Monday, August 01, 2011

Gone from RB, but never done with the reading....

For future updates, please join my reading community on Search for me: Doreen Fritz, and you'll continue to see my book reviews. . . .

Happy reading. And it WAS great to be a bulldog!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Finishing a Trilogy

In Timelock, David Klass finishes his futuristic warning about the eventual destruction of our planet due to human's careless and selfish habits. Jack (Jair) meets his parents after time-traveling to the future. But the final battle against the Dark Lord must be fought and won in order to change the otherwise inevitable extinction of all plant life and of the human species. And Jack must decide two things: in which time he belongs (the one in which he was born (future), or the one in which he grew up), and the woman with whom he will spend his life (P.J, his high school girlfriend, or Eko, the ninja priestess from the future). Will Jack accept his destiny? Klass did a great job of creating a deep, believable, and inspiring trilogy. And each of the three individual stories stands strongly on its own while continuing to develop the running thread of the environmental disaster story. 3 out of 4 stars.

Friday, May 06, 2011

A Successful Sequel

Sequels get a bad rap. Especially if they're in a series of more than two - the second one is often seen as the weak link, just a placeholder til the creator gets to the "big finish." This book breaks that mold, though I had my doubts in the first couple of chapters. (Jack's and Gitmo's never-ending smart-aleck bantering seemed forced, and got to be annoying). Whirlwind continues the story of Jack Danielsen, who in Firestorm discovered that he was sent from the future because he is the only one able to save the world from an ecological disaster. His "parents" (actually just people who posed as his parents and raised him in a small Pennsylvania town) were killed by superhuman people from the future who came back to stop him. But others came back, too, and they taught Jack about his powers and prepare him for the battles ahead. These partners included a talking dog named Gitmo and a beautiful martial arts expert named Eko. Firestorm ended after a nearly fatal, but ultimately successful battle with Dargon, the bad guy in this story.

In Whirlwind, Jack , who has been on the move since the end of Book #1, returns to his hometown to apologize to his girlfriend P.J. for just disappearing without notice. But he finds out that she has been kidnapped by the Dark Lord, the father of Jack's old nemesis Dargon. To find and rescue her, Jack must follow the trail to the Amazonian rain forest, where the Dark Lord is engaged in an all-out effort to eliminate the rain forest, thus destroying the Earth's atmosphere. When Jack's meditative trances transport him to the place where P.J. is being held captive, he sees that the Dark Lord has the ability to transform himself into a huge tarantula that tortures and torments his prisoners. Jack discovers that in this battle, he is not destined to be the "chosen one" who will save the day. Instead, the Dark Lord speaks of a wizard with unimaginable powers.

By the end of this book, I was anxious to get started on #3, Timelock. 3 out of 4 stars!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Monsters and Mind Games

Fire is a monster. She can read minds and can often change or guide another person's thoughts. She is also an 18-year-old girl. In the world created by author Kristin Cashore (author of Graceling), there are both animal and human monsters. All are feared or hunted and collected, but never accepted as "normal." But Fire has been raised by Lord Brocker, alongside his adopted son Archer. As Fire and Archer have grown into their late teens, they have moved beyond friendship into love, but Archer has grown to be jealous of everyone that Fire even looks at or talks to.

They live in an agricultural area in the north of The Dells, a country on the brink of war. Both Gentian and Mydogg, rulers of nearby lands, are plotting (separately or together?) invasions. Cansrel (Fire's father), who had worked side-by-side with the previous king, Nax, had also been a monster, but he was a tyrant who enjoyed torturing others and wielding his cruel power -- a reputation that horrified Fire.

Now, with the threat of war looming, Fire accompanies Archer to the capital city to help the Dells by using her powers. There has been a threat made against the king, Nax's son Nash, and Fire's task is to find out who's behind it and to stop the murder. Nash rules with the assistance of his brother Brigan, the commander of the royal armies. Spies and thieves own the roads, and thrive on the undercurrents of intrigue that threaten the peace. The land is riddled with tunnels that provide shelter for the homeless, and secret passage for messengers traveling between various plotting factions. One of the dangers that Fire uncovers is the presence of a new kind of monster, who seems able to remove people's memories, remove their natural inclinations to defend themselves, and even force them to kill. Can Fire find this "monster" in time to prevent disaster?

The book is fast-paced with lots of action and suspense. There is also quite a bit of romance, as more and more characters and their ever-increasing relationships are introduced. And family relationships (parent-child, sister-brother) as well as varying levels of friendships are also explored. The author is on a roll with her descriptions of these stories of fantasy and adventure.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Teen lives (and re-lives!) her own "Groundhog Day"

Sam has it all - the perfect (to DIE for!) boyfriend, three wonderful best-friends, and the privilege that is bestowed on all popular kids to get the best of everything offered at school -- the best cafeteria table, the right to act silly in the hallway without fearing ridicule from others, the look-the-other-way from teachers, and -- best of all -- the assurance that they will get LOTS of roses delivered to them on Cupid Day from all their admirers. Today, February 12th, is the day -- in honor of Cupid Day, Sam and her friends Lindsay, Elody, and Allie have all dressed identically in fur-trimmed red tank tops and sexy black mini-skirts. On the ride to school the girls are all alternately teasing, encouraging, and offering advice about tonight, when Sam is finally going to be the last of them to lose her virginity. Throughout the day Sam interacts with other kids, teachers, and each encounter builds up to a party at Kent's house that night where her boyfriend, the dork who has liked her since they were kids together, and Lindsay's enemy (whom they all have labelled "Psycho") show up. On the way home from the party, with Lindsay driving, there is an accident, and Sam dies. But she wakes up the next morning, and it's February 12th again. Sam remembers vividly everything that happened yesterday - including the horrible accident. But nobody else is aware that the day is repeating. Sam sets out to do things differently, so that she won't die this time. And things do turn out differently for some of the people in the story -- but not for Sam. She ends up re-living her life 7 times, and each day is very different from the ones that came before. Although I thought I would find the "Groundhog Day" theme tiresome, this story really grew on me. Sam's problems with her friends, family, and boyfriend rang true, and I loved how she learned and grew throughout the story. You will leave this book with a wonderful feeling in your soul.

Monday, April 04, 2011

On the road again . . .

The book opens with a young boy (12) waiting sleeplessly in his room for his mom and her new boyfriend to come back. He is all packed, ready for a trip across the country. But this isn't a fun vacation -- his mother is sending him on a Greyhound bus from Stockton, California to Altoona, Pennsylvania. Chain-smoking and impatient, she can't wait to dump him so that she can run off to get married (again) without being bogged down by her son. Sebastien is shy, he stutters, he knows nothing about bus schedules or transfers, and he begins the trip with only the $35 his mother reluctantly gives him. His inner voice expresses the anger and frustration with his mom, but he has gotten used to keeping his thoughts to himself, as he remembers beatings, ridicule, and other consequences of speaking up. Somehow Sebastien is taken under the wing of Marcus, an ex-con also traveling cross-country, and the two of them share adventures, dangers, and a growing knowledge of how to work the Greyhound system -- where to sit on the bus, where to eat at the stops, and how to deal with the drivers. This book has been compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I would agree. Marcus is like Jim in his wisdom (or is it just life experience and street smarts?) Some of the best parts come during the conversations that Sebastien and Marcus share about life, troubles, literature, the future, and so on. It's also enjoyable to read about the "world of Greyhoune" (history!), and the places they visit - each stop seems to have its own culture, which the author represents in the characters these two encounter along the way. A question I had at the end - is this autobiographical? (the question sparked by the photo of a young boy, dated "circa 1981" accompanied by the specific dates that are spread throughout the book. Hmmmm.....) All in all, this was a great "vacation read," and a quality representative of the "road trip" genre. I would give this book 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Friday, March 25, 2011

People are the same everywhere

(This book takes place in contemporary Jeddah, a coastal city in Saudi Arabia.) Nouf ash-Shrawi, 16, disappears 3 days before her wedding. A truck and a camel disappear, too. She comes from a wealthy family, and her brother Othman asks his old friend Nayir, a desert guide, to find her. After a couple of weeks Nouf's body is found. When Nayir goes to the coroner's office to claim the body for the family, he overhears an argument between two people: the coroner and a lab assistant, Katya. Nayir, devout and modest, is horrified to see a woman who is unveiled working where she might be with men. But when the police officially close Nouf's case, citing an accidental death by drowning, Nayir and Katya end up working together to track down some unexplained details - things that Nayir couldn't understand about the crime scene, and things that Katya noticed during the autopsy that are being swept under the rug.
What I loved about this book was the realistic way it portrayed the lives of both men and women in a modern and changing Mideastern world -- in a country that is caught between preserving the "old ways" that have identified their culture and the new ideas brought through commerce and communication with the rest of the world. What is one to think about a woman who doesn't recognize that those traditions and rules that were intended to protect her, but rather sees them as stifling? Nayir, who has no experience with women (he is an only child who was raised by his elderly uncle), feels that he is putting his soul at risk as he pursues the truth for the sake of his good friend Othman -- even if it means violating society's rules about men and women being alone together.
This book develops its characters well as it describes the culture and society without judgement. It's also a page-turning mystery. If you like this book, you will probably also like its sequel, City of Veils.
4 out of 4 stars!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Classic War Protest Novel

I remember loving Vonnegut when I read him in college, so I was eager to get back to him. This was a quick read, but not as wonderful as I had remembered. I agree with other reviewers that this is "threaded with compassion, and behind everything, the cataract of a thundering moral statement." But - he made his points to a fault. Especially irritating was his repeated "so it goes" statement every time someone (or a group of people) died. Although "cute" at the beginning, it brought a feeling of "oh, no, will he say it AGAIN?" dread each time a death was forthcoming. And death there was, as this novel tells about the bombing destriction of Dresden, which was so thorough and horrific that it has been compared to Hiroshima in its brutality. The main character, Billy, lived through the event -- and, in fact, many others in which everyone around him died while he survived. He re-lives the experience through the wonders of time-travel, which he learns from the aliens who kidnap him and display him in a zoo -- the Tralfamadorians. I admired the creativity and humor that permeated throughout the novel, and sympathized with the moral intentions of the author. But Billy was just a doofus of a main character. Read this for its historical perspective (a 1960's look at World War II). 3 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

International Woman of Mystery - at age 15!

Ally Carter has done it again! Her previous series (Gallagher Girls) involved a private girls' school that trained its students to be spies. This mile-a-minute story follows a girl who is in a family of high-stakes thieves. Like, they steal things like Monet paintings. Ready for a more normal life, Kat (Katarina) had created a secret identity so that she could enroll in a prestigious boarding school. But now somebody has set her up (there is actual video of her somehow putting the headmaster's car on the fountain in the quad), and she is expelled. At the same time, someone has set her father up to take the fall for the theft of five long-"lost" paintings -- from one of the most notorious evil mobsters in the world. And that guy has threatened to kill Kat's father - and everyone else Kat loves - if the paintings aren't returned. So -- it's time to get the gang back together. Kat assembles her old friends (fellow thieves and cons) and her cousin Gabrielle to pull the most daring of stunts. They need to steal the paintings from the place the REAL thief hid them -- a highly secure museum in London. And besides the danger involved in the job, Kat has to deal with her growing feelings for her billionaire friend (potential boyfriend?) Hale.
This book has earned 4 out of 4 stars!

Friday, February 04, 2011

A not-so-surprise ending

Yes, spoilers here. So don't read on if you like the suspense of a slowly-revealed mystery. But then, that's my biggest objection to this book -- her usual twist at the end is such a disappointment. This novel introduces us to Jacob, an older teenager with Asberger's Syndrome who has been accused of murdering the college student who tutored him on handling social situations. Jacob's fixation on forensic science has led him to follow local and national cases, to conduct his own tests, to set up "crime scenes" at home for his mom and brother to "study," and to insist on a regular daily viewing of a CSI-type TV show during which he records observations in several notebooks. This "hobby" brings him to the attention of the local police and leads to his arrest after the murder.
Jacob's mother Emma, divorced and employed as an advice columnist in the local paper until forced to quit after Jacob's arrest, hires a VERY young and new attorney, Oliver, to defend him. Throughout the book we readers are well-educated about Jacob's "condition" - and about the hardships that his mother has endured in trying to ensure for Jacob a life as normal as possible. But now his only hope lies in claiming that Asbergers is the cause of his loss of control -- for while his mother doesn't believe he is capable of murder, she apparently somehow thinks that he is guilty, and will try anything to keep him out of prison. Jacob's younger brother Theo has not had a normal childhood, either -- the whole family's routines, eating habits, etc. revolve around Jacob's unpredictable tantrums, quirks, and preferences.
Although it went on in minute educational detail about Asberger's Syndrome, the descriptions made it seem as if Jacob's traits represent the full spectrum of AS -- whereas I know that the syndrome can take a wide range of characteristics, and can vary greatly from person to person. Picoult obviously had a reason to write this novel, and as always her characters are painted clearly and deeply -- but the mystery itself was a disappointment. I would give this book only 2 out of 4 stars.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2 for the price of 1!

Two wonderful young adult authors collaborated to write this book, in alternating chapters, each author covering a boy named Will Grayson.
John Green's character lives in Evanston and is a timid but intelligent and well-read friend of an outgoing and huge boy (who happens to be gay) nicknamed Tiny. David Levithan's character lives in Naperville and is an "angry young man" who is coming to the knowledge that he is gay. Though a girl named Maura is always trying to draw him out, and would probably like to be more than a friend to him, his best friend is someone from Ohio that he met online, Isaac, with whom he spends hours chatting in IM.
The Evanston-based Will likes a girl named Jane who hangs out with Tiny - but he's too afraid of rejection to take a chance on asking her out. Tiny has written a musical, and gets both the Gay/Straight Alliance and the Student Council at school to sponsor it.

Somehow all of these characters eventually meet in downtown Chicago as their lives surprisingly intertwine. The book shows off both authors' strengths, and fills the bill as a typical young adult novel caught up in the angst that both Will Graysons experience as they try to come to terms with what life throws at them, and with who they are.
3 out of 4 stars

Monday, December 06, 2010

History in a can't-put-it-down story

17-year-old Lev and his friends are starving in the 1943 siege of Leningrad. When they see a dead paratrooper drop into their neighborhood, they run to see if there's anything good on his body that can help them to live -- but the police chase them. Lev is the only one caught, and he knows the punishment for looting is death. Lev is thrown into a cell with a deserter, Kolya. The two are brought before a lieutenant who offers them freedom in exchange for a dozen eggs needed to bake his daughter's wedding cake. They have six days to deliver the eggs, and in those days we follow them through danger, humor, and a growing friendship. As they tromped, always hungry, through frozen snow and ice, I found that I could not get warm -- even though I was in my comfortably heated house. I walked with them as they dodged cannibals, partisan revolutionaries, and the German army -- and then were captured and marched along with other prisoners through endless winter forests. Although I forgot the connection as I got caught up in the story, the Prologue (if we can believe it) explains that Lev is the author's grandfather, and this story tells his memories of his struggles to survive war on the Russian home front. That personal connection added poignancy to the story.

This is a quick read that I could not put down. 4 out of 4 stars!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Creepy Irish ghost story...

Three dead women are found by the postman in a house at the end of a lane, in a small town just outside Dublin. One woman died from having her head bashed in, presumably by the shovel found upstairs, next to the emaciated bodies of her two nieces who had been imprisoned, fed rat poison, and slowly starved to death. Shortly after the grisly discovery, Niall, an aspiring graphic artist who works at the post office, finds an unclaimed package in the dead letter bin, mailed by Fiona Walsh (one of the dead girls) to "anyone at all" in the post office. It turns out to be Fiona's diary, and once Niall opens the book and begins to read, he is dragged into a world of fairy tales and evil. Fiona and her sisters grew up in a town in West Cork, and Niall goes there to follow the story.

How much of the tale is fanciful or exaggerated? How much is just a romantic telling of something very real and horrible? Fiona and her sister are dead -- and so is their Aunt Moira. They all had been involved with a traveling storyteller named Jim. And it is Jim's story that forms the spellbinding tale which leads to the final chapter of doom.

Read this one with the lights turned down low -- to get into the mood of horror and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Or keep all the lights on to their full brightness so you won't get too freaked out. I give this book 3 1/2 stars for spinning such an intriguing yarn.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Beautiful but Haunting

Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead, started her published writing career with the short (in page length) novel Housekeeping, published in 1980. Her writing is gorgeous and rich - I wanted to slow down and treasure the phrases and descriptions. But this is a novel that is short on plot and which focuses on character development. The narrator is Ruthie, who was raised by a number of relatives. Her mother, Helen, dropped Ruthie and her younger sister Lucille off at their grandmother's house just before she drove her car off a cliff into a lake. After their grandmother died a few years later, some old maiden great-aunts came to watch over them, but they were set in their ways, easily worried, and didn't "take" to child- rearing so they were happy to go back home when their mother's long-wandering sister Sylvie showed up to take over. The novel is awash in watery imagery. (get the pun?) They live in Fingerbone, a town perched beside a bottomless lake, into which their grandfather's train dove off the tracks on the long bridge which spans the lake. That tragedy (and their mother's suicide in that same lake) colors all their lives. Sylvie's care of Ruthie and Lucille doesn't meet the standards or expectations of the town or the school, and eventually people stop by and observe the hoarded piles of newspapers and tin cans, the rat droppings, and other signs of Sylvie's lack of "housekeeping." We learn that Sylvie has a hard time being tethered to any house, and Ruthie is increasingly drawn to Sylvie's dreamlike wanderings. Lucille, on the other hand, craves a life of normalcy.
As a lover of language, I appreciated the writing. I can see how Robinson was awarded a contract to write a second novel. But this one was just too drawn out and sad for me to give it any more than 2 out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Asian American Romeo and Juliet

I was initially enamored of this book because it provided a personal insight into the experience of Japanese Americans who were mistrusted to the point of incarceration during WWII. Several neighbors in the housing cooperative where I have lived for almost 30 years had moved to the Chicago area after leaving the "relocation camps" in which they were imprisoned in the 1940's, and having heard just brief references to their experiences over the years, I was very interested to hear more about what might have happened to them.

The romance between Chinese American Henry and Keiko, the only other non-white student at their school, seems a means of mutual safety and support in the face of ridicule and bullying by their white classmates and the kids in their own neighborhoods who feel betrayed by Henry's and Keiko's abandonment to the "other side." Henry and Keiko are 12 when they get together, so there is a "Romeo and Juliet" suggestion to their growing relationship. Henry is further isolated by his father's avid Chinese nationalism. Henry is forbidden to speak Chinese in the home -- his father wants for Henry to be American -- and yet his father determinedly follows the war in China and hates Japan for its ongoing onslaughts against China. He would hate to know about Henry's feelings for Keiko.

The story is told in two time periods -- during Henry's childhood, and then 40 years later when the old Panama Hotel is purchased by a developer who wants to restore it to its original Japanese splendor. Henry sees a news report that mountains of abandoned goods have been discovered in the basement of the hotel, left behind when local Japanese-American residents were taken away to relocation camps. And he remembers Keiko. Henry's wife Ethel had died just 6 months before this. His son is a college student who thinks of Henry as old-fashioned, unromantic, and prejudiced.

I think that the book lost its punch and degraded into a Nicholas Sparks-like romance about halfway through. The historical stage has been set - we know what's happening with the war and with the major characters, and all that's left is for them to get back together. Or not, to the tune of moaning violins. So - although I liked the premise, the execution of this story was not strong. So - only 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wanna Get Away?

You might think you want a change - even a drastic change - in your life, but after reading this book, you might be happy with the usual humdrum. The author, an Afghani married to an Indian woman and living in England, really misses the sun, remembers his childhood family vacations wandering in northwest Africa, and decides to capture that geography and less-hectic lifestyle for his own children. He buys a long-unoccupied palace in the middle of a shantytown in Casablanca and embarks upon the overwhelming task of renovating the palace. He inherits a group of employees and soon is forced to hire many more -- and let's just say that this man was not born to be a boss. He is soon pushed around by all the carpenters, tile-layers, "guardians," as well as the cook, the nanny, and his professional assistant, Kamal. This assistant somehow cuts through red tape, gets things done, and navigates Tahir through many back alley deals -- but he, too, exhibits his own Moroccan way of working -- he doesn't show up for days, and then appears seemingly out of nowhere with a long-missing but absolutely essential document or permit. Besides the employee problem, Tahir also faces the obstacle of superstition about evil spirits -- especially the evil Jinn (i.e. genie) which inhabits his palace. Tahir adjusts to the fact that the uneducated workers are obsessed by the need to placate the Jinns, but as he meets other people whom he respects, he discovers that this superstitious belief is universal throughout Morocco.
This book is a series of funny anecdotes interspersed with history, culture, geography, and travel. If you enjoy reading to spread your awareness and to travel to new places, you will love this book. I did -- and I've heard that his newer book, In Arabian Nights, is even better. I give this 4 out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Boy and his Dad at War

Liam has grown up with the critical voice of his dad always harping on his multiple failures, to the point that Liam knows what a screwup he is. He can't do anything right. He makes poor choices. He isn't smart, and his chances for future success at anything are pretty much nil. And the sad thing is, Liam absolutely believes this, and the first words out of his mouth whenever he interacts with his dad are an apology and a promise to try harder. Liam admires his dad, who is a CEO of an important company, a well-recognized success story. Who wouldn't admire such a man?

Liam has gone too far this time. Caught drunk and in the midst of having sex in his dad's office with a girl he doesn't even like, Liam is sent off to live "for a while" with his dad's brother -- whom he hasn't seen since he was about 7 years old. That was when "Aunt Pete" showed up in drag, dressed in a gorgeous red ball gown, at Liam's mother's retirement party (when she gave up her successful international modeling career). Liam's dad and his ultra-strict grandparents were horrified, threw Pete out, and haven't spoken to him nor seen him ever since. So as Liam starts a new life at a new school, he is hoping to do whatever it takes to get back home, which would mean earning his dad's respect. So instead of continuing as "Mr. Popularity," he figures, he should become the least popular kid at school. Focus on academics. Join an unpopular club. Avoid the "cool kids." And if he can only get Darleen, the dorky neighbor girl whom everybody has predicted will earn the label of "Class B*tch" in the yearbook, to like him, his dad will surely see how hard he's trying to be a serious student.

I loved the message of this book. Liam learns some important life lessons, and so do we. But I can honestly say I've never met such a one-dimensionally hateful father in any of the books I've read. Even though the author was trying to make a point, it's hard to believe that there were never any redeeming qualities or some reasons that he was as mean as he was. Otherwise, why would Liam's mother have stayed with him? That was never explored, and that gap was a flaw in the book.

But Aunt Pete and his gay friends were well-drawn, without stereotypical limits, and Liam's changes, though extreme, were believable.
I give "King of the Screwups" 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Like "24" for teens

The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan. A Homelanders book.
A thrill a minute, this book reads like a pitch for an action movie. I can see it now -- all the narrow escapes, high speed chases, and the scene where our hero just HAS to go into that dangerous place to get the clue he needs to clear his name. It's all in here. If you like that type of movie, you'll enjoy this book about Charlie, who is on the run, trying to avoid both the police, who want him for murdering his best friend, and the Homelanders, a group of terrorists out to destroy America. They seem to think he was a member of their group who has betrayed them, and now they want him dead. But Charlie can't remember whether he was or wasn't. And he can't remember murdering his friend. In fact, the entire last year has been erased from his memory. To find out what really happened, he must return to his hometown, where he connects with some good friends who believe in him. Including Beth, whom he remembers liking a lot. But he can't remember that they had actually been an "item," which apparently they were. Before his life got so complicated. And dangerous.

One interesting element of this book was that the language was suspenseful but 'clean' -- and there were many references to the values that Charlie holds. He remembers many debates/discussions with his American History teacher, who seemed to constantly challenge Charlie's faith in God, his belief in his country, and his willingness to express his admiration of a good way to live. so, though I wouldn't call this overt Christian fiction, it doesn't try to hide positive values or role models from the reader.

This is the second in a series, which began with The Last Thing I Remember. The 3rd book, The Truth of the Matter, is due out this November.

I give it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Girl Gone Bad - - - ?

Devon is the perfect high school girl: straight A's, varsity and club soccer player with Olympic aspirations, more responsible even than her mother, a sought-after babysitter. But then she is arrested and charged with disposing of her newborn infant in a dumpster behind the apartment building where she lives. And she denies that she was even pregnant. During the following days in the juvenile detention center, as she meets with her attorney, a psychologist, and other adults sent to get to the bottom of the "incident," she flashes back to significant scenes in her life over the past few months. And to all the years with her mother, the flirty and flighty Jennifer, who'd had Devon when she was 16 and has spent most of the years since going from one man to another. Devon remembers when she was 5 and her mom left her alone for the weekend, because she "needed some time to herself" - (though she had really gone away with a man). Devon has lived her life according to some very strict rules, trying to be excellent and to be -- at any cost -- NOTHING like her mother.
I liked After for its look into the mind of a teen portrayed as a monster by the media, whom we see in all her complexities. I liked it for the sympathetic look at the many "types" of girls who are incarcerated, and at the people who choose to work with them. In some ways this book took on an almost nonfiction tone, though Devon's character and story were fictional. I give it 3 out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Another girl with a secret past

This book reminded me a lot of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, in that it involves a girl who starts the school year being ostrasized by everyone because of something that happened at the end of the previous year. Although a successful model and a good student, Annabelle has no friends -- although some of that isolation is self-imposed. In flashbacks we read about her life from about age 11 on, up to the pivotal event which changed everything. We see her through changes in best friends, and events in her family such as her mother's depression, her two older sisters' careers as models, and one sister's eating disorder. Annabelle does have one new friend -- another kid isolated by everyone else: Owen, an angry and sometimes violent kid who sits by himself at lunch. He DJ's a radio show on Sunday mornings at a local station, and introduces Annabelle to a wild variety of musical styles. And she is able to be honest with him about her opinions of his musical taste -- but not about anything else.
Kind of good, but nothing new or earth-shattering. I give it 2 out of 4 stars.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can't Stop Readin' Those...

As addictive as Jay's potato chips, the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins has gripped RB's reading world. The 1st book in the series was selected as the Eng. 10 summer read, and several sophomore classes are embarked upon a research project based on the 2nd book, Catching Fire. The 3rd and final book in the series, Mockingjay, was just released a couple of weeks ago, and true fans have "flocked" to purchase or borrow it. I myself had to wait for my husband and daughter to finish our copy before getting my turn.
The tone of Mockingjay is different from the first two. While they were based on the to-the-death games imposed on the other 12 districts by the ruling "Capital," there was still an element of adventure and suspense. This third book gets right to the point and doesn't let the reader escape from the absolute control and unrelenting terrorism practiced by the Capital. Yes, people died in the other books, but we weren't slammed in the face with the brutality, torture, and genocide. Mockingjay makes it clear that Collins was writing about war, violence, and totalitarian governments. While The Hunger Games could have been compared to the TV show "Survivor," there is no chance that Mockingjay can be considered light-hearted fun. Still well-written and gripping, though. And the love triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta continues . . .
I give this one 3 1/2 stars out of 4.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Appearances can be deceiving

Yet ANOTHER book using the currently-popular writing style of two stories told concurrently in alternating chapters, which eventually merge as the author slowly reveals the common elements. And though I found myself initially irritated by the style, the story grabbed me, and I found myself staying up late and trying to find stray moments to pick up this book to continue reading.
Each of the two stories is about a mother immersed in the early months of parenthood. Lexie Sinclair (aka Alexandra) is tempestuous, fiercely independent, and bright. At 18, she left Devon for postwar London and was soon deeply involved in the art scene - living in Soho, writing as a critic for a magazine, and deeply in love. Fifty years later Elina is an Finnish artist who just had a baby with her boyfriend Ted. She almost died during delivery, and can't remember anything about her life before the baby. Ted is having his own memory issues -- he is starting to remember disturbing new things about his early childhood.
I love the "period piece" descriptions of 1950's London, the dreamy writing style, and generally the language of the book. The characters came alive, and the story was gripping.
4 out of 4 stars

Thursday, September 02, 2010

A new year for sharing about books

Stop by the RB Library to pick up a book for those odd moments when you have a free moment. Or for a weekend's relaxation. Or for an SSR requirement assigned by a teacher. The librarians would be happy to help you choose a book you would enjoy.

Did you read any good books this past summer? I did. (though I also had a great time camping, biking, and spending some quality time with my kids - one got married, two moved to Chicago, one has a beautiful son that I spend time with whenever I get a chance) But I escaped into some great books, too. See my summaries below. (and share YOUR favorites in a reply comment!)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the third book in the series about the mysterious Lisbeth Salander, multiply-tattooed computer hacker who was featured in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Faithful Place is the third book by Irish author Tana French, who previously gained worldwide fame with her thrilling mysteries In the Woods and The Likeness. This one is her best so far. It tells the story of Frank, who has for years distanced himself from his "crazy" family - only to be pulled back into their midst when the body of his old girlfriend is discovered in an abandoned house on his childhood street, called Faithful Place. He had always believed that the girlfriend had dumped him and run off to England alone. As an experienced detective, he is prepared to run an investigation - but is he prepared for all the drama and trauma his family brings to the situation?

Jerk, California is one of the Abraham Lincoln High School Book Award nominees for 2011. What I liked about this one is that I felt like I gained some understanding of Tourette's Syndrome beyond the stereotypes. Sam experiences uncontrollable twitches, which sometimes build up to seizures. His stepfather is ashamed of his condition, and continually
berates him and tells him that his father was a deadbeat deserter. But then Sam meets George, who knew his father, and he begins to learn the truth about his past - including the fact that his real name is Jack. And he is launched on a cross-country journey of discovery.
There are many more summer books to write about - stay tuned for regular updates!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Girl With Serious Problems

This book was OK. Not wonderful. Not terrible. Somewhat mysterious -- where did she go? Why? Is she dead or alive? Quentin ("Q") has grown up next-door to Margo Roth Spiegelman (always referred to by full name), and when they were nine, they found a dead man under the tree at the park. Q's parents are therapists, and they "talked him through his feelings" - but Margo's parents are painted as less-involved, less-tolerant, and less-loving. So what happened when they were just about to graduate from high school might have been caused by that early trauma.

Q has loved Margo from afar since their worlds spun apart years ago -- hers into popularity, and his into nerd-dom. One night about a month before their graduation she appears at his bedroom window and lures him out to a night of pranks, adventure, and revenge. And then she disappears, leaving clues that seem meant just for Q to follow.

As I said, the mystery is somewhat interesting. But the characters and descriptions are over-the-top, beyond believable, and overly dramatic. That really lost me after a while. I just kept reading to see what would happen, but this is not on my top-ten.
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

Friday, May 28, 2010

Look out - Here comes Frankie!

Did you ever feel like people don't really listen when you talk? don't understand the real you? don't appreciate your talents or recognize what you can do? If you've ever felt slighted, or slotted into a category of "type of person" that no longer fits, you will definitely recognize the character of Frankie Landau-Banks. Her family calls her "Bunny Rabbit," which sounds cute and powerless, right? Well, Frankie no longer wants to be seen as powerless. She wants people to recognize her intelligence and creativity -- and she wants to be a full player in whatever activities she finds interesting. She has no interest in dabbling in things that boys don't bother doing, such as field hockey or decorating the gym for the dance. In short, she is this generation's embodiment of women's lib!

After a summer in which her body suddenly develops, she returns for her sophomore year at Alabaster, an exclusive and challenging private boarding school. She catches the attention of one of the most popular senior boys, Matthew, and she's happy because she's had her eye on HIM for a year. After they start to date, she discovers that he leads a secret life as a leader of a secret male society to which she had heard her dad and his business associates, also alumni of Alabaster, allude during a summer dinnertime restaurant meal. She tries to get Matthew to tell her more about this society - but he acts like he doesn't know what she's talking about, and tries to change the subject to inconsequential topics, or tries to distract her by making out.

Well, even though she likes to make out with him, she is hurt and angry that he doesn't think she's "worthy" of knowing about his stupid club -- so she creates an anonymous email account pretending to be Matthew's co-leader (aka Alpha Dog) and orchestrates a series of outlandish pranks and public protests for the club to carry out. And thus begins her "disreputable history."

Many young adult books try to describe their main characters in ways that make them familiar. A trend lately has been to use slangy language, and to describe the traumas and the social life (i.e. parties, dating, emotional and physical challenges, etc.) of the girls, especially. One reason I loved this book was that it recognizes the depth and diversity of teens -- not EVERYone spends all their time figuring out their love life, or dealing with family issues such as alcoholism or eating disorders. Most kids have geometry tests, play Monopoly, have friends who like things other than just sports and popularity (some play chess, or are in the band, or set up AV equipment at school). They all might be trying to figure out who they are, what they want to be, and what matters to them. But just as Frankie objected to being slotted as a "type," many young adult novels also slot all teenagers as a "type."

Another fun aspect of this book was how Frankie played with language. She made up words based on the extension of the rule of non-positives. If INflexible means "not flexible," and DISjointed means "not jointed," then what do you do with words like Disgruntled? Is "gruntled" a word? (not gruntled) Frankie thinks it should be, and she soon starts to pepper her conversations with these words, which catches the reader's attention and reminds us of her new game.

For the rich character development, the suspenseful story line (will she get caught and revealed as the mastermind (or should it be "mistress-mind?) of the pranks), and for the intelligent vocabulary, I give this book 4 out of 4 stars.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Road trip to self-discovery

Just before graduating from high school, Sam runs into beautiful Naomi -- almost literally, as they are both jogging through the woods at the time. Sam's home life is terrible, as his stepfather, Old Bill, continually abusing him, both verbally and physically. And his mother doesn't stick up for him. Part of the reason Old Bill picks on Sam is the Tourette's - a disease which causes his muscles to continually contract, jerk, and twitch. Then Sam meets "Old Coot" (his village nickname), or George (his real name), a gardener who knew Sam's real dad. But he won't call Sam by his name -- he keeps calling him Jack, saying that's his REAL name. And the things he's saying about his dad are very different from the stories Old Bill has been feeding him for over 16 years: that his dad was no good, a drunk, that when he crashed his car into a telephone poll a strange woman was in his car. That he was dumb, couldn't hold a job -- and that Sam is very lucky that Old Bill took him in and has spent money all these years to feed and house him, even though (as Old Bill repeatedly tells him), he's as worthless as his old man. George paints a very different picture, and even offers Sam/Jack a job as an assistant gardener. One day they plant flowers at a beautiful house - in which the beautiful Naomi lives.

And then George dies, leaving Sam/Jack his business, house, and entire estate - including an assignment to follow a map and drive out west, stopping at designated locations all the way to California, where his grandmother whom he's never met lives. Through a coincidental run-in, Naomi ends up going along for the ride. Each stop along the way introduces more and more people who knew his dad, and gradually he comes to know the real James Keegan -- and gets to know the real Jack Keegan, too. Naomi has her own issues and challenges, and she and Jack help each other out on their respective quests.

The author interview at the end was instructive - it turns out that he also has Tourette's, and so much of this book is autobiographical. In addition to being a good character-centered story with believable conflicts, this novel many discussable topics. It was a page-turner which held my attention throughout.
I give it 3 out of 4 stars. This is another of the 2011 Abraham Lincoln H.S. Book Award nominees.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

She kicks *#%*!

Katsa is the king's enforcer, due to her "Grace," (i.e. talent or gift), which is an unusual ability to fight. He sends her off to "convince" his subjects to pay their taxes, or to punish them if they don't give him what he wants. You may get the picture that this king is not such a nice guy. But he is Katsa's uncle, and has raised her. Her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, is no worse than many of the kings of the surrounding countries - they all vie for power. Now 18, Katsa has started an underground movement called The Council which tries to counteract some of the abuses of the kings.
On one mission for the Council, Katsa and some friends are rescuing a kidnapped old man, the father of the King of Lienid, kept captive in the dungeons of the king of Sunder. And that's where Katsa meets Po, a mysterious fighter who also has two differently-colored eyes, just like her -- which means that he also is Graced. But what is his grace? And how will their futures overlap? As Katsa tries to evade the power of her uncle king, she becomes wrapped up in the intrigue between neighboring countries. And she discovers that Po could be a friend - or maybe something more.
I loved this book, and hope that it will be the start of a great new series. The characters evolve, the mysteries are captivating, and the problems are real in spite of the obvious fantasy-world setting. This is one of the Abraham Lincoln Award nominees for 2011.
3 out of 4 stars.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Futility of Africans' Plight

The Faculty Book Club chose this book for our April book, so I took it with me to Mexico over Spring Break. What a downer! Apparently Oprah and Anderson Cooper had raved about this book and how it would open one's eyes to the reality of what so many people in Africa are dealing with. The books has won multiple awards. So I went in expecting to be enlightened and inspired. Instead, I found it unrelentingly depressing. There are three short stories and two longer novellas - each one centering on a child living in a different country. The first one deals with an impoverished street family. The oldest, a 12-year-old-girl, is supporting the family through prostitution. She's giving the secrets of the trade to her 10-year-old sister to get her ready. The narrator brother is destined to go off to school - he is their future and their hope. But he can't stand the guilt - so runs away. HOPELESS. Then there is the story about an uncle who "saves" his niece and nephew from their parents who are dying of AIDS -- only to sell them into slavery. HOPELESS. Follow that story up with the one about a young man running away from marauding revolutionaries in the Islamic north to the Christian area in the south (his mother was Islamic; his father was Christian). He is on a bus -- and the very long story deals with the people on the bus talking about the politics, religion, and other philosophies -- and his fear that he'll be discovered and killed. Which is what happens at the end. HOPELESS. Or how about the one where a Rwandan family is destroyed when the father is forced by tribal revolutionaries to murder his wife -- and the reader knows that his children are also facing imminent death. HOPELESS. Why am I telling you the end of these stories? To save you from the depression that enveloped me after trudging through this collection. The thing is, you come out of this book without any idea of what will ever solve the problems all those people are facing. The conflicts based on colonially-imposed borders and the inequality (politically and economically) between factions is not going away. The disease, poverty, and overall lack of hope for a decent future seem unrelenting. I was not enriched by reading this book. Nor was I disturbed in a good way -- one that might have encouraged me to take action to improve the situations. The stories were poisons that infected me - and I just needed a good Disney movie or two to clear them out.
1 out of 4 stars.

Another Holden Caulfield?

Though he wants to be known as Huge, the narrator in this novel, Eugene, is called Genie by everybody who knows him. And he is NOT huge - he's a small 12-year-old boy going-into-6th-grade who has been hired by his senile grandmother to investigate the vandalism of the sign at the nursing home where she lives. Huge has anger issues, which led to a long-term suspension from school last year. He carries around a stuffed frog (known as Thrasher) that he got from his counselor. He rides a bike (the Cruiser) that he built out of spare parts. While on suspension, he had read the entire collection of Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe detective books, and has taken on the hard-boiled detective persona of those books. He "sees" problems all around, and "collects evidence" -- but are things really as he sees them?

His dad had abandoned him, his older sister, and his mom a few years ago. Now his mom works two jobs, and he sees his sister as a sleep-around loser. The language in this book is vulgar, which was somewhat shocking. It has the tone of an old-fashioned detective novel - all simple, short, choppy sentences. In some ways Huge seems old for his age -- but there IS that stuffed frog...

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Catcher in the Rye, since Huge is a similar type of character, and he tends to do outlandish things. It's also a good choice for lovers of detective stories. But if swear words upset you, don't try this book. I would rate this one 2 out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bon appetit!

Recently highlighted in the movie Julie and Julia, with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, Julia Child's star has risen again. A cultural icon in the 60's and 70's because of her PBS cooking show, she was the precursor for the many cooking shows now filling the Food Network. She was the first to encourage American cooks to aspire to gourmet-level meal creation. Coming to popular success in the years immediately following the creation of processed food (Campbell's soup, Kraft Mac and Cheese, Chef Boy R Dee pizza in a box, etc.), Julia issued a challenge to those who valued food for the soul -- food to savor -- not just food as fuel.

This book, written in collaboration with a great-nephew at the very end of her life (c. 2005), tells of the years in the 1950's when she and her fairly-new husband Paul lived in France. He worked for the U.S. State Department and was in charge of setting up exhibits to raise public opinion about the United States in France. Julia became interested in cooking after her "soul and spirit were opened up" by some wonderful meals. She took some classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, learned from private chefs, and eventually opened her own cooking school with two other women. These three women then set out to write a cookbook for Americans to introduce them to French cooking -- and that was the beginning of everything.

What I loved about this book was the joy with which she described EVERYTHING -- the sights, sounds, tastes, people, weather -- even the inconveniences of having no hot water, living in a freezing apartment, and having no gas for their stove were all welcomed as a grand adventure. Julia and Paul entertained frequently, and they went out and about to take advantage of their time abroad. They went to restaurants and clubs, toured the countryside, explored the markets, immersed themselves in everything France had to offer -- and she describes it all so convincingly in this book that one almost can't help but book a flight immediately!

4 out of 4 stars

Back in time -- to look forward?

I have always loved the short stories of Ray Bradbury. From Something Wicked This Way Comes to Martian Chronicles, his stories combine vivid descriptions of life-as-we-know-it with realistic portrayals of space exploration. And beneath those "flights of fancy" is a shared conviction between Bradbury and his readers that no matter where humans go or to what extent we advance our technologies, we will carry with us our human failings and faults. Which will bring about our downfall.

By telling the stories of individual characters, he communicates his opinions about issues of the day, such as racism and civil rights, technology, class systems, the importance of creativity and freedom, and the importance of the arts. In many of his stories, it is evident that he believes that science, big government, and "progress" are trying to quell creativity, fantasy, and fun.

But I like his books mostly because he doesn't make any grand pronouncements. His themes don't blast the reader too strongly. Instead, we get drawn into the lives of his characters. Like the astronauts flying through space in "Kaleidoscope" -- without the benefit of a rocket, after theirs has blown up and thrown them out into space. They are flying in different directions at hundreds of miles per hour - some destined to re-enter Earth's atmosphere in a trail of fire -- others to collide with meteors or to continue moving toward other planets. Their communications technology allows them to continue to talk to each other as they fly along, and in a few short sentences we have a clearly-painted image of their personalities and what they've gone through to get to this point. And what a title -- doesn't the word Kaleidoscope immediately conjure up an image of little dits and dots twirling against a background? To think of those random images in a black sea of space as being humans creates a quirky (humorous and yet horrific) mental image.

Another story, "Zero Hour," raises memories of the long days of childhood summers spent outside playing with friends. And the mother inside doing her chores or attending to the kids when they run in and out looking for something, getting a drink, or telling her about their games. They are playing 'invasion," which sounds very creative and imaginary -- but we soon come to realize that the kids are more in touch with reality than the adults. Martians really ARE planning to invade -- tonight. The kids are prepared to help them take over the Earth -- and that is unbelievable, horrible, and yet fits into every kid's childhood fantasy.

If you haven't yet tried out a Bradbury, stop by the library and check one out. We have 5 of his books.
I'm rating Illustrated Man 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Modern Ghost Story

Audrey Niffenegger rose to fame with her story of The Time Traveler's Wife - which I loved because it took place in and around Chicago, and it was fun to recognize music venues, museums, etc. (heck, the main character WORKED at the Newberry Library!) And it was just quirky enough to keep me intrigued -- "What? He travels through time? Does he have any control over where he shows up, or when?" Well, this adventurous and risk-taking author has reached even further into her bag of tricks to come up with Her Fearful Symmetry.
Plot summary: Two 20-year-old twin girls, Julia and Valentina, living with their parents in north suburban Chicago, inherit a London apartment from their mother Emily's twin Elspeth, from whom she has been estranged -- for about 20 years. Hmmm. What's the deal? The catch to the inheritance is that in order to truly win the apartment, they will need to live in it for a year -- and their parents are forbidden to visit. Well, the girls are at loose ends anyway - they've dropped out of at least two universities and are just hanging out at home doing not-much. So off they go, to their grand adventure in London. They meet the other inhabitants of the apartment building. There is Martin, the upstairs neighbor, who suffers from debilitating OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and whose wife has recently left him as a result. And downstairs is Roger, their Aunt Elspeth's younger lover, who is ostensibly working on a doctoral thesis about the cemetery next-door -- though he seems to be stuck, and instead of writing spends his days giving tours of the historic cemetery and his nights sitting out among the graves. Very soon we find out that Elspeth has NOT left, but her ghost remains. She is frustrated by her in-between state and wants to still feel, touch, and interact with those around her. So she practices her powers until she is able to move objects, turn lights on and off, and communicate with the twins, using an Ouija board. Valentina, the more frail of the twins, is more in-tune with Elspeth -- she can even see her faint image. And Roger comes to love Valentina -- or is it just her connection to Elspeth that he loves?
The novel really gets into both generations of sibling rivalry, love stories, and the existence (or not) of ghosts all around us.

All in all, though it was intriguing, the characters were NOT sympathetic - they were majorly flawed in so many ways that I did not root for them or hope for their wishes to come true. It was a very dark book -- in London it was always rainy and gloomy, Martin had his windows covered with paper to keep out the germs and other "bad stuff," the characters were often depressed or unambitious, and the ending did not redeem anything or anyone.

So, though this is my first time to do so, I can only give this book 2 out of 4 stars.