Friday, November 16, 2012

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

Earlier this year, I read The Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin for book club.  It was such an engrossing mystery that I knew I would want to read the rest of the series.  I finally had a chance this month to read the second book, The Serpent's Tale and it was almost as fun.  I'm not usually a mystery reader, but these books I really like.  The Serpent's Tale  follows Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, or Adelia as we know her, on another mission to discover a murderer.  This time the murder victim is Fair Rosamund, the King's mistress.  If Adelia fails to expose the true killer, the King will blame the Queen, whom he suspects of raising a rebellion against him, and a war will begin, endangering thousands of lives. 
Making things more complicated for Adelia is that she is now a mother.  Gyltha is still there to care for Adelia and her infant daughter, but Adelia wonders if these investigations are worth the risk to her child.  One of my favorite lines, spoken by the child's father:  "Any fool can have a son....It takes a man to conceive a daughter."  In a world where women are blamed for all sin and evil, here is a man proud to have a daughter. 
Another favorite quote:  The Bishop of Saint Albans is helping Adelia with her investigation and I love when he says of a suspected pair of murderers, "...and my God have mercy on their souls, for we shall not."
This book is wonderfully written, but this reader got the impression that, while the first book was intended to hook the audience, this book has a slower arc to it.  There are four books in the series and it is rumored that more were planned before the author's death in early 2011 at the age of 77.  However, this book does contain historical facts bent to the will of a creative novelist, forbidden love, yearning for power, and all of the mystery a fan of the first tale has come to expect.  I look forward to reading the other two novels and I'm sure I will love them as well.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden  by Kate Morton tells the story of Nell.  As a very small child, she sails alone from London to a small port in Australia.  No one knows who she is or how she ended up on a ship all alone.  As an adult, Nell is determined to discover the truth about her origins.  This book also tells the story of Cassandra, Nell's granddaughter, who travels to England to continue her grandmother's search.  The Forgotten Garden  follows so many storylines through so many points of view in so many different time periods that at times it is difficult to remember which of the many characters is in possession of which facts. 
I did enjoy this book, but because it was the book club selection for November and I was running out of reading time, I had to finish it very quickly.  I think I would have been able to immerse myself and take much more pleasure in these characters if I had given myself more time.  My favorite part of the book was the fairy tales written by Eliza Makepeace.  These fairy tales were intended to build up the story, but they were so beautifully written that they could have stood on their own. 
Ms. Morton wove an intricate and engrossing tale and I look forward to reading more of her books.  I actually just picked The Distant Hours  at our library's semi-annual book sale for only $3!  Next time I will take a little longer in which to wrap my self in the story.  If you read The Forgotten Garden , let me know what you think. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

So, mysteries aren't usually my thing.  Murder mysteries especially don't seem to sit well with me, but I can't give you a good reason why.  I just don't gravitate to those sections at the bookstore and library.  This month's official book club selection threw all that right out the window. 

Gone Girl  by Gillian Flynn is the best mystery that I've read in years.  I was captivated.  I was enthralled.  I could not put it down.  Gone Girl  is about Nick and Amy, a married couple who are having a difficult time.  Both have fallen victim to the worsening economy and been laid off from their jobs.  Losing one's career dreams is one thing, but then they move back to Nick's hometown in Missouri from New York in order to care for his dying mother and his Alzheimer's stricken father.  Then something terrible happens:  Amy goes missing.  Is she dead?  Has she been kidnapped?  Who is responsible? 

And that, my friends, is all I can tell you.  To say more would ruin all the excitement for you.  This is one of those books that could easily be read all in one sitting, not because is it short, but because you won't be able to put it down.  Given the opportunity, I could have locked myself in a room and read it from cover to cover.  There were many nights that I turned off the light and put the book away simply because I knew that morning was coming and I would be useless the next day without sleep.  The only problem was shutting off my brain to sleep.  I was still trying to figure out what would happen next.  This book has received high honors from the critics and people certainly are hearing about it.  When I went to the library to see if I could check it out, I was number 800 on the reserve list.  Needless to say I purchased my own copy.  I was thrilled to see that the film rights have already been purchased with Reese Witherspoon set to star as Amy. It will be quite the interesting role for her, but I think she will be perfect.

I will mention that for those of you sensitive to such things, there is a fair amount of foul language in this book as well as descriptions of a mature nature.  In other words, this is probably not an audiobook you would want to listen to with your kids in the car. 

Read this book.  Really.  All seven of us in our book club LOVED Gone Girl and it was so much fun to discuss.  At several points while I was reading it, I just had to do that thing my husband kindly tolerates: talk his ear off about it.  I had to talk to someone!  If you read this book and find yourself in that situation, feel free to talk to me.  Just don't give away any of the plot points here- we don't want to ruin the fun for anyone else!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Drift by Rachel Maddow

I love to read.  I really do.  I love to get so involved in a book that I just can't put it down, a book that I would rather read than do just about anything else, even sleep.  I also love to read something that will make my brain a little smarter.  Unfortunately, those two things aren't always found in the same book.  Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power  by Rachel Maddow is one of those books.  I try to keep politics to myself unless asked, but being a Rachel Maddow fan may just give away my leanings.  Luckily, this book is more about the politics of war than anything else so hopefully that will help us avoid any of those sticky social issues that seem to get people so upset.  Anyway, as I was saying, this book, while I'm sure it made me smarter, did not draw me in and hold my attention as I might have hoped.  That is not to say that it was not well written and full of compelling information; it certainly was that, but it wasn't an engrossing novel, which is what I usually read.
That being said, I learned so much reading this book.  And I learned how much I really do need to learn.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what Grenada was all about and almost nothing about the Iran-Contra scandal.  Obviously I need to read more books like this one. 
Drift  begins with this quote:  "Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes, and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few....No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare"  This was not said by some liberal, tree-hugging hippie with no job and in need of a haircut or a member of Code Pink.  These words were brought to you by James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and the fourth President of the United States of America.  He said these words way back in 1795.  I believe these are words worth reviewing.  Our founding fathers intended it to be difficult to go to war.  It was their intention that our nation rarely be at war and to make it difficult to go.  Unfortunately, it has become easier and easier in the last century to engage in war and it is now almost expected that if there is a problem in the world, the United States of America will be there to fix it.  Drift  explains how our approach to war has changed and predicts where it will take us as a nation.
This book discusses the issues of American lives changed and taken during war, the massive amounts of money spent during a war, the use of private contractors overseas doing jobs that were formerly held by US military personnel.  Also addressed are the political ramifications of war, nation-building, the desire for a "New World Order" and the possible conflict of interest of a member of the executive branch of government also being the CEO of a defense contracting corporation.  
One topic I find especially disturbing is the fact that less than one percent of the adult population is currently serving in the US military during a time that we have been at war for over a decade.  Unfortunately, it is far too easy for must of us to forget that there actually is a war going on.  We're too busy watching Snooki fall down in a bar again or Kim getting married and divorced in the blink of an eye.  It echos the words spoken by an Army NCO to a young lieutenant in the Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire  by James Webb: 
"It ain't what happens here that's important.  It's what's happening back there...You'd hardly know there was a war on.  It's in the papers, and college kids run around screaming about it instead of doing panty raids or whatever they were running around doing before but that's it.  Airplane drivers still drive their airplanes.  Businessmen still run their businesses.  College kids still go to college.  It's like nothing really happened, except to other people.  It isn't touching anybody except us.  It makes me sick, Lieutenant....We've been abandoned, Lieutenant....They don't know how to fight it, and they don't know how to stop fighting it.  And back home it's too complicated, so they forget about it and do their rooting at football games.  Well, [screw] 'em.  They ain't worth dying for."
This isn't a book everyone will enjoy, it's certainly not light reading, but it is full of a lot of interesting information about which I'm afraid a lot of us just don't want to think.  And in case any of you are now questioning my patriotism, let me say that I do support the troops.  I just think the best way to do that is to bring them home to their families and to take the most extreme caution when engaging in any further wars. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is this month's official book club selection.  I mentioned earlier today on this blog's Facebook page that my latest read just would not leave me alone even after I had put the book down each day.  The Kitchen House is that book.  Each night I would lie in bed to read a few chapters.  Of course that would turn into a few more chapters and before long it was far later than I intended.  The problem with this was that even though I would close the book, I couldn't stop the story from invading my dreams.  Two nights in a row I could barely sleep for worrying about these characters.  Finally, I decided the only way I was going to get any rest would be to just finish the book, even if it meant staying up late.  That is just what I did last night.

The Kitchen House follows the life of Lavinia, a young white girl, beginning in 1791.  Her parents both die on the journey from Ireland to America and in order to pay the debt for the trip, she becomes an indentured servant working in the kitchen house of the ship's captain.  Lavinia is raised by the slaves working on the plantation and she thinks of them as family.  I love historical fiction because it relies so heavily on fact and I learn so much through the lives of the characters.  Unfortunately, being based on true events, the reader can guess at the direction of the storyline.  In this case, for me it just added to the dread.

I found this book captivating and engrossing, but also extremely distressing.  A book about slaves is not likely to have much of a happy ending.  I know this, but what I didn't know was just how bad these characters might have it.  I've mentioned before that I am not a nail biter, but this week I did chew off a nail or two.  The overseer is horrible.  What will he do to the slaves?  The baby is sick.  Will he survive?  A slave is tied up and being sold to the slave trader.  Will we ever see him again?  It was horribly stressful for me.  This is precisely why I could not sleep.

I must admit that I became frustrated at times with some of the characters.  This was not a time of speaking one's mind openly for the characters in these positions, but if only a few more words had been said, things could have been so different.  Someone would begin to tell the truth, to explain a situation, but then he or she would stop and the reader was forced to watch another opportunity pass.  This novel is filled with action and the climax is heart-wrenching.  What I didn't care for was the way that the author seemed to wrap up and end the story rather quickly at the end.  There were loose ends that I didn't feel were addressed or if the were, it wasn't quite enough for me. 

All in all, I did enjoy this book, but I would certainly recommend reading it quickly.  Don't stretch it out because you won't want to put down the book and if you have to, it will make you crazy.  I did find the Author's Note at then end of the book interesting.  Grissom said that several times she attempted to change the direction of the storyline, but each time she did, the story would just stop.  It would only flow when she followed the way the story wanted to lead her.  I love hearing an author talk about a book having a mind of it's own.  It makes me think maybe there's far more to writing a book than a person sitting down at her laptop with an outline and a deadline.  Perhaps the stories are already there, just waiting for the right person to transcribe them.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols

Some books just have a great cover, don't you think?  I know, you can't tell a book by it's cover, but a cover can draw a reader in and make her want to bring that book home.  This cover was like that for me.  I read about Such a Rush  by Jennifer Echols on several book blogs that I follow.  One blog post in particular made this book sound irresistible.  As I was reading, I will admit that I was reluctant to put it down and found no difficulty getting through it quickly.  Sadly, this book was missing something for me. 
This is a Young Adult novel and while I have read several pieces of YA fiction that I have truly enjoyed, this one had the same disappointing feel that I have found in much of the YA genre that I have read.  I wish I knew how to describe that feeling.  Perhaps it is the lack of depth or of character development.   Leah is a 14-year-old girl who has had a tough life.  She gets a job at the small airport in town and soon becomes obsessed with learning to fly.  Three years later she has made that dream a reality, but something threatens to take it away. 
I will grant you that Leah is brave and driven, but I can't say I loved her character.  It makes me crazy to read about a character, especially a female character, that I just want to shake.  Leah is an underprivileged young girl who lives in a trailer park with her often absent mother.  She is treated like trailer trash by most of  the people she knows.  In most cases, this makes her want to do better, to be more, however she often lets other people's opinions of her get to her.  When she becomes frustrated, she often says something like "Oh, you think I'm a whore?  Well, then, I'll just dress and act like a whore."  Of course the reader can easily see the error of her judgement, but Leah can't and that started to annoy me by the end of the book. 
Also, Leah and her best friend Molly do a lot of that thing that some girls do that really irritates me: referring to one another in a derogatory manner.  "Hey, Bitch!" is a common greeting.  Why?  I don't understand using such ugly terms with a friend.  Then again, they two girls don't always act like friends. 
And my final complaint is that this isn't a book I would want my teenage daughter to read.  I have read many debates on book blogs about whether or not sex should be a part of stories about teenagers.  Many people will say, "They are doing it so you might as well face it."  Others will say, "Just because some teens are doing it doesn't mean we should glorify it in fiction."  I say, if a writer feels it is important to the story (and sometimes it actually is), then she should feel free to include it.  That being said, I also feel that might disqualify it as a book I can freely recommend.  Unfortunately, when teenagers have sex, they aren't always making smart decisions.  Personally, I don't think a teenager understands enough about the world to make those decisions and I fear they often result in regret, but like I said, that is my personal belief. 
This book was entertaining and a quick read.  It contained some interesting themes and I loved that Leah was able to see that her mother's life was not a path she wanted to follow.  I just wish there had been something more to it. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

I was finally able to finish The Amber Spyglass  by Philip Pullman.  With school beginning for the children and having to take a break to read my bookclub book, it took longer to get through than I had hoped it would.  This was at times painful because I couldn't wait to get back to it, but we've just been so busy.  Everyone has times like that and mine just happened to be right in the middle of a most fascinating novel. 

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely adored The Amber Spyglass and all of His Dark Materials.  The writing is rich and multifaceted.  The characters are fully three dimensional (some perhaps having more than the standard three dimensions).  The settings, so many worlds, inspire the imagination.  I was fully engrossed in this epic tale of a young girl and her quest for truth. 

Reading The Amber Spyglass I was finally able to see the issue that caused some of the controversy associated with the release of the film version of The Golden Compass in 2007.  I could see the issue, but that does not mean that it was an issue for me.  Lyra and Will are searching for the source of Dust.  Some people believe Dust is evil and must be destroyed.  Other people believe that The Authority or God is not actually God, but an angel that seized his position and must be destroyed.  Again, as I have said in reviews of the other two books in this trilogy, it is fiction.  When I read I am able to detach from reality (in most cases) and take the story for what it is worth.  My faith is mine and this book had no affect on it.  I can, however, understand where a parent might feel that his or her faith was being attacked and not what his or her child reading it for fear it would cause confusion.  I am always in favor of a parent being aware of what his or her child is reading and using it as an opportunity for discussion. 
In an interview here, Pullman describes his books this way:  "They'll find a story that attacks such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrates love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity, human intelligence."  This is part of what I loved about these books.  There are several characters who possess such a strong love for one another that it is almost tangible.  There are characters who seem purely evil and yet redeem themselves.  Something so interesting about it is that the line between good and evil is not always obvious.  Each character is fighting for what he or she believes is right.  They hold to their convictions even unto death.  One character, the reader is sure is good and then no, that character must be evil and again, perhaps the reader was correct in the beginning?  Keeping a reader unsure is the mark of a talented author.  Redemption is a prevalent theme throughout the trilogy and I think that is something most readers can appreciate. 

I have to admit, however, that I was a little disappointed with the ending of the book.  I was sad it was finished and that it was time to let the characters go for a while, but also I felt it was unfinished.  There were a few plot points that I didn't feel were quite resolved.  The ending felt rushed.  My edition of the book was nearly 400 pages long, so it was a lengthy novel, but it almost felt as though the author wanted to just wrap it up and be finished, yet perhaps he forgot to tuck in all the edges.  I wish I could share with you all the wonderful little bits that I marked because they were so wonderful and that I could discuss the few elements that left me unsatisfied, but if I did, it would surely ruin the reading experience for you.

I do hope you will read His Dark Materials .  It was lovely and full of wonder.  I have heard from a very reliable source that the audiobooks are fabulous so I think I will have to find them at my local library and give them a listen.  I'll let you know how it goes.  And please let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Recently while discussing books someone mentioned to me that she likes to read, but she prefers books without too many characters and plot that isn't too complicated.  I nodded and smiled politely while thinking books like those would never keep my attention.  Now for the life of me, I cannot remember with whom I was having this conversation, so I certainly hope it wasn't you, but the point is that this book would not have been for her.

I know that I have been talking lately as if every book that I read is the best book I've ever read.  I am loving His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and The Night Circus is so wonderful, but I've also read a few lately that I haven't loved, Amy & Roger's Epic Detour for instance.  However, this month's book club book, The Shadow of the Wind  by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is absolutely amazing.  As a matter of fact, when this book was mentioned in a previous book club meeting, one club member enthusiastically labeled it "F'ing Amazing."  And I can't help but agree. 

A gothic novel set in Barcelona, Spain in the 1950's, The Shadow of the Wind  revolves around Daniel Sempere.  At the beginning of the novel, Daniel is a ten-year-old boy who is missing his mother.  To distract him, Daniel's father takes him to a secret place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Daniel's father instructs him to pick any book and then to become that book's caretaker.  Daniel takes his book home and reads straight through the night.  He is mesmerized by the book and resolves to find out everything he can about the author.  That is easier said than done and so begins a great mystery that will follow him for years.  I won't say more because it would just be wrong to ruin such an excellent story.

Ruiz Zafon is a brilliant story teller.  I am amazed at such talent.  The language is sensational, allowing the reader to fully immerse herself in Daniel's world.  Just the first example of many that I marked:  "Six years later my mother's absence remained in the air around us, a deafening silence that I had not yet learned to stifle with words."  I marked so many passages that stood out like poetry to me that if I listed them all, you would have read half the book already. 

I adore the focus on the allure and importance of books.  Obviously I am rather fond of books and Ruiz Zafon seems to understand how I feel.  After reading his book for the first time, an exhausted Daniel says, "My eyes began to close, but I resisted.  I did not want to lose the story's spell or bid farewell to it's characters yet."  When I finished reading this book well after midnight, it took me a good hour to finally fall asleep and then my dreams were filled with what I had read.  In another section, Daniel says, "I leafed through the pages, inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books..."  The scent of promise.  Isn't that how any true book lover feels when she picks up a new book?  Isn't that exactly why so many of us have bookshelves that are full to bursting?  We know that an entire world exists within those pages and we can't wait to discover each one. 

Each character is so richly developed that it is difficult to believe they do not actually exist.  This book is brimming with characters and in a lesser book it might be difficult to keep them all straight, but not in this one.  Ruiz Zafon does such an exceptional job describing each character and then assigning them each their own voice that even without the name present it would not be difficult to guess who was speaking. 

This book touches on war, politics, corruption, poverty, forgiveness and redemption, education and the lack thereof, good and evil, mystery, and romance.  There is nothing one could want from a book that she could not find here.  I, like Daniel, stayed awake far too late reading because I just could not stop. 

One of the characters in this book claims that "we only exist as long as somebody remembers us."  I will remember and cherish these characters.  This is a book I would love to reread and relive.  I am certain that I will.  Won't you read it?  I guarantee you will be happy you did.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Top Ten Characters I Would Switch Places with for 24 Hours

So I missed last week's Top Ten Tuesday, but I really liked the topic so I thought I would just use it today.  Because that's how I roll.

Okay so the topic that I loved so much I felt compelled to break the rules is this:

Name ten characters with whom you would like to trade places for twenty-four hours.  This is a pretty easy one for me since I pretty much trade places with each of the characters with every book I read.  Some of those switches would be more fun than others, so without further ado:

  1. Anna from Anna and the French Kiss.  First of all, she gets to spend her senior year of high school living in Paris.  How amazing would that be?!  And, oh, St. Clair.  He sounds just lovely.  I think 24 hours in Anna's shoes would not be terrible.
  2. Azalea from Entwined.  So things aren't perfect for Azalea.  That's the whole reason for limiting the switch to 24 hours.  She has eleven sisters to care for, her mother has died and her father is distant.  The 24 hours I would take are right there at the end, but I won't say why in case you haven't read it yet which you really should do, by the way.
  3. Hermione from Harry Potter.  That is an easy one for a book worm.  Hermione is smart and bookish and level headed.  And in the end she falls in love and has a great best friend.  Plus, magic powers would be so much fun!
  4. Wanderer from The Host.  So, things are a little complicated, but she has wandered through seven worlds.  She has lived among the singing seaweeds and the ice bears.  She knows so much about the universe.  I would love just 24 hours of absorbing that knowledge.
  5. Lyra Silvertongue from The Golden Compass.  Lyra never sits still and at first has no idea what an insane turn her life is about to take, but she has great friends who are willing to give their lives to protect her.  Also, the golden compass, which only she can read, tells her the truth about anything she asks.  How amazing would it be to know exactly what to do, which direction to take, and whom to trust? 
  6. Charlotte from Midnight in Austenland.  Living in the world of Jane Austen sounds like a wonderful way to spend a holiday.  Charlotte is intelligent and wealthy (doesn't sound bad, does it?) and immerses herself in Austen.  I think just to be able to wear the clothing and use that language of that era would be delightful.
  7. Celia from The Night Circus.  She is beautiful, refined, and she can keep an entire magic circus running mostly with her own powers of illusion.  She builds amazing tents that mystify the circus patrons and she is a wonderful character.  Everyone loves Celia.
  8. Sarah from These is My Words.  I am still convinced that Sarah has a giant S printed on her underclothes and not for Sarah, for Superwoman!  Any woman who can kill a rattlesnake with a shotgun without harming the child that is only inches away and can fight off all the terrible men she encounters is a hero in my book!
  9. Elinore from Sense and Sensibility.  This is my favorite Austen novel and I love how smart and proper Elinore is, even if it does make things difficult for her at times.  She is conscious of the importance of propriety in her world and does everything she can put her family's needs above her own.  And of course falling in love with Edward and having her affections returned makes one sigh with a dreamy look on one's face.
  10. Bella from Twilight.  Wait!  Before you groan, I ask you to be honest.  Anyone who has actually read these books (not just seen the movies with the less than stellar acting) must admit to envying Bella a little.  According to the books, Edward is the perfect man except for that whole blood-sucking vampire thing.  He loves her more than anything else, he protects her and he sees in her what she cannot see in herself.  Plus, she gets to be best friends with Alice.  "Oh, Alice.  You want to buy me expensive designer clothes and put it all together for me?  Why, certainly!"

So there it is: ten characters with whom I could stand to trade places.  What about you?  Do you share any of my wishes on this list?  Who else would be on the list for you?  My favorite thing about reading is that just for a little while I can become the characters in a book.  I live their lives, I imagine what it would be like, and I wonder if I would have done anything differently.  Sometimes I even rewrite the novel in my head to go the way I wish it had gone (I'm looking at you These is My Words).  This is exactly why I love books.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The second book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife is even more exciting and suspenseful than the first.  In this installment, Lyra has gone into another world and is determined to find the source of Dust.  She is convinced that when she does, she will know what it is she is meant to do.  Shortly after she arrives, she meets Will, a boy about her age who is from still another world.  He is running from something and desperate for a place to hide. 

An important moment occurs just as Will is introducing himself and Lyra has to explain about daemons.  Will has no idea what Lyra is talking about and says, "I don't know what you mean about demons.  In my world demon means devil, something evil."  I feel this is important because it demonstrates that what we understand may be entirely different from the "reality" in another world.  I raise this point because so many people were bent out of shape about the concept of these books.  The most important thing to remember is that these are works of fiction.  When a reader begins a novel, it is my philosophy that she should suspend all disbelief and be prepared to adopt an entirely new vernacular.  I imagine there were many people who picked up The Golden Compass, read the very first four words, "Lyra and her daemon...", and immediately pictured something evil.  Reading further, we discover that Lyra's daemon is the physical manifestation of her soul, her spirit.  This is nothing evil, but it is a concept that we simply have to accept.  Surely something like this should be no more difficult to believe than Frodo's journey to Mordor or that wardrobes can lead to Narnia. 

One of the main characters, Lord Asriel, is searching for Dust as well.  He is planning to use it in his great rebellion against the Church and perhaps even a war with the "Authority", their God.  It is again important to remember that this is fiction set in another world.  While I can understand how some people might be offended by such a concept, I try to remember that this is fantasy.  Lord Asriel believes that this Authority must be bad because he sees so many of the bad things for which the Church is responsible.  In his world, the Church doesn't do good and serve men, it controls and oppresses them and punishes anyone who dares to question their power, even to the point of death. 

I am loving these books.  It is clear to me that this is a tale of good versus evil, but currently I'm not sure which side is good and which is evil.  I'm not sure the characters themselves know which is which just yet.  This story is so full of suspense that I hated to put it down.  I was constantly on the edge of my seat and rushing to find out what would happen.  I kept telling myself it would be okay, that the main characters would somehow make it out alive and yet I was at times forced to accept that not every main character survives. 

What will happen in the third book?  I cannot wait to read it, but I will have to wait just a bit longer.  It is time for me to begin my book club book or I won't have it finished in time for our meeting.  I do not want to be that girl- we are relentless when someone fails to finish the book.  Our family is headed on a little staycation next week, so I am hoping to get in a lot of good reading time.  I will be back to Mr. Pullmans lovely characters before long.

As always, I welcome your comments!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten Most Striking Book Settings

Hi, Smart Girls!  I wanted to try something a little different today.  I've mentioned before that I follow several other book blogs and The Broke and the Bookish is one of these.  They run a weekly feature known as Top Ten Tuesday.  They pose a topic and we list our top ten books in that category.  I haven't done it before, but I thought I would take a swing at it this week. 

Today's topic is top ten settings in books.  You know how it is, some books just sweep you off to another world and some even make it difficult to return to reality.  Here is a list of ten of my favorites:

  1. The world of Harry Potter.  I suspect that JK Rowling has actually been to Hogwarts because I just can't imagine being able to dream up such detail.  It is a true talent.  Of course now you can visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, an entire theme park developed from the details that Rowling created.  Someday I would love to make that trip.
  2. Philip Pullman's world in His Dark Materials.  I am halfway through the second book, but I am astonished at all the worlds he has created, complete with barely visible windows hanging mid-air that lead to still other worlds.
  3. Camp Green Lake in Holes may be a small world, but the dust, the dirt and the heat seemed to radiate from the pages of this wonderful little book. 
  4. In The Night Circus, I was fascinated by the magic, but also by the descriptions of each of the tents at the circus.  A scent memory tent where you open a small bottle and are transported to someone else's memory of a day at the beach?  A tent full of creatures made of paper that move and fly on their own?  Such vivid imagination!
  5. Scott Westerfeld's world in Uglies extends far beyond the Jetsons version of the future.  Hover boards and communicators that are embedded in one's body and surgery to make your body nearly invincible.  So interesting and at the same time frightening.
  6. The first half of Room: A Novel is set in just one small room, but the reader feels as though she is actually confined to that tiny cell.  It is so believable that the reader can forget this is fiction, especially considering the news stories of Jaycee Dugard. 
  7. I can't even walk by the cover of Winter Garden without feeling the cold and the desperation of this novel set in World War II era Russia. 
  8. Philippa Gregory is a fabulous writer of historical fiction.  You may have read The Other Boleyn Girl around the time the film was released (the film was a ginormous disappointment and I know people were put off from reading the book if they saw it).  The way she describes the goings on in the King's Court makes it so tangible.
  9. I am a huge fan of Amy Tan and reading The Joy Luck Club planted in me a real desire to visit China.  I feel like I've been there in my mind and now I want to see it and touch it.
  10. While I didn't actually enjoy reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire, the world was richly described.  He may have gotten his jumping off point from L. Frank Baum, but Maguire added to it in a way that was unexpected and vibrant.

So that's my first Top Ten Tuesday.  In what worlds have you lost yourself?  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Holes by Louis Sachar

I can't believe it took me so long to read this book.  (It seems like I've been saying that a lot lately, doesn't it?  I must have a lot of catching up to do.)  Holes by Louis Sachar is the 1999 Newberry Medal winner and the winner of the 1998 National Book Award for Young People.  Critically acclaimed books are not always books I enjoy reading, but we loved this one.  I say "we" because I read this book to my children, mainly my 8-year-old son.  He came to me and asked if I would read it to him a few chapters at a time and I was happy to oblige.  We love reading in our house and while I encourage him to read on his own, I also see a lot of value in reading together.  It is wonderful- we cozy up on the couch, I read and he listens.  I don't think it gets better than that. 

Holes is about Camp Green Lake, only there is no lake, nothing is green and it's certainly no camp anyone would actually want to attend.  Stanley Yelnats is sentenced to eighteen months at Camp Green Lake where the main punishment is digging holes day after day to "build character."  As it turns out, there is more than character building going on.  The hideous warden of the camp is actually looking for something and Stanley has figured it all out.  He knows what they are looking for and where to look, but he is in no hurry to give away that secret. 

This was a fun book to read with my son and we were both excited to find out what would happen next.  It took us a couple of days to finish and we talked about the book even when we weren't reading it.  I was especially glad we were reading the book together when we came upon a few subjects that my little guy didn't understand.  It is never easy to attempt to explain complex social issues such as racism, the death penalty and homelessness to an innocent child, but I am glad I was the one to do it.  It gave us some interesting topics to discuss and I was able to gently explain in a way that hopefully he understood.  My five-year-old even sat in on several of our reading sessions (though she did mention that she prefers books with pictures) and would join our discussions of the book.  I love reading with my children and I feel like doing so has such a beneficial impact. 

What do you read to your children? 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is not a new book.  It was released in 1995, but I am finally finding time to read it.  Perhaps you remember the controversy surrounding the 2007 film release.  You can read about it here and also here if you are interested.  It seems many folks were offended by the use of "The Church" as the antagonist in this and the other two books in the trilogy.  While Pullman doesn't specifically name the Catholic church, he does make use of terms common in Catholicism.  Pullman, according to ABC News, is a self-proclaimed atheist and so it may well be that he has a beef with organized religion.  Or it could also be that he is using the church as a powerful entity in his story.  It is no secret that for centuries the Catholic church played a significant role in government and the sciences and Pullman is using that as a plot point. 

In The Golden Compass, a young girl named Lyra is living in Oxford, England, at Jordan College, "the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford."  Being an orphan, she is in the care of the school's master.  She runs wild most days and receives a scattered education from whichever scholar is currently charged with teaching her.  A great crisis begins to trouble the city and the country.  Children are beginning to go missing.  "Gobblers" are taking the children and they are never seen again.  Lyra is determined to find out if this is true and it leads her down a path she could never have foreseen.  Lyra has a destiny of which she must remain unaware though she has been spoken of for centuries - a twelve-year-old little girl at the center of one of the most mysterious "theological riddles" known.

This book speaks of "experimental theology" and Consistorial Courts charged with overseeing any and all theories.  Lyra knows very little about it, only "that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the starts and planets, with tiny particles of matter."  Each of the humans in the book is also accompanied by "daemons" which represent the soul of the human.  I loved the way Pullman delays giving specific information regarding this and other secrets in the book.  I appreciate a writer that lets the story unfold as opposed to laying everything out at the beginning.  Witches, talking polar bears, and of course a golden compass that can tell the truth in any situation all add to the fantasy of this novel. 

This story played on every emotion:  several times I laughed out loud (I get funny looks, but when the book is good enough I don't really care), I sobbed at one part (you know I'm a cryer), and I was often on the edge of my seat.  If I were a nail biter, I would be typing this with nubs for fingers.  The characters are cleverly written and the dialogue is excellent.  Twists and turns in the plot abound and I can't even begin to tell you about them because it would be a crime to spoil such enjoyment.  I wish I could quote to you all the wonderful tidbits I marked with all my little sticky notes, but I fear it would take all day for you to read and it would ruin the story.  Instead, I will just encourage you to pick up your own copy and read it for yourself. 

I am now off to read book two in the series, The Subtle Knife.  I hope that I will enjoy it as much as I have this one.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

I don't read a lot of YA (young adult fiction), but I do read some.  I loved the Harry Potter series, for a while I talked to everyone I saw about Twilight (just ask my poor husband) and even though I was shocked that Hunger Games was written for a YA audience, I loved it as well.  I also read a lot of YA book blogs.  Honestly, most book blogs seem to be YA focused.  That is where I found my latest read.  Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson came highly recommended by Estelle @ RatherBeReading

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour is told from the perspective of Amy, a soon-to-be high school senior being forced to move across the country.  Her father has just died (something for which she blames herself), her twin brother is in rehab, and she is not happy about being uprooted.  To solve more than one moving issue, Amy's mother asks a family friend to drive cross country with Amy in her car.  This family friend is, of course, Roger.  Roger is a college student that is suffering from a recent heartbreak.  Amy's mom has a road trip arranged including hotel rooms reserved for each night.  The trip is intended to take four days, but Roger and Amy decide a little detour is in order.  And so begins a journey during which Amy and Roger have a chance to discover the country and themselves. 

As I said, I do read YA, but not a lot because I often feel there isn't quite enough meat for me.  That is how I felt about this book.  It was okay.  Amy is an awkward, insecure teenage girl, but that really started to irritate me after a few chapters.  Roger is a nice guy, but he is obviously hung up on a girl that none of friends like because she treated him so badly.  They can see what she is, but Roger can't.  

I did enjoy reading about the road trip.  It was fun to read about all the different things Amy and Roger saw and all the local food they ate.  The only thing about the food that irked me was when Matson described Roger sipping a Dairy Queen Blizzard through a straw and calling it a drink.  You cannot sip a Blizzard.  Blizzards are cups of thick soft serve with toppings mixed in.  Blizzards are so thick that when the DQ employee hands you your Blizzard, they are required to turn it upside down first.  You cannot sip a Blizzard.  I also liked the secondary characters that Amy & Roger met along the way.  I would love to have a friend like Bronwyn and as awkward as Amy feels, everyone she meets seems to really like her.
Overall, this was a quick, entertaining read, but I don't know to whom I would recommend it.  On GoodReads, I gave this one three stars. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Months ago, my sister read Shanghai Girls by Lisa See for her book club.  She said I just had to read it.  Fast forward several months and I still hadn't gotten to it when my darling friend Amy mentioned that she had read it.  I asked her if she had loved it because I had heard good things about it.  She said it was okay and suggested that I read it so we could discuss.  Then, like any dear book-loving friend, she loaned me her copy. 

So what did I think?  Well, I'm with Amy on this one- it was okay.  I am a big fan of Amy Tan's writing and I had hopes that Shanghai Girls would be similar and it did begin that way.  I loved Pearl's description of her home life and the family dynamics there.  I also loved her detailed description of Shanghai, though I did choke a bit when she matter-of-factly mentions "step[ping] around a dead baby left on the sidewalk."  I also enjoyed the historical descriptions that Ms. See brings.  The reader feels like she is discovering a part of the world she didn't realize existed.  So many things that I have read about China have focused on the countryside.  Shanghai Girls is partly set in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai.  It is a city filled with wealth and poverty.  I found the markets particularly interesting:  "As tempting as the watermelon sellers are, we ignore them.  Too many of them try to make their melons sound heavier by injecting them with water from the river or one of the creeks.  Even a single bite could result in dysentery, typhoid or cholera."  Can you imagine?

I very much enjoyed the first half of the book.  Beyond that, I couldn't help but feel that it rambled a bit.  The plot took unexpected turns that I waited to grasp.  The characters seemed to lose some of their color.  I did appreciate the relationship between the two sisters.  No matter what happened, they were always sisters; they were always supporting one another.  I can't say that I have any interest in reading the sequel, but please tell me if I'm wrong.  Have you read Dreams of Joy ?  Is it worth the read?  I would love to hear what you think!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Okay, so I know it has been a while since I posted, but I really do have a good excuse:  I was busy reading and re-reading this wonderful book!  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was the official book club selection for June and I loved it so much that as soon as I finished reading the last page, I immediately turned back to the beginning.  And you ask, "But, Smart Girl, can it really be that good?"  Oh, it really, really is that good.  One of the fun things about this book (and there are dozens of fun things about it) is that it isn't written in a direct time line.  One chapter is set in 1873, another chapter in 1886 and the very next in 1902.  It bounces back and forth quite a bit so pay attention to the chapter titles.  So many things happened out of order that re-reading it was the best way to make sure I hadn't missed anything.  And you know what?  I had totally missed some stuff- really good stuff.

Ms. Morgenstern has written a beautiful novel with layers upon layers of story.  Each bit leads to the next and has it's beginnings in another.  It is a kind of literary labyrinth all it's own.  The characters are richly described, the settings are dreamlike.  Each of the five senses is fulfilled and yet also wanting more.  I am seriously in love with this book. 

Le Cirque des Reves, as the circus is named, is only open at nightfall and closes with the dawn.  It is far from the Ringling Brothers circus you may picture when you hear the word "circus."  Everything from the tops of the tents to the dust at your feet is colored in shades of black, white and gray including the performers' costumes and even the food wrappings.  There are acrobats and big cats and a fortune teller, but no elephants and no clowns.  There isn't one large tent with three rings in the center, but lots of small tents with winding paths leading from one to another.  What the devoted followers of the circus don't realize is that much of the magic and illusion that makes up the atmosphere isn't a trick.  Two actual magicians practice genuine enchantment and the circus isn't purely for entertainment.  It is the stage for a competition between two philosophies of illusion.  The competition has no clear rules, and the players aren't sure what they need to do to win.  And then there is the fact that they may be falling in love with one another.  I will leave it there because I would hate to ruin it for you.  It is just so wonderful! 

I know I have recommended books before, but I must insist you read this one.  I insist!  Meanwhile I will be looking for a red scarf so that I can dress as a true reveur!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The New Year's Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

I recently read The New Year's Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini.  It has been a while since I have gotten around to an Elm Creek Quilts novel, but as soon as I began this one, I was reminded how much I love them.  In this book, Sylvia is finally completing a New Year's Resolution quilt that she began years ago.  While she sews, she reminisces about past New Year's traditions and resolutions she has made beginning with her very first, somewhat disastrous resolutions as a child.  One tradition she recalls is that of her grandmother's:  beginning the new year with a clean home.  Her grandmother tells her, "The purpose was to begin the New Year with a fresh, clean slate, with all the problems, mistakes, and strife of the old year forgotten."  That sounds like a wonderful tradition and one I would like to adopt.  At the very least, it is nice to begin a year with a clean home and if all the other new beginnings and forgivnesses can come with that, all the better. 

The book also details Sylvia's attempts at resolving a family conflict.  Having lost some of her own family to bitterness and pride, she is determined to do what she can to help others learn from her mistakes.  "Anger and misunderstanding could destroy a family from the inside out, as conflict forced everyone to take sides.  Even refusing to favor one side over the other would be seen as taking a position, until even the unwilling were drawn into the conflict."  I can appreciate Sylvia's desire to help others resolve their own conflicts. 

This book is as entertaining as all of the Elm Creek Quilt novels, but it is also instructive.  Family is important.  Don't let your disagreements go on too long.  Do not become too fond of your grudges.  We don't have to wait until January 1st to begin anew.  Today is as good as any day.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

Okay, so I just couldn't do it.  I picked this book up in the bargain bin at Walmart for $2.98.  I didn't take that to be much indication because I've bought lots of books for cheap that I have loved.  This one, not so much.  I Know I Am, But What Are You by Samantha Bee was just not what I had hoped it would be.  I honestly only made it through three chapters.  I love Samantha Bee when she appears on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart  so I was really hoping I would enjoy her book.  It felt disorganized and a little like a road trip without an actual destination.  I just didn't get it.  Am I wrong?  If I am please let me know.  Since I didn't read much of it, I won't even add it to my "What I've Read" list.  Have you picked this one up?  What are your thoughts?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Impossible by Nancy Werlin

My latest read is another great find at my local library book store.  I just love that place.  Impossible by Nancy Werlin is a young adult novel based on the song "Scarborough Fair."  Lucy is a seventeen-year-old young woman who discovers her very own family curse.  All of the women in her family for generations have been forced to attempt the three impossible tasks listed in the song.  All before her have failed, but now it is Lucy's turn.  Lucy has one advantage none of her ancestresses have had.  She has a wonderful pair of foster parents who have raised her and loved her.  Her birth mother has also left behind clues hidden until they are needed.  Lucy will attempt the impossible and will not give up without a fight. 

I could not put this book down.  It moved at such a quick, almost fervent pace.  Lucy's urgency became my urgency.  This book is a puzzle, a mystery and I had no idea how it could be solved.  The song speaks of true love and this book contains that love in it's many different forms.  Each of these strengthen Lucy and make all the difference in the world. 

If you are looking for books to share with your daughter, it might be advisable to save this for an older teen.  At the very least, read it yourself first so that the two of you can have a meaningful discussion of some of the plot points.  I won't give away here the specifics, but I feel like these are important topics to be discussed with our children as they become young adults.  I am pleased that Lucy is not a wallflower, subject to the actions of others.  She is a strong female character who stands up for herself and trusts her instincts.  We live in a society that expects young ladies to behave politely, but that is not always what is best for the young lady herself.  It is important that we teach our daughters that it is acceptable, vital even, to forget manners and trust one's self above all.  Lucy even remembers one of the mother-figures in the book sitting her down "at the age of twelve for a long talk on how important it was for girls to express themselves strongly and not be too quite and shy."  What a difference a lesson like that can make in the life of a young woman.

This book kept me up late in to the night and then it infiltrated my dreams.  At one point it was necessary to verbally tell myself to slow down.  I was reading too quickly and I was worried I might miss something.  I just couldn't wait to find out what would happen.  I just love books like that, don't you?

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Our book club selection for May was The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler.  I know I have mentioned my book club numerous times.  It is such a wonderful group.  We all read the book, we actually discuss the book and we always leave room for each member's opinion.  That is what makes a great book club.  It has been very rare that I haven't really enjoyed our book club book, but this one just didn't do it for me.

It was fine.  That pretty much sums it up.  The Beginner's Goodbye is about a man who loses his wife in an accident.  Months later she appears to him and he must deal with her loss in a new way.  There just wasn't a lot of meat to this story.  It felt a bit rambly (what do you mean that's not a word?) to me and I was never quite sure when we were going to get past the exposition and in to the real story.  There were some interesting discussion points about the loss of a spouse, but nothing truly profound.  Also, we all felt we couldn't help but picture the characters much older than the ages the author lists.  Everyone in the book just seemed so much older.  The main character, Aaron, is said to be 36-year-old, yet I continually pictured a man in his fifties. 

I bought this book on my Kindle because I could not find it in the library or in a used book store because it is a new release.  Now if only I could give it away like I would with a hard copy since I know I'll never read it again.  Ah...the one drawback of the Kindle.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

The sequel to Austenland by Shannon Hale is Midnight in Austenland.  No, this isn't just the same story read in the middle of the night- it is much more fun than that.  Midnight in Austenland is set once again at Pembrook Park, the English manor that plays host to women with Jane Austen fixations.  We all love Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but those are both very much novels for a spring day.  Northanger Abby and Mansfield Park contain a bit more mystery and may be better suited for a cold rainy night.  Midnight in Austenland attempts to bring those same feelings to the ladies on holiday at Pembrook Park.

Charlotte Kinder is a clever woman struggling with her recent divorce.  A woman of independent means, she travels to the exclusive Austenland to escape herself and to become immersed in Jane Austen's world.  "Things prove rough for our heroine.  Her only hope was Jane Austen."  Oh, the ills that a Jane Austen novel can comfort!

During her orientation at Pembrook Park, Charlotte is determined to choose Mrs. Charlotte Cordial as her name.  This is unusual since most of the guests are single thus adding to the potential for romance.  Charlotte insists upon this as she cannot imagine herself as anything but a mother, her concession, however, is that she is a widow.  To Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the proprietress of Pembrook Park, she explains, "Yes, my husband died tragically.  It was a gruesome and exceedingly painful demise."  Mrs. Wattlesbrook did not look unamused, as if she herself had experience with a difficult husband.

The humor abounds through this book.  Like it's predecessor, Midnight plunges the reader into the customs and manners of the Regency period.  Unlike Austenland, this novel's main focus is not romance or the avoidance of such, but rather a gripping murder mystery.  The conundrum is this: what is real and what is only pretend?  Is it all part of the game, or was that really the hand of a dead man Charlotte saw in the attic? 

Sequels do not always live up to the original, especially when new characters are involved.  This one, however, may be even better than the first.  Do read it, won't you?  And if you do, perhaps you, too, will find yourself unable to detach from the Austen manner of speech.  Verily, I cannot halt this formality of language!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Isn't that a beautiful cover?  I know you can't tell a book by it's cover, but it does give a few hints.   I had seen this book several places and I was intrigued.  Now you know I hate spoilers, and maybe this doesn't count, but be warned: 


I had no idea that this book was based on The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  Obviously I didn't take the time to actually read the book jacket.  I prefer to jump right in to a new book.  I started reading and Azalea, the main character, is very excited about a ball.  Her sisters are not allowed to attend because they are not yet of age.  The book slowly mentions sister after sister until it becomes clear that there are eleven of them.  Shortly thereafter, a twelfth sister is born.  All twelve sisters are named alphabetically after flowers: Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Evening Primrose (she insist on being called Eve), Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale and finally Lily.  Maybe that is too sappy for some readers, but I thought it was precious!   

Following a family tragedy, the princesses discover a secret passage within the walls of the castle that takes them to a magic pavilion where they can dance all night long.  They do wear out their slippers and at first it is the most fun any of them has ever had.  Eventually, though, Azalea realizes things are not exactly as they seem and she must protect her sisters. 

I loved the fairy tale aspect of this book.  It is filled with magic and the quest for love and familial loyalty and honor and duty.  Bramble in particular made me laugh out loud.  Please read this book.  I borrowed it from the library, but I think I will have to purchase my own copy.  I really really loved it.  Once you read it, tell me what you think. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Beyond the Sling by Mayim Bialik, PhD

So, I'll admit it:  I watched Blossom when I was younger.  I loved it and it had nothing to do with Joey Lawrence.  And I've always loved the Young Bette Midler in Beaches.  When I saw that Mayim Bialik had written a book and was doing the talk show rounds, I DVRed several of them just to see what she had done.  Unfortunately, we are always a little surprised when a child actor grows up to be a productive member of society.  Not only is Bialik productive, she has a PhD in neuroscience.  Please let me begin by saying that I love smart people. I am fascinated by smart people. Now, I am aware that educated doesn't necessarily equal smart, but I feel pretty confident that I can tell the difference.  Listening to Bialik speak in her interviews I feel confident that she is very smart, if perhaps a bit quirky with her ideas on parenting. My curiosity was peaked; I had to read her book.

Beyond the Sling is a book about attachment parenting and specifically about how Bialik and her husband make it work for their family.  Some of what I read I really liked, other things were a little out there for me, but the best part of the book is the way it is written.  Never does Bialik say, "You HAVE to do it this way!  There is no other way.  If you don't do what I do, you are a bad parent!"  She very practically explains what works for her and her children while at the same time saying, "No one knows your child better than you do."  If it works for you, great; if not, okay.  She catches a lot of grief for the way she raises her sons and is kind and smart enough not to pass that along to anyone else. 

The first two chapters are about having a natural birth and the importance of breastfeeding.  These were easy for me to read because I loved nursing my babies (though I didn't do it quite like Bialik does) and I find the idea of natural childbirth intriguing.  I won't bore you with my childbirth experiences, but I will say that I followed a well-paved road: hospital, pitocin (with my first child), and epidurals.  With my first child, I didn't know what to expect despite the birthing class and numerous books I read.  It was a very long labor and delivery.  With my second child, everything went much quicker.  I barely had time to relax into the epidural before it was time to push and be done.  Oh, how I wish I had skipped the drugs because I have had problems with my back ever since.  Also, after that child was born we couldn't wait to get out of the hospital and back home to our other child.  When the clock struck the hour that marked our required 24 hour stay in the hospital, we were dressed, packed up and had our new baby in her carseat ready to walk out the door.  The idea of birthing at home where we would be comfortable makes so much sense to me provided an experienced midwife is in attendance.  If we were going to have another child, this is certainly an option I would explore.

Next, Bialik discusses baby-wearing, co-sleeping in a family bed, and elimination communication.  Baby-wearing is basically holding the baby nearly all the time.  My son would have loved that because he always wanted to be held, mostly by me.  If I'd had a sling it would have been much easier.  Sleeping with our children is not something we ever did, but if it works for you, feel free provided you take all safety precautions possible.  Several of these safety guidelines are outlined in the chapter.  Elimination communication is the practice of watching your infant, even newborns, for signs that he or she needs to use the potty.  Bialik's sons were both wearing underwear and regularly using the potty by eighteen and fifteen months respectively.  She discusses how much easier it is to pay attention to the signals and help them use a toilet from the beginning rather than teaching them to use a diaper and then trying to potty train later.  Like I said: interesting.  No, seriously- good for her.  She makes it sound easy and practical, I just think I would like to see it in action to really understand how it works. 

The next section in the book discusses all the things that a baby doesn't need.  The baby industry is a multi-billion dollar business and it is nice to hear all those things really aren't necessary.  Your baby, according to Bialik, also doesn't need pressure.  We've all seen the parents coaching their children through two-year-old soccer, convinced little Davy is going to be the next Beckham.  Or there is the pre-schooler in French lesson, or the second grader with all the brain games (oops, that one's me).  The point she makes is that we put too much pressure on our children to be the best, the first at everything.  We feed our own egos through the accomplishments of our offspring.  She's not wrong, but I'm not crazy about her solution.  Bialik and her husband, well here's how she said it:

"My husband and I made a personal choice not to introduce academics in any form to our children in their first five or so years of life.  This included no ABC books, no singing the alphabet song, no puzzles with letters or numbers, and we even went so far as to not 'teach' colors."

That, to me, seems like it goes a bit far, but she obviously values education so I guess that's just how she wants to do things and I'm okay with that.  They also homeschool their children and that is another topic that fascinates me.

Finally, I was curious to see what Bialik had to say about discipline.  After all I had read, it was pretty clear she was about as crunchy granola as she could be, and so it was no surprise she believes in what she calls Gentle Discipline- parenting without violence.  Listen to this interesting point she makes:

"The only relationship in society in which you are allowed to hit or spank another person is the one with your child; you can't spank your husband or your wife.  You can't spank your teachers or your friends, and you most certainly can't even adopt a pet in most states if you say that you plan to use spanking as a disciplinary measure."

That is something that deserves some consideration, don't you think?  To be fair, she also says:

"But there is something about what happens during the first years of your child's life that convinces you that even Mother Teresa and Ghandi would turn to corporal punishment (or run off to Siberia) as the only reasonable way to cope with an impertinent toddler."

Yep, been there. 

Overall, I found this book engaging and thought provoking.  My children are beyond beyond the sling at five- and eight- years-old, but it still made me think of what I can do to better our relationship.  I love my children and I want our home to be happy, as I imagine most parents do.  Mayim Bialik is an interesting person and a charming author.  Reading this book felt like discussing ideas with a friend and I always enjoy that.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

About a year and a half ago, my wonderful book club read Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  I missed it because our family had gone to live in France for three months.  While that was about as amazing an experience as you can imagine, I really wish I hadn't missed this book discussion.  Several book club members had mentioned how much they liked the book and one even told me it had become her favorite book that we had read yet.  It has taken me this long to finally get around to reading it (so many books, so little time) and I can't wait to discuss it with someone. 

This winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize (really, how incredible must it be as a writer to win the Pulitzer?!) was later made into a two-part mini-series for HBO that went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series in 2006 (again, how incredible).  Empire Falls is set in a small, economically suffering town in central Maine.  The book begins by chronicling the Whiting family's history and rise to power and money over many generations.  Mostly, however, the story revolves around the present day town's inhabitants.  Miles, who once tried to leave the town but has been back for twenty years, runs the local diner.  His ex-wife, his daughter, his brother, his childhood friends, his father and his former mother-in-law all play important roles in his life.  The elderly Mrs. Whiting is also a strong presence for Miles and for the entire town, seeing as how she owns most of it including the three now abandoned mills that used to support the town. 

Miles is often described as a "soft touch" and a "pushover" of whom many of the people around him like to take advantage.  Miles' aging father Max expects his son to support him regardless of the fact that Max did very little supporting himself while his boys were young.  Miles' ex-wife walks over him with the expectation that he will not complain.  And Miles' employer, Mrs. Whiting, has him doing her bidding with very little reward for himself. 

The local soon-to-be chief of police, Jimmy Minty, is obviously corrupt and his son, Zach, is a much darker, meaner version of Eddie Haskell who has no respect or regard for the adults around him.  John, the young man Zach chooses to torment, has a disturbing secret and Tick, Miles' daughter, tries her best to keep the peace despite the fact that Zach is her cruel ex-boyfriend and John is the boy the principal has asked her to befriend. 

The timeline begins as summer is ending and as the story progresses over the next four months, the reader can almost feel the clouds and cold descend on the characters.  While filled with moments of humor, life is not easy for the residents of Empire Falls and many seem to have lost hope.  Several times during my reading I wanted to urge the characters to leave and start anew somewhere else.  Of course, that is not an option for many of the characters as this small town is all they and generations before them have ever known. 

As many of my book club friends mentioned, this book was a bit of a slow start.  I believe several identified around page 100 when the story began to pick up speed.  As for me, I had about a third of the book to go last night when I just couldn't seem to stop reading.  This morning I woke up knowing I would finish my reading before I could accomplish anything else today.  At 483 pages, while long, the real mystery to me is how Mr. Russo fit in so much story.  Each of the many characters feels fully developed and three-dimensional.  I was captivated by the story and anxious to discover all the skeletons hiding in so many closets in this town.  I am borrowing the mini-series from the library this week, so it will be interesting to see how such a robust novel will fit into 197 minutes. 

A note to my local friends:  Now that I've finished reading this one, I'm happy to pass it along.  Would anyone like it? 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

The book club selection for April is The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen.  I love Ms. Allen's books, Garden Spells being my favorite.  I love the magic; I love the whimsy; I love all the food. 

In this book, Willa Jackson is just trying to live a normal, quiet life.  Do those exist in SAA novels?  I'm pretty sure they don't.  Willa, the former high school Joker, is thrown together with Paxton, the former high school princess.  Paxton is struggling to maintain her social status while also searching for a way out.  The two women are both pulled into a mystery that began with their grandmothers were friends as young women. 

I really liked this book, but it felt incomplete to me.  Several things began in the book that didn't quite seem to resolve.  Maybe that is just be wanting more, but I was slightly disappointed.  It was a fun book and I read it very quickly, I just wanted more.  And I totally off base here?  Did you read it and love it?  I'd love to hear what you thought.