Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Recipes from the Root Cellar - Andrea Chesman

Summary: Late-harvest vegetables are the treasures in every locavore's winter kitchen. Robust hearty greens, sweet winter squashes, jewel-toned root vegetables, and potatoes of every variety bring satisfying flavors and an impressive array of nutritional benefits to the dining table. Grab them from your well-tended root cellar or buy them at your local market; just be sure to use these 270 recipes to make cold-weather vegetables a delicious part of your winter diet. Summary from the book. Image from Amazon.com.

My Review: After devouring my way through one of Ms. Chesman's other books, The Roasted Vegetable, I was anticipating her latest book, Recipes from the Root Cellar with much excitement and drooling. I'm not one to jump to the dessert section first, but because it was the holidays I started with her Coconut-Pumpkin Pie. I liked her addition of coconut to a traditional pumpkin pie, but I felt like the spices were off (no cinnamon?!). With a little tweaking, I think it would have been much better. I also tried the Roasted Spiced Potatoes and a Syrian-style lentil-rice dish called Mujdhara. The potatoes were pretty good and a unique blend of several spices. The Mujdhara, which was supposedly compared to the "mess of pottage" for which Esau sold his birthright, was mediocre at best.

My first few experiences with this book were so-so, but there are nearly 300 recipes in this book, and because it is such a good reference for underused and perhaps overlooked vegetables (kohlrabi, rutabagas, and celery root anyone?) I'm willing to give it a more thorough testing. I also have hope for the sauerkraut which has been working its magic on my countertop for a couple of weeks. That may be this books redemption!

My Rating: 3.5 stars (3.75 if the sauerkraut turns out well)

Sum It Up:  A great reference book for using winter vegetables, but I haven't found any "golden recipes" yet.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Draw the Dark - Ilsa J. Bick

Summary:  The things I draw.  They tend to die.

There are things the people of Winter, Wisconsin, would rather forget.  The year the Nazis came town, for one.  That fire, for another.  But what they'd really like to forget is Christian Cage.

Seventeen-year-old Christian's parents disappeared when he was a little boy.  Ever since, he's drawn obsessively: his mother's face...her eyes...and what he calls "the sideways place," where he says his parents are trapped.  Christian figures if he can just see through his mother's eyes, maybe he can get there somehow and save them.

But Christian also draws other things.  Ugly things.  Evil things.  Dark things.  Things like other people's fears and nightmares.  Their pasts.  Their destiny. 

There's one more thing the people of Winter would like to forget: murder.

But Winter won't be able to forget the truth, no matter how hard it tries.  Not as long as Christian draws the dark... (Summary from book - Image from www.listal.com - Book given free for an honest review from www.netgalley.com )

My Review:  Draw the Dark tells the dark, intense, and deliciously creepy tale of Christian Cage, a young artist harrowed by the loss of his parents and plagued by nightmares and hallucinations that seem to have waking consequences.  When Christian is accused of an act of vandalism that occurred while he was sleeping, all other evidence points to his guilt, and he is sentenced to community service at a local nursing home.   But death and trouble always seem to follow Christian, and the people of Winter are understandably suspicious, especially given his murky past.   As time goes by, his dreams bleed into reality and Christian uncovers a psychological connection to the past, to a young boy, and to a murder that happened well before he was born.

Normally, I’m not a fan of the mystery/thriller genre.  My aversion to them probably has something to do with the reason I stopped watching CSI – I just don’t need know any more creative ways to kill someone.  However, once I got a chance to actually sit down and devote some time to this chilling psychological thriller, I was hooked by the nature of Christian’s mysterious abilities (which are difficult to explain, but very intriguing), the history of the town, and a the whodunit of a sinister murder. 

While I was intrigued by the premise of this book, absorbed by the mystery, and I’m glad I gave it a chance, the ending (approx. the last fifth of the book) didn’t live up to my expectations. Frankly, I was decidedly underwhelmed by the big reveal at the end, which got a little weird and somewhat confusing. It was also more graphic than I expected, in both language and violence, and reminded me why I don’t normally read this genre.

For the sensitive reader:  Pervasive profanity, some crass language, graphic violence, and one sexual situation (seen briefly in a dream).  One character has a particular affection for the F-word, and a variety of others are batted around with alarming frequency.    

My Rating: 3.25 Stars
Sum it up:  A dark, intriguing, intense (and GRAPHIC) thriller.

Friday, January 27, 2012

One for the Money - Janet Evanovich

Also reviewed by Heather.

Summary:  Welcome to Trenton, New Jersey, home to wiseguys, average Joes, and Stephanie Plum, who sports a big attitude and even bigger money problems (since losing her job as a lingerie buyer for a department store).  Stephanie needs cash -- fast -- but times are tough, and soon she's forced to turn to the last resort of the truly desperate: family...

Stephanie lands a gig at her sleazy cousin Vinnie's bail bonding company.  She's got no experience.  But that doesn't matter.  Neither does the fact that the bail jumper in question is local vice cop Joe Morelli.  From the time he first looked up her dress, to the time he first got into her pants, to the time Steph hit him with her father's Buick, M-o-r-e-l-l-i has spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e.  And now the hot guy is in hot water -- wanted for murder...

Abject poverty is a great motivator for learning new skills, but being trained in the school of hard knocks by people like psycho prizefighter Benito Ramirez isn't.  Still, if Stephanie can nab Morelli in a week, she'll make a cool ten grand.  All she has to do is become an expert bounty hunter overnight -- and keeps herself from getting killed before she gets her man...  (Summary from book - Image from www.bestsellers.about.com )

My Review:  Stephanie Plum is in deep doo.  She’s lost her job, pawned all her furniture, and still her phone has been cut off and her car is seconds away from being  repossessed.  No, wait!  Yup…there it goes.   To avoid eviction or *gasp* living with her parents, Stephanie jumps at the chance to catch bail-jumpers for her cousin Vinnie.  Soon she’s hot on the trail of former lover Joseph Morelli, a local cop wanted for murder, and money becomes the least of her problems because, while Stephanie is tracking down Morelli, a sadisitic rapist is targeting her.

To be clear, I didn’t make it more than two pages in to One for the Money before I checked it off the list of books I can recommend to my mother and quite a few of my friends.  Readers bothered by profanity, suggestive dialogue, and mildly sexual situations should probably just find something else to read or opt for the PG-13 movie version.** 

Now, questionable content aside, I thought this book was humorous and entertaining.  It’s the first in very long series of humorous crime novels that feature female bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum.  In One for the Money, Plum and her old flame/nemesis, Joseph Morelli, have plenty of chemistry in spite of their smouldering hate-love-hate relationship and the banter between them was highly amusing.   When Stephanie begins to suspect that Morelli might be innocent, their relationship becomes even more complicated and life gets a lot more dangerous.

I read this book cover to cover in an afternoon – one where my husband was watching the kids and my bedroom door was locked (Psssst….thanks babe!).  Okay, so I figured out the bad guy right around the time things started exploding, and that made the standard monologue-where-bad-guy-explains-why-he-did-what-he-did less surprising, but I still finished this book with every intention of picking up Two for the Dough the next time I see it laying around.

**Honestly, I’m pretty excited to see the movie myself, because I think it will be hysterical  and at least a little "cleaner” than the book.  There has to be less F-words.  By law.  Here’s the trailer, for those of you who’d like a peek.  One for the Money hits the big screen January 27,2011 (aka today).

*POST-EDIT* The movie was funny, but still had some swearing issues, one naked old man butt (eww), and more of Plum's body than was really necessary.  Towards the end, there was some smooshing together of the storyline that I didn't like, and overall the movie felt more geared towards humor than crime or mystery.*   

My Rating: 3.5  Stars. 
For the sensitive reader:    Probably not for readers even remotely sensitive to language or sexually suggestive dialogue. 
Sum it up:  Wildly inappropriate for sensitive readers, but entertaining nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Kid : Cabin Fever - Jeff Kinney

Summary:  Greg Heffley is in big trouble.  School property has been damaged, and Greg is the prime suspect.  But the crazy thing is, he's innocent.  Or at least sort of.

The authorities are closing in, but when a surprise blizzard hits, the Heffley family is trapped indoors.  Greg knows that when the snow melts he's going to have to face the music, but could any punishment be worse than being stuck inside with your family for the holidays?  (Summary from back of the book and image from http://bookboxdaily.scholastic.com/)

My Review:  I think this installment of the Wimpy Kid series falls in line perfectly with the others.  You still have the self-absorbed, gain-seeking, adolescent boy finding himself in situations he's either managed to get himself in or have thrust upon him.  His reactions to the situations are what make Greg unique.  Maybe a preteen could guess what he'd do, but as an adult his decisions can be baffling.  I think there may be more drawings in this book than in the previous five, which I'm sure will appeal to struggling readers.

My personal opinion is that Greg's irritating, whiny, and selfish, but that doesn't change that he's relateable to my students, especially the boys.  If I had a choice of books, I'd probably not pick this up -- I read these to connect with my students and know what they're so enthralled with.  If I had to get a kid to start actually reading a book for an extended period of time, I would definitely offer this as a choice.  Not because I like it, but because I know it's a first step to enjoying books.

I have to mention one of my biggest gripes with the book: over and over again Greg writes in his journal using "Me and my brother" instead of "my brother and I."  Anyone who values grammar knows this is frustrating.  Combine this with the knowledge that your students are reading, repeatedly, an incorrect sentence, obviously thinking it's correct because it's in print.  It's enough to make any English teacher spiral into a conniption fit and it bugged me -- big time.

Rating: 3 stars--mostly because I know it gets kids reading.  I personally don't enjoy them much.

Sum it up: A cooped up saga of a self-absorbed kid.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blessings - Anna Quindlen

Summary:  Blessings, the bestselling novel by the author of Black and Blue, One True Thing, Object Lessons, and A Short Guide to a Happy Life, begins when, late at night, a teenage couple drives up to the estate owned by Lydia Blessings and leaves a box.  In this instant, the world of the estate called Blessings is changed forever.  The story of Skip Cuddy, the Blessings caretaker, who finds a baby asleep in that box and decides he wants to keep her, and of matriarch Lydia Blessings, who, for her own reasons, decides to help him, Blessings explores how the secrets of the past affect decisions and lives in the present; what makes a person, a life, legitimate or illegitimate, and who decides; the unique resources people find in themselves and in a community.  This is a powerful novel of love, redemption, and personal change by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer about whom The Washington Post Book World said, "Quindlen knows that all the things we ever will be can be found in some forgotten fragment of family."  (Summary from book - Image from www.classic.eyeonbooks.com )

My Review:   I’ve reviewed two other books by Anna Quindlen – Black and Blue and Every Last One – and thought they were marvelous. Her writing is always exquisite, effortless, and richly detailed without being boring or pretentious.  Blessings, the most peaceful piece of property in Mount Mason, and the people who lived there leaped from the page and set up shop in my head at the first opportunity.

Lydia Blessings is quite the character – literally and figuratively. At eighty years old, she is used to doing exactly what she wants and very set in her ways; she is frustrated with the changes that comes with old age and doesn’t like intrusions, especially from those of a younger, less refined generation. When Lydia hires Charles “Skip” Cuddy to work on her land, she, and all of town, assume it’s only a matter of time before he’s sent packing like all the rest.

Skip Cuddy doesn’t quite know what to do when he finds a newborn baby abandoned outside the garage where he lives and works as the caretaker of the Blessings estate. Lydia Blessings, his fastidious employer and nosy landlord is sure to disapprove. Still, Skip carries the little bundle up to his room over the garage and his world is never the same. Skip transforms into such a nurturing, devoted father figure, that I was half in love with him before he even figured out the importance of formula. His quiet tenderness and protective nature were unbelievably endearing (and, to be honest, a little hot). I loved watching Lydia and Skip’s characters evolve over the course of the story – Skip embracing his role as father, the blossoming connection between him and Faith, and Lydia’s slow acceptance and eventual love for both of them.

While I enjoyed this book, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did her others. Her writing was as enchanting as ever, but I closed this book with a much heavier heart. It might be a pregnancy thing, but I desperately wanted a certain life for Lydia, Skip, and Faith. I shouldn’t have been surprised by an ending that ripped my heart out (sunshine-and-butterfly endings aren’t really Quindlen’s style) but I ached for the loss of their happily-ever-after. Also, Quindlen doesn’t shy away from profanity if it lends a character authenticity – and some of Skip’s friends were genuine potty-mouthed morons. I understand where she’s coming from, but I could have done without the language.

At its heart, Blessings is a novel about how love, even fleeting, can change us for the better. While I wouldn’t recommend this book to more sensitive readers, I would recommend it to everyone else.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Scattered profanity of all varieties, some crass language, and occasional references to past sexual relationships.

Sum it up: A bittersweet exploration of love, transformation, and loss.   

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Freak Observer - Blythe Woolston

Summary:  For eight years, Loa Lindgren's world ran like one of those mechanical models of the solar system, with her baby sister, Asta, as the sun.  Asta suffered from a genetic disorder that left her a permanent infant, and caring for her was Loa's life.  Everything spun neatly and regularly as the whole family orbited around Asta.

But now Asta's dead, and 16-year-old Loa's clockwork galaxy has collapsed.  As Loa spins off on her own, her mind ambushes her with vivid nightmares and sadistic flashbacks-- a textbook case of PTSD.  But there are no textbook fixes for Loa's short-circuiting brain.  She must find her own way to pry her world from the clutches of death.  (Summary from book - Image from www.lernerbooks.com - Book given free for an honest review).

My Review:  Loa’s world was blown out of orbit the day her younger sister died.  With Asta gone, her family fell apart, her life evaporated and now she’s floundering, plagued with nightmares and bizarre hallucinations that she can’t seem to escape.   The Freak Observer follows Loa’s life as she works through her feelings of grief, panic, loneliness, and betrayal.  It was not a book that I raced through, or even particularly enjoyed, but I did appreciate the experience and Loa’s insightful observations. 

Laced with dark humor and acerbic wit, Loa’s voice was honest and undeniably unique.  Despite her rough edges, her love for her younger siblings was tender and moving.  I connected with the discouragement and despair that she felt, the loneliness and pain that came from suffering through a series of tragic losses and family instability.  I don’t know if I would like Loa if I met her – you know, if she weren’t fictional – but I feel like this book helped me to better understand the pain, confusion, and anger that accompanies loss. 
Unfortuantely, parts of this book didn’t resonate with me.  I didn’t understand the concept of the “freak observer,” how it factored into the story, or, let’s face it, any of the physics-based chapter headings.  It’s likely that the subject matter was miles over my head – it’s been quite a while since I’ve had a conversation that wasn’t about diapers, time-outs, or morning sickness – and that  a sharper mind might fare better.  However, my biggest problem with The Freak Observer was the frequent  use of profanity that really wasn’t necessary for the story, and Loa’s indifferent and casual attitude about sex.  It might not bother everyone, but it bothered me, and I’m not a particularly sensitive reader. 
For all its darkness, The Freak Observer did end on a positive note, but even so, I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to just anyone.  Loa’s voice, and her raw, honest emotions were what compelled me to keep reading when otherwise, I might not have finished.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Plenty of profanity (of all kinds), underage drinking, and some vague but entirely-too-casual underage sex.  Seriously, she might as well have been taking out the trash.

Sum it up:  Honest with a unique voice. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Look What I Just Got in the Mail...

Go ahead.  Be jealous.

Since 2005, Stephanie Nielson has been the the author of the popular blog, The NieNie Dialogues.  In the fall of 2008, she and her husband, Christian barely survived a devastating airplane crash.  Both were severely burned and Stephanie ended up in a coma with burns over 80% of her body. 

Life changed that day and it has never been the same.  It's been better.  Heaven Is Here tells Stephanie's story of recovery -- her story of "hope, triumph, and everyday joy."

And I get to read it early.
*happy dance*

Please don't hate me (well, if you must, but only just a little). 
I promise to post a review on, or just before, its release in April.
I suppose if you can't wait, you can always check out the digital preview.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Great Fat Fraud - Mike Schatzki

Summary: Are you tired of buying diet book after diet book? Have you tried every exercise class at your gym? Are you ready to toss the whole concept of diet and exercise out the window? It’s time to try something different.

If you’re ready for a real change, and ready to take back control of your body, let The Great Fat Fraud provide you with the road map.
Summary and cover photo from www.greatfatfraud.com This book was provided free for review.

My Review: Mike Schatzki attempts to alter the view of modern society that being overweight (or fat) is equivalent to being unhealthy. By applying multiple peer-reviewed studies the author details how fitness is a more correct indicator of health than weight. The main study focused on in this book is one that details, with the use of graphs, that being fit greatly reduce death rate regardless of weight. The author defines fit as walking 10,000 steps a day and provides research on how this number was determined.

I appreciate the effort made in debunking the myth that health can be measure in terms of weight or BMI. By providing a simple solution for a life of fitness by walking 10,000 steps a day, the author simplifies fitness and makes it obtainable for everyone. The book stresses that one should move at his or her own pace with no timeline for reaching the goal steps. We tend to overly complicate fitness, so I think that offering a simplistic solution is valuable. One of the reasons people don’t commit to a fitness routine is because the manner in which it is marketed makes it feel too time consuming and difficult. My favorite part of the book comes when the author offers a solution for the argument that there is not enough time to walk 10,000 steps. He does not tell readers to make it a priority but rather a necessity in which other things should be scheduled around. What a great solution and one we could all benefit from.

There are several other things I appreciated about this book. The endnotes are very detailed and provide not only the article in which you can look up the research for yourself but the area the information can be found in each research paper. The book is short and easy to read. All medical jargon is adequately explained in layman’s terms. The additional website provides deeper insight into thoughts presented within the book.

My biggest beef with this book is the fact that it neglects to take into account diet in any form. While I agree that fitness levels play a vital role in health, I feel that research has shown that what one puts into his or her body is equally important. The author emphasizes that our bodies were designed to exercise by hunting and gathering but neglects to mention that they weren’t designed to digest all that fast-food or processed food that we put into them. There is also no mention of additional benefits from developing muscle by adding to a walking fitness routine. Our bodies were designed to work and be more muscular than most are now. Muscle burns more calories and small amounts of muscle mass can be added without working out hours each day.

Another point that the book does not detail is the amount of morbidly obese people who are actually fit. I would venture a guess that there are quite a few people who would be classified as obese, BMI above 25, that are physically fit but how many people with a BMI above 30, classified as morbidly obese, are fit? If these people walked the recommended 10,000 steps each and every day they are likely to see a drop in their weight. If the author truly wants to make the point that weight does not correlate with health then some actual numbers in this area would be quite beneficial.

Overall this book is a great starting point but is by no means the end-all be-all to healthy living. The suggestion to walk 10,000 steps each day is a simple step people may take to becoming more healthy. Yet how we fuel our bodies should also be included. A short chapter on one to three simple eating changes would add a great deal of value to the book.
My Rating: 3 Stars
To sum it up: A valid attempt to stress the importance of fitness over weight, yet lacking some important key points.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When She Woke - Hillary Jordan

Summary: Hannah Payne's life has been devoted to church and family. But after she's convicted of murder, she awakens in a new body to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes--criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime--is a sinister form of entertainment.

Hannah is a Red for the crime of murder. The victim, says the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she shared a fierce and forbidden love.

A powerful reimagining of "The Scarlet Letter," "When She Woke" is a timely fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of the not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated, and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed and released back into the population to survive as best they can. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love.
Summary and cover photo from indiebound.org

My Review: The idea of this novel is not so unique as it plays upon The Scarlet Letter. Yet it is creative in the way the author addresses the issues that arose within that novel. In this futuristic society criminals are easily identified by their skin color, as all criminals are chromed with a skin color to match the crime they are convicted of. Caught stealing? You may awake with bright yellow skin. The heroine of this tale, Hannah Payne, awakes red after being convicted for murder because of an abortion. The story follows her as she attempts to overcome the society's prejudice, meanwhile uncovering her own beliefs.

The novel starts out gripping. Hannah Payne is a likable character despite her crime. Her fierceness to protect the father of her unborn child is endearing. Her willpower is amazing. As the reader follows her journey out of prison into society one cannot help but root for her triumph.

Yet about half way through the novel loses it’s steam. The author did a wonderful job developing this character yet seems to just drop many of the attributes she created in her. For example, Hannah is given this amazing ability to create and sew, yet after utilizing this talent briefly it is never mentioned again. Also the author created some very powerful female characters that were never developed to their full potential. It seems that at this point the author relied on shock value to add to the story and failed. There is a detailed sex scene that adds no value to the story whatsoever.

The setting of the story presents another problem. The author begins by setting up a very conservative, old-fashioned society; a culture where people sew their own clothing and live off the land. Yet later in the book we experience the main character patronizing a popular discount store. It felt like the author was undecided on which path to take the story.

Overall I would have to say this was a thought-provoking novel. Its subject matter and dystopian aura makes it appealing. Yet it is not fully ripened. It feels like alternative motives took precedence about half way through and the story was lost. The ending also leaves much to be desired. This is most unfortunate as the novel had so much potential.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Sensitive Readers - This is not a book for the conservative reader. It deals with the issues of abortion and sexuality. It also has a strong feminist message and language many would find offensive.

To sum it up: Another tale with amazing potential yet poor follow-through.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Where She Went - Gayle Forman

Summary:  My first impulse is not to grab her or kiss her or yell at her.  I simply want to touch her cheek, still flushed from the night's performance.  I want to cut through the space that separates us, measured in feet--not miles, not continents, not years--and to take a callused finger to her face...

But I can't touch her.  This is a privilege that's been revoked.

It's been three years since Adam's love saved Mia after the accident that annihilated life as she knew it...

...and three years since Mia walked out of Adam's life forever.

Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Julliard's rising star and Adam is L.A. tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend.  When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night.  As they explore the city that has become Mia's home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future--and each other.

Told from Adam's point of view in the spare, powerful prose that defined If I Stay, Where She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.  (Summary from jacket cover and image from http://lucidconspiracy.blogspot.com/)

My Review:  This was another compelling and time-warping book.  A companion and sequel to If I Stay (RFS reviews here and here), it was heart-wrenching, emotion-packed, grief-driven ride into the world of Adam and Mia.  I loved it.  If I Stay is from Mia's perspective and this from Adams.  At first I wasn't sure if I liked this switch in point of view.  Within a few chapters I was not only sold, but I also believed the relationship (despite starting in high school) of Mia and Adam.  While reading I couldn't fathom the reasons for their separation, but this all changed by the end and both Adam and Mia's subconscious motives are revealed.  I can't say I've ever dealt with such grief, such raw and undeserved pain.  That's probably why I couldn't see where the story was going or how it would ever resolve itself.  The ending was most satisfying, and even despite the fact the outcome may seem cliche to some, Forman made it believable enough for me.  I was rooting for Adam (and for Mia, although lesser in the beginning) and hoping that his wounds would eventually heal, and that's what you get (without going into too much detail and ruining the ending of the book).

I wish I had more knowledge of the music she wrote about and referenced.  It might have helped me understand the tone she was looking for and the mood that I got from reading.  If you have the chance, and you're in the midst of reading this book, I'd say look up the songs while reading and see if it adds more depth.

I am a bit surprised this book is in my middle school library.  Not because of the content, but because of the swearing (or the amount of it) and the hinted-at sex scene.  I maybe shouldn't be that surprised, because it seems that YA lit is saturated with it.  Still, for and eighth graders I still think the adult nature of their relationship is too mature.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, but that's my opinion.

Rating:  4.5 stars

For the sensitive reader:  A hinted-at sex scene as well as Adam's one-night-stand references, and swearing throughout might turn off some readers.  When I book talk for my students I give them movie ratings.  This one would be R simply for the number of times the F word was used.

Sum it up:  A thoroughly engrossing, but not depressing story of healing from devastating grief.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Spiderwick Chronicles : The Seeing Stone - Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black

Summary:  Jared, Simon, and Mallory Grace are drawn into a dangerous adventure when invisible creatures drag Simon into the forest surround the Spiderwick mansion.  Jared and Mallory are determined to rescue him, but how can they fight an invisible enemy?  (Summary from me - Image from openlibrary.org )

My Review:  The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Seeing Stone is the second of five books in the Spiderwick Chronicles series.  You can read our review of the first book here.  In the last book, Jared discovered a mysterious field guide written by his late ancestor, Arthur Spiderwick, that detailed the fantastical creatures that lived unseen in the world.  Now, something is after the book and Simon is kidnapped.  Determined to find their brother, Mallory and Jared enter the forest armed only with a magical seeing stone and a rapier.  Along the way, they make a new friend (sort-of) and encounter creatures beyond their wildest imaginings.

My kids really enjoyed this book, but I can see how it could be a little scary for more sensitive readers.  As a bit of a spoiler, the invisible creatures are some ugly, violent little goblins that like to roast and eat cats.  At one point Simon is locked in a cage and in danger of being their next meal.  My little ones handled this just fine, but others might not.  The illustrations in this book are black and white, but fairly detailed -- which is fabulous and fascinating unless your kid has a hard time sleeping at night, and then it's likely to lead to disaster. 

Overall, I thought this was a great continuation of the series and I plan to keep reading the rest of the series to my six and eight-year-old.

Post-edit:  I have finished this reading this series to my kids (we've had a bit of a backlog in our line-up), and while they enjoyed them immensely, I really don't have much to say about the rest of the series beyond what I have already said -- except that I feel the series should have been (and could have been) released all in one book.  Regardless, the series, in its entirety, is sure to please courageous young adventurers who don't mind a little scary faery action.

My Rating: 4 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  Some images might be considered frightening for younger children.  I seem to recall a little bit of name calling and use of the "S" word (stupid ;) as well. (Post-edit: Later books use the word "crap," as well)

Sum it up:  A great continuation to an imaginative series.  Parents with sensitive-to-scary children might want to proceed with caution.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Divergent - Veronica Roth

Summary:  In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue -- Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).  On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives.  For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is -- she can't have both.  So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are -- and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen.  But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death.  And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves or it might destroy her.  (Summary from book - Image from veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com)
My Review:  Divergent was a rush -- a torrent of emotion, danger, and breath-taking adventure with some seriously delicious romance thrown in.  I tore through the entire 487-page book in an afternoon -- an afternoon when I was sick with a cold and supposed to be napping.  Instead, I was locked in my bedroom reading.  (Shhhh. Don't tell.)  I had so much fun!

Divergent is set in Chicago, or what once was Chicago, years before society broke down.  In an effort to save a crumbling government, the people separated themselves factions: Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Amity.  Each faction focused on a value they believe will save humanity (e.g. selflessness, honesty, bravery, knowledge, and peace) and vowed to live by that precept.  Despite the seeming tranquility, unrest simmers just below the surface of this peaceful society.  At the age of sixteen, children are forced to select which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives, and now Beatrice (aka Tris) Prior must choose  -- does she stay with her family and live a life of selflessness, or does she follow her heart?  No matter what choice she makes, she won't be safe. 

I was easily and delightfully lost in Veronica Roth's dystopian Chicago, with its separate factions and their different mannerisms, fashions, and values.  Each chapter I raced through revealed more about the different factions, Tris' character, her struggles to pass initiation, and the hidden agendas of other characters.  The intrigue, action, and romance kept my heart racing and I was certainily never bored.

Aaand, speaking of romance.  Tris and a certain someone have some unbelievably electric chemistry. I mean... just... wow...and... *sigh*!   I held my breath nearly every time they were in a room together and loved every second of it.  Who needs oxygen, right?  Not me.

What I loved most about this book, aside from the sizzly romance, was its strong female heroine. Tris wasn't a perfect princess.  She wasn't stunningly beautiful, simpering, or irritatingly flawless.  In fact, she had moments of selfishness, insecurity, and down right stubbornness.  Honestly, it was refreshing to see a capable, tough as nails, heroine that did her own saving.

If, after all my gushing, you really need someone else's opinion, head on over to Goodreads, where Divergent was voted Favorite Book of 2011.  With a cinematic intensity worthy of the big screen, I wouldn't be surprised to see Divergent hit theatres. Oh wait. *HAPPY DANCE*   This could probably go without saying, but I will definitely be picking up the sequel, Insurgent, when it is released in May 2012. 

My Rating: 5 Stars.  Matched is no match for Divergent.

For the sensitive reader:  Some nearly sexual situations and several scenes of graphic combat-related violence.  It didn't bother me, but it has bothered others (see comments). I don't remember any profanity, but honestly, I was so sucked into the story that I don't think it would have even registered.

Sum it up:    If you like YA dystopian fiction with a little romance thrown in...WHY ARE YOU STILL SITTING THERE?!??!  Go get this book.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My First Summer in the Sierra - John Muir

Reading For Sanity would like to thank avid outdoorsman and guest reviewer, Michael Irving for this review.  Michael works as an admissions counselor for Idaho State University, moonlights as an amateur chef, and maintains that has yet to lose an argument.  He's also my younger brother.   I spent such a significant portion of my adolescence tormenting him, I'm surprised he still speaks to me, let alone sends me reviews.  
(Michael at The City of Rocks National Reserve in southern Idaho)

Summary:  In the summer of 1869, John Muir made his first long trip to Yosemite.  When a friend offered him the chance to accompany his flock of sheep and a shepherd to the high pastures of the Sierra, it was an opportunity Muir could not resist.  My First Summer in the Sierra is the journal he kept of those summer days, of the wildlife and plant life, and of his explorations into the magical places of the mountains.

Founder of the Sierra Club, and its president until his death, preserver of his beloved Yosemite as a national park, Muir was a spirit so free that all he did to prepare for an expedition was to "throw some tea and bread into an old sack and jump over the back fence."  In a world confronting the deterioration of the natural environment and an ever-quickening pace of life, the attraction of Muir's writings has never been greater.  (Summary from book - Image from www.myfirstsummerinthesierra.com )

Michael's Review: I consider My First Summer in the Sierra one of American Literature's hidden treasures.  The book chronicles the experiences of a young conservationist, John Muir, as he trekked through the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside of San Francisco.  Born in 1838 on the coast of Scotland, Muir immigrated with his family to the United States as a young boy.  Here formal and informal education planted seeds that sprouted deep desires to live, and move, and breathe in wild places.  Consequently a simple trip to San Francisco  sparked a summer of traveling through the surrounding countryside as a shepherd.  Muir's record during his travels recounts everything from harrowing tales of bear attacks, to the simple and sublime silence of a warm summers eve.   

Muir has a unique style of writing. His ability to take the unadorned moments of his day to day life and, with words, dress them in regal attire is what moves this book from good to great.  However for those readers that prefer a writing style that is more technical, Muir offers that as well. His style traverses the entire range of literary thought, moving from poetic to scientific and back again. Thus his writing allows a diversity of interests to feel comfortable and enjoy his words.

His Rating: 4.5 Stars.  This book is a must read for any person who feels a connection with the outside world.  However for those wayward souls that don't feel so inclined, be warned that the passion felt in Muir's writing has the power to persuade even the most hardened urbanites. It didn't receive a full 5 stars because there were times when I felt as if I was drowning in expressive language and I would literally have to stop just to catch my breath. 

Sum it up:  If you are looking at a book to grow, continue or even rekindle that passionate flame of love for the world wild, dive into this book and lets Muir's words wash over you.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Lace Makers of Glenmara - Heather Barbieri

Summary:  "You can always start again," Kate Robinson's mother once told her -- "all it takes is a new thread."  Overwhelmed by heartbreak and loss, the struggling twenty-six-year-old fashion designer follows her mother's advice and flees to her ancestral homeland of Ireland, hoping to break free of old patterns and reinvent herself. 
Soon she arrive on the west coast, in the seaside hamlet of Glenmara.  In this charming, fading Gaelic village, Kate quickly develops a bond with members of the local lace making society.

...Under Glenmara's spell, Kate finds the inspiration that has eluded her, and soon she and the lace makers are creating a line of exquisite lingerie.  In their skilled hands, flowers, Celtic dragons, nymphs, fish, saints, kings and queens come to life, rendered with almost painterly skill.  The circle also offers them something more -- the strength to face long-denied desires and fears.  But not everyone welcomes Kate, and a series of unexpected events threatens to unravel everything the women have worked so hard for... (Summary from book - Image from goodreads.com )
My Review: The Lace Makers of Glenmara takes place in the brilliantly lush and mystical country of Ireland. I fell in love with the Irish countryside quickly and the ladies of Glenmara’s lace-making circle weren’t far behind. The further I read, the more connected I felt with each woman and her experiences: Bernie, recently widowed and lonely; Oona, struggling with the aftermath of a devastating surgery; Colleen, waiting for her husband who has been out on the sea far too long; Moira, unwilling to leave an abusive relationship; and even the uniformly unpleasant Aileen, who had her own list of demons. These women were complicated and imperfect -- they were real.

And then there was Kate -- young, desperate, and devastated by the betrayal of the man she loved who finds comfort in Ireland and in the lace makers of Glenmara. She wasn’t in town very long before she stumbled into the path (and bed) of Sullivan Dean, a handsome local artist. I was a disappointed that Kate wasn’t more cautious in pursuing Sullivan – given her resolution to swear off men of his ilk – and thought they could have taken more time getting to know each other before becoming intimate. While most of the lace makers (and obviously, Sullivan) were delighted to have a visitor in town, Kate’s presence and her various activities draw the ire of Father Byrne, Glenmara’s xenophobic and nosy local preacher. He’s a creep, but it was fun to watch him get riled up.

Overall, I appreciated Kate’s back story, her relationship with Sullivan, and her interactions with Father Byrne, but I was infinitely more absorbed in the lace maker's lives. I enjoyed the Irish setting and the women of Glenmara, and felt that they were what made this book interesting. I would probably recommend this as a good one time read – the kind you borrow, but don’t keep.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Some sex, though usually the shut-the-door-wake-up-the-next-morning variety. Some fairly liberal use of Irish words that I can only assume are comparative to American curse words(eg. feck, shite, Jay-sus). 

Sum it up:  A somewhat enchanting tale of love, loss, and lace.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What My Mother Doesn't Know - Sonya Sones

Summary:  My name is Sophie
This book is about me.
It tells
the heart-stoppingly riveting story
of my first love.
And also of my second.
And, okay, my third love, too.

It's not that I'm boy crazy.
It's just that even though
I'm almost fifteen
I've been having sort of a hard time
trying to figure out the difference
between love and lust.

It's like
my mind
and my body
and my heart
just don't seem to be able to agree
on anything.  (Summary from jacket cover and image from http://bybookorbycrook.files.wordpress.com/)

My Review: I read and reviewed Sones' other book What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know previously and knew I wanted to check this one out.  While I can't say this one is as funny as the other, it was still an enjoyable read. It's in poetry style format just like WMGDK, and I have to say I think this is a great strategy for teen readers.  So many are daunted by the length of a book.  Once they see the white space each page has, they jump to give it a try.  Combine that with a good book talk promoting the book and I have students climbing over each other to be the first to read it.  There's something very satisfying with whipping through a book so quickly.  Today I read all 259 pages in 2 hours.  My students were impressed, which honestly they shouldn't be but it does help with my promo.

Sophie is such a quirky girl.  I cannot say even half of the ideas that pop into her head had or have ever popped into mine.  She's more on the wild side, although deep down still a very sweet girl who's simply navigating her way through teen crossroads very charged with hormones.  Her friends aren't far off from where she is.  It's written as if it took place about when I was in high school (no surprise, its copyright is 2001), and that added another level of connection for me as a reader.  I typically give books a rating when I tell students about them and I'd put this one at PG.  There's kissing and a lot of talk about kissing, but it doesn't go beyond that with her relationships.  There is one moment where a jerk-teenage-boy is dared by his friends to cop a feel, an incident where she feels violated and retaliates, but other than that it stays in the PG realm.  It was a funny book, with very real teenage issues, but definitely not nearly as funny as WMGDK.  I can tell you though that my students love this book and recommend it to each other.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Sum it up:  An eccentric, bit of a wild girl trying to figure out just exactly what she feels and thinks about boys, religion, her parents, and life.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Summer Shake-Up (June - August)

Since three of us will be having babies just before summer hits, we have decided shake up our summer line-up to make things a little easier on everyone.  Starting June 1st, in place of our standard every-other-day reviewing format, we will post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Posts will be a mixture of book spotlights, mini-reviews, links to great book websites, award winning book lists, guest posts, and even continuing our In My Stack series.  That might not sound like a break but, thankfully, we are working on scheduling these posts in advance, so that when the babies arrive we can sit back, relax (hah!), and enjoy the downtime with our families.

I hope you enjoy your summer!  Don't worry, we'll be back on September 1st with some fabulous reviews!


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