Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wordless Wednesday --- Bibbit

It's nice to sometimes look at a Spring photo when it's winter:

Bibbit and dogtooth violets.JPG

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

And here's what I thought:  I had really been looking forward to reading this book, since I've enjoyed all of this author's other books --- and this one was no exception.    Laurie Halse Anderson tackles a subject that I think is really important, and did it in a way that really made an impression on me.  I think a of the time, the focus on PTSD is on the people who are suffering from it -- but what about the people who love them?   I thought this book had a great main character with Hayley, who is realistic, and has a good sense of humor (and herself, which was nice).   There are a lot of sympathetic characters here, and even though I sometimes got a little frustrated with them, I found I felt invested in their individual stories.  This book isn't just about Hayley, but it's about her dad, as well (and also about Finn, and the family issues he has).

One of the things I always enjoy about Anderson's books is that her characters aren't perfect -- they are realistic.  Which means they might make mistakes, or mis-steps along the way.  And I guess for me, that's what makes her characters interesting, and makes me care about what happens to them.

First lines:  It started in detention.  No surprise there, right?

Detention was invented by the same idiots who dreamed up the time-out corner.  Does being forced to sit in time-out corner.  Does being forced to sit in time-out ever make little kids stop putting cats in the dishwasher or drawing on white walls with purple marker?  Of course not.  It teaches them to be sneaky and guarantees that when they get to high school they'll love detention because it's a great place to sleep.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  I first met my demon the morning that Mum said Dad had gone. 

Alex Connolly is ten years old, likes onions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen. When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter’s battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex’s mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruen doesn’t exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex’s claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons

And here's what I thought:  I so, so, so enjoyed this book.   I found I couldn't put it down, and when I did, when it was time to make dinner, I was picking it up again for just a page and then talking about the book to my husband.   In fact, I started reading something to him from the book ... and then had to take care of dinner.  I always tell myself, the book will be there, the book can wait.  Burned dinner isn't fun.

The story has some different threads running through it.  We have Alex, the boy who says his best friend is a demon named Ruen, and we have Anya, a child psychiatrist who is determined to help Alex, but who has some issues of her own.   And, we have the backdrop of not only Belfast, whose history influences its present-day, but also a play that Alex is starring in: a modern retelling of Hamlet.  You wouldn't think that has much to do with anything, but it does, especially when you think about the story of Hamlet, and how Alex has a missing father.

So let's start with Alex.  We get his perspective in the story through his diary entries, which he always starts with a joke.  The jokes tend to be darkly funny, and he explains that "I want to start every entry with a new joke so I can keep in character.  That means I can remember what it feels like to be the person I'm playing, which is a boy called Horatio." (p 7)    Alex is pretty mature for his age, but when you consider that his mother doesn't take the best care of him, and he's more in the position of taking care of himself, and of her, then that makes sense.   He first meets Ruen when he's at school, and explains that "I wasn't scared because I didn't know a demon was a thing.  I thought it was just the name of the shop near my school that sold motorbikes."   As a reader, you have your own ideas about what a demon is, however, and none of them mean that a demon is a good creature at all.  You are sure he isn't really there to help Alex.  However, Alex isn't afraid of Ruen (at least, not at first), and even though Ruen can appear in a scary manner, he sees him as a friend.  In fact, he explained "Now I'm ten I'm much older so I kind of know more about demons but Ruen's not like that.  I think everyone's got it wrong about demons, just like they did about rottweilers."

And what about Ruen?  I found him to be an interesting character.  He's dark and he is scary, mostly because there is a menace that surrounds him.  However, I found him to be fascinating. Alex states that Ruen is 9000 human years old and can speak more than 6000 languages.  And, he tells Alex that he is a "Harrower," although we don't learn for a long time what that means.  And when it is revealed, we learn that a Harrower is close to the top of Hell's hierarchy.  There's a lot about how the purpose of demons is to remove choice from humans (which is pretty bleak).  Ruen, through Alex, tells Anya, (p 143) "My job is to go in after the barriers have been broken, after the action has been taken, even after regret has sunk its fangs deep into memory.  And then I rake the soul until it is ripe for the seeds of doubt and hopelessness for which no human language has adequate lexicon."   This is written in a way I found beautiful, and haunting.   I can tell the author is a poet, as well (she is, and has won awards for her poetry).

So, is Ruen real?  The way that Alex talks about him, and what Ruen says through Alex, starts to make it seem that he might be real.  And as I was reading this, I started to wonder what was real, and wasn't real, and where this was all going.

And what about Anya?  She comes into the story as Alex' psychiatrist, called in to help him on the anniversary of her daughter's suicide (this is not a spoiler - this is up-front when we meet her).  Her struggles with her own daughter's schizophrenia have a huge influence on her, personally and professionally, and it seems to drive the connection between herself and Alex.  But, professionally, she is trying to do the right thing, and figure out how to help Alex.  When she encounters Ruen, herself, you can feel her reeling for an explanation, and actually, it feels like she is unraveling a bit, as well.

I got completely swept up in this book.  The combination of the beautifully crafted prose and the characters, and the steady pace, caught my attention and held it.   And then .... I got the big surprise.    And no, I'm not giving away what it is.   Suffice to say, once I finished the book, I started combing through it all in my mind, looking for clues.

And that's what made this such a fantastic read --- that as soon as I finished it, I wanted to start it over again.   I could imagine these characters in my mind so clearly, that I almost didn't want to let them go.  I found this book to be an exploration of deep personal pain, of characters who reach for any kind of comfort they can find, in the dark, when it's just themselves and their demons (whatever, and however, those demons may be).  At first, I thought it would just be a psychological thriller, but the way the author delves deeply into her characters really made this an outstanding read.

First lines:  People look at me funny when I tell them I have a demon.
"Don't you mean, you have demons?" they ask.  "Like a drug problem or an urge to stab your dad?"  I tell them no.  My demon is called Ruen, he's about five foot threee, and his favorite things are Mozart, table tennis, and rice pudding.

I chose this book from my TBR (to be read) jar ---  I'm determined to choose at least one per month.   

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads): A teenage girl is transformed into a reluctant superhero and must balance her old life with the dark secret of who she has become.

Prima ballerina Anthem Fleet is closely guarded by her parents in their penthouse apartment. But when she meets the handsome Gavin at a party on the wrong side of town, she is immediately drawn into his dangerous world. Then, in a tragic accident, Anthem falls to her death. She awakes in an underground lab, with a bionic heart ticking in her chest. As she navigates her new life, she uncovers the sinister truth behind those she trusted the most, and the chilling secret of her family lineage…and her duty to uphold it.

And here's what I thought:  I thought that there were some great ideas in this book, but overall, it felt like it didn't live up to them.

PLEASE NOTE - there are some spoiler-ish details ahead

I liked the setting, Bedlam City, which seemed dark and scary (and reminded me a bit of the setting for the movie, The Crow). I liked that this society seemed to be recovering from something, but in the interim, had invented some pretty dark coping methods, like some creative drugs.  I liked the idea of Anthem's heart, ticking away in her chest, and giving her some superhero qualities.  In fact, this element to the story is pretty enjoyable, and it's nice to see her evolve from how she is at the beginning to what she becomes after her new abilities become apparent.

But here's what I found a bit disappointing:  While there are some good ideas, there were things that weren't explained well.  For example, what happened in this world?  There is a crime syndicate, but it's not really explained.  There is mention of a "Hope" which makes you think there was a previous revolution, but that's not delved into.   The author has a descriptive writing style, which I mostly enjoyed, but then would notice time to time that she was falling back on certain words (like she has a few favorite words and didn't realize she was using them twice in 2 adjoining pages).    Also, as much as I found the main character to be interesting, I found her to be confusing.  She meets Gavin, who evidently isn't who he says he is, but she completely dismisses that -- apparently, he has some kind of superstrong attractive qualities that overwhelm her.  She barely knows him, and sleeps with him, and while that didn't bother me, the fact that she expects this extremely strong romantic relationship with him immediately seemed a little naive.  And maybe that's part of her story -- that she starts out as sheltered and naive, and throughout the course of the story, becomes more self-aware.  However, her reaction to what happens to him seems to be way too strong, considering that she barely knows him.   And seriously, I felt like I knew this guy right away ---- and that made the story kind of predictable to me.   But I know this might be because of my own reading background, etc etc --- other readers might not have the same reaction.

Overall, I didn't dislike this book, but I felt like it had a lot of potential that it just didn't quite live up to.   It's like an eye-candy kind of movie: lots of great visuals, but no strong storyline or characters that stand out.  I didn't feel betrayed, or super let-down, but it was disappointing.   It would be interesting to see what would happen if you gave this setting and some of the ideas to a different author, and then read their version.

First lines:  A girl, alone.
  Legs tucked up inside a baggy black hoodie, she perches on a metal grate atop one of the tallest skyscrapers in Bedlam City.  She is watchful, still and silent as a gargoyle.  The city heaves beneath her, but all she can hear this high up is the whistling of an icy wind.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Monday, January 6, 2014

Review: The F-it List by Julie Halpern

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):   With her signature heart and humor, Julie Halpern explores a strained friendship strengthened by one girl’s battle with cancer. 

Alex’s father recently died in a car accident. And on the night of his funeral, her best friend Becca slept with Alex’s boyfriend. So things aren’t great. Alex steps away from her friendship with Becca and focuses on her family. 

So what do you do when your best friend has cancer? You help her shave her head. And then you take her bucket list and try to fulfill it on her behalf. Because if that’s all you can do to help your ailing friend—you do it.

And here's what I thought:  I thought this was an okay book.  Not great, not bad, but okay.  I liked the idea of the book, but I never really found that I liked Alex, or found her completely believable.  She seems too confident and cool about things to come off as realistic, and even if I put this all into the context that she's just lost her father, it still didn't always ring true.   She never delves into her father's death very much, even though it has definitely affected her.  And, while the story is supposed to be about Alex and Becca, it felt more slanted towards Alex reacting to Becca (what she feels like, how she looks).  Alex sometimes came across to me as being very self-absorbed, which I got a little tired of.

Alex is an interesting character, and I think that's mostly what kept me reading.  However, at times, I felt like she was a little contrived.  For example, her interest in horror movies seems like it's attached to her character as a means to convey pop culture references, instead of being a compelling part of her.  Her one explanation to another character towards the end of the book about why she likes horror movies didn't quite feel completely true to me.  

The other thing that I was a little surprised by in this book wasn't the graphic sex, but rather, how cool, casual and matter-of-fact Alex is about it.  There's no self-doubt at all, and I guess when I think about how I was with sex when I was a teen, and how my friends were, things were more a mix of trying to be casual, but feeling some self-doubt.  Alex doesn't seem to have any of that -- and maybe it's just her bravado coming through, but again, it made her just seem not as a real to me.

When I think about Alex, I think about Juno MacGuff (from the movie Juno).  There's that whole breezy, confident, kind of quirky girl thing going on.   Juno had the punk rock side to her, and Alex has horror movies (and frankly, to me, for both characters, it felt like a "I like it because I'm not supposed to like it and it makes me cool" thing going on).  A lot of the dialogue in this book also felt like it was influenced by Juno, and by Joss Whedon's Scoobie gang in Buffy -- and it sometimes felt contrived.

I think I wanted to like this book more than I actually did.  Other readers might read it and totally love it, but for me, by the time I finished it, I was more than happy to move on to another book.

First lines:   The only thing worse than having my best friend sleep with my boyfriend the night of my father's funeral would be if she killed my dad herself. Becca didn't, which was the one thing that redeemed her.  Still, I allowed myself the entire summer after the trampful event to be mad at her.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

My 2014 challenge has been chosen: the Lucky No. 14 Reading Challenge

After seeing all the various reading challenges that are out there, I've decided on my 2014 challenge.  Hosted by Books to Share, the Lucky No. 14 Reading Challenge sounds interesting, and something I can handle.  

So, I've created an updated Challenge page here on this blog, where I'll be keeping track of my reads.  I've decided to open up my TBR jar and see what might fit in these categories, which will allow me to not only find some good books, but also start actually pulling things out of my TBR jar (instead of just adding to it).

Welcome to a brand new year!!

First review of the year: The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads): Quiet misfit Rose doesn't expect to fall in love with the sleepy beach town of Leonora. Nor does she expect to become fast friends with beautiful, vivacious Pearl Kelly, organizer of the high school float at the annual Harvest Festival parade. It's better not to get too attached when Rose and her father live on the road, driving their caravan from one place to the next whenever her dad gets itchy feet. But Rose can't resist the mysterious charms of the town or the popular girl, try as she might.

Pearl convinces Rose to visit Edie Baker, once a renowned dressmaker, now a rumored witch. Together Rose and Edie hand-stitch an unforgettable dress of midnight blue for Rose to wear at the Harvest Festival—a dress that will have long-lasting consequences on life in Leonora, a dress that will seal the fate of one of the girls. Karen Foxlee's breathtaking novel weaves friendship, magic, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and distinctly original.

And here's what I thought:  I was completely captivated by this story.  The combination of the exotic (well, exotic to me, at least) setting and the compelling main character made for a page-turning read, that once I finished, I wanted to start all over again.   That doesn't usually happen to me in a book, which makes me glad that this is the last book of the year that I finished, letting me end my reading on a high note.

So let's start with the setting.   Rose and her father move to a small, rural town in Australia, which is described so well by the author that I could feel the humidity closing in on me at times.  Admittedly, I don't like heat and humidity at all, so reading this book sometimes made me want to fan myself (or at least step outside for a moment.  I live in the Chicago area, so it's nice and cold right now).  The town, itself, isn't described so much as some of the parts that are outside of town, like where Rose and her father live, and where the dressmaker's house is.   I've never been to Australia, so I wasn't familiar with some of the plants and animals in the book.  However, this just made me want to look them up, and hope they were all real.

And speaking of settings, the house that Edie (the dressmaker) lives in is a character all unto itself.  The author creates something that seems to be more than a house, almost, where there might just be small bits of magic happening.  It's not the loveliest house; actually, it's far from it.  "The house is falling apart.  There's a tree growing through the front stairs. Everywhere there's the detritus of the forest. The leaves drying in small piles in the corners of rooms and seedpods jammed in the floorboards.  The curtains are dappled with mildew and festooned with spiderwebs." (p. 45-46).  But somehow, despite its condition (and apparent smell, I'd imagine, considering the mildew and constant humidity), it's fascinating.  It's hard to imagine Edie living in it, but at the same time, it's completely appropriate.

The characters are well-written, and not all of them are likable (which is perfectly fine with me - I don't need to like a character, as long as I find them interesting).  Rose is a bit prickly and difficult, and a real opposite to Pearl.  Her home situation is also the opposite of Pearl, so I found it interesting that we have two teen characters who are similar and different, and we have the adults that way, as well.   I liked that not all of the adults were wonderful, and helpful, and supportive.   What I mean is: Rose's father isn't that great of a father, and I liked that he's this way, because it felt more realistic to me.

One of the things that I enjoyed in this book was that there is a story within a story going on here.  You get Rose's story, in the present (more or less), as well as the story that is going on right after someone (actually, two people) go missing.  You get the perspective from Rose, but you also get the perspective from Detective Glass.  I also liked that when Rose meets Edie and gets to know her, that Edie tells her stories of her own life.  So, it's stories wrapped in stories (like a wonderful present in a beautiful box filled with layers of colorful tissue paper).   I wasn't always sure what was going to happen, either, which made it a great read.

This is one of the most beautiful books that I've read, mostly because it's beautifully written, but also because I felt like it was intelligently written.  It made me want to look up things, and places.  It made me imagine things, and it made me feel like I wanted to know some of the characters better.  It made me wonder about what happened to some of them after the book.  It's a talent not all authors have, and one that I really appreciate.

First lines: Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?  There's a girl.  She's standing where the park outgrows itself and the manicured lawn gives way to longer grass and the stubble of rocks.  She's standing in
no-man's land, between the park and the place where the mill yards begin.

It's night and the cane trains are still.

It is unbearably humid and she feels the sweat sliding down her back and she presses her hands there into the fabric to stop the sensation, which is ticklishly unpleasant.  She lifts up the midnight dress to fan her legs.  It's true, the dress is a magical thing, it makes her look so heavenly.
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