Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Crimson Thread: A Retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin" by Suzanne Weyn

Pages: 207

Rating: G

The year is 1880, and Bertie, having just arrived in New York with her family, is grateful to be given work as a seamstress in the home of textile tycoon J. P. Wellington. When the Wellington family fortune is threatened, Bertie's father boasts that Bertie will save the business, that she is so skillful she can "practically spin straw into gold."
Amazingly, in the course of one night, Bertie creates exquisite evening gowns -- with the help of Ray Stalls, a man from her tenement who uses an old spinning wheel to create dresses that are woven with crimson thread and look as though they are spun with real gold. Indebted to Ray, Bertie asks how she can repay him. When Ray asks for her firstborn child, Bertie agrees, never dreaming that he is serious....

My Thoughts: Ok, so the story is, this family is Irish immigrants, and they're struggling to survive in a new world that isn't quite as full of opportunity than they thought. I was a little confused at first because Bertie is originally Bridget, but the entire family changes their names in an effort to seem less Irish and more American. Bertie is a good seamstress, and she becomes even more skilled after she is hired on at the Wellingtons. Under the tutelage of the head seamstress there, Bertie learns everything she needs to be successful as a seamstress, but is not prepared for her father's overwhelming boast that she can create dresses so amazing. Bertie has no choice but to let Ray continue to help her, because if she does not continue to produce the dresses, both she and her father will lose their jobs.

I liked this book actually quite a lot. I got really into the story, it's a quick read, and it was a nice version of Rumpelstiltskin. There are definitely unexpected twists and turns, and the way the author works the name "Rumpelstiltskin" into the story is very clever. Of course, the story has a cheesy, fairy tale, happy, lovey dovey ending, but that's to be expected from a fairy tale. Some parts of it seemed a little too easy, simple, as if that would never happen in real life, but again, it's a fairy tale. Overall, I'd recommend this little book to anyone. The only real romance is in the end, they kiss one time, so it's very very clean.

Vaclav and Lena, by Haley Tanner

Pages: 288

Rating:PG-13. There isn't so much swearing that I was unable to finish, but by the end of the book I was getting a little uncomfortable with it. Sex is discussed, but not graphically. It's very obvious that it happened, but again, the sex scene did not make me uncomfortable because it wasn't too detailed. It's a very serious book, dealing with heavy stuff, so I wouldn't recommend this to a young teen. This is definitely more of a young adult/adult novel.

Summary:Vaclav and Lena seem destined for each other. They meet as children in an ESL class in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Vaclav is precocious and verbal. Lena, struggling with English, takes comfort in the safety of his adoration, his noisy, loving home, and the care of Rasia, his big-hearted mother. Vaclav imagines their story unfolding like a fairy tale, or the perfect illusion from his treasured Magician’s Almanac, but among the many truths to be discovered in Haley Tanner’s wondrous debut is that happily ever after is never a foregone conclusion.

One day, Lena does not show up for school. She has disappeared from Vaclav and his family’s lives as if by a cruel magic trick. For the next seven years, Vaclav says goodnight to Lena without fail, wondering if she is doing the same somewhere. On the eve of Lena’s seventeenth birthday he finds out.

Haley Tanner has the originality and verve of a born storyteller, and the boldness to imagine a world in which love can overcome the most difficult circumstances. In Vaclav & Lena she has created two unforgettable young protagonists who evoke the joy, the confusion, and the passion of having a profound, everlasting connection with someone else.

My Thoughts: I'm really not 100% sure how I feel about this book. It was definitely easy to read, and I got through it rather quickly, but for some reason the whole thing didn't feel quite real. The characters didn't feel real, the entire story seemed to be taking place in some sort of dream world, not real life. In fact, for the first few chapters, I failed to realize that the book takes place in modern time, not in like the 40's or something. It's certainly a very moving book. Lena has had a very difficult life, and somehow, she has to deal with it all and get through it. Her coping mechanisms are not really healthy, but you feel like you understand her, like you know exactly how she is feeling.

The author certainly knows how to write. The metaphors and the way she describes things makes perfect sense, but I know if I tried to describe it, I would be totally lost for words. For example, here's a quote from near the end that I liked. "They keep their secrets in the safe pockets between their clasped palms, protecting them and wanting instinctively to shield them like tiny shiny frogs found in the wet grass, but wanting simultaneously to share them, to show and share such an exciting new thing."

It's really just kind of a story of trying to grow up and find your place in a country that is not your own. Vlaclav and Lena are both from Russia, and they struggle with finding acceptance in school where they do not fully understand the language. The way they think is so perfect, and it amazes me that the author could capture the mind of a child so perfectly. It's very deep and intense. You'll definitely come away feeling something in yourself, but what it is kind of depends on you. I liked it, but I wasn't sure how I liked the end. There was closure, but I still wanted more, which I guess tells you it was a good book, because I wasn't ready for it to be over. Despite the swearing, I would probably recommend this book, but again, only to someone maybe 17 and up, cuz the topics it covers are just too serious and intense for someone much younger to really understand.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bliss, Rememberd, by Frank Deford

Pages: 351
Rating: PG-13 (This book actually rates itself. In the book, one of the characters actually says, "I give it a PG-13." There are two F-bombs but they're in the same paragraph and then there's no other language really, just some sexuality, but it isn't graphic at all, and there's a little talk about body parts, but again, it didn't make me uncomfortable at all. The story is set in 1936, and it's not very scandelous really.)

Summary:At the 1936 Berlin Olympics the beautiful Sydney Stringfellow begins an intense love affair with the son of a Nazi diplomat, but the affair abruptly ends when political forces tear them apart. Back in the US, Sydney is left healing her broekn heart when a striking American begins to pursue her -- but can she ever really forget the handsom young German who first took her heart?

My Thoughts: I could hardly put this book down! I read it in like 2 days. I was hooked immediately. There are funny parts, sad parts, happy parts, surprising parts. Towards the end, you think you have it all figured out when suddenly it changes, and then you think you have it figured out again, and it changes again. Full of unexpected twists and turns, and just the right amount of suspense, you'll hardly even believe you're reading a love story. But it's a fantastic love story at that!

So since the summary I found on Amazon gives us absolutely nothing to go off of, basically, the story is set up by Sydney as an old woman about to die, finally ready to tell her son Teddy all about her adventures when she went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Up to this point in her life, she has refused to talk about Berlin and all that she experienced there. I love the way it's told because you get lost in the story but then get brought back to real life, and old Sydney is hilarious. She gets off on these tangents that you can totally imagine some old lady going off on about the old days and it's terribly funny. Here's a teaser quote. "There are no surprises left. You can tell on the phone who it is before you pick it up. All the children are on that Facebook thing, so there're no blind dates left. Just peek-a-boo dates. Everybody has to know what sex their child is hardly before they're out of bed and through conceiving. no, no, no, we think we're so clever, but we're a poorer world without surprises."

This is one of those books where the characters feel really real. Since some of the characters in the book that Sydney meets (like Elenor Holm, an Olympic swimmer, and Leni Riefenstahl, a German filmmaker) are actually real people, and some of the events in the book actually happened, I kept forgetting that Sydney is not a real person. I kept thinking she was real and I was so excited to find out how her life turned out. It was the kind of book that you immediately want to read again once you've finished, because knowing how it all turned out, you could look at every instance in the book entirely differently. It would almost be like a different book. It's also one of those books that you'll find yourself mulling over and thinking about long after you've finished it. This one is highly, highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Water Song: A Retelling of "The Frog Prince", by Suzanne Weyn

Rating: PG (there's nothing bad in it, but it does take place during WWI, so it's kind of intense in spots)

Summary:Young, beautiful, and wealthy, Emma Pennington is accustomed to a very comfortable life. Although war rages abroad, she hardly feels its effect. She and her mother travel from their home in Britain to the family estate in Belgium, never imagining that the war could reach them there. But it does.
Soon Emma finds herself stranded in a war-torn country, utterly alone. Enemy troops fight to take over her estate, leaving her with no way to reach her family, and no way out.
With all of her attention focused on survival and escape, Emma hardly expects to find love. But the war will teach her that life is unpredictable, people aren't always what they seem, and magic is lurking everywhere.

My Thoughts: I really liked the way this book was set up. Instead of him being a literal frog, the guy (Jack) is an American soldier from Louisiana who is a really good swimmer and awesome at holding his breath. He only looks like a frog when the two first meet because he has been hit with chlorine gas and his face is covered in boils and stuff. Emma finds him because in his haste to get away from the gas, he falls into a well on her property. It was a creative way to retell the story of the frog prince, and I'm always entertained by World War stories.  The whole love part of it all was decidedly cheesy, but what can you expect from a fairy tale?

I think the author tried a little to hard to tie in the whole prince and frog part. If she had just left it alone, I think it would have worked better. Like I said, the ending is really cheesy. But it is intense, seeing as they're basically living as German prisoners since the Germans take over Emma's house. And the book keeps you guessing because Emma has a locket with something inside the second half that is only for an emergency, but she's never been able to get the locket open. So you keep wondering what's in it. I honestly was a bit disappointed by the contents, but....see for yourself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wild Orchid: A Retelling of "The Ballad of Mulan" by Cameron Dokey

Pages: 199
Summary: Wielding a sword as deftly as an embroidery needle, Mulan is unlike any other girl in China. When the emperor summons a great army, each family must send a male to fight. Tomboyish Mulan is determined to spare her aging father and bring her family honor, so she disguises herself and answers the call.
But Mulan never expects to find a friend, let alone a soul mate, in the commander of her division, Prince Jian. For all of Mulan's courage with a bow and arrow, is she brave enough to share her true identity and feelings with Prince Jian?

My Thoughts: I thought this was a good little read, if not really predictable. I mean, really....we all know the story of Mulan. It doesn't stray terribly far from the Disney movie, but it does have some nice twists. For instance, there's a good bit of history about her father and her life and stuff. I thought the lead-up to the big battle with the Huns took too long, and then the battle part was like 3 pages and then it's all over and not very exciting. However, it is a cute little love story, even if it's kind of cheesy at the end. If you like reading retold princess stories, go for it. It's good for an afternoon of entertainment. =)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Christmas Sweater, by Glenn Beck

Pages: 273
Rating: G

Summary: Based on a deeply personal true story, Glenn Beck’s bittersweet tale of boyhood memories, wrenching life lessons, and the true meaning of the giving season has touched the hearts of readers everywhere.If you could change your life by reversing your biggest regrets, sorrows, and mistakes . . . would you?When Eddie was twelve years old, all he wanted for Christmas was a bike. He knew money had been tight since his father died, but Eddie dreamed that somehow his mother would find a way to afford that dream bike.What he got from her instead was a sweater. “A stupid, handmade, ugly sweater” that young Eddie left in a crumpled ball in the corner of his room.Scarred deeply by the fateful events that transpired that day, Eddie begins a dark and painful journey toward manhood. It will take wrestling with himself, his faith, and his family—and the guidance of a mysterious neighbor named Russell—to help Eddie find his life’s path and finally understand the significance of that simple gift his mother had crafted with love.

My Thoughts: I read this book in like 3 hours. The first part I read in small chunks, and then I finished it by reading two hours straight. It's really hard to put down. At the end you find out that a lot of the stuff in the book really did happen to Glenn Beck, if not quite in the same sequence or way. Some of it is fabricated, but a lot of it is based on real-life events. This is a really great book, and you don't have to read it just at Christmas time. It's got a theme that works at any time of the year.

It's also a great book because I think we can all identify with some of the feelings that Eddie has. He is deeply angry, he hates God for ruining his life, and he can't seem to get past all the hurt and anger that his life has not turned out the way he wanted it to. We have all had difficult trials, where it's hard to stay focused on what really matters, and in that way, we can all relate to Eddie. The message of the book is mainly that God has given us the greatest gift of all: the Atonement. Sometimes we throw it on the floor in a crumpled ball and don't realize how important it really is. We're too selfish and too scared to leave our problems in the past and take that first step forward. I wish I could write just one quote from this book, but I can't. The whole book just works together and you won't be able to get the full message unless you read it. I highly recommend it. If you get the chance, READ THIS BOOK!!!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Sky Is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson

Pages: 288
Rating: PG-13 (two F-bombs and hints about sexual activity, but it doesn't get graphic.)

Summary:Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life - and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding.

My Thoughts: One of my new favorite books! I couldn't believe this was a first novel. It's so moving. She writes incredibly well, and there's a poem at the beginning of each chapter, written so exquisitely I sometimes read them several times. Lennie is an amazing character, but it doesn't stop there. Her Gram and her uncle are both slightly whacky. It's amazing how well Lennie's grief and her journey to get past it is captured so well in the pages of this book. Lennie has a bit of a love triangle going because her shared grief with Toby kind of turns into passion, and then she has this amazingly talented, beautiful boy named Joe who she is so ridiculously in love with. Seriously, after reading the parts about how she feels about Joe, I was a romantic mess! In a good way of course. Anyone who has ever experienced any kind of heartache, love, or who has a sister would enjoy reading this book. Sometimes the poems I read made me think of my sisters. I want this book!!!

A Woman's Place, by Lynn Austin

Pages: 448

Rating: PG(it's a very clean book but there is a little bit of violence in it)

Summary:They watched their sons, their brothers, and their husbands enlist to fight a growing menace across the seas. And when their nation asked, they answered the call as well. Virginia longs to find a purpose beyond others' expectations. Helen is driven by a loneliness money can't fulfill. Rosa is desperate to flee her in-laws' rules. Jean hopes to prove herself in a man's world. Under the storm clouds of destruction that threaten America during the early 1940s, this unlikely gathering of women will experience life in sometimes starling new ways as their beliefs are challenged and they struggle toward a new understanding of what love and sacrifice truly mean.

My Review: This is one of my favorite books. This was actually a second read, I read it a few years ago and wanted to read it again. Now it's on my wish list so one day I'll maybe have it in my own personal library. The book follows the lives of four women who are very different from each other, and have each chosen to work in the shipyards for their own personal reasons. They become close friends and they begin to help each other through various difficulties in their lives. For instance, Ginny feels like she is unneeded and that her husband no longer loves her. She works in the factory without his knowledge or permission. Jean has a boyfriend back home who is pressuring her for marriage, but she has always dreamed of going to college first. Rosa feels extremely out of place in such a small town, and feels that everyone is expecting her to be someone other than who she is. Helen has had a harsh life with very little love, even though she never lacked money. She has never really had friends before, and finds herself being drawn into the other women's lives. There is a strain of religion in the book. Helen is struggling to even believe in God anymore, and Rosa is learning about God for the first time.

 Even though this book is rather long, it doesn't feel long at all. It's an easy read, and enjoyable too. I mentioned earlier that there is some violence. The book also deals a little bit with civil rights. The women try to get a black woman hired in the factory, and all hell breaks loose. The foreman is threatened and some violence happens in the shipyards against all those that sympathize with the black workers. It's not terribly graphic or anything, but it's there. It's a really great book, with a surprise towards the end about Helen's childhood love.

The main theme of the book is that women can be useful in places other than at home, and that's what I think the book is really aiming at, but I love it a lot anyway. it's a great, perfectly clean story.

I Gave My Heart to Know This, by Ellen Baker

Pages: 321
Rating: PG-13 (The F-bomb is dropped 5 or 6 times throughout the book. There is a little sex, but it only just vaguely hints at it, and never goes into any kind of detail.)

Summary: In January 1944, Grace Anderson, Lena Maki, and Lena’s mother, Violet, have joined the growing ranks of women working for the war effort. Though they find satisfaction in their jobs at a Wisconsin shipyard, it isn’t enough to distract them from the anxieties of wartime, or their fears for the men they love: Lena’s twin brother, Derrick, and Grace’s high school sweetheart, Alex. When shattering news arrives from the front, the lives of the three women are pitched into turmoil. As one is pushed to the brink of madness, the others are forced into choices they couldn’t have imagined—and their lives will never be the same. 

More than five decades later, Violet’s great-granddaughter, Julia, returns to the small farmhouse where Violet and Lena once lived. Listless from her own recent tragedy, Julia begins to uncover the dark secrets that shattered her family, eventually learning that redemption—and love—can be found in the most unexpected places.

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. It was so hard to put down. I kept wanting to flip forward and find out what was going on. There were so many shocking discoveries and secrets that you have to wait almost the entire book to figure out. The book is more about individuals trying to overcome tragedy than it really is about World War II and the work women did. That's part of the story, but it's really just the background. I really felt for the characters, and found myself almost on the verge of tears because of all the sufferings and difficulties they had. It's definitely not a light read. It's intense and there's a lot of letting go and moving on that has to happen in the book. It's a story of regret and mistakes, and trying to do the right thing, and real life, how difficult it is, and trying to make it all right in the end.

Like I said in the rating, the F-bomb is dropped a few times, but only by Julia's brother, Danny, when he comes to visit. He is the only person who uses such language in the book, and he's not a very prominent character. Just be warned that when Danny comes into the picture, you're going to have to watch out for the language. 

Ellen Baker is a great writer. She really helped me to feel the emotions of the characters and I felt sympathetic for all of them, except for maybe Lena. I feel like there wasn't enough of Lena's story in there. All the other characters get to say their piece and redeem themselves, and you understand how they feel and how they got to where they are, but Lena is kind of left a mystery.