Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

SugarSugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Confession: I got this book out of the middle-grade section at my library, but I got it mostly for myself. I didn't really think my son would like it--he doesn't like 'girl' books in general, and he's not interested in discrimination, racism, slavery or history in general. So I thought I'd put it on when he was in the car, and when he complained, I'd turn it off and listen to it by myself when he wasn't in the car with me.
Turns out, he loved it. He never complained once about it being girlie, or from a girl's point of view. It's such a good story that he probably forgot all about his boycentric favorites. And I was completely absorbed as well. I enjoyed this much more than the YA book I listened to on my own at the same time.
This is a great look at a time that isn't as widely written about as slavery--the time after, during 'reconstruction,' when slaves weren't much better off but at least had their freedom. Sugar is a young black girl, an orphan, who lives on a sugarcane plantation. The attitudes of the white people were realistic, with the son more open to the changes occurring than the parents, who had once been slave owners. The author's note at the end said that she became interested in the Chinese immigrants who came after the Civil War to replace some of the slaves who had gone north. So that's a big part of this book as well. It was fascinating to watch the characters each shed their own prejudices and become friends with the other group, each of which had little knowledge of the other. The book puts great emphasis on the powerful bonding experience of sharing our cultures' foods, as well as the universal human trait of storytelling, and how we find common ground in our stories, which reveal our culture.
The whole book was so well done. It had a lot to say, but the author never lost sight of the story, so it was always entertaining even while getting its messages across. And that's the most important thing--the story always comes first. This is a great story with a funny, realistic, and loveable trickster of a heroine. I loved it, and so did my son.




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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the ScrewThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


So anyway...

That's kind of how I felt at the end of this book. It was certainly interesting and engaging. The suspense was great, and it kept me going the whole book. I couldn't wait to see what came next. But the whole book was really bizarre, too, and I'm still not sure that I understood any of it. My interpretation of the events, especially the ending, is probably way off base from what a lit professor would say.

Our protagonist is a governess to two children, one of whom was expelled from boarding school for mysterious reasons. The children both seem perfect angels at first. Then our protagonist begins seeing ghosts and enlists the sympathy of the housekeeper, convincing her that the children see the ghosts (and consort and plot with them), too. But why the children would want to fool everyone into thinking they didn't see the ghosts, if they did...why they wanted to hang out with ghosts in the first place...etc, etc, I could never figure out.

And the ending...whoa. Just going to let that sit a few days and see what conclusion my brain comes to regarding that little gem.



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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: The Fire-Eaters by David Almond

The Fire-EatersThe Fire-Eaters by David Almond

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a little gem of a book with a wonderful melancholy tone and a grey mood. I found myself feeling slightly depressed every time I listened. It had a very sobering, yet also calming, effect on me as a reader. The author was able to draw me in to the character's mind and his environment by creating such powerful atmosphere throughout. I did find that in a few places, scenes were glossed over instead of fully explored. For instance, the climax scene seemed more like a summary than a fully developed scene. Which was really a shame, because it could have been very intense.

Overall, I loved this book, though. Atmosphere is very important to me, and this book had it all the way. Also, I don't see many books set in the time of the Cuban missile crisis, or that focus on the paranoia and the effect that had on countries other than American.

A great read for kids and adults alike.

Age 9-10+ due to some mild self mutilation. My son grew very upset and I had to turn it off when the kid started poking himself with a pin, even though I didn't find it disturbing.



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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist

We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a true storyWe Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a true story by Josh Sundquist

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Received from NetGalley in exchange for honest review.

This book is kind of a mixed bag for me. I did like it. I liked the main character and his story was interesting. I liked the format of the book, with the MC (Josh) looking at all his relationships and investigating why they failed. And I liked that eventually he admitted to himself that part of the problem was his own perceptions.

However, I really would have liked better answers! I know this is a true story, but sometimes, when he contacted the girls he'd dated to ask why it didn't work out, they didn't give much of an answer. Which I guess is how it works in real life. This is supposed to be a true story, after all. But it didn't make for the most satisfying read. Plus, some of the relationships failed for the most obvious reasons to the reader, but Josh never seemed to realize what had happened. It wasn't clear that he'd learned anything when he looked at the relationships in retrospect.

I did enjoy the little diagrams, and overall, it was a good story. The MC just seemed a little clueless and out of touch with reality.

Overall, this was a fun, fast read that left me with a good feeling. Recommended for all ages, but would probably not appeal to anyone younger than 12 or so.

Content: Nothing objectionable except a few subtle hints about a teenage boy getting, ahem, excited.



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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

NestNest by Esther Ehrlich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Received from NetGalley in exchange for honest review.

This is a sweet, sad MG novel set in Cape Cod. I can see this being nominated for a Newberry Award, as it has lots of issues--mental illness, physical disability, grief, family relationships, etc. It stops just short of drowning in so many issues that I couldn't enjoy the story itself.

I loved the girls' relationship with their father, and how 'shrinky' he was. I loved how Rachel, the MC's sister, began to change as she became a teen, and how her psychologist father struggled with that--with knowing why she was doing what she did, but also being her father and emotionally invested. I also loved the girls' relationship with their mother, the little that was shown. And most of all, I loved their relationship with each other. I definitely recommend reading this with a box of tissues nearby, as it will likely make you cry. And I love a book that can make me cry.

So why only 3 stars?

I requested this book because I spent summers on the Cape as a kid, and everything Cape Cod related makes me nostalgic now. And while at times the author mentions a place (Route 6, etc), I never felt like I was THERE. I love books with an atmosphere that swallows me or brings me back, whether I have been to the place or not. I want the setting AND the atmosphere of the place. This book could have been written by someone who had never set foot on the Cape and simply Googled a map of it. So I was disappointed that the setting did not come alive. It could have just as easily been set in Michigan or Florida or Arizona and it would not have made a bit of difference. Which is fine, if your story isn't about place. But this one seemed like it wanted to be.

Also, the MC's best friend, Joey, was completely irrelevant to me. He had a story, but it was never satisfying to read. Every time she and Joey hung out, I was waiting for her to go home so I could see what was really going on. I understand that the author wanted her to have a life outside of home, too, but it seemed so trivial compared to her home life. AND, the last quarter of the book and the climax all included Joey instead of her family, and I just didn't feel like he was a strong enough or interesting enough character to carry the story that way.

I started out with high hopes, and at first, this book met them. But then it kind of fizzled out, going back and forth between the real story here and what feels like extraneous, filler pages. The focus of the book ends up seeming to be about her and Joey. I would have liked the author to pick one central plot and stick to it, just adding Joey on the side. Instead, it feels like the book can't decide what it wants to be about, like it's just random exciting incidents that don't tie together to form a strong central story.

Would recommend this to 10+ fans of MG novels. Please be prepared to talk to your child about death, grief, and dealing with the loss of a parent.




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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday #4: At the Water's Edge, by Sara Gruen

 For Waiting on Wednesday, a feature over at Breaking the Spine, this week I had to pick Sara Gruen's new book (out March 31). I loved Water for Elephants, and this one looks amazing. Can't wait to read it!

Goodreads description:
In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a moving love story. Think Scottish Downton Abbey.

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez

When Reason BreaksWhen Reason Breaks by Cindy L.  Rodriguez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Received for review from Netgalley.

I'm not really sure what to think about this book. It had some interesting aspects that really drew me in, but overall, I was left with a kind of 'eh' feeling about it.

This is a book about 2 girls and their teacher, who teaches Emily Dickinson for English class. Both girls have their troubles. Elizabeth has a bad family life and acts out at school and at home, and is a mild trouble-maker and sort of hardened. Emily is quiet and a bit meek, stifled by her politician father and largely ignored by the rest of her family. They bond over Emily Dickinson.

I loved the Emily Dickinson theme that ran through it. It was a cool exploration of her life and her poetry, even though I've never been a big fan. I liked the girls' relationship with each other and with their teacher. But...

This book felt shallow. It deals with big issues (children effected by actions of their parents--divorced, adulterous, controlling, gay), a girl growing apart from her childhood friends, first love/sex, sibling relationships, friendship, suicide, depression, a pregnancy scare, etc, without really getting into any one of them. I feel like any of those issues could have been the entire plot of the book, but with so much going on, nothing was explored with any depth. The two main characters barely speak for most of the book, and I never felt I knew either of them very well. I picked up on Emily's depression and Elizabeth's frustration, but I never felt those along with the characters. I never felt outraged on their behalf. Emily was almost a fully developed character, enough that I shed a tear or two for her. But I never got inside her head, esp. with her relationship with her boyfriend. He was a regular guy--a cutup in class but sweet to her, and I loved him for being a real guy and not one of those annoyingly perfect YA boys. But I never felt her emotion towards him. She gave up her friendships with her two best friends to hang out with him, but why? I could barely tell she liked him. Mostly she isolated because of her depression, so her relationship with him didn't feel real. And Elizabeth just seemed too erratic and all over the place. I didn't dislike her, I just didn't care, which is much worse when I'm reading a book.

Another problem was that it's told from several points of view, and there's a lot of head hopping instead of moving from one scene/chapter to another before switching to a new character. And the past/present tense switches were confusing and seemed at random much of the time. It made scenes more complicated and disjointed than they needed to be, and disrupted the flow of the narrative.

Reading this was kind of like beta reading a draft of someone's novel that just doesn't have a plot. It feels like the author tries way too hard to tie all the Emily Dickinson stuff in and ends up with a novel that doesn't feel authentic. It's like when someone writes a book to make a point, with the story being secondary. Which never works for me.

Overall, this was a novel with some important issues to discuss, but it fails in the execution. I wish it had been a beta read, because then I'd have more hope that it would be excellent after a lot of work. It has the potential to be awesome, but as is, it's just okay.





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