Category Archives: reviews

Review: Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

IMG_20140410_204031
My copy from the library. Do you see all the post-its?

Why Don’t Students Like School? : A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means For the Classroom

 Daniel T. Willingham

180 pages

Published in March 2009 by Jossey-Bass

Source: Public Library

In Why Don’t Students Like School?, psychologist Daniel T. Willingham shares with readers nine principles of cognitive science that can be applied to classrooms everywhere. From why thinking is hard for all of us – kids and adults alike – to the importance of repetition and motivation, to debunking the theory of multiple intelligences, Willingham’s book is one that should be in the hands of educators, parents, and administrators everywhere.

In each chapter, the author focuses on one of the principles and shares with readers the research behind the principle and gives examples. At the end of each chapter, there’s a summary and ways to implicate the research into the classroom.

One of the best chapters has to do with factual knowledge and critical thinking skills. Willingham argues that for students to critically think about a subject, they have to have background knowledge. That knowledge allows student to hold more information which means they can comprehend more. It also makes students better readers. The whole thing is a cycle.

It’s also why it’s important for parents to start early with their kids by reading to them. If a child doesn’t have the same background information as their classmates, they’re always going to play catch up, but they will always be behind.

Another one of the book’s principles has to do with intelligence being malleable. What’s just as important is a person’s mindset about intelligence. Intelligence can be changed through hard work but a person has to believe that they can get smarter. When a person believes they can become smarter, they seek out challenging opportunities that help them become that way. If a person believes intelligence is fixed, challenging opportunities are avoided as a way not to fail.

There is so much to learn and while I enjoyed reading this book, I had a few issues. This book is less than 180 pages and it is dense. There’s so much information coming at readers. It’s a book you have to work at but it’s well worth it. There’s also illustrations in each chapter to help with the examples given. Towards the end of the book, the illustrations became a distraction and weren’t needed.

If you’re an adult who’s interested in bringing out the best learning experiences for children, you can’t go wrong by reading this book. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Ghost Stories: Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel

18167000The Frangipani Hotel: Stories

Violet Kupersmith

248 pages

Set to be released on April 1, 2014 by Spiegel & Grau

Source: Publisher

But as we watched, we realized that the thing approaching us was not a boat after all. I blinked and squinted, not wanting to believe my eyes, hoping that the rain was blurring my vision. Grandpa stopped waving and went silent, his face puzzled at first, then terrified.

Violet Kupersmith’s collection of short stories, The Frangipani Hotel, starts out with a bang. In the collection’s first story, “Boat Story”, a grandmother recalls her first day of fishing with her new husband and meets a mysterious spirit. The imagery was powerful and I found myself spellbound. I wanted to read more and I did.

The stories that followed, while attention-grabbing with simple writing and vivid descriptions, didn’t keep my interest. I found myself reading a story, feeling “meh” about it, and reading the next story only because this book is for a blog tour. After several stories, I decided not to finish the book.

The Frangipani Hotel is described as a collection of ghost stories set in Vietnam. “Boat Story” sets the tone for the book. The past affects the future whether we want it to or not. As the grandmother explains to her grandchild, Vietnam “gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want”. The characters in this collection learn that lesson, often the hard way.

While this collection didn’t keep my interest, many of the bloggers on this tour would disagree with me. This just might be a case of a book coming into my life at the wrong time.

Our muddy patch of the world was already shadowy and blood-soaked and spirit-friendly long before the Americans got here. There’s ancient and ugly things waiting to harm you in that darkness. Yes, of course they’re there in daylight, too—they’re just harder to spot. I’m not by any means a small man. I’m not the man you’d pick a fight with if you could help it. But I do get jittery sometimes.

What was the last book you read and didn’t love but everyone else did?

Review: L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi

9780062202635L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food

Roy Choi with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan

320 pages

Published in November 2013 by Anthony Bourdain Books, an imprint of Ecco Books

Source: Public Library

 

Up until that moment, I just didn’t see it. I didn’t realize how much food was a part of my family, a part of me. I was almost too close to it all, too close to the screen to really see the big picture. But the moment Emeril waves those herbs at me, my whole world clicked into place and I saw what had been in front of my face this whole time. Food. Flavors. Sohn-maash. I saw myself in the kitchen. I saw myself at home.

Roy Choi takes readers on a ride through L.A. and beyond with his debut, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food. Born in Korea before immigrating to the United States at the age of two, Choi went through a chaotic childhood as his family moved from place to place. Years later as a teenager with his family settled into Orange County, California, the chaos was really just starting.

Choi is famously known for breathing new life into street food. He’s the owner of Kogi BBQ, which started back in 2008 and has since baptize people with its Korean tacos. Seriously. Food trucks are a huge deal in SoCal and Kogi BBQ has been known to have crowds waiting for its food.

Now back to the book.

L.A. Son is a raw and honest account of Choi’s life from his childhood to right before he started his business. He described his entry into the world as,

a baby with a big Frankenstein head, drenched in his own blood, with more spewing out through his upper cleft like lava erupting from a volcano. Wailing, crying. . . One hell of a hectic entry into this world, huh?

Love.

Once in the United States, Choi’s parents tried their hand at a number of businesses from owning a liquor store to running a restaurant. It wasn’t until they started their own jewelry business that they found success. But while his parents were chasing their American dream, Choi was a lost kid who was trying to find where he fit in. Wherever he went he found friends, other misfits, but not his purpose. It wasn’t until years later after hitting bottom that he realized his purpose, cooking, was right there all along.

The recipes in L.A. Son coincide with various events in Choi’s life. The dumpling recipe reminds readers of family time every day in Silver Garden, the Choi family restaurant. The comfort of buttermilk pancakes is featured in the same chapter that the author experiences heartbreak. I love that there’s a story behind every recipe.

The diversity of the recipes is also another thing to enjoy. Readers get recipes for horchata right along with recipes for pork fried rice and French onion soup. There’s also a few surprises like ketchup fried rice and windowpane smoothies. You want a homemade recipe, it’s in the book. You want something that’s not strictly homemade? You get that too.

L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food is a fantastic foodie memoir. If Roy Choi writes another book, I’m buying it with no hesitation. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

 —–

Cardamom Milk Shaved Ice

Serves 6

  • One 14-ounce can condensed milk, plus a little more for garnish
  • 3 ½ cups of water
  • One 14-ounce can coconut milk
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 3 tablespoons cold brewed coffee
  • 1 teaspoon roasted and crushed sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • Grated zest of 1 lime

Garnish

  • Fresh or canned lychee
  • Fresh mint leaves

Combine the condensed milk, water, coconut milk, cardamom, coffee, sesame seeds, lime juice, and zest in a big bowl and give it a good whisk. Run the mixture through a sorbet machine or freeze it in a pan, running a fork through it every 30 minutes until frozen.

Scoop and serve the shaved ice in a bowl with the lychees, the mint, and a little more condensed milk drizzled over the top.

 

Graphic Novels Review: Fables Vol. 19 Snow White, Tommysaurus Rex, and The Lost Islands

17290285Explorer: The Lost Islands

Edited by Kazu Kibuishi

128 pages

Published in 2013 by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams

Source: Public Library

Audience: Middle Grade

Explorer: The Lost Islands is an anthology of graphic shorts (short stories in graphic format) from new artists like Chrystin Garland and old favorites like Raina Telgemeir. Every story explores the theme of island in vastly different ways.

Like many anthologies, some stories were a hit and others a miss. Some of my favorite stories include “Radio Adrift” by Katie and Steven Shanahan about a witch-in-training and a floating radio station was cute and left me wanting more. Out of the seven stories, there were more that I didn’t care for than I did. The majority fell short. My rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

16100974Tommysaurus Rex

Doug TenNapel

142 pages

Published in 2013 by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic

Source: Public Library

Audience: Middle Grade

I’ve read every one of Doug TenNapel’s books and enjoyed them for the most part. Tommysaurus Rex is no exception. Ely is a young boy whose best friend is his dog Tommy. When Tommy is hit and killed by a car, Ely is sent to his grandfather’s farm to cope. There he discovers a Tyrannosaurus Rex, names it Tommy after his dog, and becomes friends with it. When news stations start covering Ely and his pet, it brings much-needed revenue to the town. As with any strange and ancient creature, not everyone likes the fact that a dinosaur is roaming their town openly. Randy, the town bully, decides he’s going to do everything he can to destroy Ely and his pet.

As an adult reading a book geared toward the elementary and middle school set, I had to suspend my disbelief several times while reading Tommysaurus Rex. Like the fact that Tommy the dinosaur has been alive and buried deep in a cave all these years after dinosaurs became extinct. Randy, the bully, is a child who would have had been in an altercation with any decent parent after what he did to Ely the first time he met him. There would be no story after that. Seriously. Also the fact that no one thought it was crazy that the dinosaur was alive and walking around with everyone. Tommysaurus Rex is a good book but not the author’s best.  My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

17704953Fables Vol. 19: Snow White

Bill Willingham

168 pages

Published in 2013 by Vertigo Comics

Source: Public Library

Audience: Adult

Guys, I want a do-over with this volume. The previous volume, Cubs in Toyland, was a fantastic read, one of the best volumes in the Fables series. It was so good that I gave it a rating of 5 stars.  This volume’s rating is nowhere near 5. I don’t want to buy this. I want the authors to rewrite this. What really kills me is that Kelly heard a rumor that the series is ending next year.

Throughout the series, readers have learned a lot about Snow’s past like her relationship with her sister Red, her mother’s magical powers, and the curse that landed her with the seven dwarves (so tragic). In this volume, the prince that Snow was once promised to as a young girl returns, refusing to accept Snow’s marriage to Bigby. Tragedy ensues and I would have thrown this book across the room, but I needed to know what happens next. Nothing good happens. I’m still trying to figure out what was the purpose of this book. It adds to the story but not in any way that makes sense. I can’t go into detail because it would be nothing but spoilers. My rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

The Perfect Score: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Steir

15796717The Perfect Score: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT

Debbie Steir

238 pages

Published in February 2014 by Harmony Books, an imprint of Harper

Source: Publisher

So here I was, five months in and back to square one: confused, confronting too many options, and feeling overwhelmed and borderline frantic.

I picked up Debbie Steir’s The Perfect Score after years of following her blog and reading about her journey to earn the perfect SAT score. Steir is not some teenager who’s trying to get into her dream college. She’s a middle-aged, divorced, single mother of two teens, who came up with the idea of taking the SAT in hopes of inspiring her son to start studying for the test. She didn’t take the SAT once. She took it seven times over the course of a year.

Steir is passionate, enthusiastic, and focused as she went through her year learning and testing. I love reading someone’s journey as they learned a new hobby or area of expertise.  Steir’s journey was no exception. She asked from help from friends, strangers online, and researched as much as she could. The author also combined her experiences with what she learned about the history of the SAT and tips that will help parents and students who have to take the test in the next few years. No stone was left unturned as she learned as much as possible, trying out various techniques from hiring tutors to trying Kumon to using the College Board blue books.

Halfway through this book, I stand to myself “This shit is crazy.” No seriously.

What I thought was crazy is the pressure that is put on high schoolers (and some middle schoolers) to get high scores to get into decent colleges. There were times that I needed to take a deep breath.  The author herself realizes that the key to doing well on the SATs is mastering math and English before time. Way before time. Mastering a subject means having a strong foundation first. This was something that not everyone has including Steir herself.

The author manages to inspire her son and learns a thing or two about herself in the end.

The Perfect Score is an eye-opening and engaging read that stands out among memoirs about an author’s “special” year. If you have a kid who will take the SATs in a few years, this is the book you need to read. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

18079683Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

320 pages

Being published by Riverhead Books on March 6, 2014

Source: From a blogger friend

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. . . ”

It’s the winter of 1953 and Boy Novak has finally ran away from her abusive father, winding up in a small town far from home. Later on, she marries Arturo Whitman, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his young daughter, Snow. But it’s the birth of Arturo and Boy’s own daughter, Bird, which changes Boy’s happy ending. Their daughter is born with brown skin and exposes Arturo and his immediate family as African Americans passing as white. Bird’s birth changes Boy’s view of Snow, as the girl turning from an innocent child to a more sinister figure. Is Snow really who everyone thinks she is? Are any of us the images we reflect to others? With Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi gives new life to the tale of Snow White; expanding and exploring it through the webs of race, beauty, vanity, and above all, love.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: Helen Oyeyemi comes up with some kick-ass names for her characters.

As someone who has never read anything by the author before, I went into this book with no expectations. I didn’t know this story had elements of the Snow White fable. A note about that: There are fairy tale retellings and modern-day versions of fairy tales, but I like to think of Oyeyemi’s story as a fairy tale expansion because she takes the Snow White story and turns it into a complex, sometimes heartbreaking, enlightening story.

“It was standard-issue stuff. I wanted a family. But it was just as Arturo said-I didn’t know how to start anything from scratch, and I didn’t want to know. Getting pushed around as a kid had made me realistic about my capabilities. I know some people learn how to take more knocks and keep going. Not me. I’m the other kind. . .See, I’m looking for a role with lines I can say convincingly, something practical. ”

Boy arrives at the small town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts with just the money stolen from her father and no idea on what her next move should be. It’s by luck that she finds her way, making friends and through them, meeting her future husband. While things are okay, Boy isn’t always able to shake the feeling of being an imposter. She’s an outsider with no skills who lives in a town surrounded by people who “make beautiful things.” She always comes from such a dysfunctional life, one that she keeps a secret for the most part.

Pretty much everyone in this story is an imposter of some sort: black passing for white, compassionate masquerading as unkind. Everyone is wearing a mask of some sort but the reflection in the mirror doesn’t lie. (Yes, there’s a mirror in this story.) And that’s one of the themes, the strands from the fable that Oyeyemi tugs on. There’s the image that we hope others see of us, the image they really see, and the image that we see of ourselves.

“Bird adored Snow; everybody adored Snow and her daintiness. Snow’s beauty is all the more precious to Olivia and Agnes because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl—we don’t see a colored girl standing there. The joke’s on us. . . From this I can only . . .begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow. What can I do for my daughter? One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

That insight leads Boy to make a decision that changes her new family and probably not for the best either. It’s a decision that I didn’t see coming but later understood the logic of it.

From what I’ve read about Oyeyemi, she’s known for writing fantasy and this book is no exception. I want to say it’s magic realism but this magic is hidden. Readers will question if Bird and Snow don’t have reflections in the mirror while Boy’s reflection can make faces back in a Peter Pan-ish kind of way.

I can go on and on about this book. There’s so much that I want to discuss and could. Boy, Snow, Bird is a daring and wonderful story.  My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Go buy it.

Graphic Novel February, Part One

It’s the middle of the month, so it’s time for posted about the graphic novels I’ve read. Graphic Novel February has been a wonderful idea. If it wasn’t for graphic novels and children’s books, I wouldn’t have any books finished this month.

21326Fables vol. 1 – Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham

Source: Public Library

Imagine that the fairy tales characters most of us grew up with were not only real but still alive and residing secretly in New York. That’s the basis of Fables but the series creator, Bill Willingham, does so much more. Snow White and Prince Charming have been divorced for centuries now and the Big Bad Wolf (now called Bigby) is the sheriff of Fabletown. Those fables who are human live in Fabletown while their non-human counterparts, like the pig brothers from The Three Little Pigs, live on The Farm.  When Rose Red, Snow White’s little sister, comes up missing, it’s up to Bigby and Snow to find out what happened.

This was a reread for me.  I got the idea to reread the series after talking to Kelly (The Written Word). I haven’t read the first volume in years and it was a delight to be reintroduced to the characters at the very beginning of the series.  My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

A17591893 Matter of Life by Jeffrey Brown

Published in 2013 by Top Shelf

Source: Public Library

I’ve seen this book on many of the GNF participants’ tbr list last month, so I decided to add it to my list too. I went into reading it with no expectations but that didn’t help.  A Matter of Life is a graphic meditation/memoir on Brown’s life growing up as the son of a minister and being a dad. As a high-schooler, Brown comes to the realization that he doesn’t believe in God. Brown experiences pressure from his family as well as members of his father’s church to go back to church to no avail. Instead, he chooses to find wonder and gratitude in other ways. The later end of the book is about Brown’s new roles as father and husband.

I thought the book was okay and fairly interesting. Other participants (Lu and Debi) have talked about the book being disjointed and I have to agree. Sadly, when I finished reading the book, I wondered about its purpose. There was nothing “lasting” about it; no scenes or reflections to really take away from it. My rating: 2-3 stars.

 17934391

Aphrodite: Goddess of Love (Olympians Vol. 6) by George O’Connor

Published in 2013 by First Second Books

Source: Public Library

George O’Connor’s The Olympians series is a must-read for anyone who loves mythology. The series covers the Olympians of Greek mythology with one book being dedicated solely to each deity. So far, readers can read the stories of Zeus, Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, and the latest one, Aphrodite. I’ve read the whole series and any favorites I have are based on my own biases because all six volumes are wonderful

The book covers the goddess’s first moments of being as a presence to her birth and later her role in the Trojan War. Aphrodite is different from the other Olympians since she’s not a child of Zeus and she’s much older than the rest. Readers see Aphrodite as she influences some of the most well-known characters of Greek mythology like Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with his sculpture of the goddess.  When Eris, goddess of discord, throws a golden apple into a crowd of gods claiming it’s for the most beautiful, a powerful struggle ensues between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. It’s a struggle that will affect later generations.

I love how not only does O’Connor brings these volumes to life by using ancient sources with his writing, but he also makes these stories a little modern. Being the goddess of love, Aphrodite is the most beautiful of the goddesses (though Athena is GORGEOUS to me). O’Connor gives her brown skin which I loved and readers will too. If you haven’t read this series yet, it’s time to start. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Thoughts: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

OsageAugust: Osage County

Tracy Letts

138 pages

Published in 2008 by Theatre Communications Group

Source: Personal Library

Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

A few years ago, I had this wonderful idea to read as many Pulitzer-Prize winning plays as I could. And I did. I read Angels in America, Fences, Topdog Underdog, Wit, and many more, including August: Osage County. I loved this project and enjoyed almost every play I read.

Last month when I was going through a reading slump, I decided to reread this play once again, especially since it’s been made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. I wish I could say that I loved it as much this time around but I didn’t.

August: Osage County is the story of the dysfunctional Weston family. When the patriarch, Beverly Weston, goes missing, his daughters and their families come home to be at their mother, Violet’s side. To say Violet is manipulative and selfish isn’t going far enough. Violet loves her pills as much as Beverly loves his liquor. As she likes to tell it, nothing slips past her so the family’s secrets aren’t really secrets. At least not to her. Her husband, Beverly is a famous poet who hasn’t written anything in years. Their house is run-down and closed off to the outside world. Every window in their home is covered in shades and taped down so the inhabitants can’t tell night from day.

Of Beverly and Violet’s three daughters, Barbara and Karen left as fast as they could, while Ivy stayed closed by. To have all three daughters and their families back home spells disaster and it is. Long-held secrets are unearthed and the Weston daughters have to take a deep look inside themselves to see what they’ve become.

When I first read this book back in 2009, I loved it. The play was dark and well-written. It still is. I was shocked at the turn of events in the book as secrets were revealed and family turned against each other. I wouldn’t say Violet is a villain but she sees disaster coming and refuses to speak up. As I reread this play five years later, I wasn’t as shocked by the story’s events. They didn’t have the same impact they did years ago and I wondered about that.

With the boom of reality TV and the fact that “news” isn’t the same anymore: more gossipy, more celebrity based, what was shocking even a few years ago is no longer anything to give attention to. Could that be it?

While August: Osage County is insightful and brilliant, reminding me of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, I don’t think I’m going to reread it again. I am going to see the movie version.  My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Short Review: God got a dog by Cynthia Rylant

41oDJwYUDzLGod got a dog

Written by Cynthia Rylant

Illustrated by Marla Frazee

48 pages

Published in October 2013 by Beach Lane Books

Source: Public Library

I didn’t know what to expect from Cynthia Rylant’s latest book, God Got a Dog. I just knew that the title was interesting and I wanted to see what it was about. Man, what a good book.

God Got a Dog is a collection of poems written by Rylant and illustrated by the talented Marla Frazee. In each poem, God does something different: gets a dog, goes to the doctor, and catches a cold. The poems are touching and humorous, perfect for both kids and adults alike. I plan on buying my own copy as soon as possible. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

God got a desk job

Just to see what it

would be like.

Made Her back hurt.

God’s always had a

bad back anyway-

the weight of the world

and all that,

She thought Her job was tough,

till She sat at a desk all day.

It was torture.

She could feel the Light

Inside Her grow

dimmer and dimmer

and She thought that

if She had to pick

up that phone

one more time,

She’d just start the

whole Armageddon thing

people keep talking about.

(Not Her idea, not Her plan,

but in a pinch, She’s

sure She could come up

with something.)

The only thing that got

Her through to the

end of the day was

Snickers bars.

She ate thirty-seven.

Plus thinking about the Eagle Nebula

in the constellation Serpens.

That helped.

Review: The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky

dubosarskyThe Golden Day

Ursula Dubosarsky

150 pages

Published in August 2013 by Candlewick Press

Source: Public Library

These things were too deep and difficult for the little girls. After all, they knew nothing of wives or armies or desert tribes. At night on the television news they heard gunfire and the sound of helicopter blades and bombs falling. Soldiers were dying in flames far away in a black-and-white land where people wore triangular hats and worked in rice fields and everyone, everyone, was always running away in terror. That was all they knew, all they could know. The little girls hung on to the brink of a hugeness that they knew was there but had no way of discovering.

It’s 1967 and the Vietnam War is raging overseas. But at home in Australia, life is changing in ways that eleven little girls have not yet grasp. The girls make up Miss Renshaw’s class at a small all-girls school. It’s a normal day when the teacher leads her class to the local park for lessons. But something happens and the girls return to school without Miss Renshaw. Their teacher mysteriously disappears, leaving the girls and their small city wondering, what happened to Miss Renshaw?

I picked up The Golden Day after it made a few best of 2013 lists. Before then, I never heard of her and none of my libraries have copies of her books, except this one. That should change.

Dubosarsky performs the hard task of giving each girl a personality of their own, but the one that soars and readers hear the most from is Cubby. Cubby has the perceptiveness of an adult; she knows almost instantly that Miss Renshaw won’t be coming back. That knowledge doesn’t stop her from wishing and hoping for her teacher’s return. Readers are also left wondering about Miss Renshaw and whether she’s still alive or dead as the adults in the story believes. That feeling of uncertainty and loose ends had me turning pages.

With her best friend and fellow classmate, Icara, the pair along with their class, grow up and go their separate ways but never forget their lost teacher. They also gain more insight into Miss Renshaw but it’s still not enough.

The Golden Day is a beautiful meditation on childhood lost after a sudden event. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

But with Cubby, Icara was not far-flung. She was nearby-close-at-hand-a-stone’s-throw-away. They were friends without either of them knowing why. It was as though after that first day, when Icara had taken hold of Cubby’s frightened hand, she had never let it go. Cubby and Icara could sit together in the playground or on the bus or in the library not saying much for hours, just a lovely rhythmic silence, like the sound of breathing when you’re asleep.

Review: The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart

17841897The Visionist

Rachel Urquhart

352 pages

Published in January 2013 by Little, Brown and Co.

Source: Publishers

It had been but a few hours since her father had threatened them. Had he come at Mama with a shovel? Crept in and dropped a fieldstone so close to Ben as he sat on the floor that his fingers had near been crushed? Was this the night he’d swiped at them all with a broken bottle and left a gash the length of a hare’s ear on Mama’s arm? Polly often found it difficult to separate his rages one from the next.

It’s Massachusetts, 1842 and fifteen-year old Polly Kimball accidently sets fire to her family’s farm, killing her father. To escape from whatever fate awaits her, Polly and her younger brother Ben are sent by their mother to live in the Shaker community, City of Hope. It’s not long after Polly’s arrival that she finds a kindred soul in Sister Charity, a young Shaker outsider with mysterious marks covering her body. For the first time ever, Polly thinks that she might find the peace that she has always been looking for. But what the girl doesn’t know is that Simon Pryor, a fire inspector, is searching for her and other survivors of the Kimball farm fire. The Visionist is Rachel Urquhart’s superb debut about love, faith, and hope even after so much has been lost.

Guys, The Visionist came out of nowhere and just made my end-of-the-year reading so much better.

I’m not someone who normally reads historical fiction. And the novel’s beginning was kind of slow, but there was something so authentic about this story that I had to continue reading.

The novel’s title comes from the time period the book is set in. This was a time of change for Shaker communities as many Shaker girls across the Northeast were receiving mystical visions. It’s not long after Polly’s arrival to the City of Hope, that she too has visions. When Polly becomes a Visionist, Sister Charity is willing to sacrifice everything in her belief of Polly’s goodness. But not all believe in Polly’s visions or her goodness. As holy as some Shakers think they are, there are a few who have their own selfish motives.

While reading the novel, I felt as though I was transported back into the 1840s. I heard of Quakers and even of Shaker furniture, but Shakers themselves? Nope. The details that went into this novel were numerous. Readers learned of the Shakers ways which include rules about when girls should start covering their hair, to the separation of males and females, to exactly how one should eat their food. There is a rule for everything.

Though the Shaker ways seem strange to Polly, they’re a welcome change from her previous life. Growing up, fear played a bigger role in her life than love.  Even her mother won’t protect her from her alcoholic father’s rages. Now that he’s gone, memories of Polly’s father still haunts her. It’s almost as though he’s still alive.

I found The Visionist to be an engrossing read. The characters were honest and flawed, the Shaker community was interesting to read about, and the writing had passages that were just beautiful. I hope Urquhart writes a sequel to the book. I would love to learn of Polly’s fate. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Thoughts: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

patchettThis Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett

320 pages

Published in November 2013 by Harper

Source: Public Library

…You will take bits from books you’ve read and movies you’ve seen and conversations you’ve had and stories friends have told you, and half the time you won’t even realize you’re doing it. I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from that rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow. (I could make a case for the benefits of wide-ranging experience, both personal and literary, as enriching the compost, but the life of Emily Dickinson neatly dismantles that theory.)

from the essay, “The Getaway Car

I didn’t know what to think when I first decided to read Patchett’s collection of personal essays. I tried reading Bel Canto, one of her most popular books, but failed to get through more than a few pages. Oftentimes, I find when I can’t get through a writer’s fiction, I’m successful at their nonfiction and vice versa. I was right again with this collection.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of personal essays from Ann Patchett, many of which have been previously published in various publications. With topics ranging from the author’s relationship with her grandmother to the failure of her first marriage and the blossoming of her second one, readers find themselves being pulled along by the Patchett’s relaxed voice.

The title essay about Patchett’s first marriage and how she came to remarry is so personal, so well-written, that I had to read it in its entirety out loud. That’s how wonderful it is. I had no idea that Patchett originally wrote and read the essay for Audible. It’s an essay that’s meant to be listened to.

While I don’t know if I would ever give the author’s fictional works a try again, I do know that I won’t hesitate to pick up her essays. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

DNF: The Color Master by Aimee Bender

benderThe Color Master

Aimee Bender

222 pages

Published in August  2013 by Doubleday

Source: Public Library

 

Andi, Andi, Andi. Remember when I saw The Color Master on NetGalley and had to tell you about it? Then you read it before me but didn’t love it? Yeah, me too.

Here’s the thing, Aimee Bender’s stories are often fantastical and strange and yet beautiful. Her previous novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, about a young girl trying to come to terms with her strange gift in a dysfunctional family, was beautiful and strange but also felt true. So the decision to read The Color Master was a no-brainer.

The Color Master ended up being an uneven collection of stories that I didn’t bother to finish. There were tales that were amazing and only Bender could have wrote. There were others that were regular and didn’t belong at all.

The book’s highlights:

“The Color Master” – This story is so simple and beautiful and just lovely. Bender takes inspiration from the fairy tale “Donkeyskin” to write a story about the color master who was able to make a dress the color of the moon. This story alone is worth the time it takes to put this book on hold at your local library, pick it up, take it home, and read. It’s that amazing. I photocopied this tale just so I can read it again and again and figure out how the author wrote it.

“The Red Ribbon” is the tale of a woman in a loveless marriage. Or rather, she doesn’t love her husband enough. The story doesn’t really fit the collection but it‘s humorous.

“Tiger Mending” – The story of two sisters, one a misfit and the other who does everything perfectly, as they travel to Malaysia to help mend tigers after they have been ripped to shreds.

“The Devouring” – You can also find this in Kate Bernheimer’s awesome short story anthology, XO Orpheus. A human woman marries an ogre who accidentally eats their children. What happens next is a reflective journey that includes a cake that refills itself and an invisibility cloak.

Since I didn’t finish this collection, I’m not going to rate it. Overall, I thought this collection was uneven and disappointing. As magical as the highlighted stories are, they can’t make up for the duds. I still plan on reading anything else Bender publishes.

My favorite line from the story, “The Devouring”:

…Loss did not pass from one person to another like a baton; it just formed a bigger and bigger pool of carriers. And, she thought, scratching the coarseness of the horse’s mane, it did not leave once lodged, did it, simply changed form and asked repeatedly for attention and care, as each year revealed a new knot to cry out and consider-smaller, sure, but never gone.

Short review: Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman

hoffman survivalSurvival Lessons

Alice Hoffman

83 pages

Published October 1, 2013 by Algonquin Books

Source: Publisher

. . .Then I knew. Good fortune and bad luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread. It happens to everyone, in one way or another, sooner or later. The loss of a loved one, a divorce, heartbreak, a child set on the wrong path, a bad diagnosis. When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.

When Alice Hoffman was diagnosed with breast cancer, she searched for a way to remember the joys of life as she went through treatment. She found it in good friends and family, along with the small things that are often unnoticed or taking for granted. Fifteen years later, Hoffman has decided to share what she’s learned with readers.

I picked this up because I’ve really enjoyed Hoffman’s work in the past. At only 83 pages, you could read this book in an hour or two. But don’t let that fool you. The author’s writing is still as beautiful as ever.

In the chapter “Choose Something New,” Hoffman writes,

Every woman is only one bad boyfriend or one bad choice away from the street. And she’s only one good choice back to the path that will lead her home. 

Survival Lessons is a short, sweet book that both new readers and long-time Hoffman fans will enjoy. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Review: Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life by Karen Karbo

karbo juliaJulia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life

Karen Karbo

240 pages

October 2013 by Skirt!

Source: Publisher

In the summer of 1946, Julia McWilliams and Paul Child drove across America. A bottle of vodka and a thermos of mixed martinis rolled around the backseat of Julia’s Buick. It was a time before air-conditioned vehicles and open-container laws. . .

Though she’s known around the world for her cookbooks and TV shows, Julia Child wasn’t just a world-class chef. Coming from a well-to-do family in Pasadena, CA, she could have settled for her only suitor and lived a life of obscurity. Instead she worked for the United States government during WWII, traveled to India on a whim, and met the love of her life, Paul Child. Did I mention that Julia didn’t find her passion of cooking until she was 37? 37! There’s hope for me yet.

With Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life, author Karen Karbo doesn’t just focus on Child and her cooking. She brilliantly illustrates to readers what has made Child such a fascinating person even years after her death. This is where the rules come in. Each chapter starts with a rule; some important lesson gleamed from Child’s life. One of my favorite rules of the book is the very first one: live with abandon. According to Karbo,

Part of living with abandon is giving oneself over to one’s circumstances without any expectation that things are going to be to our liking anytime soon. We can hope that things will improve, but it shouldn’t prevent us from doing what we’ve set out to do. Julia had an astonishing capacity to be content with what was in front of her, whether it be a cooking school run on spit and a string or a less than perfect hunk of meat. She made do and moved on and rarely regretted it.

From reading that passage, you can tell that this isn’t your average biography. Karbo gives us the essential Child instead of every single detail about Child’s life. Along with details of Karbo’s own life, readers get a biography with a personal touch. It’s one that feels more like a great conversation with an old friend about a wonderful woman.

Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life is a wonderful addition to Karen Karbo’s Kick Ass Women series. It follows biographies about Katharine Hepburn, Coco Chanel, and Georgia O’Keefe. It’s also the rare biography that foodies and non-foodies alike will love. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Year of Learning Dangerously by Quinn Cummings

cummingsThe Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling

Quinn Cummings

230 pages

Published in 2012 by Perigee Books, an imprint of Penguin

Source: Public Library

I was hiding in the laundry room fighting off a full-blown panic attack. If long division with remainders hadn’t been invented, this would not have been happening.

So begins Quinn Cummings’ memoir, The Year of Learning Dangerously, documenting her first year homeschooling her daughter, Alice. Alice is like any other kid: she loves cats, playing outside, and reading. When it comes to math, there’s this huge struggle every year. At the end of the school year, Alice usually doesn’t advance much in the subject. Cummings sees herself in Alice and knows that if she doesn’t intervene, the situation won’t change. What comes next is a hilarious and honest account of Quinn’s quest to homeschool her daughter, explore various homeschooling approaches, and just figure out what she’s doing.

Homeschooling has been going on for decades in the United States and one of the biggest reasons parents take their children out of school is for religious or moral instruction. That’s not always the reason why we decide to take our kids out of school. With Cummings, we know that she just wants Alice to love learning and to become willing to tackle things even when they’re not easy for her.

What makes the author’s story different from other memoirs about the same subject is the humor. Cummings is hilarious and honest about her shortcomings and her search to make Alice’s first year memorable. Or at least not traumatic. While tackling homeschooling, Cummings also finds the time to examine several approaches to homeschooling such as the classical method and unschooling, attend a Christian homeschooling prom, and learn as much as she can about the history of homeschooling. None of this is new to any veteran homeschooling parent. But if you’re curious about the subject or new to homeschooling, this book is really helpful.

While reading The Year of Learning Dangerously, readers see how privileged Cummings is. In her search to learn more about other homeschooling groups like Fundamentalists and Gohardites, she’s flying all over the country. Unless these same groups are living in my community, there’s no way I’m going to find out about them. These sections of the book are interesting because I had no idea what some of the groups think or believe, but it takes the focus away from Alice and her adjustment (which went well) to homeschooling. Some people may be offended by these sections since Cummings pretty much lied her way through most of these conventions. I wasn’t offended at all.

I found The Year of Learning Dangerously to be one woman’s hilarious take on her year of homeschooling and all that she’s learned. My rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Faced with a very foggy road ahead of us, we are probably best served by understanding there is just so much we can predict, and so much we can’t. We need to acknowledge that we’re all trying our best−homeschoolers and brick-and-mortar schoolers alike. After that, we need to embrace the uncertainty and just hope everything turns out better than bad. 

Short review: Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

ottavianiPrimates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas

Written by Jim Ottaviani

Illustrated by Maris Wicks

Published in 2013 by First Second Books

139 pages

Source: Public Library

In Primates, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks tell the stories of researchers Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas; three women whose obsessions with primates lead them to famed anthropologist Louis Leakey and their life’s work. The book starts with Goodall’s childhood fascination with Africa and nature before detailing the lives of Fossey and Galdikas along with some background information on Leakey.

What makes all three women so fascinating is their determination to do their research despite the challenges. Goodall’s mother was her chaperone when she first arrived at Nigeria in the 60s while Fossey had her appendix removed before her trip to the Condo. The hut that Galdikas and her husband lived in while she did her research on orangutans was in such bad condition, it would probably been better to just live in a tent. I loved this type of detail about the women. Readers see that their research wasn’t easy but the women managed.

I do have a few issues with the book. I was confused a few times about who I was reading about. Being a graphic novel, the women were drawn differently but still similarly enough for me to be lost. Goodall being a blonde helped but with Galdikas and Fossey as brunettes, I had to look at them really closely. Since this is a book aimed at middle grade readers, there isn’t any detail about Fossey’s death just a panel explaining that her life was tragic in ways and an illustration of her headstone. If you don’t know, Fossey is famous for her research on gorillas and her book Gorillas in the Mist which was adapted into a movie. She was murdered in 1985 and her case is still open.

Even with those issues, Primates is a fantastic book to read. It’s also a great introduction into the lives of these three women for readers young and old.  My rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars.

Short Story Reviews: Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance by Carrie Cuinn and Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan

lanagan yellowcakeYellowcake: Stories

Margo Lanagan

232 pages

Published in 2013 by Knopf

Source: Publisher

Yellowcake gathers ten short stories that have been previously published in various publications.  I had to pick this collection up after reading Lanagan’s previous book, The Brides of Rollrock Island. It’s a book that I’ve reread twice so far this year because I love it so much. With Lanagan, you never know what to expect with her stories and novels and that’s a good thing. The stories in Yellowcake are bold and original.

In “The Point of Roses” a group of boys gather to test their friend’s psychic abilities with widely felt results. This is the first story in the collection and it ended up being my favorite. I even asked the author via Twitter will readers see these young boys again. I want to know more about this group of friends and in a good way. Ferryman” is about a young girl whose family ferries the dead over the river Styx. “The Golden Stroud” starts off as a typical Rapunzel retelling but with a twist only Lanagan can pull off. With “Into the Clouds on High,” a mother is “called” by a higher power and tries to get her young son ready for when she can no longer ignore it. “Night of the Firstlings” is a retelling of the night when all first-borns were killed in Biblical Egypt. I found the last image of that story to be haunting.

Unfortunately, the other stories in this collection felt like mere glimpses instead of snapshots. I couldn’t hold on to the imagery or characters enough to get a “feel” for the story. I was lost and felt myself trying to picture the images or figure out the point behind a story. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

“Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance”

Carrie Cuinn

Published in 2013

I read “Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance” after Carl (Stainless Steel Droppings) lead a small read-along for the story last week. I don’t know about you guys but my kids and I are already planning what we’re going to read and watch for the upcoming R.I.P. Challenge and Halloween in general. We’ve had some gloomy weather so that probably helped us think about fall.

“Mrs. Henderson’s Cemetery Dance” starts off with a mangy dog stealing Mr. Liu’s arm from the man’s grave. Mr. Liu has been dead for three years now but refuses to let the dog get away. The man’s pursuit of the stray through town along with the awakening of other members of the cemetery makes the living realize that the dead don’t always stay dead. What ensues is a hilarious yet thoughtful story about the inner workings of a small town and its secrets.

To tell you anything else about this gem would be to give away what makes this story so special. If you’re in the mood for a good short read or something a little spooky, you won’t go wrong with reading this story. It’s available online here. Or bookmark the piece for future R.I.P. reading. The story is one of several that makes up Cuinn’s short story collection, Women and Other Constructs. My rating of the story: 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

brown cinnamon and gunpowderCinnamon and Gunpowder

Eli Brown

318 pages

Published in 2013 by FSG

Source: Public Library

She was lurid and terrible to see, the fallen Lucifer on the water, blind to the pelicans moving like gnats across her bow.  . .

It’s 1819 and highly renowned Chef Owen Wedgewood has been kidnapped and is now a prisoner on the pirate ship, The Flying Rose. The ship’s captain, Mad Hannah Mabbot strikes a deal with the terrified chef: cook a delicious one-of-a-kind meal every Sunday for the captain and she will let him live. Disappoint Mad Hannah and Owen will die. Surrounded by pirates and chased by a genius set on revenge, will Owen survive this crazy adventure?

I don’t think I’ve ever read a pirate story before reading Cinnamon and Gunpowder. I’ve never wanted to until reading Candace’s spotlight post on this book a few months ago. This story is not what I thought a pirate’s tale would be. It’s much more. Themes like slavery, ignorance, and the opium wars going on during this time period are tackled throughout the book, but this is still a light and humorous read and there’s plenty of talk about food.

Since Owen’s a chef, this novel is packed with realistic passages about food and spices. Being on a pirate ship, it’s hard to get the supplies Owen is used to but he often manages without every week. Reading all the descriptions of Owen’s methods and meals makes me wonder how the author was able to pull this off. I know he did plenty of research but did he cook these meals in advance? Whatever way Brown did it, he did a fantastic job.

Not only did the passages about food stand out, so did the characters. Owen is used to working for the rich so he has no idea about the suffering going on around him and in other countries. A judgmental “good Christian”, all Owen first sees the crew of The Flying Rose as a bunch of heathens committing sin and a bloodthirsty captain. But after traveling with the pirates and being caught in several conflicts, Owen’s eyes start to open and he realizes how wrong he’s been.

Mad Hannah Mabbot is now one of my favorite literary characters. She’s a kick-ass pirate who is set on revenge as she searches around the globe for a thief called Red Fox. She can be ruthless at times but also gentle and forgiving of Owen’s ignorance and the plight of those around her. She can get dirty with the rest of her crew but also loves elegant food and music.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a swashbuckling tale for fiction lovers of all kinds. My rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars.

Review: The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

baxter the long warThe Long War

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

423 pages

Published in June 2013 by HarperCollins

Source: Public Library

It’s been ten years since Lobsang and Joshua Valienté’s trip through the Long Earth, the millions of parallel Earths next to our own. Since then, humanity has spread out through these new and dangerous worlds, changing the way they see themselves and each other. Not everything has changed though. In these new worlds some humans treat “trolls”, the kind and musical humanoids that have existed in the Long Earth, with contempt and cruelty. As the trolls retreat from the Long Earth, it becomes obvious that something essential is missing. It’s now up to Joshua, along with a few others, to try and bring the trolls back.

In The Long Earth, the previous book in the series, readers were introduced to the concept of stepping: the ability to transport either naturally or with the help of a metal box to parallel worlds. Much of the book was spent with readers getting used to the idea of stepping along with the various situations that this ability could cause.  The Long War continues with that strength but it lacks balance.

There are so many subplots in The Long War from the possibility of war between the old American government and new settlers over taxes and power to the missing trolls to various expeditions through the new worlds. There are still about five other subplots I can talk about. While it’s all interesting, I found it hard to get attached to any one character or subplot.

I think the problem has to do with the plot being so huge and there’s so much to explore. It would certainly take more books to explore it all but I hope the authors let us get to know and follow the characters more in the upcoming books. My rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

Short Review: Saga Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

vaughanSaga Volume 2

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

153 pages

Published in June 2013 by Image Comics

Source: Publisher

 

In the second volume of Saga, one of my favorite literary couples is back.  Marko and Alana, two lovers from warring territories are still on the run with their infant daughter, Hazel, from assassins. During the last few pages of the first volume, readers were introduced to Marko’s parents who mysteriously appeared on their ship.  Now, readers are learning more about Marko’s childhood, how the young couple met, while meeting even more fantastical creatures in this strange galaxy.

I wasn’t planning on reading the latest volume just yet but once I read the first page, I didn’t want to stop. I’m not going to write anything more about the plot because what makes this series special is the fact that it’s not a typical “star-crossed lovers” situation. It’s better and there’s so much more to this story.  While there is some movement forward for the couple, volume 2 is more of a back story but it’s worth reading.

Fiona Staples is such a talented artist. The creatures featured in both volumes, the look of Alana and Marko . . .all of it. I think she is definitely the perfect artist to illustrate this series. I have an egalley of this book so I can’t show you what I’m talking about but it’s all so original. I have just two problems with this volume and one has to do with the cover. The cover doesn’t fit the story at all. The cover for the first volume was so eye-catching, you wanted to pick it up. This cover is pretty blah. My second problem is that I wish the volume was much longer! Now I have to wait for the next volume.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good read but I still enjoyed the first volume more. My rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

Just Finished: Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott

Saying and meaning “Thanks” leads to a crazy thought: What more can I give? We take the action first, by giving—and then the insight follows, that this fills us. Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth. But is there a crack where a ribbon of light might get in, might sneak past all the roadblocks and piles of stones, mental and emotional and cultural? 

We can’t will ourselves to be more generous and accepting. Most of us are more like the townspeople of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” than we are like the Dalai Lama. I know I am . And this is what hell is like.

It obviously behooves me to practice being receptive, open for the business of gratitude.”

-Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott

I remember reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies years ago when my life was in tatters and loving it so hard that it was almost a physical ache. I still have my copy, which is a mess filled with highlighted passages and dog-eared pages. I later read her next two books on faith but Traveling Mercies has stayed my favorite until now.

In Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott explores the three prayers that help her appreciate life’s beauties and get through life’s griefs. (There’s actually a fourth prayer about not being such an ass. Hey, why not?) “Help” is for those times we feel like we need some assistance from a higher power, “thanks” to give gratitude, and “wow” for all those times when the beauty of life leaves us unable to say anything else.

Help Thanks Wow is a short book, only 102 pages, but Lamott packs so much in. As usual with Lamott, there’s plenty of humor and so many beautiful passages. I found this spiritual book to be a nice addition for Lamott fans and a great introduction for those new to her spiritual non-fiction.

lamott helpHelp Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott

102 pages

Published in 2012 by Riverhead

Source: Public Library

Thoughts: Fables Vol. 18 Cubs in Toyland

willingham fables 18Fables Vol. 18: Cubs in Toyland

Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Gene Ha

192 pages

Published in January 2013 by DC Comics

Source: Public Library

Guys, if you haven’t started reading Bill Willingham’s fantastic Fables series, you need to start now. Just when I think that the series can’t get any better, a volume is published that just blows that opinion out the water. Like most Fables readers, I have a few favorite volumes but the last two published volumes of the series, are among the best so far.

In the previous volume, Inherit the Wind, Ozama shared the prophecy of Snow and Bigby’s children.

The first child will be a king.

The second child a pauper.

The third will do an evil thing.

The fourth will die to stop her.

The fifth will be a hero bold.

The sixth will judge the rest.

The seventh lives to ages old, and is by heaven blessed.

Some of that prophecy comes true with Winter becoming the new North Wind after the demise of her grandfather.  In Cubs in Toyland, we see more of the prophecy coming to life.

The toy boat that Therese received in the previous volume speaks to her. It tells her of a wonderful adventure the two can have together. Therese sneaks away and arrives at a new land, Toyland, but it’s not what the young girl thought it would be. At home the wolf pack, lead by oldest child Darien is searching for Therese. But can they find her before too much damage is done?

What a ride. This latest volume is one of the most heartbreaking books of the series. I don’t know where to start with this one. While writing this review, just re-reading it made me cry. So I will make this short. This is a story of sacrifice, of love, of courage, of redemption even when you are not worthy of it. Fables reminds readers that fairy tales aren’t what we see in Disney movies: the hero doesn’t always win, villains aren’t all bad, and these stories were never meant for children. I also like that Willingham intertwines various tales to give us this interconnected story. I usually need to look up new-to-me fairy tales after reading a volume.

If you haven’t read this series, it’s time to start. Take out your library card or call your local bookstore and see if they have this series in stock. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

edugyanHalf-Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan

321 pages // Published in 2011 by Picador

Audio version: 11 hours and 9 minutes

Narrated by Kyle Riley

Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot . . .

It’s the 1930s and The Hot-Time Swingers, a jazz band of young Americans and Germans, are at the peak of their success. When the Nazis come into power and the band’s activities are drastically restricted, most of them flee Berlin to Paris. Soon, the Nazis are in Paris too and the band’s talented young leader, Hieronymus “The Kid” Falk, is taken into custody and never seen again. Only Sid Griffiths, another band member, knows what really happened. When a mysterious letter is sent from The Kid to another band member, it’s time for Sid to confront the past and any part he may have played in Hieronymus’ disappearance. Traveling back and forth between Germany as it was in the 1930s and as it is now, the story of The Hot-Time Swingers unfolds.

I can’t believe I waited so long to read and listen to Half-Blood Blues. I watched as this book was nominated for award after award and still didn’t pick it up. I also read some positive and not-so-positive reviews on this. Some of the reviews I read talked about the dialect used in the book. I think any dialect can be hard to read so I bought the audio version to listen to. Then I checked out the book from the library to read while listening.

Sid, the book’s narrator, is a black man who’s so light that he can pass for white and often does while in Berlin. Hieronymus is also black, born in German to a white mom and black dad. He’s been an outsider since the day he was born. Along with other American, a Jew, a German or two, this mixed-race band comes together to play jazz as it wasn’t played before in a chaotic time. It’s what brings this group together but it doesn’t necessarily keep them that way.

I really enjoyed this book. Edugyan writes about a time that’s been written about over and over again but gives it a fresh point of view. I love the historical elements mixed into this tale of love, identity, and jealousy. I had no idea that blacks were treated in different ways from each other in Germany during WWII, depending on their citizenship. If you were black and from another country, you might be detained indefinitely. If you were a black person of German descent, your papers were taken and you were considered stateless, no longer a German citizen.

I felt something just give out in my chest, like my lungs was collapsing. I was breathing real fast, real shallow. Sachsenhasuen. Hell. Not one of us had to ask where that was. A jack could live in a windowless pit and still know the word Sachsenhausen.

I had no idea what Sachsenhausen was or the contradictory ways blacks were treated. Edugyan gives readers this gritty vivid look back at the past in a way that made me feel as though I was there.

Kyle Riley was the perfect narrator. He brought this book to life in the way that only a good narrator can. I started listening to the audio before I started the print version and it was Riley’s voice that kept me going. Unfortunately, Half-Blood Blues is Riley’s first (and only) audio book so far. I hope it’s not his last. My rating on both audio and book: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Going in Circles by Pamela Ribon

ribonGoing in Circles

Pamela Ribon

336 pages

Published in 2010 by Downtown Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Source: Public Library but you can bet your sweet ass that I’m buying a copy

Two weeks ago, I was trolling around Oprah’s website (I have no idea why) when I came across Pamela Ribon’s essay, “How Roller Derby Can Save Your Life”.

I didn’t join a roller derby league in order to survive my divorce. Looking back, I don’t know how I ever thought one had nothing to do with the other.

After reading those first lines, I had to keep reading. In the essay, Ribons talks about roller derby and how the contact sport got her focusing on other things besides the problems she was going through. When she described her latest novel, Going in Circles as “Eat, Pray, Shove”, I knew I needed to read it since I’ve always wanted to grab a pair of skates and learn how to play roller derby.

In Going in Circles, Charlotte Goodman has just left her husband of several months. Hurt and still in disbelief, she tries to distance herself from the pain but it isn’t working. Everyone around Charlotte is asking her to make a decision. Is her going to stay with Matthew or divorce him? As time goes by, Charlotte still hasn’t made a decision and the people in her life are getting tired of her self-pity. When her coworker Francesca introduces Charlotte to roller derby, there’s finally an outlet for her to get out of her own head. Will she ever make the decision to stay in her marriage or finally become single again?

Going in Circles lived up to my expectations and surpassed them. Charlotte’s reaction to everything that’s going on around her is realistic and often hilarious. She’s scared, confused, and forced to wear a mouth guard because she’s been grinding her teeth so badly because of all the stress. She has to see a psychologist and is trying to be distraught enough for her health insurance to pay for therapy but not so much where she ends up institutionalized.

When Charlotte is introduced to roller derby, I started turning the pages even faster. The author explains the sport in detail but it’s never boring or drags down the story.  I love how Charlotte eventually finds herself through the sport.

This book is chick lit at its best. I found Going in Circles to be a perfect weekend read. I can’t wait to read Ribon’s previous books. My rating: 5 out of 5.

Thoughts and Giveaway: A Tale for the Time Being

ozekiA Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki

432 pages

Published in March 2013 by Viking

Source: Received a copy from the publisher then bought my own copy

In A Tale for the Time Being, novelist Ruth Ozeki weaves meditations about time with Zen Buddhism, school bullying, compassion, history, and so much more. Ruth, a novelist living in on a small island, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed on the beach. Inside is a collection of letters, a journal disguised as a French edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and a watch that once belonged to a kamikaze pilot.

In Tokyo, a sixteen year-old girl named Nao sits down to write her grandmother Jiko’s life. At 104 years old, Jiko has lived a full and exciting life. Once a radical and a writer, Jiko renounced the outside world and became a Zen Buddhist nun. As Nao tries to write down the stories that her grandmother has shared, she ends up including things about her own life. With a suicidal father, an overworking mother, and being the target of pretty much every person at her school, Nao decides to end her life after she finishes the journal. There’s no point in living in a world without Jiko.

As Ruth reads Nao’s journal, she’s pulled deeper into the young girl’s story and is left wondering, what happened to Nao?

I want to sound all professional and give you my thoughts but basically: read the damn book. Read it, read it, read it! This book is graceful, it’s loving, and it can be shocking at times. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had me tearing up after I finished reading it.

In a Tale for the Time Being, the story smoothly goes back and forth between Ruth and Nao. You may have noticed that the character Ruth and the author share the same name. That’s because Ruth Ozeki actually put herself into this fictional account along with her husband, Oliver, an artist. That bold move doesn’t distract from the story at all. If anything, it makes the story feels more real.

There’s so much to the story and it’s so relevant. Zen Buddhism has a big role in this book along with Japan’s part in WWII, and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan. The characters talk about various things like the half-life of information, holding on to the present even as it becomes the past, and ocean pollution. There is never a dull moment, never a time where I wished a paragraph or a page was cut.

Look I’m going to start rambling, so I better stop now. This is an amazing book. You’re not going to find anything similar to it. Go read it.

The publisher has been so kind as to offer a copy to my readers. Leave a comment telling me that want to be entered. I’ll announce the winner this Sunday, March 24th.

Have you read any books by Ozeki before?

cain

Book Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

 cainQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Susan Cain

368 pages

Published in January 2013 by Broadway

Source: Bought it

If it wasn’t for a Twitter chat a few months ago, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to read Quiet just yet. Don’t get me wrong. It was already on my reading list but there are so many books to read and well, not enough time. It’s a good thing for me that Joy (Joy’s Book Blog) decided to host an online discussion about this book.

In Quiet, Susan Cain describes just what makes introverts who they are. She describes the difference between being introverted and being shy; being introverted is the preference for quiet environments while being shy is a fear of being humiliated or feeling disapproval in public. Using some of the latest psychological research, she also shows how stimulation and biology has a lot to do with whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part deals with society’s focus on extroversion as an ideal and includes a quiz for readers to see where they stand on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. The second part deals with biology and how much of it influences our environmental preferences. Part three describes the Asian American experience in America while part four bring it altogether with work and relationship preferences.

As an introvert, it was nice to learn more about the differences between the two preferences. Cain writes about how “the culture of personality” in America has blossomed and changed what American society values. In the early 1900s, there was a shift from individuals having character to having an extroverted personality. We still discuss and praise people with character like Warren Buffet and George Clooney for the charity work they do but the people that stay on the tongue of society are people who talk first and think later. Not every extrovert acts this way though.

I also learned about the orchid hypothesis. Some kids are orchids and need a lot of time and attention while other children can bloom anywhere they’re planted. It made me realize that my oldest and youngest are definitely orchid kids. I knew that but I didn’t have a name for it. If you have a quiet child, I think the chapter you really should read is chapter 11 which is all about bringing out the best in introverted kids.

Cain, while praising the strengths of introverts also shows how both personalities can stretch to act more like the other. But she admits human beings are rubber bands and are able to stretch only so far. I found Quiet to be well-written and greatly researched. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Here’s Susan Cain’s TedTalk called The Power of Introverts

Short Children’s Book Reviews: We March by Shane W. Evans and I Have a Dream by Kadir Nelson

evans we marchWe March

Shane W. Evans

32 pages

Published in 2012 by Roaring Brook Press

Source: Public Library

In We March, author Shane W. Evans take readers to August 28, 1963, the day that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Readers follow a family of four as they start their day to get ready to march until they hear Dr. King’s speech. Evans’ writing is simple with just a few words on each page. The book is plain enough that young readers can read it to themselves but why the march and the speech itself is important will have to be put in context by adults so kids can understand it. I found this book to be a great introduction for younger readers. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

nelson kingI Have a Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Paintings by Kadir Nelson

40 pages

Published in 2012 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Source: Public Library

Lord, I love Kadir Nelson’s paintings. He’s one of my favorite illustrators and is easily one of the most talented artists working on children’s books. His paintings are so good that you want to buy two copies of his work: one book to read and the other book to cut the pages out to hang on your walls.  Nelson takes Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and illustrates it. The result is a beautiful book that readers old and young will want to read. At the end of the book, Nelson adds the speech in its entirety. The book also comes with a CD recording of the speech as it was delivered in 1963 by Dr. King.  My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Zora: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

fradinZora: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

Written by Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin

192 pages

Published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Source: Public Library

Zora: The Life of Zora Neale Hurtson follows the critically-acclaimed author and anthropologist from her birth in Notasulga, Alabama to her death in her sixties, penniless and almost forgotten. In between these years, the authors show readers what made Zora Neale Hurston special and just how much life she packed in her years.

I really enjoy reading memoirs and biographies about people who spent their lives doing what they loved. From the journals of Frida Kahlo to memoirs about Georgia O’Keefe, if a person followed their passion, I want to read a book about it. So reading a book about Zora Neale Hurston, the writer of the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, was a no-brainer.

It’s said that Zora Neale Hurston packed more lives in her sixty-nine years of life than most people ever do. From her troubled childhood after the death of her mother to having to drop out of school many times to work, Zora rushed head-on. The authors pack so many details in the book to illustrate how rich Hurston’s life was. She lied about her age so many times for different reasons like getting a job to going to school for free. Being young, black, and smart, Zora ran into problem after problem but figured out ways around or through them. This book was written for middle-grade students and up, but I think anyone who reads this will find inspiration from Hurston’s life.

I loved learning about Hurston’s friendship with Langston Hughes, her inspiration for Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her life as an anthropologist traveling throughout the south for black folklore.  Even I could picture her standing on a sidewalk in Harlem, measuring strangers’ heads to prove racists wrong about the link between intelligence and the head size.

There are so many interesting tidbits to learn about Hurston but the problem is this book is so dry. The book is less than 200 pages but it took me over a week to read. Hurston’s life isn’t the problem but the author’s writing style. It became a chore to read this. If I, a reader who was already interested in the subject, had a hard time getting through this book, I can just imagine the experience a young reader going through this book will have. I don’t think they would finish it.

Hurston’s life was rich with adventures and this book proves that, but I’m reluctant to recommend it. If you’re already interested in Hurston’s life, I think you should give this book a try. For readers who don’t know much about the author, I suggest picking up something else about Hurston. My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

duhiggThe Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Charles Duhigg

400 pages

Published in 2012 by Random House

Source: Public Library

We all have habits. Some habits are good, like putting our keys in the same place every day, while other habits like overeating, are ones we wish we could get rid of. It’s the beginning of the year and many of us are trying to swear off our worst habits. After reading The Power of Habit, I’ve learned that deciding not to indulge in bad habits isn’t enough. While you need to do a lot more, there is hope.

When I initially picked up The Power of Habit, I thought it was a self-help book. Fortunately, it’s even better than that. Journalist Charles Duhigg brings together some of the most known and current psychological data to illustrate how easy it is to create habits but how hard it can be to change them or get rid of them altogether.

Duhigg reveals that every habit has a loop: cue, routine, and reward. For example, I have a habit of turning my computer first thing every morning. It’s not the morning routine that I want to have. I would rather do something productive in those hours while everyone is still asleep. Cues can be anything: a time of day, being around particular people, or even an emotion. My cue is that it’s morning. My routine is turning on my computer and checking my email. My reward: I guess knowing what’s going on online. According to the experts that Duhigg has consulted, if you change your routine, often you can change the habit. So I’ve been spending the past two weeks trying to change my routine. Instead of turning on my computer, I’ve been reading instead. I’m not at the point where my new routine is habit, but I love the feeling of having read x amount of pages without trying to cram in reading later on when my day is busy.

People aren’t the only ones with bad habits. Companies have institutional habits that can help or hinder profits. Starbucks, the Aluminum Company of America, and Rhode Island Hospital are among some of the examples given by the author on how institutional habits are often only changed in times of crisis. The disturbing thing to me was that in these times of crisis, some innocent person dies. But even companies can change and when they do, everyone wins.

Included in the book is a huge section of notes, in case you wanted to look something up in more detail and an appendix to help you change those bad habits. I learned a lot reading The Power of Habit and realized change is possible. My rating: five out of five stars.