Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009)

11-year old Flavia de Luce is bright, clever, brave, and is like no other 11-year-old I have ever met. Alan Bradley's book had me smiling the whole time I was reading it and I even laughed out loud a few times by Falvia's antics. She lives with her father and two older (and not nearly so clever) sisters in England in 1950. A man shows up at her house one day, argues with her father and then dies in their garden, apparently of poison. By an odd coincidence, Flavia has a fascination with poisons since teaching herself organic chemistry and goes on to investigate this murder.

Having pointed out the body, I watched in fascination as Sergeant Woolmer unpacked and mounted his camera on a wooden tripod, his fingers, fat as sausages, making surprisingly gentle microscopic adjustments to the little silver controls. As he took several covering exposures of the garden, lavishing particular attention on the cucumber patch, Sergeant Graves was opening a worn leather case in which were bottles ranged neatly row on row, and in which I glimpsed a packet of glassine envelopes.
I stepped forward eagerly, almost salivating, for a closer look.
"I wonder, Flavia," Inspector Hewitt said, stepping gingerly into the cucumbers, "if you might ask someone to organize some tea?"
He must have seen the look on my face.
"We've had rather an early start this morning. Do you think you could manage to rustle something up?"
So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for, some kind of cowboy?

Her investigation leads her to information about the first U.K. stamp known as the Black Penny. Being a stamp collector I found this aspect of the book interesting. Flavia reminds me of Eloise from the series of books by Kay Thompson. She had no fear of grownups and no compunction of sticking her nose in grownup business.

I highly recommend this book to mystery lovers.

My rating for this book: ++++

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This is the first 3-D IMAX movie I have seen and, boy, does it set the bar high for any other movie. Jake Scully (Sam Worthington takes) his recently deceased brother's place to go to a planet called Pandora. His brother was part of a mission where his thoughts could transfer to a genetically engineered native body so he could learn to speak to the native species and learn about them. There, of course, is an ulterior motive for this expensive effort. A very rare and precious material called Unobtainium has been discovered underneath the huge tree which was the Home Tree of a tribe of the natives.

Of course, Jake meets and becomes attached to the tribe's chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He learns that the natives are not only spiritually, but also physically attached to the trees and other lifeforms on the island and he had to convince the evil corporation to stop the destruction of the land.

This story has been told many times and is a great vehicle for the amazing art in this movie. You would be soon tired of all the superlatives I could use so I will only say to go and see it. Now. Yes, now. Well, what are you waiting for?

My rating for this movie: +++++

My Sister, My Love (2008)

I only read reviews about this book by Joyce Carol Oates after I had read it and then found out it was meant to be a satire about middle class America. Not being a good literature student I missed all of the clues. One of which was the names of the characters and their neighbors which were all mean and violent (Rampike, O'Styker). Another was the over-the-top psychiatric diagnoses of the children and the unbelievable number of drugs prescribed.

"Bix! Darling! God help us - Bliss is missing."

Loosely based on the murder of child beauty pageant princess, JonBenet Ramsey, six-year-old Bliss was found murdered in the basement of her family's house. Even though a neighboring sex offender admitted to the murder and subsequently hung himself in his jail cell, suspicion never completely came off of her nine-year-old brother, Skyler, who writes this memoir in the hopes that a memory would return to tell him who the real murderer was.

Skyler went from psychiatric facility to one boarding school to another, anywhere but home with his parents fueling the guilt that he must have somehow been responsible for Bliss' death. At the age of nineteen Skyler writes this book and shares with us every agonizing memory of his youth.

"...an adolescent Skyler the reader would be startled to behold: not a runt any longer, nor was Skyler's soul a runt-soul, for Skyler had learned at last the advantages of being a professionally afflicted kid of affluent background; amid the walking wounded of the Academy at Basking Ridge..."

It was very hard for me to finish this book. If I had know or realized it was a satire, it might have been less painful but I was determined to stick with this story to the end to see if there was any hope of Skyler finding any normalcy for himself. I'll let you read the book to learn if he was successful.

I think the only readers who would appreciate this book are Oates fans.

My rating for this book: +++

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Carol (1843)

Charles Dickens' classic story about Ebenezer Scrooge has always been a favorite of mine in movie form but until now I had never read it. DailyLit offered it in installments through email so I could not resist reading it. What a treat!
I doubt there is anyone who is not familiar with the story of the stingy man who was visited by ghosts and shown how Christmas was more than just an excuse for people to pick his pocket but to share what he had and enjoy the feeling of making others' lives better. What I missed by not reading the book was the amazing language used. The first phrase that stopped me was:

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.

Not having studied literature to any length, I don't know if this phrase is common to the era or the creativity of the author, but I loved it. Many of the words I was familiar with since they were used in my favorite version of the movie with Alistair Sim, like the following:

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

While it was fun to get the story in installments, I recommend that the reader gain access to a book with the original illustrations or access them through The Gutenberg Project: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm.

I recommend this book to anyone who has never read it or hasn't read it in a while.

My rating for this book: +++++

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hush (2007)

Donna Jo Napoli writes stories based on fairy tales and this book is based on a story from an Icelandic saga about a girl named Melkorka who was bought by an Icelandic man named Hoskuld and takes her back to his home. In our book, Melkorka is an Irish princess who was kidnapped when trying to escape her town before the Vikings invaded. She is advised by another slave to pretend to be mute so that her pride and arrogance wouldn't end up getting her beaten or worse.

In the night someone rolls agains me as we lie sleeping. I open my eyes to see Maeve's eyes shining at me in the moonlight. "He's convinced you are an aist - a stork," she whispers. "A stork who has the power to chage form into a woman. He thinks you may be a charodeitsa - an enchantress, but unlike our Irish piseogai, he fears you could be evil. It's only how clean and pretty you are that keeps him from quaking."

Melkorka was sold by the Russian kidnappers to an Icelandic sailor named Hoskuld. She continues to learn about these hard, rough, people from the north and about herself in the process. Her intelligence serves her well by quickly picking up languages and knowledge about healing from another slave.

Life in these northern places was cold, dark, and cruel. By following Melkorka on her voyage we learn about these early civilizations. She was a remarkable girl who wisely used her wits to stay alive. I recommend this book to historical fiction fans.

My rating for this book: ++++

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lost Symbol (2009)

The reviews for this latest Robert Langdon adventure said it was rushed to publication. This might be the reason I felt rushed through this book (up to the last three chapters which felt interminable). This time the ancient mysterious group known as the Masons have hidden information in a monument in Washington, D.C. and Langdon is called in when his friend, Peter Solomon, is kidnapped and his hand is found in the Capitol building.

There is a definite rhythm to this book: conversation, lecture, action, conversation, lecture, action, ... The chapters are very short as the action bounces like a superball between Langdon and a strange man covered in tattoos, the CIA director, the FBI, and Peter's sister, Katherine.

In Brown's previous books, The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, we are taken into places most people never see in Paris and the Vatican respectively. This time we go through Washington, D.C. from deep basements to the top of the Washington Monument but instead of feeling like I am enjoying a private tour, I somehow feel excluded from being able to visit the same places as the characters and it's not a good feeling.

My advise to fans of action books is to try and buy this at a used book store so you won't feel ripped off and abused.

My rating for this book: ++

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995)

Laurie R. King's series of detective stories feature a young woman, Mary Russell who develops a deep relationship with Sherlock Holmes. She is very bright and uses her tomboyish looks to dress as a man and get into places women cannot.

In this story, she is intrigued by a group of women who meet for spiritual and inspirational meetings. Danger lurks, however, and several members of the church mysteriously meet fatal ends after changing their wills, leaving everything to this church.

Holmes helps her discover the truth and their relationship reaches a new height.

These books are fun diversion and I will continue to slowly make my way through them as I find old copies in used book stores.

I recommend this book to mystery lovers who have a special attraction to Sherlock Holmes stories.

My rating for this book: +++

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (2009)

It may surprise many people (including history-impaired ones like me) that Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse giving up her seat on a bus in racially segregated Montgomery, Alabama. Phillip Hoose has earned the 2010 National Book Award for this book which chronicles the life of a teenaged girl (much in her own words) who felt embarassed and outraged at the treatment black people received from whites as well as other blacks.

All of a sudden it seemed such a waste of time to heat up a comb and straighten your hair before you went to school. So I just quit doing it. I felt very emotional about segregation, about the way we were treated, and about the way we treated each other. I told everybody, "I won't straighten my hair until they straighten out this mess."

It was the law in Montgomery that black people had to give not just their seat, but a whole row occupied by black people, to a white person.

Rebellion was on my mind that day. All during February we'd been talking about people who had taken stands. We had been studying the Constitution in Miss Nesbitt's class. I knew I had rights. I had paid my fare the same as white passengers. I knew the rule - that you didn't have to get up for a white person if there were no empty seats left on the bus - and there weren't. But it wasn't about that. I was thinking, Why should I have to get up just because a driver tells me to, or just because I'm black? Right then, I decided I wasn't gonna take it anymore. I hadn't planned it out but my decision was built on a lifetime of nasty experiences.

The rest of Claudette's story, along with pictures and sidebars telling about others involved in the struggle, give a vivid picture of what it was like at that time and how segregation was overturned. The strength and solidarity of the black community during the bus boycotts was amazing. Of particular interest is how Claudette felt her credibility was hurt by her pregnancy.

I highly recommend this book to history buffs and wannabe rebels.

My rating for this book: +++++

Manga Claus: The Blade of Kringle (2006)

A student returned this graphic novel and I just had to read it. Nathaniel Marunas has written a humorous combination of traditional and martial arts themes. The artwork by Erik Craddock matches perfectly with the story of how a disgruntled elf magically turns an innocent nutcracker into a terrorizing ninja on Christmas Eve with the idea that he could reverse the spell and be a hero. As we all know, this kind of plan never works.

[Elf] I just wanted the nutcracker to mess things up a little so I could come to the rescue, but there are so many of these ninjas and they're out of control and-
[Santa] Enough! Go to my office as fast as you can, fetch my katana and wakizashi from behind my desk, and meet me at the power plant.

Things get out of hand, the elf has to admit what he did, and Santa is turns into an avenging, muscle-bound swordsman.

Not your typical Christmas story but it made me smile. Santa makes the elf a special effects coordinator and what he does to the reindeer is totally outrageous.

My rating for this book: +++

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Glass (2007)

This book is a sequel to Crank, the story of a meth addict loosely based on the life of Ellen Hopkins' daughter. Methamphetamine in a very pure form is called glass, ice, crystal, or "the monster" by Katrina, an 18-year old girl who has already danced with the devil, kicked the habit, and had a baby conceived during a rape. We join her in this book living with her mother, stepfather, and brother, taking care of her son and trying to get her life back on track. Unfortunately, the drug calls to her again.

I have my out.
I have my high.
I have more stash
I have a job.
Almost have an income.
It is almost time
for an outstanding
eighteenth birthday.
I have earned my wings,
can't wait for my
test flight to freedom.
My head buzzes,
my body rushes,
electric, anxious.
I want a taste
of flight, a taste
of adulthood, another
small taste of ice
before afternoon dwindles.
The last thing on my
mind is Hunter, waiting
for his mommy.

Every promise she makes herself, she breaks. Every stopping point, she passes. We watch her inevitable downward spiral and we are appalled at how seductive this drug is. It gives the user such a rush of feelings in the beginning but the rush fades and it becomes harder to exist without using until it is impossible to quit. She is kicked out of her house and moves in with her dealer who needs a nanny for his two children. How convenient.

Have you Ever Tried

To quit
a bad habit, one
that has come to
define you?
To cease
using a substance-
any substance-
that you not only
need but enjoy?
To stop
yourself from
lighting up that
cigarette? It's going
to kill you, but hey,
you're going
to die
someday anyway,
why not die happy,
why not die buzzed,
why not die
satisfied? Why not
die sooner, with
fewer regrets, than

Will she ever get over the drugs and enjoy a normal life? To recommend this book, please allow me to use free verse.


My rating for this book: ++++

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Impossible (2009)

It has been a long time since I have actually finished a book. I feel like I have neglected my duties. But I have just come to the end of this latest book by Nancy Werlin which is woven around the ballad known to many as Scarborough Fair.

Lucinda's mother is a crazy street person named Miranda and seems to pop up in Lucy's life at random, inconvenient times. The latest is when Luncinda is ready to go to her prom and is walking out to her date's car. Astonishingly Miranda starts to lob empty glass bottles from her cart at the group of people seeing Lucy off. Her date takes off and the cops arrive to haul Miranda away. Luckily for Lucy, her foster parents, Soledad and Leo are there to help and support Lucy as they tried with Miranda.

Days later, Lucy's friend, Zach, found a journal written by Miranda in the abandoned cart. By reading her mother's journal, Lucy learns about the curse following all her ancestresses. The way to counter the curse is to complete three challenges woven into the song.

Tell her to make me a magical shirt, Parsley sage, rosemary and thyme, Without any seam or needlework, Else she'll be a true love of mine.

Tell her to find me an acre of land,... Between the salt water and the sea strand...

Tell her to plow it with just a goat's horn,... and sow it all over with one grain of corn, Else she'll be a true love of mine, And her daughters forever pssessions of mine.

Will Lucy, Zach, and her fosterparents be able to solve the riddles in time? Fantasy readers will love the battle with the Elfin Knight who has managed to ruin the lives of so many women.

My rating for this book: +++

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sister Wendy's American Collection (2000)

Sister Wendy is a petite British nun with bucked teeth and is absolutely marvelous at introducing art to the art deficients like me. I first saw her on PBS as she talked about pieces of art, dressed in her habit, her hands working in front of her just from the elbows.

In this book, Sister Wendy shows us art housed in six different museums in the United States. There are sculptures, paintings, fabric, and even musical instruments from just about everywhere in the world from ancient Egypt to modern art.

The fabulous thing about this book is that she will explain the symbolism or the technique used in a way that doesn't patronize or is condenscending. She sounds inspirational and passionate when her topic is of a religious tone. However, when the topic is violent or sexual in nature, she continues on without embarassment or shame. I love how she tells us how the pieces make her feel to help us explore our own feelings.

Referring to a part of the Raft Cup by Zhu Bishan, she says, "If you look at the traveler's expression, well-fed he may be, but his face is filled with wonder and with longing. Here is the man who could have had it all but wasted his opportunity. Of whom might this not be more true than the emperor? For all its complexity, this is a genuine cup. Every time the emperor drank from it, he would be eyeball to eyeball with that face -- ecstatic and yet forever yearning. I would love to know his thoughts."

The items of art are grouped by the museum that displays them, but inside each group they are randomly ordered, not arranged by medium, country or artist of origin, or even era. For instance, a page of Mondrian art, all geometric and primary colored, is followed by a 17th century Japanese painting of an exiled emperor on Okinoshima, featuring gentle colors and waves.

I highly recommend this to people, even if or especially if they aren't, knowledgeable about art.

My rating for this book: ++++

Friday, October 16, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

50,000 words in the 31 days of November! That's the challenge. Quantity over quality matters here. I would do this if I wasn't taking my online courses. I will encourage my daughter, however, since she has aspirations of being a writer.

Along with keeping track of how much you have written, they also give you help in the form of mini challenges that you must include in your writing. One example might be to include a certain item in your story.

What a fun way for budding writers to push themselves.

In case you think I was copping out with my excuse of classes -- I am putting it in my log with the hope of finding it again next year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Al Capone Shines My Shoes (2009)

Gennifer Choldenko has added another chapter to life of 12-year old Moose, his autistic sister, Natalie, and his friends who live on the grounds of Alcatraz prison, the home for the worst criminals. I have to chuckle when I read the description of how these children, one just starting first grade, hop on a ferry to go to school in San Francisco without a parent to fuss over them. They play baseball on an area right under the cells and some inmates are allowed to work in the residences of the families. Considering most parents won't let their kids cross the street unattended, things sure have changed.

That question aside, Moose finds that favors you get from people like Al Capone can carry a very heavy obligation. In the first book, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Mr. Capone managed to obtain a coveted spot in a special school for Natalie. In this book, Moose finally meets the man face to face.

My father stops near the bars of a cell on the west side. Just one man in this cell, a big beefy guy with dark black hair, dark eyes, a round face, big lips, and the kind of smile that makes you like him without thinking twice about it. He's got shoe polish and a buffing rag on his bed along with a pair of shiny black guard's shoes.

The man stands up and sticks his pudgy hand through the bars. In the shadow of his left side a jagged line cuts across his face - a scar. "That your boy, boss?" he asks.

My father nods. "Moose, meet Al Capone."

I highly recommend this story for readers who enjoy intrigue and some historical fiction.

My rating for this book: +++ 1/2

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shiver (2009)

It tore my heart out, because I heard his voice. The wolves sang slowly behind him, bitterweet harmony, but all I heard was Sam. His howl trembled, rose, fell in anguish.
I listened for a long time. I prayed for them to stop, to leave me alone, but at the same time I was desperately afraid that they would. Long after the other voices had dropped away, Sam kept howling, very soft and slow.
When he finally fell silent, the night felt dead.

Grace had watched the wolf watching her from the woods and had been mesmerized by his gold eyes. Sam had watched the girl watching him from the house and had been mesmerized by her. Until one day a boy with golden eyes showed up on her porch, totally nude and suffering from a gunshot wound.

He looked nothing like a wolf, but everything like my wolf. Even now, without his familiar eyes open, a little part of me kept jumping with irrational glee, reminding myself -- it's him.

There are many parallels to Twilight such as the love they feel for each other seemingly impossible to continue, the head wolf who teaches and takes care of new wolves, the jealous she-wolf threatening Grace with harm, and the theme of a sensitive sense of smell. I tried my hardest to not let Twilight influence my appreciation of this book but it was hard.

Fantasy romance readers will love this story by Maggie Stiefvater.

My rating for this book: +++ 1/2

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dexter by Design (2009)

Jeff Lindsay keeps the Dexter story going with another in his series. Dexter is now married and has a baby along with his wife's other two children, Astor and Cody. Astor and Cody have had a violent childhood and Dexter sees that they are related to him almost deeper than by blood. He sees that he will need to "train" them as he was trained by his adopted father, Harry.

Harry's daughter, Deb, is a detective in the same police department where Dexter serves as a blood spatter specialist. She knows about his Dark Passenger and has used Dexter's unique talent to help her solve cases and advance in her career. She gets Dexter to help on a case and they find their way to the door of a suspect. Almost as soon as she identifies herself, the resident pulls out a knife and stabs her. Dexter mistakes the other resident as the stabber and holds him until help arrives. Unfortunately, this is not the stabber and the confusion allows the real one to escape.

While Deb lays in the hospital recovering from her blood loss, her boyfriend, Chutsky, helps Dexter track down the suspect as far away as Cuba. Unfortunately, the suspect is busy tracking down Dexter and his family. What a fool.

I love this series but be warned. It is not for everyone. The book's characters are echoed in the series on Showtime but the story lines are different.

My rating for this book: ++++

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Persistence of Memory (2008)

Vampires, shape shifters, and witches...oh, my!

This is the first book by Ameilia Atwater-Rhodes that I have read. It was fast, intense, and quite complicated. Erin has spent time in a psychiatric hospital and is taking a small pharmacy of pills to control hallucinations and panic attacks. Some of these dreams involve another girl named Shevaun. At least she thought they were dreams until one day she woke up in a strange place and was called Shevaun. Shevaun is a vampire and she also has dreams where she is a human girl named Erin.

She drew a deep breath. "I don't want to be tied up."
"I didn't think so. Now if you aren't Shevaun, why don't you let me know who you are?"
"I've been trying to--"
"So do it," he snapped. Then it was his turn to take one of those deep, calming breathes before he asked, "What's your name?"
She gave him that and more. "Erin Misrahe. I live in Massachusetts. I'm sixteen." She hoped that that might make him back off a little, since he was obviously older and they apparently had some kind of serious relationship.
"Do you often wander around in other people's brains...Erin?" he asked, hesitating only a little on the name.

So maybe she's not crazy after all. With the help of her shape shifting friends and Shevaun's witch friend, Adjila, Erin tries to get control of her life and maybe find a little normalcy. Or not.

I would recommend this book to teens who are fans of vampire books even if it's not really my cup of tea.

My rating for this book: ++

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Catching Fire (2009)

This sequel to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games gives us another gripping, amazing page turner. We left off with Katniss and Peeta both surviving the games, much to the Capitol's disgust and the thrill of all the districts. We start this book as the victors prepare for the annual tour around the districts, but not all thirteen! It seems that something is going on and that Katniss may have been the catalyst to get it started.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the games and there is a special twist this year. The contestants will be victors from previous years. There are only three victors in Kat's district: Peeta, their mentor, Haymitch, and herself. Haymitch has enjoyed a bit too much liquor over the years to survive these harsh games so it falls again on Peeta and Kat. On their Victory Tour, Kat gets hints about a possible groundswell of rebellion.

The night of my engagement, the night Peeta fell to his knees proclaimed his undying love for me in front of the cameras in the Capitol, was the night the uprising began. It was an ideal cover. Our Victory Tour interview with Caesar Flickerman was mandatory viewing. It gave the people of District 8 a reason to be out on the streets after dark, gathering either in the square or in various community centers around the city to watch. Ordinarily such activity would have been too suspicious. Instead everyone was in place by the appointed hour, eight o'clock, when the masks went on and all hell broke loose.

How will Kat protect Peeta, keep up the image that they were lovers, survive the games, and support the rebellion? Many things are going on at once in this book and Kat does not falter and continues to be an unlikely hero.

Many sequels start and end with a bang but the middle book(s) are just financial boons for the author, filler for the fans. This book is equally as exciting as the first book and expectations are very high for the third.

Science fiction and action readers will love this series. I highly recommend it.

My rating for this book: +++++

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Purple Heart (2009)

I believe that most wars are started by men and that all children should be removed far from any war zones. In Patricia McCormick's book, Matt wakes up in a military hospital in Iraq with no memory of how he became injured but he knows there was a boy named Ali involved. While recovering from his TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) he slowly regains events but they don't add up.

He got out his notebook and turned to the page where he'd written a new version of what had happened, a version that included what he now knew.
1. taxi runs the checkpoint
2. Justin and I pursue the vehicle
3. we turn down a side road, past the bootleg store
4. we get out of the Humvee to give chase down an alley
5. we get separated
6. I start taking fire in the alley
7. I return fire
8. Justin picks off the shooter from an upstairs window
9. RPG hits wall, Justin drags me to safety.
He didn't write about what happened when he returned fire. He couldn't.

It is a slow and painful process recovering his memory. On one hand he needs to know and on the other hand he is afraid to know the truth.

It is interesting to note what the soldiers turn to for entertainment. They play Halo, watch Rambo movies, and joke about Chuck Norris, but it is a way to bolster their flagging bravery?

I highly recommend this book. It is a very fast read and the reader is riveted to find out the truth with Matt.

My rating for this book: +++++

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Carbon Diaries 2015 (2009)

It's the year 2015 and British teenager, Laura, is keeping a journal about a year of rationing, insane weather, and how all of these changes affect her family and friends. Saci Lloyd has created a world that we may be facing ourselves if fossil fuel use isn't drastically cut.

Everybody gets a carbon card with an allotment of how much CO2 they can be responsible for before being hit with major fines. Driving cars, band practice, even cell phone use is monitored. Laura's father loses his job and becomes a crazy farmer person. Her mom joins a coop and a group of women who find they must wear the pants in their families now. Her sister, Kim, is sucked into black market affairs.

Wed., April 1
Woke up this morning and someone had polluted the world so much that the climate was messed up and the UK went on rations and nobody ever, ever had any fun again. Ha, ha, ha.

A typical teenager response to the world falling apart -- Why does everything have to happen to me? Much like a leaf in a flood (yeah, there's one of those) Laura is swept along as her family adjusts poorly to changes. Will things get fixed? Will her family pull back together or completely crumble?

This book isn't going to make readers panic into selling their SUVs but there is a list of websites they can visit to get more information on how they can change their behavior to maybe headoff this kind of diaster.

My rating for this book: ++

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nineteen Minutes (2007)

Jodi Picoult doesn't tell the story of a high school shooting massacre from just one point of view -- we get it from the shooter's, the victims', the parents', law enforcement's, lawyer's and DA's. We don't just see the events of one day, we go back to the shooter's first day of kindergarten and follow him and his classmates to the fateful day and through the trial which followed. We get the whole story, dissected and laid out for us so we can feel everyone's emotions.

Chaos was a constellation of students, running out of the school and trampling the injured. A boy holding a handmade sign in an upstairs window that read HELP US. Two girls hugging each other and sobbing. Chaos was blood melting pink on the snow; it was the drip of parents that turned into a stream and then a raging river, screaming out the names of their missing children. Chaos was a TV camera in your face, not enought ambulances, not enough officers, and no plan for how to react when the world as you knew it went to pieces.

Gripping is a word that is frequently used to describe an exciting book. I wish I could think of a word even more dramatic to describe how this book captured my attention, sucked me in, and had me suffer along with all (yes, I mean all) of the characters. I can't help but look around my school and wonder about all the hidden, horrible things that are probably occurring now and how there may be someone who feels as desperate and hopeless as this shooter felt.

High school students and parents of high school students will find this book scarier than anything written by Stephen King.

My rating for this book: +++++

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1993)

Maya Angelou's autobiography is very moving. The language she uses is so musical I can hear her voice speaking the words in a rhythm that is like poetry. Each chapter details one event in her life and introduces us to the people who influenced her one way or another.

Most of all, it's a story which shows how it is possible to become a successful and influential person even with the toughest of beginnings. It made me think of the adults I knew and how I was influenced by them. I admire and am jealous of her ability to remember so many scenes from her childhood.

I don't know why I hadn't read the book before now. It's one of those books that everyone must read once in their lives.

My rating for this book: +++++

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Dexter" series

I have been a fan of the "Dexter" series on Showtime for a while now and came across one of Jeff Lindsay's books at a used book store and couldn't resist. For fans of the series, I highly recommend reading the books. There is enough difference between the events that reading the books gives you more Dexter deliciousness.

Dexter is a monster -- no one will deny that, not even himself. At the age of three he was found inside a cargo container sitting in a pool of his mother's blood. She had been hacked up by drug dealers and left with her sons three days before. The police officer adopted Dexter and helped him deal with his pathology by focusing his need to kill on targets that deserve it. By keeping to "the code" Dexter is able to hide his actions and feed the beast. Ironically, he works as a blood spatter specialist in the same Miami police department as the daughter of his adopted parents. Indeed it is here that he finds his victims and the skill to ensure that they deserve a death sentence.

These books are not for the squeamish and faint hearted. They are brutal and full of language but one cannot help but want to continue reading the series and watching the episodes on TV.

My rating for this series: ++++

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Catalyst (2002)

Kate is having a rough time. She grew up without a mother. Her father is a minister who pays more attention to his parishoners than his family. Her brother is... a brother. And to make things even worse, she doesn't get into MIT, her dream since fourth grade. Now her neighbors, the Litch's have a fire and Teri, a classmate, is moving in with her until their house can be rebuilt.

It wasn't part of my plan to be the schmuck that wound up on the cot, but there you go. Teri and Mikey took my bed. As if worrying about MIT weren't enough to keep me awake I have a lawn mower roaring in the middle of the room.
The law mower is Mikey Litch breathing through his mouth, producing a decibel-per-pound output that is off the charts. I should sample the noise and sell it to struggling musicians. I'd make a fortune.
How can Teri stand it? This could explain her anger management problem. I've got to do something or I'll never go to sleep.

Teri's dad is long gone, a blessing for the family, and her mother seems to be rather shell shocked and not very helpful in times of disaster. Teri has a two-year old brother who clings to Teri like a leech and Teri, amazingly, has a chip on her shoulder and isn't the most friendly and appreciative person.

Kate is torn between suffering with her own problems and trying to make a difference for Teri and maybe put a chink in her defensive armor that puts everyone off. I have to admire Kate because Teri is mean, rude, a thief, and as obnoxious as can be. I don't know if I could have been as persistent and patient as Kate.

I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy teen age stories with true-to-life problems.

My rating for this book: ++++

Friday, September 11, 2009

Bog Child (2008)

"Some things never change," seems to be the theme in this books by Siobhan Dowd set in Ireland. Living close to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Fergus represents all of the children who are brought into the world in the middle of a war they didn't start and may die in instead of resolving the conflict. He discovers a partially buried body of a child when he and his uncle are (illegally) collecting peat from a bog near his home. The police quickly determine that the body is centuries old. An anthropologist and her daughter, Felicity, are brought in to try and learn how she died and include Fergus in their investigation.

"You'd never think there was anything wrong here in the North," Felicity said. "Would you?"

Fergus looked out at the green tunnel of trees ahead and the idyllic roadside flowers. "No."

"With the hunger strike and all, the news would have you believe the whole place was at its own throat."

Fergus swallowed. Maybe it is.

"They teach history like that," Felicity said. "Battle after battle - as if there was no ordinary living in between."

Fergus' brother is in prison and is participating in the hunger strike which adds tremendous stress to his family. Taking exams to be placed in medical school offers Fergus a way out of the madness but it is not a sure thing until he gets his grades back. Fergus gets flashes of what we see is the events leading up to the death of the bog child. She sacrificed herself for her village and that raises the question of how much good the fasters do for their efforts.

I highly recommend this book to readers as a way to try and understand what it is like living under such conditions.

My rating for this book: ++++

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Orange Houses (2009)

Two books in a row about damaged people in a harsh world can be hard on one's spirit but this book by Paul Griffin was much better than the last book I read.

Mik (rhymes with Nick), Fatima, and Jimmie could not be more different in background and experiences but they come together in friendship at a crucial time for all three. Mik is a bright girl who is hearing impaired and has to use old-fashioned hearing aids which are full of static and scratchy noises. The good thing about them is that they completely block her ear canals and shutting them off gives her blissful quiet.

Meningitis struck her ten years before, when she was five. Technically her hearing loss was "moderately severe," what lawyers looking to sue hospitals pegged 50 percent deficient. Being halfway to sound was like never being able to catch your breath.

Fatima was a stowaway on a tanker from an unnamed country of North or East Africa. She speaks English very well and is trying to make enough money to bring her sister to the U.S. Jimmie is a veteran who suffered a psychotic break, given an honorable discharge and is a rapping, skateboarding friend of Mik.

Now he saw the other girl, the child suicide bomber, legless, bleeding out in front of him on the sandy subway platform. He closed his eyes but still saw her, would always see her. Why didn't he grab her as she skipped past him? Could he have stopped her from detonating that IED?

The introduction to each chapter tell you something bad is going to happen and keep you turning the pages to the dreaded outcome.

Bronx West, a high school classroom, a late October Thursday morning twenty-seven days before the hanging...

I just have three words for you, "Read this book!"

My rating for this book: +++++

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Punkzilla (2009)

Stories about runaways are usually not very happy ones as this book by Adam Rapp illustrates. Jamie runs away (goes AWOL) from the military school his Army father put him in. He gets on a bus in Portland, Oregon to join his brother (gay, 8 years older, dying of AIDS), P. Along the way he writes letters to his brother and we read letters he has received from others.

You never know what's out there P like all the murderers and the rapists and the kidnappers and the freaks who have sex with animals or children or both or the weirdos who ride around naked on farm equipment. There's just so much you have to be careful of.

Along the way Jaimie meets all sorts of different people and learns a lot about himself as is true about most journey stories. It is tragic, however, that the one person he could connect with is ultimately unable to help him. There is so much a 14-year old needs to learn from a reliable steady adult and it is unfortunate that Jaimie doesn't have one.

This was a very sad story which would appeal to readers who also prefer emo type music.

My rating for this book: +++

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1994)

What events provoke the formation of a gang? What kind of people commit to a gang? These are two of the questions answered in Joyce Carol Oates book about a group of girls who form a gang called Foxfire and vow to take care of each other and avenge misdeeds by males. Not all gangs are located in large urban slums or are populated by non-white men. These girls live in a town called Hammond in New York state. The one thing in common they have with other gangs is that they mostly come from broken families and have been victims of abuse of one kind or another.

What was it, what would be the instrument of their revenge, or was it to be something more significant more lasting more deeply binding? - Maddy'd heard from murmured words exchanged between Goldie and Lana that a "gang" was possible to be formed, the very sound of the word sent her blood racing, "gang," there were gangs in Hammond in Lowertown in the Fairfax neighborhood but they were all boys or young men in their late teens, early twenties, there were no girl gangs nor were there stories of or memories of "girl gangs" Oh Jesus the very sound "girl gang" had the power to send the blood racing!

One of the major themes that comes out from this book is how females discover (and is it so very different still?) that males hold all the power in the world and females are just expected to respect and accept that. These girls don't and they fight back.

Says Lana, "You get the feeling They're afraid of us?" licking her lips 'cause it's such a nice feeling, and Goldie smiles saying, "Huh! They better be," and Legs says, smiling but serious too, "'First comes fear, then respect' as Father Theriault says. 'The oppressed of the Earth, rising, make their own law.'"

This is a terrific book. I wish that young women who are directly or indirectly associated with gangs today would read this book. They would be able to see how gangs fit into their lives and maybe see how they might be able to live and succeed without them.

My rating for this book: +++++

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Collectors (2006)

David Baldacci has woven an exciting, interesting, twisting action novel tying together a librarian from the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, a con artist who runs a $40 million scam on an Atlantic Beach casino, a professional assassin, and the members of the Camel Club, veterans of the Vietnam era who help people who are in situations way over their heads.

Taking place in Washington, D.C., this book takes into the bowels of the Library of Congress, the national library, and to various sites around the capital, including the mall when it was the site of two major events; a book fair and a protest march for the poor.

This is the perfect kind of book to take on a plane on a long trip. It is involved enough to keep your attention. I usually buy 2 or 3 books when I travel to make sure I have something to distract me and hold my interest during long flights since I have never found watching a movie on a 12-inch screen, 10 feet away, between flight attendants walking back and forth, and listening to the sound through ear-poking head sets, to be anything close to fun.

I recommend this book to readers looking for adventure mixed with intrigue and a little violence but with camaraderie and humor.

My rating for this book: +++.5

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gone (2006)

I used to read crime mysteries by the dozen but this book by Jonathan Kellerman has made me wonder why. Halfway through the book I found the rhythm of each chapter opening with Alex Delaware, a psychologist who helps the L.A. police solve murders, and his police friend, Milo, interviewing or reinterviewing someone for half of the chapter and then the two of them having a conversation full of maybes, perhaps, might haves, and other signs of red herrings. Next chapter, next interview.

The other thing that got me was the lack of subject in many sentences, and not just in the conversations.

"Over the years I've accompanied Milo to lots of taverns and beer joints and cocktail lounges. A couple of gay bars as well. It's an illuminating experience watching him function in that sphere.
This was a new dive, a narrow, dark tunnel of a place called Jody Z's, at the southern edge of Pacific, just above the Marina. Arena rock on the jukebox, silent football rerun on TV, tired men at the urethane bar, rough paneling and fishnets and glass globes.
Plastic sawdust on the floor. What was the point of that?"

This murder mystery takes place in Los Angeles and does nothing to dispell the notion that L.A. is full of nutcakes; very rich, very bizarre, very egocentric nutcakes. I quickly lost interest in these characters. I neither warmed to them nor was I glad when the perp was arrested, just very relieved I finished the book. I am very familiar of Mr. Kellerman's name but when I read through the list (a quite long one) of titles, I could not remember if I had read any of them or not.

Mr. Kellerman is a very popular writer with many fans. Maybe I didn't read this book at the right time or I have just read my fill of mysteries and this one was the overflow.

My rating for this book: ++

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003)

This biography by Tracy Kidder follows the career of Dr. Paul Farmer who has taken upon himself the monumental task of curing tuberculosis in Haiti and other areas of the world.

"I imagine that many people would like to construct a life like Farmer's, to wake up knowing what they ought to do and feeling that they were doing it. But I can't think that many would willingly take on the difficulties, giving up their comfort and time with family."

While attending medical school in Boston, Dr. Farmer was trying to set up a system to treat TB patients and improve conditions to slow or stop the spread of the disease in Haiti. One of the challenges that this disease presents is that it takes two years of taking antibiotics to clear all the viruses. Any break in the regimen could mean that it can return resistant to those drugs requiring the patient to start all over with even stronger antibiotics. In addition to studying infectious diseases, Dr. Farmer also studied anthropology. He studied how the people lived, what they ate, and what they believed in and used this information to better serve them.

"Farmer received his Ph.D. and M.D. simultaneously in the spring of the following year, 1990. His thesis won a prize, and a university press accepted it for publication...By now, at the age of thirty-one, he'd dealt with more varieties of illness than most American physicians see in a lifetime. He'd also learned how to design and manage both a public health system and a clinic, built from scratch, in one of the most difficult places imaginable, among people whose governments had kept them illiterate, where on a good day concrete got transported by donkey."

It is a remarkable and inspirational story. Dr. Farmer found an abysmally poor corner of the world where good people suffered unnoticed and he took it upon himself to help them. Along the way others joined him in the battle. He traveled around the world at breakneck speed, never resting, healing, building, raising money, training others, and speaking. At times I found myself breathless as if I were trying to keep up with him. You can learn more about the organization he started, Partners in Health, at this website: http://www.pih.org/home.html View the video "This I Believe" and see if you aren't inspired.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has the desire to make a change and can't think how to begin.

My rating for this book: ++++

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

Twelve days and counting until the movie opens!

I couldn't wait any longer. I put down the other books I was reading and reread Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling. I think this was my favorite book of the series and that Ms. Rowling was nothing short of brilliant to do what she did to one of the main characters. I know that I will be carrying hankies when I go to see the movie.

Harry has spent the previous five books learning about who he is and how to use his wizarding powers and has reached the point where he feels he can make a real contribution to bringing down Voldemort. Dumbledore invites him to his office and shares memories about Tom Riddle, the young Voldemort, to try and learn how he is coming back to life and, more importantly, how to stop him.

Harry's true power, if you can call it that, is his strong friendship with Ron and Hermione and loyalty felt by other Gryffindor housemates such as Neville, Luna, and Ron's sister, Ginny. All through the series it has been shown that the love Harry felt for his parents, his friends, and his mentor, Dumbledore gives him strength to stand up to the Dark Lord. This theme is so right and so beautiful it makes me wonder how some people want to ban these books from libraries because of the sorcery practiced. I'm sure that these narrow-minded people would be perfectly content if knives and guns were used instead.

It hardly goes without saying that if a reader has enjoyed the first five books, he or she will love the sixth.

My rating for this book: +++++

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Just Listen (2006)

Shades of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, this drama by Sarah Dessen gives us a heroine who also was a rape victim and keeps it in and suffers the barbs and shuns of her classmates. She does this for several reasons, one of which is maintaining her image for her career as a model.

Annabel has two sisters who are models. Kirsten is working and attending college in New York. Whitney also works in New York and lives with her but comes home when her eating disorder becomes too much for Kirsten. This family problem is another reason Annabel keeps her rape to herself.

"Sophie was still standing in front of me. It was quiet all around us. I knew I could have broken the silence, could have spoken up. It was only my word against his, and now hers. But I didn't."

It wasn't until the rapist acted again, against one of Annabel's ex-friends, that a pattern emerges and a champion steps forward to prosecute him and gives Annabel a chance to voice her secret.

"[Emily's] voice was barely a hush as she said, 'I know you've heard what happened. What Will did to me."

"I could feel it, a visceral reaction to what had just happened, her coming closer than anyone to the truth. My truth. And just like that, I could feel something rising up inside me. I looked around, wondering where on earth I could get sick quietly and discreetly. But then something else happened: I started to cry."

Of all the people who could have reached and helped Annabel, salvation came from Owen, a boy deeply interested in music and a veteran of an Anger Management program. Using techniques he learned in the program, he leads her to a point where she can finally share what happened to her in a venue that did her the most good and the rapist the worst; his trial.

Sarah Dessen is my daughter's favorite author and she recommended this book as the one I should read. One of the aspects of this book that I appreciated was that Annabel is a beautiful, popular girl which shows readers that rape can happen to anyone. The fear, shame, and loss of self-respect can be devastating and should never be suffered alone. This book shows girls that if they find themselves in a position similar to Annabel's, they should find someone to talk to.

This is a fast-reading book that all girls should read.

My rating for this book: ++++

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dog On It (2009)

I read once that a dog appearing on the cover of a book means the dog dies by the end but I didn't think of that when I bought this book by Spencer Quinn and luckily that maxim didn't hold true this time! Chet tells the story of how he and his master, Bernie Little, solved the case of a missing teen-aged girl named Madison. Luckily Chet understands a lot of human words and can relate their conversations to the reader. We also learn a lot about his world through smells and sounds.

We learn that his favorite things are steaks, riding in cars, and Bernie, who adopted Chet when he failed to get his K-9 certification.

"'What's with you right now?'
Nothing, nothing was with me: stoned out of my mind, that was all. I got my tongue back in my mouth; it was all dried up from the wind, felt more like one of those towels I sometimes found on the laundry-room floor. I liked burying those towels out in the backyard near the big rock, but burying towels was never easy. The chew strips - that was another matter, easy to bury and - Whoa! At that moment I had a very faint memory of burying one that I hadn't dug up yet, near the orange tree by old man Heydrich's fence. Maybe it was still there! I was gazing up at the moon and making plans when we turned in to a driveway and came to a stop behind Cynthia Chambliss's car."

Chet is an amazing dog, quick to respond to Bernie's commands and independent enough to end up in all sorts of predicaments, like time spent in a dog pound. That was a close one! Like most dogs, he doesn't have the best memory except when it comes to scents and can be easily distracted by things to eat or chase.

I give this book a hearty recommendation to people who love dogs and mysteries, two of my favorite things! And no, Chet doesn't die because Mr. Quinn is writing more books! I can't wait!

My rating for this book: +++++

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What I Saw and How I Lied (2008)

When I was a teenager I had a crush on an adult family friend. I thought he was dashing even though I knew he drank entirely too much (he eventually died of liver failure). In Judy Blundell's National Book Award winner, Evie develops a crush on a man who may be having a relationship with her mother. He dies at sea during a hurricane and her parents are suspected of causing his death.

This book takes place mostly in Palm Beach, Florida shortly after the end of World War II. Her stepfather, Joe, takes her mother, Beverly, and Evie by car to Florida for a break. Evie is a prime witness to many adult events such as fights between her parents and between her mother and stepfather's mother, Glad. She is also aware of feelings of antisemitism around her even though one of the major reasons for the war, she thought, was to save the Jews. So why does everyone hate them now?

On the verge of becoming an adult, she tries to participate in the games she sees played around her. She dresses up in her mother's glamorous dresses and wears her makeup and perfume. She flirts with Peter, another guest at the hotel they stay at and he responds by taking her and her mother out for drives to stores and movie theaters. But why did her mother always have to come?

There is a movie genre called "noir", French for "black", where detectives track down murderers and adulterers. There are always dark shadows and the actors use low, deep voices. This book reminded me of these movies. It was dark (even though it took place in Florida) and it seemed the camera angle was always aimed up at the adults as if Evie were shooting the movie and the adults were talking over her head.

I'm not sure who might read this book (notice I didn't say enjoy). I read it because it was an award winner and I almost had to push through it. It's a precautionary story about jumping into grown-up business too early so I would recommend it to readers who appreciate books with serious topics and a maybe not-so-happy ending.

My rating for this book: +++

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rose (1996)

Martin Cruz Smith writes fabulous mystery novels with a low key hero in unusual locations. This book takes place in the English coal mining town of Wigan in 1872. Jonathan Blair is paid to discover the fate of the town's pastor, John Maypole. Jonathan has recently returned from Africa and suffers recurring bouts of malaria. He wants to settle the matter of the disappearance as fast as possible so he can return to Africa.

Through Blair's eyes we learn a little of what life in a mining town and work in a mine are like and what the people's lives are like, living in perpetual darkness, and unable to get away from an occupation that is perpetually dangerous, dirty, and soul-depletingly horrible. But, as his patrons, the rich Hannay family might be heard to say, "Someone's got to do it."

If you like mysteries that don't depend on car chases and gun fights and offer a view of a life you'll never experience, this is a book for you. It will be even more dramatic if you suffer from claustrophobia.

My rating for this book: +++

Black Girl/White Girl (2007)

During the summer months I try to read "adult" books since I can devote more undistracted hours to reading, whether it be outside on the deck or enjoying a balmy evening on top of the covers of my bed. I buy books off the clearance rack and from new releases, I read books waiting patiently for me in piles around the house, and I pull books off my library's shelf as I perform an inventory. My first summer book was by Joyce Carol Oates, an author new to me.

This book reminded me a little of Davita's Harp since both books are about extremely bright, young women raised among liberal activists and, for the most part, without a father, as Genna's father is constantly on the move, hiding from the feds. Her mother is not occupied by her work like Davita's, but by drugs and self-pity.

In 1974, Genna goes to a liberal, all-female college in Virginia founded by wealthy ancestors and is eager to become friends with her black roommate, a scholarship student from Washington D.C. who seems to have enough in her life (religion and family) to not befriend anyone at the school. The story is told from Genna's viewpoint as she tries to support Minette through several instances of racism.

The genius of this book is that like Genna, we are not offered any insight into Minette's lack of response to Genna. While this book could have been, like so many, a cross-race friendship story, instead is how people from different backgrounds may never cross the race divide. Like Genna's father wrote:

"Some truths are lies. Some lies are truths. For all human utterances are provisional and expedient. And what we wish to believe to be REAL is but our political perspective and our political perspective is determined by race, class, social privilege from which we must be wakened to be free to throw off our skin-consciousness which is our collective blindness and sometimes that awakening must be violent for there is no other way."

This is an outstanding book and I recommend it to people who enjoy good character development stories.

My rating for this book: ++++

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Heroes of the Valley (2009)

After enjoying the Bartimeaus series so much, I was thrilled to see that Jonathan Stroud had a new book out and I was not disappointed.

We all grow up with stories that are so real to us they are like memories. We don't doubt their veracity since they have been handed down to us by our parents who heard them from their parents, and so on. Halli Sweinsson doubts the stories he was told from birth about his ancestors and Trows, monsters who lived all around their lands. Were the stories real? Halli, the second son of his town's leader, wanted to learn the truth and maybe make his own legends.

Like most of us, Halli is not perfect. He is much shorter than his brother and much smarter with a wonderful sense of humor (I found myself chuckling out loud). Everyone only notices his stature, however, and they all fail to appreciate his intelligence and wit, except for Aud, the daughter of another town's leader. Together they are quite a team.

Adventurers and action lovers will enjoy this book.

My rating for this book: ++++

City of Bones (2007)

I have to admit I was attracted to this series by Cassandra Clare by the bold and gilt tinged covers and the hope of another fun trip with new characters but I got as far as page 272 (out of 485) and got so angry at the author I shut the book and rued the wasted hours reading it.

"Another vampire pushed her way throught the crowd to stand at his side - a pretty blue-haired Asian girl in a silver foil skirt. Clary wondered if there were any ugly vampires, or maybe any fat ones. Maybe they didn't make vampires out of ugly people. Or maybe ugly people just didn't want to live forever."

Or maybe people ugly on the inside are cursed to live forever. In an era where teenagers are so conscious of looks, and advertising and the media pushing overly thin examples of "beauty", I was furious at the author for these words. And since I was less than whelmed by the quality of the writing, I have no qualms about saying that this book is a total waste of time.

My rating for this book: (no stars)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Marcelo in the Real World (2009)

Marcelo talking about himself in the third person is one of the manifestations of autism that he shows. In Francisco X. Stork's book, he is a very intelligent boy who has attended a school for kids with special needs and has developed a real talent for working with the school's therapy ponies. At the end of his junior year he is looking forward to a summer working in the school's stables but his father informs him that instead he will work in the mail room of his law offices with a young woman named Jasmine. This job will help Marcelo develop the ability to "read" people's facial expressions and learn how to interpret the many expressions that can flummox autistic people.
A cross between a John Grisham novel and A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this book gives us a story of a young man who lands in a situation that's way over his head. His father's firm represents a company that sells car windshields that splinter when broken into jagged pieces instead of harmless pebbles. Marcelo comes across the picture of a girl whose received a chunk of glass in her face, not only disfiguring her, but serious enough to interfere with her eating and talking. Should he persue trying to help her or keep his mouth shut to protect his father?
Mystery readers and readers the Haddon book about an autistic boy will really enjoy this book.
My rating for this book: +++

Friday, May 29, 2009


"Have you ever wanted to convert files without the need to download software?"

One of the biggest problem students have when trying to print a paper at school is that they forgot to save it at home as an .rtf (Rich Text Format) file. They bring in their flash drive or CD, or email the file to themselves, and find the file cannot be opened by Word on the school computers. Luckily, Zamzar can help.

A student can upload their file to Zamzar and give them their email address. In a short time (usually less than one hour), a link to their converted file is sent to their email. Download, print, take the paper to class!

Of course, this would not be necessary if students would remember to save files with the .rtf format, but as long as they have an hour or so to wait for the conversion, Zamzar can be the answer to their dilemma.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Beastly (2007)

"BeastNYC: sorry but it's really hard being a beast in nyc."

This story by Alex Flinn is a remake of the old Beauty and the Beast fairytale where a vain, self-centered young man offends a witch who turns him into a hideous beast until he can find a girl who loves him regardless of his looks and gives him a kiss. What makes this story new and different is that the young man, Kyle, goes to a very upscale school in New York City but is easily recognizeable as the one young man in every school envied by every other boy and drooled over by every girl. He purposely invited one girl, Kendra, to a dance, knowing full well he had no intentions of actually taking her. Little does he know that Kendra is a witch who uses this opportunity to teach him a lesson! The morning after the dance Kyle finds himself covered in fur.

Kyle is totally odious in the beginning of the book. He is the epitome of vain, shallow, and spoiled teenager. He thinks and does everything possible to make us loathe him. His father, a television newscaster (and stereotypically obsessed with looks) takes Kyle to doctors who offer no help except to try counseling and live with it. Dad eventually moves Kyle into a five story brownstone in Brooklyn with a housekeeper and a blind tutor.

While researching a possible cure for his condition on the Internet, Kyle finds a chat room with other victims of curses such as a mermaid in love with a human, a frog greatly disadvantaged on the keyboard, and a grizzlybear who finds love with a girl named Snow White (but not that Snow White). The moderator is identified as Mr. Anderson and we can guess that his full name is Hans Christian Anderson. As is true with most fairy tales, all of the chatters find a happy ending.

I recommend this very cute story to readers who fondly remember reading these fairy tales when they were little. The new twists make it fun and the Kyle's full transformation is captivating to watch.
My rating for this book: ++++

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Heart of Darkness (1899)

"Droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comes too late--a crop of unextinguishable regrets. "

It took me a while to reread Joseph Conrad's book because I found that so often I would stop and read over a particular sentence twice or three times over because of the fascinating was he uses language. The excerpt quoted above is an example. Of course, the more times I read this, the more depressed and desperate I felt. Not exactly an upbeat book.

Read this book slowly (it's not very long anyway) and fix each image in your mind and feel each emotion in your heart to get the full effect.

After you have read this book, rent the movie Apocalypse Now (1979) starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, and Dennis Hopper. It is based on Heart of Darkness but takes place in Viet Nam. You may have heard the tag line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

I read this book via DailyLit. Somehow I managed to have a window on my iGoogle page with one installment a day and also receive four installments each day on the Google reader. It is fun to get a piece of a book each day but my eyes still get strained reading on a computer screen, especially when I read something over and over again. I think I'll stick with books.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

DailyLit - update

I have stopped reading the incredibly dated children's stories. It's amazing that children actually grew up and eventually wrote better stories than these! Then again, maybe they were also disgusted by these stories and had the incentive to write better ones. I have changed to a another story I have read before, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It's only 46 episodes long, but packed with amazing language and action.

The narrator speaks of his boyhood fascination with the empty white areas of unexplored continents and speaks about a map of Africa. "It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery--a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land."

It is amazing that Conrad wrote his books in English, his second language (Polish being his first).
I still think DailyLit is a fun website and they are adding new titles every day. Recently they added Sherlock Holmes stories. Recently written books are also available, many with a nominal fee. Cory Doctorow's book, Little Brother, is available for free.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Harper Lee only wrote this one book and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. This is not the first time I've read this book and I'm sure I'll read it again since it is one of my all time favorite books.

Scout is another precocious girl (like Ilana in Davita's Harp) who lives in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. She tells the story of how her father defended a black man who was charged with the rape of a white woman. One of the things that makes this book so special is her ability to absorb information gleaned from adult conversations and using the delicious tidbits only Southern people are capable of creating. The other amazing feature of this book is the insight into the Southern way of labeling each person according to their family name or race. There is no way that one can escape a reputation for drink, violence or any other fault shown by a relative generations before his own. And Scout's town is full of people who can trace their (and everyone else's) heritage back to when the white Europeans first moved into the area.

"You know something, Scout? I've got it all figured out, now. I've thought about it a lot lately and I've got it figured out. There's four kinds of folks in the world. There's the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there's the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes."
"What about the Chinese, and the Cajuns down yonder in Baldwin County?"
"I mean in Maycomb County. The thing about it is, our kind of folks don't like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don't like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folks."

Scout has the most wonderful sense of humor which is demonstrated when she describes people.

"Mr. Merriweather, a faithful Methodist under duress, apparently saw nothing personal in singing, 'Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wetch like me...'"

"Had I ever harbored the mystical notions about mountains that seem to obsess lawyers and judges, Aunt Alexandra would have been analogous to Mount Everest: throughout my early life, she was cold and there."

Harper Lee had a cousin, a well known author and remarkable character, Truman Capote. He was the model for Scout's friend, Dill, a boy who visited his aunt during the summer vacations. The trio of Scout, Dill, and Scout's brother, Jem, watch how the town behaves during and after the trial.

In addition to this being a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the movie starring Gregory Peck, is also a winner having received three Oscars. The scene where Atticus walks out of the courtroom is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever seen.

This book is a must read for everyone.
My rating for this book: +++++ (plus one more for extraordinary).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Davita's Harp (1984)

Grownups very often do not realize how much their concerns and worries affect their young children. In this book by Chaim Potok, Ilana Davita Chandal is the daughter of Communist party members in New York in the 1930s. They fervently speak and write about the growing threat of Facism in Europe, specifically Spain. Surrounded by such passionate dedicated adults, it's no wonder that Ilana Davita focuses on two permanent items that follow her family through frequent moves; a door harp and a photograph of horses on a beach. The door harp (I have to have one of these!!!) sounds tones on stretched wires when the front door is opened.

As she grows, and the situation in Europe becomes more and more deadly, she becomes attracted to the rituals of the Jewish religions and the peace people find in them. She is obviously very bright and her parents are the type that never talk down to children and always answer their questions, even the really hard ones.

"My mother had tried to explain it to me, but I could not grasp it. Rebels agains Reds, Fascists against Communits, aristocrats and middle class agains workers, landowners against peasants. A brutally divided world. It seemed as if an ocean of blood had rolled across that land. None of my classmates talked about the war; few even knew about it. But somewhere in Spain was my father amidst bombs and shells and burned-out villages and fields littered with dead horses and human corpses. I was able to understand many of the words that I read in his articles, but I could not imagine a ruined village or a field of dead hroses and men. After a while I stopped reading my father's stories when I was alone at home at night."

Her mother was a Jewish immigrant and her father a New England Protestant but neither practiced their religions (being good Communists). She continued to be interested in Judaism, even learning Hebrew on her own, and attended a Hebrew school. No gentle molding of a young woman here. She was formed by world events of epic proportion.

I highly recommend this book to anyone tired of books about who's dating whom and individual's problems with drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. This will open their eyes to the possibility that there is more out there affecting them and they need to lift their eyes and focus on the bigger picture.
My rating for this book: +++++

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This Full House (2009)

I've been waiting for quite a while for the third book in the Make Lemonade trilogy by Virginia Euwer Wolff and I was not disappointed. When I put a mylar cover on the dust cover I discovered a surprise about the art which is not apparent in the face-on view you see here. When the cover is completely open it is apparent that both girls are pregnant!
Anyway, LaVaughn is still attending school, pushed and supported by her single mother, and babysitting Jolly's two darling children, Jilly and Jeremy. Jolly is a very young single mother trying to make a good life for her children by getting her GED.
LaVaughn is now a senior in high school and the goal of attending college is so close she can almost taste it. She is accepted into a program called WIMS.

"Every girl here is from a poor school
and this doctor walks in
as if we're the best roomful of students ever.
She puts the binder on the lecture stand
and smiles at every one of us,
a startling smile,
I can feel it like a beam
when it comes to me and moves along.
Women in Medical Science.
These four words can connect you
with the rest of your lives, girls.' Her voice.
Like a deep bell, promise, expectation.
She looks across the whole room and back again.
'Note that this is not a large group.
Fourty-five, to be exact.
You are preparing to give your lives to medicine.
And what is medicine,
what do we devote ourselves to here?
Preservation of life,
restitution of health. That is our mission.'
The lump in my throat comes and goes.
I think it is because
I might fail this thing."

So speaks Dr. Moore, a dedicated neurosurgeon who has organized a medical school primer for high school girls to entice them and give them a boost into the field of medicine. LaVaughn is riveted to every word but something starts to creep into her mind, something about the doctor that reminds her of someone, mannerisms that she has seen before. Could she be Jolly's mother? To add to her many fields of focus, one of her best friends is pregnant.
Wolff has given us another novel in verse about her protaganist who has her goal in reach and still has time for her friends and mother. I have no doubt that LaVaughn will continue through college and achieve a position in the medical field. I would love to be at her graduation.
My rating for this book: +++++

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fly on the Wall (2006)

After a trilogy of books with magicians and monsters, I thought I would come back to reality. Well, almost.
E. Lockhart's book takes place in the Manhattan School for Arts and Music and we meet Gretchen Yee, a half-Chinese girl whose parents announce they are getting a divorce then leave her alone for a week (Dad has business in Hong Kong and Mom goes on a trip to the Caribbean).
They always warn you that you get what you wish for but Gretchen makes an offhand wish to her friend, Katya, anyway.
"Just tell me," sighs Katya. "What do you wish?"
"I wish I was fly on the wall of the boys' locker room," I say.
The next morning finds Gretchen clinging to the wall of the boys' locker room with four more legs than she went to bed with and a set of compound eyes and wings! I will leave it to you to imagine what she observed there over a span of several days, and what she learned about the boys from her school gives her a whole new perspective of their lives and her place in the high school.
There is a lot of humor in this book (as you can well imagine) but it has its moments when Gretchen learns harsh truths about the boys and their private lives.
I recommend this fast reading book with a warning about the frank discussion of boys' bodies.
My rating for this book: ++++