Friday, April 29, 2011

Perfect Chemistry - Simone Elkeles

Summary:  A modern tale of star-crossed lovers with a fresh urban twist. At Fairfield High School, on the outskirts of Chicago , everyone knows that south-siders mixing with north-siders can be explosive. So when Brittany Ellis and Alejandro “Alex” Fuentes are forced to be lab partners in chemistry class, this human experiment leads to unexpected revelations – that Brittany ’s flawless reputation is a cover for her troubled home life, that Alex’s bad-boy persona hides his desire to break free from gang ties, and that when they’re together, life somehow makes more sense. Breaking through the stereotypes and expectations that threaten to keep Brittany and Alex apart, Perfect Chemistry takes readers to both sides of the tracks in a passionate love story about looking beneath the surface. (Summary and image from

My Review:  Pride and Prejudice meets She's All That and West Side Story in this gritty, urban romance by Simone Elkeles.  Alex and Brittany have nothing in common.  He's a hardened member of the Latino Blood street gang and she's Ms. Perfect, with her perfect grades, perfect hair, and perfect life.   When the two are thrown together in chemistry class, they couldn't be more unhappy about it and emotions run high.  But things change, as they often do in books like this, and it isn't long before the tension between them is of an entirely different nature.   Neither Alex or Brittany are what they seem and as they get to know each other, the truth comes out in unexpected ways. 

No doubt about it, this book is a YA romance novel and not much else.  It had a great deal of profanity, sexual comments, sexual situations, and substance abuse -- far more than I feel is necessary or appropriate in a YA novel.  It might have been a little less offensive if I didn't speak Spanish, because then I would have missed certain words and innuendo, but there were plenty of English ones to go around.  That having been said, I read this 357 page novel from cover to cover in four hours.  And not just any four hours.  I looked at the clock at 2am when I was crazy enough to think "I'll just read a chapter" and I didn't look at it again until I finished at 6am.  Yes, I realize this makes me crazy.  Obviously, I was a wee bit invested in their relationship, okay?

I was disappointed by this book's romanticized view of gang membership, because I felt most of the time their behavior was toned down to be more "attractive bad boy" than "lethal killer" (with exceptions made towards the end).  Simone Elkeles has written several other YA novels in this same genre that usually revolve around teens working through problems of fitting in, or dealing with difficult situations at home.  She has written two more books that follow Alex's brothers, Carlos and Luis: Rules of Attraction (2010) and Chain Reaction (releasing Aug. 16th, 2001). While I wouldn't recommend this book to young adults, I think that an older adult, who is not bothered by sex, profanity, etc. might enjoy this YA romance. 

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  If it wasn't for all the profanity, sexual comments, and sexual situations, I would probably have given this book a four star rating.  I definitely did not feel it was suitable for a YA audience (at least not my YA's), however "realistic" it might have been. 

Sum it up:  A very mature YA romance (that kept me up all night, literally)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Stick Figure - Lori Gottlieb

Summary:  That's when all the trouble started.  First of all, my long blond hair kept getting darker and darker until it finally turned brown.  I know it doesn't sound that terrible, but one of Mom's magazines said if you have "dishwater brown" hair, you should take that "boring" hair and make it more "exciting" by dyeing it red or platinum blond.  Then next to the article there were these pictures of three different ladies with brown, red, and blond hair.  The redhead and the blond lady were smiling like those people on game shows who win trips to Hawaii, but the lady with the brown hair looked like she was about to cry.  So now I'm stuck with hair that makes you cry.  But that's just part of what's happened to me since second grade.  Believe me, it gets a hundred times worse.  (Image from and summary from back of the book.)

My Review:  Like walking down a familiar and difficult path, this book brought back many harsh memories for me.  The difference was that I was seeing anorexia through the eyes of an anorexic and not as a bystander.  This book rang true--Lori's intelligence, control, disdain for others, her fixation on minor things, her skewed perception of herself and others and her desire to never grow up--because being a grown up is hard.  Reading this was almost deja vu but instead of watching it, it was almost as if I was living anorexia.  I'm amazed at the diary of this young girl and yet all her social commentaries fit my own experience.  Young girls are sent so many mixed messages but the most prevalent at the teen age is to be thin and sexy.  Sadly, Lori's story starts at the tender age of eleven.  The girls I knew dealing with this were thirteen and older.  I cannot fathom watching a pre-teen going through anorexia and becoming so thin.  The distortion she details is right on: anorexics literally cannot see themselves for what they really are physically.  Her stubbornness, although frightening, is reality for a girl suffering from an eating disorder.

What I'm not sure is portrayed accurately was her recovery.  She just decided one day that it was just too much work to be the thinnest.  I know that this was true for her case.  Or maybe it wasn't but the book needed to end and she needed to show how it truly is a decision on behalf of the sick and no one else.  I think it would be helpful for readers, as well as young girls dealing with an eating disorder, reading the book to know that for some recovery is long, painful process with ups and downs, something that for many never truly goes away.

I must applaud her epilogue.  Lori Gottlieb is honest, blunt, and doesn't sugar-coat the reality of what she sees--it's refreshing.  Her sentiments about our culture, the advertising in the USA are poisoning the minds of young girls and plague the minds of women.  And we often sit there and take it, embracing it for some, loathing it for others, but nonetheless simply accepting the messages that are sent.

If you're needing to understand an eating disorder and want to truly understand what it's about, this is a good first step.  It will help the reader understand it's not as simple as just taking a bite--it's a mindset that must be changed, a world that should be challenged when it sends such debilitating messages to young girls.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up: An insiders look at teenage anorexia.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Our Book Recommendations for your Tween-age Girl

tween (twn)  n. : A child between middle childhood and adolesence, usually between 8 and 12 years old.  [Blend of teen and between.]

Are you ready for your tween-age daughter to start hovering in the YA section, reading books about lusty vampires, bloodthirsty werewolves, and gossipy girls? 

I'm not. And neither, apparently is my sister.  She called me the other day -- not quite ready to send her daughter into the increasingly dark world of YA lit -- she wanted some book suggestions that were both interesting and appropriate for a ten-year-old girl.  Many thanks to my fellow RFS reviewers, as well as author Tristi Pinkston, and Melissa McCurdy of Gerbera Daisy Diaries for helping compile this list.  You are angels! 

(Your son might like a few of these as well.  Please comment to let us know which ones we've missed)

Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
The Allegra Biscotti Collection - Olivia Bennett
Alvor – Laura Bingham
Anne of Green Gables Series – L.M. Montgomery
Aquamarine - Alice Hoffman (RFS Review)
Because of Winn Dixie - Kate DiCamillo
The Betsy Tacy Series (the more recent ones) - Maud Hart Lovelace
The BFG - Roald Dahl
The Blue Sword - Robin McKinley
Caddie Woodlawn - Carol Ryrie Brink
The Cay - Theodore Taylor
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
The Chasing Vermeer Series - Blue Balliett
The City of Ember Series - Jeanne DuPrau
Dragon Slippers Series - Jessica Day George
Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Esperanza Rising - Pam Munoz Ryan
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate – Jennifer Holm
Fablehaven Series – Brandon Mull (RFS Review)
The Family Under the Bridge - Natalie Savage Carlson (RFS Review)
Far World : Water Keep – J. Scott Savage
The Forgotten Warrior – Kathi Oram Peterson
Frindle - Andrew Clements (RFS Review)
A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton Porter
The Girl Who Could Fly - Victoria Forrester (RFS Review)
The Giver - Lois Lowry (RFS Review)
Green Angel - Alice Hoffman
Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne Collins (RFS Review)
Hatchet - Gary Paulsen
Heidi - Johanna Sypri
The Hero and the Crown - Robin McKinley
House of the Scorpion - Nancy Farmer (RFS Review)
James and the Giant Peach - Roald Dahl
Kandide and the Secret of the Mists - Diana Zimmerman
The Little House Series - Laura Ingalls Wilder (RFS Review)
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett
Love, Ruby Lavendar - Deborah Wiiles
Make Me a Home - Tamra Norton
Make Me a Memory – Tamra Norton
Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli
Charlie Bone Series - Jenny Nimmo
Misty of Chincoteague Series - Margauerite Henry
Mockingbird - Kathryn Erskine (RFS Review)
Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism - Georgia Byng
Moon Over Manifest - Claire Vanderpool (RFS Guest Review)
The Mother Daughter Book Club Series - Heather Vogel Frederick
My Body Fell Off! - BJ Rowley
Nancy Drew Series - Carolyn Keene
Number the Stars – Lois Lowry
An Old Fashioned Girl - Louisa May Alcott
One Crazy Summer - Rita Williams Garcia
The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog – John R. Erickson
Our Only May Amelia - Jennifer L. Holm
Percy Jackson & the Olympians Series - Rick Riordan (RFS Review)
Princess Academy - Shannon Hale (RFS Review)
Savvy – Ingrid Law (RFS Review)
The School Story - Andrew Clements
The Schwa was Here - Neil Shusterman (RFS Review)
The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Series of Unfortunate Events (all of them) - Lemony Snickett
Serpent Tide - KL Fogg
The Sign of the Beaver - Elizabeth George Speare
A Single Shard - Linda Sue Park (RFS Review)
Spindle’s End - Robin McKinley
Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli (RFS Review)
Sting - BJ Rowley
Stone Fox - John Reynolds Gardiner
The Stone Traveler - Kathi Oram Peterson
Surviving the Applewhites - Stephanie S. Tolan
The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo (RFS Review)
Tennyson – Lesley M. M. Blume (RFS Review)
The Tripods Trilogy - Christopher John
Turtle in Paradise - Jennifer Holm
Warriors Series - Erin Hunter
The Wednesday Wars - Gary Schmidt
The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin (RFS Review)
When You Reach Me - Rebecca Stead
Where the Red Fern Grows - Wilson Rawls
Wild Girls - Pat Murphy
Wings of Light - Laura Bingham
Witch of Blackbird Pond - Elizabeth George Speare
Wizard’s Hall - Jane Yolen (RFS Review)
A Wrinkle in Time Series – Madeline L’Engle

(but are still appropriate)

Beauty - Robin McKinley
Calico Captive - Elizabeth George Speare
Countess Below Stairs - Eva Ibbotson (RFS Review)
Flipped - Wendelin Van Draanen (RFS Review)
The Gallagher Girls Series - Ally Carter (RFS Review)
The Goose Girl Series - Shannon Hale
Once Upon a Time Series - Cameron Dokey (RFS Review)
Princess of Glass - Jessica Day George
Princess of the Midnight Ball - Jessica Day George
Song of the Lioness Series - Tamora Peirce
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow - Jessica Day George
The Swan Maiden - Heather Tomlinson (RFS Review)
Uglies Series - Scott Westerfeld (RFS Review)
Wildwood Dancing - Juliet Marillier

And some of our favorite tween-ish authors
(feel free to help us add to this list)

Ally Carter
Brandon Mull
Bruce Coville
Eva Ibbotson
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Gail Carson Levine
Janette Rallinson
Jennifer Holm
L.M. Montgomery
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Louisa May Alcott
Madeline L’Engle
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Pam Munoz Ryan
Rick Riordan
Roald Dahl
Shannon Hale
Tamora Pierce

And if that isn't enough, here are

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book of Ages: 30 - Joshua Albertson, Lockhart Steele, Jonathan Van Gieson

Summary:  Welcome to your thirties.  Are you rich, poor, single, married, divorced, straight, gay, crazy in love, happy, in good health, insured, employed, in school, falling apart?  On the brink of fame, like Ford, Emeril, Napoleon, Nonan, Couric?  Do you have problems, dreams, house, job, money, kids, car, gun?  Do you exude sex like Clooney, Berry, Stallone, Madonna, Elvis, Cher?  Feeling promiscuous, monogamous, dumped, living in sin, virginal, pregnant?  What's next?  Layoff, promotion, power, new career, wedding, debt, divorce, degree, death?  Are you in danger like Welles, Plath,Alexander Ringwald, Murphy?  Struggling like Bush, Tan, Gandolfini, Kafka, Rowling, Mr. T?  How do you stack up?  Are you a visionary like Oprah, Bono, Gates, Edison, Franklin, Eminem?  Will you change the world like Shakespeare, Mandela, Mao, Lennon, Gorbachev, Kennedy?  31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39...What's Next?  (Image from and summary from back of the book.)

My Review:  Yes, I am thirty.  I'm actually fine with that number, but I was given a book to remind me that time is ticking and maybe to shame me into being more aware of how I'm using my time.  This little coffee table book is set up visually appealing with black letters on white pages with red thrown in for emphasis and lots of fun pictures. Easy and fast to read is an understatement.  Whether the information in the book is really all that important is debatable.  Much of what you learn is about famous people and what they were doing at that the age of thirty.  Sometimes this was interesting, sometimes it was worthless.  When you spend your time comparing yourself to people that are such a small percentage of the population it can never be realistic.  I'm afraid some readers might be discouraged after learning all these minute details.

The other aspect to the book I wasn't so thrilled about was how much emphasis was put on a person's sex life and how much money he or she makes.  As if those are the greatest indicator of how happy you truly are at the age of thirty.   Maybe that's a representation of the authors?  Or is that really what Americans really care about?  I'd wager it isn't, but I could be wrong.

If you're not taking it too seriously and enjoy frivolous facts, feel free to pick up this book.  Otherwise, it's more or less forgettable.

Rating:  2.5 stars

Sum it up:  Random facts about anonymous people and famous people alike while they lived the years called their thirties.


Congratulations to

(aka jlshperry)

who just won her choice of one of these Jane Eyre gift bags, courtesy of Cafe Press!



We'll be contacting you soon to let you pick your bag specifics and get your mailing address!
Once again, a huge thanks to our sponsor Cafe Press.  I like to keep our giveaways book-related, but they have TONS of clothing and personalized gifts and its easy to find something you love.

If you didn't win, don't worry! 

We'll have another lovely giveaway soon and followers can always enter without any hassle! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tiger Rising - Kate DiCamillo

Summary:  The Tiger Rising is the tale of 12-year-old Rob Horton who finds a caged tiger in the woods behind the Kentucky Star Motel where he lives with his dad. The tiger is so incongruous in this setting that Rob views the apparition as some sort of magic trick. Indeed, the tiger triggers all sorts of magic in Rob's life--for one thing, it takes his mind off his recently deceased mother and the itchy red blisters on his legs that the wise motel housekeeper, Willie May, says is a manifestation of the sadness that Rob keeps "down low." Something else for Rob to think about is Sistine (as in the chapel), a new city girl with fierce black eyes who challenges him to be honest with her and himself. Spurred by the tiger, events collide to break Rob out of his silent introspection, to form a new friendship with Sistine, to develop a new understanding of his father, and most important, to lighten his heart.  (Summary from - Image from  )

My Review:  It seems that Kate DiCamillo can do no wrong.  I've read (and loved) Because of Winn Dixie and we've reviewed The Tale of Despereaux and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane with positive praise.  I found The Tiger Rising at a local used book store and knew it would be good -- most National Book Award finalists are -- but I had no idea it would knock my socks off.  I mean, it's little.  Tiny.  Miniscule.  

The Tiger Rising is a stunningly expressive tale, thick with emotion and beautifully written.  While the plot itself was quite simple -- perfect for the 9-12 reader -- I feel that a child might not understand the symbolism or appreciate the elegant language and emotional nuances.  They can read it, of course, but I think that an adult might get more out of it. 

The Tiger Rising is populated with a vibrant cast of characters, but my absolute favorite was the housekeeper, Willie May.  She exuded wisdom, sass, and a fierce independence that is evident in one of my favorite lines of the book, "I ain't got to do nothing, except stay black and die."   She is by no means the only fabulous character.  Rob is one tough little kid, but eventually he'll have to open that suitcase.  His father is kind, but barely holding it together.  And Sistine?  Well, Sistine might be in denial, but she still rocks.  Several of these characters work through a spectrum of emotions in this book and, while the story and its the ending were bittersweet, it had the effect of being a very cathartic read.  I felt lighter after I'd read it.

This book is a great gymnastics/karate/dance class read.  Basically, you can read it in under an hour if you don't have kids poking you.  So drop them off, lock yourself in the car, and have at it.

My Rating:  4.5 Stars

Sum it up:  A tiny book that packs a powerful punch.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Rape of Kuwait - Jean Sasson

Summary:  At dawn, on August 2, 1990, Iraq's troops stormed across the Kuwaiti border, collapsing the goverment of its tiny neighbor in a matter of hours.  The brutality with which this illegal invasion was carried out -- and the atrocities to which the Kuwaiti population are subject on a dailiy basis -- will shock the world.

Jean P. Sasson traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, England, and the U.S. to gather firsthand accoutns of the invasion and its aftermath from stunned and angry refugees.  From exiled members of the ruling family, resistance fighters, medical professionals, wives, and mothers, she heard startling tales of terror:  Infants torn from incubators and left to die on hosptial floors.  Women savagely raped.  Refugees shot in the back of the head as they attempted to escape through the desert.

The Rape of Kuwait presents these eyewitness stories, which bring to light for the first time the extent of the crimes committed against the nation's civilian population.  A shocking indictment of the Iraqi military, this book will increase the world's understanding of Saddam Hussein -- and raise the frightening question of what he might do next.  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:  I have always been fascinated by the Middle East and have read several books by Jean Sasson, including Princess: Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, Princess Sultana's Daughters, Princess Sultana's Circle, and Mayada, Daughter of Iraq: One Woman's Survival Under Saddam Hussein.  I highly recommend any of these books, as each was deeply compelling and related the difficult, but remarkable, experiences of women living in the Middle East.

The Rape of Kuwait was written quickly, between August 2, 1990, when the Iraqi military invaded Kuwait, and January 17, 1991, when the U.S. and its allies stepped in to help liberate the country.  Sasson freely admits that her purpose for writing this book was to let the world know exactly what was going on in Kuwait and to encourage international intervention.  Published just before the U.S. became involved, it reached #2 on the NYT Bestseller list and, according to Wikipedia, the Kuwaiti Embassy even paid to have 200,000 copies shipped to U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

Except for a brief history of Kuwait, which I found incredibly helpful, this book is comprised almost entirely of first-hand accounts of the atrocities committed by the Iraqi military against the citizens of Kuwait.  I don't think I can possibly convey my horror at the depth of cruelty perpetrated by the invading army and condoned by its leaders.  Though it occurred over twenty years ago, I am sickened by their actions and haunted by the people whose lives were cut short, whose stories might never be told. 

Throughout the book, Sasson questions what Saddam will do next.  It was haunting to read these statements, knowing that so much more cruelty was to come, not only for Kuwaiti's trapped inside Iraq, but for Kurds, and for Iraq's own people.  I ran the gamut of negative emotions while reading this book: sadness, anger, frustration, etc., but there was one positive emotion that stood out.  Relief.  Saddam Hussein is dead, and I am relieved (and even, though I'm not terribly proud of it, a little bit glad).

The Rape of Kuwait is a shocking and painful description of violence committed by the Iraqi military, but it is also a tale of a beloved nation that fought to regain its freedom from a grasping, predatorial dictator.  I was continuously impressed by the love and loyalty of the Kuwaiti people, the nation's generous humanitarian donations, wise financial investments, and their determination to rebuild.

I don't usually read books like this, but when I do I am rarely sorry.  I feel a sense of purpose, like reading them can somehow give these people a voice, so that even twenty years later their sacrifice is not forgotten.  If you think you can handle it, and maybe even if you think you can't, I recommend picking up a book like this one. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Each account is graphic in its own way, though not in a glorified or overly detailed sense. 
Sum it up:  These accounts are horrible, bloody, tragic, and terrifying, but they are also true, and they deserve to be read.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Books at the Box Office

Recently, I saw a preview for Water For Elephants, a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson and based on Sara Gruen's bestselling novel by the same name.  The movie looks gorgeous, and so I decided to do a post about books that are in theaters now.  Except, GASP, it turns out we haven't reviewed Water For Elephants.  I think Heather and I both read it years before this blog existed. 
It was a really good book. 
I hope the movie doesn't mess it up.

Here are several other books we have reviewed 
(other than Water for Elephants
that have recently made it to the big screen :

Jane Eyre 

 Water for Elephants

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

I am Number Four


Harry Potter and the
Deathly Hallows (Part Two)

Other Movie News

The Help is coming to theaters in August 2011.
Read our reviews of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel.

Read our review of The Giver, which is rumored to be in development

I heard they just cast Katniss, Peeta, and Gale 
in the new The Hunger Games movie. 
Read our reviews of the first book in this fast-paced trilogy.

Are there any books you are DYING to have made into movies? 
Have you heard of one being produced? 
Share it in our comments section so we can all get excited!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Interview with a Book Blogger

Gatekeepers Post contacted me the other day with a few questions about what I look for when authors submit books for review.  They also grilled me on my favorite books this year.  You can read the article here if you are interested.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cloaked - Alex Flinn

Summary:  I'm not your average hero.  I actually wasn't your average anything.  Just a poor guy working an after-school job at a South Beach shoe repair shop  to help his mom make ends meet.  But a little magic changed it all.

It started with a curse.  And a frognapping.  And one hot-looking princess, who asked me to lead a rescue mission.

There wasn't a fairy godmother or any of that.  And even though I fell in love along the way, what happened to me is unlike any fairytale I've ever heard.  Before I knew it, I was spying with a flock of enchanted swans, talking (yes, talking!) to a fox named Todd, and nearly trampled by giants in the Keys.

Don't believe me?  I didn't believe it either.  But you'll see.  Because I knew it all was true, the second I got Cloaked(Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:  I've read a few Alex Flinn books (A Kiss in Time and Beastly) and I have to say that I think that this is the last one I'll be reading.  There wasn't a great deal that was wrong with it, as far as YA fairytale retellings go, but I have better books to read (theoretically, anyway).  Like the other Flinn novels I've read, Cloaked offers a male perspective on a modern-day fairytale, but instead of just sticking to one fairytale, this book was a combination of seven.  That's a lot.  The characters bounced about quite a bit and everything just moved too quickly.  I felt like I was reading a book on speed (not me, the book).  While each scenario was a interesting on its own, taken as a whole -- well, I kind of got a headache. 

I will say that the Cloaked reminded me of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, with its combination of modern and mythological.  Each book had questing heroes with difficult tasks, but where Olympians had gods, monsters, demigods, and magic, Cloaked had witches, royalty, talking frogs, and enchanted swans. 

Overall, this book would probably be entertaining for a younger young adult, but I think it would leave the average adult mildly amused, but mostly dizzy and unsatisfied.

My Rating:  3 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Not much to worry about here.  There's a bit of romance and talk of making out that elevates this from children's fiction to young adult, but it's all very tame.

Sum it up: A modern (and mildly entertaining) mish-mash of fairytales.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dirty Life : On Farming, Food, and Love - Kristin Kimball

Summary:  Single, thirty something, working as a writer in New York City, Kristin Kimball was living life as an adventure.  But she was beginning to feel a sense of longing for a family and for home.  When she interviewed a dynamic young farmer, her world changed...On an impulse, smitten if not yet in love, she shed her city self and moved to five hundred acres near Lake Champlain to start a new farm with him.  The Dirty Life is the captivating chronicle of their first year on Essex Farm , from the cold North Country winter through the following harvest season--complete with their wedding in the loft of the barn.

Kimball and her husband had a plan: to grow everything needed to feed a community.  It was an ambitious idea, a bit romantic, and it worked.  Every Friday evening, all year round, a hundred people travel to Essex farm to pick up their weekly share of the "whole diet"-- beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, fruits, and forty different vegetables -- produced by the farm.  The work is done by draft horses instead of tractors, and the fertility comes from compost.  Kimball's vivid descriptions of landscape, food, cooking-- and marriage -- are irresistible. 

"As much as you transform the land by farming," she writes, "farming transforms you."  In her old life, Kimball would stay out till four a.m., wear heels, and carry a handbag.  Now she wakes up at four, wears Carhartts, and carries a pocketknife.  At Essex Farm, she discovers the wrenching pleasures of physical work, learns that good food is at the center of a good life, falls deeply in love, and finally finds the engagement and commitment she craved in the form of a man, a small town, and a beautiful piece of land.  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:  Kristin Kimball never imagined herself on a farm, slaughtering pigs, planting beets, and driving a team of horses. When a chance interview leads to few days of grueling farm work, Kristin falls in love, first, with a way of life, and then with Mark – a farmer, who is equal parts eccentric, romantic, and world-class chef. Despite all good sense and the concerns of her family, Kristin moves to a ramshackle farm located on 500 acres of land in upstate New York, to cultivate a life of agricultural bliss with her soon-to-be husband.

The Dirty Life follows Kristin’s transformation from a single, freelance writer and devoted city slicker, to that of a wife, mother, and down-home farm girl.  In a fit of idealism, Kristin and Mark embark on an agricultural venture that, given their lack of capital, equipment, and expertise, has very little chance of success.  Their goal is to grow and eat their own food – all of it – and to give their community the same opportunity by building a cooperative, CSA-like farm that will provide members with a year-round, complete diet of organic fruit, vegetables, beef, chicken, pork, milk, eggs, butter, cheese, grain, dry beans, maple syrup, and more).  If that isn’t ambitious enough, they plan to do it all without chemical fertilizers or heavy-duty machinery.  Mark is determined.  Kristin is sure they are crazy.

After endless days of what Kristin calls, “trying to hammer out this big, awkward thing, [and] bring it from theory into being,” a farm begins to emerge from the dust and the wilds. It hobbles at first, and then it runs, as each week more members arrive at the farm, boxes in hand, to pick up their increasingly unlimited supply of food. While it was thrilling to watch the Kimball’s dream come true, it was Kristin’s description of the journey that I found most interesting – the successes, failures, and frustrations of living a life both gloriously simple and tremendously difficult.

Passionate and evocative, The Dirty Life had me at the prologue, with an irresistible blend of food, romance, and farm life that continued throughout the book. I was absorbed in the particulars of cooperative farming, the authors’ eloquent imagery, and unexpected sense of humor. I savored every page of it. Whether you are in love with country living, looking for a little inspiration, or just longing for a good book, The Dirty Life won’t disappoint you.

*POST EDIT* While I read the hardcover version of this book, the paperback version released April 12th, 2011, complete with recipes and photographs. *Yay!*

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  There were two moments of profanity and a few scenes of slaughter and gore that, though realistic in a farm setting, made my stomach a little squeamish. 

Sum it up:  A riveting agricultural love story that is compelling, realistic, and well worth your time.

Monday, April 11, 2011

True Grit - Charles Portis

Oh Melissa Mc, if only you didn't have your own book blog.  *Sigh*  I shall have to content myself with crying into my pillow...and the occasional guest review.  Thank you so much for sending us this one!

Summary:  Mattie Ross is just 14 years old when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shoots her father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, robbing him of his life, his horse, and $150 in cash. Accompained by the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn -- the meanest available US Marshall -- Mattie leaves home to avenge her father's death and to pursue his killer into Indian Territory.  (Summary and Image from

Melissa's Review:  Mattie Ross, a 14 year old dynamo, is out to exact vengeance on one Tom Chaney, a former work hand for her family. Tom has killed her father, and whether she has help or not, she is determined to bring Tom back to Forth Smith and Judge “Hanging” Parker for justice.

Mattie is able to secure for $100 the assistance of a one-eyed Marshall, Rooster Cogburn. Thus they begin their quest into Indian Territory for the renegade Chaney.

Mattie Ross has become my new favorite adolescent heroine – she’s Scout Finch, but rides a horse and carries a revolver. She shoots, squirms, saves herself from snakes and survives to tell her tale.

The other characters are equally as colorful: Rooster is a former felon, turned law-man with a proclivity to drink. Even though I didn’t see the original movie, John Wayne’s image was superimposed on my brain throughout the novel and it was a PERFECT image. The two also meet up with LeBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is also on the trail of the menacing Chaney. A somewhat bumbling figure, LeBoeuf adds enough variety to their trifecta to make it interesting.

The prose in this book is stark and sharp – and surprisingly funny! I read it in the car on our way to Tulsa, and through ALL the major towns mentioned in the story: Dardanelle, Fort Smith, Fort Gibson Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and I laughed out loud at many of the passages. Mattie when describing her opinion of men said, “Men will live like Billy goats if they are let alone.” True Mattie, so very true.

I couldn’t help comparing this book to Lonesome Dove since I read them so closely to each other. Honestly, I could see where McMurtry could have been “influenced” by Charles Portis’ work. In fact, I was expecting Gus and Call to meet up with Rooster, Mattie and LeBoeuf at any of the many outposts where they stopped. But I was amazed at what Portis was able to accomplish in a sparse 200+ pages compared to what McMurtry was able to drag on for 900 pages.

In short, I loved this book.

And Mr. Portis lives a few blocks from my house – you think if I go camp out on his porch he would sign a book for me?!

Her Rating:  5 Stars
For the sensitive reader:  Mild descriptions of gun shot wounds, gun fighting and SNAKES!
Sum it up:  Good guys, bad guys, and a spunky heroine -- even if you don't read Westerns, this is a MUST!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

Summary: Gone With the Wind is a sweeping, romantic story about the American Civil War from the point of view of the Confederacy. In particular it is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a headstrong Southern belle who survives the hardships of the war and afterwards manages to establish a successful business by capitalizing on the struggle to rebuild the South. Throughout the book she is motivated by her unfulfilled love for Ashley Wilkes, an honorable man who is happily married. After a series of marriages and failed relationships with other men, notably the dashing Rhett Butler, she has a change of heart and determines to win Rhett back.    (Summary from and image from

My Review:  After reading this novel I feel like I've read four, maybe five, books.  It is LONG--1024 pages to be exact.  Bear that in mind if you decide to read it. 

I hardly know where to begin.  Should I start with the way I was wrapped up in the storyline?  Or, should I write about all the ways the book bothered me in both moral and personal levels?  I guess I'll start with Scarlett.  She drove me crazy.  No, not slightly annoyed, not irritated, not even disgusted, which was a how I felt constantly while reading her thoughts.  CRAZY.  Understandably, she was spoiled, very young, beyond wealthy, impetuous, selfish, and honestly cultivated to be such.  Still, I cannot let that excuse her behavior or thought process.  While Scarlett has a period of time in her life--the worst days according to her--where I can almost stomach her, almost pity her, and almost like her, she eventually goes right back to her amoral and selfish ways.  It's amazing to me that the men around her didn't loathe her as much as the women did.  I don't want to ruin the story, but will name a few events vaguely that I felt were beyond understanding: what she did to her sister, what she did to Melanie, how she tried to steal Ashley away, how she treated Rhett, and how she treated practically everyone in the book.  Scarlett's obvious lack of interpersonal intelligence was probably the aspect I could fathom least about her.  If she could have stepped outside of herself for even one moment, she wouldn't have been such a despicable character.  I just kept telling myself: she's onlysixteen, she's only eighteen, she's only....wait!  That line of thinking doesn't work any more when she's twenty-eight. 

Rhett was harder for me to distinctly like or dislike.  There were times where I sincerely didn't like him, and yet others where his motives and actions were very clear and, for his circumstance, understandable.  How he could adore Scarlett as he did, again, is beyond me.  How he turned the rejection from his family into a personal victory was fascinating; it was cloaked in a screw the world attitude, but was actually his way of saying, "You can't reject me because I've already rejected you."  At the end of the story, the event that crushes him would have crushed me as well.  There were many moments where I felt his actions were heroic and chivalrous and others downright deplorable.  He was a flawed, yet captivating, character.

The race and slavery thread was one of the most disturbing.  The descriptions of the black characters was offensive and awful most of the time.  Still, it amazed me how southern families felt such a strong attachment to the people they didn't even view as completely human.  Mammy's character was one of my favorites.  Her loyalty went to the point of charity.  So much of this book was hard for me to fathom, hard for me to swallow, yet was written so nonchalantly, as if writing and thinking this way about another race was acceptable and normal.  That disturbed me the most.  It also amazed me how you could view someone of a different race as less than human, but then allow them to nurse your child.  I just don't understand that.  It's a contradiction in my mind to allow such a personal and intimate action to be done by someone you don't even treat as an equal.  Blows my mind.

While the above characters and depictions disgusted and disturbed me, there were characters that were noble...from a southern, slave-owning view point.  Melanie was the embodiment of humble strength.  Her character, although somewhat unrealistic to some, was very real to me.  There are still people as good, genuine, and charitable as she, and it's nice to be reminded how important they are and how they hold together a society.  Mammy was an amazing caregiver and stabilizing force.  Dilcey was hard work epitomized.  There are many good people throughout the story, flawed though their perspective on slavery may be.

While I won't be reading this book again, I did learn a lot.  I loved learning about southern culture.  Most of my education of the civil war was union focused, so I loved learning the history of that time period from a different view point.  I was swept up by a storyline that drove its characters into a world where they had no idea how to function.  I was also intrigued by Scarlett's determination to survive and thrive.  The societal rules that restricted women at the time, reinforced how blessed I am to live in the USA today.

Despite its length, I finished this book much faster than I expected.  While I could write more -- there's so much to cover in 1024 pages -- I'll save my comments on the over-done details, and the shrewd and intelligent mind of Rhett, for my book club night.

This wasn't my favorite book, nor was it the easiest to get through, but I'm glad I read it.  I won't be recommending this to my students, as I believe it's for a more mature audience that would be able to recognize it as a depiction of a specific time period, and why the opinions, attitudes, and sayings are not acceptable today.  I don't think an impressionable mind should pick it up just yet. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Racist depictions typical of the era in which the book is set.

Sum it up:  A period piece from a Southern/Confederate/Female perspective during the Civil war and after.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mockingbird - Kathryn Erskine

Also reviewed by Kari.

Summary:  In Caitlin's world, everything is black and white.  Anything in between is confusing.  That's the stuff her brother, Devon, always explained.  But now Devon is dead, and her father cries a lot.  She wants to help her dad -- and herself! -- but as a ten-year-old girl with Asperger's syndrome, she doesn't know how.

She turns to textbooks and dictionaries, easy for Caitlin because they're full of facts in black and white.  After reading the definition of Closure, Caitlin knows this is just what she and her father need.  And she is determined to find it.  In her search she discovers that not everything is really black and white -- the world is full of colors, messy and beautiful.  And perhaps if she "Works At It," Caitlin and her father can have Closure and Empathy, too.  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:  Life with Asperger’s is hard and Caitlin is always Working At It. Her brother, Devon used to show her what to do, how to act, and what not to say, so that people wouldn’t laugh or stare. Only now Devon is dead, and Caitlin feels adrift, unsure how to behave without him, confused by her father’s erratic behavior, and unable to explain or even understand her own feelings. In her grief, Caitlin struggles to decipher the emotions that swirl around and inside of her, but it is through her conversations with the school counselor, an unlikely friendship, and a special project, that Caitlin discovers how to find happiness in the midst of heartbreaking loss.

I read Mockingbird from cover to cover while my youngest daughter took her morning nap. Reading a book in one sitting is a gift, in and of itself, but this book would have been beautiful even with a million interruptions. Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime and written “in the hopes we may all understand each other better,” Mockingbird is a poignant glimpse into the mind of a child with Asperger’s syndrome. Erskine’s delivers a stunning and tender portrayal of grief and recovery, with a voice that is unique and brilliantly rendered. Although this book could have been completely depressing, I closed it feeling strangely uplifted -- as if Caitlin’s journey from black and white to color was somehow my own.

Perhaps as its greatest achievement, Mockingbird offers insight into the behavior, mannerisms, motivation, and thought processes of someone with Asperger’s. By the end of the book, I felt a greater understanding for how Caitlin’s mind worked and a deeper empathy for families dealing with this particular neurological disorder. I highly recommend this book to everyone, but especially those who know someone with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Go ahead. Buy it, borrow it, or check it out. You will not be disappointed.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Read away. 

Sum it up:  A convincing and eloquent portrayal of loss, recovery, and Asperger's Syndrome. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

1-2-3...Get Organized Mini-Book Series - Beverly Coggins

Summary:  After studying personality types for over 15 years, Beverly Coggins, professional organizer, created 1-2-3...Get Organized to appeal to those personality types who were overwhelmed by organizing...
The 1-2-3...Get Organized series springs from Coggins’ experience as a professional organizer in both homes and offices [and covers] such topics as office and home organizing, time management in several arenas, as well as organizing for college students, and downsizing for seniors.

Each book is short and covers only one organizing task, addressing the feeling that the job is too huge to tackle. So instead of feeling overwhelmed, the reader is able to take one task at a time and feel a sense of accomplishment upon completing it.  (Summary and Image from - Books given free for review)

My Review:  While there are many books and e-books in this mini-book series, I am only reviewing the following five: 

Three Steps to Clever Cleaning
Three Steps to Time Management for the Stay-at-Home Mom
Three Steps to Decluttering
Three Steps to Organizing Your Child's Room
Three Steps to Organizing Your Kitchen

First, let's talk about format. These books are tiny -- measuring 6x6 with an average of 26 pages. They are organized into three specific, easy-to-follow steps (or chapters), with even tinier sub-steps given in bullet-point format.  Personally, I prefer paragraphs to bullet points, but the books were short enough that it didn't really matter. 

Initially, I was unsure about the concept of mini-books, but after receiving them, I understand why the author released them as a series. While the book fiend in me longs for one big book, I am not her target audience. Instead, they are designed to help someone who is "overwhelmed" with organizing and only feels capable of handling one area at a time. If you feel like you fall into this category, read on.  However, if you find that you'd like to buy all five of these books, it might be time to get something more comprehensive.


If I had to pick one person to hire -- chef, housekeeper, or nanny -- I would pick housekeeper in a nanosecond.  Why?  It's simple.  I hate cleaning.  Oh, I can sweep, wipe a counter, and  "tidy" with the best of them, but hand me a toilet brush and I'm more likely to whack you with it than clean a toilet (and wouldn't that be gross).  And dusting?  Forget it.  I picked up Three Steps to Clever Cleaning, hoping to find ways to clean faster and smarter. 

While this book wasn't necessarily a fountain of knowledge in terms of how to clean, it did offer many suggestions on when to clean. I discovered that I tend to excel at the chores that need to be done frequently (sweeping, cleaning counters, picking up toys, etc) but am an all out failure at those that need to be done less often (vacuuming, dusting, cleaning out the fridge).  I think (er..hope) that being aware of my strengths and weaknesses will help me to focus on areas of improvement.  I did pick up a number of clever cleanings tips and was able to identify some cleaning strategies that might work for me.  The final step even provides a month-to-month calendar for those bigger chores that only need to be done a few times a year. 

I did notice a few tips in this book that felt incomplete.  One tip on dusters said that "Swiffer has a duster that claims to collect dust and looks like it would be worth trying."  I felt the author should have actually tried the duster to see if Swiffer lived up to their claim, instead of simply recommending that we try it.  I'm lazy like that.  Also, she recommends using Mr. Clean Magic Erasers on "any cleanable surface" when the packaging clearly states that they should not be used on paint or varnished surfaces.  While I still use mine very lightly to remove fingerprints from walls, I have learned the hard way (Pen swirls on my coffee table) that any pressure on a finished surface can remove the paint or varnish. 


With three kids, a reading habit, a non-profit blog, and a home that I'm trying to put on the market, it's easy to see why Three Steps to Time Management for the Stay-At-Home Mom screamed my name.  I am very type A.  I love to make to-do lists and derive an inordinate amount of satisfaction from checking things off .  I could not have been more startled when my first thought while reading the step one(prioritizing)was "I do not have TIME to make all these lists and assign numerical values to my goals".  I wanted to skip straight to Step 2 (making a plan that works) only to find that required me to make several rough drafts of a calendar with time blocked out for my priorities.  The idea that I could assign blocks of time to any part of my life, at this point, felt laughable and so I was glad to see the author offer an alternative suggestion for parents of infants.  I think I'll stick with my daily to-do lists. 


My house might have its moments, but thanks to my mother, the De-junking Queen, I am fairly familiar with the organizational process described in Three Steps to Decluttering, Three Steps to Organizing Your Child's Room, and Three Steps to Organizing Your Kitchen.  I rarely have a problem saying goodbye to unnecessary or unwanted items.  If it's broke, I chuck it.  If I don't use it, I give it away.  For that reason, these three books didn't teach me a whole lot that I didn't already know.  My problem lies in the motivation, not the know-how. 
I felt that the many of other tips for dejunking, organization, and maintenance were just plain old common-sense, rather than revolutionary recommendations.  However, an amateur organizer (or professional hoarder) might feel differently.  If your house (or even one room) is starting to resembled one of those homes on Clean House, I would recommend a) renting a dumpster and b) picking ONE of these books.  
In addition to the books I received for review, you can find or purchase the following books/ebooks and more at the 1-2-3GetOrganized website
They are so small and easy-to-read, that I would recommend purchasing the e-books over the print copy, to save on shipping.  Plus, then you have one less thing cluttering up your house!

My Rating: 3 Stars

Sum it up:  Baby steps for the overwhelmed.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard - Alan Bradley

Summary: Award-winning author Alan Bradley returns with another beguiling novel starring the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. The precocious chemist with a passion for poisons uncovers a fresh slew of misdeeds in the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey—mysteries involving a missing tot, a fortune-teller, and a corpse in Flavia’s own backyard.

Flavia had asked the old Gypsy woman to tell her fortune, but never expected to stumble across the poor soul, bludgeoned in the wee hours in her own caravan. Was this an act of retribution by those convinced that the soothsayer had abducted a local child years ago? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how could this crime be connected to the missing baby? Had it something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites? While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon another corpse—that of a notorious layabout who had been caught prowling about the de Luce’s drawing room.

Pedaling Gladys, her faithful bicycle, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers some odd new twists. Most intriguing is her introduction to an elegant artist with a very special object in her possession—a portrait that sheds light on the biggest mystery of all: Who is Flavia?

As the red herrings pile up, Flavia must sort through clues fishy and foul to untangle dark deeds and dangerous secrets.
Summary and cover photo from 

My Review: Say hello again to Flavia de Luce, the preteen amateur sleuth readers have come to love in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. Once again readers find themselves following Flavia as she unravels the latest mystery to hit Bishop's Lacey, this time a brutal assault on a gypsy and the murder of the town idler. Her mission is made more difficult as she dodges her older sisters' cruel pranks and remains constantly vigilant of Investigator Hewitt, who attempts to chase her away from the case.

Flavia manages to juggle her love for chemistry and her loathing for her sisters while she gathers facts relating to the case. A hodgepodge of mismatched information seems to assemble and it's not until the final pages that the pieces fit together. During her journey Flavia receives some insight into her own family's workings which in turn mends fences and builds new bonds. An unexpected friendship also enters into this tale with a colorful character who will hopefully be seen again in future adventures.

This book, while still entertaining, seemed to lack something. There was not as much suspense as I had come to expect from Bradley as the perpetrator was fairly obvious early on. Flavia didn't seem to have to dig herself out of  many sticky situations, which had added an additional element of humor to the past books.The banter between Flavia and her sisters was also not nearly as amusing as I had hoped. I didn't find myself on edge of my seat or chuckling as much as in the past. However the author's note to reader at the end of the book did provide one last smile. And when all is said and done this book is still witty and fun.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars
Sensitive Readers: This book, as with the previous books, is pretty much spotless. With an 11-year-old protagonist it would really be a great fit in the young adult genre.

To Sum it up: Another entertaining installment in the chronicles of Flavia de Luce, though not the best by far.


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