Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Red Pencil

Book 3 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from January 3 - 4

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Summary (via the book jacket)
Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough for new responsibilities, old enough to make something of herself. She wants to learn to read, to write, to set free all the big ideas she finds herself sketching in the sand. But girls like Amira don't go to school - their purpose is to work, to become good wives and mothers. Yet Amira can't help but hope for something more.
Her dreams are pushed aside when, without warning, the Janjaweed militia storms her small village, shattering life as she knows it and taking away so many of the things she holds dear. As she starts the long journey toward a new life at a refugee camp, Amira feels her spirit slipping away...until the simple gift of a single red pencil opens her mind - and all kinds of possibilities.

Brian's Opinion
My 10 year old son read this for his Battle of the Books competition. He would give it 3.5 stars. When I asked what he thought he said, "It was good at most parts but sometimes it was really sad.  It makes me feel kind of sad that people aren't as fortunate as us.  If you're into realistic fiction books then I would kind of recommend it."

My Opinion
I was flipping through the pages for the story so quickly I had to remind myself to stop and look at the pictures.  I'm glad I did because they were magnificent as well.
Using poetry introduces tough subjects to young readers without overwhelming them but also leaves room to read between the lines for more mature audiences.  This writing style was also used to great effect in the book Yellow Star, a book I would also recommend.

A Few Quotes from the Book
"Finally, I am twelve.
 Old enough to wear a toob.

 As soon as I wake,
 Muma whispers a birthday wish.

 "Blessings for all the years to come, Amira." "

"But today
 Halima and I
 must say good-bye.

 Her father is determined
 to find something more.

 I hear him tell Dando
 he wants to go from small to big,
 from village to city.

 He's looking for something he calls

"It's not right to listen
 when my ears haven't been invited.

 But my ears can't help it.
 They're doing what ears are meant to do."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Around the World in 50 Years

Book 2 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from 12/21/15 - January 3

Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth
by Albert Podell

Summary (via Goodreads)
This is the inspiring story of an ordinary guy who achieved two great goals that others had told him were impossible. First, he set a record for the longest automobile journey ever made around the world, during the course of which he blasted his way out of minefields, survived a serious accident atop the Peak of Death, came within seconds of being lynched in Pakistan, and lost three of the five men who started with him, two to disease, one to the Vietcong.
After that-although it took him forty-seven more years-Albert Podell set another record by going to every country on Earth. He achieved this by surviving riots, revolutions, civil wars, trigger-happy child soldiers, voodoo priests, robbers, pickpockets, corrupt cops, and Cape buffalo. He went around, under, or through every kind of earthquake, cyclone, tsunami, volcanic eruption, snowstorm, and sandstorm that nature threw at him. He ate everything from old camel meat and rats to dung beetles and the brain of a live monkey. And he overcame attacks by crocodiles, hippos, anacondas, giant leeches, flying crabs-and several beautiful girlfriends who insisted that he stop this nonsense and marry them.
Albert Podell's Around the World in 50 Years is a remarkable and meaningful tale of quiet courage, dogged persistence, undying determination, and an uncanny ability to escape from one perilous situation after another-and return with some of the most memorable, frightening, and hilarious adventure stories you have ever read.

My Opinion
My feelings about the book varied wildly as I read.  My overall opinion is that there were many interesting things about it but a huge red flag (read on for more information) almost caused me to 1 star it and will prevent me from recommending it; the readers I know would have the same negative reaction I did.

What I liked (3 stars):

  • "Dad" jokes..."As a safety measure against a campfire conflagration, the Uros had imported a few medium-sized rocks from the mainland to serve as insulating platforms for their cook stoves. Very few. Because the Uros know that people who live in grass houses shouldn't stow stones." and "I was tempted to write a short poem about [the different types of lemurs], which would have been my first lemurick".
  • Fun (or not so fun) facts..."the combined annuals GDPs of those 48 poorest nations is less than the combined net worth of the three richest men in America"; In Madagascar, the family exhumes the bodies of loved ones after five or six years of burial, washes the bones and anoints them with honey, dances with the bones and parades through the streets, and then puts them in a smaller coffin and takes them home to catch them up on what's changed while they were gone; and foreigners can't rent cars in Mongolia, they can only hire cars with drivers.
  • He really threw himself into each trip and tried to be as "non touristy" as he could with his lodging and food.  In his words, "An essential part of the discovery and adventure (and sometimes the delight) of travel comes from sampling the unusual foods the locals eat, foods they're been eating for hundreds of years without noticeable harm. Dining on the indigenous fare also helped me better understand the local culture and economy and they way they lived."  Leading to this quote from the gentle scolding he got while looking for mice shish-kebabs: "We are all sold out for today. Come back tomorrow around noon. Your customs must be different from ours. We eat mice only for lunch."
  • How he met the children he sponsored through ChildFund and brought them presents and bought them goats, taking the time to research and find the best goat for each family. 

What was okay but a little offputting (2 stars):

  • I know he said nothing is exaggerated but how many close calls or coincidences can one person have?  Seemed unbelievable.
  • It seemed better suited for someone more interested in the logistics of travel; I want to know about the actual places, not the clothes he wore or how many times they had to change a tire.
  • He doesn't seem to think highly of women at all. He described the takin as "an odd beast with the head of a goat, the nose of a moose, and the body of a cow, that reminded me of some of my worst blind dates", he lamented how getting older prevented him from "hunting quail" because the "20-something beauties who roused my interest" were no longer interested in him, he described women he saw as though they were part of the scenery, and he included as one of his ranks the countries with "the type of women I like" (incidentally, he didn't marry until his trips were complete and the woman he married, 49 years his junior, was from one of the countries on this list).
The moment that caused me to rage (1 star):

  • The things he said about women that I already mentioned rubbed me the wrong way but weren't enough to really piss me off.  Until THIS QUOTE (It's a long one; I want his full words to really sink in how disgusted I felt)...
        "My long background evaluating female bodies provided me with vital sociopolitical insight as to why Yemeni women average a svelte and inviting 115 pounds while Saudi women tip the scales over 210, why these lithe ladies glide by in shimmering black silk robes while the similarly attired Saudi women plod by like oxcarts whose wheels are out of line."  
        He then lists 5 reasons for this difference.  I will spare you all of them and just quote this one, #4 on his list: 
        "Although times may be changing a little in Saudi Arabia, it is still a bastion of arranged marriages, where the parents pick the mates and the parties take whatever is offered. In Yemen, the teenagers are more independent, and often conduct lengthy courting interviews before marrying, interviews in which looking like an oxcart would not be advantageous - unless the prospective husband is primarily seeking someone capable of heavy hauling."

In the end I went with 2 stars.  Looking at my breakdowns, the good outweighed the bad but the bad was SO bad that I couldn't go higher.

A Few Quotes from the Book
"From their misunderstanding, I learned valuable lessons that helped me through years of foreign travel: If you speak a different language than the other, make sure - unmistakably sure - you and the other person are in agreement. Be sensitive when you're in a position of power, as a hotel guest is with an employee. Never assume that a member of a foreign culture will readily undertake an act that is proscribed in her society. And avoid presuming that just because a person is poor or working class, they'll do anything you want - even if you're the head of the IMF."

"Despite my e-mailed entreaties to my friends asking that they not try to talk me out of my plans, only ten of them advised me to "Go For It!" - four adventurous types, three free spirits, two beneficiaries of my will, and one who asked to be added to it."

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Never Knowing

Book 1 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from January 1 - 2

Never Knowing by Chevy Stevens

Summary (via Goodreads)
At thirty-three Sara Gallagher is finally happy. Her antique furniture restoration business is taking off and she’s engaged to a wonderful man. But there’s one big question that still haunts her — who are her birth parents? Sara is finally ready to find out. 
Sara’s birth mother rejects her—again. Then she discovers her biological father is an infamous killer who’s been hunting women every summer for almost forty years. Sara tries to come to terms with her horrifying parentage — and her fears that she’s inherited more than his looks — with her therapist, Nadine, who we first met in "Still Missing." But soon Sara realizes the only thing worse than finding out your father is a killer is him finding out about you. 
Some questions are better left unanswered. 
Never Knowing  is a complex and compelling portrayal of one woman’s quest to understand where she comes from. That is, if she can survive…

My Opinion
As always, it was compulsively readable.  I seem to read Chevy Stevens over Christmas break every year and it's because I know that once I start the book I will want to read the whole thing with no interruptions regardless of the time.  This one was no exception: I got into bed last night around midnight with the idea that I'd read until falling asleep and was completing the book with bleary eyes around 2:30.

As for the mystery itself, meh.  Maybe it's because once you've read her you have an idea what her twists will be, or maybe it was the story itself, but I predicted fairly early on who the traitor in her life was.  There were also many things left unanswered or not fully explained for me.

Building suspense is the author's specialty and I'm sure next year at this time I will be writing another post about binge reading another book of hers.  If you've never read her before, my favorite of hers will always be Still Missing. (side note: my review for Still Missing was my very first blog review, back in 2013).

A Few Quotes from the Book
"I read the [Original Birth Registration] over and over, looking for answers, but I just kept hearing one question: Why did you give me away?"

"We had this beautiful bright-colored rope rug we'd brought back from a trip to Saltspring Island, and [the dog] must've started nibbling one corner, and then just kept pulling and pulling. By the time we got home the rug was destroyed. My life is like that beautiful colored rug - it took years to sew it together. Now I'm afraid if I keep pulling on this one corner it's all going to unravel.
 But I'm not sure I can stop."

"It's like thinking you were handed the wrong life and you just had to get to the right one and everything would be okay, then finding out that there isn't a right one." 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Portrait in Death

Book 94 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from December 27 - 30

Portrait in Death by J.D. Robb
Book 16 of the In Death series

Summary (via the book jacket)
After a tip from a reporter, Lieutenant Eve Dallas finds the body of a young woman in a Dumpster on Delancey Street. Just hours before, the news station had mysteriously received a portfolio of professional portraits of the woman. The photos seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary for any pretty young woman starting a modeling career. Except she wasn't a model. And the photos were taken after she had been murdered.
Now Eve is on the trail of a killer who's a perfectionist and an artist. He carefully observes and records his victims' every move. And he has a mission: to own every beautiful young woman's innocence, to capture, their youth and vitality - in one fateful shot...

My Opinion
First, a small note to the marketing department about the blurb above.  Not all of the murderer's victims were women, making the last sentence not exactly true.

As for the book, this series just keeps getting better.  I loved the personal development of the characters; the actual mystery was a distant second (and a reason I insist in every review of this series that they MUST be read in order).

Eve was especially quippy and funny, I liked Hastings as a new character, I loved everyone's banter, and Peabody is coming into her own and sassing Eve.

But the intense revelations about Roarke's past were the star of the show.  Showing his cracks and vulnerability and flipping it so Eve was taking care of him for a change was sweet and added a whole new dynamic to their relationship.

A Few Quotes from the Book
"We begin to die with our first breath. Death is inside us, ticking closer, closer, with every beat of our heart. It is the end no man can escape. Yet we cling to life, we worship it despite its transience. Or perhaps, because of it."

" "She'd be the last to ask [a fashion question]...not that she doesn't always look hot. Especially since somebody with taste's buying her threads these days."
    "I'll remind you to bite me later. Right now, we're going to try to pinpoint and apprehend a serial killer, so maybe we can talk about how cute we all look some other time." "


Book 93 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from December 24 - 25

George by Alex Gino

Summary (via Goodreads)
When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she's not a boy. She knows she's a girl.
George thinks she'll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte's Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can't even try out for the part . . . because she's a boy.  
With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte -- but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

My Opinion
I was very interested to see how the topic of being transgender would be handled in a Juvenile Fiction book.  George's behavior when she's alone was a great start, using female pronouns from the beginning and having her lose her nerve a few times before being able to confide in a few close people.  The little stand, wanting to be Charlotte in the play, starts it all and my palms were sweaty as George and Kelly put their plans, both for the play and later for the zoo, into action.

It's a good jumping off point to introduce the possibilities and ideas but once the reveal happens everything felt rushed and the ending was so abrupt.  If the issue was the number of pages, it might have better served the audience to spend less time leading up to the reveal to leave more time for what happened after.

The Killer Inside Me

Book 92 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from December 21 - 24

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Summary (via Goodreads)
Lou Ford is the deputy sheriff of a small town in Texas.  The worst thing most people can say against him is that he's a little slow and a little boring.  But, then, most people don't know about the sickness--the sickness that almost got Lou put away when he was younger.  The sickness that is about to surface again.
An underground classic since its publication in 1952, The Killer Inside Me is the book that made Jim Thompson's name synonymous with the roman noir.

My Opinion
Sociopaths and psychopaths are so creepy.  This book stands up well because it's mainly focused on human emotions and some things never change.

Damn, that ending!!!!

Quote from the Book
"There are things that have to be forgotten if you want to go on living. And somehow I did want to; I wanted to more than ever. If the Good Lord made a mistake in us people it was in making us want to live when we've got the least excuse for it."

The Unwanteds

Book 91 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from December 17 - 20

The Unwanted by Lisa McMann
Book 1 in the Unwanted series

Summary (via the book jacket)
Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their graves.
On the day of the Purge, identical twins Alex and Aaron Stowe await their fate. While Aaron is hopeful of becoming a wanted, Alex knows his chances are slim. He's been caught drawing with a stick in the dirt - and in the stark gray land of Quill, being creative is a death sentence.
But when Alex and the Unwanteds face the Eliminators, they discover an eccentric magician named Mr. Today and his hidden world that exists to save the condemned children. Artime is a colorful place of talking statues, uncommon creatures, and artistic magic, where creativity is considered a gift...and a weapon.

My Opinion
My daughter loves this series.  She recommended it to me as soon as she finished the first one, and it's always among the first she mentions when asked the inevitable, "You're a reader, what should my kids read?"  Which she loves being asked by the way, unlike me - giving recommendations gives me sweaty anxiety!  Anyway, back to the book...

I absolutely loved it.  This could be a movie with an Oz like shift to color when the Unwanteds meet Mr. Today for the first time. 

The author did a great job of keeping it at a J level but also making it intriguing for adults.  Something else that was unusual and kid-friendly - there was enough action at the end that this could stand alone satisfactorily if they didn't love it or want to continue the series.  

Definitely recommended for someone looking for a read with their kids but be forewarned...I read it myself and this is one that I would've wanted to read ahead if I had been reading to the kids and they had to go to bed.

I'm looking forward to continuing the series.

A Few Quotes from the Book
"There were nearly fifty thirteen-year-olds this year. The people of Quill waited to hear which of these teenagers had been marked as Wanted or Necessary, and, by process of elimination, which of them remained to be Purged."

"And no one knows any different, my boy - without knowledge that life can be different, there can be no desire to change it."

"I'd rather die fighting to keep us free to do as we wish, fighting to be free to come and go as we please, fighting so we no longer need to hide. Fighting the fear that all of you were programmed since birth to have. Fighting against Quill's bigotry, which says brains and brawn are better, or more important, than creativity." 

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

Book 90 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from November 19 - December 20

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
by Karen Abbott

Summary (via the book jacket)
In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, bestselling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything - their homes, their families, and their very lives - during the Civil War.
Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an avowed rebel with a dangerous temper, shot a Union soldier in her home and became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her considerable charms to seduce men on both sides.
Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man to enlist as a Union private named Frank Thompson, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the war and infiltrating enemy lines, all the while fearing that her past would catch up with her.
The beautiful widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians, used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals, and sailed abroad to lobby for the Confederacy, a journey that cost her more than she ever imagined.
Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring - even placing a former slave inside the Confederate White House - right under the noses of increasingly suspicious rebel detectives.
Abbott's pule-quickening narrative weaves the adventures of these four forgotten daredevils into the tumultuous landscape of a broken America, evoking a secret world that will surprise even the most avid enthusiasts of Civil War-era history. Including Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, Detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shines a dramatic new light on these daring - and, until now, unsung - heroines.

My Opinion
A note on her sources: "This is a work on nonfiction, with no invented dialogue. Anything that appears between quotation marks comes from a book, diary, letter, archival note, or transcript, or, in the case of Elizabeth Van Lew, from stories passed down by her descendants...Characters' thoughts are gleaned or extrapolated from these same sources. In any instance where the women may have engaged in the time-honored Civil War tradition of self-mythology, rendering the events too fantastic, I make note of it in the endnotes or in the narrative itself."

The research and the joy of having access to actual diaries were the strongest points of the book for me.  It was absolutely fascinating to catch those little glimpses of things that don't matter in the long run but showed their humanity.  For example, a prostitute who kept notes on her clients included things like "The Maryland Governor? Do it bending over, bark sometimes."  Who knew people did things like that back then???? :)

In the beginning I had flip to the description to keep track of which name went with which woman.  The middle part was very intriguing but as the war was winding down it was less exciting and felt like it dragged in the end.

I learned many new things, including Mary Todd Lincoln was from Kentucky and had a brother, three half brothers, and three brothers-in-law in the Confederate army. Also, being a postmaster was one of the highest federal offices a woman could hold and it was among the highest paying as well.

There were many examples that highlighted how different war was back then.
  • Civilians ate picnics on blankets while watching battles through opera glasses.  Besides not understanding why someone would think it was entertaining, it's hard for me to imagine war sticking to a designated "battlefield" and being able to find a safe spot to watch.
  • The picket lines, where Union and Confederate soldiers would stand facing each other and guard their lines but otherwise not engage with each other.
  • The armies calling for a temporary truce after a battle to collect their soldiers.
  • Stopping their fighting for the evening, the sides would lay close to each other until fighting resumed at 7:30 a.m.

A Few Quotes from the Book
"[Women] had to adjust quickly to the sudden absence of fathers and husbands and sons, to the idea that things would never be as they had been. They had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, to influence in how the battles were waged. Instead they took control of homes, businesses, plantations."

"Women's loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself, but now there was a question - one that would persist throughout the war - of what to do with what one Lincoln official called "fashionable women spies". Their gender provided them with both a psychological and a physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women's proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men."

"The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation's history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds and sickness have disabled - the strongest associations which can exist among men - unite us still by an indisoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the constitution of our country and the nationality of its people."

Zombies Vs. Unicorns

Book 89 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from December 14 - 17

Zombies Vs. Unicorns 

Summary (via Goodreads)
It's a question as old as time itself: which is better, the zombie or the unicorn? In this anthology, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier (unicorn and zombie, respectively), strong arguments are made for both sides in the form of short stories. Half of the stories portray the strengths--for good and evil--of unicorns and half show the good (and really, really bad-ass) side of zombies. Contributors include many bestselling teen authors, including Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, Maureen Johnson, Meg Cabot, Scott Westerfeld, and Margo Lanagan. This anthology will have everyone asking: Team Zombie or Team Unicorn?

My Opinion
This was a fun read that satisfied the 'Z' in my A-Z reading challenge (read a title that starts with every letter of the alphabet).  I love the artwork.

I don't have things to say about each story but I do have a quote from each one.

The Highest Justice
Quote: "The unicorn tossed her head, and the bandit's corpse slid off, into the forest mulch."

Love Will Tear Us Apart
Cute title wordplay for a zombie love story.  I will look for this author again.  One of my favorite zombie stories.

Quote: "He opens his eyes, and now they're not buggy at all. They're hard and fierce and iced. He looks like he might kill or kiss you. You hold your too-slow breath and realize that you don't care which."

Purity Test
I will read this author again.

Quote: "But you could get used to pretty much anything, if you gave it enough time - eating in soup kitchens, sleeping on the street. Unicorns were not that hard, and breaking into an evil wizard's basement was turning out to be easier than getting into the high school weight room after hours."

Quote: "She feels like someone has planted a tree in her chest and then pressed fast-forward on the world, branches growing and twisting and pushing her apart from the inside."

A Thousand Flowers
Quote: "I was under orders to speak to her only when spoken to, and to resist any attempt she might make to engage me in conversation, but had I obeyed them we would have passed our days entirely in silence, so to save my own sanity I kept to my practice after the birth of greeting the lady when I entered, and she would always greet me back, so that we began each day with my asserting she was a lady, and her acknowledging that I was Joan Vinegar, which otherwise we might well have forgot, there being nothing much else to remind us."

The Children of the Revolution
Good but the main character is a stupid horror cliche that can't follow instructions, the kind you want to shake some sense into.

Quote: "It was unthinkable to run home. Sometimes it is worth any amount of suffering just to prevent giving your parents the opportunity to be right."

The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn
I will read this author again. One of my favorite unicorn stories.

Quote: "They know unicorns are deadly, my parents tell me that they are evil, and I know everyone is right. But I still love mine."

Very interesting. One of my favorite zombie stories.

Quote: "These days there's just two kinds of real estate: ours and theirs, human and zee."

Princess Prettypants
Quote: "It was Liz Freelander's seventeenth birthday, and so far it could not have been going worse."

Cold Hands
I will read this author again.  One of my favorite zombie stories.

Quote: "James was the boy I was going to marry. I loved him like I'd never loved anything else. We were seven when we met. He was seventeen when he died. You might think that was the end of our story, but it wasn't. Death is never the end of anything, not in Zombietown." 

The Third Virgin
I will read this author again. One of my favorite unicorn stories.

Quote: "I took one more step and lifted my head slowly, arching my neck like a parade horse. It's a ridiculous pose, but I discovered a long time ago that humans love it. I heard her gasp."

Prom Night
I will read this author again.

Quote: "Tahmina thought at times like this that it was weird to have to play cop with your friends. Like some kind of mock trial experiment in social studies where each person played a role and somebody always broke character by giggling. Nobody was laughing these days."