Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry / 158 pp.

Misty of Chincoteague is a classic children’s book that holds up well over time. I read this aloud to someone, and it was a joy to do so as the sentences flow nicely. While there is some regional dialect (e.g. horse = hoss), it’s pretty easy to read aloud.

A brother and sister save up money to buy a pony in the annual wild pony roundup. However, they want Phantom, a mare who has eluded capture every year. This year the brother will be old enough to ride along with the men. Will he capture the phantom for him and his sister? (Hint: Yes, he does.)

This is a good book for young or young-at-heart horse lovers, and is one of the rare horse stories where no horses die.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Girls at War and other stories/Chinua Achebe/120 pp.

A group of short stories by Nigerian author Achebe. The collection includes some stories that take place during the Biafran War era, and others that take place in pre-war Nigeria. Many of the stories end, not with a resolution of the problem, but rather with a situation that acts more like a moral, making them seem like a native folktale. (In fact, some of the stories include the native gods of the region.) My only caution is that it is easier to follow the stories if you know a little about Nigeria and the Igbo or Ibo ethnic group that inhabits the region. Having read a book in the past year that deals with the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria made it a bit easier for me to understand some of the unusual figures of speech and the cultural and religious differences.

Secretly Inside/Hans Warren/99 pp.

Ed, a Jew in Nazi-occupied Holland, goes into hiding at a farm in the remote province of Zeeland, and gets entangled in the intrigues of the family that hides him.
The story that is there is well-written, but I just felt like it was incomplete, like this very short novel was actually the first part - the lead-up, if you will - to a longer work. The author does such a good job of creating these in-depth characters, and then all of a sudden the climax of the story is here, and the story is over. I enjoyed what was there, and the introduction, which tells of the author's own war-time experiences, makes me want to read more of his work.

Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years / Dr. Michael J. Collins / 320 pp.

Hot Lights and Cold Steel is the story about a Chicago construction worker who decides to go back to school and become a doctor. He ultimately excels in med school, gets matched to a residency in Orthopedic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, and becomes Chief Resident.

But the story isn’t about that.

The story is about this unconventional and bright minded doctor in the making who wrestles with all the issues that medical students face, that newly minted doctors face, and that family men face (the author supports a family of five while completing his education).

Each chapter shows more growth and maturation in this professional’s career and making sense of it. Luckily for the reader, his insight is keen and a riot to boot! You’ll laugh out loud in several chapters, and cry in several more.

There’s the chapter on how the author meekly went into his first surgery as an observer, and left the surgery cathartic about a surgeon’s ability to heal, and to make better.

There’s also the chapter on how he battled and beat himself up for removing the cancer-ridden leg of a 17 year old girl, and how profoundly it affected him when she smiled and expressed her gratitude for saving her life.

And I’ll spare you all the fun encounters he ran into with his inebriated patients!

Our orthopedic surgeon writes his story in a way that engages and compels the reader to continue on. The ending came too soon, and had the book been three times the volume with the lessons he learned along his amazing journey, I would have tuned in just as attentively. I found this book through serendipity and wish I could retrace my steps to find other jewels that I may have missed along the way.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bossypants/Tina Fey/275 pp.

Tina Fey is one of the best writers Saturday Night Live ever had, the producer of the hit NBC show "30 Rock", a seasoned improv actor, and my friend Katie's secret lesbian crush. (OK, it's not really a secret; Katie told her husband she had a crush on Tina from the first time she saw her on SNL.) Bossypants is Fey's funny memoir of her childhood, her first forays into improv comedy, her stint in Second City and her run on SNL, how she got her own Emmy award-winning show, and (most importantly for her) the story of the birth of her daughter. She relays some of the wisdom she received from Lorne Michaels, executive producer of SNL, and answers some of the hate-mail she's received online. She explains how the whole Sarah Palin impression thing got started, and gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses into how SNL gets put together each week. All throughout, she maintains the quirky sense of humor that has made her such a success.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Favorite Game/Leonard Cohen/245 pp.

I've always thought of Leonard Cohen as a songwriter and poet first (Every time I hear his name I get his song "Hallelujah" stuck in my head) so I was surprised to see that he'd written a novel. The Favorite Game was actually written and published clear back in the early 1960s, so it's not like Cohen just recently turned away from poetry to start writing straight prose. And, to be honest, in a lot of ways this book reads like poetry. Cohen's descriptions of scenery, a lover's body, even scenes of laborers in a brass foundry, are almost musical.
The Favorite Game is the story of Lawrence Breavman, a young Jewish-Canadian poetry writer who resembles Cohen in many ways. He avoids crowds and social situations; he wins a scholarship for his writing, but turns it down to work in the brass foundry at menial labor. He has trouble committing to one lover; when he finally finds a woman who not only arouses him physically, but also intrigues him emotionally, he leaves her to return to Canada to visit friends, and breaks up with her over the phone. Breavman's problem is that he creates ideal backgrounds for the people in his life; when the everyday or mundane intrudes on that ideal or fantasy it destroys his interest in the people and he separates himself from them. This book is partly about Breavman's struggle to realize that the ideal and mundane are both part of what makes up these people.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Want to Go Private? | Sarah Darer Littman | 336p.

This book made me understand the decision that my parents made to put monitoring software on the computers/laptops when I was in junior high and high school--something I resented at the time (and convinced my tech-saavy cousin to remove from my computer when I was a junior). When I first heard about WTGP?, I knew that it was going to be an intense read--and let me tell you, it most definitely was.

Abby is such a normal freshman high school student, from her friends to her grades to her insecurities.  But she's lonely--a feeling exacerbated by her shyness and her fear of disappointing those around her.  When she meets Luke online, he makes her feel special.  They have the same tastes in music, they share opinions, and Luke always backs up Abby when she's upset with her friends or family.  She finds herself falling for this man that she barely knows but feels this very intense connection to.  When he asks her to meet him, Abby's upset with her parents so it's an easy decision--of course she'll meet him, if only to get back at her parents.

Abby is an incredibly relateable characters, which makes this story all the more realistic and terrifying.  She's very introverted, quite unlike her best friend, Faith, and she feels like her life is changing too much and falling apart at the seams.  It's easy to see how she might fall prey to a man like "Luke."  Watching her downward spiral into what strikes me as a co-dependent relationship with this online man is heart-breaking.  She has so much going for her in real life, but she can't see it through the fog of her loneliness and (self-imposed) isolation.

This book succeeds in showing what an intense situation this can become for a girl like Abby--how quickly one can become a victim without even realizing it.  However, what it really hits home is how much a decision like the one Abby makes affects everyone else--her friends, her sister, her parents.  Their grief, despair, and anger show the reader what it's like on the "other" side--how those closest to the victim suffer right alongside her in their own way.

After Abby's return to her family, the aftermath of her decision comes to full light for her.  She sees how it affects those around her and she has to deal with the incredibly unfortunate consequences that it has on her personal life.  I appreciated that Ms. Littman doesn't let the situation fade to black but shows us all the shocking details.  This is a book that I don't think I'd recommend that most teens read alone but WITH their parents. It's a book that I would recommend that parents of teenagers, teachers, librarians--anyone who works with teens on a regular basis--read because it's message is important.

There are fabulous resources that go alongside this book that I definitely recommend checking out if you're an adult who is going  to read this and share with teens (something I HIGHLY recommend doing, in case you didn't catch it).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Personal Days/Ed Park/241 pp.

I enjoyed parts of this book, but there was a MAJOR issue I had with it. The book is divided into three parts: the first part reads like a regular story, written in 1st person plural - we did this, we saw that, etc.; the second part is written entirely in outline form - I.A.ii.b., etc. - a little annoying, but still fairly easy to follow; but the third part is written as one long, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence. The premise (to the third part)is that a character is sending an email to another person; he's trapped in an elevator, the screen on his laptop has gone dark, and his period (full-stop) and return buttons don't work, so he's just writing everything as it comes to him, without going back and changing things. Plus he likes to go off on tangents unrelated to the action in the story. This is the kind of thing that, if it had happened toward the beginning of the novel, would have caused me to throw the book over my shoulder (figuratively, librarians! calm down!) and go read something else. But because I was already involved in the whole story, I wanted to find out what happened to everyone, so I had to struggle through to the end. As the character went off on each of his tangents, I kept thinking, "Wait! Where are you going? Come back here and tell me what happened to these guys!"
There were good parts to the story; puns and office romances and office nicknames like "Grime" and "Crease", and management doublespeak lie "There's no I in team", and other funny bits. Parts of the story reminded me of good episodes of "The Office". But the totally unnecessary changes in writing style completely threw me off, and by the end of the book I was just glad it was over.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Detective Story/Imre Kertesz/112 pp.

Antonio Martens was a member of the secret police in a dictatorship in an unspecified Latin American country. Now that the dictator has been overthrown, Martens is in prison facing trial for the torturing and killing he took part in. He asks for paper and pen to write with in his cell, and proceeds to relay the events surrounding the surveillance, torture and death of two prominent members of the nation's society - not as a means of atoning for his misdeeds, but in order to set the record straight on what actually happened and who is really to blame.
The story was difficulty to follow, due to the lack of concrete facts: we never know anything about the country or the government, aside from vague references to Latin America, "The Colonel", etc. An "atrocity" occurs, but the narrator doesn't explain what has happened. One of the torturers has, on his desk, a model of a certain "device" called the Boger swing; the description of the device, and what it is used for, is very vague, and it took me several pages before I realized they were talking about an instrument for torture. Nothing seems to be said outright; the author instead makes hints and vague statements, assuming (as he has his narrator say) that we "already know all about that".
The author, Kertesz, survived the Holocaust, having been imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a youth. There is an obvious correlation between the tactics of the secret police in the novel, and those of the SS during World War II. But there is also a less-evident correlation to the tactics used by intelligence gatherers today - the assumption of guilt followed by the gathering of "evidence" to prove that assumption; the idea that the situation we find ourselves in warrants the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to prevent an as-yet unnamed "atrocity".

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Postman (Il Postino)/Antonio Skarmeta/112 pp.

After finishing all 1000+ pages of the Robert Jordan book, I decided to make a change of pace and read a few shorter books; the Atiq Rahimi book was one, and this short novel by Skarmeta is another. Il Postino tells the story of Mario, who fell into his job as postman by sheer laziness. His main job (almost his only job) is to deliver mail to the poet, Pablo Neruda; an unexpected friendship develops between the two men, Neruda acting as matchmaker between Mario and the lovely Beatriz, and godfather at their eventual wedding.
The novel does a good job of using Neruda to connect the residents of this small village to the events happening in late-1960s/early-1970s Chile - the election of the Marxist government and the overthrow of the Allende government a short time later.
Toward the beginning of the story, Neruda explains to Mario the concept of the metaphor, and from that point on I began to notice that the book is full of metaphors, similes and the like. One of the best things about the book is its use of these words to describe the sea, the village, Mario's beloved Beatriz, etc. The language and the flow of the novel very much have the feel of poetry.
Strangely, when the novel was adapted into a movie in 1994, the setting was changed to 1950s Italy - perhaps because the writer of the screenplay and the star of the movie, Massimo Troisi was Italian. I've never seen the film, so I don't know how the political situation was adapted to that time period and location, or even if they were in the movie. But while the book does include these political elements, the story has very little to do with those events; it is more about the relationships between Mario and Beatriz, between Mario and Neruda, and between Neruda and the villagers.

Monday, October 31, 2011

First Love and Other Sorrows/Harold Brodkey/223 pp.

A MULSA book sale remainder!

Originally published in 1958, this collection of short stories was reissued in 1988, and that's the edition I read and am reviewing. A St. Louis native who attended Harvard, Brodkey writes stories that seem almost autobiographical. His description of St. Louis locations, and of growing up poor (but formerly well-off), remind me of another St. Louis resident, Tennessee Williams.
I especially enjoyed the first story, "State of Grace", and all the stories that dealt with the narrator's sister/Laurie/Laura and her attempts to find a "good man" to "settle down with". Although the people have different names in each story, you can't help feeling that these are all the same people, and that they are somehow personally known by Brodkey himself.

Earth and Ashes/Atiq Rahimi/81 pp.

A very short, but very enjoyable read. (I started it at bedtime last night, and finished it during lunch today.) An Afghani village is destroyed by the Soviet army in retaliation for the (apparent) assassination of some of their troops. Dastaguir and his grandson, Yassin, are the only survivors of his clan; they set out to find Yassin's father (Dastaguir's son), to tell him of the tragedy.
Yassin has lost his hearing from the bombing; the way in which Rahimi describes how Yassin views this is especially well-written. ("The bomb was huge. It brought silence. The tanks took away people's voices and left." Then, "What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice? If you hadn't would they have killed you? Grandmother didn't give them her voice and she's dead." And "Grandfather, do I have a voice? [...] So why am I alive?"
The story is told in the second person, so instead of hearing how some man named Dastaguir is dealing with events, the reader is placed into the situation himself - "you" see this, "you" hear that, "you" tell people the story of your village being destroyed, and it makes the devastation so much more personal; your grandson is deaf, and you're coming to tell his father (your son) that his wife and mother and entire family are dead. So much of what we hear about what's going on in the Middle East is impersonal, statistics about how many died, what town was taken, what new strategies our troops are using to win over the locals. Even though this book was written (in 2000) about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it personalizes the events that happened then, and what's happening now.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Reader/Bernhard Schlink/218 pp.

Rachel already did a review of this book, so I'll try not to duplicate her efforts. A young man in 1960s Germany begins an affair with Hannah, a woman substantially older than himself. In addition to it being his first sexual relationship, the affair is significant because he spends hours reading to Hannah. One day he goes to her apartment and discovers that she has moved out and completely disappeared. Assuming she left without saying anything to him because she didn't love him anymore, the young man retreats into his studies and is unable to have any other close relationships for fear that those he becomes close to will leave him in the same way. As a college student he sees Hannah again, and discovers why she left, and what "the secret" is that caused her to leave.
The book is an easy read, well translated from the original German, with short chapters that allow you to read a few pages here and there, between other tasks. The narrator struggles with forgiving Hannah, and with his conflicting feelings for her.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Shadow Rising/Robert Jordan/1006 pp.

Yes, you read that page total correctly; at 1006 pp., The Shadow Rising, Book Four in Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, is also easily the longest book in the series. After temporarily meeting up in the coast city of Tear, our merry band of adventurers is scattered to various destinations: some to Tanchico to find the Black Ajah (the renegade members of the Aes Sedai), some to the Aiel Wastes, and some back to the Two Rivers, to protect their home village from the dual threats of Trollocs and the Whitecloaks.
The problem with a series like the "Wheel of Time", with (so far) 14 volumes, each volume at least 600 pages (often over 800 pages)- the problem, I say, is that there are so many things going on, so many characters in so many locations, with so many new words to learn and people to remember, that it gets a bit (more than a bit) confusing. Each of the three or four divergent plot-lines in this volume alone would be enough for the average fantasy novel; trying to weave them all together into one overarching story is quite a challenge - for the author and, unfortunately, for the reader as well. Don't get me wrong - Jordan has told a very enjoyable tale here; it just becomes so... overwhelming after a while. And to know that there are still (at least) ten more books (rather large books) to go before the entire plot is resolved, makes me question my ability to finish the series.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

1985/Gyorgy Dalos/120 pp.

1985: What Happens after Big Brother Dies is meant as a sort-of follow-up to George Orwell's classic 1949 novel 1984. While the original was a warning about the dangers of unchecked government control and historic revisionism, and a prescient look at the Soviet Union of the mid- to late-20th century, the sequel by Dalos, written in Hungary in 1983, is a look at what might happen when such a totalitarian regime begins to crumble. A good knowledge of Orwell's book is absolutely necessary, as Dalos makes reference to "past events" and characters from the book constantly. There is also a series of rather unfortunate footnotes that start out adding information useful to the reader, but end up becoming rants by the narrator against his superiors. listing
deviantART review of the book

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich/Danilo Kis/135 pp.

A collection of seven loosely-connected short stories, each of which is a brief "biography" of a fictional figure in the creation of the Soviet Union and the Comintern. The stories, all set outside Yugoslavia (most in the Soviet Union, but one in Ireland and Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and one in Inquisition-era France), on the surface appear to be a statement on the violent excesses of the Soviet leadership in the Stalinist (and pre-Stalin) era; however, the book was published in 1976, and it is easy to understand that Kis was using the historic example of the Soviets to call attention to the activities of the secret police and government in Yugoslavia in the second half of the 20th century.
As mentioned above, one (seemingly) incongruous story takes place during the Inquisition in France in 1330. In the city of Toulouse (and all across France). Jews are being killed or forcibly converted to Christianity. Kis uses the story of Baruch David Neumann to show the ways in which those in power ignored (and often conspired with) the rabble's violent attacks on Jews.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Homely Girl, A Life and Other Stories/Arthur Miller/115 pp.

This short compilation of Miller short works includes just three stories: "Homely Girl, A Life", "Fame", and Fitter's Night". The shortest of the three, "Fame", is a possibly autobiographical look at how a popular playwright deals with his new-found celebrity. Random strangers approach him on the street, offering their unsolicited opinions of his work or gushing as if they were old friends. Rich people in restaurants think nothing of interrupting his meal to make him meet their friends. The key point of the story is when an old schoolmate recognizes him in a bar. The schoolmate, unaware of the playwright's celebrity, brags about his own success in life, but when the playwright is approached by a stranger asking for his autograph, the schoolmate completely changes his behavior, becoming shy and taking back an invitation for the playwright to join him for dinner. Success changes not only the celebrity, but also his relationships with those around him.

Oddly, the story I enjoyed least was the title story. A woman, treated badly in life because of her lack of physical good looks, comes to the realization that she doesn't need affirmation from others to feel good about herself.

The third story in the volume, "Fitter's Night", was the one I found most enjoyable. A pipefitter, working in the New York shipyards during World War II, spends most of his time (at work and at home) trying to land the easy jobs and find a way to avoid responsibility. But when he's forced into a repair job on a ship heading out to war, he realizes how important it is for him (and all his coworkers) to do the best job they can, because all these sailors' lives depend on the quality of his work.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Team Totals, January-September 2011

Total Books Read:  120 
Total Pages Read:   36658
Average pages per book:  305

Nice job, everyone, and apologies for letting the prize-giving slip after my late July-early August vacation!

Prizes for July:  Book AND page totals to Kris Anstine, Random Prize to Wayne Sanders
Prizes for August:  Kris Anstine, for all three prizes
No prizes for September because no reviews submitted.

For the January-September period, Kris Anstine read the most books (32) and Jessi Menold read the most pages (8447).

I go to the MLA tomorrow and will find out there if the statewide contest is over now or if it will run through December.  There WILL be prizes for October-December at the MU Libraries, either way, and Kris and Wayne will be awarded their summertime prizes retroactively at the next opportunity!

The Reader / Bernhard Schlink / 218 p.

I didn't see the movie, but I guessed the "deep dark secret" that drives many of the otherwise mysterious actions of one of the major characters a few dozen pages into the book.  No, I won't share it here.  You will have to read the book or force yourself to stare at Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes for hours on screen...tough, I find out.  Maybe author Bernhard Schlink intended the reader to guess long before the narrator does; in a way it is beside the point as he drags his narrator (the reader of the book's title) as well as the book's readers, into an emotional contemplation on relationships, individual choices, history and collective judgment and guilt.  Put that way, the book sounds terribly depressing, but believe me; it is not.  The beauty is in the details.  I read it in two sittings, and now I hope to find a copy in the original German.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Great Hunt/Robert Jordan/705 pp.

This is the second book in Jordan's massive "Wheel of Time" series. Rand al'Thor, beset by Morgaine Sedai's claims that he is the Dragon Reborn, sets off with a group of warriors and friends on a quest to regain the Horn of Valere, which has been stolen by followers of the Dark One. The Horn has the magical quality of summoning heroes from beyond the grave to help whoever sounds the horn. In the meantime, Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne begin their training to become Aes Sedai; their training is interrupted when one of the Aes Sedai tricks them into being sold to a group of foreign warriors. Rand and the other warriors must retrieve the Horn, rescue the women, and stop the Children of the Light, a fanatical group of warriors who seek to eradicate anyone who is friendly to the Dark One (including, in their eyes, the Aes Sedai).
I enjoyed this book a lot. Jordan does seem to borrow from some of the other standards of fantasy fiction - the warriors called by the Horn are reminiscent of Tolkien's Shadow Host, and there are numerous references to the Arthurian legends. But the book is well-written and entertaining; if it weren't for information about the characters that you have to know from the previous book, this volume could stand on its own as a full fantasy tale. Jordan does a good job of drawing together parts of the story that were started earlier, helping the reader realize that all these seemingly unrelated events are all threads in the same tale's fabric.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories/various authors/576 pp.

Wow, I can't believe there have been no posts since my last one. As long as it took for me to finish this book, I thought for sure some other reviews would have been posted before I could review this one.
As the title implies, this is a collection of short stories, organized by their different points of view. As any English major worth his salt will tell you, point of view (POV) has to do with what relationship the story's narrator has to the events being related. Is the narrator recounting events that happened to him personally? Then he tells the story in first-person POV. Is the narrator recounting events that happened to the reader? Second-person POV is the route he takes. And so on. The anthology's editors go into much deeper division of the various points of view, including interior monologue, diary narration, and anonymous narration, but it all basically has to do with whether the narrator was directly involved in the events. The editors provide several examples of each type, and that's where my interest returns. (This was something that always got me in trouble in high school/college literature courses - I didn't care about things like POV and theme and so on; I just wanted to read the damn stories!)
The nice thing about this anthology is that it collects stories from a wide variety of time periods and cultures. While it leans pretty heavily on pre- and post-WWII America, we also have Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil", as well as stories by Poe, Chekhov, Maupassant, James Joyce and Joseph Conrad (including some lesser-known stories by these masters). One of my favorite pieces was Dorothy Parker's "But the One on the Right", which is a dinner party guest's inner monologue about her fellow guests. The collection even includes a story by long-time MU faculty member Tom McAfee, "This Is My Living Room".

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Eye of the World/Robert Jordan/832 pp.

As promised, this is a review of the first book in Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. (I read the prequel, New Spring first, although it was written later.)
Moiraine Sedai and Lan Mandragoran have spent much time searching throughout the land for the child who will become the "Dragon". In the backwater Two Rivers area, they realize they have found him when the village is attacked by evil creatures. The creatures target three teen boys specifically - Rand, Mat, and Perrin; Moiraine and Lan take the boys away, hoping to take them to safety at Tar Valon. The Eye of the World follows the group's journey, as the boys realize each of them will play an important part in saving the land from The Evil One.
I mentioned in my review for New Spring that that book assumed a knowledge of certain terms used throughout the series; luckily, many of those terms are explained in greater detail in this volume. There are also a series of maps of different areas of the land in which the story takes place, and the ever-helpful glossary at the back of the book.
I really enjoyed this volume (even more than I liked the prequel), so I think I will continue reading the series for a while longer.

Section of wikipedia article which explains the premise behind the series.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner/Alan Sillitoe/144 pp.

This is one of the best collections of short stories, by an artist I'd never heard of, that I have ever read. Sillitoe was born and raised in Nottingham, England, in a working-class family. At the age of 14 he left school and went to work with his father in a local bicycle factory. The stories in this collection mostly deal with families like Sillitoe's - poor factory workers living in cramped, dirty houses where the noise, soot and grime of the nearby factory is a constant part of their lives.
The title story is about a young man (Colin) who robs a bakery and is sent to a borstal, a sort of part youth prison, part reform school. The governor (warden) of the borstal gives him the opportunity to run cross-country meets for the prison track team; Colin is a good runner, and the governor thinks he will help him to win against a posh private school and get the borstal some good publicity. Throughout the race against the private school, Colin is way in the lead, but he stops running shortly before the finish line, intentionally losing the race to show the governor he is in charge of his own life.
"Uncle Ernest" is about a veteran of World War I who has suffered a mental breakdown due to his experiences in the war. There is an almost childlike innocence to him; when he meets two young girls at a diner, obviously poor and hungry, he offers to buy them something to eat. He continues to meet the girls at the diner, and the older of the two begins taking advantage of his innocence, getting him to buy them other things. Unfortunately, Ernest's motives are misunderstood by other patrons of the diner; they (and the police) assume he is a pervert, and warn him away from the girls.
I enjoyed all the stories in this volume, but I think my favorite was "The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller". Frankie is a young man of about twenty, who has the mental capacity of a younger boy; he acts as general (though he prefers to be called sergeant-major) in the neighborhood boys' skirmishes with other groups of boys. World War II is approaching, and Frankie assumes that when the war starts, he'll go to join his father's regiment; obviously, when the war does begin, he is rejected for service and ends up assisting the local civil defense patrols. This story is obviously at least partially autobiographical; Frankie addresses the narrator as "Alan", and Alan is a writer of stories about his old neighborhood. Sillitoe uses the story to reminisce about his own childhood and to express regret over having "moved on" to be a well-known writer who seems to have lost touch with his roots.
Reviewers have compared this book to The Catcher in the Rye, calling Colin a "British Holden Caulfield". It's easily one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read. Unfortunately, this copy of the book will not be going back into the MULSA book sale - it was missing a front cover when I got it, and has lost several pages since then. However, I note from MERLIN that there are several copies in the Libraries' collection: MERLIN

Thursday, July 21, 2011

American Uprising / Daniel Rasmussen / 317 p.

Daniel Rasmussen, a young white historian, retells the little known story of a massive slave rebellion held in January 1811 in Louisiana along the German Coast.

Slaves Kook, Quamana, and Charles Deslondes led a revolt of around 500 slaves by its brutal termination. They used Carnaval as the time to strike during the break from sugar cane cultivation and as a guise for clandestine meetings that would go relatively unnoticed.

This quick and fascinating read illuminates the story of this little-known slave revolt and its cover-up by Gen. William Claiborne, situated within the culture of the times, Southern slavery, and plot and intrigue of American annexation of West Florida. And it's all in HarperLuxe (larger print for those of us with weak eyes)!

For more information, visit the author's website:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Purge / Sofi Oksanen / 390 p.

I found out about this book from the Estonian guy in my book group.  Its author is a 33 year old Finnish-Estonian woman who first conceived of the story as a play.  The novel is the first to win both of Finland's top literary awards, the Finlandia and the Runeberg.

Looking at the cover, which features a thin young woman wearing an apron, working at a counter with a lump of dough and some apples and looking behind her, with a slight air of unexplained tension, an American reader might surmise that the title refers in some way to eating disorders.  It does not, at all.  Instead, it is a reference to the the Soviet persecution of large segments of the Estonian population after World War II.  One of the two main characters of the book was a young woman during that bleak period, and the other one, a younger woman, also has a personal relationship to that word. 

The action of the novel opens in 1992, when the two characters come together, but this action is interspersed with a written diary of another character from the past, and other written documents, and the narrative bounces between decades, between the 1930's and 40's and 1992.  Even translated into English, the language of the novel is obviously literary yet not pretentious.  Somehow, the reader does not shrink away, even when terrible events, and perhaps even more terrible non-events, play out. 

Before I read Purge, I asked my Estonian friend what rings true to him in terms of his own perceptions of rural Estonia, and he said, well, the flies...the constant swatting of flies.

Like the movie about rural Missouri, Winter's Bone, it has harsh and difficult parts, yet it left me more reflective than dismayed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Iron Thorn / Caitlin Kittredge / 512 p.

In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft's epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical—born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day. Aoife Grayson's family is unique, in the worst way—every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

When we meet Aoife (pronounced Ee-fah, in case you were curious), she is an Uptown girl enrolled in the School of Machines (one of the FEW girls enrolled there) waiting to go mad.  However, notes from her estranged brother convince her to escape school and Uptown and head for her father's mansion in Arkham to find and help her brother. What she discovers there is crazy beyond her wildest dreams.

I loved the characters in this book. Aoife was a character that I really, truly enjoyed reading about.  She was..different.  She has this chip on her shoulder about the madness that is a part of her family and the looming eventuality that it will probably affect her as well. But...she's also got a bit of an attitude.  She's cautious but she's not afraid to pursue the things that are important to her.

The whole world that Kittredge has created is really spectacular.  There is a little bit of everything for everyone! Seriously! It took me a little bit to get into the language with all the crazy inventions and such (welcome to steampunk, I suppose, lol), but once the plot gets going you can't put the book down! Don't let its size/length stop you from picking this one up. It's a fabulous read.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof/Tennessee Williams/158 pp.

The second of a pair of Williams plays I read recently. "Cat" takes place in the bed/sitting room of Brick and Maggie Pollitt in the plantation home of "Big Daddy" Pollitt, Brick's father. Big Daddy is a rich man, owner of a huge plantation; the occasion that takes place in the play is the celebration of Big Daddy's birthday and his (supposed) clean bill of health from recent medical tests. All the family members (except Big Daddy and his wife, Big Mama) know that the medical tests actually came back positive for cancer, and they plan to gently break this news to Big Daddy.
The play chiefly deals with Brick's relationships with Maggy, Big Daddy, and Brick's brother, "Gooper" (Cooper). Brick and Maggie haven't slept in the same bed for quite some time, partly because of Brick's worsening alcoholism. Big Daddy wants Brick to overcome his alcoholism and general indifference to the world so that he can take over the running of the plantation, while Gooper and his wife try to get the plantation for themselves by making Brick look bad in front of Big Daddy and Big Mama. A subplot of the play is Maggie's questioning of Brick's relationship with his best friend, Skipper, who recently committed suicide; Maggie wondered if Brick and Skipper were homosexual lovers, and slept with Skipper to challenge their relationship. Her confrontation with Skipper is what resulted in his suicide, and the suicide is what has caused Brick's heavy drinking and general apathy.
Williams' handling of the interactions of this "Old South" family, his willingness to deal with topics like alcoholism, cancer and sexuality at such an early date, and the sometimes autobiographical nature of the story make this an interesting and entertaining read.

Inside Out / Maria V. Snyder / 315 p.

For me, Inside Out was a book that really had a little bit of everything: a likeable heroine, attractive boys, rebellion, romance, tragedy...everything!  I know that I am a major sucker for dystopian novels but this one was seriously awesome. I can't believe I didn't read it before!

In the world of Inside, the "Uppers" and "scrubs" live separate lives--dependent on each other but not really knowing what life is really like for the other half.  The world (and all information that flows within it) is controlled by the Travas and the "Pop Cops." When a "prophet" from the Upper levels shows up talking about the Gateway, Trella is determined to put a stop to such dreaming.  To prove him wrong, she goes after his "proof" and along the way starts a rebellion the likes of which Inside has never seen...

Trella is a scrub, destined to spend her life in the lower levels as one among many doing the 'dirty work.' From the beginning, she presents herself as someone who doesn't want you to like her.  She keeps her head low and doesn't make friends. She has an attitude that doesn't allow her to get close to anyone--the only exception being Cog, a boy she grew up with who everyone likes.  However, I found it hard not to like her, despite her attitude--or make "like isn't the right word: RESPECT.  She's definitely a tough chick with her head and her heart in the right place when it counts.  She may be standoffish in the beginning, but she definitely grows throughout the book and it's fantastic to watch her personality develop and her attitude shift (slowly but surely).

We've got a couple of awesome male characters alongside Trella throughout as well.  First, there's Cogon (or Cog, as everyone calls him).  Cog is Trella's only friend. They were birth mates and he's always been there for her, even as she tries to push everyone away.  I loved Cog (like everyone else I suppose!).  He was so genuine that I think you couldn't help but love him! And then there's Riley, the Upper who Trella meets by accident when she's (illegally) exploring the upper levels.  The two of them are quite the pair! I loved it as they try to get to know one another and uncover the myths that each side has been fed about the other. Trella is so untrusting of people and Riley has to work so hard to earn her trust.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book! It was a great addition to all the dystopias that I've read lately and I thought that the society was developed superbly.

A Streetcar Named Desire/Tennessee Williams/142 pp.

This is the first in a pair of Williams' plays that I read. Blanche DuBois comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and Stella's husband, Stanley, in a run-down neighborhood in New Orleans. Written in 1947, the play documents the changing relationships among Blanche, Stella and Stanley, while showing the clash between Blanche, a member of the "genteel" Old South, and Stanley, a member of the new industrial working class. Stanley resents Blanche, who represents (to him) Stella's past and the "finer things" that Stella left to marry him. The action culminates in a surprising confrontation between Blanche and Stanley, ending with Stella siding with Stanley and having Blanche committed to a nursing home.

Legacy / Cayla Kluver / 496 p.

This historical fantasy fiction filled with romance and political intrigue sounded like something that would be right up my alley.  My overall thoughts were that this was a worthwhile read but it definitely could use a little polishing. The Kingdom of Hytanica has been at peace for many years.  The King is preparing to step down--just as soon as his oldest daughter finds a suitable husband to take his place. This is proving a bit of a struggle for Alera, for her father has basically chosen the next King despite Alera's disappointment with the match.  Then Narian comes into the story--an intriguing captive from Hytanica's bitter enemy...who turns out to be so much more.

The character development in Legacy was the best part for me.  Alera really struggles with the decisions that she makes and she develops throughout the story from someone who blindly accepts her destiny to someone who questions authority and, in the end, makes difficult decisions. Narian was a very intriguing character and I thought that Cayla did a fabulous job slowing uncovering bits and pieces of him to the reader while still leaving you guessing about the "real" Narian.

The only complaint that I really had about this book was that the pacing was a tad slow for me.  I felt like occasionally the story got bogged down in excessive details regarding the setting of each scene and the sharing of background information that didn't seem to have a purpose in the story.  I felt that the story could have moved along a bit quicker without getting bogged down in such details as each thing that they ate and what they wore and the items in each room.

Overall, I did enjoy the story that Cayla Kluver has started here and I won't hesitate to pick up the second book when it comes out. I must commend her on writing such an imaginative story at such a young age (as this story was first penned when the author was, I believe, 14/15).  There is a lot of promise in the story and I can only hope that books two and three move along a bit more quickly than this one.

Love Story / Jennifer Echols / 256 p.

Erin Blackwell moves to NYC to pursue her dreams of becoming a romance novelist, leaving behind he rlife on a horse farm and everything that went along with it. Including her grandmother's money. Erin's refusal to study business and take over the horse farm caused her grandmother to disinherit her and give her inheritance to the (good-looking) stable hand, Hunter.  Now, in NYC, Erin is working hard to get through her first year of college and putting herself out there in her creative writing class--even writing a fictionalized version of her own fantasy involving a horse farm and a certain stable boy. Then, her "stable boy" shows up unannounced in her creative writing class and wiggles his way into her life.

Erin was a character I felt like I could relate to. She made poor decisions, as many college freshmen do, and she showed over and over again that she had a lot of growing up to.  Yes, she was a tad whiny at times, but I don't know, somehow that worked with the person she is/was supposed to be (for me at least). Hunter was fabulous.  His undying love for Erin in the face of her stupidity is downright sweet.  He had a very stabilizing effect on the story overall as the very grounded character.

The ending felt a little "off" for me, but overall, for someone who is not generally a contemporary reader/fan, this book was a good read.  It was definitely a breath of fresh air to see COLLEGE students as the main characters in YA fiction.

The Confessions of a Trivialist/Samuel Rosenberg/219 pp.

Rosenberg is, according to the book's Foreword by Buckminster Fuller, a processor of trivia. When faced with a mystery, he "process[es] whole acres of trivia - significant details overlooked by others." In this way, he has been able to get at the (possible) reasons behind the actions of various historical figures, and uses that information to (re)create what Fuller calls "highly plausible but sometimes directly undocumented intimate episodes" in the lives of these people. By using these methods, Rosenberg gives us, in this volume, his hypotheses of events in the lives of Mary Shelley (creator of Frankenstein's monster), Herman Melville, Albert Schweitzer, and Lot's wife, among others. He includes an interesting chapter on the possible origin of the Santa Claus figure, as well as information about child-prodigy William James Sidis, who went from entering Harvard at the age of 11, to working subsistence jobs and collecting streetcar transfers (and writing perhaps the most boring book in the world, Notes on the Collection of Transfers).
While the book contains some pieces of interesting information (including an account of the author's 1955 interview of Schweitzer), I was turned off by the very thing that is Rosenberg's stock-in-trade - his tendency to make an assumptive jump in logic from a collection of random facts to a full-blown (alleged) episode in a person's life. While it is entirely possible that the figure of Dr. Frankenstein was based on Mary Shelley's father and her husband, we have no actual physical proof of that fact, merely the author's assumption and supposition. The book was enjoyable, however, for the new information (trivia) it gave me on Sidis, Melville, and the strange triangle of Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poet Byron.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains/Nicholas Carr/276 pp.

According to Carr, the advent of the internet has changed the way we as humans process information through our brains; due to the web format of small snippets of information or long articles broken up by distracting pop-ups and in-text ads and links, we are losing the ability to read (and perhaps, think) deeply. Carr traces the history of information dispersal, from the oral tradition to clay tablets, papyrus and Gutenberg's printing press, up through radio and television to the multi-media web-based formats of today. He presents scientific evidence that shows how the brain is constantly evolving, gaining and losing synapses connected to learning and memory. He also includes a chapter on the "googleization" of information - how the goal of the founders of Google was to apply manufacturing's process-improvement methods to the internet, and how that affects the way we search for and browse information on the web. (He also discusses Google's efforts to make all information available via the internet, including their huge book-digitization project.)
On a personal note, I was two chapters shy of finishing this book when it became due at the library. I took the book to the library, thinking I'd just renew it and finish it, but found that someone else had a hold on the book so I couldn't renew it. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just find a quiet spot here and finish the book." The irony is that I was unable to focus enough to do the deep reading required to finish the book, and had to settle for just briefly scanning the last two chapters!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

New Spring/Robert Jordan/378 pp.

I have a confession to make - I didn't read this in the correct order. New Spring is part of Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series; it's a prequel that takes place about 20 years before the events of the first book in the series. New Spring was written originally as a novella, published in an anthology of new works written by several masters of the fantasy genre. The anthology came out between books 8 and 9 of the "Wheel of Time" series; Jordan later expanded the novella into a full novel, which came out between books 10 and 11 of the series.

As I said, the events in New Spring take place about 20 years before the events of the first book in the main series. Moiraine and Siuan, both apprentices to the Aes Sedai, a group of sorceresses, overhear a prophecy of the rebirth of the "Dragon", a hero who will save the world from the "Dark One". Once they become full members of the Aes Sedai, Moiraine and Siuan begin searching for the Dragon, to protect him from the followers of the Dark One. Moiraine also meets up with Lan Mandragoran, a soldier who will become her Warder, a warrior who is bonded to serve her.

It's difficult to talk about the "Wheel of Time" series without explaining such terms as Aes Sedai, Warder, and Dragon. It also made reading this book a little slow going at first. While the book is a prequel to the events of the series, it assumes a familiarity with the world of the series, since it was published after 8 of the series' volumes. But there is a small glossary at the back of the book, and once I began to remember what the new words meant, the book became a lot more enjoyable. I'm a big fan of multi-volume works like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter books, and Christopher Paolini's "Eragon" series. My only concern is when a writer drags things on without ever resolving anything, seemingly just to make a few more bucks off the fans. I've had several friends say they stopped reading the "Wheel of Time" series for just that reason - that it seemed like some volumes in the series weren't really moving the story forward. But I enjoyed this book so much that I think at the least I'll read one or two more volumes in the series to see how things go, before giving up on this story.

Wheel of Time Glossary
Wheel of Time wiki

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Magic Barrel/Bernard Malamud/214 pp.

Another MULSA book sale remainder! This collection of short stories, published in 1958, won the National Book Award the following year. In 1956 Malamud spent a year in Rome working on the manuscript for this collection, and three of the stories are set in Italy as a result - "The Last Mohican", "Behold the Key", and "The Lady of the Lake". In fact, "Behold the Key" seems almost autobiographical in its description of a struggling writer's attempts to find cheap lodging for himself and his family in Rome. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Malamud incorporates his Jewish heritage into much of his work; of the thirteen stories in the compilation, ten deal with the life of New York Jews. Malamud's characters, mostly poor Jewish immigrants, speak in a beautiful mish-mash of fractured English and Yiddish. The subject of the Holocaust comes up often in these stories - the loss of loved ones, and in some cases, guilt at having survived unscathed while others did not. The main character in "The Last Mohican", Fidelman, is accosted by a Jewish refugee who almost demands assistance based solely on the fact that both are Jewish. Even after very poor treatment by the refugee, Fidelman continues to feel an obligation to this survivor of horrors that Fidelman himself avoided through the lucky coincidence of growing up in America.
I enjoyed most of the stories in the collection; if I had one complaint, it was the fact that many of the stories ended without a resolution of the central problem. (Strangely, the story I enjoyed the most, "Behold the Key", is one of these stories that ends too soon.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Room: A novel / Emma Donoghue / 321 p.

I read a summary of this book months ago, and like watching a snake, I was both fascinated and wary. The plot sounded grim and heartbreaking. A little boy lives with his mother in a room that comprises his whole universe, as they are confined there by his mother's kidnapper. That the media have reported on similar kidnapped victims adds a level of poignancy to this story in the sense that it really could happen. 

What saves this book from grimness is the unique point-of-view: Jack's, a five year-old child. Even in this situation, Donoghue captures all the wonder and fun of youth, along with some of the disappointments, as mother and child make the most of their limited world. As an adult, you spot the nuances that the child can not yet process, specifically the toll on the mother from her imprisonment and continued victimization. Moreover, the premise of this situation introduces suspense and tension: will they ever achieve freedom?

Without giving too much of the plot away, the reader isn't left hanging, as in many novels where the crisis is resolved and it abruptly ends. The reader gets to continue the journey through the young narrator's eyes, seeing that resolutions usually contain their share of heartache as well as the anticipated joys. Life is more complex than our simplistic anticipations can imagine.

I felt admiration for the resiliency of the boy and his mother, although a few times they seemed just a little too wise and mature. Yet, they did have their human, fallible side to counterbalance that and make them more appealing as characters. I highly recommend this story, which I checked out from Daniel Boone Public Library.

DBRL      MERLIN      Amazon

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Me of Little Faith/Lewis Black/240 pp.

Lewis Black is one of my favorite stand-up comedians. His commentary on everything from politics to religion to our fascination with pseudo-celebrities always makes me laugh out loud, so I thought I would really enjoy this book. I was expecting a well-reasoned, but humorous, book-length essay on what is wrong with (organized) religion today, and how we could go about fixing it; what I got, instead, was a series of short, chapter-length rants about the usual topics associated with religion: televangelists, Mormons, growing up Jewish, child-molesting priests, etc. This is Black's version of the same ground that's been covered by any stand-up comedian that's written a book - Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, probably Tim Allen too (although I've not forced myself to read any of his books yet). Don't get me wrong, there's some funny stuff in here, but it just doesn't compare to his stand-up routine. Worst part of the book? Tacked on, at the end, there's the script of a play about religion that Black and Mark Linn-Baker did during the 1980s. According to Black, it didn't run for very long; after reading the script, I'm not terribly surprised.

Cool list of Lewis Black quotes
list of videos featuring Lewis Black. Much funnier than reading him, imho.

All the Pretty Horses/Cormac McCarthy/302 pp.

I avoided reading this book because I thought it was one of those books on everyone's "YOU-MUST-READ-THIS-RIGHT-NOW" lists (like a certain soon-to-be-retired talk show host's "Book-of-the-month-for-mindless-sheep" club). I tend to avoid books people say I must read, partly out of sheer contrariness to group-think. Also, as a reviewer on says, "the title is all full of wuss." But a good friend had recommended McCarthy's The Road, which I loved, and I know McCarthy also wrote No Country for Old Men, so I gave this book a try as well. Overall, while I didn't like it as much as The Road, it was a very enjoyable read. John Grady Cole is a young man whose family ranch is being sold, so he goes to Mexico to find work (and adventure). In the process he falls in love with the rancher's daughter, gets mistaken for a horse thief, almost gets killed in a Mexican prison, and does a lot of communing with nature. Through this series of events, you see John Grady growing up; he leaves Texas as a boy, running away from home, and returns as a man, ready to find his way in life.


goodreads page on The Road

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much/Allison Hoover Bartlett/274 pp.

My sister recommended this book to me; she hadn't read it, but thought that the title described my book addiction perfectly.
Actually, this book is only tangentially about people like me, seeming hoarders of any book they can get their hands on. Specifically, this book is about John Gilkey, a rare-book thief who stole books from dealers, not in some scheme to re-sell them and make big bucks, but because of a belief that having a large personal library would make him a well-respected member of high society. Bartlett, through interviews with Gilkey, book seller and amateur detective Ken Sanders, and other members of the rare-book world, explores what makes a book "rare", and what causes the obsession some of us have with collecting books. However, this work is mostly about Gilkey, his history of book-stealing, and how he justified his thefts to himself and to others.

A similar book, about stealing maps and prints from rare books. Both are must-reads for rare-book librarians, imho.

Wormwood Forest/Mary Mycio/259 pp.

Approaching the Chernobyl nuclear incident from a naturalist's perspective, Mary Mycio details the effects that the massive amounts of nuclear radiation and fallout have had on the environment of the area, from the villages surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant to Ukraine, Belarus and Russia overall. She details some of the early efforts by the Soviet government to contain the radiation and how the breakup of the Soviet Union has affected clean-up, monitoring and research activities of the three post-Soviet nations. The story is a combination of horrifying details of the effects the disaster had on first-responders' health, as well as the surprisingly positive effect on local flora and fauna of the zone's inhabitants being evacuated indefinitely. Mycio interviews local residents who have sneaked back into the zone, scientists researching the effects of the lingering radiation, and botanists, zoologists and environmentalists observing the recovery efforts of the local plant and animal life. My only complaint is that, while the majority of the book is written on a level understandable by laymen, the author at times goes into excessively detailed descriptions of chemical processes and radiation levels. There is also, apparently, some confusion in scientific circles as to how radiation levels should be reported: some countries report in roentgens, some in becquerels, some in curies, etc. Mycio is forced to spend almost a complete chapter explaining why radiation is reported differently, and how to relate the different radiation units.
My favorite parts of the book, though, are when she describes the amazing ability of nature to recover from such a devastating event. With the exception of government workers and researchers,and a number of illegal squatters, the zones of exclusion are almost completely deserted. In the absence of human population, other species have bounced back, in some cases from near-extinction. In this regard, the book provides a good argument for protecting the earth from overpopulation by humans.

link to list of various radiation units
goodreads entry on this book

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Clarity / Kim Harrington / 242 p

Clarity "Clare" Fern sees things no one else can see. All she has to do is touch a certain object, and the visions come to her. When a teenage girl is found murdered, Clare's ex-boyfriend wants her to help solve the case. Then Clare's brother becomes the prime suspect, and Clare can no longer look away. Teaming up with Gabriel, the smoldering son of the new detective, Clare must venture into the depths of fear, revenge, and lust in order to track the killer. But will her sight fail her just when she needs it most? (from Goodreads)

I liked this book from start to finish.  I mean, really, how can you not like a supernatural murder mystery?! (Maybe that's just me...)  Chapter One pulls you in immediately and you honestly can't put this one down until you've gotten to the end.

My honest-to-goodness favorite thing about this book was that I did not solve the mystery before the main character.  I'm sure that many readers will figure it out, but I'll readily admit that I was so into the story that I didn't see it coming! I was *completely* convinced the murdered was someone else and had a "NO WAY!" moment when it was revealed.  That's always a good feeling when you're reading a book--like you're learning right alongside the main character.

Now, Clarity, or Clare as she prefers, didn't necessarily pull me in as a character right away.  I'm not sure why but I didn't connect with her at the beginning.  As the story progressed, I did feel like I warmed up to her quite a bit.  I also really thought that the minor characters in this one were well done.  I felt like I knew each of them fairly well...with a lot of room for growth in #2!!   Also, on the character side of things, I actually liked the love triangle in this one because it wasn't the FOCUS.  It was there, it was minor, and it was a cute romance.

The Magnolia League / Katie Crouch / 368 p

After the death of her free-spirited mother, sixteen-year-old Alex Lee must leave her home in northern California to live with her wealthy grandmother in Savannah, Georgia. By birth, Alex is a rightful, if unwilling, member of the Magnolia League, Savannah's long-standing debutante society. She quickly discovers that the Magnolias have made a pact with a legendary hoodoo family, the Buzzards. The Magnolias enjoy youth, beauty and power. But at what price?

I haven't read too many books set in the South, but after reading The Magnolia League, I know I want to read more!  The ambiance that Crouch conveys through that setting is phenomenal.  I could almost feel the humid heat during the sweltering Georgia summer and reading the book made me want to speak with a Georgia drawl.  

At the beginning of the book, I really liked Alex.  She seemed like such a strong character with these unwavering beliefs that made her seem crazy to the new people in her life.  When the Magnolia girls start to get to her, I was a little disappointed at how quickly her started to cave to their beliefs and leave behind little parts of herself.  As soon as she lost her dreadlocks, it was like little pieces of her personality just flaked off here and there. That was a tad annoying to me, but the story itself kept me involved enough that I didn't put the book down at that point.

Things really do turn around though and at the end I was really gunning for Alex.  She seems to start to find her roots and realize what's really important...and the only way to get that back.  It doesn't end at all the way you think it's going to.  A last minute twist in the plot definitely leaves you hanging and begging for more.

Graveminder / Melissa Marr / 324 p.

Claysville made a deal...and the next generation must deal with its consequences...

Rebekkah Barrow never forgot the tender attention her grandmother, Maylene, bestowed upon the dead of Claysville, the town where Bek spent her adolescence. There wasn't a funeral that Maylene didn't attend, and at each Rebekkah watched as Maylene performed the same unusual ritual: three sips from a small silver flask followed by the words "Sleep well, and stay where I put you." Now Maylene is dead and Bek must go back to the place--and the man--she left a decade ago. But what she soon discovers is that Maylene was murdered and that there was good reason for her odd traditions. It turns out that in placid Claysville, the worlds of the living and the dead are dangerously connected. Beneath the town lies a shadowy, lawless land ruled by the enigmatic Charles, aka Mr. D--a place from which the dead will return if their graves are not properly minded. Only the Graveminder, a Barrow woman, and the current Undertaker, Byron, can set things to right once the dead begin to walk...

I think that Charlaine Harris hit the nail on the head when she said "No one builds worlds like Melissa Marr." (Quote on the front cover, in case you're curious) Marr really sucked me into this small town world with all its quirkiness and creepiness. If you liked the Wicked Lovely series for Marr's writing style and world building, then this book won't disappear. However, don't go looking for any fey here--this world if of a completely different nature. The magic is dark, hidden, and dangerous.

The story is told from the alternating POVs of multiple townspeople, both living and dead. Each one gives you just enough information to keep the story moving and clue you in just a little more. It also added an extra layer to the intrigue and depth to the characters. The protag, Rebekkah (or Bek), is a strong young woman who, while she wasn't born in Claysville, has always felt and resisted the pull of the town--until her grandmother dies and she is forced to return. Her evolution as a characters is the most profound as she goes from resisting to acceptance. She's never been one to tie herself down, whether to a place or a person, and it's very interesting to watch her emotional evolution as she begins to accept her place in Claysville and Byron's place in her life.

Between Here and Forever / Elizabeth Scott / 256 p

When Tess falls into a coma, Abby finds her life put on hold in her sister's absence.  Living in Tess's shadow is one thing...but it's unbearable now that she's in a coma. As Abby works through a plan to bring her sister back (involving the handsome love interest, Eli), she has to learn a lot of hard truths about who here sister really is.

Abby is a fairly typical self-deprecating younger sister living in the shadow of her "amazing" older sister.  Throughout the story, I honestly wanted to slap her more times than I can count and tell her to open her eyes.  Her insecurity is pounded into your head throughout the entire book, and honestly, it made me almost completely unable to get behind her as an main character.

Tess is, in Abby's mind, the girl who everyone likes and I have to admit that I felt like I got to know her more through the story that I did Abby.  As Abby learned about the Tess she didn't know, I did too and I really liked her.  She was a teenager dealing with a lot of emotional difficulties and tough choices.  I loved how Tess was unveiled slowly throughout the story.

Eli....oh Eli.  Eli was such a real, fabulous love interest and friend.  His character was beyond well-developed and I loved the dynamic that he brought to the story.  Again, I don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Eli is awesome.  You will fall in love with him.

What this book does fantastically is bring in diversity and sexuality in such a seamless way that it doesn't come across as preachy or forced or any of the things that often happen when an author tries too hard to do those things.  I don't want to spoil anything so I'll leave it at that but be prepared for a well-rounded cast of characters.

Shine / Lauren Myracle / 376 p.

Shine is the story of a small-town with backwards thinking.  When a young boy is the victim of a hate-crime, his former best friend will stop at nothing to get to the truth and find out who hurt him. From the moment I read the opening newspaper article to when I read the final page, Lauren Myracle's Shine pulled me in. It was a truly spell-binding read--one that I put off for far to long. I know I won't be the first to say that some of Myracle's other popular novels don't hold a lot of appeal to me--not that they're not probably fantastic reads, just not my type. I guess it just goes to show Myracle's diversity as a writer because Shine was my "type" of book.

From the start, I felt completely sucked into the atmosphere the author creates. The bigotry was so indicative of the small-mindedness that is often engendered in that setting. I could connect so well to the characters that I felt stifled right along with them - stuck in a world where my ideas didn't fit in.

The main character, Cat, was incredibly relatedable in all her flaws. She's far from a perfect character, but I fell in love with her more and more every page. She became my best friend. I wanted to know on a personal level why she had separated herself from all her friends. I wanted to understand and I wanted to be there for her as she worked through years of pain and separation. When the description calls this a coming-of-age story, it's spot on. Watching Cat essentially grow up in the span of just over a week is harrowing and beautiful all at the same time--watching her open back up to people in her life and even the possibility of a new friend/love.

All the characters in this novel were really well-done. They were so dynamic and did things that you didn't expect. It was truly refreshing. It made every turn of the page a new adventure because the characters could turn out to be or do something different than you expected at every turn.

The mystery is, of course, the plot focus, but I really felt that the atmosphere and character were the driving force. They created the mystery and moved it along and created the twists that made the story unpredictable and kept me turning page after page.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl/Robert Polidori/112 pp.

With the recent 25th anniversary of the April 26 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, I have been reading several books lately to learn more about this event and what its long-term effects have been.
Built in 1970 as a bedroom community for employees of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Pripyat was completely evacuated when a massive explosion occurred at the plant's No. 4 reactor. Residents were told they were only leaving for a few days, and were not permitted to take anything with them when they left. Similar instructions were given to the residents of the city of Chornobyl and of neighboring villages. Published in 2003, Zones of Exclusion is Polidori's photographic record of how the area has changed (and how it has remained frozen in time) in the following 25 years. Some of the most striking photos are of an amusement park, never used, that had been scheduled to open on May Day, just days after the nuclear plant disaster. Also interesting was the obvious way in which the city's plant life was, little by little, returning the town to forest.
While I enjoyed looking through these images, I was disappointed by the fact that this book, like so much other literature on the Zones of Exclusion, talks about how the area has been "untouched by humans" for the past 25 years, but other books I've read recently (specifically Voices from Chernobyl and Wormwood Forest) make mention of former residents, profiteers and vandals returning to the area to collect everything from family mementos to car parts to sell on the black market. Looking at these photos, I can't help wondering how much of what I'm seeing is the result of nature taking back the area, and how much is just the result of vandalism and theft.

link to a similar photo montage


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Skin / Adrienne Maria Vrettos / 227 pp.

This story follows Donnie, a fourteen year old boy whose older sister gradually starves herself to death. (Not a spoiler.) As his parents slowly separate and his sister gets thinner and thinner, all energy and attention is dedicated to his sister. Donnie starts withdrawing until he decides that it is easiest to pretend he is invisible.

I loved this book the first time I read it and love it just as much this time around. Donnie’s voice is very genuine, the characters are people from real-life, and the story is well-written and realistic. While this YA book is a quick read, it left me feeling very emotionally-drained.

Sight / Adrienne Maria Vrettos / 272 pp.

Sixteen year old Dylan has psychic visions where she sees certain children after they die. Now she must deal with a new friend’s curiosity, keep her old friendships, and help solve the recent murder of a child. Is this murder somehow connected to the murder that scarred her and her friends in kindergarten?

While this book had an interesting concept, it was a one-time read for me.

All Things Wise and Wonderful / James Herriot / 448 pp. (audiobook)

James Herriot is one of my all-time favorite fiction authors. Herriot (pen name of James Alfred Wight) started as an English country vet in 1940 and used his experiences to write a series of books, this one being the third. This book centers around the time he served in the Royal Air Force, but the majority of the stories are flashbacks to his life as a vet. Some memorable stories are the “butcher” dentist who knocks out airmen’s teeth with a hammer and chisel and the man who commits suicide when his dog dies.

I have always found Herriot's writing to be superb and his characters real and vividly memorable. Each chapter of his books are fairly self-contained stories that always leave me with some strong emotion. While the stories center around animals, the books examine human nature. This is a series I visit regularly and always enjoy.

For anyone interested, the audiobook version of this series as read by Christopher Timothy is flawless. His interpretation of Tristan Farnon is brilliantly hilarious.

Call of the Wild / Jack London / 172 pp

I read this book for the first time in third grade and loved it. However, when my third grade teacher read an excerpt of it to the class from a "taste of great literature" book, he stopped reading the excerpt due to violent content. Re-reading this book, I still love it, but realize just how gritty of a book this is.

Buck, a dog, is kidnapped from home and sold as a sled dog in Alaska. London paints a bleak and brutal reality. Dogs are beaten into obedience and worked to exhaustion and death. Dogs fight and kill each other for supremacy. The weak die, but Buck survives as his ancient instincts kick in and he hears the call of the wild.

Folk Keeper / Franny Billingsley / 176 pp.

Fifteen-year-old Corinna lives disguised as a boy and employed as a folk keeper. It is her job to pacify the folk, the spirits who take their anger out on the folk keeper rather than the village. Corinna has learned to be self-reliant. She lies, rejects friends, keeps secrets, and makes sure that others are punished if they cross her. She is summoned to a vast seaside estate to be their folk keeper. However, the folk there are wilder, fiercer and more deadly than she expects. Corinna struggles to pacify the folk, deals with an unexpected friendship, and unearths dark secrets that will eventually threaten her identity and life.

This book reminds me a bit of "Coraline" as it too is a dark book told in fairly simple language. It has a very creepy atmosphere, draws heavily from folklore, and features a strong heroine. A good book to re-read.

Catherine Called Birdy / Karen Cushman / 224 pp.

This is the diary of Catherine in 1209 England. Her father is trying to marry her off, but Catherine objects. She blackens her teeth when the first suitor comes and accidentally sets a later suitor on fire while he is using the privy. This is the journal of a strong-willed girl eventually finding her place in medieval society.

Once again, I enjoyed re-reading this book. As it is set in medieval England, much of its humor and language is bawdy/earthy. Catherine writes about various bodily functions, getting slapped around for disobedience, child brides, lice, etcetera. A very enjoyable read, mainly because of Catherine's strong and blunt voice.

Island of the Blue Dolphins / Scott O'Dell / 192 pp.

This novel is based on a true story. After having their numbers decimated by Aleut otter hunters, the NicoleƱo tribe, who lived on an island off the coast of California, was taken to live on California's mainland. However, a girl was left behind and lived 18 years alone on the island until found-again in 1853. While the novel ends with her re-discovery, the real girl was taken to the Santa Barbra Mission where she appeared to be happy even though no one could communicate with her, but then died seven weeks later.

This is a YA novel, told simply, but is an engaging and powerful story. Told from the girl's perspective, the story focuses on her time on the island and is a good survival story. I have always enjoyed this book every time I read it, and it is as enjoyable now as it was in 6th grade.

Measle and the Wrathmonk / Ian Ogilvy / 224 pp

Measle is an orphan forced to live with his evil uncle Basil. One day, Measle discovers a secret about Basil, and he is shrunk down and imprisoned in Basil's elaborate model train set. Fun as always, this book is very light-hearted and quirky. If people turning into tiny plastic models and giant killer cockroaches sounds interesting, you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Owls in the Family / Farley Mowat / 90 pp.

A very quick read, this book tells of Mowat's childhood with his two pet great horned owls. Wol, the braver owl, walks around town, bring skunks to the dinner table, and scares off bullies. Weeps, the shyer owl, bonds with the family dog and rides around town on Mowat's shoulder. This book makes you desperately wish you had a pet owl.

A Wrinkle in Time / Madeleine L'Engle / 256 pp.

Three children (Meg, Charles and Calvin) are sent on a journey to find Meg and Charles' missing father. To do this they travel through space and time, eventually traveling to Camazotoz where conformity is key. Upon arriving, they look down a street where all of the children are playing in identical front yards – the girls skipping rope in rhythm, and the boys bouncing balls in perfect synchronization. This is a very unique book with complex sub-themes and multiple side-stops to planets with angelic beings who quote Shakespeare and scripture.

King of the Wind / Marguerite Henry / 192 pp.

This is a loosely fictionalized account of the Godolphin Arabian, the ancestor of such famous race horses as Seabiscuit, Man o' War, War Admiral, and Silky Sullivan. By the author of the Misty of Chincoteague series, this is a very classic children's book. This book follows the “Black Beauty” route with a fall from good living, a string of cruel masters, and a final rescue. Unlike “Black Beauty,” the story is told from the perspective of Sham, a young stable boy who travels with his horse from Morocco to England, and no horses die . . . until the postscript.

The Midwife's Apprentice / Karen Cushman / 122 pp.

This is another earthy/bawdy story of Medieval life with a strong and stubborn female lead by Karen Cushman. This time, a girl named Brat is found sleeping in a dung heap by a village midwife. The shrewd and sharp-tempered midwife takes advantage of the promise of cheap labor, and Brat slowly becomes a midwife’s apprentice as well as haltingly learns her place in the world. While this book is written simply, the story is very alive. With descriptions of the midwife slapping a hysterical woman in labor to the midwife shouting up the birth canal for a baby to come out, I am glad we are past certain aspects of Medieval medicine.

The Girl in the Box / Ouida Sebestyen / 166 pp.

After being kidnapped, Jackie finds herself in a pitch-black cellar with a small amount of food and water as well as the typewriter and paper she had been carrying when abducted. Left in the cellar, Jackie starts typing a journal, letters for help, and letters to people in her life. Perhaps not a book for those who do not wish to be depressed.

The Language of Goldfish / Zibby Oneal / 179 pp.

***This review contains plot spoilers***

When Carrie was younger, she invented a secret language of whistling to call the goldfish that lived in her backyard-pond. Now in eighth grade, Carrie starts blacking out, having dizzy spells, and fixating on the fish/pond. To me, it was clear from the start that she was having these problems because she did not want to grow up, but the narrator does not reveal this, and Carrie does not discover this, until about the second-to-last chapter. I am not sure if this was intentional. Perhaps it was just an issue I had with Carrie's perspective, but I also had some problems with some of the unnecessary attention and descriptions about the overweight-ness of a girl who is mean to Carrie.

Shooting Star: A Novel About Annie Oakley / Sheila Solomon Klass / 176 pp.

This is a YA fictionalized first-person account of the childhood of Annie Oakley. This book resonated with me when I was younger, and I think would be a good read (both personal and read-aloud) for both young boys or girls as Annie's personality and spunk really comes through. It also has many universal themes like homesickness, bullying, friendships, and finding one's talents. While written at an easy reading level with a fast-moving plot, I felt the characters were developed and described well.

Face on the Milk Carton / Caroline Cooney / 192 pp.

When Jane sees her childhood picture on a missing child announcement on a milk carton, she starts having flashbacks about her early childhood that do not match up to what her parents have been telling her. Add in the possibility of a new romance for Jane, and things are even more complicated. Did her loving parents really kidnap her? Are they lying to her? Who is she remembering? Note that this is book one of a series, so the ending is very abrupt.

The Best Little Girl in the World/ Steven Levenkron / 256 pp.

When Franscesa/Kessa's ballet instructor encourages her to loose some weight, it sets off Kessa's downwards spiral into severe anorexia until she is hospitalized and close to death. This book examines Kessa's mindset, her family dynamics, and her relationship with her therapist.

Dr. Levenkron is a real psychiatrist who has dealt with anorexics. Because the book gets inside how Kessa thinks of her body and discusses techniques she uses to shed weight, I feel obliged to refer to the numerous Amazon reviews from current or previous anorexics who point out this book's trigger-points and possible dangers for others with anorexia. Some people who have struggled with anorexia also felt the book was too romanticized.

Wasted : A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia / Marya Hornbacher / 304 pp.

This is a very personal, gritty, dark book that examines Marya's eating disorder from when it started as Bulimia at age 9, to her turning to Anorexia as a teen, and finally, her tentative present day relationship with eating disorders. For anyone interested in the mindset of eating disorders, this is a very intimate look that goes many dark places.

However, as with “The Best Little Girl in the World,” I feel compelled to mention numerous Amazon reviews from current or previous anorexics who warn that this book can be used as a how-to guide and has extremely strong trigger-points.

Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West / Anne Seagraves / 165 pp.

This book's content stayed true to its title, giving a story-based look at prostitution in the American West. There are explanations of each of the prostitution hierarchies that existed, excerpts from funerals of famous madams, and pictures and stories about key ladies told in a fictional style. The book stays away from gritty details, except the heartbreaking chapter about the organized slavery and forced prostitution of Chinese girls and young women.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

How's Your Romance/Ethan Mordden/288 pp.

Subtitled "concluding the 'Buddies' Cycle", How's Your Romance is the last in a series of Mordden novels about a group of gay men living in New York City. The narrator, Bud, is loosely based on Mordden himself, a writer and known authority on Broadway musicals. Unlike many gay novels, which deal with the coming-out process or with the effects of the AIDS epidemic, the "Buddies" novels tell stories about a group of friends who also, incidentally, happen to be gay. The "coming out" and AIDS topics are included, but the novels deal with them as parts of the overall gay experience.
Mordden is one of my favorite writers; his sense of humor matches mine, and his attempts to show that gay people are humans too really hit home to me. Unlike characters in such gay "standards" as The Boys in the Band and the TV series "Queer as Folk", Mordden's group truly care for each other; they may tease, but they avoid really hurting one another.
The theme to this final volume in the cycle seems to be change. Bud's cousin, Ken, belongs to a group of gym-bunny "Chelsea Boys", only interested in surface topics and sex. Ken realizes that it's time for him to mature a bit and step away from these so-called "friends". Bud's naive young lover, Cosgrove, is forced to understand that his former best friend "J" ("Little Kiwi" or "Virgil" in previous stories) has changed and is no longer interested in the crazy activities they used to do together. And by the end of the novel, a "straight dude" roommate of one of the guys comes to the realization that he is gay.
As I said before, I really love Mordden's writing. This volume is perhaps not as strong as previous chapters of the "Buddies" cycle, but it's still a very enjoyable read. I heartily recommend it to "budding homos" and "curious breeders" alike!

Lolita/Vladimir Nabokov/317 pp.

On its surface, Nabokov's Lolita is the story of an older man's attempt to seduce a young girl. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, rents a room from Charlotte Haze so that he can be close to her 12-year-old daughter, Dolores (or Lolita). While Lolita is away at summer camp, Charlotte proposes marriage to Humbert, and he accepts in order to continue living in the house with Lolita. When Charlotte discovers that Humbert is infatuated with Lolita, she threatens to expose his secret; as she storms out of the house, she is killed by a passing car. Humbert goes to the camp and picks up Lolita, telling her that her mother is in the hospital and that he is taking her to the hospital. Instead, they go on a long cross-country trip, during which Lolita actually seduces Humbert. During their trip, Humbert uses persuasion, bribes, and threats of reform school to keep Lolita tied to him, and to get her to perform sexual favors. After a year on the road, the two move to a small New England town, where Lolita is enrolled in a private school; while there, she meets another older man, who plots with her to escape from Humbert. However, this new man soon grows tired of Lolita, and kicks her out on the street. When she eventually reconnects with Humbert, she is 17 years old, married, pregnant, and poor. Humbert gives her money in exchange for the name of the man who stole her from him, and then he goes and murders that man. Humbert is soon captured by the police, and the book is written in the form of a sort of confession of the murder and the events that led to it.
While early readers of the novel labeled it as erotica or a romance, Nabokov (and other critics) insist that isn't the case. The majority of the book deals with the narrator's attempts to keep Lolita under his control, and his realization (later on) that he has deprived her of the opportunity to experience a normal childhood. The writer Martin Amis claimed that Lolita was Nabokov's condemnation of how Stalinism destroyed the simplicity of the Russia of Nabokov's childhood.
When Nabokov first tried to get the book published, it was turned down by all the major publishing houses. He finally managed to get it published by a smaller press; it then proceeded to be banned in both Britain and France, before eventually being a bestseller in the U.S. (possibly because of the hype associated with it being banned elsewhere).

Tobacco Road/Erskine Caldwell/184 pp.

First published in 1932, this book is considered one of the key novels written about the Great Depression, often compared with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It's the story of the Lester family, sharecroppers in Georgia. Jeeter Lester's ancestor had been a man of some importance in the area, owner of a large tobacco plantation; over the course of several generations, the family's fortunes had turned, to the point that Jeeter's father had sold off the last of the family lands. Jeeter now lives as a sharecropper on land that his family once owned; he is so poor he can't even afford to buy the seed and fertilizer to plant crops on the land, and his family survives mostly by scrounging for bark and berries in the nearby woods. The family is so hungry that, when Jeeter's son-in-law, Lov, comes to talk to him, carrying a bag of turnips, they beat him with sticks to steal the turnips from him.
The book details the severity of the Lester family's poverty, and the various things they do to try and improve their condition. Their biggest fear is that their condition will worsen to the point that they are lower on the social ladder than the black families that live near them. They have sunk so low, due to their poverty and hunger, that they are reduced to the most primal of animal urges - finding food and finding someone to mate with. The family's interaction with Lov is reminiscent of a pack of wolves or hyenas - they are all sitting and lying around their yard as he approaches, but their minds and bodies prick up when he comes in sight, carrying the bag of turnips, and they move as a pack to trick him out of the food.
The book is an easy read, and a good illustration of the problems faced by poor farmers in the South during the Depression.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Monk in the Inner City / Mary Lou Kownacki / 176 p.

Let's start with this: Mary Lou Kownacki is NOT your average nun, or at least, not what I, in my apparent small mindedness, envisioned a nun to be like.  In a series of stories, recollections, and simple thoughts arranged in alphabetical groupings, Mary Lou leads the readers on a spiritual journey. Mary Lou is a Benedictine Sister living in Erie, Pennsylvania, attempting to "stretch [her] monk's robe until it embraces the suffering world."  She offers insights to a variety of topics from angels to Thomas Merton to zen wisdom and everything in between.

Reading this was actually a lot more fun than I expected.  Sister Mary Lou is a bit of radical, at least in my mind.  She participates in peace demonstrations and gets thrown in jail.  She advocates for better roles for women in the Catholic Church.  She surprised me at every turn.  Her stories tugged at your heartstrings and made you stop and think.  I felt like she made you stop and reconsider your preconceived notions about monastic life and about religion/Christianity in general.  An enlightening read.

Shadow / Jenny Moss / 384 p.

Shadow's job is to protect the queen, who is fated to die before her sixteenth birthday..  To stay with her every minute of every day, experiencing everything she does. Shadow is less than a servant; she has no standing whatsoever.  While the young queen is doted upon, Shadow is unknown, unloved, uncared-for. Without a name or identity of her own, but only a burning desire for freedom, she waits, and always plots her escape. 
But when her freedom becomes possible through the queen's death, Shadow discovers that not everything is as she thought, and that freedom and love both exact a high price. 

This joins my list of royal bodyguard books, along with Mistwood (which is excellent) and The Decoy Princess. This is an interesting book; the characters were surprisingly layered in parts for fantasy, but then they kept falling back into flat roles. An interesting book.