Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Reviews: Marriage Medley

No, there aren’t any stories about marriage in here.  I’m going with the theme: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”  There’s bound to be “something” in here for everyone.

Something Old: Flour Babies by Anne Fine

This book was originally published in 1992, but I only just discovered it.  Class 4C (basically the remedial science class) is faced with the task of choosing this year’s science project from a list of the most innocuous (boring) experiments possible.  You can’t really blame the school.  Only a fool would trust the misfits of 4C with volatile chemicals, sharp objects, or anything that has the remotest possibility of going boom.    Due to a misunderstanding involving an overheard conversation, Simon Martin convinces his classmates that they will be rewarded with a “gigantic explosion” at the end if they choose the “childhood development” project: flour babies.  For three weeks, each of the boys must care for one 3 kg sack of flour as if it were his own child.  They’re required to keep a diary about their experience — one entry per day, and the babies will be weighed and inspected for damage on a regular basis.  It’s a treat to read about each boy’s experience caring for his own flour baby — the diary entries are hilarious — but Simon Martin develops a particular attachment to his little one and performs his duties with all the zeal of a new, doting parent.  The best part of this book is Simon’s growing understanding of parenthood and watching him ultimately come to terms with his father’s decision to walk out on the family when Simon was just a baby.  It’s a short read (just four hours by audiobook), and an absolute delight.

Something New: Under the Dome by Stephen King

The citizens of Chesters Mill suddenly find themselves sealed in by a mysterious force field that exactly follows the borders of the town.  The interesting thing about this book is that, while there is some non-human creepiness in the form of the dome, it really comes as more of an afterthought.  Finding the source of the force field is a way to end the novel, but not really the main focus of the story.  The real scare factor is watching the town’s descent into panic and despair with the help of some dastardly and stu*** characters — not to mention the dastardly stu*** characters.  I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s his best book, but it’s an enjoyable read for King fans who don’t mind if the supernatural elements usually prevalent in his novels are mostly absent.  I admit I had to put the book down and walk away several times due to an intense urge to shove my fist in the book and punch Big Jim Rennie’s lights out.  What a frustratingly, moronically, manipulative, conniving bad guy.

Something Borrowed: Thor’s Wedding Day by Bruce Coville

I first heard this one a while ago, but it immediately became a favorite of both BratzBasher and me.  Technically, it falls more easily into the category of “old” than “borrowed”, but I’m counting it here because I downloaded it through the library Overdrive program.  Based on an actual tale from Norse mythology, Thor’s Wedding Day is told from the perspective of Thialfi, the mortal boy who tends to Thor’s Goats — the ones that pull the god’s magical chariot.  Yeah, I know, not what you’d expect for such a tough guy, but the goats have some of the best lines.  They can talk, but only to Thialfi because he’s their keeper.  Anyway — moving on… Thor’s hammer is stolen and now rests in the hands of Thrim the Giant, enemy of the gods of Asgard.  With the powerful weapon now in Thrim’s possession, Asgard is in serious danger of falling to the giants.  No need to fear, however, for Loki (the god of trickery) has managed to strike a deal with Thrim.  The giant will return the hammer in exchange for Freya’s hand in marriage.  Freya (the Norse equivalent to Aphrodite) is understandably non-compliant.  Loki suggests that Thor takes Freya’s place since it’s really his problem to fix.  Before you can say “transvestite”, Thor, Loki, Thialfi, and the goats are on their way to a wedding, cleverly disguised as Freya, Freya’s handmaid, and Freya’s servant/goat-tending girl.  The goats are lucky enough to escape punishment by corset.  It’s a good thing giants aren’t very bright.  Much hilarity ensues.  I don’t care if you’ve got kids or not.  You have to read this book.

Something Blue: Push by Sapphire (recently adapted to film and subsequently republished under the title Precious)

The story of 16-year-old Clarisse Precious Jones, who has just been expelled from school upon the discovery of her second pregnancy (by her father), is not for everyone.  The novel is written from the main character’s point of view, and the teenager is sad, sweet, and tragically real.  Ms. Lichtenstein, the school principal, goes out of her way to find a place for Precious at an alternative education project called “Each One Teach One” and thus opens a door beyond which Precious can make a new, better life for herself.  Ms. Rain, the teacher of the pre-GED class (which focuses on learning to read and write — Precious, like too many girls in her situation, is illiterate) features prominently as a mentor, but it’s really Precious that saves herself by taking control of her life and finally coming to terms with and rising above her parents’ abuse, the consequences of that abuse, and her own personal shortcomings.  I particularly admire the way the author addresses the often-overlooked aspect of confusion that plagues the victim of sexual abuse who experiences pleasure in the act despite the evil context.  Warnings for language and graphic depictions of sexual abuse.

Auntie Heather

So far I only have one YA author link on my blog, but I doubt it will remain so for long.  Heather Brewer is the author of the Vladimir Tod Chronicles — a five-book series beginning with Eighth Grade Bites and ending with yet-to-be-released Twelfth Grade Kills.  Don’t ask her why she hasn’t written a [Blank] Grade Sucks.  She’s still miffed that the publishing company thinks it’s too offensive a title.

Vladimir Tod isn’t your typical vampire.  He was born, not created, from his vampire father’s forbidden marriage to his human mother.  Since his parents’ death in a house fire, he’s lived in Bathory with his Aunt Nell, a good friend of his mother.  He can eat human food, but his very rare steaks are usually drenched in donated blood that Nell (a nurse) swipes from the hospital blood bank just before it expires.  He also prefers his Hostess cupcakes with blood capsules hidden in the cream filling.  Hey, he’s got a sweet tooth, and Nell is very resourceful about sneaking vampire nourishment into his school lunch.

Vlad’s best friend is Henry, the coolest dude in school and Bathory’s resident chick magnet.  Henry has also been Vlad’s drudge ever since Vlad bit him when they were small children.  Hey, Henry asked him to, and Vlad didn’t know it would bind Henry to him as his trusted servant.  Shortly after the start of eighth grade, Vlad learns there was a lot more to his father than he ever suspected, and now Vlad is in very serious danger from the local vampire council merely because he exists.

Vladimir Tod is a thoroughly enjoyable series.  The  books may be quick and easy reads, but readers willing to dig deeper will find a story that speaks to teenagers (and adults) who are looking to find their own sense of self in spite of pressuring preconceptions from family, friends, and the world at large.  Vlad is a decent kid fighting to hold onto his own values that seem to be in total opposition to his perceived destiny.

Heather Brewer, known as Auntie Heather to her adoring fans (referred to as the Minion Horde), is just as cool as her books.  I’ve met her at numerous author events and am always impressed by the way she relates to her fans on their level while offering them a role model that won’t make their parents cringe.  Her language and attitude are exemplary, her books are clean — and as wholesome as vampire books can possibly be, and she doesn’t talk down to her minions.  She recently lost a very noticeable amount of weight and was quick to explain to readers that she did it by following a plan of dietary reform and exercise set by her doctor, not through surgery or fad diets.  She’s currently working on a new vampire series called Blood Bound.

You can visit Auntie Heather here.

A little Rapunzel, a little Cinderella, a whole lotta wow

I just finished a wonderful book by Shannon Hale called Book of a Thousand Days.  Dashti is an orphaned peasant girl who finds employment as a lady’s maid for the younger daughter of the Lord of Titor’s Garden.  Her very first day on the job, she discovers that her lady has been sentenced to spend seven years locked in a tower for refusing to marry the evil Lord Khasar.  Dashti, unable to bear the thought of her lady being locked alone in a tower for seven years, agrees to accompany her.  Then things really get interesting.  I loved this book.  Lady Saren tended to get on my nerves a lot, but eventually redeemed herself.  Khan Tegus made a wonderful Prince Charming.  Unlike the usual 2-dimensional characters you find in fairy tales, he came across as a real person with whom a girl could actually fall in love.  He’s funny and sweet, and his ego doesn’t suffer one bit when the heroine comes to his rescue.  He does rescue her in turn, but to describe that would give too much away.

Full Cast Audio did a wonderful job with this recording, but I’m definitely buying a hard copy to read to my daughter.

What is my kid really listening to/watching/reading?

Today’s Foo4’s Favs features the perfect website for parents who want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly about the media their kids are exposed to.  Want to know if there’s foul language in a book/song?  Is the message a good one, rather than a glorification of sex/drugs/Hannah Montana?  Common Sense Media is the place to turn to for ratings and reviews from a parent’s perspective.

The best part about CSM is that they don’t just say if something’s good or bad.  They’ll give you two ratings — one from parents and one from kids — as well as specifics on questionable content.  There are eight categories they look at:

Educational Value: What’s the risk of my kid actually learning something (history, politics, science, etc.) without realizing it?

Message: Is the overall message of the story/song positive — or even something I want my kid exposed to?

Role Models: Are the heroes of the story (or performing artists) good role models that promote positive characteristics?

Violence and Scariness: On a scale of 1-5, 1 being a slap-fight between a couple of weaklings and 5 being murder and mass destruction, how would you rate this?

Sex: Is this a kissing book?  What base are we talking about here?  Will there be any naked bummies?

Language: Is anybody dropping the f-bomb or taking the Lord’s name in vain?

Consumerism: Are there product placements?  Will there be mega merchandising (action figures, lunchboxes, breakfast cereals, etc.) surrounding this?

Smoking, Drinking, & Drugs: Is there any?  If so, who’s doing/talking about it — the good guys or the bad guys?  Is it portrayed as something bad or cool?

If you register and become a member, you can offer your own media reviews.  The more people who contribute, the wider the database gets.  You won’t find everything, but most of the stuff that appeals to kids/teenagers is on there.  I used this site extensively when helping a friend find suitable reading material for her tween.  This is the one site I’ve found that will give honest reviews of content as well as quality.

Oh, and they do games, websites, and TV, too.  Check it out.

Chocolate and tissues required

I made the mistake of starting a new audiobook at bedtime.  I thought I would probably fall asleep in the middle of it, but I couldn’t stop listening.  I think TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY is one of those books that actually has a bigger impact in audio format.  The story has two narrators: Clay Jensen, a high school senior who finds an anonymous package on his  doorstep, addressed to him and containing 7 audio cassette tapes with each side marked 1-13 (the 14th side is unmarked); and Hannah Baker, the voice on the tapes, explaining the thirteen events/names/reasons why she committed suicide.  “If you’re listening to this, then you’re on the list.”  Besides the tapes, Clay has also received a map of the town with thirteen stars on it, marking the points of interest in Hannah’s story.  As he listens to the tapes, he takes the tour on the map, retracing Hannah’s story and trying desperately to figure out why he’s on the list.  As the story unfolds from Hannah’s point of view, Clay’s memories add his own version of events.

The audiobook is performed by two readers, male and female, and I felt like I was both inside Clay’s mind and listening to Hannah’s tapes.  (The fact that I was listening through headphones probably emphasized the sensation even more.)  I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me cry and still have plenty of fingers left over, but I actually wept when Clay reached his place in the story.  The whole time I knew that Hannah would die — that she was already dead, but I found myself willing it not to be so.  Like Clay, I was mentally pleading with Hannah to turn away from the path she was headed down, knowing it was already too late.  And, like Clay, I couldn’t stop listening.  I had to know the entire story — all thirteen reasons why.  The truth is there are actually fourteen reasons why.  Hannah is the fourteenth.  She makes bad choices of her own along the way, too, that compound the problem — actions and inactions.  She doesn’t actually come out and say it, but I think she realizes it at the end.

It’s a heart-wrenching, emotionally draining journey, but it doesn’t end with Hannah’s death.  Clay doesn’t settle for that.  He moves on with a new understanding and a new purpose, and you get the sense that maybe something good might come from this tragedy.  You’ll understand when you’ve read/listened to it yourself.

I don’t wanna talk about it.

I went to the dentist today for that temporary crown.  I’ve decided I don’t want to relive the experience through this blog, so I’m going to give you a book review instead.

year of fog

One of the books the Purple Lady loaned me is Michelle Richmond’s The Year of Fog.  There’s a quote on the cover from People magazine that calls it “Gripping.”  That’s it.  Just one word.  Well, I don’t know what “gripping” means to you, but I knew better than to expect some sort of edge-of-your-seat thriller; however, after reading it, I have to say that “gripping” is the perfect word.  The story is so beautifully written, and you become so invested in the outcome that you can’t stop reading.

Here are the basics, without giving anything away:

One foggy day, photographer Abby is out walking along the beach with her fiance’s six-year-old daughter, and the daughter disappears into the fog while Abby is busy photographing a baby seal.  This happens right at the beginning of the book.  From this point on, Abby is obsessed with remembering every detail of that morning, convinced that there has to be one tiny detail lost within the fog of her memory that will provide the clue they need to find Emily.  Each time she revisits the memory, she finds another piece to add to the puzzle.  Of course, most people can’t access specific memories as precisely as locating a file in a well-ordered records room, and Abby is no different.  As she tries to remember that fateful day, she pulls up other seemingly random memories from her life before she even met Emily.  Each of these pieces from various different puzzles adds a piece to the larger puzzle that is Abby.

Chapter four consists of two memories: one from ninth-grade math class and the other from a third-grade lesson about time.  Both memories seem to be almost complete opposites.  Math was taught by Dr. Thomas Swayze, an exhilarating and shady character who was rumored to have received his doctorate through the mail,  while Abby’s third grade teacher is the sweet Mrs. Monk with her ample, motherly waist. Yet, in Abby’s mind, these memories become blended, entertwined.  Pi times radius squared equals the area of a circle.  Time is a continuum, stretching forward and back infinitely.  I learned these things in school.

The chapter ends with my favorite passage:

“How do we measure the area of a circle?” Dr. Swayze asked.

I imagine that the circle begins as a cosmic pinpoint, small as the body of a child.  The child is stooped on the beach, reaching for a sand dollar.  A tall figure appears in the fog.  A hand clamps over the child’s mouth, a strong arm lifts her up.  With each step the stranger takes, the circle widens.  With each second, the area of possibility grows.

Where is the child?  The answer lies within a maddening equation: pi times radius squared.

If there weren’t so many other books on my to-read list, I’d probably visit this one again.  Maybe I will anyway, but not right away.  I need some distance first.

Waiting for Chocolate and the Tooth Fairy

BratzBasher’s tooth finally came out.  Turns out it was pretty well detached — just wedged in real tight between its neighbors.  BB has rinsed it off, written a lovely missive to TF, and placed it under her pillow.  Unfortunately, she’ll have to wait until morning to get her answer to that age-old question: What does the Tooth Fairy do with all those teeth?  By the way, nobody has offered any suggestions for an answer, and I haven’t got anything better than the toothbrush fertilizer idea.  This isn’t the first time BB has asked the Tooth Fairy a question.  Last time she wanted to know what TF’s house looked like.  She got a lovely miniature drawing of a cottage.  I think she still has it somewhere in one of her many forgotten treasure stashes.

Long before TF comes, though, BB will finally get a piece of chocolate cake.  I told her she had to finish her vegetables first (mmm…roasted corn with onions and peppers).  She claimed she was full of corn, but did have a bit of room left for cake.  I told her that if she had room for cake, she had room for corn and could wait till she was hungry again before having her cake.  Just before giving in to my unreasonable nutritional demands, she had resorted to lying down on the dining room floor and whining, “I want caaaaake!”  I pointed out that she was ten, not two, and was a bit old for having lie-down-on-the-floor tantrums.  “I’m not having a tantrum!”  Merkin agreed with me.  Within a couple of minutes, the veggies had been eaten.  Sadly, she’s too full for cake right now.  She’ll have to wait until her tummy makes more room.

I’m listening to a really weird YA novel called Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.  15-year-old Liz dies and goes to the afterlife where, apparently, everyone ages backwards until they’re a baby again and can return to live on Earth in as a new person.  The afterlife is called “Elsewhere” and is pretty much like life on Earth.  People have jobs, money, they can get injured (though they can’t die, of course), and they can pretty much do anything they did on Earth.  The first part of the novel deals with Liz accepting the fact that she’s dead and moving on with her new “life”.  Now the story has sort of moved focus onto another person that she’s met there.  I can’t say more than that without giving anything away.  I’m actually enjoying it, but it is very strange.

My favorite part is when Liz starts work as an “acclimation advisor” in the animal division.  She counsels newly deceased dogs.  She finds her first advisee drinking out of the toilet.  Liz tells her she doesn’t have to drink from there, and Sadie (the dog) says, “What do you mean?  That’s what they built it for, right?  I can even get fresher water by pushing this lever down.”

“Actually, it’s not for drinking; it’s a place where people go.”

“Go where?”

“Not where — just go.”

Eewwww!  You mean to tell me I’ve spent years drinking out of a bowl that people pee in?  That’s disgusting!  Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”