Friday, October 24, 2014

Teen/YA Review: The Other Side of Dark

When I started The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith as one of my creepy October reads, I expected a spooky ghost story, but this unique novel is so much more, with a strong historical backdrop.

Her classmates think she’s gone crazy since her mother’s death, but the truth is that Katie sees – and talks to – ghosts.  She’s sees them everywhere and feels compelled to draw their deaths, which are often violent and gruesome. There are positives, though, like getting to talk to her father, who died when Katie was a young girl. One ghost in particular grabs Katie’s attention: George, a mentally challenged boy who hangs out in the park near the ruins of the old Perkins mansion, Pinebank. Katie’s mom worked with Down Syndrome kids, so seeing and talking to George brings back memories of her mom.

Katie’s classmate, Law, has had a crush on her since 7th grade, though his father would never let him date a white girl from the poor side of town. Law’s mom is white, and his dad is black, and his dad is world-renowned as a black historian who is very outspoken on the topic of reparations for slavery. He expects Law to follow in his footsteps, but Law is far more interested in architecture, his mother’s field, and landscape architecture, especially historical architecture and restoration.

When Katie and Law begin getting to know each other, Law convinces Katie to share her secret with him…and he believes her. Together, they begin to uncover the mysteries behind Pinebank, which Law’s mother is working to save and Law’s dad wants torn down since its original owner made his money in the slave trade. Ghost George tells Katie he can’t leave because he is guarding a treasure, and that only adds to the intrigue. As Katie and Law dig deeper, they discover some startling secrets about the Perkins’ family and Pinebank, but the more they learn, the more dangerous their quest becomes.

The supernatural side of this novel is creepy, as a good ghost story should be, but I was even more fascinated by the historical side. I was surprised to find out in the acknowledgements at the end of the novel that Thomas Handasyd Perkins (the original owner) and Pinebank were all real, and the book is a combination of fiction and real-life facts. That made it all the more interesting.

I enjoyed Katie and Law’s story…and their discovery of the truth behind the Perkins’ story, too. This novel pulls together such disparate threads – real-life history and supernatural ghosts – but it’s done in a way that feels very real and is completely engrossing. I was captivated from the first page to the last.

309 pages, Atheneum


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fiction Review: The Shining Girls

In choosing my first book to read in October, when I like to read spooky, creepy books, I immediately thought of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, a 2013 thriller that I’d downloaded onto my Kindle last year and never found time for. Although I don’t read many thrillers anyway – especially ones like this about a serial killer – The Shining Girls had an element I couldn’t resist: the serial killer was a time-traveler. It stood up to its well-earned reputation and kept me captivated from the very first page.

Harper Curtis is a typical psychopathic serial killer who targets young women of a certain age, but he has some very atypical characteristics. For starters, the women he targets are those he describes as “shining girls,” who have some indescribable special quality that he alone can see, women who are destined to break ground in male-dominated fields or somehow have the potential to change the world. Curtis can pick these shining girls out when they are still just young children, and he bides his time until they reach the right age.

He doesn’t have to wait for long, though, because his other special ability is to travel through time, with the help of a run-down house in Chicago that he enters during the Depression and quickly discovers that it opens onto other times. Curtis spots these young girls, relies on the house to send him to the right time when they are of the right age, and murders them grotesquely. He thinks it’s the perfect crime because he immediately returns to the house and back to his own time so that any clues the police may be following lead to nothing.

Curtis doesn’t count on Kirby, one of the shining girls he first visits in the 1970’s and returns to in modern times to murder. Unbeknownst to Curtis, who had immediately fled back to the past, Kirby didn’t die, and now she is determined to find her would-be killer. She joins the Chicago Sun-Times and manages to team up with Dan Velasquez, the ex-homicide reporter who originally covered her attack.

I love any story that involves time-travel, with its twisty-turny plot and thought-provoking elements, and this one is no different. A time-traveling serial killer! That’s just brilliant, and Beukes carries it out perfectly. The only downside is that this book is really gruesome at times (one of the main reasons I don’t read many thrillers any more) because Curtis is seriously deranged and delights in torturing and killing his victims in horrifying ways, but the time travel element – and the character of Kirby – kept me captivated. The Shining Girls is a wholly unique, gripping story, fast-paced and filled with suspense that kept me reading late into the night.

400 pages, Mulholland Books


Monday, October 20, 2014

It's Monday 10/20! What Are You Reading?

Last week was a good one. I finally recovered from my recent infections and was feeling good again, and the weather was perfect for fall! It was such a joy to be outdoors and moving again.

It was a good reading week, too, with lots of October spookiness, as my month of Murder, Monsters & Mayhem continues!:
  • I finished Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley on my Kindle. It was different than I expected, fascinating and thoughtful, more about human nature than monsters. I really enjoyed it.
  • Now I'm reading Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which has been on my shelf for over a year, recommended by both my husband and my mother. It's excellent - really compelling - and I'm enjoying it much more than Gone Girl (by the same author) which had an interesting plot but really unlikable characters.
  • I also started Ghostopolis, a middle-grade graphic novel by Doug TenNapel. I've been meaning to read it for years, and it caught my eye at the used bookstore last week, so I grabbed it. Good Halloween-y reading!
  • I finished listening to Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, a new release middle-grade audio perfect for the season, where a young boy suspects his new step-mother of being a witch, as his nightmares turn real. It far exceeded my expectations.
  • I started - and finished - another audio book, Falling In Place by Amy Zhang, a teen/YA novel about a young girl who tries to commit suicide and ends up in the hospital barely clinging to life after her car accident. There are a lot of flashbacks to the events and years leading up to her suicide attempt, and a mysterious narrator adds an element of supernatural-seeming mystery. It covered some serious topics but was also a good story and kept me listening.
  • My husband, Ken, finished reading The Demon Plagues by David VanDyke, book 2 (though really, book 4) in the Plague Wars series. He'se enjoying this post-apocalyptic thriller series, though he said this week's Ebola news made it all seem a little too real!
  • Now, Ken is reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, about a time-traveling serial killer that I read earlier this month. I think he'll like it.
  • Jamie, 20, is still reading The Drowning City by Amanda Downum, Necromancer Chronicles Book 1.
 I wrote a few blog posts last week, though I need to catch up on reviews:

Review of Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, a teen/YA novel with a supernatural twist

Summary of Books Read in September

Saturday Snapshot, featuring Delaware's fall colors from last week
 And, I just realized on Sunday that the Wonderfully Wicked Read-A-Thon hosted by My Shelf Confessions that I signed up for actually began on Friday (it runs from October 17 - 27)! Oops - so I got off to a slow start, but the guidelines say you can participate for any portion of the there is still plenty of time to sign up!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 10/18

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

I was finally feeling better this week after a nasty bout of bronchitis and pneumonia and able to get outside again. I thoroughly enjoyed a couple of walks in the autumn sunshine and among the gorgeous fall colors! I was feeling like I was missing my favorite season until this week. Here are a few highlights of fall color in Delaware:

Fall color in our neighborhood this week
The view from our back deck
Our own house - still lots of green but with spots of color

The wind brought a lot of leaves down this week!

Sunlight filtering through the bright yellow leaves

Colorful trees at a local park

A bright splash of red among the green

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Books Read in September

Hmmm...October 17...not quite as late as my August summary was - I think I'm catching up...maybe.

I read a lot of books in September, after devoting my summer mostly to Big Books. Banned Books Week was also in September, which influenced my reading choices. Here's what I read last month:
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, fantasy/historical fiction (Malaysia)
  • The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, teen/YA audio (Wisconsin)
  • The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, middle-grade fiction (Texas) 

  • The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor, teen/YA audio 
  • Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, teen/YA audio (Vermont) 

So, that's eight books in total - a lot for one month for me! Four of those were teen/YA novels, two were middle-grade novels, and just two were adult novels - all fiction. I listened to three audio books last month - I am really tearing through audios quickly now that I listen on my iPod and finally have a new stereo in my '92 VW with an iPod dock (how modern!). It's always hard to choose a favorite. How about a favorite for each age category? That would be The Thing About Luck for middle-grade, Belzhar for teen/YA, and The Catcher in the Rye for adult fiction. As you can see from the missing links, I am still behind on my reviews (but catching up) - I covered both Alice books in one review.

I added three new states to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month and one new country. I read just 2 more books from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge in September which brings me to only 8 for the whole year - no wonder they just keep piling up! I listened to three more audio books for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge - I am rocking that one. No nonfiction last month, but I added one book for The Classics Reading Challenge. And for my new Travel the World in Books Challenge, just started in September, I read two books so far.

What was your favorite book(s) read in September? 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Belzhar

For years, I have heard rave reviews of each of Meg Wolitzer’s novels. This summer, I finally had a chance to read one, The Interestings, and I really enjoyed its spot-on portrayal of real lives in intimate detail. I was excited when her first YA novel had been published, and I recently listened to Belzhar on audio. Her talents definitely translate to YA fiction, with a touch of the supernatural thrown into the real-life character mix.

Jam (short for Jamaica) is not happy to be at The Wooden Barn, a unique boarding school in rural Vermont for “emotionally fragile and highly intelligent” teens, but she understands that her parents were out of options. It’s been months since the loss of her beloved boyfriend, Reeve, but Jam is still not coping with normal life. She meets her new roommate, who seems nice but a little weird, and expects to stay in bed mourning, like she’s been doing at home.

Instead, Jam must attend classes, including the mysterious Special Topics in English about which her roommate is very jealous. Only five students are asked to join the class each semester, and all later report that it was transformative. The class’s unconventional teacher announces the first day that the class will focus on just one author, Sylvia Plath, for the whole semester and that each student will be required to write in a journal. She hands out red leather journals that look like antiques.

Even though Jam only knew Reeve for 41 days, she is inconsolable at his loss, but she reluctantly goes to class and is gradually pulled into Special Topics in English. Her four classmates are all strangers to her, but it is clear that each has suffered some sort of loss or emotional damage. They are all suffering privately, as they begin to study Plath and write in their journals. However, the journals have a secret power to transport the writer back to the comforting past where all was still well and whole (pronounce Belzhar out loud and think of Plath and you’ll understand the odd moniker the students came up with).

Very gradually, the five students begin to interact with each other because of the secret they share and slowly, they each begin to heal. Wolitzer covers a lot of ground with this novel, addressing serious topics like loss, life-changing injury, and depression and clearly showing that teens feel just as deeply (maybe more so) as adults, though the novel itself isn’t depressing; it’s ultimately uplifting and about recovery. The novel also focuses on the healing powers of reading and writing, which any book lover can appreciate. And, oh yeah, it’s a compelling, suspenseful story, too.

I was captivated by this audio book, which was well read, and both its real-world and supernatural elements. Besides showcasing Wolitzer’s talent for in-depth characters (which carries over perfectly into YA fiction), this novel is also very clever, interweaving details about Sylvia Plath with the modern-day students studying her, and the mysterious world they each visit after dark. And there are even some surprises along the way, as details of each student’s loss only gradually emerge. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can’t wait to read more YA fiction from Wolitzer.

Listening Library

Note: Although I’ve never read any Sylvia Plath, I recently watched a movie about her life, Sylvia, starring Gweneth Paltrow, which very good.

To listen to an audio excerpt, click on the Amazon link below:


Monday, October 13, 2014

It's Monday 10/13! What Are You Reading?

Ah...quiet Monday morning. I meant to jump right into productive mode and make my to-do list for the week, but instead I just wasted a half hour browsing my friends' and family members' posts on Facebook! I think it's the dark, gloomy weather outside making me want to just hibernate.

I had another busy, sick week. My Dad and his wife visited for 3 days - he will probably start cancer treatment this week, so we tried to make the most of this visit, even though I was sick. On top of my chronic illness and the bronchitis I had last week, the doctor though I might be at the beginning of pneumonia last week, so she put me on a super-strong antibiotic. I tried to rest as much as possible the second half of the week. I think I am finally coming out of this, starting to feel a bit better - hopefully, getting back to my own version of normal this week!

Here's what we read last week:
  • I finished The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith, a teen/YA novel about a modern girl who sees ghosts and gets mired in historical wrongs that must be righted. It was very good and perfect for October!
  • Now I am reading a creepy classic, Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, on my Kindle. I'm a little more than halfway through and am enjoying reading the original story after seeing so many movie adaptations.
  • My husband and I finally finished listening to Uncaged, a teen/YA thriller by adult thriller writer John Sandford and co-author Michelle Cook, book one of a new series called The Singular Menace. We started it this summer but don't have a lot of time in the car alone together! It was good suspense with a unique plot.
  • I realized that a couple of weeks ago, I completely forgot to include another audio that I finished very quickly, Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, her first foray into teen/YA fiction. This is another great one for October, about a teen girl who is grieving a loss at a special school for kids with psychological problems. It includes supernatural elements and some unexpected twists, and I loved it!
  • On my own, I am still listening to Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, a new release middle-grade audio perfect for the season, where a young boy suspects his new step-mother of being a witch, as his nightmares turn real. It's been great so far!
  • My husband, Ken, finished reading The Demon Plagues by David VanDyke, book 2 (though really, book 4) in the Plague Wars series. He seems to be enjoying the post-apocalyptic thriller series.
  • I think that Jamie, 20, is still reading The Drowning City by Amanda Downum, Necromancer Chronicles Book 1.
Once our guests left last week, I squeezed in a few blog posts while lying on the couch:
 Review of In the End by Demitria Lunetta, teen/YA post-apocalyptic sequel to In the After

Review of The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, a teen/YA novel about a ghost and a serial killer

2014 Murder, Monsters & Mayhem and Other October Fun! - 3 spooky reading activities/events to join this month

Saturday Snapshot 10/11 - Pics of New Orleans

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 10/11

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

It's been a long time since I've had the time to post for Saturday Snapshot! Some of what kept me busy was celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. Here are a few shots from our trip to New Orleans, where we lived when we first met, dated, and married - we still love it!

Classic NOLA - in front of Jackson Square & St. Louis Cathedral

Bourbon Street at night

Canal Street Streetcar

Entrance to the French Market

Quiet morning in Jackson Square

The quieter, prettier side of the French Quarter

Celebrating 25 years at Bayona, an old favorite restaurant

Hope you are having a wonderful weekend!

2014 Murder, Monsters & Mayhem And Other October Fun!

Inspired by Tanya at Girlxoxo a couple of years ago, I adopted her tradition of reading spooky, creepy books during October to celebrate the Halloween season! I've been searching for some challenges, memes, or readathons to join along these lines and found a few that are just what I was looking for:

I discovered (again, thanks to Girlxoxo) that Jenn's Bookshelves hosts Murder, Monsters & Mayhem during October, so consider this my sign-up post!

I have already started my spooky reading month:
  • I finished The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, a novel about a time-traveling serial killer - a bit gruesome and seriously gripping!
  • I also finished The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith, a teen/YA novel about a modern-day girl who sees ghosts, with a strong historical flavor. Fascinating and spooky!
  • I am currently listening to Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller on audio, a recent middle-grade release about a boy whose nightmares come to life. It's been excellent so far, especially since it's read by Jason, an actor.
  • And I recently started Frankenstein, the monster classic by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, on my Kindle. It's great to finally read the original after seeing so many movie adaptations.
And, hopefully, there will be more creepy reads this month, too!

Two other ghostly novels that I read in September would be perfect for this month:
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, a novel about the Chinese afterlife
  • The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, a teen/YA novel about serial murders that is partly narrated by a ghostly entity.
For more ideas on what to read this month, check out these older posts:
And there are two other fun October events I plan to participate in:

My Shelf Confessions is hosting Wonderfully Wicked Read-A-Thon from October 17 - 27. I have NEVER participated in a read-a-thon before, so I am looking forward to this one! Head over to the blog to sign up and join me.

Finally, Girlxoxo has come up with a Bingo for Spook'Tober game that looks like a lot of fun! I enjoyed Books on the Nightstand's Summer Bingo game, so I'm sure I will like this October version, too. Head over to Girlxoxo to print out your Horror Reading Card (aka Bingo card). No signing up for this one, just join in the fun!

What do you plan to read to celebrate this spooky month?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Teen/YA Review: The Vanishing Season

The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson turned out to be different than I expected, a wholly unique story that combines a murder mystery with supernatural elements and a story of teen friendship and romance. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it on audio.

Maggie is not very happy that she and her parents have moved from their home in Chicago to a ramshackle old house they inherited in quiet Door County, Wisconsin. When they arrive in the small town of Gill Creek in the fall of Maggie’s senior year, the town is especially deserted with all of the summer tourists cleared out for the season. Maggie knows they don’t have much choice, due to financial problems, so she tries to make the best of their new life as her parents homeschool her and she waits for the time when she can leave for college.

Gill Creek becomes a little more interesting once Maggie meets her neighbors. Carefree, outgoing Pauline lives right next door and welcomes Maggie with open arms, glad to have a new friend her own age nearby. Through the woods lives quiet Liam who’s been best friends with Pauline since they were little kids. The three teens become inseparable, though their friendship is eventually strained as romance and love divide their happy threesome.

Meanwhile, teen girls in the area keep dying under mysterious circumstances. Police have no clues as to the identity of what now appears to be a serial killer on the loose. Teens and parents alike become more and more frightened by the increasing horror invading their quiet town. Pauline’s parents send her away to stay with a relative, leaving Maggie and Liam in Gill Creek without their friend. Tension builds as more dead bodies are found in the region.

Through all of this friendship, romance, and mystery, there is a mysterious thread running through the novel. Many chapters begin with vague and puzzling statements from what seems to be some sort of supernatural entity, perhaps connected to the rumors Pauline mentioned that Maggie’s house is haunted. Who is this disembodied being and what does it know about the murder spree?

I listened to The Vanishing Season on audio and was pulled right in by the narration by likable Maggie and the mysterious supernatural presence. I noticed that some reviewers on Amazon were disappointed that the novel isn’t a typical mystery or romance. That is true – it doesn’t follow any typical genre lines but instead contains elements of mystery, supernatural, realistic fiction, and romance all rolled into one intriguing story. So, throw away your expectations and immerse yourself in this unusual story that reveals some surprises but doesn’t neatly resolve all of the questions it poses. I recommend the audio that added to the mounting tension and spooky atmosphere of the story – this one is perfect for October!

HarperChildren’s Audio

Click the Amazon link below to listen to an excerpt of the audio production.


Thursday, October 09, 2014

Teen/YA Review: In the End

I recently listened to the audio book In the End by Demitria Lunetta, the sequel to In the After, a post-apocalyptic and dystopian novel for teens/YA that I listened to last year. In the End continues the action and suspense of book one, while providing a satisfying conclusion to the story. It’s impossible to describe the sequel without giving away some spoilers of the first book, so if you haven’t read In the After yet, click on that review and skip this one for now.

In the End picks up where In the After left off, with Amy on her own after leaving the community of New Hope in Kansas. She is surviving on her own in Texas and avoiding the monsters known as Floraes, with the help of technology from New Hope, when she finally heads to the notorious Fort Black. In the years before They arrived, the complex was a prison, but now it is a community of survivors. The double walls and guarded towers protect its over-crowded residents from the Floraes, but there are new dangers here in Fort Black. Many of the prisoners opted to stay in the safety of the community when it was opened up to the public, so some of its residents are convicted criminals, even murderers.

It’s a rough place – nothing like the clean, controlled environment at New Hope – but Amy is there to look for Kay’s brother, Ken whom they hope might be able them defeat the more evil elements within New Hope and rescue Amy’s adopted sister, Baby. Jacks, a cowboy in a respected position within the community, befriends Amy, but she’s not sure she can trust him. Already, she has suspicions that this new place has its own secrets and dangers, including Tank, the serial rapist/murderer who seems to have his eye on Amy.

Just like In the After, this novel has non-stop action and plenty of suspense, as Amy hopes to not only survive but save her sister and the rest of the remaining population of New Hope and the Texas prison from dangers inside that might be just as bad (or worse) as the dangers lurking outside among the Floraes. Like that first book, this one also sometimes seems a bit too neat and contrived, but if you suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride, it’s a good story. The audio was well done and held my attention, and I finished it in short time, enjoying the satisfying conclusion of this unique series.

HarperChildren’s Audio

(You can listen to a sample of the audio at the Amazon link below)


Monday, October 06, 2014

It's Monday 10/6! What Are You Reading?

I missed my Monday post last week because my husband and I were in New Orleans, celebrating our 25th anniversary. We returned home on Tuesday, me with bronchitis, and on Friday, my mom and her husband arrived to help us celebrate my husband's 60th birthday, including a party with friends and family on Saturday. And my Dad and his wife arrive today for a 3-day visit. So, yeah, not a lot of time for writing or blogging lately!

But we still had plenty of reading time, especially while traveling - here's what we've read the past two weeks:
  • I finished The Agony of Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and enjoyed it so much that I went to the library in search of another Alice book, where the main character is older. I read Dangerously Alice and loved that one, too. The entire Alice series was #2 on the list of Most Frequently Banned Books 2000 - 2009, so I read these for Banned Books Week.
  • I also finished listening to The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor on audio, a teen/YA novel by the author of Waiting for Normal, which I loved. It was excellent - review to come as soon as I can catch up!
  • Next, I got a start on reading some spooky stuff for October, like I did last fall, inspired by Tanya at Girlxoxo and her Dangerous Reads Month. For our trip, I read The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, about a time-traveling serial killer in Chicago. It was a bit gruesome but absolutely gripping. I love time travel plots, so this was right up my alley, with the usual mind-bending aspects!
  • Once back home, I switched to teen/YA but stuck with the spooky theme with The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith, a creepy ghost story with a large dose of history that I'm enjoying very much so far.
  • I started a new audio, Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, a new release middle-grade novel perfect for the season, where a young boy suspects his new step-mother of being a witch, as his nightmares turn real. I don't usually go for celebrity authors, but this is great so far and very well-written.
  • My husband, Ken, started to read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut for Banned Books Week, but partway through, he realized he'd read it before and decided to switch back to suspense (his favorite genre) for our trip.
  • Ken went back to the Plague Wars series by David VanDyke. It's been very confusing because he started with Book 1, Reaper's Run, but then found out there was a Book 0! Then he tried to read Book 2 and discovered there is a book that comes between 1 and 2!  So, I believe he has finished The Eden Plague, Book 0, and is now reading Skull's Shadows, Book 1 1/2.
  • Jamie, 20, is reading The Drowning City by Amanda Downum, Necromancer Chronicles Book 1. It must be pretty good because he was home from college yesterday and couldn't set it down!
 Only one post last week, but I managed a few before we left for New Orleans the week before:
Banned Books Week 2014

Review of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, a classic I read for Banned Books Week

Review of The Agony of Alice, a middle-grade novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, also read for Banned Books Week (banned for "honesty about the human body"!)

Summary of Books Read in August (better late than never?)

Review of The Ghost Bride, a novel by Yangsze Choo

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Ken and I in New Orleans at Bayona, celebrating our 25th anniversary

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Fiction Review: The Ghost Bride

I was pleased when my book group chose The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo because I’d heard lots of good things about it. I did enjoy reading it, though it was different than I expected. It’s an unusual book that straddles the line between reality and the supernatural.

In 1893 Malaya (which later became Malaysia), seventeen-year old Li Lan is stunned when her father asks her if she wants to become a ghost bride to the recently deceased Lim Tian Ching, whom Li Lan scarcely knew. The old Chinese tradition of ghost marriage – arranging a marriage for someone who has died to placate restless spirits – is rarely practiced. It is even more rare to wed a live person to a dead one; this would make Li Lan a widow before her 18th birthday.

The fact that her father is even considering the proposal shows just how desperate things have gotten for Li Lan’s family. Her mother died when she was just four years old, her father has drowned his substantial grief in opium, and they are rapidly running out of money. If Li Lan were wed – even to a dead man – it would give her a new home in her in-laws house and assure she would be taken care of for life. The Lims are a wealthy and respected family. Li Lan goes for a visit to the Lims and sees for herself their beautiful home, but she also discovers that the family has some secrets and that perhaps Lim Tian Ching’s death wasn’t an accident. Besides, Li Lan finds herself attracted to his handsome cousin, Tian Bai.

Then things get a bit strange. Lim Tian Ching begins to visit Li Lan in her dreams, and eventually, Li Lan finds herself drawn into the Chinese afterlife, wandering its peculiar environs that are an eerie parallel to the real world. She is on a mission to find out the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s death, his motives for wanting her to marry him, and maybe, though she can scarcely admit it to herself, have a chance to see her mother again. But the afterlife is a dangerous place for someone who is not yet dead, and Li Lan could end up stuck there if she’s not careful.

So, I think you can see the strangeness of this tale that takes place partly in the real world and partly in the afterlife. Most people in our book group enjoyed the real-life passages and the fascinating backdrop of turn-of-the-century Malaya and Chinese tradition; however, not everyone felt comfortable with the more supernatural forays into the world of the afterlife. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about this novel at first, but the story and characters pulled me in, and I ended up enjoying it. At the end of our discussion, we each rated the book out of 10, and ratings were all over the map – lots of 6’s and 7’s, a few 9’s and 10’s, and even a few 1’s and 3’s. It certainly spurred some spirited discussions!

The Ghost Bride is a wholly unique novel, moving back and forth between the real world and the afterlife, according to ancient Chinese beliefs that are still held today. If you enjoy historical fiction and learning about different cultures, then you may enjoy this novel, especially if you are willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride for the supernatural portions of the book. It’s a coming-of-age adventure tale with two fascinating settings, one historical and one magical.

354 pages, William Morrow

P.S. The author includes some notes in the back on the historical details, as well as Chinese beliefs in the afterlife.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Middle-Grade Review: The Agony of Alice

In getting ready for Banned Books Week, I was surprised that #2 on the top 100 banned books from 2000 – 2009 was the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I’d heard of the books but never read one, so I decided to find out what the fuss was about. I did a little digging and found that of the 25 Alice books published to date, The Agony of Alice was the first one published (in 1985), so I requested it from my library.

Alice McKinley is eleven years old at the start of this novel, entering 6th grade – her last year of elementary school – in a new school in Silver Spring, Maryland. She and her father and 19-year old brother have just moved to a new town, a new house, and a new neighborhood. Alice is a little worried about starting over at a new school, but her most fervent wish is for a mother; Alice’s own mother died when she was just four years old.

Alice sets her sights for an “adopted mother” on Miss Cole, one of the 6th grade teachers, who seems to Alice to be just the kind of role model she’s looking for: she is beautiful, wears fashionable clothes and perfume, and seems to Alice like the perfect woman. Instead, Alice is assigned to Mrs. Plotkin’s class, a 60-year old, heavy teacher with no fashion sense at all.

The school year moves forward, as Alice agonizes over every little thing she does that seems embarrassing. She even makes a chart for herself, with Backward on one side and Forward on the other so she can track the things she does to move herself ahead…or behind. Alice makes some new friends, gets to know Mrs. Plotkin better, and gets reacquainted with an aunt, uncle, and older cousin she barely remembers.

So, why has such a sweet novel about the normal life of an 11 (and later 12)-year old girl been challenged and banned? Get this – for “honesty about the human body”! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? During the course of the novel, Alice worries about how to get a bra when she doesn’t have a mother, gets her period for the first time, and shares her first kiss with her first boyfriend. What do our preteen girls need from their realistic fiction more than honesty?

I loved this novel, and I loved Alice. In fact, I mostly loved the very thing this book has been banned for – its realism and honesty. Naylor clearly remembers what it’s like to be a young girl on the brink of becoming a teenager, worrying about how she appears to others and about growing up. I grew to like Alice so much that I wanted to read more and immediately went back to the library to sample one of the books in the series when Alice is an older teen. I chose Dangerously Alice (Alice is in 11th grade in this one) which I have been loving just as much (but be warned – more honesty here! You won’t have to look up why it’s been banned and it's more appropriate for older teens).

When I was a young girl, we had Judy Blume and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and Forever (two other frequently banned books!) to help guide us through those awkward years of growing up and to answer the questions we were too embarrassed to ask. We read and reread those books and whispered about them with our girlfriends. Girls today are lucky – they still have Judy Blume but they also have Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Alice, the likable but very real character at the heart of the Alice series. If I had a daughter, I’d want her to grow up alongside Alice.

131 pages, Atheneum


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Books Read in August

Well, I am really living up to my motto this month: Better late than never! It's almost October, and I am just now posting my summary of books read in August - it's just been that kind of month!

I was still focusing on my Big Book Summer Challenge in August, so I only finished 5 books, but a whopping 3 of them were Big Books (over 400 pages). Here's what I read:
  • Good Fortune by Noni Carter, a teen/YA novel (TN/OH)
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, adult fiction (MA/NY)
  • In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, teen/YA graphic novel (AZ) 

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, adult fiction (NY)
  • In the End by Demitria Lunetta, teen/YA novel on audio (TX/KS)

 So, it was another all-fiction month, but I read a nice mix of adult, teen/YA, graphic novel, and audio. I enjoyed all of these, but my favorite was The Goldfinch. I was reluctant to read it but so glad my book group chose it - it really grabbed me.

I added three new states to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month (not bad for the end of the year when so many are repeats). I read just 1 book from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge in August - I have really not done well on this one so far this year! I listened to one more audio book for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge, bringing my total to 13, so that one's going well so far. Nothing in August for my The Classics Reading Challenge or Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014. I did complete my own Big Book Summer Challenge, with a total of five big books (each over 400 pages) read this summer!

What was your favorite book(s) read in August? 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fiction Review: The Catcher in the Rye

The last time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, I was about 16 years old (I think I read it on my own, not for school). I decided to re-read it in honor of Banned Books Week, since I didn’t remember much about it. I’m so glad I did! I really enjoyed it and devoured the novel in just a couple of days.

Holden Caulfield is a boy in his late teens who has been kicked out of his private boarding school at the start of the novel. This is not a new experience for Holden, who is often criticized for not “applying himself.” Holden is clearly depressed and visits his favorite teacher to say goodbye before leaving, but his visit is unsatisfactory. During an evening spent in his dorm, the reader sees Holden interacting with his roommate and other peers before he decides abruptly to head back to New York City a few days early, before he is due at his parents’ house for the holiday break.

Much of the novel follows Holden’s escapades in New York, as he kills time postponing the day when he has to face his parents and his latest expulsion. He wanders the city, meets up with old friends, smokes a lot of cigarettes and drinks way too much alcohol. But he’s not partying it up in a happy, rambunctious way; rather, he is trying to work through his complicated feelings about school and life and dreaming of running away to live in a cabin in the woods where he wouldn’t have to deal with all “the phonies.”

Superficially, it would be easy to write Holden off as a rebellious teen sowing his wild oats. I’ve even heard critics refer to Holden as a spoiled rich kid. But what struck me with this new reading of The Catcher in the Rye, as an adult, was the pain and loss that lie just beneath Holden’s cool exterior. Soon, it becomes clear what the root of his depression is, and that loss makes his actions far more understandable.

In addition, in spite of his coarseness, I had to admire Holden’s impatience with “phonies,” a common theme in his frequent internal rants. His kindness also shines through his rough outer shell, toward fellow students who’ve been mistreated and also his obvious love for his siblings. In all, Holden’s pain touched me.

It is true that this story captures a sort of classic portrait of teenage angst, but I thought there was much more to it than that. Holden’s own unique losses and pain make this novel a complex depiction of one particular teen’s own life – and yes, angst – filled with emotional depth. I thoroughly enjoyed my short time in Holden’s head and was pleased by the hint of hope at the end that – as for most teens – better times are ahead.

214 pages, Little, Brown & Company
(I read an old copy of the novel that was my husband’s – I also still have the copy my mother read in high school!)

Why Has It been Challenged and Banned?
Oh, that’s an easy one. Just read a few pages, and you’ll see! The novel is completely narrated by Holden himself, filled with profanity (which is still the way many teens really do talk!) and very honest in its depiction of real life, including ruminations on sex, plus plenty of alcohol and smoking. It has come up again and again on Banned Books lists over the decades, often in the top 10 or 20.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Banned Books Week 2014

This is Banned Books Week, a week set aside to celebrate the freedom of speech and the freedom to read whatever you want. Here's more information on Banned Books Week from the American Library Association (ALA).

It's also a great time to read for yourself some of the books that have been challenged or banned. Many of them are classics or highly regarded modern books, and by reading and reviewing them, we can bring attention to some great literature that should be available for all to read.

The way I see it is that it is perfectly OK not to like a book or even to be offended by a book - if that's the case, then you don't have to read it. However, it is not OK to ban a book and remove it from libraries or schools so that no one can read it. In the case of kids, I think that it should be the parents' role to decide what books are appropriate for their kids, not random citizens whose values may be entirely different than yours.

Often, books for children or teens are banned because they deal with difficult topics - violence, abuse, homosexuality (or any kind of sexuality), racism, etc. While parents can decide what is age-appropriate for their own kids, I think it's important for kids and teens to read books that deal with these kinds of difficult topics. All of this - and more - is a part of life, and kids and teens should be exposed to a wide range of real-life issues. Books are a safe way to bring these difficult topics up and can often spark useful discussions with parents, kids, classmates, and teachers.

The ALA has published lists of the most frequently banned books by decade, including the latest decade, 2000-2009. They also have lists of most frequently banned books for each year, from 2001 - 2013.

I like to use the top 100 Banned Books list from 2000 - 2009 to choose books to read to celebrate this week. Last year for Banned Books Week, I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Both were absolutely amazing books!

This year, I have already read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (last time I read it, I was only 16) and am currently reading The Agony of Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (this series is #2 in the top banned books of that decade). In this novel, Alice is only in 6th grade, so I also plan to read one of the later Alice books, Dangerously Alice, which takes place when she is ion 11th grade.

For more information, links, and fun ways to celebrate Banned Books Week, check out Sheila's blog, Book Journey.

And come back here for reviews of banned books later this week:
How are you celebrating Banned Books week?

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Monday 9/22! What Are You Reading?

I am sitting here in the quiet house, recovering after a busy weekend with house guests, a long-distance soccer game, and cooking many big meals to serve a crowd! It was another week without much time for blogging - I used my limited writing time to work on an essay - but as always, we all made time for reading:
  • I finished The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, a middle-grade novel about a young girl spending the summer with her Japanese grandparents, harvesting wheat in the heartland. Although it's set in the U.S., I counted it for the Travel the World in Books Challenge since it is partly about a different culture. It was a wonderful book, filled with warmth and humor!
  • This week is Banned Book Week, so I chose my next couple of books from the ALA'a Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000 - 2009. First, I re-read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, a classic novel that is always among the most frequently banned books. I hadn't read it since I was 16 and really didn't remember much about it. I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and really loved the novel! I can see what it's endured for so long.
  • I was intrigued that #2 on the ALA's most frequently banned list was the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, so I figured I should try it and start with the first Alice book that was published, The Agony of Alice (1985). I just started it last night, but Alice is only twelve in this book, so I'm not sure this is one of the ones that was banned! We'll see - if I have time, I may try one of the later books when she's a teen also.
  • I have been listening to The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor, a teen/YA novel by the author of Waiting for Normal, which I loved. I think I am near the end, and it has been excellent so far - a gripping story of a teen girl trying to find her identity amidst conflicting pressures.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Reaper's Run: A Plague Wars novel by David VanDyke and Ryan King. He says it's a twist on the typical apocalyptic series - here, the plague actually heals people. He was perusing the Banned Books List last night for ideas on what to read next, getting into the spirit of the celebration!
  • Jamie, 20, read The Maze Runner by James Dashner last week and then went to see the new movie with his friends on Saturday night. He said both the book and movie were good. He hasn't chosen his next book yet.

Only one post last week:
Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a compelling novel not to be missed!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fiction Review: The Goldfinch

I was completely blown away by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Despite that, when I heard that The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, I wasn’t interested in reading it. The plot description just didn’t sound intriguing to me. Fortunately, one of my book groups chose it for our September selection. I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this extraordinary, compelling novel. So, I will describe the novel’s premise and plot, as I always do in a review, but you should read it anyway, even if it doesn’t interest you! This is one of those books that is far more than the sum of its parts.

Theo is only thirteen years old when his mother is killed in a horrific bombing that Theo himself miraculously survives. His father left them some time ago and there is no other family nearby, so Theo moves in with the wealthy family of his old school friend. They live in a big Park Avenue apartment, filled with expensive furnishings and surrounded by servants. In this foreign environment, Theo clings to his mother’s memory with the only thing he has to remember her by – a small painting called The Goldfinch that his mother loved.

One of the pleasures of this thick novel is its inherent suspense and many twists and turns, so I won’t say much more about what happens to Theo, except that the painting continues to play a prominent role in his life as he grows up. The novel follows Theo through adolescence to young adulthood and across multiple states and countries. He makes a friend, falls in love, finds a career, and through it all, holds onto some connections that occurred during and after the bombing, as that traumatic event and loss continue to affect every aspect of his life.

Theo is a likeable character who makes a lot of mistakes; you keep rooting for him and hoping he’ll get it right. He is surrounded by a full cast of memorable characters, including his immigrant friend, Boris (the unanimous favorite among my book group), his troubled father, the kind furniture restorer who becomes a friend, the family that took him in, and many others. The story woven around these characters is absolutely captivating, as we watch Theo grow up amid all kinds of challenges.

I mistakenly thought this was a novel about art…and it is, in part, with the painting at its center. However, it’s also a novel about love and loss, about regrets and mistakes, and about how a secret kept hidden can eat you alive. It has elements of romance, suspense, coming-of-age, art history, and is even part-thriller toward the end. In short, it is an epic tale of a young boy growing up and struggling to come to terms with the loss that defined his life. I dreaded starting this huge novel, but once I began reading, I hated to set it down and often read late into the night. The Goldfinch is a compelling, moving story that will stay with you long after you finish it.

771 pages, Little, Brown and Company

P.S. At our book discussion, 9 of the 10 people who'd read the complete book loved it; one said she hated it. So, you can't please everyone, but those are pretty good odds.

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's Monday 9/15! What Are You Reading?

I just looked back at last week's Monday post where I said I was looking forward to getting back to normal - ha! My father-in-law moved here last week from Oklahoma, so the week was chock-full of helping him get settled. He arrived with a bad toothache, so he and I spent much of the week going to the dentist, oral surgeon, drugstore, etc. (he's fine now). And my husband and I spent the last few days helping him move into his apartment nearby. He seems very happy here so far, glad to not be alone anymore. He is enjoying time with us and getting to know the other residents in his independent living building. There is still a lot to do, but hopefully things will begin to settle down a bit this week.

We didn't have a lot of time for reading last week (and I had almost no time for blogging!), but here's what we're reading:
  • I finished The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, though not in time for my neighborhood book group (I still went). It was an unusual sort of novel - kind of historical fantasy set in Malaysia in 1893 since it takes place mostly in the afterlife as defined by Chinese beliefs. It was unique and interesting and was my first book for the Travel the World in Books Challenge and Readathon.
  • After reading several giant novels for various book groups this past 6 weeks, I was happy to choose anything I wanted to read next. I chose The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, a middle-grade novel about a young girl spending the summer with her Japanese grandparents, harvesting wheat in the heartland. Although it's set in the U.S., I am also counting it for the Travel the World in Books Challenge since it is partly about a different culture. I am loving it so far - the grandmother is hilarious!
  •  I didn't have any time alone last week to listen to an audio book, so I need to start a new one today.
  • My husband, Ken, finished  The Magicians by Lev Grossman on his Kindle and enjoyed it. He's looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy.
  • Now, Ken is reading Reaper's Run: A Plague Wars novel by David VanDyke and Ryan King. He says it's a twist on the typical apocalyptic series - here, the plague actually heals people.
  • I'm guessing Jamie, 20, is still reading The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price by C.L. Schneider, though I'm not sure since he is at college. He was sick last week so might have had more reading time than usual.
 Only one blog post all last week!
Review of In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, a teen/YA graphic novel

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers