We started this blog in 2010 after a New Years' Resolution to read 60 books between the two of us. (40 for C, 20 for D.) After reaching our goal, we decided to keep going in 2011. This year, C has pledged to read 30 books, and D will read 12. By no means are we professional reviewers; we're not even professional bloggers. We're just two people who love to read and decided to share our thoughts and offer our limited insights. We hope you enjoy!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

(BONUS) Book #41: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

And I thought I'd have trouble getting to forty.

Unlike my feelings for the Twilight series, I have never had anything against Harry Potter. It never particularly interested me, but as I mentioned in my very first post here, I will pretty much read just about anything. (Except Frankenstein, apparently.) Most of the reason I've never read the series so far is that I didn't have the books. I didn't want to read them when I was younger, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I am notoriously thrifty, yet for some reason don't frequent libraries, so asking me to invest in, like, eight giant books is pretty much like asking me to give you a kidney. Lo and behold, I happened to mention that I'd like to give the series a go, and my mother-in-law told me she bought the first five books for her classroom back when she was a 3rd grade teacher. She has no use for them now, so home with me they came. Merry Christmas to me!

Everyone knows that Harry Potter is a giant phenomenon, which, admittedly, does turn me off a little bit. Maybe that's the small portion of hipster in me, but when something is off-the-charts mainstream like that, I am immediately skeptical of the hype. I never understood the people waiting in line at midnight for copies of the books as they came out, or people dressed as Harry in line to see the movies, or those crazy folks who play Quidditch...

... But it is so easy to see how those people became crazy Potter addicts. It's horrible, and I am mostly ashamed to admit it, but... ohmyGod, where has this been all my life? I loved it. I read it in a matter of hours. I was grinning like a child when I finished it. I HATE MYSELF.

Really, I feel terrible for liking it so much, but I shouldn't! J.K. Rowling, unlike many over-hyped series authors, is actually extremely talented. She's clever and funny, and she does a really good job of not dumbing the plot down. It's obviously written for kids, and that often means (as was the case with The Secret of Platform 13) that I figure out plot twists early. Not this time. No, no, I was screaming, "WHAT?! What? WHAT?" at the end. Ask Derrick. It was embarrassing. It really was. But honestly, a couple chapters in and these people feel like your best friends. It's so good. Ugh.


5/5 Stars

Read from December 29, 2010 to December 30, 2010


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Aaaaaannnnddd, We're Done

Honestly, there were a few times throughout 2010 that I doubted Derrick and I reaching our goal...

But we did it! Both of us! I hit forty, he hit twenty, and you lucky readers were blessed with sixty brilliant and thought-provoking reviews. We all win at life.

I believe I speak for both of us when I say that this little challenge was totally worth it. For the last four years or so, I've pretty much always been in the middle of a book, so I would've read a lot in 2010 regardless; however, this pushed me to read much more than I would have otherwise. I'm not gonna lie -- it's been a crazy year for me. Six months of student teaching, two months of debilitating 24/7 migraines, a summer full of job-searching, a wedding in November, and working two jobs... I'm definitely glad I had something pushing me to make time to read. There would have been plenty of times this year that I would have said, "Oh, forget it, I'm exhausted" and skipped that twenty minutes of reading before bedtime... But there was that little voice. That gnawing, annoying "... but will you make it to forty books?" in the back of my head. It kept me going, and I'm glad it did. Even though there have been a few lemons in the bunch, I'm glad I read every book that I read. Even if I hated it (looking at you, Stupid Christmas), it made me think. Thinking is never bad. Broadening horizons is never bad. I'm even glad I read Twilight. Now I can back up my hatred of Stephanie Meyers with cold, hard, sparkly facts.

I'm certainly going to do this again in 2011, although, I admit, I'll be lowering the number of books I'm challenging myself to read. Not because I don't think I can read that many -- it's clear that even with a whole lot of life in the way, I can get the job done -- but because I think it had more of an effect on the books I chose than it should have. There are a lot of pretty thick books on my shelf I've been wanting to read that I put off because I knew they'd take a couple weeks to get through. This especially applied to what I chose to read these last three or four months. I don't want to put off reading books I'm dying to read because of a limitation I've placed on myself.

Derrick and I are doing a bit of a twist for 2011 -- We're still planning on reading and reviewing books here. One book per month will be in association with a book club we've begun with friends and family. The rest will be on our own, just as they were this year.

My goal for the year? Thirty. Twelve of those will be determined by our book club. The other eighteen... Those are all mine.

Any of you have reading goals this year?


I totally agree.  I'm extraordinarily happy that we both attempted this and completed it.  Rolling into December, I was a bit worried, but we made it, and it was tremendously rewarding.

Unfortunately, next year I may be sticking mostly to the 12 books selected by the book club.  I am going back to school in January, so most of my reading time will be taken up by textbooks and, no doubt, scholarly articles.  It just wouldn't be fair to subject you to that.

So, dear readers, as we bid 2010 adieu, I thank you for listening to my ramblings, putting up with may apparent zombie fetish, and giving me a creative outlet.



P.S. Be on the lookout for a name change in the near future.

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror (20)

Yes, another Christopher Moore book.  What can I say?  I'm hooked.  Plus, it fit the season.  The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror is perfectly fun romp through Moore's recurring town of Pine Cove during the Christmas season.

Many settings, characters, and motifs from Moore's earlier books make an appearance here:

  • Raziel - Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
  • Theophilus Crowe, Molly Michon, Gabe Fenton, and Valerie Riordan - The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove
  • Robert Masterson, Jenny Masterson, and Mavis Sand - Practical Demonkeeping and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove
  • Tucker Case and Roberto the Fruit Bat - Island of the Sequined Love Nun

Those familiar with Moore's writings will also find slight allusions to some of his other works, like the French irreverence from Fool, the Rastafarian speak from Fluke, and Raziel's affinity for Spider-Man from Lamb.

The story begins with the accidental murder of a Santa-suit-clad jerk that takes place days before Christmas.  Of course, it iswitnessed by a twelve-year-old boy on his way home from a friend's house, and of course that boy prays for a resurrected Santa so that Christmas can be saved.  The problem is that Raziel has to perform this Christmas miracle because of a lost angelic bet, and Raziel doesn't have the brightest of heavenly glows.  He brings the faux-Santa back to life as a zombie (and the rest of the Pine Cove graveyard with him) on the night of the Lonesome Christmas party, and chaos ensues.

This book, like every other Christopher Moore book I've read, was hilarious.  From the pot-smoking constable to the pilot with a giant talking fruit bat to the bar owner with her affinity for burros with wiffle ball bats, the characters teeter on the edge of the ridiculous, and the plot is one absurd twist after another.  This is a must-read for Moore fans or just someone who wants a riot of a Christmas story.  If you do pick this up, definitely pick up the version 2.0 of the book (pictured), which includes a follow-up chapter with a Lonesome Christmas party tale for the following year.  Christmas will never be the same.

5/5 Stars

Book #40: House of Dark Shadows

Well, I certainly ended the year on a good note.

House of Dark Shadows by Robert Liparulo is the first book in the Dreamhouse Kings series. The King family -- Xander, David, Toria, and their parents -- pick up and move from Pasadena to boring, rural Pinedale, California. The kids (especially Xander) aren't very excited about it, and living in a motel isn't helping the situation. Soon enough, Xander's parents fall in love with a giant, old fixer-upper house in the middle of the woods. Xander is immediately creeped out by the house, but his family just thinks he's paranoid. Soon enough, the entire family is staring to have second thoughts, what with all the creepy sounds, giant footprints left in the dust, and shadows lurking all over the house. Things get even weirder when Xander and David discover a passageway that leads to a hidden wing of the house, which holds passageways of its own... to different time periods.

I completely loved this book. It's safe to say I'll be reading every book in this series as soon as I can get my hands on them. From about ages 7-11, I was totally obsessed with R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books. I read every one that they carried at Bookland. (They still had Booklands back then. In Cullman, Goosebumps were on the back wall, bottom two shelves. Trust me.) I kept my 10 favorites stacked neatly in the right corner of my classroom desk. This book took me back to those days. It's obviously written for an older audience, but still. I totally felt like 3rd-grade me, all excited and creeped out.

I can't say anything bad about this book, except that the ending is totally not an ending. That's probably why instead of saying "The End," it says "NOT the End." At least he's honest. I wish I had the next one sitting here waiting on me. I'd never heard of this series, which is surprising since it seems to have been out for a while. I'm excited to read it, since there's a pretty hefty historical aspect involved. The portals in the houses are just dripping with history lessons. You don't get in to that much in the first book, but I can feel it. It's coming.


5/5 Stars

Read from December 26, 2010 to December 29, 2010


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Book #39: The Secret of Platform 13

This is my second Eva Ibbotson book of the year. The first was The Star of Kazan, which I liked although I found the pacing a bit off. I found this book, The Secret of Platform 13, in a double-book special at my favorite used bookstore; it also includes Ibbotson's book Island of the Aunts. I decided to give it a try since I enjoyed the plot of Kazan so much. I'm happy to report that the pacing problem isn't an issue in this book.

The Secret of Platform 13 is about a mystical secret land called "The Island," which has creatures such as mermaids, hags, harpies, mistmakers, ogres, and wizards. The Island can be reached through Platform 13 in England. You can only pass between the two realms for the period of exactly nine days, which comes only once every nine years. When the story opens, the platform is open, and the infant prince of the Island is taken through the opening by his nannies who want to visit England. The prince is stolen by a snobby, vapid debutante who longs for a baby of her own. When the nine-day opening is over, the nannies have to return to the Island to report to the King and Queen that their son has been stolen and cannot be retrieved for at least the next nine years. The novel picks up again nine years later when the platform opens again, and a group of "rescuers" have been chosen to go through the opening to bring home the prince, who has lived his whole life having no idea he is a member of the royalty in a land he doesn't even know exists.

This is a great little story with wonderfully painted characters and a great setting. Judging from the two books I've read, Ibbotson is a master at creating whimsical atmospheres for her stories. Definitely perfect for kids, but completely enjoyable for adults, as well. As a half-way intelligent 23-year-old, I will admit that I figured out the plot twist by about the fifth chapter, but it really didn't take away from the story for me. I knew what was coming at the end, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the book. It's a great combination of reality and fantasy, since parts of the story take place in both worlds. There's a sense of familiarity when the "normal" people of England are discussed, but as soon as the book switches to the adventures of the rescuers and all of their powers and spells, you're immediately sucked into a great fantasy world.

I will say, though, that there are some striking similarities between this book and The Star of Kazan. Both involve infants being raised by people who are not their parents, and thus people not being who they say they are. Both involve an elaborate rescue plot. Both, for some reason, involve musical instruments playing a major role in the rescue mission (which I think is a completely random thing to have in common). There are a lot more, but I don't want to ruin any of the book. It was weird, but I suppose a lot of childrens' writers find a formula that works and they stick to it. I'm OK with it, but I did think some of them were a little eerie.

Slight sidenote: There are a ton of people reviewing this on Amazon calling this book a Harry Potter wanna-be, and an equal number of people screaming about how this book was written way before Harry Potter. The latter is definitely a valid point. Not having read the first word of a Harry Potter book, I'm not at liberty to say what their similarities are, but I do know the basic premise of Harry Potter, and I have to say, I don't really see any reason for the comparison. But just in case you're thinking the same thing, it is important to know that this was written pre-Potter explosion. Just throwing that out there.

I would certainly recommend this to a reader of any age, and I would encourage you to put Eva Ibbotson on your list of authors to look for when you're perusing the bookstore.

4/5 Stars

Read from December 22, 2010 to December 26, 2010


Book #38: Stupid Christmas

The combination of "holiday," "Kindle," and "free" sucked me in to this, and I will never, ever forgive myself for it.

The "author" (I think "editor" is more appropriate), Leland Gregory has scoured... some sources?... to find real-life zany Christmas-related stories and placed them into this collection. Sounds fun, right? It's not. There are a lot of problems, here.

First of all, there are no sources. I was a student of history. I live for sources and citations and footnotes. It's just how I roll. When you try to tell me something happened, especially if that something is hard to believe, you better be able to prove it. This entire point of this book is to collect outrageous incidents. There's a lot in this book that's hard to believe. It all supposedly actually happened, yet here's no reason for me to believe that it did. I mean, I'm not saying Gregory completely leaves out any trace of a source, because a lot of times he'll throw in "According to [insert random newspaper title here]"... But come on, you're writing and publishing a book. And getting paid for it. Make the effort to throw in an issue number and a date and some way for me to find what you're talking about. Geez. FYI, his book Stupid American History (which has the same basic purpose as this book, except it's about American History) is also free on Kindle right now. From what I understand in the reviews, he doesn't cite any of that either. SERIOUSLY, a history book with no citations?!?!??! OH MY GOD. That might just be the history jerk in me, but it really bugged me, and this is my review, so there.

Second, there are a disturbing number of "stories" in this book that have very little to do with Christmas. Sometimes it's just stuff that happened in December. December events are not equal to Christmas events.

Third, the incidents in the book aren't even interesting. I mean, yes, people are stupid and it's fun to read about the dumb things people do, but most of what was in here was just useless. There are probably close to 100 little tales in here, and only four or five were interesting enough for me to even remember. The one that sticks out the most for me was a Wal-Mart who set up a large Toys for Tots charity donation box near the exit of the store (so that customers could purchase a toy, then drop it off as a donation on their way out). When the Toys for Tots representative came to pick up the box, it was empty because the Wal-Mart manager told his employees to reshelf all merchandise unless there was a receipt with it to prove it hadn't been stolen and then donated. That's not actually funny, but it is stupid. And horrible. But honestly, there are only a few good ones in here. Most of them are just about drunk people doing dumb things and being arrested for it, so I suggest just picking up your local paper if you want to read about that.

I guess I was hoping for a nice collection of Christmas factoids and strange holiday traditions, like maybe where all those verses in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" come from. (Obviously not in the book, and I just realized I'd like to know more about it. I think I'll look that up.) I absolutely got what I paid for here, so I totally deserved it... but I invested several hours in reading this tripe.

Let's end this on a positive note: Each incident was only a couple paragraphs long, so it was great to read when I had a few minutes at a time to spare. I read it intermittently at the same time I was reading my last few books. That was nice. I guess.

Read from December 10, 2010 to December 25, 2010

1/5 Stars


Book #37: The Christmas Journey

Donna VanLiere decided that the version of the birth of Christ in the Bible wasn't good enough, so she rewrote it.

OK, that sounds crass. Really, though, The Christmas Journey is VanLiere's attempt at putting more emotion into the Christmas story. As she explains in the introduction, the scriptures are rather concise. They don't mention the conversations Mary and Joseph had or the labor pains or the stench of the stable. VanLiere adds all of this to her version.

I'm not going to summarize the plot, since you should really know this story unless you have legitimately been living under a rock.

This reminded me of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent for obvious reasons -- it takes a few nondescript Bible verses and elaborates. This is much shorter, coming in at 96 pages. (The beginning of the book is the actual scripture from Luke.) VanLiere's version of the Christmas story was a bit more humanized, and she was successful in adding some emotion and description into the story. I don't think it was enough, though. I would've liked to read something a lot more like what I read in The Red Tent... I wanted a full story, with background information on Mary and Joseph and dialogue and maybe some embellishments... Although, I'm sure the reason there weren't more embellishments is VanLiere's hesitation to add untruths to a story that most of the world is very, very familiar with. Whereas Dinah -- the center of The Red Tent -- is a lesser known Biblical figure, I'm pretty sure most people who know about the Bible are familiar with Mary and Joseph and that Jesus fellow. I guess you don't want to step on many toes there, and The Red Tent was clearly pushed as a fiction book. The Christmas Journey isn't so much.

Anyway, it's very simply written, and it's a nice, quick read for Christmas Eve night. The intro mentioned that VanLiere originally wrote this as a narrative to read during a church service (I think it's rather long for a church service reading, but maybe she's a Baptist). My thing is that I don't see the need to bother adding "emotion" and description to a story if you're not going to just take it and run with it. I'm sure there are a lot of people who'd love this slightly more human version of the birth of Christ, but it didn't do a whole lot for me.

2/5 Stars

Read on December 24, 2010


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols (19)

I decided a while back that my last book of the year would be Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror (more on that in my next review).  As you know, my last book was The New Dead a collection of zombie-related short stories.  What better to segue between the two than a book of zombie Christmas carols (with an introduction by Christopher Moore!).

This is just a small, simple book where the author has taken the liberty of assuming the the Zombiepocalypse has happened, and that all of the traditional Christmas songs have been rewritten accordingly.  With songs like "I Saw Mommy Chewing Santa Claus," "Have Yourself a Medulla Oblongata," and "Deck the Halls with Parts of Wally," this book is a hilarious new take on those classic songs from your childhood.

The best part of this book, though, may be the drawings that pepper the pages between carols illustrated by Jeff Weigel.  Imagine a giant zombie reindeer with a glowing nose or a zombie boy unwrapping a present as a zombie puppy licks his face.  I wish I could show you some of these pictures, but I'm entirely frightened by zombie copyright lawyers, so here's a link to a Google search that includes a few.

This book was tons of fun for me, but if you're a traditionalist who looks for reasons to get offended, skip it.

4/5 Stars

The New Dead (18)

The New Dead is a collection of zombie stories (save a few that, for some reason, made the book while having nothing to do with the living dead) edited by Christopher Golden.  I'll be honest--I picked up this book in part because I'm a big Max Brooks fan, and Golden included one of his World War Z tales in the collection.  Still, I do like stories about the undead.

This collection left me with mixed feelings.  Some of the stories were really good.
1. "Lazarus" by John Connolly, the story of the "original" zombie.
2. "What Maisie Knew" by David Liss, an interesting take on zombie tales where zombies are bought, sold, and used much like Rosie from the Jetsons.
3. "Copper" by Stephen R. Bissette, the story of a group of ex-soldiers trying to survive.
4. "Life Sentence" by Kelley Armstrong, where a man in search of immortality turns to undead research.
5. "Family business" by Jonathan Maberry, where a young man follows his brother on the quest of a zombie bounty hunter and discovers things about himself and his family along the way (my second favorite story in the collection)
6. "Second Wind" by Mike Carey, where a re-animated stock broker builds himself a neo-homestead and discovers a new dynamic of zombie-human interaction.
7. "Closure, Limited" by Max Brooks, a tale of psychological rebuilding in a post zombie world.
8. "The Storm Door" by Tad Williams, my favorite of the collection, about an occult specialist who discovers a dark secret.
9. "Twittering from The Circus of the Dead" by Joe Hill, a story written through the eyes of a Twitter-using teen girl in the midst of a zombie filled circus.

Others weren't so great, including one that didn't have anything to do with zombies. What?  Really?  A collection of short stories about zombies that includes a short story that's NOT ABOUT ZOMBIES?  I don't get it.

Still, this was a good collection over all.  If you're into zombie fiction and looking for a book that you can read in segments (which is my favorite thing about short story collections), this is a great choice.

3.5/5 Stars

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book #36: A Cure for Dreams

Well, since I enjoyed my last book of Southern pleasantries so much, I stayed in the same vein for my next book.

This book reads like an old-fashioned story. You kind of feel like you're sitting on a porch swing drinking sweet tea listening to some old lady tell you about her life. That was undoubtedly author Kaye Gibbons' intention, and she executed it quite well. Gibbons is known for writing about women, and this book is no different. She tells the story of the life of Betty Davies, a young Southern woman who was very close to her overbearing mother, Lottie. The story is set during the Depression, a time period when many young women were married in their teens. Betty is slow to mature in terms of finding a man and starting a life of her own. Instead, she spends most of her teenage years in their small farming community with her mother and her mother's friends, all of whom have had their fair share of plight.

I didn't realize it until after I finished the book, but another novel by Gibbons, A Virtuous Woman, was featured in Oprah's Book Club. I'd like to read it sometime; I think Gibbons has a gift for writing about strong women, although I can't think of a single positive male character in this book. They were all stupid or crooked or cruel or deadbeats. Or all of the above. There's a lot to be said for celebrating women, but I hate it when men are made out to be the bad guys all the time. Not saying that would be the case in all her books, but it would've been nice to see a decent male in here somewhere. I had some small issues with the writing style, especially in the beginning, but I think I just needed to get used to it. Not only does it feel like it's coming straight out of someone's mouth, it really does feel like it was written in a different time, which is quite an accomplishment for a modern writer.

The story itself wasn't as good as the writing. I found it a little lacking, but it certainly wasn't boring. I guess it just leaves you wanting more. Though it takes you through three generations of women, it's a short book. Hard to tell as much as the reader wants to hear in 170 pages.

3/5 stars

Read from December 16, 2010 to December 21, 2010


Friday, December 17, 2010

Book #35: Where the Heart Is

Y'all know that on occasion I love a book full of good ol', down home Southern charm. The Florabama Ladies' Auxillary and Sewing Circle and The Cracker Queen have been a couple of my favorites this year. Billie Letts' Where the Heart Is fits right in.

The book is about Novalee Nation, a Tennessee-born seven-month pregnant seventeen-year-old with $7.77 to her name. She's also got a superstition about the number seven. She's been abandoned by practically everyone in her life, and she's headed west to start her life over before her baby comes. Things go sour pretty quickly, and she winds up stuck in Oklahoma. Southern hospitality kicks in, and she relies on the kindness of strangers to get her life back on track. There are many, many bumps along the way, and Novalee goes through more as a teenager than a lot of people do in a lifetime.

I really enjoyed Where the Heart Is. There's a lot of sadness in this book, but it's also so funny. I laughed out loud more than a few times. But I mostly loved this book because the characters were so likeable. You've heard me rage a few times this year about books that had characters that I just didn't like, and it ruined the whole book for me. That's not the case with this book. Other than the handful of characters that you're not supposed to like, this book is full of good people. Crazy people, but good people... People who took Novalee in and loved her even when her own family didn't, people who knew exactly what she needed when even she didn't know. That's refreshing. And I especially liked Novalee. She's tough and clever when she has to be, but really, she's just a kid. She's so innocent sometimes it breaks your heart. I'm realizing as I type this that I apparently got a little over-invested in this book. Oh, well. That's OK.

Is this a ground-breaking peice of intellectual literature? No, it's not. But it's good. It's well-written and endearing, so don't let the fact that it's promoted as one of those "feel-good" books or whatever. It's better than that. Don't let the movie fool you either. It happened to come on TV the day I finished the book (strange, huh?), so I watched it, and it wasn't terrible, but it doesn't touch the book. I do love Natalie Portman, though... Dang. What a stunner.

Anyway, get yourself this book for Christmas. And you can pretend it's from me.

4/5 Stars

Read from December 7, 2010 to December 15, 2010.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (17)

Yes, this is the book on which the animated movie was based, but don't let that fool you.  The Sword in the Stone is the first book in The Once and Future King series written by T.H. White.  I have been told of the classic nature of this series, but I have never taken the opportunity to read it.  Now that I've had a chance to read the first in the series, I look forward to the rest.

The Sword in the Stone tells the story of a young Wart (King Arthur) and his boyhood adventures.  The actual story of Arthur, though, sometimes takes a back seat to White's storytelling ability.  From his descriptions of ancient Britain and his apt comparisons to the modern day Britain, one can clearly see the world White paints for the reader.  Throw that in with the near-satirical commentary on how modern humans relate to animals in their nature, and you have an excellently crafted piece of writing.

As with many books I've "read" this year, I listened to the audio version of this book.  Neville Jason, the narrator, brings even more life into the story through his interpretations of the many memorable characters in the book.

Overall, if you're a fan of Arthurian legend or well-written, description-heavy books, you'll enjoy this read.  If you're more of a fan of following the action, this may not be a good choice.

3.5/5 Stars.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book #34: S*** My Dad Says

Hah! This book is hysterical.

For those of you not familiar with the premise of S*** My Dad Says, let me give it to you in a nutshell. After some less-than-ideal life situations, Justin Halpern (the author) moved back in with his parents when he was in his late 20s. His dad (Sam) is quite a character -- never afraid to speak his mind, full of vulgarity, not particularly sympathetic, but (as far as I'm concerned) a great father. Justin heard so many off-the-wall comments that he decided to start documenting them via the social networking site Twitter. His Twitter was initially just followed by a handful of his friends, then it grew and grew and grew until he had hundreds of thousands of readers. Cue book deal, and here we are. The book has gotten insanely popular, and there's even a sitcom based on the Halperns now.

I have actually been following Justin's Twitter for close to a year. It's hilarious in and of itself, but I hadn't really planned to read the book. I guess I expected it to just be a book of quotations that I'd already read on Twitter, so I didn't really give it much thought. After a recommendation from my sister-in-law (and her lending me the book -- that definitely helped), I decided to give it a go. I'm so glad I did.

First of all, Justin Halpern is a writer, (I believe he went to school for screenwriting), so he clearly has the chops to pull off a book like this. It's not just a collection of quotes. Each chapter of the book is about an incident in which Justin's dad displays his colorful personality. Then there will be a couple pages of Sam's one-liners, and then another chapter. The chapters are in chronological order, so you get to read about Sam's parenting from childhood through adulthood.

I laughed out loud more times than I can count while I was reading this. I can't even explain the beautiful dysfunction of this family, but it's so awesome. Yes, Sam Halpern is vulgar and blunt and often inappropriate, but he clearly cares very much about his family. Everything he does is with the intention to better his son, even if it means being brutally honest. So, while this book is hilarious, it's touching in its own way.

Can't recommend this enough. It's an easy, fun read, and you'll definitely be reading an extra chapter every night just because you don't want to stop.

5/5 Stars

Read from December 5, 2010 to December 6, 2010


Book #33: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Believe it or not, I've never seen the animated 1951 Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. I've seen Tim Burton's 2010 re-imagining a few times, and I even did my own twist on a Mad Hatter costume for Halloween this year. (I would add that I won 3rd place in a costume contest for that, but that would be rather indulgent of me, wouldn't it?) I've been meaning to read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for a while, so the final stretch of my 2010 reading list seemed like a great place to squeeze it in.

I have to say, I'm pretty surprised at how different it is from the movie. Granted, I haven't read Through the Looking Glass, which continues Alice's adventures, so I could be missing some elements there. I'm not sure how closely the animated version sticks to the book, but I really expected the general idea I had of the story to be more similar to what I read. Let me tell you, I'm fully aware of how sad it is that I'm comparing a book to a movie instead of the other way around. It's even sadder that there are a billion children in the world that probably don't even know the movie(s) are based on a book. The kids I teach love the 2010 version of the movie, and I guarantee you that if I walked in today and told them it was a book written over 100 years ago, they would all be floored.

That's unfortunate, because it's really a fabulous little tale. It's pretty short -- if you speak Kindle-ese, it's only about 1,100 "locations" long. If you don't speak Kindle-ese, too freakin' bad. Go pick up a hard copy and see how long it is.
My favorite thing about this book was Carroll's plays on words and the whimsical feeling of the story. It's no wonder this is a kids' classic. It's also no wonder he chose to call the world he created "wonderland." He paints some amazing pictures, and his characters are so entertaining. Weird, but entertaining.

It was, however, written in the 1800s, so it does have a different writing style than what most kids today are probably used to. It's kinda like trying to read Dickens... There are just some things that didn't seem to flow, but that's just modern writing messing with my head. I would certainly recommend picking up this classic when you get a chance, and for goodness' sake, make sure every child you know knows that the movie has some deep roots.

4/5 Stars

Read from December 3, 2010 to December 5, 2010


Monday, December 6, 2010

Special Post: Librivox

When I read my last book, Diamond as Big as the Ritz & Other Stories, I used some pretty diverse methods to finish it. I originally found the paperback on the bookshelf (no doubt from one of Derrick's zillion English classes), and I read some of the book in hard copy. I also downloaded a Fitzgerald short story collection on my Kindle that had all of the stories in Diamond as Big as the Ritz, plus some more. I read parts of the book on my Kindle and some parts on the Kindle app on my Droid Eris. Then, one day at work, I had to cut the white edges off over 500 4x6 photos (don't ask), one at a time, so I clearly needed something going on in the background to entertain me during this menial task.

Lo and behold, LibriVox! Free audiobooks! At LibriVox, volunteers record themselves reading books, chapters of books, or short stories and post them online. You can click to play through your computer's (or phone's) media player, or you can download them to put on your mp3 player. Any book in the public domain is accepted on LibriVox. In the U.S., that generally means anything published before 1923, or something that's had the copyrights otherwise lifted. So, it's great for classics, but not much else. Pretty much anything you could find for free on Kindle or in Project Gutenberg.

I downloaded the short stories in Diamond as Big as the Ritz and knocked out "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" while I was cutting all those pictures. So, thanks, LibriVox, for making that task a little better.

Anyway, ENJOY!

Book #32: Diamond as Big as the Ritz & Other Stories

While browsing the bookshelf for my next victim, I ran across this collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories. Since I just got married at the Ritz Theatre, I took it as a sign. (Yes, that's about how complicated my selection system is these days.)

I like Fitzgerald. I enjoyed The Great Gatsby the second time around, and I loved his short stories that I read in my college English classes. I'm a big fan of 1920s-era history, so his niche is clearly right up my alley. Here's the thing about Fitzgerald, though: he is much, much better in small doses. The lifestyle at the center of his writing is so exhausting. I can only deal with so many pages full of some useless rich party guy whining about that one chick who didn't dance with him.

OK, I'm over-simplifying, but if you've read enough Fitzgerald, I think you catch my drift. It's fun and whimsical to read one short story full of lavish parties and fretting over the length of your evening gloves. Two or three (or five) of such stories in a row is just annoying. I mean, don't these people DO anything? Anything useful? Aren't there Model Ts to assemble or something? Dang.

Anyway, I do have good things to say. It's clear why "Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is the collection's namesake. It was the best short story by a mile. It was what Fitzgerald described as one of his "fantasy" short stories, seeing as how it's full of impossibilities. It's a great little story about a young man who visits the family of a rich classmate who lives atop a single diamond that is literally the size of the Ritz Carlton. That family has a lot of stranger things in their lives, as it turns out. It's a fabulously written story with a twist that comes from nowhere and even more bizarre ending.

My other two favorites in this collection were "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" (the perfect 1920s-era Mean Girls-esque chick-gets-her-revenge story, I think) and "May Day" (the epitome of the exhausting lifestyle I was talking about -- during the historic May Day riots of 1919, some rich folks are too caught up in their own petty business to care).

The others were mediocre at best: "The Ice Palace" (Southern girl moves to the north, whines about it) and "The Offshore Pirate" (spoiled girl is sailing to Florida, gets hijacked by "pirates," falls in "love" with the captain) and "Jelly Bean" ("aw shucks" sort of guy pines over a swanky girl).

There are some very, very repetitive themes here. That's his thing, though, so whatever. I have a feeling I'd have much better things to say about these stories if I'd read, say, one per month instead of all five of them in a couple of days. It truly all boils down to the fact that I get really frustrated with the uselessness of these characters when I'm overloaded with it. It's kind of the same reason I don't read books in a series in succession. I don't want to get tired of the characters or the plot, so I split it up over time. Might have been a good choice here, too.

3/5 stars

Read from December 1, 2010 to December 3, 2010


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book #31: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

With the exception of Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, this was my favorite book that I read as a child. Unlike Number the Stars, which I've read probably five or six times since then, I haven't read this book since the 4th grade at good ol' East Elementary. In fact, I forgot about it altogether until that movie, Night at the Museum came out. I guess the museum setting reminded me of this book, but I couldn't remember the name or the author. I remembered which teacher I had when I read it, and I remember that I loved it. It took a lot of Googling vague plotlines to figure out what the book was, and even longer to actually come across a copy. I finally did, at my favorite used bookstore in Cullman. The final stretch of my 40-book journey seemed a perfect time to re-visit From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, because, let's be honest -- I'm crunched for time, and it took me 3 hours to read this. There. I said it.

E.L. Konigsburg's book about two childhood runaways is every bit as awesome as my 10-year-old self remembers it, and certainly deserving of the Newbery it received in 1968. Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid feels trapped in her boring, controlled life as the oldest sibling in a middle-class Connecticut family. She carefully plans to run away as a way of making those around her appreciate her a little more, and she hopes to come back "different." She chooses a partner in crime -- her younger brother Jamie, who has conveniently saved every penny he's ever earned. The siblings leave home before school one day and wind up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There, they discover a mystery that leads them to the eccentric Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I don't remember if I realized it then, but now I can see that Claudia reminds me an awful lot of myself as a kid. Not nearly as evil (seriously, you can ask my oldest nephew all about that), but dramatic, calculating, clever, and manipulative. Maybe that's why I liked it when I was a kid, even if it was subconscious. When I was ten, I thought running away and hiding out in a museum like they did would've been the coolest thing in the world. Re-reading this book today, I still want to run away to the Met. I bet the security is a bit more intricate these days, but still. Sleeping in the antique beds, bathing in the fountains... And then finding a centuries-old mystery to solve? Man, count me in.

I love the way E.L. Konigsburg laid this book out -- it's all written as a letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. She tells the story as Claudia and Jamie told it to her. She adds her little asides every now and then, and she's a very brassy character, indeed. There are some simple illustrations peppered here and there that add just enough without making it too juvenile. If you've got a kid, they have to read this book! They have to! And so do you!

4.5/5 stars

Read on November 28, 2010


Special Post: The Home Stretch

Well, we're only a few short days from December. Maybe it was all the million things I had going on, but I'm of the opinion that 2010 flew by. That means I have a mere 32 days to read 10 more books. Derrick only has to read 4 more. (Jerk.) I know some of you might be a bit concerned for me, but, hey. Don't worry. I got this. I work better under pressure, OK?

Admittedly, we have both slacked a bit over the last 11 months, especially recently. We have a pretty decent excuse, though:
We got married on November 20. :)

We just want all of our faithful followers (all... two of you?... one of you?... none of you? Who cares?) to know that we are well aware of our commitment, and you shouldn't give up on us yet. We won't disappoint you. And I plan on coming back for more in 2011.

Book #30: Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story

Oh, Wally Lamb. He never, ever, ever fails to delight me. He can do no wrong.

As most of you probably know, I am a much, much bigger Halloween enthusiast than I am a Christmas enthusiast. I'm not that girl that starts listening to Christmas music on November 1st or begins to look for an excuse to put up the tree before Thanksgiving. As a matter of fact, Christmas decorations/music/commercials/references before Thanksgiving really tick me off. I guess it's because Christmas seems to get closer and closer to stepping on Halloween's toes, and I just can't have that. So, it was a bit unnatural for me to choose a holiday-themed book to start reading the day before Thanksgiving. (I think I was just itching for some Wally Lamb, to be honest.) I'm so glad I read it, though; it was a perfect little nudge into the holiday season for me.

Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story is Wally Lamb's short novel set in 1960s Connecticut, narrated by 5th grader Felix Funicello. Last name sound familiar? It should. Felix's cousin is Annette Funicello, America's favorite Mouseketeer who went on to star in a string of beach movies and become a sex symbol. Felix's family owns a bus-stop lunch counter that has no shortage of Annette Funicello memorabilia. There's a lot going on in Felix's life aside from his famous cousin -- a quirky substitute teacher for his class at the local parochial school, his mother participating in a nation-wide baking competition, a strange new Russian classmate, some perplexing questions about the facts of life, and an upcoming school Christmas program.

I love books narrated by kids, especially if it's a book intended for adults. It's great to laugh at the innocence. Lamb is great at this particular aspect of the novel. For example, he somehow perfectly embodies a confused child trying to figure out what the dirty jokes, innuendos, and filthy language he encounters could possibly mean. I've always said this about Wally Lamb -- he is incredible when it comes to "becoming" his characters through prose. It's insane. Insanely good.

I saw a handful of reviewers on Amazon say that this book may not have been enjoyable to readers who wouldn't appreciate it as a walk down "memory lane" -- meaning, readers who weren't around for the 1960s. Well, I wasn't, and I enjoyed it all the same. I'm pretty sure if you were ever a child, you'd appreciate this book. Those incidents in your childhood that were, at the time, mortifying which you can now look back at and laugh? Yeah, they're all in here.

Don't be discouraged by the Christmas theme of the book. Actually, it starts out in October, and honestly the only part about Christmas is the last chapter or so about the school Christmas program. Definitely a great read any time of the year, but for me, it did help ease me into the holiday spirit. I can't recommend this book enough. It'll only take you a few hours to read. Come on. Do it!

5/5 Stars

Read from November 24, 2010 to November 28, 2010


Friday, November 26, 2010

Book #29: Alentejo Blue

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue is set in rural Portugal, and it's one of those books that ties several different characters and plot lines together into one. It reminded me a little of Let the Great World Spin, although it wasn't nearly as good. Or interesting.

This isn't a particularly long book. I can normally knock out a book of this length in 3-5 days, but I had to force myself to finish it. When I did manage to make myself read it, I often found I had turned the page and had no idea what I'd read. Maybe I'm too dumb for this book (although I really don't think that's the case), but I found it pretty pretentiously and unnecessarily complicated. Like... She would talk about things without really talking about them in a "read between the lines" sort of way, when, really, why can't you just say it? I get the intrigue that it's supposed to add, but it was just waaaaay too much in this particular instance.

There were some characters that I really liked in this book, but they happened to be the ones that lasted for a chapter and then never got mentioned again. The really boring ones were the ones who had several chapters devoted to them. Even the interesting parts about the boring characters got dropped. I don't even get the logic behind the plot of this book at all. And really, in the end, you realize that none of it had a point. I don't think it even made a statement about the Alentejo region, which I think is what the purpose of the book was supposed to be.

Whatever. I am rarely scathing with a book review (unless it's Twilight, but come on, who expects anyone to say anything good about Twilight?), but dang. Skip this one.

1/5 Stars

Read from November 5, 2010 to November 15, 2010


Friday, November 5, 2010

Book #28: Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move

I've said it before,and I'll say it again: I'm a sucker for a memoir. I. Loved. This one.

Leap Days: Chronicles of a Midlife Move is Katherine Lanpher's collection of essays about her decision to leave her familiar life to live in New York City. The move came after Lanpher's divorce from her actor-husband (who was "married to the theatre") and several years as a Midwestern journalist.

(Those of you who are fans of Air America, the progressive talk-radio network, may recognize her name. She was Al Franken's co-host on The Al Franken Show/The O'Franken Factor.)

Lanpher discusses a variety of issues in the book -- her brother's accidental death, her marriage, her parents, her love of reading, and her time as a newspaper journalist, to name a few. Every chapter is a complete joy to read. She's a witty, intelligent, strong woman who reminds me a lot of Lauretta Hannon (whose memoir The Cracker Queen I reviewed back in July).

Lanpher writes beautifully, which is not surprising since she's a successful journalist, but that kind of writing is a different ballgame. She's got lovely phrasing and knows how to make you smile, even when she's discussing something depressing. Another thing that really struck me about her writing is how well she ties the beginning and endings of chapters together. She often begins chapters with a seemingly obscure anecdote or reference, and then at the end, she'll string everything together beautifully. It makes a bigger impact than you'd expect.

This is way up on my recommendation list.

5/5 stars

Read from November 1, 2010 to November 5, 2010

Sidenote: I tried really, really, REALLY hard to read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft during the week of Halloween, but I failed miserably. I spent/wasted several hours staring at my Kindle trying to make myself enjoy the words I was reading, but I couldn't do it. I've always said that I'm one of those people who can read anything (I really thought I was after four Twilight books...), but apparently I'm not. I so am not.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book #27 -- Mockingjay

Derrick has already given you his thoughts on Suzanne Collins' final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay. Now it's my turn. I waited over 24 hours to gather my thoughts on this, and I'm still not sure I'm ready to review it. I'm going to try anyway. I'm going to try not to be too specific in case anyone reading this hasn't read the first two (and if you haven't, you should be ashamed), but there may be some spoilers.You've been warned

In Mockingjay, Katniss finds herself in the center of a revolution. The rebels are using her as the "face" of their cause, and the Capitol (the old regime in Panem) is determined to get rid of her. She's adjusting to a new way of life now that she's living outside of Panem's law, and she's also dealing with the fact that she feels personally guilty for so many deaths. Then there's the whole Peeta/Gale thing, and the fact that a lot of her former "team" members are being held and tortured by the Capitol. You know, basically the same thing every seventeen year old deals with. No big deal.

Despite the fact that there's a lot of stuff going on in this book, it's somehow still pretty slow. I read both of the first books in a couple of days each, in that "couldn't-put-it-down" fashion. This one took me... oh... almost a month. The pacing just seemed a little off. It seemed like the first 3/4ths dragged and the last 1/4th was rushed. Or that there just wasn't so much of an ending at all? I don't know, I'm so conflicted about this.

I wouldn't say that I'm disappointed, it's just that it feels a little empty. But I think it's supposed to. It is empty. There's no sense of hope and triumph and "yaaaay, it all worked out!" Strange for any book these days, but especially a young adult book. I was sad when I finished it, for sure. Much like Derrick said, I think the more I think about it, the more I understand why things happened the way they did, but man... I got so invested in all of these people that I wanted a little better for them.

Obviously, I still recommend the entire series, and for God's sake, if you've read the other two, don't skip the last one. But don't expect an epic feel-good ending, 'cause it ain't there.

Here's what I found the most interesting, though. At the end of the book, in Collins' acknowledgments, you will find this:

"... Jason Dravis, my longtime entertainment agent, I feel so lucky to have you watching over me as we head for the screen."

Well. That's intriguing.

3.5/5 stars

Read from October 5, 2010 to October 25, 2010.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Drawing a Blank: Or How I Tried to Solve a Mystery, End a Feud, and Land the Girl of My Dreams (16)

I picked up Drawing a Blank by Daniel Ehrenhaft for next to nothing on the clearance shelf at BAM! one day last summer, and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since.  For some reason, when I was looking for my next read, I picked it up, and I'm glad I did.

The book centers around Carlton Dunne IV, a loner who is more at home in his published comic strip than in his own life.  His mother has died, his step-mother has left, and his father has shipped him off to a boarding school, where he suffers the tortures of adolescence.  Soon, however, he is drawn into a world shadowed in his comics where he learns things about his father, his family, and himself along the way.

With it's 17-year-old protagonist, you would think that the target audience would be high school students, but I found that it would probably fit better into a middle school classroom.  I could see myself teaching this to 7th or 8th grade students (or possibly 9th), but nothing much higher than that.  The chapters are short, which makes for a really quick read, and the comic panels sprinkled throughout add an element of creativity and depth.

Overall, I'm really glad I picked up this book.  I may even try to work it into a lesson some day.

4/5 Stars


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fluke by Christopher Moore (15)

Yeah, I went with another Christopher Moore book. I loved Fool so much, I pretty much had to.

Fluke was quite a bit different than Fool or Lamb, though. The satire in this book is much more subtle, but definitely there. This book actually reminded me a lot of some of Kurt Vonnegut's books, with a humanist slant and a dash of sci-fi.

The writing quality was excellent, and the story was well crafted, if a bit like a roller coaster. The beginning of the book is a bit of an uphill climb, as it takes a while to get going. Once it does, though, it's a fast-paced, up-and-down ride with plenty of twists and turns and a nice coast into the end.

Fool is still my favorite Christopher Moore book, but Fluke was a good read.

4/5 Stars

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fool by Christopher Moore (14)

This was almost my second review of a book by Christopher Moore.  His book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff was the last book I read before we started the blog, and I loved it.  However, it wasn't until I read Fool that Moore cemented a place in my top five authors, putting him up there with my other two favorite satirists, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Mark Twain.

Fool is Moore's take on a classic Shakespearean tale with the punchy satire of Vonnegut and the riotous British comedy of Eddie Izzard.  It follow Pocket, King Lear's court fool across five acts set in the early 13th century.  The key to its humor (humour?), though, is the blend of medieval society and Shakespearean language with modern memes and cheeky British wit.  I found myself laughing hysterically on several occasions (be sure to read the footnotes!).

Like the last few books I've read, I read this on in a mix of traditional and audio, but both were great.  The audio version was great because, as an American, British slang is funnier when I hear it spoken.  However, the audio version did not include the footnotes, and I often found myself reviewing chapters I had already heard just to read them.

All in all, Fool is one of the funniest book's I've ever read, and Christopher Moore is one of my favorite contemporary authors.  I cannot suggest this book enough.

5/5 Stars

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book #26 -- Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery

A historical fiction Kindle freebie! Yes! This book is the first of a series, and undoubtedly this is offered for free on the Kindle so that you feel compelled to buy all of the other ones after you read it.

In Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery by James R. Benn, Boston cop Billy Boyle finds himself drafted into the army in the middle of World War II. His uncle is some dude named Dwight Eisenhower (heard of him? I haven't), so he manages to land a desk job instead of being sent to the front lines of battle. He goes to London and is stationed at the Norwegian headquarters there. He quickly learns that there is a German spy somewhere within the Norwegian headquarters. Soon enough, there's a murder to solve. Even though he's naive and unprepared, Billy has to put his police training to work to help the U.S. Army in the middle of World War II.

I enjoyed this book, but I'm not sure everyone would. Toward the beginning, there's a lot of political/military talk that I can take with the bat of an eye after five years of history courses, but it might be a bit confusing to someone who's not interested in history. Some of the background information kind of seemed like they were written like a textbook instead of a story.

Billy isn't the strongest of characters to carry an entire series, if you ask me. He's rather "aw, shucks" and "dang, this crap is hard," which I guess is supposed to make him relatable and endearing, but I have no patience for... um, anything, so he kind of just got on my nerves. There's enough going on that it didn't ruin the book for me at all, but unless he toughens up a little, I'm not sure I could handle him as the protagonist for a whole series.

This is one of those rare books where the sub-plots were more interesting to me than the main plot. The whole spy-murder-conspiracy business was intriguing until they started figuring it out, and then I was just like, "... OK." For a book set in the middle of a war with so many opportunities to include some crazy, twisted, mind-blowing vigilante stuff, I felt like the route Benn took with the plot was lacking. Especially the ending.

If I stumble across these books in the future, I may pick them up... And who knows, I may get a wild hair for some World War II fiction one day and actively seek out another book in this series. For now, I'm going to say this was a decent piece of historical fiction and move on to the much-anticipated Mockingjay.

2.5/5 Stars

Read from September 23, 2010 to October 4, 2010

-- C

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Hunger Games Trilogy (11-13)

I started The Hunger Games last Monday, and really didn't spend much time with the actual book in my hand.  The Audible version, narrated by Carolyn McCormick instead made my hour-plus commute much more enjoyable than usual.

I don't plan to go into too much detail where plot points are concerned, as Chassi has already hit the main points in her posts on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and I want to save the meat of the Mockingjay review for her since she's the reason I read this series in the first place.

I will echo her sentiment that the world Collins builds in the trilogy is very reminiscent of the world of Lois Lowry's The Giver, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The way Collins plays on the (dis)connectedness of those in the districts and the power and control of those in the Capitol makes for a heart-felt and finely crafted world.  My only complaint in this area is the lack of a map, but that just may be the fantasy novel lover inside of me. 

The story itself is extremely compelling, playing on both the action and the emotional aspects and motivations of the characters.  In places, it brings in quite a bit of social commentary, which is always a plus in my opinion.  My complaint here is the tired trope of so many YA books with female heroines--the woe-is-me, Team Peeta-Team Gale love triangle.  A little less focus on that and a little more focus on the social aspects would have served the story well.

As far as the end of the trilogy, parts of it seemed a bit rushed.  At first, I was disappointed in the final chapter of Mockingjay, but the epilogue saved it for me.  In fact, the more I reflect on the book, the more I understand why Collins had to end it the way she did.

Overall, this was a great trilogy, especially for young adults, but with plenty to offer for older readers as well.

4.5/5 Stars


Friday, September 24, 2010

Book #25 -- The King's Nun

As a historian of sorts (a degree in history and social science education counts as being a historian, right?), I was drawn to this book because of its historical theme… Oh, yeah, and also because it was in the big box of $1 books at Books-A-Million. Admittedly, I knew as soon as I read the description on the back that it very well could have been a cheesy, terrible romance-esque novel, but I’m proud to say that it wasn’t. My $1 and I are pleased.

Catherine Monroe's The King's Nun is about a young soon-to-be nun named Amelia who is chosen by her abbess to lead King Charlemagne on a tour of their monetary when he comes to visit. The monetary is in need of some financial aide, and Amelia’s job is to convince the king to give them some dough. When King Charlemagne arrives, Amelia realizes that she’s met him before, only she didn‘t know he was the king back then. Juicy, right?

King Charlemagne is impressed with Amelia’s intelligence, and soon he sends for her to come to the palace to advise him on some family issues. She’s not too thrilled about it, but she and the king become very close over the course of her stay at the palace. Not close like that, you gutter-minded animals, but, you know, emotionally close. Sort of. But eventually the king has to go to war with those dirty Saxons, and Amelia goes on with her life. I’d say the vast majority of the novel doesn’t even taken place with Amelia and Charlemagne in the same place.

Anyway, this easily could’ve taken a turn for the trashy side, but it really didn’t. There are no gratuitous sexual scenes, no mention of “loins,” and no trite happily-ever-after ending. I like that. Because of the subject matter, it kind of reminded me of The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which is hands-down my favorite book ever. Monasteries and royals and history and all that.

I feel like I should mention one tiny thing that bothered me, even though I know I’m a total snob and this wouldn’t bother most normal people. The chapters go back and forth between Amelia’s point of view and Charlemagne’s point of view, which is totally fine. The problem is that Amelia’s chapters are written in the first person and Charlemagne’s are written in the third person limited. Why does that bother me? I don’t have a clue, but it did. I’m cool with bouncing to different view points (in fact, I think most of my favorite books do that), but aaarrgghhh, keep it in the same person.

All in all, it was a quick, entertaining little story, and I think it was well worth my time. I dare say it might have even been worth more than I paid for it.

3 out of 5 stars

Read from September 14, 2010 to September 22, 2010


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book #24: Far from Xanadu

When I read Between Mom and Jo by Julie Anne Peters in June, I said I'd be adding her to my list of authors to look for in the bookstore. Luckily, I happened upon another of her books shortly afterward. As I mentioned in my last review, Peters generally writes about LGBT issues, sooo... not for everyone, I suppose, but I think she's brilliant.

In Far From Xanadu, the narrator, Mike is a buff teenage softball player in a small farm town who falls madly in love with Xanadu, the new girl at school who has a checkered past. Xanadu and Mike become best friends instantly, and Mike holds on to the hope that one day, they'll be more than friends. The problem, of course, is that Mike (whose full name is Mary-Elizabeth) is a girl. And Xanadu is straight.

What could have been a trite, predictable teenage story about forbidden/unrequited love or whatever (*cough*TWILIGHT*cough*) is actually a powerful novel about finding and loving yourself. Mike's got a lot more going on in her life than just the situation with Xanadu, especially within her own family. Her father recently committed suicide, her mentally unstable and morbidly obese mother hasn't spoken to Mike since the suicide, and her older brother has failed miserably at running the household and business in their father's place. Everything around her is in shambles, but she's struggling to find a way to pick herself up by the bootstraps and do something with her life. She thinks her ticket to happiness might be Xanadu. What she needs to figure out is how to be her own ticket to happiness.

I'm telling you, Julie Anne Peters is a master when it comes to writing emotions. I said the same thing when I reviewed her last book. You feel everything her characters feel -- it's incredible. It's a great read for anyone, I think, because I'm pretty sure everyone can look back at their teenage years and relate to Mike's situation. Maybe not as extreme, but, you know, teenagers are dramatic no matter how extreme or not-so-extreme the situation may be. What I really like about Peters' books is that I can absolutely see how integral and maybe even life-changing they could be to a teenager who is struggling with being "different," whether it's sexuality or something else. Any author that can use his/her gift to help other people is A+ in my book, and I think Peters is a master at that.

5 out of 5 stars

Read from September 5, 2010 to September 13, 2010


Book #23: In the Weather of the Heart

So, I finished this book a week ago, but I've been putting off reviewing it. I'm not really sure what to say about it.

In the Weather of the Heart is Valerie Monroe's memoir about struggling through her husband Keith's addiction to cocaine and prescription medication. His addiction is spurred by the bizarre suicide of his identical twin brother, who was also a severe addict. Monroe writes about getting through her Keith's rehab, his lack of parenting to their young son, and their crumbling marriage.

As you may know, I'm a sucker for a book (especially a memoir) about addiction or abuse or murder or suicide. My heart is black and made of stone like that. I figured this book was right up my alley, but I was kind of left feeling empty. I have enormous respect for Monroe and her husband for getting through such a difficult time, and it was inspiring to a certain degree, but I didn't have that feeling of triumph and love-will-conquer-all or whatever when I finished this. It was actually really depressing. I know what you're thinking: of course it was depressing -- the guy's twin brother killed himself and then he became addicted to drugs. I get that, but I think it was Valerie and Keith's relationship that depressed me. It didn't sound to me much like they actually loved each other before any of this happened. I guess I kind of felt like they didn't have a marriage worth much in the first place, so why fight so hard to keep it? I don't know. You see why I put off this review? My thoughts don't even make sense.

Even though it was what bothered me about the book, Valerie and Keith's relationship (or lack thereof) is actually the heart of the book. I think the point may have been that Keith's addiction eventually made their marriage better. Hm.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book, and it's beautifully written. I'm by no means passing judgment on either one of them as individuals, since I have literally no business judging the actions of attitudes of people in this kind of situation since I've (thankfully) never been there. I think they're both brave and wonderful people in their own ways, but I just didn't get much from the book.

3 out of 5 stars

Read from August 29, 2010 to September 5, 2010


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book #22: The Star of Kazan

Hello, all. It's me, Slacker Central, with my first book review in a month! Working mighty hard toward that 40 book goal, aren't I?

No, seriously. Sorry about my disappearance. I had this whole job search/wedding planning thing going on. I started this book a month ago, read half of it in a couple days, put it down for weeks, and then finished the rest of it in two days. Weird how that works.

So, The Star of Kazan is a young adult book by Eva Ibbotson about a young girl named Annika who was found as an infant by a couple of servant women. The two women, Ellie and Sigrid, convince their masters (three haughty professors) to let them raise the child as their own and teach her to cook, clean, and run the household. She grows up happy and industrious in Vienna, but one day her entire world is turned upside down when her birth mother comes to retrieve her and take her to a land known as Spittal.

As it turns out, her mother is Austrian nobility, a 'von Tannenburg,' and Annika suddenly goes from being raised as a servant child to living the life of an aristocrat. She doesn't adjust too terribly well to her new lifestyle, and she misses her family and friends. Not long after Annika is taken to Spittal, an old family friend back in Vienna passes away and leaves Annika a worthless trunk of keepsakes. Everything isn't exactly what it seems when it comes to the unexpected inheritance, and Annika has a lot of unanswered questions about her past and her future.

I liked this book a lot, but it has one big, fat problem: pacing. It starts out really slow and stays really slow until, I would say, more than half-way into the book. At 405 pages, it's pretty hefty for a young adult book (although it does have a few illustrations thrown in here and there). To go that far without really picking up the pace of the plot is a good way to make your readers put the book down for, oh, say... three weeks. Which is exactly what I did. It just seemed like a lot of backstory. In hindsight I understand that it was necessary backstory, but there had to have been a better way to execute it.

The last 1/3rd of the book is totally worth it, though. I read it in a few hours and didn't want to put it down. The end made this book great. Also, the characters in the book are all likable, even the ones you eventually learn that you shouldn't like so much. I think Ibbotson does a fantastic job of keeping you guessing as to who should and shouldn't be trusted. As a more mature reader, you obviously pick up on a bit more than a 10- or 11-year-old might, but keeping the intended audience in mind, the character development is impressive.

I would recommend this book, especially to an older elementary school kid, but I think most adults would enjoy it, too. You've been warned, though -- it's tough to stick with it through those first 250 pages.

3.5/5 stars

Read from July 27, 2010 to August 29, 2010


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book #21: The Cracker Queen

You've got to love a slightly crazy Southern woman. Look at Dolly Parton or Paula Deen. Kinda nutty, questionable decisions (whether it's multiple plastic surgeries or multiple sticks of butter in one recipe), annoying accents, but completely lovable. That's what this book is all about, and that's what a "Cracker Queen" is all about.

The author of The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life, Lauretta Hannon, describes in the first few pages exactly what her term "Cracker Queen" means to her:

"The Cracker Queen is a strong, authentic Southern woman. She is the anti-Southern Belle. She has a raucous sense of humor and can open a can of whup-ass as needed. [...] The Cracker Queen knows loss and hurt; these things have made her beautiful, resourceful, and, above all, real."

I think my maternal grandmother may have been a Cracker Queen. Actually, I'm sure she was. Lauretta Hannon believes that she herself is a Cracker Queen, and this is her memoir of growing up in the South in a family full of fellow Queens. The introduction to the book goes into great detail about this honorable title and why it's important. The rest of the book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Hannon describes her childhood, including her parents' strained and violent marriage, her mother's alcoholism, and the death of her father. The second part is about Hannon in adulthood and how she carried the ways of the Cracker Queen into her professional and personal life. The third (and very short) part reads like a self-help book -- how to become a Cracker Queen yourself, including the attitudes and traits you need to accomplish it.

This book reminded me a lot of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, just because it shares Jeanette's story of growing up poor in a not-so-great home. The tone behind The Cracker Queen is humor, but there's a lot of sadness in this book. Some of the events that Lauretta describes are heart-breaking, but her attitude helps her persevere. It's overall a very positive book, because her purpose is to show the reader that no matter what's going on in your life, your attitude can change your situation. You can either wallow in self-pity, or truck on through life and try to have fun while you're at it.

Other than the fact that we share a Southern heritage, Hannon and I also share a career in education. She's not a teacher, but she works with students in universities. Hannon is now a writer, humorist, and contributor to National Public Radio, but from what I understand, she still works in marketing at a small technical college in Atlanta. There's a lot to be said for working with students (even college students), especially at a school where your students may not come from the best situations. I've been there, and it really does change how you look at things. There's a quote in Part II of this book that stuck out for me:

"The truth is that the bad days at work are the best, too, because they remind me of the urgency of our mission. It goes far deeper than education: We are soul warriors."

There's a lot of truth in that. Kids all over the world could stand to take a tip or two from a Cracker Queen. They may have grown up poor, in bad homes, and gone through far too much for a child to have to go through, but your life can turn around. I think that's what's at the heart of this book. I'd recommend it to anyone, Southern or not.

Read from July 25, 2010 to July 26, 2010

5/5 stars


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book #20: No Mercy

Ah, my first Kindle book. If you know anything about me at all, you know that I can pinch a penny better than anyone in the world. I would guess that 90% or more of the books I own are used, and you all remember how I raved about Big Lots' fifty cent book sale. You obviously can't buy used books on the Kindle, but they do have a selection of books for around $1 and many for free (especially classics). This was one of the cheap ones. It was decent, but I'm glad I didn't pay much for it.

No Mercy centers around Jonathan Grave, the owner and main employee of a company that essentially exists to do illegal things. Not bad illegal things, but illegal things. Jonathan is a former army specialist with experience doing rescue missions in just about every environment. So, naturally, he now makes his living as a hired vigilante. If your kid gets kidnapped by thugs who warn you not to get the police involved, you call Jonathan Grave.

And that's exactly what happens in No Mercy. The book opens with Jonathan rescuing a college student named Thomas Hughes, who is being held captive on a large property in rural Indiana. Jonathan doesn't know why Thomas was captured in the first place, but he finds out soon enough. It turns out to be a long, twisted, complicated story that involves some of Jonathan's own friends, homeland terrorists, and a lot of other things. I'm not quite sure exactly what was going on, to be honest. Matters are complicated even further when local police have to clean up the mess Jonathan left when he rescued Thomas. As far as the sheriff is concerned, even though Jonathan was a hero and saved the victim, he still has to be punished for taking the law into his own hands. So, the books takes us through Jonathan running from the Indiana police, all while trying to solve the problem that got Thomas kidnapped in the first place.

It took me forever to read this, considering the pace at which I usually read. I juuuust wasn't into it. Parts of it were really good, but then it would get boring and weird again. I felt like the logistics of the whole situation were really complicated, but I think part of it was that it just wasn't that interesting to me. I don't have trouble following a complicated conspiracy plotline (I mean, hello, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy), but only if they're interesting. Maybe this particular plot just wasn't my thing, because I don't think Gilstrap is a bad author. The situation just didn't really grab me.

Apparently he's written an entire series of books with Jonathan Grave and his crew, which is cool. I liked Jonathan. He wasn't afraid of anything, and he had very clear definitions of right and wrong. He didn't care that he had no authority to kill bad guys. He did it anyway, because they were bad guys. Makes sense to me, but to a lot of characters in the book (and probably a lot of people in the world), you let the cops or the FBI or the military worry about bad guys. Your job is to report them, not kill them. So, there's a lot of line-blurring when it comes to good and evil in this book. I liked that. I also liked that Jonathan's sidekick, Boxers, referred to their Hummer as the Batmobile. That was awesome.

Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book, which I marked with my handy "Clippings" gadget on the Kindle:

"Protesting others' decisions is always easier than making your own."
"A career is a poker game. You can't expect to win every hand. Sometimes you have to fold to preserve resources for the future."

All in all, I didn't love this book, but I still don't think it was bad. Just, you know, not generally my thing. If you like, say, Tom Clancy or any kind of crime thriller, then pick this up for sure.

Read from July 7, 2010 to July 25, 2010.

2.5/5 stars.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Special Post: EXCITEMENT!!! (Part II)

Last time I got really excited about something book-related, I made a special post about it I think I should do it again today.

I unexpectedly received a graduation present from my brother and sister-in-law in the mail today. Lo and behold, the Amazon Kindle!

I am beyond excited. I've been fiddling with it for the last hour. Truth be told, I've only read a chapter or two in the book I started a few days ago, so I thinking pretty seriously about scrapping it so I can read something on the Kindle.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book #19: Petropolis

The story at the heart of Petropolis begins in Siberia shortly after the end of the Soviet Union. This book has a lot to do with post-Soviet life, Russian immigrants in America, and the stereotypes that go along with all of that. I notice that on Amazon, many of the whopping nineteen people who have reviewed this book mention how well Anya Ulinich captures the feelings of a Russian immigrant in America. The fact that there are untranslated Russian words and some "in" jokes and references throughout the book tells me that perhaps Ulinich meant for her audience to have Russian ancestry, but my all-American self still enjoyed it.

The book is about a young promising artist, Sasha, who is of mixed Russian-Jewish-African heritage. She's dark-skinned with wiry hair, which makes it impossible for her to fit in with her pale classmates in frigid Siberia. Normalcy is even harder for Sasha to achieve thanks to her neurotic mother and absent father (who emigrated to America without his wife and child). As Sasha becomes a teenager, she makes some poor decisions, and her mother sends her away to an art school in Moscow. Sasha is completely unhappy there, and she holds on to a gnawing need to find her father in America. Still a teenager, she sees an advertisement for a mail-order bride company, and soon, she's in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Once she gets to America, Sasha's life becomes even harder. She's not only looking for her father, but also the happiness that she thought would come with life in America. The book takes you through all the stops along Sasha's journey to happiness, but I had a bit of a hard time sympathizing with her sometimes. Even when things were looking up, she seems to always find a way to be miserable about something. Sasha (and so, obviously, the author as well) realizes this about herself. A lot of the characters in the book are this way. I can't think of a single couple in the book that actually liked each other. They all seemed to just co-exist until they absolutely couldn't stand it anymore. It bothered me as I was reading it, but now that I'm looking back on it, I think that was part of the bigger picture of the book -- the way people just "settle" for things instead of finding what makes them truly happy.

Hmm. Heavy.

It's a good book, and Ulunich is a talented young author. This is her first book, and I would be interested to see if she continues to write about Russian/Soviet characters or takes a new path.

Read from June 25, 2010 to June 28, 2010

3/5 stars