Sandoz returns to Rakhat, and there faces the aftermath of his first visit. I loved this about Children of God: a common theme of science fiction is how human culture might be remade by a first visit from extraterrestrials, but we seldom get to see it from the other side. And as we might imagine with Earth's first unexpected contact, so with Rakhat's: many, many things are turned upside-down.

(Remember that Sandoz has made two near-light-speed journeys between Rakhat and Earth since leaving the former: one outbound and, now, one returning. Planetary time stretches out, so in what Sandoz perceives as months, over a decade passes back on both his home planet and on Rakhat.)

Finally, early on in Children of God we learn what we -- what I -- never suspected: Sandoz was not the only one to survive the earlier mission. What that survivor experiences among the Runa and Jana'ata races lies at the heart of what Sandoz comes to understand, not just about his two visits to Rakhat but about his entire life.

In a "reader's guide" section which the publisher added to the end of Children of God, Russell says she was surprised that its popularity seemed to exceed that of The Sparrow. I myself would not choose to take Children of God with me as reading material on an interstellar journey (although The Sparrow might make the trip). Much of the pleasure of the earlier title came from seeing the characters interact with one another. Those characters were not just fresh to me, but innocent of what they would find on Rakhat. Children of God is a book which must fight its way back from despair and terror, which makes it a book of a wholly different, a darker character. The narrative here spends much more time in the minds of institutions -- the Jesuits and the larger Roman Catholic Church, the Runa and Jana'ata cultures. Furthermore, The Sparrow's tone benefited from much light-hearted conversation and flirtation between men and women; in Children of God, you'll find almost none of that.

I also must mention that I found the passages focusing on Hlavin Kitheri... well, repellent. Even after coming to appreciate, objectively, how his mind worked and why it worked that way -- even after he goes a long way towards redeeming not just himself, but the whole of Jana'ata culture -- I still hated the character. (I did admire Russell's skill at bringing him to life.) It was like watching George C. Scott in Patton: I kept thinking, y'know, You monster. You S.O.B. Don't even try to justify what you're up to. 

So, recommended or not? I gave The Sparrow 95 out of 100; Children of God, I'd probably place around 85. Still very happy to have read it, I hope to look into Russell's more recent work. (She didn't stick to science fiction; her latest is about Wyatt Earp's friend, Doc Holliday!)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Shift by Takumi Yamazaki


Where I got the book: won from LibraryThing as an Early Reviewers giveaway.

As I worked my way through Shift, I kept wondering if Takumi Yamazaki had read The Secret (which I did not like, if you remember). There are some definite echoes of The Secret in this small tome, Yamazaki's debut in the Western self-help industry (he is, apparently, "a best selling author in Japan").

Or maybe he hasn't read The Secret. Maybe this style of self-help philosophy is just in the zeitgeist, a result of a generation that has been told, and told, and told that its wishes can come true.

The premise of Shift is that you can, by the power of thought, shift yourself up to where you want to be. Get that promotion, that house, that car (isn't it funny how these books are so often about getting money, as if money really solves problems?) You are impeded from reaching your potential by homeostasis (the idea that things find their own level, i.e. we are all much more comfortable in our comfort zone) and scotoma, which is a blind spot or mental block.

Shift is punctuated by little exercises, to be done alone or in groups, mostly in the form of writing down your goals and telling them to other people. It is a 200-page book, but contains an enormous amount of white space because it needs to pad out quite a small amount of writing into an acceptable format for publishing. To this end, it also contains a whole lot of little drawings featuring the guy usually seen symbolizing "Men" on a restroom door. Restroom Man gambols through the book supposedly illustrating the Deep Thoughts contained therein, but I frequently found it hard to make the text square up with the drawings.

All this could be a problem of translation; I get the impression that the text was translated fairly closely from the Japanese, instead of being rewritten with a Western audience in mind. In editing non-English speakers it's sometimes necessary to insert an extra sentence here and there to show thinking steps that are left out in the original language; I'm no linguist, but what little contact I've had with Chinese has taught me that a lot more meaning can be derived from context than is possible in English speech. Could be that the same is true for Japanese, and this makes Shift a very easy book to read if you don't pay much attention to logical sequence, but frustrating for those of us who like to dot our i's and cross our t's.

The fundamental message of Shift, as far as I could make it out, is similar to The Secret: Think positive and all things are possible. You can make things happen. I also spotted some of the same unfortunate advice: For example, if you want to be rich you should live as if you are rich (which is fine until you realize you just blew a month's salary in a day) and you should hang around with the kind of people you want to be (also an expensive proposition if your goal is to be a multi-millionaire).

I felt very sad when I read that if a friend comes to you with a problem, the solution is to say "Oh hey, that should be no problem for you!" and then start chatting about something else. In
other words, you shouldn't really listen to problems, because you should be too busy chatting up successful rich people instead. I'll be sure to do that the next time I see a friend who has cancer or whose husband just dropped dead. Yeah.

I've said it before: I have nothing against positive thinking, and nothing against people who are willing to work on their attitude to achieve their goals. I think that having goals is a good thing. But becoming the person you were intended to be goes a whole lot deeper than reading books like Shift. I wouldn't recommend it, even for the sake of seeing the Restroom Man drawings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

RIVAL by Sara Bennett Wealer

Young Adult Contemporary
HarperTeen, 2011
ISBN 978-0-06-182762-4
First edition hardcover
Source: library
Meet Brooke: Popular, powerful and hating every minute of it, she’s the “It” girl at Douglas High in Lake Champion, Minnesota. Her real ambition? Using her operatic mezzo as a ticket back to NYC, where her family lived before her dad ran off with an up and coming male movie star.

Now meet Kathryn: An overachieving soprano with an underachieving savings account, she’s been a leper ever since Brooke punched her at a party junior year. For Kath, music is the key to a much-needed college scholarship.

The stage is set for a high-stakes duet between the two seniors as they prepare for the prestigious Blackmore competition. Brooke and Kathryn work toward the Blackmore with eyes not just on first prize but on one another, each still stinging from a past that started with friendship and ended in betrayal. With competition day nearing, Brooke dreams of escaping the in-crowd for life as a professional singer, but her scheming BFF Chloe has other plans. And when Kathryn gets an unlikely invitation to Homecoming, she suspects Brooke of trying to sabotage her with one last public humiliation.

As pressures mount, Brooke starts to sense that the person she hates most might just be the best friend she ever had. But Kathryn has a decision to make. Can she forgive? Or are some rivalries for life?

The story of Rival is more than just a simple rivalry. While the singing competition between Brooke and Kathryn definitely drives the plot, what really engaged me throughout the book was their relationship, both past and present.

I'm not usually a fan of the flashback technique, but for this story it totally worked. Wealer gives the reader just enough information at just the right times, about just the right things. You develop real sympathy for both Kathryn and Brooke--you want them both to win, but you know they can't both win. I honestly had no idea who was going to win at the end, or how it would all go down. Until the moment it happened.

As a former "dedicated violinist" and current "casual pianist" (playing music was 90% of my childhood and is now 10% of my adulthood), I tend to be especially critical of music-oriented fiction. Any misinformation or liberal stretching of the truth will immediately turn me off. Rival did not do that. Not one bit. Wealer even used musical terms as section headings, cleverly relating their definitions to the events of the story. For example, the first section is labeled, Dissonance: a harsh sounding of notes that produces a feeling of tension and unrest.

Love.

The skillful presentation of the story combined with Wealer's crisp writing style and clear musical know-how made Rival an instant favorite for me. 5 of 5 stars.

~Lydia