20 February 2011

"One Two Theme!" Reading Challenge

While flipping through the blog-o-sphere the other day, I happened upon a reading challenge.  You should know, of course, that I'm always up for a good challenge--when books and reading are involved.  I'm taking on my church group reading project this year as well, so...I probably SHOULDN'T take on another project. But, I can't help myself.

Here's how this one works: (info from One, Two, Theme!)

The idea of the challenge is to read about specific topics that interest you, in various degrees of detail. For theme 1 you'll read one book, for theme 2 you'll read two books, for theme 3 you'll read three books and so on. The only rules are these:

The Challenge will run throughout 2011, but feel free to already sign up.

1. You should have a minimum of 3 themes/3 levels, so a minimum of 6 books. You decide how many levels above that you want to go. Feel free to have more than one topic per level.

2. For themes that require more than one book (so all except the first one) you need to read at least one each of fiction and non-fiction.

Here are the themes that I'm considering (as well as my preliminary books):

  1. Pakistani Culture
  2. Nazi Resistance
  3. Female Psychology
  4. Tudor Court
  5. The 1960s
We'll see how it goes! I always enjoy a good challenge.  I picked a couple of books that I own but have never had the chance to read.  Now I'm forcing myself to get to them!!

19 February 2011

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

When Alex wakes up in a boy's bed, she struggles with the reality of the situation.  She doesn't really know the boy (she knows who he is but he's not a friend...barely an acquaintance.  She doesn't remember last night...at all.  As she struggles with the reality that she was date-raped, something she spends most of the book coming to terms with, she must decide how to deal with it.  Her older sister and close friends convince her to take her case to the Mockingbirds, the schools only real justice system for students.  They are a group of students that hear various cases brought to them by students and exact their own form of justice.  I won't go into details about the whole process and the trial here, so as to not spoil anything for potential readers!

Whitney handles the issue of date rape well.  I was initially worried that I would constantly be comparing  this novel to Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.  However, Whitney held her own in addressing the issue at hand and helping her main character through the coping process.  Many readers will question the vigilante nature of the Mockingbirds and wonder why the main character doesn't go to the police.  However, I felt that the author did well approaching the issue as a high schooler might--the fear, the guilt, the innocence.  Of course you don't want your parents to find out.

This books offers a portrayal of high school as a party atmosphere, which I think is sometimes a little over done in YA literature.  The "normal" high schoolers don't make quite as phenomenal stories (I suppose or at least that's the perception).  However, I wouldn't let that stop you from enjoying this book. It is a good reflection on the difficulties of dealing with rape.

17 February 2011

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

I would normally say I'm not into cheesy YA chick lit. I don't have an abundance of Meg Cabot or Kate Brian or Sarah Dessen under my belt...because they don't particularly interest me.  So, why did I pick up this book? Because I saw it on NPR Books.

In a somewhat stereotypical storyline, Anna is sent to boarding school (against her will) in Paris (because obviously just being in Paris breeds culture). There, she meets a cast of friends and enemies and instantly falls for the cutest guy there...who is (obviously) taken. Anna is not too impressed with Paris and French culture to begin with...not until Etienne swoops in and shows here around. While she learns to embrace French culture (particularly through classic movies at French theaters), she is also quickly and totally falling for Etienne.  I won't ruin the ending here, but let's just say that Etienne is quite reluctant to leave his steady girlfriend and much conflict ensues.

So, my intro may have seemed less than optimistic about this one, but I have to admit that I loved it!  The storyline may seem nondescript but Perkins has created a fantastic story that really sucks you in and doesn't let you put the book down until you are done. The ups and downs, joys and disappointments, are all themes that readers of any age can relate to.  While this novel may be about teen love, it resonates as a story of true love--where love is won on a battlefield. So there you have it: no vampires, werewolves, faeries, dragons--real characters, a real story, and a fantastic read.

Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley

As a former history major, one might assume that I frequently pick up nonfiction to read for fun. Not true...at all.  Actually, there are very few nonfiction books that I have picked up for fun.  I think something about the plethora of history reading as an undergrad might have disillusioned me a bit on nonfiction reading.  But I digress.  I picked this book up on a whim and did not once regret it--start to finish.

In this book, Rowley takes on the Roosevelt marriage: it's ups and downs and all the eccentricities in between.  The Roosevelt marriage has taken on a shroud of mystery over the years that many have attempted to uncover.  Rowley does a fantastic job not (blatantly) "taking a side" in the discussion of the relationship that FDR and Eleanor had.  Their marriage was definitely non-traditional and what we know about them is today (still) clouded and incomplete.  Rowley, I think, would lead us to believe that such a mystery was intentional.  The conventions of yesterday and today would still look down upon a marriage such as Eleanor and FDR had.  They weren't the perfect couple, as many want to believe, but they had a successful marriage built on mutual trust and understanding. Rowley takes the reader from the very beginnings of their relationship through the end, with FDR's death and Truman's swearing in.

Rowley's writing makes this read like a novel.  It is enjoyable and fast-paced--not a dull moment (which, I suppose, one might expect when talking about the Roosevelt marriage).  This is probably the first time that a non-fiction biography has actually moved me to tears. I would definitely recommend this book to history fanatics, mild history fans, WWII fans, avid readers...everyone!

The Year Money Grew on Trees by Aaron Hawkins

Jackson Jones has no idea what he's gotten into when he agrees to tend the Mrs. Nelson's apple orchard, but anything has to be better than working at the scrap yard...right?  Quickly realizing the futility of endeavoring alone, Jackson recruits his sisters and cousins to help him after school and on Saturdays tending to the orchard. From February through September, the kids work diligently--pruning the branches, fertilizing the soil, watering (not an easy task in dry New Mexico), spraying pesticides, thinning the apples, and eventually picking. The kids make it through the entire process and even forgive Jackson when he finally reveals to them the terms of his contract with Mrs. Nelson--that she gets $8000 of the profits and Jackson gets the orchard if he can make at least that much.

I really enjoyed this book overall. There were very, very few moments when I wanted to skim over the prose to "get on to" the next part.  The main character, Jackson, is a fairly well-developed, dynamic character that the reader can easily sympathize with. Hamilton does a good job placing the story in time without ever actually coming out and saying when exactly it takes place. From pop culture references to "The A-Team" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," the observant reader can place the story in the 1980s. However, the story holds the same significance whether one catches onto these context clues or not. Each character has a distinct personality that adds to the story. The development of the rugged band of cousins and siblings into a team displays the value of teamwork and the role that each person plays.

I think that this is a book that middle grade boys would enjoy quite a bit. I wouldn't discredit it as a book for girls, since there are prominent female characters, but it is not as "girly" of a story-line as many young girls might enjoy. The diagrams included by the author may seem tedious to some readers who aren't as interested in the farming aspects of the story. I would recommend this book for age 10 and up.

Radiant Shadows by Melissa Marr

This is the third book in the Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books and actually expected to be disappointed in the third because it dealt with entirely different characters. However, I was pleasantly surprised and this may have actually been one of my favorites in the series. The characters were dynamic and well-thought-out. I felt like you learned a lot about the characters, whereas in the first two you were really learning about all the characters the entire time. This book got you through a lot without being overwhelming and brought out a lot of previously minor characters. The budding romance between the two main characters of this book, Devlin and Ani, was well-done and true to the characters' personalities. I still wish I could know more about what was going on with the main characters from the other books during this time, but overall, it was a very enjoyable read. Hopefully the fifth (and I believe final) book will fill in some gaps when it is released in February.

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

I picked this book up (or rather put it on hold) after I saw it on an NPR book list by Gayle Foreman titled "Oh, To Be Young: The Year's Best Teen Reads." It is an interesting view into death and the grieving process of those "left behind."  When Lennie's older sister, Bailey, dies unexpectedly, Lennie is tossed into a world unknown--where she is noticed, no longer in the shadow of her vibrant sister.  Lennie always considered herself the "companion pony" to Bailey's racehorse, so her grief is explosive, as you might imagine.  Nelson presents in a stunningly well-written narrative the emotional process that Lennie experiences--denial, guilt, passion, sorrow--all packaged in a coming-of-age type of story that will touch readers.

This story is truly in a league of its own.  In my opinion, it's a must read.  The language is beautiful.  The main character is incredibly compelling and nuanced (even if other characters seem to fall flat--this one makes up for it).  The storyline is realistic.  It's beautiful. Read it. :-)

15 February 2011

The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

In Julie Kagawa's debut novel, she introduces readers to a world where faeries are created through imagination and creative efforts of the "real" world.  Megan Chase, our main character, discovers on her 16th birthday that there is a whole other realm that exists when her brother is kidnapped and traded for a changeling.  Megan enters the world of faery politics should had never dreamed of, becoming the pawn of the courts and wanted by a power neither know exist.  

When I first started reading YA fantasy, I'll be the first to admit that I had no interest in reading books about faeries.  I read mostly about vampires, stemming from a couple of decent encounters with adult vampire series.  I started with Twilight while I was student teaching, simply to get into the heads of the plethora of students I had reading the books.  I wasn't overly enamored with the series, but I'll admit that I didn't have the violent negative reactions many adult readers had to the series.  But I digress. So, faeries.  I picked up Need by Carrie Jones as my first diversion into the realm of the fey (pixies, to be exact).  I wasn't overly impressed.  My second attempt was Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr and after that I was hooked.  But, again, this review is not about that. This is about the splendid world created in The Iron King by Julie Kagawa. 

This book promised adventure, and I felt that it delivered on that promise.  Kagawa's knowledge of faery lore and etiquette clearly exceeds my own, but I felt that those familiar with such topics wouldn't be disappointed.  She pulls from the realms of well established characters, such as Queen Mab and Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck) and weaves the characters with a modern day coming of age story of a half-blood faery.  

I very much enjoyed the Megan's character.  She was a strong-willed female who persevered through many trials along the journey to save her brother.  Every once in awhile I would cringe when she would start making deals left and right with faeries, something the reader learns fairly early on is not always the best idea.  On the whole, I thought she was a strong, possibly slightly underdeveloped, character.  Kagawa also gives her readers the classic good guy vs. bad boy dilemma from the start, with Puck and Ash.  Puck is Megan's long-time best friend and servant of the king (her father), while Ash is the prince of the other court (technically her enemy).  You gets hints throughout of Puck's feelings for Megan and in the end, there are most definitely sparks flying between Megan and Ash.  Only time (and the rest of the series) will tell which "team" readers, and ultimately Megan, choose.  

12 February 2011

Amish Grace by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, & David Weaver-Zercher

I picked this book up as part of a church group reading program, but I must admit that I chose it because I truly have a fascination with Amish life and culture.  This book tackles the 2006 school shooting in the Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse.  On 2 October 2006, gunman Charles Roberts took ten young Amish girls hostage and opened fire on them shortly before killing himself. Five of the young girls died that day.  The book deals with Amish forgiveness in the face of tragedy and the widespread media attention that their actions received.  The authors attempt to give a thorough examination of the motivations behind forgiveness, while revealing much about the culture of the Amish along the way.

The book gives a very thorough examination of Amish beliefs in regards to forgiveness.  While the examination started out very interesting, there were definitely parts that began to feel repetitive as the book continued on.  I found it, on the whole, a very informative book and an interesting read.  The interview with the gunman's mother at the end was very moving and probably one of my favorite parts of the book.  I was also pleased that the authors included an appendix section that gave a brief history of Anabaptist religions, the Amish, and their basic religious belief system and way of life.  As someone who passes Amish horse and buggies on a daily basis, it intrigues me to learn more about their way of life.

11 February 2011

The People of Sparks by Jean DuPrau

In this sequel to the juvenile fiction book The City of Ember, Jean Duprau explores the post-apocalyptic world that is Earth after multiple wars and plagues have struck.  The "Emberites," having discovered a way out of their underground, dying city, must now find their way in a bright, hot world that they know nothing about. The former citizens of Ember stumble into the village of Sparks, a small town that has finally managed to begin flourishing on its own after the great disasters of the past.  The villagers graciously agree to take the Emberites into their village and help them learn how to build and farm for six months.  Tensions grow between the two groups sparking conflict and accusations on both sides.  As tension mounts, violence escalates until disaster strikes.

This series follows a very straightforward, post-apocalyptic world storyline.  The author does, I believe, a fantastic job in presenting such a topic in a way that young readers can grasp.  The main characters and heros are pre-teens who make tough decisions; it is easy to identify with their struggles for acceptance among peers and to make difficult decisions. I enjoyed this novel as an audiobook.  The narrator was very pleasing to listen to on my daily commute.  The recording company has included small sound effects in the background here and there, which are a pleasant addition that don't deter from the reading/listening experience.  The only problem I had was the the copy I borrowed from the public library had a lot of scratches and skipped frequently. Not a single disk was left unscathed! I suppose this is an expected occurrence when borrowing children's audiobooks, but I would recommend either reading the book or obtaining the audio from elsewhere (DBRL also offers the downloadable audio version of this--I suppose that would have been a better choice.)

The Lost Saint by Bree Despain

This is the second "Dark Divine" series by Bree DeSpain (preceded by The Dark Divine" and to be followed with Book 3 in December).  This series falls into the current young adult trend in publishing books with somewhat mopey female leads and exceptionally good looking "bad boy" male leads...who are generally supernatural in some way.  In this case, Despain has entered the world of werewolves and in her new take on the supernatural world, our main character, Grace, "cured" her boyfriend (in book 1), Daniel, of being a werewolf and has now inherited the powers herself. The second books opens with her struggle to control her new-found powers.  When a new Urbat (Despain's term for werewolves -- "Hounds of Heaven") comes to town and offers to train Grace to use her powers to fight evil, her relationship with her boyfriend and family are threatened as well as her grip on humanity.  Her new "trainer," Talbot, teaches her to access her powers through fear and anger and leads her down a dark path she doesn't even know she is on--one where she will eventually lose herself to the wolf and fall into the trap of those she is trying to stop.

I enjoy the world that Despain has created and find her writing style captivating.  The story pulled me in and genuinely kept my attention (which has been a difficult task as of late).  This book fits well into the currently popular werewolf/vampire literature for young adults. It is definitely a book where you need to read the first to understand/follow the second.  Despain has also ended this with quite the cliffhanger. You can't finish this book and not immediately want to pick up the next book. I won't say that this is the most enticing YA book that I've read in the last year, but it is definitely worth the time of readers who enjoy YA paranormal romance stories (and are slightly sick of sparkly vampires).


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