Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 In Review

What a strange year this has been. Last school year I was asked to pick up the AP Literature classes at our school, which was a lot of work, but so exciting and satisfying. My favorite for the year was definitely Tess of the D'Urbervilles. We had such a fantastic time reading it, laughing together at scenes such as the milkmaids being carried across the washed out road, and crying over all the unfortunate events in Tess's life. It really was a great experience, and my favorite novel to teach so far...ever. Therefore, this deserves my first big "2009 in Review" mention:

Although I discovered her first book, Good Things, in 2008, I ravenously picked up and read Mia King's novels Sweet Life, and then Table Manners. If you haven't yet read Mia King, and you enjoy fiction about women, often including food and recipes, then you should really try out her novels!

One of my favorite reads in quite awhile came up in February of this year, and I've given it away TWICE because I wanted to pass the happiness along. That book was A Hopeless Romantic by Harriet Evans, who has also written several other books (that I still need to read).

Another great discovery this year was Sharon Lathan's Pride and Prejudice novels, Two Shall Become One and Loving Mr. Darcy. I developed a fun friendship with Lathan that extended to some predictions about me sharing her novel from the beaches of Hawaii. :) While a more sensual approach to the Darcy story, I really loved the language of the story, as well as the escape factor. What can I say? I'm still very much a sucker for the idea of a hopelessly romantic love! (By the way, book three, My Dearest Mr. Darcy comes out on the 1st! My review is coming soon...)

Besides the novels that helped me escape this year, I read some really great literature, including: The Reader (still haunts me), A Small Place, The Inheritance of Loss, and Fasting, Feasting.

To wrap up my year, I'll post some of the pics for novels I enjoyed below.

My stats for 2009:
  • 95 novels read for the year.
  • Three Challenges completed--Rejuvenate & Renew, Everything Austen, & Period Drama Challenge.
  • Challenge Fails--None yet, but I might w/ the e-reader challenge.
For me, this was a good reading year, even though I think I felt pretty pressured to get through many different books. My goal for this coming year is to focus on what I love, reading. The fact is, I teach, therefore I simply can't read and review as much as I'd like. I love the community of readers I've met, so my focus will be on reading and relaxing! No more pressure here. I really don't know if or how many challenges I might join, and I will be limiting the number of ARCs I accept. The goal of this year is maintain my love of reading, not to stress it out!

Having shared my favorites, can you list your favorite read of the year? I know it's hard, but is there one book that stood out to you?

Until next time, Mahalo! Enjoy your New Year's celebrations, and I'll see you on the other side.

Review: Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick

Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick is a book review long in coming (if you don't believe me...ask Tasha over at Heidenkind's Hideaway...she kept waiting for me to finish)! Thanks to an especially strange schedule right after Thanksgiving, and some good old fashioned fatigue, left me with only a snippet of reading time here or there for around three weeks. Yes, it took me way too long to read what I know was a good book; however, I read it when I could, and am happy to finally have the chance to review it!

Synopsis: I'm honestly not sure how to summarize the novel, as much of it is comprised of a mystery surrounding a boy named Patch who has shown up in Nora Grey's Health class. There is something about Patch that Nora finds both repellent and vile, along with alluring and enticing. She can't quite figure him out, but as creepy things begin to happen around her, Nora starts to think that Patch might be behind these bad events. In order to protect herself and those she loves from mysterious happenings around her, Nora feels she must figure out who Patch is, where he came from, and why he seems to come and go so easily. Is Patch who he appears to be, or is there something other-world about him?

Review: Hush, Hush is one of those YA novels that you start, and want to finish not long after you pick it up. As I mentioned earlier, I didn't have that luxury, so it drove me crazy to keep jumping in and out of the action of the story, because there were so many things going on. While there is a very paranormal, teen romance bent to the novel, it's not easy to pick up on what the rules of this paranormal world might be. You see, when there is a vampire, werewolf, bird, angel, etc. in a novel, there are also are a set of rules and explanation that the main character must be filled in on. In this case, these rules are part of the mystery of the novel. The chemistry and tension between Patch and Nora propels the story and leads you to somehow want Patch to be some secret good guy.

Overall, I would say that the novel is a really interesting premise. Yes, it feels a bit familiar because of other paranormal stories out there, but if you're interested in another book in that genre, I would recommend this one. For more information see, Hush, Hush.

*Review based on library copy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Double Review: The Christmas List & The Christmas Bus

I know what you're thinking, "Wait, Christmas has come and gone. Why is she reviewing a couple of Christmas books now?" The fact is, that with Christmas on a Friday, probably more of us had to work right up to the big day than would have liked. That meant that all those fun Christmas books I had waiting to be read didn't get touched until I flew out last Wednesday. Honestly, I enjoyed reading these books the days surrounding and just after Christmas, and now want to pass them along in a quick double review! The two books I read this year were, The Christmas List by Richard Paul Evans and The Christmas Bus by Melody Carlson.

Synopsis & Review: Richard Paul Evans is famous for his The Christmas Box series. I was one of those kids who received his books for many Christmases along the way, and have almost everything he's ever written. The funny thing is, all of them were gifts, and I might not have picked them up had someone not given them to me. Why? I can't really say, but I somehow thought these were too short to really have a story I could sink my teeth into. I'm happy to say, I was wrong.

In The Christmas List, we find a "what if" story that asks what you would do if you woke one morning and found that you were reported dead, and your obituary was posted in the newspaper. For real estate, businessman, James Kier, this is his reality. In the process of divorcing his wife, who is dying of cancer, and putting people out of their homes and properties around Christmas, nothing seems too low for Kier. The depths of his selfishness and greed can make your blood run cold, until Kier reads his own obituary and reads the comments posted in the online comments following it and realizes what he's become.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. The story felt developed enough that I genuinely cared about the various characters we were introduced to. I liked the redemption built into the story, and the way Evans showed how one man tried to turn a disastrous life around. This was a great, subtle Christmas "spirit" novel. (For more information, see The Christmas List.)

Synopsis & Review: I understand that Melody Carlson, author of The Christmas Bus, has actually written many Christmas themed novels. This was my first, however, and it was cute. While this second novel played a bit more obviously on Christmas story themes, such as the Mary & Joseph story with a young expecting couple that have rolled into town in an old rickety bus, it was still a fun read. In Christmas Valley, the little town there plays on every bit of Christmas that they can to draw tourism. For the owners of The Shepherd's Inn, this would be an interesting holiday, as their own children would be unable to come for Christmas. In exchange, they have opened up their inn for any wayward travelers who needed a place to stay for the holidays.

In a faintly obvious mixing of tales, The Christmas Bus is a story about sharing Christmas with everyone, including those who might not be quite so lovable or even likable! There are the lonely, the homeless, the expecting, and the scrooges in this story, all interacting with one another to make one memorable Christmas. I did enjoy this short little novel, even with its faint predictability. As a quick Christmas read, it was fun to revel in the spirit a little longer. (For more information see, The Christmas Bus.)

Well, there you have my double review for the holiday season! If you're interested in a short Christmas book for the coming year, you might give either of these a try.

I read both of these books on my Kindle and count for the e-book Reader Challenge!

Friday, December 25, 2009

To: You From: Me

We arrived here in Hawaii on Wednesday afternoon, and enjoyed a day and a half of sunshine before the rain came in today. It was a beautiful day though, and we had a leisurely day eating breakfast, then putting in the Christmas turkey, followed by a late morning of opening gifts. Although I carted eleven books, yes...eleven, in my suitcase and carry on, I then received seven more today. I also received two great cookbooks. Thanks for all my wonderful books Santa! What could be better than getting books? Now I have to think about how to get them back to the mainland...

Below is a cute picture of this year's tree from this morning before the carnage began. My mother has been collecting Christmas ornaments here on the island and has quite a collection going.

Wherever you are, and whether you're enjoying a white Christmas or not, let me wish you a very wonderful holiday season.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Let the Holidays Begin...on Wednesday...

Happy holidays to all! I took a bit of an unplanned break from blogging thanks to some work stress that spilled over into my real life. Let's just say that stress took its toll on my health and left me sleeping every moment that I wasn't working, and feeling pretty run down. I'm not exactly feeling chipper, but I'm SO looking forward to flying out to Hawaii on Wednesday to see my mother and soak up some sun! I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be sleeping on that flight over, and I'm actually looking forward to it.

Well, I'm so happy for the Christmas cheer that seems to be all around! In fact, just this last week I received a wonderful gift from Tina, from Bookshipper for the Christmas Bookswap. I have to say that it definitely brightened my day...after a tough one at that! Thank you so much Tina for your lovely book and gifts pictured below. I'm excited to read this play, and thank you for the lovely book accessories as well. Thanks Tina!

Regardless of where you're at in your holiday celebration, already free from school or work or travel...or not, I hope you have a great one. I'm so excited to read and relax over the break. I have no idea yet what I'll be packing along with me on my trip, but I know I have plenty to choose from. Now the I take books from the library or just my own? Sigh.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review: Children of the Dust Bowl by Jerry Stanley

I know I've complained way too often about how busy I am, and I really am pretty busy; however, this last week I had to quickly read a book that was required for a teacher development class I am attending once a month. Considering my schedule, Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp was a delight, that I was forced to carve out time for.

Synopsis: As a mix between a history book and picture book, this rather short piece looks at the lives of "Okie" children who lived in California during the Great Dustbowl. As a haunting time in U.S. history, the dustbowl centered in the midwest, over states such as Kansas, northern Texas, and Oklahoma. After several years of drought in these farm-heavy states, the winds of the 1930s caused places in the midwest to become unliveable, forcing people to migrate to other states for work and mere survival. Word spread that California was a great vineyard, full of beautiful fruit and fields ready to harvest, with jobs for all. People by the thousands arrived in California, only to find that there were too many people for one job, ending up in the hands of only the most desperate.

Because many Californians grew tired of the influx of immigrants, they named them "Okies," and held hard feelings against many of them for draining their state of resources and jobs. In response, one educator found a way to pull together materials and funds to build a school next to one of the government relief camps, using the students themselves to build the school. Since the school WAS the students', they felt pride in what they had put together. The teachers were pulled from the surrounding area for their interest and belief in the school's objectives, and worked for next to nothing. The students grew gardens and raised livestock, which then became their school lunches, and they were provided classes in subjects that most applied to their survival at the time. As the school grew, so did the curriculum Over time, the school became synonymous with excellence, and parents from the outside community began to want their children to attend this "Okie" school. In time, this "emergency" school was disbanded, but the futures of the children who attended that school were far-reaching, as they went on to become teachers, doctors, engineers, etc.

Review: As an educator, I found this book to be inspiring. Even if, however, I was not an educator, the history and information about this little school would still strike a chord in me. This book really does speak to the heart of all learning, that when you can spark in someone the essential kernel of what one needs, you can bring about great personal development. I realized that with cooperation between students and teachers, each student could begin to feel ownership of his or her own education. In much simpler terms, the book showed me how important it is to not think that any one student or group is "unteachable" because of their culture or background. When any one student can be reached through what is important to them, you unlock the box that contains their motivation and joy in their own achievement.

I rarely review educational books that I read for work, but felt that this little book was such a great resource for any family or child, that I wanted to share it here on my blog. Whether you are an educator, parent, or individual, this book contains wonderful motivation to be a better person in your community, and if nothing else, is a wonderful resource for history! I would even recommend this for children needing more information about this time period. For more information, see: Children of the Dust Bowl.

*This was my own personal copy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Final Four

Over Thanksgiving, and the course of the last week, I finished watching the final four movies for the Period Drama Challenge over at Lights, Camera, History. I had three movies that I had reserved on Netflix, specifically for the challenge, A Harlot's Progress, The Heart of Me, and Zelary, and picked up my final film, Easy Virtue. I will make these short, but try to give a quick overview of these films as best I can.

A Harlot's Progress should have given itself away to me in the title, but I was intrigued by the film information that said that it was based off of an 18th century painter's series of famous paintings of a harlot. What I didn't then realize was that the film would be about the artist's eventual affair with the harlot, even into her downfall to disease. The history mingled in the film really was not enough to outweigh the seediness presented. I think we were supposed to see how the artist became famous from his renditions of the harlot as ironic, that we were to feel sorry for the harlot; however, I struggled to find the continuity in the film and found its historical basis centered too much on the tawdry, and not on strong plot points.

I also had high hopes for The Heart of Me, as it billed actors such as Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Bettany. I can't say that the acting was bad in this 1930s-1940s, London based film. Set in a rich, upper society family, Helena's character, Dinah, has come to live with her married sister and husband (played by Bettany). In a twisted, "bohemian" change of events, Dinah and her brother in law begin a torrid affair. The affair rips the marriage apart, and the society they live in pushes them to silence what might be seen as detrimental to their social standing. Let me just say that I found the film difficult to watch, at best. Several, Greek tragedy like events occurred in the film to make me want to scream. What might have been construed as a husband unhappy in his marriage became a sick, selfish story that I struggled to find any human element that I could connect to. In the end, behaviors and choices led to the devastating unhappiness that was spread around for all to suffer through.

Thankfully, the final two films I watched were a complete JOY and contained wonderful, complex storylines that the viewer could grasp onto and carry away in their own lives.

The first was an Oscar nominated foreign film, Zelary. In this World War II drama, nurse Eliska is forced to flee to the mountain countryside for fear of being found out by the Gestapo in her part of the Czech resistance movement. Although in a relationship with one of the doctors at the hospital, Eliska and the doctor are split up and Eliska is carted off to a remote mountainside village with a former patient Eliska (renamed Hana) had cared for. In an effort to hide Hana in the village, she and her caretaker are forced into marriage. Over time, Hana and her "husband" fall in love and settle into a happy life, far from the madness of the rest of the world. All of this peace ends when the Russian liberation comes into town. You are meant to be filled with a certain hope, but there is a more painful human story to war, that we see horrifically played out, and that is the violence against women and children, but mainly women. I wanted to scream, and my heart ached as women were brutalized (which actually happened to various vulnerable women throughout the film) by selfish, often intoxicated men. It was gut-wrenching, and made me hurt for women across the globe that suffer rape and violence as a selfish act, and often one that is used as part of the torture of an opposing faction. It is horrific, and continues today in many parts of the globe.

While violent, and containing scenes of sensuality, I found Zelary to be haunting in a very mature sense. The themes of war, violence, and humanity melded into a fine film of haunting beauty. While not a light-handed film, I felt as though it left a mark on me; a mark that I am not eager to let go.

The final film I watched was Easy Virtue, with large name actors such as Colin Firth and Jessica Biel. Based on a Noel Coward play set in the 1920s in England between WWI & WWII, the mother of a large estate awaits the return of her son from his tour of the continent to help with their crumbling estate only to find that he has returned with an American wife, played by Biel. In the beginning, their new daughter in law tries to fit in and please them, but quickly finds that her new mother in law has little patience for her, nor her background (which slowly comes out). The father in law (played by Colin Firth), however, finds his new daughter in law's gumption and ability to stand up to his wife to be refreshing. Through a variety of fun interactions within the family, and a series of events that unfold, we learn more about our character's lives that create a subtle humor to the film.

I really, really loved this film with its witty scenes, engaging storyline, and fantastic acting. Probably one of the funnest films I've watched for this challenge, I have even purchased it for my own library. While each film I've reviewed has its own panache, there are certain films I would readily recommend. For more information about these varied films, you can click on the "films" link in the right-hand column for each of their reviews.

While I combined many of my later film reviews for the challenge, I wanted to thank Lights, Camera, History for this great challenge. As a lover of all things history and drama, this was the perfect challenge to participate in. Thank you for this great opportunity! Although this is a season of Christmas films, I hope you find something that might spark an interest down the road.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Salon: TBR Pile is Falling Over

Happy Sunday. I had anticipated a weekend filled with snowstorms, but instead, we have nothing but rain. Weird. I'm actually hoping that we do get snow before I leave for the holidays, as it will be my one chance to get a "white" Christmas.

Yesterday I spent several hours reading, when I probably should have been grading, so today I HAVE to get my grading done before I can go back to reading. Honestly, the piles of books are getting a bit out of hand. I've reached my limit that you are allowed to check out from the public library, I have way too many ARCs coming down the line, I have stacks of books to read for the new Popular Fiction class I'm teaching next year, and I have all of my own books that I've been wanting to read for ages! Listen, I love stacks of books, but even this is getting to me a little. So, for today, let me just share in a nice list of what I'd like and need to finish or get to.

These are the ones I'm already in the middle of reading.

These are the ones due back to the library soon, and I really want to read ASAP!

Well, wish me good luck. I don't know how much reading I'll be doing between now and my vacation that starts on December 23rd. I have a feeling that all my reading will happen once I hop on that plane to Hawaii, and after getting there! Christmas is always a great reading time for me. How about you? How much reading do you do over the holidays?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: The Van Alen Legacy (Blue Bloods #4) by Melissa de la Cruz

First, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who stopped by for the Virtual Advent Tour. There have been some great posts over there from many great bloggers who have shared their traditions, great holiday activities, wonderful memories, and fabulous recipes. Stop by to see who's up each day until Christmas!

As for getting back to what I love to do, read and review, I've had the fourth book in the Blue Blood series to review for about a month. To be honest, books in a series always kind of stump me. In fact, because of the wait in between books, I find that I forget a lot of important details that perhaps slow my reading down. This is why I've decided to switch things up slightly for this review, and I'd like to highlight the series first, and then review the book.

Review: The Van Alen, Blue Blood series centers on a character by the name of Schulyer Van Alen. Her mother has been in a coma for much of her life, and she is being raised by her grandmother. Through the course of the series, Schulyer learns of her part in the dangerous, and fascinating world of the "Blue Bloods" as vampires. Living the lives of upperclass, New York City teens, Schulyer and her schoolmates actually live very double lives, of which Schulyer has only begun to learn. Some of her classmates are powerful vampires, greedily feeding and disposing of humans as nothing more than mere playthings, while other vampires have learned how to manage their thirst and deal with humans. To this mix, Schulyer comes to learn where she plays a part in this society, and how she came to be a vampire as well.

In book four, we pick up with Schulyer and her best friend Oliver running from the coven of vampires in NYC for wrongs they believe she has commited. In the meantime, although Schulyer runs from one group, another eagerly seeks her out, to anihilate her for other reasons altogether.

Synopsis: To be honest, I was a bit lost for about a third of the book, as I tried to remember what I'd read in previous books. Not only could I not exactly remember the details from previous books in the series, but I also mixed up the details of these vampire laws to that of other books I'd read. I think that the series has interesting, very "Gossip Girls" sort of appeal in its action and plot, and can see that it would be an exciting series for many readers. My one suggestion might be to pick them up as a whole, after they have all been published (or I should have revisited previous novels...but who has time for that). Overall, I found them to be entertaining, interesting in the composition of the vampire society and the relationships between characters. While there are scenes of sensuality between some vampires, I think that this is an easy series to get into, especially for teen readers. For more information see: The Van Alen Legacy .

(*This was a library book copy.)

I love series, but does anyone else struggle to remember previous books when reading them as they come out? In some cases I've gone back to revisit previous novels, but often I have to just do a cold read and hope for the best. Are there any series where this has been especially tricky for you to remember what happened before?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mele Kalikimaka!: Virtual Advent Tour--Day 10

Happy holidays to everyone! I've been pretty nervous about how exactly to share my family's holiday traditions, as we're pretty nontraditional. However, I actually think that Christmas over the past ten years has been every bit as exciting as a child, filled with wonderful NEW traditions as my wonderful family has shifted and changed.

I grew up as an only child, in a beautiful home that overlooked the Snake River, from what used to be my grandfather's farm. We could always count on snow frosted tree branches, sparkling snow drifts, and maybe even a Star Trek-like blizzard flying at our car windshield on Christmas Eve as we drove from one family member's home to another. My dad was always the type to give us each a "non-practical" toy or gag gift on Christmas Day, because, "Christmas is meant for the little kid in us," he used to say.

Well, that was then. Yes, as an only child, I will admit to missing other brothers and sisters charging my door early in the morning, or conspiring to open presents pre-Christmas Day, but today, and as an adult, things are vastly different! Eleven years ago, while I was in my early days of college, my father passed away from breast cancer only months before Christmas. That was the first thing to really change our Christmas. In the absence of 1/3 of our small family, we absolutely FILLED the tree with gifts so that we wouldn't notice anything missing. My mom and I continued to visit family on Christmas Eve, but on Christmas Day, we would leisurely sleep in, make wonderful Lehi Roller Mill cranberry scones and hot chocolate, and spend a lazy day opening gifts and lounging around watching Christmas movies.

That changed again almost three years ago when my mother was offered a job in Hawaii and moved to Laie, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. I won't lie. We both panicked a little over what to do! Where do we go Christmas Eve? How do you even get a Christmas Tree? Is it feasible to stock a Christmas with presents when you have an ocean to cross to get them there and back? The answers were much simpler than we thought, and I shudder to think about what will happen when my mother moves home from what has become as much of a new island home to us as our little snow covered home.

So, here's what we do in Hawaii...and I love it! That first Christmas my cousin Kyle came and spent the holidays with us, so it was an easy transition. We just played on the beach a lot, and I learned NEVER to get near big waves again. (That's a story in and of itself!) Yes, we had a Charlie Brown tree that first year, which my mom has since replaced with a small artificial tree, covered in beautiful Hawaiian flowers, shell ornaments, and white lights. My mother usually has to work up until Christmas Eve Day, so I like to head down to the Hukilau Beach, which I can walk to from our house. On Christmas Eve Day, we usually relax, maybe hitting the beach again, where you will find lots of families gathering to simply sit around and chat and play. (I'll be honest, we usually head down with our beach chairs and read a good book!) That evening, we have made it a tradition to attend the Polynesian Cultural Center's famous luau, followed by their evening show. I so look forward to this exciting evening, as the festive decorations and Christmas vibe are overwhelmingly sweet and joyous.

(I wish I had a picture of palm trees decorated in Christmas lights, but this is another picture that I snapped.)

Christmas Day is pretty normal, except that we never wake to snow now! We still take the morning a little slow, still eating our traditional Christmas morning scones (no hot chocolate just doesn't work there), with fresh fruit, and scrambled eggs. Now, rather than hunkering down for the day to cuddle up with toys, games, and Christmas movies, we have to get out to walk the neighborhood. Everyone seems to be out, kids playing with toys, families laughing and yelling out their greetings, all having a great time. Then, we either go watch the sun set, ironically enough, on Sunset Beach or off of Laie Point.

Although my small, maybe somewhat non-traditional, family has shifted and evolved over the past eleven years, we're still pretty simple. What was once spent in a wonderful, snowy covered wonderland, is now spent in an equally wonderful, sandy island paradise. Regardless of where it's spent though, my family is the equation that makes it memorable and happy.

Stop by this year's "2009 Virtual Advent Tour" to visit other bloggers and hear about their holiday traditions and happenings! Thanks to all who put this together for a great way of sharing our holidays with one another.

Now that we're in Hawaii, we like to keep yummy, slushy drinks on hand. I wanted to share our favorite recipe with you, which if kept on hand in the freezer, can just be chunked up and thrown into a glass with Sprite or something bubbly poured over it. We've actually had this recipe in the family for years, but now we keep it in the freezer all through the holidays!

Christmas Party Punch/Slush

Boil together until sugar melts:
2 c. Sugar
3 c. water

Cool and add:
1/2 of a large can of pineapple juice (We actually like pineapple-mango.)
1 can of orange juice concentrate
1 small can or 1/2 regular can of lemon juice concentrate
2 ripe bananas smashed

Ladle into freezer containers or several large cake pans. We find it's easier to chip up if we start off in sheet pans & then transfer the chipped, frozen pieces to freezer baggies. You can then either thaw your slush slightly, or chip it off, put it in a tall glass, and cover with Sprite or some other fizzy drink! (This recipe has been cut in half, as it was too large and meant for a HUGE crowd if doubled.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: White Picket Fences by Susan Meissner

The Christmas season is well under way, and I can hardly believe it's that time of year again! In my effort to read 100 books this year, of which I've only read 85...gah!..., I had the chance to read a book from Waterbrook Press called White Picket Fences by Susan Meissner. I was unfamiliar with Meissner's work, but she has published other books as well. Thank you to Waterbrook for sending me a copy of this novel to review!

Synopsis: The novel starts with the 16 year old Tally Bachmann being taken in by her father's sister and husband after her maternal grandmother passes away. Tally was left behind by her unconventional parent/father, who left for Poland to find a treasure spoken of by her grandfather, buried in a yard there when the family was gathered and taken to the Warsaw ghetto. Tally's aunt and her family are having struggles of their own with their 17 year old son Chase, who struggles with his memories of a fire that started at a babysitter's home when he was just three or four that resulted in a small baby dying. Chase, nor his parents, can remember if he was responsible for starting that fire, but all fear he might be the culprit, which is why he continues to be haunted by anxiety and fears.

We then top off the story with a retelling of resistance during WWII against the Nazis by two elderly men in a local nursing facility. Tally, Chase, and their friend interview the men for a school project, and slowly learn their own family's connection to the Jewish Holocaust along the way. While not the central plot line, it is one that helps drive the action of the story.

Synopsis: For most of the novel, I couldn't put my finger on it, but found Meissner's writing style nice to read. It took me awhile to analyze, and soon realized that she has a freshness of speech and sentence construction that makes one comfortable to read her work. I can't say if her other novels do this, but I really enjoyed the clarity and tone of her writing.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. I wasn't sure about the husband and wife plot, that showed a couple struggling to stay connected through the realities of parenting, but understood that it was meant to show us how stressful raising these troubled teens really was for the parents. The characters were pretty complicated, and I felt constantly confused by Tally's father and his behavior. In the back of the novel, Meissner commented in an interview that in her work with children and families, that she saw all sorts of parents--unconventional and traditional--that were all good parents in their own way. I thought this was interesting, as I readily wanted to write off Tally's father, but Meissner doesn't really allow you to totally dislike him. With all of its complicated characters and plot twists, I found White Picket Fences to be an engaging read, and one I would recommend to friends and family interested in a clean family drama.

For more information see: White Picket Fences from Amazon, or Random House for additional information or purchasing.

(***Book provided by Waterbrook Press for review.)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sunday Salon & Review: The Chocolate Lover's Club by Carole Matthews

After a busy week, I'm a bit behind (as usual) on my reviews AND my grading! On Friday night I went to our local Festival of Trees. All of the revenue made from decorations and trees sold go to Primary Children's Hospital, and is supposed to be their biggest fund raiser of the year. I will say that it was pretty fun, but the crowds were a bit much. I'm assuming that everyone decided that Friday night was the night to go see the trees! Below is a tree dedicated to Harry Potter, which I thought was pretty cute.

On this Sunday, I won't be reading much until later in the evening, as I'll be at a family Christmas Party. However, I thought it would be fun to share a quick review of another book I read recently, The Chocolate Lover's Club, by Carole Matthews. If the title doesn't say it all, I don't know what does.

Synopsis: The basic premise of the novel is that four women, all good friends, meet together in a local chocolatier to discuss their lives. Each of the women have different family or relationship issues that plague them. The main story seems to center around Lucy Lombard, who finds that her boyfriend has cheated on her, but each woman in the group also takes a turn having her story told. Two of the women are married and having serious problems with their marriages, while the final friend is having trouble with her drug addicted brother. On the whole, it is a life story that shows the diverse ways women deal with modern issues and problems.

Review: I really wanted to like this book, but have to say that the "chocolate" was only a backdrop. I didn't expect it to take center stage, but a girl can wish can't she? :) The two married women had seriously flawed relationships with their husbands. I think that these were realistic situations, but overblown in the case of the couple not having sex, which drove the wife to illicit sexual encounters. The one single woman was mainly dealing with a brother on drugs, and the main female protagonist of the story had a flaky, cheating boyfriend and trouble holding down a job.

In all, the story was engaging. Please understand when I say that I was totally engaged in the story; however, I did wish that I could have just dealt with the main character, for instance, rather than bouncing from character to character. I realize this is a popular technique right now, but I really wanted to understand more about each individual story. With
a bit more understanding, I might have not felt that it was being over dramatic. In the end, I started to feel like I was reading a soap opera on paper. The elements were there for an amazing story, but maybe just needed a bit more depth added to certain individuals so that you could relate to them more? (For more information see: The Chocolate Lovers' Club. This book was one I checked out of the local library.)

I love stories that deal with decadent things like lovely chocolate or gourmet foods. Even if it's only in the backdrop, there's something fun about a book that mentions something sweet or yummy sounding. Maybe it's because I can't get any calories from them?
What is it about books that talk about food in them? I still remember reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and loving the scenes that talked about all the great things that Almonzo would eat. To this day it still makes me smile to think about those scenes. Thankfully people haven't been bringing goodies to work to torture me with, but reading about decadent goodies instead of eating them doesn't hurt, right? Then again, I'd love a box of these from Jacques Torres...(his hot chocolate is the best I've ever had).

Happy Sunday, and I hope you're reading something decadent and yummy!