Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Down the Mysterly River

Author: Bill Willingham
Pages: 328
Rating: G - there's a little bit of violence, but nothing too gory or difficult to read.

Summary: Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat)—all of whom talk—and who are as clueless as Max.

Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world… 

My Thoughts: This book quickly jumped into my favorites list, and this is why: It's a really excellent fantasy/adventure story that isn't 750 pages long and doesn't rope you into reading three or four more books because it's part of a series. The book stands completely on its own, isn't extremely long, and has a very satisfying ending. I couldn't believe that a book like this really existed. Most books in this genre are a million pages long and part of a series, which can be annoying if you don't really feel like investing all that time into 3 more books.

I found that the book moved along at a really nice pace. I could hardly put it down, and it reawakened my love of fantasy/adventure books. Max and the other characters are very likable, very real, and the book is easy to read. It's entertaining for an adult, but I'm sure a 10 year old would love it just as much. The book reminded me just a little bit of Inkheart, but I can't say why without giving away the ending. Max eventually figures out what this world is all about any why he is there, but I was completely in the dark. The answer was definitely a surprise to me, and it was creative. It's not a story you've read before. Once you know the end, you have to almost go back and read certain parts again because it will mean something different in light of this new information. I highly recommend this book for ALL ages.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Zanesville

Author: Jo Ann Beard

Pages: 287

Rating: PG mostly, but there is a smidge of language. Not a lot though. 

Summary: The beguiling fourteen-year-old narrator of IN ZANESVILLE is a late bloomer. She is used to flying under the radar-a sidekick, a third wheel, a marching band dropout, a disastrous babysitter, the kind of girl whose Eureka moment is the discovery that "fudge" can't be said with an English accent.

Luckily, she has a best friend, a similarly undiscovered girl with whom she shares the everyday adventures of a 1970s American girlhood, incidents through which a world is revealed, and character is forged.

In time, their friendship is tested-- by their families' claims on them, by a clique of popular girls who stumble upon them as if they were found objects, and by the first, startling, subversive intimations of womanhood.

With dry wit and piercing observation, Jo Ann Beard shows us that in the seemingly quiet streets of America's innumerable Zanesvilles is a world of wonders, and that within the souls of the awkward and the overlooked often burns something radiant and unforgettable.

My Thoughts: This isn't really a novel I'll probably remember forever, but I will admit that it was interesting and the writing was excellent. Beard is one of those authors that can describe things so well that you're left thinking, "yes, it is like that" even if you never would have thought to describe it that way before. If you're really into coming of age novels, this is just another one of those. The thing for me is that nothing really happens in this book. There are some problems with her best friend because suddenly the popular girls want to hang out with one of them but not the other, but that's really all. They briefly experiment with boys, just kind of to see what it feels like. Mostly, it's just a series of the kind of events girls have to deal with growing up, and it's kind of funny watching this make her way through it. The way she expresses her trepidation of having to wear a bra someday cracked me up. "It's like being on your way to the Alps and knowing that when you get there you'll have to wear lederhosen."

One interesting fact about the book...they never tell you the name of the main character, although I was more than halfway through the book before I realized this. The closest I got was that she has the same name as one of the girls in Little Women, but she's not Amy. "Little Amy March grew up while no one was looking, wandered away from wherever it was they lived, and became an artist, while the one named after me had to stay and be in a worse book later." This wasn't enough of a clue for me, so if anyone else knows Little Women better than I do, let me know what this girl's name is because I was extremely curious by the end.

I will say I found the ending disappointing, but I was never disappointed while actually reading the book. I did enjoy it. The author does a wonderful job capturing the essence of a young teenager trying to figure out what it means to grow up, while still being afraid to leave childhood behind.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Freedom Writers Diary

Author: The Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell

Pages: 311

Rating: This one verges on R, and it probably is R, but please don't let the rating affect your choice to read it! The book is self-described as "gritty and honest" and this is why I was forced to give it the R rating. You will find a lot of language, but mostly towards the beginning, and other things that are difficult to read about. However, if this book was any cleaner it would really lose its effect. The fact of the matter is, the kids in this book have had R-rated lives, and they wrote about them as they happened, without being censored. Please read my thoughts on the book in order to decide whether you want to read it or not!

Summary: As an idealistic twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Wilson High School in Long beach, California, Erin Gruwell confronted a room of “unteachable, at-risk” students. One day she intercepted a note with an ugly racial caricature, and angrily declared that this was precisely the sort of thing that led to the Holocaust—only to be met by uncomprehending looks. So she and her students, using the treasured books Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo as their guides, undertook a life-changing, eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding. They learned to see the parallels in these books to their own lives, recording their thoughts and feelings in diaries and dubbing themselves the “Freedom Writers” in homage to the civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders.”

With funds raised by a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance,” they arranged for Miep Gies, the courageous Dutch woman who sheltered the Frank family, to visit them in California, where she declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes.” Their efforts have paid off spectacularly, both in terms of recognition—appearances on “Prime Time Live” and “All Things Considered,” coverage in People magazine, a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley—and educationally. All 150 Freedom Writers have graduated from high school and are now attending college.

With powerful entries from the students’ own diaries and a narrative text by Erin Gruwell, The Freedom Writers Diary is an uplifting, unforgettable example of how hard work, courage, and the spirit of determination changed the lives of a teacher and her students.

My Thoughts:While I will probably not usually  review non-fiction books, since most of what I read is fiction, this book is entirely worthwhile for anyone in high school or above. You may or may not have seen the movie by the same name, I haven't, but either way, the book is fantastic. Like I said in the rating, the book is pretty intense. These kids have experienced molestation, homelessness, physical and sexual abuse, racial hate crimes, witnessing the murder/death of several friends and family members, abortions, and much more. They write about all of these difficulties in sometimes graphic detail, but like I said, without these details, the book would not be nearly so powerful.

The book is made up of the diary entries of various (unnamed) students in Ms. Gruwell's English class, with an entry from Ms. Gruwell herself at the start of every school year. She encouraged them to fight back by writing about their experiences instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence that so many of them grew up with. The story is truly inspiring. It makes you realize how blessed you are, to have escaped such a terrible life, and if you're a person who has had a difficult past, the book can help you realize that you are not alone, and that if all these kids can make it, you can too.

It was also shocking to me to read these true stories about life in the 'hood, in bad neighborhoods, where gangs and drug dealers are a dime a dozen, and where every kid is wondering who is going to get shot next, and whether it will be him. Sometimes we have this idealized view of America as being this cutesy little place where everyone is happy, and no one is in danger. We don't realize what is going on in some areas of the country, and how hopeless the situations can feel for those people.

The book really celebrates diversity, tolerance, and the courage to shoot for your dreams, and to work hard to get there. The book teaches that discriminating and stereotyping are just plain stupid, and that everyone deserves a chance at life. I think for me the most enlightening entries were from kids who were illegal immigrants. Since I live in an area of the country where illegal immigrants are all over the place, and where I was one of the few white kids in my middle school, that part really hit home for me. I had never really thought before about how difficult it is for an illegal immigrant to improve himself. An entry near the end of the book, written by an illegal, described his struggle. He had always done well in school and desperately wanted to attend college and become even better, but without a Social Security number, this dream was impossible. The book really helps you feel empathy for all sorts of people, from all walks of life.

One of my favorite quotes near the end of the book is this, "It doesn't matter if your inspiration in life comes from negative or positive events. The most important thing is to learn and go on." That's really the message of the book that I took away. It doesn't really matter where life has taken you. If you can just learn from everything and refuse to give up on moving forward, you will be just fine. This book is truly a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

By George, by Wesley Stace

Pages: 378

Rating: PG-13 (There is mention of sex, but not really graphically, however, towards the end, quite a few F-words get thrown in there, which was a disappointment.)

Summary: In the illustrious history of the theatrical Fishers, there are two Georges. One is a peculiar but endearing 11-year-old, raised in the seedy world of `70s boarding houses and backstages, now packed off to school for the first time; the other, a garrulous ventriloquist's dummy who belonged to George's grandfather, a favorite traveling act of the British troops in World War II. The two Georges know nothing of each other--until events conspire to unite them in a search to uncover the family's deepest secrets.

Weaving the boy's tale and the puppet's "memoirs," BY GEORGE unveils the fascinating Fisher family--its weak men, its dominant women, its disgruntled boys, and its shocking and dramatic secrets. At once bitingly funny and exquisitely tender, Stace's novel is the unforgettable journey of two young boys separated by years but driven by the same desires: to find a voice, and to be loved.

My Thoughts: Ok, honestly, I was not a huge fan of this book. For the most part, I think it was just too LONG. The story could have been told just as well in probably 150 pages less. There was a lot of pointless filler story in there about day to day life, that I felt just wasn't really necessary to further the story. It took me forever to finish this book because I kept getting frustrated with its lack of direction, so I'd put it down and read something else for a while. I found myself skimming quite a lot as I got towards the end.

There are two mysteries going on in the book and they are solved near the end. George finds out who his real father is (although, I figured it out before he did) and they find out what really happened to his grandpa Joe. Like I said already though, the lead up to finding all this out is just too boring. I felt like the book was also kind of depressing too, as though no one really got what they wanted at the end. It was all just very melancholy. Another problem I had with this book was I had this feeling of disconnect between me and the characters. It sometimes felt as if all the characters in the book were connected and knew what was going on, and they were throwing back and forth little bits of conversation and innuendos that made perfect sense to them, but I was completely out of the loop. I felt a little lost at times. I didn't feel a part of the story really. More of a confused observer.

Overall, I probably would not recommend this book, but if you still think it sounds interesting, go ahead and give it a try.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Darcy's Passions: Pride and Prejudice Retold Through His Eyes, by Regina Jeffers

Pages: 385

Rating: PG-13 ( It's a love story, and for the time period, pretty steamy. It's not graphic or anything. The book just happens to go slightly past their marriage, and there is sex, but it's not inappropriately handled or anything.)

Summary:Witty, romantic and insightful, Darcy’s Passions captures the original style and sardonic humor of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice while turning the entire story on its head. Written from the perspective of Fitzwilliam Darcy, this novel tells his version of an improbable, even obsessive relationship with a most impossible woman—Elizabeth Bennet.

This novel reveals Darcy’s passion and conviction but also his turmoil. Darcy knows that duty to family and estate demands he choose a woman of refined tastes. Yet, what his mind tells him to do and what his heart knows to be true tear him in opposite directions. He loves a woman he first denies for being unworthy, but it is he who is found wanting when Elizabeth Bennet refuses his proposal of marriage. Devastated, Darcy must search his soul and transform himself into the man she can love and respect.

My Thoughts: Just in case Colin Firth didn't already convince you that Mr. Darcy is the most desirable man on earth, you can read this book and then you WILL be hopelessly in love. Every girl should hope that her future husband is as much in love with her as Mr. Darcy is with Elizabeth. My favorite Darcy quote from the book: "I have been a fool in love; everything about the woman went against my principles, but, much to my chagrin, I found Elizabeth was exactly what I needed. She is the only woman who dared to challenge me - to humble me." Basically, the book shows you the struggles Darcy goes through as he tries to reconcile his growing interest in a country girl with bad family connections. She is socially unacceptable to a man of his rank, yet he cannot keep himself away from her. One of the best parts of this book is that it goes a little bit past their marriage, where Darcy gets caught on his pride again, there is a flare-up with Elizabeth, and he has to make it right. I absolutely love this book. I own it, it's that awesome. It's just great to hear the whole story from Darcy's perspective and what he was thinking the whole time. I'll let you decide what you think, but to me, it's right up there with the original story!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Summer of the Bear, by Bella Pollen

Pages: 438

Rating: PG-13 (there's a little bit of sexual stuff, but it's very fleeting, and never graphic. There are a few swear words, I think the F-bomb was in there twice.)

In 1980 Germany, under Cold War tension, a mole is suspected in the British Embassy. When the clever diplomat Nicky Fleming dies suddenly and suspiciously, it’s convenient to brand him the traitor. But was his death an accident, murder, or suicide? As the government digs into Nicky’s history, his wife, Letty, relocates with her three children to a remote Scottish island hoping to salvage their family. But the isolated shores of her childhood retreat only intensify their distance, and it is Letty’s brilliant and peculiar youngest child, Jamie, who alone holds on to the one thing he’s sure of: his father has promised to return and he was a man who never broke a promise.

Exploring the island, Jamie and his teenaged sisters discover that a domesticated brown bear has been marooned on shore, hiding somewhere among the seaside caves. Jamie feels that the bear may have a strange connection to his father, and as he seeks the truth, his father’s story surfaces in unexpected ways. Bella Pollen has an uncanny ability to capture the unnoticeable moments in which families grow quiet. A novel about the corrosive effects of secrets and the extraordinary imagination of youth, The Summer of the Bear is Pollen’s most ambitious and affecting book yet.

My Thoughts: I found this book difficult to put down. It was strangely compelling, like the whole thing is just a dream or something. I thought it would be more like a mystery novel, but it's really story of a grieving family trying to piece together how their father died, or in Jamie's case, why he is gone. To protect Jamie from the horror of death, no one officially tells him his father is dead. They say things like, "He's gone" and "He had an accident and he hurt everything." It's also a story of each individual in the family trying to deal with it and get past the fact that a key piece of their family is now gone. The story is told in small little chapters, and it rotates through the perspectives of each family member, sometimes reminiscing about events in the past, sometimes just telling how it is now.

I was a little confused about the bear because the story starts out with him and it wasn't obvious at first that the bear was narrating. It was a lot easier when I realized that the bear's chapters are marked by a little picture of a bear at the beginning of each of his narratives. That might be helpful. There also are elements of truth to the book. I don't think of this as a spoiler because I read it early on, and even though it's part of the epilogue, it helped me understand the story better. In 1980, there really was a tame grizzly bear lost on a Scottish Island for several weeks. Even though when he was finally found, he was extremely thin and weak with hunger, he had never harmed a single animal or human.

There are definitely twists and turns. I was completely in the dark about what really happened to their father until the very very end, and suddenly it all becomes clear. It's one of those books that just kind of touches you quietly and when you're done, you think, "Hey...that was a good book." I really enjoyed it.

One last warning... the book is written as if the readers are familiar with British terms and phrases, so just watch out cuz you might be slightly confused with some terms. I was. It helps to know that MoD stands for Ministry of Defense. They don't explain that right away.