Monday, February 28, 2011

Farmer Boy - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summary:  Ten years in the future, Laura Ingalls will marry Almanzo in the town of De Smet, South Dakota.  But now, Almanzo is miles away, growing up with his brother and sisters on his father's farm in New York.

Almanzo's chores get him up at dawn and keep him working till dinner -- summer and winter.  But it is fun, and it builds character.  And was there ever a boy who loved horses more?  Was there ever a boy with a bigger appetite?  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review: Farmer Boy is the fourth book in the Little House Series and the only one that focuses on Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, as a young boy. Almanzo’s life on his family farm in New York isn’t easy, but he wants nothing more than to be a farmer, eat his weight in his mother’s delicious cooking, and, of course, help train the new colts. His family maintains a substantial farm and is far wealthier than the Ingalls family could ever hope to be. As a boy, his chores vastly differ from the Ingalls’ girls, and he spends his days helping his father prepare the fields, plant and harvest crops, shear sheep, bale hay, cut logs for firewood, and haul ice from the lake to the icehouse. It was interesting to note the disparities between the Wilder and Ingalls families. The difference in financial circumstances and the addition of the male point of view allowed my girls to see a different side of farming life in the late 1800s, and both they and I enjoyed the change in perspective.

Once again, this book offered many opportunities to discuss important life lessons with my girls. On one occasion, Almanzo’s father taught him how to spend his money wisely, and give up something good for something that required hard work, but was even better. It was a perfect way to start a conversation with my children about saving for things that are important, working hard, making smart financial decisions.

My only complaint about this book was that when Almanzo and his father were working on a project, the story morphed into an exceptionally detailed instruction manual on how to make that particular item. The only reason I think anyone would find this interesting would be if they actually wanted to make the item in question. Personally, I have no intention of ever making a bobsled. These sections were lengthy and it was difficult for my children to follow along and imagine the process. I could see my girls checking out of the story in those moments and to be honest I had a hard time not just skipping over it. Thankfully, these sections didn’t happen too often and my girls found more than enough stories to keep them occupied. They loved the town’s Independence Day celebration, the “blacking” incident, and stared at me, wide-eyed, when I read about the time Mother and Father left the children by themselves for a week while they went to visit relatives.

Overall, I’m glad that I read the book for the background about the Wilder family and the character depth it gave to Laura’s future husband. I would recommend this book to anyone reading the series, but don’t think that it is a must-read.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is an illustration of a naked boy as he gets into a washtub. It's a side-view, so you don’t see anything. It was no big deal unless your girls get the giggles, which mine did. There is also a story about a teacher who whips naughty children with a bullwhip that, I promise, sounds far worse than it actually is.

Sum it up: An interesting, but not essential, addition to the Little House series.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

FlashForward - Robert J. Sawyer

Summary:  The story of a world-shattering discovery at the CERN research facility in Switzerland. The research team of Lloyd Simcoe and Theo Procopides is using the particle accelerator at CERN in pursuit of the elusive Higgs Boson, a theoretical subatomic particle. But their experiment goes incredibly awry, and, for a few moments, the consciousness of the entire human race is thrown ahead by about twenty years. 

While humanity must deal immediately with the destructive aftermath of the experiment — thousands were injured and killed as every single person's body was left unconscious in the here-and-now — the greater implications take longer to surface. People who had no vision of the future seek to learn how they will died, while others seek out future lovers. (summary from jacket cover)
My Review:  Do you remember that old TV show called...wait, what was it?  Oh, yes - LOST.  When the show ended Mindy posted some suggestions of books that one might read to help combat the inevitable withdrawal that we "Losties" were facing*.  It was a nice thought, but my plan was instead to find another epic TV show to pine away for week after week - and my show of choice was FlashForward...which of course, was canceled after one season. 

Major frowny-face + whiny voice : I really wanted to know how it ended!

Luckily I remembered that I could perhaps read on occasion and with a few well place hints, Voila! I got this book for Christmas.

Because I had already basically heard this story before I feel a bit biased in my judgment.  I found I wasn't as enthralled with the individual characters in the book as I was with those in the show.  Likely this was because on TV they had more time to develop the characters and to add additional layers (a HUGE conspiracy layer was added in the show).

But hey, visions of the future combined with world-wide catastrophe; as far as fiction goes that is top-notch in my opinion.  Add a bit of intellectual play with quantum theory and I'm your gal.  The book was well-written and kept my interest, even though I already sort of knew what might happen.  And although the details were different between the TV show and the book, the ending of the book gave me just enough ideas of what could have happened that I was able to imagine an appropriate ending to the TV show.

So, as I said - I am probably biased on my opinion, having "seen the movie" before reading the book.  But if you want to "find out what happened" I recommend this one.  And if you have no idea what I'm talking about and continued reading this far despite my incredibly pedestrian obsession with a TV drama I'd guess that you would like the book even better than I did.

One more thing, this book was written in 1999 but set in 2009.  So while the plot and theoretical concepts are ultimately what make this book worth reading it is also amusing to hunt for the author's guesses on what "the future" (ie, our recent past) would look like.  Lets just say, he misjudged on the prevalence of "publish on demand;" didn't guess that Wikipedia or DVDs would be en vogue; and was one more person who didn't for see Great Recession.

My rating:  3 stars (3.5 if you haven't watched the TV show)

Sum it up:  I love reading books really, really quickly - particularly over Christmas, when it is more socially acceptable to abdicate parenting to friends and family.  This was a really good book to do that with.

*The question is - Mindy, have you watched LOST from the beginning yet?  If I had to guess I'd say you were a Sawyer girl...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Busy Book Series - Trish Kuffner

Summary:  365 fun and creative activities to stimulate your toddler, preschooler, or older child every day of the year.  (Summary from books - Images from

My Review:  It’s time to come clean. You know those moms who manage to run a successful home-based business, craft with their kids, bake bread, and scrapbook stunning works of photographic art? Well, I am not one of those Super Moms. I try to be a good parent, but there are some days that I just stare at my kids and, with all the love in my heart, think “What on earth am I going to do with you?” . I try to think of ways to entertain them and I come up empty.

Do you have days like that? Days when, if you hear the words “I’m bored” one more time, you swear you’ll lock yourself in the bathroom? If so, I suggest looking through the Busy Book Series by Trish Kuffner. I found a used set on my last visit to the bookstore and it was a lights-shining-down-from-heaven kind of moment. I snatched them off the shelf in a millisecond, but it wasn’t until I started flipping through the pages that I realized what a treasure I had found.

I wish I had read The Toddler’s Busy Book when my two oldest were little. Designed specifically for 1 ½ to 3-year-olds, this book is packed with 365 simple ideas for educational toddler play, crafts, music, and snacks, along with parenting tips and organizational ideas. Your child will love snow painting in the winter, flying a balloon kite in the spring, or any one of their 84 ideas for rainy day play!

The Preschooler’s Busy Book is the perfect way to give your 3 to 6-year-old the sensory, imaginary, and educational experience their little brains crave. Whether they are playing with Super Goop, setting up their own grocery store, or making a Pom-Pom spider, you can be sure they’ll be having tons of fun. This book even includes activities that help promote basic reading readiness, math, geography, and botany in inventive and entertaining ways.

My girls were most excited about The Children’s Busy Book, written primarily for children ages 6 to 10. My 7-year old immediately began marking pages to try. At bedtime, I had to pry it from her grasp when I found the book hiding under her pillow. She loves the cooking section, with its child-friendly recipes, and has plans to make The World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies, play Penny Toss, and build sculptures with toothpicks and mini-marshmallows.

While you will see a few activities that are suitable for all ages repeated throughout the three books, each book offers unique ideas that will inspire the minds of those left in your care. My favorite part of these books is that most of the activities are simple to set up and require only a few, easy to find items that are usually already hanging around my home. Above all, I love that don’t have to wrack my brain to come up with ideas that are creative, constructive, and entertaining.

I’m a realistic woman. I will never be the super mom-next-door. However, with a Busy Book or two at my disposal, hopefully my kids will have too much fun to notice.

My Rating:  5 Stars

Sum it up:  These books might keep your kids busy long enough for you to actually...wait for it...get things DONE.  It's a literary MIRACLE!!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Peasant Queen - Cheri Chesley

Summary:  After running away from home, Krystal is transported to a faraway kingdom where an evil tyrant is bent on taking the crown--and Krystal's hand in marriage.  But when she falls in love with the rightful heir to the throne, she must make an impossible choice: sacrifice her one chance at happiness and agree to marry King Gregory, or face the destruction of an entire kingdom.

In her debut novel, Cheri Chesley delights readers of all ages with this epic tale of a simple farm girl who discovers that even the humblest of peasants has the potential to change the world.  (Summary from book - Image from  - Book given free for review)

My Review:  *Sigh*  I wanted so much more from this book.  At just under 250 pages, I hoped to escape into another world for an afternoon or two, but instead spent my time reading what I felt was an interesting, but unfinished manuscript. Oh, the punctuation, spelling, and grammar were perfection (I’m sure the author could teach me a thing or twelve), but the characters, setting, and storyline of the book felt thin and incomplete.

If I could ask Ms. Chesley for one thing, it would be for her to go back and insert some atmosphere and emotion into her story. I wanted to be able to visualize every page of this novel but could not because it rarely waxed descriptive on any level. Most of the book was comprised of he said/she said dialog, and he did/she did action, with little description of settings, characters’ emotions, or their motivations. I’m not asking for flowery mush, mind you, but rather subtle and evocative phrasing that would help me see (and sink into) the story.

If I could ask Ms. Chesley for one more thing. It would be friction. FRICTION. Quite simply, the story went too smoothly -- obstacles were easily overcome, danger skirted, and emotions developed quickly and with insufficient explanation. This perceived lack of genuine sentiment and lasting conflict between characters made the story feel convenient and contrived.

On the upside, this book is full of fighting, courtly intrigue, a dash of magic, a feisty (nigh combative) heroine, and is an always clean medieval romance. I think you will find that books like that aren’t easy to come by.  I feel like it fit well into the younger YA category (just above tween) in terms of plot and emotional complexity and could find a delighted reader in that audience.

Ultimately, this story was not my cup of tea (or cocoa).  However, I feel I should mention that there are quite a few people who would disagree wholeheartedly with my review.  They loved it.  I wanted more.

My Rating: 2.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  One of the characters gets a little friendly, but it's fairly mild. 

Sum it up: A story with a good heart that has unreached potential.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson - Jerome Charyn

Summary:  The inner life of Emily Dickinson was creatively effulgent, psychologically pained and emotionally ambivalent, as reported by Charyn, who here inhabits the mind of one of America's most famous poets. Charyn parrots the cadent voice of razor-sharp Dickinson, beginning in her years as the tempestuous young lyricist who aims to choose my words like a rapier that can scratch deep into the skin. (Summary from Publisher's Weekly via - Image from - Book provided free for review).

My Review:  It goes with out saying that creating a novel about "the secret life" of a well-studied historical figure carries some heavy risk.  However I am entirely uneducated about Emily Dickinson so I felt free to read the book without worrying to much about authenticity.  I was enthralled with the voice of the narrative with its, not surprisingly, lyrical prose.

Much of the novel had the feel of a introspective auto-biography but, even without my knowledge of Dickinson's life, I could tell the difference between what was fact and what was most likely invented.  This was because the inventions were often times tinged with salaciousness or attempted to provide shock value.  That said, the fictionalized insertions did deal with rumors or suspicions that might hover around Dickinson's life (ie, rebellion, secret romances, lesbian tenancies, mental illness).  These details only added to a picture of the whole person, rather than narrowly defining her as a single stereotype. 

I would have liked to have been exposed to Dickinson's poems in my reading.  They were absent.  But I guess that Dickinson's poems were absent in the public realm throughout her life, so perhaps it is fitting.  This book was about Emily Dickinson's life, from which sprang her poems, not about the poems themselves.    

My Rating:  3.5 (probably a 4 if I had a previous familiarity with Dickinson)

To Sum it Up:  A lyrical look at the (imagined) life of an American icon..

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Anatomy of Pilates - Paul Massey

Summary:  Pilates is an exercise method designed to elongate and strengthen the body by emphasizing balance, alignment, proper breathing, and core stability.  Osteopaths, physiotherapists, and general practitioners recommend its simple, low-impact approach as one of the safest forms of exercise, ideal for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and overall physical health.  Pilates can be beneficial for just about everyone, regardless of age and fitness level.

The Anatomy of Pilates takes the reader inside the body to show exactly what happens in the body's muscles and joints during a Pilates exercise.  At the heart of the book are 150 full-color illustrations showing the muscles that lengthen and strengthen in 40 classic exercises, together with information on anatomy, technique, breathing pitfalls, and more.  The Anatomy of Pilates is an accessible, authoritative guide for current and prospective teacher of Pilates, practitioners at all skill levels, physical therapists, and health professionals.  (Summary from back of the book, book free for review from Lotus Publishing and image from

My ReviewReading this book made me want to utilize Pilates more in my exercise routine.  I'm not the most versed in Pilates, but I have enjoyed a class or two.  I think this book is geared more towards people who know anatomy, or have more experience with Pilates.  Not that I didn't find it helpful, because I did.  I have never taken an anatomy class. Therefore, the read wasn't as fast as it would have been had I been more knowledgeable in the proper names of each muscle.

The book is organized in a way that the reader can easily navigate the basics of Pilates--Introduction, Posture and Movement, Applications, and Classical Pilates Exercises.  There were a couple of aspects I found very helpful (besides all the full-color pictures).  The pitfalls that accompany each exercise/pose were informative for someone who is a beginner.  The second section of the book, Posture and Movement, had diagrams and examples of poor posture.  After determining your posture--unless you're perfect and don't have any problems with incorrect posture--there is a suggested exercise section.  These suggested exercises will help improve the weakened areas of your body based on your posture.  The last aspect to the book I found useful is the chart on page 60.  It illustrates the exercises to do at what ability level and how many repetitions.

Overall the The Anatomy of Pilates is very informative and because the book is only around 150 pages, it isn't a daunting read.  The full-color illustrations are the icing on the cake, making the book more easily digested.  (Does icing to do that?  Oh well, If not, you get the idea.)

My Rating: 4 Stars

Sum it up: A comprehensive look at Pilates and how it works the body.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Summary: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
Summary from book, cover photo from

My Review: Chances are you have heard of Hela cells. They make regular appearances in articles and on news channels as scientists use them in research to discover how human cells react to various toxins and come up with new medications and vaccinations from studying them. But not much has been said about where these cells originated from. This book takes us behind the scenes of Hela cells back to the woman whose body they were cut from more than fifty years ago - Henrietta Lacks.

This book is more than a scientific study on Hela cells. It's a touching story of the Lacks family - a mother who died of cancer too early leaving her young children and husband behind. It's about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose body passed on but whose cells not only still live but continue to reproduce at astonishing rates.

This book is perfectly laid out to create a beautiful, yet educational story. It contains some interesting information on chromosome mapping, cell reproduction, and cell research in general. The information is provided mostly in layman’s terms making it easy to understand and read. At the same time it brings light onto the woman who was Henrietta Lacks from her childhood to beyond her death with a detailed look inside the lives of her children. The author has done an amazing job of reporting as a neutral party (for the most part) and yet humanizing the Lackes. There were a few parts toward the middle that felt a bit over dramatized. Yet there is no doubt that Henrietta's children suffered greatly, especially her daughter, Deborah. Their torment is adequately portrayed.

This book will leave the reader puzzled with feelings on the equity of tissue ownership. Parts produce outrage toward the abuse of power by the medical profession, Yet where would we be without the medical advancements led to by Hela? What a miraculous legacy Henrietta left behind. This would certainly make for an excellent book club discussion with some warmer moments.

My Rating: 4 Stars

To Sum it Up: So much more than a scientific article yet so much more than a memoir, this is a book that begs to be read.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Life As We Knew It - Susan Beth Pfeffer

Summary:  When Miranda first hears the warnings that a meteor is headed on a collision path with the moon, they just sound like an excuse for extra homework assignments.  But her disbelief turns to fear in a split second as the entire world witnesses a lunar impact that knocks the moon closer in orbit, catastrophically altering the earth's climate.

Everything else in Miranda's life fades away as supermarkets run out of food, gas goes up to more than ten dollars a gallon, and school is closed indefinitely.

But what Miranda and her family don't realize is that the worst is yet to come.

Told in Miranda's diary entries, this is a heart-pounding account of her struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all--hope--in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar time.  (Summary from book jacket and image from

My Review:  I can't help but feel this book is too creepy to be enjoyed.  What are the chances that a meteor could knock the moon off its orbit enough to affect the world?  That is a question I'm not sure I really want to contemplate.  But, with that spark of thought, it opens up a wide range of possibilities, all with consequences I have a hard time combining with the realities of raising my small family.

Miranda's family and their progress through this book is very realistic.  The depictions of Miranda's envy of her younger brother's food consumption,  her mother's desire to keep them all alive but putting more emphasis on Jon (her younger brother), their reactions to the latest downfall to their predicament all felt so very true for a teenage girl and her perspective of her family.  I was amazed at her mother's foresight.  I was impressed by the family's loyalty and work ethic.  I cannot imagine going through such an ordeal.

I cannot say I raced through this book.  In fact, I was rather slow in the beginning to trudge through the pages.  I knew it was only going to get worse.  It can be hard to want to know what is coming when you know it has to be bad.  By the last third, as is typical of me, I was racing to finish.  I just had to know if it had a happy ending.  It's not peaches and cream ending, but it didn't leave me upset.  I refuse to ruin it for you.

I'm not sure I'll recommend this to my students.  I'd have to know the reader was strong to start and had an interest in end-of-the-world situations.  Otherwise, I think it would just freak them out.

One thing I do know, I want more food storage and think I'll keep more basic necessities on hand...just in case.

Rating:  3.75  For sensitive readers: There is persistent swearing, of the Bible variety, but since it's a young adult book I felt it necessary to note.

Sum it up: Although an end-of-the-world scenario type book, it really had me thinking about emergency preparedness and just what it would take to live through a worldwide catastrophe.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Heartbeat Away GIVEAWAY

It's GIVEAWAY time!

I just finished the latest Michael Palmer novel
"A Heartbeat Away"
and thought it was a thrilling read. 

If you would like your very own shiny, new, autographed copy

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Eligibility Rules:  This giveaway is open to US/CAN residents only and will end at 11:59 PM on 3/5/2011.   Winners will be chosen randomly, posted publicly, and contacted swiftly to arrange for shipping. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

Summary:  The year is 1945.  Claire Randall, a former combat nurse is back from the war and reunited with her hsuband on a second honeymoon -- when she innocently atouches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles.  Suddenly she is a Sassenach--an "outlander" -- in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord...1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies tha tmay threaten her life...and shatter her heart.  For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire...and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives. (Summary from book - Image from

My ReviewOutlander is one of those books that has been on my “must read” list for a very long time. Until a week ago I’d never even read the back cover; I’d just heard how amazing it was and thrown it on the list right next to The Poisonwood Bible. When a close friend started singing its praises, I finally opened Outlander expecting to be blown away.

Outlander didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It is billed as a “spellbinding novel of passion and history that combines exhilarating adventure with a love story for the ages”, but I’d say that’s stretching it a bit. Although the binding simply reads “fiction” this book is not much more than a glorified romance novel. Sure, there is extensive historical detail and more plot and character development than in found in the average romance novel, but I didn’t find anything extraordinary, unless you consider the book’s whopping 850-page count (mass market).

The character of Claire was a bit of a conundrum. Most of the time she was a feisty, intelligent, and capable female character, but there were times when she seemed to give up the fight. I was bothered that she could dismiss her husband so easily. While I understand the “technicality” of her not being married, it still felt like a betrayal when she only made a token effort to return to her own time before deciding to get her flirt on.

My biggest problem with Outlander was the incredible amount of sex and sexual dialogue that was needlessly incorporated into the story. To be perfectly honest, it was completely unrealistic and took place with such frequency that any normal woman would start to chafe. I’m a huge fan of the whole Highland romance genre, but I prefer my reads with a little more romantic tension and a lot less, um, release. There were also a few sections that I found highly disturbing in terms of domestic violence, rape, and other sexually explicit and abusive scenes.

In the end, I forced myself to finish this book, simply to say that I had finished it. For most of the book I was interested in how everything would turn out for the characters (the story is left resolved but open to more books), but eventually ended up skimming because I was incredibly tired and just didn’t care anymore. The last few sections of the book became very dark and disturbing before taking on a strangely religious tone that was entirely unexpected. It was all a bit weird.

That having been said, I think that a person who likes romance novels of this variety (time travel) and isn’t bothered by the sexual content, will probably enjoy this book. Gabaldon definitely delivers a historical romance novel with an impressive page count but, ultimately, I expected something epic and got something only slightly more than ordinary. I’m glad I finished, if for no other reason that I can cross it (and the entire series) off my list.

My Rating: 2.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There was a LOT of sex and it was not the close-the-door-fade-to-black-wake-up-next-to-each-other-the-following-morning kind. There were also a quite a few f-words, moments of sexual dialogue, a disturbing amount of domestic violence, and a character with some fairly twisted and sadistic sexual proclivities.

Sum it up: A glorified romance novel masquerading as historical fiction.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Heartbeat Away - Michael Palmer

Summary:  On the night of the State of the Union address, President Allaire expects to give the speech of his career.  But no one anticipates the terrifying turn of events that forces him to quarantine everyone in the Capitol building.  A terrorist group calling itself "Genesis" has unleashed WRX3883, a deadly, highly contagious virus, into the building.  No one fully knows the deadly effect of the germ except for the team responsible for its development--a team headed by Allaire, himself.  The only one who might be able to help is virologist Griffin Rhodes, currently in solitary confinement in a maximum security federal prison for alleged terrorist acts, including the attempted theft of WRX3883 from the lab where he worked.  Rhodes has no idea why he has been arrested, but when Allaire offers to free him in exchange for his help combating the virus, he reluctantly agrees to do what he can to support the government that has imprisoned him without apparent cause.

Meanwhile, every single person in line for presidential succession is trapped inside the Capitol--every person except one: the Director of Homeland Security, who is safely at home in Minnesota, having been selected as the "Designated Survivor" for this event.  With enemies both named and unnamed closing in, and the security of the nation  at stake, Griff must unravel the mysteries of WRX3883 without violating his pledge as a scientist to use no animal testing in his experiments...and time is running out.  (Summary from book - Image from - Book given free for review)

My Review:  Michael Palmer’s latest novel, A Heartbeat Away, explodes out of the gate with a vicious attack by a covert terrorist organization known only as Genesis. In the months that follow their initial assault, they strike a variety of civilian targets without mercy before mounting an attack on the heart of U.S. political power. When they release a potentially lethal virus during the President’s State of the Union address, chaos erupts, and as people begin to panic, the President is forced to take extreme measures. The story spans the next ten days as a president, a condemned traitor, and countless others, fight to save the nation from a full-scale meltdown and a deadly air-born contagion that could destroy the world.

I don’t read a lot of medical thrillers, so what impresses me might not satisfy a seasoned fan of the genre, but I enjoyed this book. A Heartbeat Away was relevant, tense, and moved quickly with only a few lulls in the action. It also had an ending that was cheesy, but ultimately, satisfying. I finished the latter half in one sitting, thanks to a delayed flight in SLC, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had stuck in an airport. Palmer’s bio-terror scenario was far too realistic for my comfort, but the possibility that something similar could actually occur in our own nation was part of what made this story fascinating.

The only complaints about this book are a few over-the-top moments, some widely spaced profanity, and the frequent reference to the ethics of animal testing which, while admirable, felt a little out of place and unnecessary for the story. While Palmer took his characters to stereotypical extremes (e.g. the noble president, the crusading virologist, the tenacious reporter, the corrupt politician, and the evil terrorist organization), it all fit perfectly into the cinematic nature of the story. I can see this book making it to the big screen and doing quite well (if appropriately cast w/ Alex O’Loughlin as the extremely attractive, yet intelligent virologist). I know I’d go see it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Some infrequent swearing and slightly more frequent violence and death.

Sum it up: An nerve-wracking leap into the what-if’s of biological contagions and terrorism.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

By the Shores of Silver Lake - Laura Ingalls Wilder

Summary:  The Ingalls family had fared badly in Plum Creek, Minnesota.  They were in debt.  Mary was blind now.  So Pa went West to work at a railroad camp in Dakota Territory where he could make as much as fifty dollars a month!  Then he sent for his wife and four children, and they became the first settlers in the new town of De Smet.  But the railroad brought hordes of land-hungry people from the East.  Had Pa waited too long to file his homestead claim?  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:  By the Shores of Silver Lake starts on a sad note with the news that Mary has gone blind from scarlet fever. My daughters had barely had time to process this tragedy before the family’s beloved dog Jack died, and they did not bear the news well. There were many tears and a few declarations of “I (sob) HATE this book!” Despite the rocky start, it wasn’t long before my eldest was stumbling around the house with her eyes closed (pretending to be Mary) and they were begging me to read to them again. It helped that there was a new addition to the family, in the form of baby Grace, and that the Ingalls family soon left Plum Creek for another adventure in Dakota Territory.

In this section of the Little House series, Laura, a young lady of thirteen, moves with her family a record total of five times as they leave Plum Creek and all around the Dakota Territory, finally settling on a claim outside the town of De Smet. These environmental changes, ranging from a temporary shanty to an unfinished shop, kept the story moving and always provided a new area for my children’s imaginations. They loved reading about life in a railroad camp, thrilled at Laura’s adventures on the shores of Silver Lake, and marveled when the Ingalls family woke up in a half-finished building with a foot of snow on their beds. Throw in a few angry mobs and you’ve got a story that will captivate both young and old.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There were a few small paragraphs that conveyed negative stereotypes of Native Americans, but I managed to gloss over them without incident

Sum it up:  Best read within the context of the series, By the Shores of Silver Lake tells the fascinating tale of one family’s adventures as they journey from Minnesota to Dakota Territory. Each location offered a variety of new experiences that kept my young readers interested.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

Also reviewed by Elizabeth.

Summary: On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini.  In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails.  As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile.  But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.  Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, seven years in the making, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in her blockbuster bestseller, Seabiscuit.  Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.
Summary from book, cover photo

My Review: Before he was drafted into the army during World War II, Louis Zamporini was an Olympic runner. His successful running career was surprising to many. His survival of WWII was miraculous to all. Unbroken is the inspiring true story of Louie's life.

Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, has dug deep to research Zamporini's life. She opens with a brief overview of Louie's youth, giving the reader a feel for his character and determination. She then settles into WWII where the bulk of the story takes place. Mixed into this compelling story is a plethora of information on WWII POW camps housed in Japan.

When the bomber he was aboard crashed into the ocean, Louie managed to survive weeks on a small raft surrounded by sharks with minimal provisions. Against all odds he reaches land only to be met by Japanese forces who quickly sweep him off as a POW.  Soon it becomes clear that Louie's fight for his life has only just begun.

This is an engrossing story read with clamped hands and an accelerated heart-rate yet told in a compassionate manner. The material is many times disturbing but written with balance of detail to portray the horror while not overly done for pure shock value. Unbroken is a swiftly moving story that is quickly consumed but will not be forgotten.

My Rating: 5 Stars

To sum it up: An account of one man's sacrifice for his country and his will to survive.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Carrie Pilby - Caren Lissner

Summary:  Teen Genius (and Hermit) Carrie Pilby's To-Do List

1.  List 10 things you love (and DO THEM!)

2.  Join a club (and TALK TO PEOPLE!)

3.  Go on a date (with someone you actually LIKE!)

4.  Tell someone you care (your therapist doesn't count!)

5.  Celebrate New Year's (with OTHER PEOPLE!)

Seriously?  Carrie would rather stay in bed than deal with the immoral, sex-obsessed hypocrites who seem to overrun her hometown, New York City.  She's sick of trying to be like everybody else.  She isn't!  But when her own therapist gives her a five-point plan to change her social-outcast status, Carrie takes a hard look at herself--and agrees to try.

Suddenly the world doesn't seem so bad.  But is prodigy Carrie really going to dumb things down just to fit in?  (Summary from book - Image from - Book given free for review)

My Review: Carrie Pilby, with her quirky inaccessibility and extreme social awkwardness, is the literal description me in high school – only not that smart. I started out this book laughing and over identifying like you would not believe. Carries dry humor and sarcastic personality were amusing and, at first, all I needed to declare my love for the book. Carrie lives the life of a 19-year-old hermit and, although burdened and blessed with an overwhelming intellect, she has difficulty processing or taking part in a world where people do stupid things that hurt themselves or others. She’d rather just stay in bed. However, in pursuit of social acceptance, or at least an understanding of social behavior, Carrie emerges from her insular world and sets out to change herself.

While the ultimate message of the book is uplifting, the book in its entirety was not. Eventually Carrie concludes (yes, a bit of a spoiler here) that you can still be yourself and hold to your standards in a frighteningly amoral world, but she takes a excruciatingly long time to come to that conclusion. (end of spoiler) For the majority of the book, Carrie forces herself to experience the real world in ways that would terrify most parents. Many secondary characters give impressive monologues on why she should partake of their lifestyle, and occasionally she does with varying degrees of trepidation. An older reader might grasp the intricacies of this plot, but I worry that a younger reader would miss the underlying significance of her struggle and would buy into what these characters were selling in regards to underage drinking, illicit drug use, and casual sex. Also, Carrie’s past, and only, sexual relationship was with a much older man when she was underage. While this relationship fed into the reasons behind Carrie's reclusive behavior, its presence, in what I felt was being sold as a light-hearted teen novel, was troubling. I loved Carrie’s personality (and the author’s ability to write it), but felt that Carrie’s advanced intellect set the subject matter slightly above its young adult classification, regardless of its bubble-gum cover art.

When I picked up Carrie Pilby I expected a light and humorous search for self-worth, identity, and friendship. What I got was far different, and a little disappointing. After a while, Carrie’s musings over moral relativism lost their shine and her attempts to establish a lasting relationship with anyone started to chafe, and I just couldn’t love her enough to be completely invested in the book. I finally had to force myself to finish it.


My Rating: 2.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is one of those modern teen novels that brings in pretty much everything you don’t want your young kid up to –sex, drinking, drugs, etc. While Carrie always approaches both of these with her own set of ethics and moral standards, she does tend towards experimentation in pursuit of greater understanding, etc. There is infrequent swearing and sporatic discussion of sexual matters.

Sum it up: The quasi-literal definition of “do not judge a book by its cover.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Prophecy of the Sisters - Michelle Zink

Summary:  An ancient prophecy divides two sisters--one evil...who will prevail?

Twin sisters Lia and Alice Milthrope have just become orphans.  They have also become enemies.  As they discover their roles in a prophecy that has turned generations of sisters against each other, they find themselves entangled in a mystery that involves a tattoo-like mark, their parents' deaths, a boy, a book, and a lifetime of secrets.

Lia and Alice don't know whom they can trust.  They just know they can't trust each other.  (Summary from back of the book and image from

My Review: I really wanted to like this book--the cover is quite eye catching, and it came to me highly recommended.  Alas, it was slow paced, so dark and sinister that it repulsed me, and ended unresolved.  I know there's a second book, but I truly don't want to read it.  I'd like to get the cliff notes to satiate my curiosity, but I don't want to waste another week of reading time to figure out how it all plays out. 

Much of this book is spent trying to figure out what is wrong with Lia and Alice. And once you do understand what is going on; you spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to stop this craziness.

The writing was more sophisticated than typical YA books, which was nice.  And the atmosphere in the book reminds me a bit of Jane Eyre.  Where it didn't measure up was the contrasting feelings of overall goodness.  Maybe I'm jumping the gun on this judgment, for I'm fairly certain the next book will (hopefully) address some of these issues by answering how Lia will try and make everything right again.  Will I pick up the sequel?  I'm not sure.  Not for a while at least.

Rating:  2.75 Stars

Sum it up: Disturbing and dark, slow paced and sullen, this book evokes a sinister feel that you can't shake.


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