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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase / Joan Aiken / 173 pp.

If you like your plots and characters outlandish, your language somewhat archaic, your worlds steam-powered, your orphans locked in dungeons, and your villains horrible child-hating adults, you will like this book.

When the genteelly-impoverished Sylvia goes to live with spirited Bonnie, villainess Miss. Slighcarp uses the absence of Bonnie’s parents to dismiss the servants, burn wills, and terrorize the children. The book’s title comes from the fact that the children live in a town where wolves roam after dark and will attack people and trains. Surprisingly, the wolves are not very prominent in the story.

Published in 1963, this book fits in well with the recent mock-gothic Children’s genre that includes the “Unfortunate Events” series or the Eddie Dickens Trilogy.

Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable Than Ever Before / Jean M. Twenge / 243pp.

Twenge argues that people who are part of Generation Me (her term) are the first generation to be raised with a strong self-esteem culture taken for granted. This leads to more individualism, confidence, and sometimes narcissism and an inability to take criticism. A stronger sense of entitlement often leads this generation to disappointment and depression when they encounter a world contrary to the “your dreams will come true” philosophy with which they were raised.

This book was an interesting study of my generation filled with statistics, surveys and anecdotes. Not everything was flattering, but I felt it was fairly evenhanded with occasional snarkyness. Outside reviews, however, are mixed. Some found this book too critical of this generation, some found it highly accurate, and some took offense with Twenge’s claim that this generation has it extremely hard. Twenge includes herself in Generation Me and sees generational differences as inherent - not something to change. At the very least, this book provides interesting conversation starters.

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys / Kay S. Hymowitz / 189 pp.

Hymowitz argues that there is a new stage in life, especially for men, called preadulthood that can last for quite a while. Some of the contributing factors she cites are rising average marriage ages, the rising cost of living, and America's shift to a knowledge-based economy that favors women. This book is a quick read, has a more inflammatory title than the content deserves, and is very-polarizing in Amazon reviews. I personally enjoy societal-survey books and found that this one, at the very least, raised some interesting topics.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wither / Lauren DeStefano / 358p.

Society has advanced to the point where senseless diseases (like cancer) no longer exist among the world's remaining population.  The problem: men only live to 25 and women to 20--then "the virus" takes hold. Young girls are being sold into prostitution or as wives to young men in hopes of procreation--just to keep the human race going until a cure is found. Rhine and her twin brother, Rowan, were careful to avoid the Gatherers--to keep Rhine safe.  Until one day she answers a job ad...a trap.  Rhine is sold as a wife to a wealthy young man whose father is determined that he will find a cure for the virus.  Rhine is determined to escape.

DeStefano's writing is beautiful.  I felt like the story pulled you in right away with the description of riding in the van with all the other girls, not knowing your destination or your fate.  Rhine is one of the lucky three chosen to become a wife to a wealthy "house governor" while the unlucky girls are dragged back to the van and shot---one-by-one.  Rhine is such a complex character and you really watch her struggle with her situation--feelings for Gabriel, feelings for/about Linden, fear for her brother. 

Linden, Rhine's husband, is such an intriguing character to me as well. Rhine is tricking him into loving her and making her "first wife," but along the way, you start to wonder if little bits are real.  He's a likeable character despite the situation, especially as his ignorance comes to light.  I found myself rooting for him here and there and almost hoping Rhine would stay with him.  I was so torn between him and Gabriel.


Evergreen - Belva Plain 593 p.

Evergreen is one of those novels that span several decades as seen through the eyes of generations of a family.  Such books always contain themes of continuity and change, personality and situation, and how every person's combination of inner self and social world sets her on a trajectory that overlaps and intersects with the trajectories of others, and produces a vast alone-ness in each individual life.

The other major theme in this book is: what is love, and what is its relationship to personality experience, to loss, to truth, to religion, to money and to family?   The central impact that causes the ripples forming that theme in Evergreen is the two very different loves of Anna, the main character.  Paul is the man with whom she feels an instant bond, and Joseph is the man who adores her.  Both men remain in different ways in her life, and so she is doomed never to be whole.  But in this early-to-mid-20th-century world of Jewish immigrants fighting to make their own place in New York, of wars and the Holocaust in Europe, turmoil and tragedy everywhere, is anyone really whole?  Anna's are not the only hard choices that must be made.

Though it was published in 1978, this novel did not feel the slightest bit dated to me, but warm-blooded and real.

Where She Went / Gayle Forman / 208p.

In this sequel to If I Stay, three years have passed, and Adam and Mia have moved on to lead very separate lives.  Adam's band has risen to stardom and things have really changed for Adam.  The band doesn't get along very well and Adam's heart isn't really in the music anymore. Adam gets stuck in NYC and by chance comes across Mia giving a concert.  The two reconnect, explore Ne York, and start to process some of the events of three years ago together.

I had a little trouble getting into Adam's point of view on this one.  I think I was angry with him (or Mia) at the beginning--which in and of itself shows how compelling the novel is.  Forman's writing is, once again, beautiful and thought-provoking.  I read this one right after reading the first one--both in one sitting. 

(This book will be released on April 5, 2011)

If I Stay / Gayle Forman / 259p.

Mia's family was just going for a snow day drive.  They were going to visit friends, have dinner with grandparents, and simply spend the day together as a family.  All that changed instantly.  A car accident on a slick road took the lives of her family members and now, in a coma, Mia must choose--to stay and live without her family or to go and be with them.

This book was fabulous.  I'm really at a loss for how to describe this one.  The writing and the story are beautiful and thought-provoking.  I couldn't put his book down.  It really makes you stop and think.  Which choice is easier? The characters were very well-developed and dynamic.  The memories/recollections are written so vividly and woven into the storyline in such a way that you really get to know all the characters, even Mia's family.  It's almost hard to remember at times that the accident killed her family because the characters become so real.

This story reminded me a lot of Lovely Bones, which has topped my favorite books list since high school.  I haven't read something so thought-provoking and beautifully written in awhile.  This one was definitely worth buying because I know I'll read it again.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Queen of Shadows / Dianne Sylvan / 389 p.

What really intrigued me about this book enough to check it out was its setting--Austin, my old stomping grounds during college and a few years after. I also felt in the mood for some escapaist reading, but not particularly from the paranormal romance genre.

Honestly, I find most of the paranormal romances a little predictable and have read enough that I crave more original fare. They usually follow this model: girl has psychic or supernatural powers. She attracts notice of dark, dangerous vampire (who really has a heart of gold), they eventually hit it off, and either he turns her into a vampire or she assumes some sort of supernatural role. She may be a tough girl in the beginning (like Buffy) or not, but by the end she becomes a tough girl, able to kill without too many qualms. Perhaps these stories demonstrate that women can be as tough as men, yet filled with a feminine power. The violence bothers me, even though the enemies are literally dehumanized evil creatures.

This particular novel followed the model but proved entertaining enough to keep me reading. Not only was every mention of a familiar Austin street or place turn out to be fun for me, but the writer knows her craft and I was quickly invested in the characters. You know in the back of your mind that the two lead characters will probably be a couple, but how? What sparks will fly when they meet? Will they defeat the bad guys? I'd recommend this book if you're in the mood for an entertaining read from this genre.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria/William Bascom/118 pp.

This book is an anthropological case study of the Yoruba people, one of the most important native groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Bascom spent a year in Nigeria in 1973-1938, and revisited the area again several times during World War II. He returned again in 1955, 1960 and 1965.
The case study was originally published in 1969, and reissued in 1984 (although I don't think there were any revisions made to the text). A lot has happened in Nigeria since then, so much of the information is outdated. The Nigerian-Biafran War occurred, followed by military dictatorships and multiple coups, completely changing the political and ethnic landscape of the country. The book spends an extensive amount of time discussing ethnic Yoruba religion, but according to, Nigeria is now almost entirely split between Muslims and Christians, with only a very small minority practicing traditional religion. Nevertheless, this volume is a good description of what the region looked like at one point in its history.
Some interesting points:
* While Nigeria does have a formal legal system, largely left over from the British colonial period, much of the regular everyday judging is very informal. Sometimes, if two people have a complaint against each other, it can be settled right in the street by the local chief and elders, with bystanders being able to question witnesses and offer their opinions.
* Traditionally, if a couple was found guilty of incest, a he-goat was sacrificed and each of the guilty parties was given a foreleg of the goat with which to beat each other. While hitting each other with the foreleg, the woman was required to ask, "Why did you make love to me?" while the man asked, "When I made love to you, why did you not refuse?"
* When twins are born, the first-born is considered the younger twin, because he came out into the world ahead of his elder sibling to inspect it and prepare the way.
* The Yoruba have a very intricate system of kinship terminology, how they address or refer to those related to them. It includes consideration for the age of the person you're addressing, whether they're a blood relative or a relative by marriage, if by marriage, whether they entered the clan before or after you, and several other considerations. To address a member of the family with the wrong terms is considered a sign of contempt; in fact, it is considered more respectful to address one's elders by their name, rather than words such as "uncle" or "grandfather".
As I said earlier, much of the information in this volume is probably severely outdated, but it is interesting for the glimpse it gives us of how the society operated for much of its history. It is definitely written by an anthropologist for others in the anthropology field, and not something the average "civilian" would enjoy. For a good example of an anthropological case study that would be enjoyable reading for non-professionals, I recommend Okubo Diary: Portrait of a Japanese Valley by Brian Moeran.

Waveland Press page about the book

Rest Area/Clay McLeod Chapman/178 pp.

It's difficult for me to describe the feeling I get from this collection of short stories by Chapman; "disturbing" would be a good start. In some ways, they have a sort of Edgar Allen Poe quality to them. All the stories are written as sort of stream-of-conscious monologues by their narrators; looking back, I see very little dialogue in them. In fact, the author's biography says that he performs some of his stories onstage.
In the title story, a father strikes up conversations with travelers stopping at a highway rest area, telling them that he's waiting for his daughter, who just stepped into the ladies' room - months earlier. In "Fox Trot", an elderly woman is caught in a life-or-death struggle with a fox that has found its way into her house. "Rodeo Inferno" explains where rodeo clowns really come from, and what happens to them after the rodeo leaves town. In "Second Helping" a troop of boy scouts, lost in the woods, finds a new use for their worthless scoutmaster when food supplies run low. The thing-under-the-bed has some advice for the young boy above him in "Bladder Companion". "Chatterbox" relates the feelings of a ventriloquist's puppet when he discovers his owner has gotten married.
Amid all the gruesome tales, there are several really good, basic stories: In "Spoonfed", a younger brother takes care of his severely handicapped sister; in "The Pool Witch", three adolescent boys decide to finally face the lifeguard at the top of the water slide; and in "And the mothers stepped over their sons", a woman searches a battlefield for her son's body.

A Feast for Crows/ George R.R. Martin/ 684 p.

(Note: this is the 4th book in A Song of Ice and Fire, so if you don’t want the plot spoiled, I highly recommend you not read any more of this post, but instead go out and read A Game of Thrones.)

Martin’s sprawling epic has grown so long that he couldn’t even fit all the events and characters that were supposed to take place in this book into a volume that was capable of being published, so he took the controversial move to split the story in two, and only follow half of the characters. This book covers the main continent of Westeros, minus the North. The next book, which will come out this July, A Dance with Dragons, was delayed five years, and will follow our friends across the sea and at the Wall. This means that those who read A Storm of Swords when it was originally published have been waiting ten years for those characters to return!

Feast for Crows is the weakest in the series so far, due in part to the absence of our most interesting characters—Jon Snow, Tyrion, and Daenerys. Instead, we keep following Arya and Sansa, Jaime, and Samwell, but most of the chapters are told from new perspectives, some of characters we’ve met before, some new. The biggest shift is the focus on the houses of Greyjoy and Martell. The men of the Iron islands are choosing a new king after Balon Greyjoy’s death, and his daughter and two of his brothers are claiming the kingship. In the south, Doran Martell is hedging his bets carefully, but the Sand Snakes and his daughter Arianne are plotting a more aggressive course.

Unlike the other books, which start each chapter with the name of the character whose perspective we are following, here for some reason we get titles for some characters, like “The Soiled Knight,” but names for others. Even more confusing, the titles are not consistent for characters, so Victarion Greyjoy is “The Iron Commander” in one chapter, and “The Reaver” in the next. We also follow characters whose perspective only appears once, another new development. Traditionally Martin reserves the prologue for a one-shot character perspective (so, far, because that character dies each time).

Still, Feast for Crows is not a waste of time. It’s prone to some of the faults of middle books in a detailed and epic series, but we can see the threads and prophecies and tension continuing to build, which should make the payoff later worth it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Laughter of Dead Kings/ Elizabeth Peters/ 336 p.

Vicky Bliss, art historian and museum curator turned amateur detective, is back in the 6th and final adventure of this series. When her romantic interest, reformed art-thief and supposedly-respectable dealer John Tregarth is accused of stealing Tutankhamen's mummy, the crew gets pulled into finding the real perpetrators. But has John really reformed?  Or will he leave Vicky in the lurch once again?

 I like all of Elizabeth Peters' books (and love the Amelia Peabody books, which start with Crocodile on the Sandbank) and while not my favorite, I've enjoyed Vicky's adventures, which I've read out of order and over a course of several years. Which is to say, this is not a series that has to be read in order, but this is not the volume to start with.  It's not as funny or clever as some of the others, and the mystery leaves a lot to be desired.  What Peters is good at is creating funny and slightly snarky heroes who make gentle fun of the mystery/adventure/romance melodrama that they are in, while still totally clinging to those genres.  At its best, this makes Peters' books fun and lighthearted reads, but when they fall flat it just gets tiresome. A decent book, nothing special.  But this is an author whose other works are well worth investigating.     

The Sherwood Ring/ Elizabeth Marie Pope / 256 p.

                  Peggy Grahame is orphaned at seventeen, and heads with ambivalence and perhaps a little apprehension to the family New England mansion to live with her withdrawn Uncle Enos, who is obsessed with keeping Rest-and-be-thankful as close to its condition during the Revolutionary War as possible. But before she even arrives at the house, she gets lost in the woods and is given directions by a girl in a red cloak on horseback, who disappears before she can thank her. Peggy quickly discovers that the girl is the ghost of Barbara Grahame, the daughter of the house during the war. As Peggy becomes friends with Pat, a visiting scholar from England who is researching the history of guerrilla warfare in the area during the revolution, she is visited by more ghosts and begins to discover that their story holds the secret to the current mysteries of the house. And all the mysteries seem to center around the figure of Peaceable Drummond Sherwood, a mysterious and brilliant English officer who led a band of renegades on raids that plague the Continental army. 
                   This story is a humorous and touching love story, with just the right amount of star-crossed escapades and a dash of mystery. Peggy’s story takes a back seat to the story of the ghosts, as they take turns telling their story.  These ghosts are not grim at all, but as enjoyably kind, clever, and sardonic as the best character in a regency romance who ever quirked an eyebrow. The reader is carried away by the exasperation of Barbara’s brother Dick, as he tried to capture Peaceable, and deal with the troublesome Eleanor Shipley who has captured his heart but taunts him mercilessly, and Eleanor, who has been trying for years to get him to notice her.  But the story we care about most is the unfolding sparring and love between Barbara and Peaceable himself. . .
It’s a short, quick book (with illustrations!) that make it seem like an elementary-level title, but the story and age of the characters make it fit better in a young adult collection (though there is no mature content). I first read it in my mid-teens and adored it, and this re-reading was still very satisfying, as it has one of my favorite romantic scenes of all time. I wouldn’t call it a mystery, the way it is billed, but rather as a cozy romance with a little light adventure on the side.         

Monday, March 21, 2011

Angel Burn / L.A. Weatherly / 464 p.

Willow has a special talent--she can sense peoples' feelings, know their regrets, and tell them their future.  Growing up she thought everyone had her ability--until she started using it and realized she was special.  Enter Alex.  When Alex arrives in Pawtucket, NY, his mission is simple: kill the angel.  However, what he finds is nothing he has encountered before and he has to make a choice: to kill or not to kill.  When Alex follows Willow to the meeting of the Church of Angels, he is puzzled by her even more and in a rather unlikely turn of events, the assassin becomes the rescuer when the mob of churchgoers turn against Willow.  The unlikely duo race across the country, away from the their common enemy and into an unknown future.  Along the way, they discover the true meaning of trust and what it is to really love someone, despite the odds against you.

Angel Burn was a refreshing addition to my reading shelf.  I am often a tad apprehensive about reading these types of books because at this point I've read so many and some are definitely disappointing.  This one, however, delivered!  The storyline started out a bit slow and I wasn't at all sure I was going to enjoy the book.  The prologue and first chapter left me wanting a little something more.  However, as soon as Willow and Alex team up, the story turns into a non-stop adventure that I couldn't put down.  I found myself turning page after page just to see what would happen next. Willow and Alex were unique characters with strong personalities.  Willow especially was a breath of fresh air in a genre where so many female leads are written as weak or flaky.  Willow was strong and independent (no Bella syndrome here--this girl can fix cars and everything!).  The romantic interest between the two develops throughout the story, which I really appreciated.  It wasn't an instant happening that came out of nowhere and I really appreciated that.

The one thing that bothered me with this one was the use of first-person narrative from Willow's perspective but third person for anyone else.  The switching back and forth caught me off-guard a couple of times but did not deter from my overall enjoyment of this book.

(Disclaimer: I received this book from Candlewick Press via NetGalley for my honest review.  It will be released in the US on 24 May 2011.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Shelf Life/various authors/173 pp.

Subtitled "Ten Original Stories to Benefit ProLiteracy Worldwide", this book is a compilation of stories by various authors, edited by Gary Paulsen. I didn't realize it when I bought the book, but apparently it was geared towards younger readers. The collection includes a story by Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked and Son of a Witch), titled "Tea Party Ends in Bloody Massacre, Film at 11". In "In Your Hat", by Ellen Conford, a high school prankster becomes the butt of someone else's joke. Other contributors to the volume are Margaret Peterson Haddix, Jennifer L. Holm, A. LaFaye, Kathleen Karr, Ellen Wittlinger, Marion Dane Bauer, M.T. Anderson, and Joan Bauer.

Frog Gig and Other Stories/Speer Morgan/109 pp.

Another MULSA book sale remainder!
The author, Speer Morgan, is an MU English professor and editor of The Missouri Review. This volume is a collection of some of his early short fiction. Morgan attended school at the University of the South, and received his BA from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and the stories in this collection are set in the small towns of the American South. In the title story, a college student visits a childhood friend, and the two go on a late-night frog hunt. The narrator of "The Oklahoma and Western" is a country/folk singer who has hit the big time in Los Angeles. "The Bad Cat", set in Columbia, MO, relates the problems a retired professor of agriculture is having with a stray cat, and with the coming of old age. In "Momma and the Moonman", Momma causes problems with NASA's moon launch when she "magics" an astronaut off of her television and into her living room. Morgan grew up in Ft. Smith Arkansas, across the river from Oklahoma and the old Indian Territory. The story "Jack Woman Killer" deals with a young Native American man's difficulty in balancing the customs of his ancestors with the White Man's world of the 20th century. Finally, "The Bullet" appears to be a semi-autobiographical piece about Morgan's life growing up in Ft. Smith, where his family owned a hardware store.

The Time Machine/H.G. Wells/115 pp.

One of those books that I've always meant to read, but never got around to. The quintessential time-travel story. Wells' narrator explains, in pretty clear language (considering the book was written in 1895) how time is just a fourth dimension; just as we move from left to right, backward and forward, up and down, we can move forward or reverse in time. But just as gravity limits our movement up and down, there are forces that make movement through time difficult. And the Time Traveler (our narrator's host) has discovered a way to push through those forces and, using his time machine, travel into the future. Moving over 800,000 years into the future, the Traveler encounters a carefree group of humanoid creatures called the Eloi, and their opposite number, the Morlocks. He determines that the Eloi are descended from the privileged classes, while the Morlocks are the descendants of the workers who were moved further and further underground to maintain the machines that provided for the Eloi.
A self-described socialist, Wells uses The Time Machine to comment on the disparity, already noticeable in Victorian England, between the quality of life of the leisure and working classes. He sees that conditions could gradually deteriorate to the point that workers are closed up below ground, working to ensure the comfortable lives of the rich. In the novel, he envisions the final outcome of that process - a childlike, ignorant leisure class unable to fend for themselves, and a feral, animal-like working class, driven by hunger to eating human flesh. (In fact, the Traveler believes that the Morlocks are raising the Eloi for food, as a rancher raises cattle.)
Along with Jules Verne, Wells is considered one of the fathers of the science fiction genre; he coined the term "time machine" himself, and this novel is considered to be one of the best early works in the genre.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains / Nicholas Carr / 224pp.

Our brains have a light level of plasticity and are constantly pruning or strengthening neural connections in response to stimuli. For Carr, a new technology’s medium is more important than its content in influencing brains. With the rise of the Internet age, Carr argues, our brains have been trained to be easily distracted. From banner ads to hyperlinks, the constant access to information has changed the ways our brains are wired. Our brains are now trained for short bursts of concentration, not prolonged deep thought. While we have access to more information, Carr believes our personal intelligence has become shallower and more flattened.

While Carr focuses his attention on the Internet age, he detours to trace the rise of such technologies as the map, book, and clock, documenting the changes in thought brought by these technologies. Carr cites many surprising scientific articles (hyperlinks hamper learning, looking at countryside pictures improves concentration, etc.) and, I think, strikes a balanced tone. While not a panicking Luddite, Carr gives a sober warning that should give one pause.

The Long Walk: A Gamble for Life / By Slavormir Rawicz as told to Ronald Downing / 240 pp.

This ghost-written story follows Ronald Downing, a Polish man arrested, tortured, and sentenced to 25 years in a Serbian work camp. He leads an escape from the Gulag, and he and his companions walk over 4,000 miles to India. From walking across the Gobi dessert to crossing the Himalayas, from sudden deaths to unexpected hospitality, this book is full of human-moments in the midst of tragedy and despair. It is heart-wrenching and depressingly-hopeful.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wondrous Strange / Lesley Livingston / 327 p.

Kelley is your average seventeen year old. Well, with the exception that she graduated high school early, dropped out of her theater program, and moved to NYC to try to make it as an the age of seventeen.  Oh, did I mention that she's not quite human? No? Well, I suppose I should have.

In Wondrous Strange, Kelley has just been promoted from backstage-lackey/understudy to the lead role of Queen Titania when the lead breaks her ankle.  In a moment, Kelley's world changes...little does she know it's about to get stranger.  Practicing her lines in Central Park one evening, she is approached by a handsome stranger, who gives her a beautiful flower and then vanishes before she can even say thank you. Meet Sonny Flannery, a changeling who is part of the Unseelie Court's Janus Guard, a group of thirteen slated to protect the mortal realm from faeries attempting to escape into their world.  Sonny knows that something is different about Kelley...something he can't quite figure out.  When Kelley attempts to rescue a drowning horse in Central Park and then is stunned to find it in her bathtub at home...well...I bet you can imagine that things only get crazier from there.

I really enjoyed Livingston's writing.  She introduced a compelling story and beautifully wove in elements of Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights Dream.  It was really beautiful.  This was such a compelling book--the kind the pulls you in and then knocks you out of your reverie only when you've finished.  Reading the last page was like being pulled out of another world.  Kelley is a strong female lead.  I enjoyed her a bit more than many of the other slightly clueless females who have dominated YA fantasy lately.  While she may have accepted the truth of her heritage a bit more easily than one would expect, I felt like she was willing to take the reigns of her own destiny and work with it.  The romantic story between Kelley and Sonny is beautiful, but I can't wait to read the other books in the story to watch it develop (hoefully!)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Not Just a One Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless / John Flowers and Karen Vannoy / 128 p.

In this nonfiction work, the reader is basically presented with a conundrum: what is the best way to conduct a successful ministry with the homeless?  John and Karen take the reader through the transformation of a church as it strives to conduct such a ministry.  The intricacies of such a task are not what those involved first imagined--not as easy as they thought it would be.  The seeming simplicity of offering a group of people some food here and clothing there expands into a true ministry that goes further than providing one-time needs.  John and Karen take the reader on a harrowing journey of transformation, where it is necessary for all-involved to change.  It can't just be about fixing or transforming the less fortunate.  Transformation must occur for the "giver" as well.  A true ministry, as presented by John and Karen, cannot be a ministry TO or FOR the homeless but must be a ministry WITH the homeless if any real progress/success is to be achieved.

I found this book to be a real heart-clenching piece.  I think that so often those of us to live in relative comfort and prosperity have no real grasp of the difficulties of living on the streets and how hard it is to get back on your feet.  A few dollars here or a one-night volunteering session at a soup kitchen can help us shake our "middle-class guilt" for awhile, but are we simply conducting "drive by charity?"  The kind of ministry pursued by John and Karen's churches isn't one that every church is going to be able to pursue.  For example, my church, situated in a rural town of 220 people, isn't going to address issues of poverty and/or homelessness in the same manner that a church located in an urban area can/will.  However, I think that the point comes across just the same.  For a truly successful, ministry with the less fortunate in our community, we need to see those we are helping as on an equal plane with use--we are all addicted to SOMETHING (money, busy-ness, clothes, leadership, etc.) and we all have some kind of transformation to undertake to achieve a spiritual high-ground.  The message is clear: leave your judgment at the door.  Get to know those you're seeking to aid. Leave behind prejudices and stereotypes. And most importantly, listen.

The Giver / Lois Lowry / 180p.

It's been such a long time since I read this (as in, I don't actually remember WHEN I read it...I just know that I some point...I think), and I felt compelled, with my current interest in dystopian novels, to read (or re-read, I suppose) this one (partially because so many comparisons have been drawn to another novel I've read this year).

In this dystopian novel, Lowry presents us with a world that seems so much like our own...on the surface.  As we are introduced to the cast of characters and their world, the reader is drawn in to the intricacies that don't appear on the surface and the realization of just how different the world is (or has become).  What does "release" actually mean? What place, if any, does love have in such a society, where spouses and children are chosen for you? What is the real danger in memories?  Is there something better?  In Lowry's fictive world, Sameness rules.

I know that most people have read this so I won't dive into too much.  Suffice it to say that I would consider this really the ultimate in dystopian writings, especially for young adults.  If you enjoy reading dystopian fiction and you haven't read this, the only thing I can say is this: why not?  Lowry's writing is phenomenal and her world really does become real to the author.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Limit / Kristen Landon / 291p.

In The Limit, Kristen Landon creates a slightly dystopian world where the amount of debt that a family can incur is closely monitored.  When a family goes over that limit, there are consequences.  Generally, a family is allowed to choose what happens next, whether they'll go on strict spending observation or choose more drastic measures.  For Matt's family, the choice is taken away--Matt is almost instantly carted off to one of the state workhouses to help work off his family's debt.  Once there, Matt is tested and assigned to the Top Floor, where the brightest kids are taken to work.  When strange things start to happen, Matt and his small cadre of friends investigate (using their superior intelligence and planning, of course).  The story offers a good amount of action with some moral lessons on the side.

I enjoyed this book.  It's not an overly complex storyline, but it was definitely a fun, quick read.It's a great read for its intended audience (my recommendation: grade 5-8).  There is a good amount of action that goes on throughout (from Matt's original taking to the mischief he gets into in the workhouse).  The story really plays into the geeky nature of some of the main characters (a lot revolves around computers and math--need I say more?). I think this is a good recommendation for young male readers especially. (Not to say girls won't enjoy! It just seems like people are always looking for good books for boys)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tender Rebel / Johanna Lindsey / 372 p.

A pretty cute romance, about a Scottish heiress who flees to London to escape marrying her despicable cousin, and falls under the spell of a confirmed rake. I liked how Lindsey keeps you guessing at what obstacles will keep these two apart; for example, you might think that when the heroine mistakes the hero's nephew for his son, this would cause a rift for a large portion of the plot, but instead the misunderstanding gets cleared up almost right away.

Roslynn has a lot of spunk, though for such a strong-willed woman I had to roll my eyes at how quickly she abandoned herself to the hero's embraces, but she still earned bonus points in my mind for jumping out the window when she is kidnapped.

This book reminds me of the classic romances of Georgette Heyer, only with less historical accuracy and more sex.(Seriously, could she not do a little research on prices back then? If Mr. Darcy is considered extremely wealthy with £10,000 a year,then I doubt Roslynn could buy several thousand pounds of furniture and consider it pocket change, much less give her husband an "allowance" of £2,000 a month.) I admit to skipping the graphic sex scenes, of which there are maybe a handful, with a fair amount of innuendo in between. But for all its silliness, I liked the close-knit family of the Mallorys, and enjoyed chuckling over the pointless drama the heroine and hero caused for themselves.

Haven / Kristi Cook / 401p

When Violet McKenna's step-mom decides to take a  job in NYC, it's up to Violet to either stay with her aging grandmother in Atlanta or move to New York...and pick a boarding school there.  When Violet sees the brochure for Winterhaven, she's inexplicably drawn to the school and chooses it instantly.  At Winterhaven, the reader is introduced to a cast of characters with special gifts, including Aidan--the ultra-hot boy that everyone loves but no one can seem to "get."  Well, apparently, he was just waiting for the right girl--Violet.  The novel follow's Violet, Aidan, and her friends through a seemingly ordinary high school boarding school existence..until it suddenly becomes not quite so normal.

Cook is a new YA author for 2011 and I'd say that she's debuted on quite a good note. This story really had it all--a solid plot, a cast of likable characters, a swoon-worthy love-interest, and a little life-death action on the side. While I'll be the first to admit that Cook's story wasn't overly original, I thought she did a good job making it her own and adding enough twists to make it interesting.  It was definitely a well-written storyline that pulled me in.  It was a read that I simply couldn't put down once I started. (Ask my husband. I think he was a tad annoyed.)  A lot of comparisons have been made to other recent YA novels (ones that I myself drew as I started the book) but it really does stand on its own.

A Storm of Swords / George R.R. Martin / 960 p.

(Note: this is the 3rd book in the series, so if you don’t want the plot spoiled, I highly recommend you not read any more of this post, but instead go out and read A Game of Thrones.)

 At the end of A Clash of Kings, the number of claimants for the throne of Westeros has been whittled down, with Renly’s death and Stannis’ defeat at the Blackwater. Things look bright for the Lannisters; the Highgarden alliance will be cemented with the marriage of Joffrey to Margaery Tyrell, and the chance of a strong alliance with the Martells becomes a possibility. In the Riverlands, the “Young Wolf” Robb Stark has won every battle but damages his cause when he chooses love over honor. 
But don’t forget that this series is called A Song of Ice and Fire, and some of the most interesting events happen in the far north and south of the world.  Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder’s forces are advancing, and Jon Snow is torn between his duties as a spy for the Night’s Watch and his attraction to the Wildling Ygritte. But in the dark worse things are gaining power, as Samwell Tarly finds out to his terror.  In the Eastern cities, Daenerys Targaryen begins to solidify her position of power, using her dragons and wits to launch a campaign of conquest.

As always, Martin keeps the reader hooked with blindsiding plot twists and shifts in character POVs that keep your sympathies changing. The most interesting new addition are the chapters narrated by Jaime Lannister, a character we’ve seem everyone else’s opinions of but whose true nature remained elusive. In all, Storm of Swords provides what we’ve come to expect from Martin, a mix of haunting history and thrilling political backstabbing, where no one is safe, for “when you play the Game of Thrones you win or you die.  There is no middle ground.”          

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Birthmarked / Caragh O'Brien / 361 p.

Read this. Now.  (Unless, of course, you don't enjoy dystopian novels or you have a grudge against YA lit.)  I think I say that about many books these days, but I've been reading a lot of good ones!

In the post-apocalyptic world created by O'Briend, the Enclave holds the power.  It's a very Hunger Games-type of world, if that reference means anything to you.  Outside the walls of the Enclave, the people struggle to survive, giving up the first three babies each month to the Enclave.  This is a novel that you will start and not put down until you have read the last page.  The main character, Gaia, is a sympathetic character from the beginning.  The scar on her face sets her apart, even in the world outside of the Enclave.  She's a strong-willed character with quite the determination when it comes to her family.  When her parents are arrested by the Enclave, Gaia, scorning the advice of those around her, insists upon find a way into the Enclave to rescue her parents.  Her determination, quick-thinking, and (ultimately) love drive her to impossible lengths to save those she loves.  The cast of characters that she meets along the way will surprise the reader.  I don't want to spoil any plot points here, so I'll suffice it to say that O'Brien's debut novel is well-written, suspenseful, and moving.  The world and characters that she has created will leave your mind reeling.  Don't despair: the second book in a three book deal is slated to appear later this fall.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Perfect Solution to Absolutely Everything/Arthur Hoppe/303 pp.

Another MULSA book sale remainder!
This volume consists of essays by Hoppe, previously published in the San Francisco Chronicle, on a variety of topics, including politics, the Vietnam War, birth control, Mother's Day, the arms race, and rutabagas. (Yes, rutabagas.) All of the essays were written in the mid-1960s, so a large portion of them deal with Vietnam and the Johnson administration.
Hoppe starts off, tongue firmly in cheek, by stating that the solution to overpopulation is... total birth control. As in absolutely no babies being born, period. He goes on to say that Mother's Day should be a national day of mourning, since mothers are to blame for every single bad thing that has ever happened. ("...extensive historical research shows that every evildoer, from Atilla the Hun to Adolf Hitler, had, somewhere in his background, a mother... If we wipe out Motherhood, we will unquestionably wipe out not only overpopulation, but war, soil erosion, dental caries, air pollution and people who cough on buses.") He warns against trusting anyone over thirty, as well as anyone under thirty, and advocates drinking courses for teenagers, as well as the legalization of bananas and other psychotropic drugs.
This book is a hilarious demonstration of how ridiculous so many things are, from politics to bigotry to xenophobia, and how we, as a people, take ourselves waaaay to seriously. If you're not familiar with the 1960s, some of the topics may be a bit confusing, but otherwise the book is very enjoyable.

Ol' Prophet Nat/Daniel Panger/159 pp.

This book is a fictional retelling of the events surrounding an actual historical uprising of slaves in Southampton County, VA in 1831. The story is told in the form of a journal kept by Nat Turner, leader of the slave rebellion. As a young man, Turner felt called by God to do some great deed for his enslaved people. He experiences a number of "signs" (one of which we now know to have been an eclipse) which confirm for him that he has been chosen by God to lead the slaves in a revolt against the plantation owners. The book goes on to describe the actual events of the rebellion, interspersed with commentary written by Turner afterward as he waited in hiding for the white posse to come arrest him.
A very good fictional account of the story behind the actual historical events. Panger does a good job not only showing how such an uprising could have occurred, but also showing the reasons (fear, complacency, misplaced respect for their masters) that prevented many of the slaves from rising up along with Turner.

The Red Badge of Courage/Stephen Crane/162 pp.

Crane's classic Civil War novel tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young farm boy who enlists in the Union army through a combination of patriotism and the romantic wish to be a "Hero". Henry has grown up reading tales of classical heroes, and laments the fact that there are no more opportunities for a man to prove himself on the field of combat. When the Civil War begins, he jumps at the opportunity to enlist and perform great deeds. As his first battle approaches, however, he is worried that he'll lose courage at the last minute and run away from the battlefield. During this first conflict, he does in fact get scared and run, but in a later skirmish, he shows so much bravery that he is singled out for praise by his commander.
Crane makes a strong statement about the danger of romanticizing war and the killing of others. The green, naive soldiers go into their first battle bragging of all the great deeds they plan to do, but when faced with the harsh reality of the battlefield, the vast majority either hide or abandon the place altogether. The book acts as a solemn reminder that, no matter the lofty patriotic speeches given by politicians in Washington, war has a very real, very final effect on the individuals fighting in the trenches.

Equus/Peter Shaffer/109 pp.

Shaffer writes in his introduction that he was inspired to write this play after hearing from a friend about an incident where a young man had blinded some horses in a small English town. Shaffer's friend died before revealing any further details of the incident, and Shaffer wrote Equus partly as a way of explaining what may have caused the young man's actions. In the play, teenager Alan Strang is committed to a mental institution after blinding six horses with a metal spike. Psychiatrist Martin Dysart tries to discover what would have caused Alan to do such a thing. It is revealed that Alan views horses as a sort-of god/slave figure, to be worshiped and, at the same time, to be tamed. Alan's highly religious mother and equally-highly anti-religious father help round out the main characters of the play, along with the actors who play the horses.
Ah yes... the horses. The style of Shaffer's play is very minimalist, with plain wooden benches doing duty as psychiatrist's couch, cinema seating, and horse stables. The "horses" in the play are actors in plain brown clothes, wearing no costume except hooves with metal horseshoes on their feet, and stylized horse-head masks of metal and leather. When Alan "rides" one of the horses, he simply climbs on the actor's shoulders. The simplicity and starkness of the costumes and set, and the absence of any scenery, help focus the reader's (and, I assume, the audience's) attention on the powerful words being spoken by the characters.
Reading this play was a very draining experience for me. The underlying religious and semi-sexual reasons for Alan's actions emerge, bit by bit, through Martin's skillful (and sometimes devious) methods. As Alan described the events leading up to the blinding of the horses, I could picture these events clearly in my mind. Reading this work definitely made me want to see a live production of the play.