Monday, March 29, 2010

A Monday Giveaway: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Lucky for me, and for one lucky reader, I picked up a brand new copy of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation for a pretty small couple of pennies. I haven't done a giveaway in quite some time, and I'm thrilled that this would be my first one back on the scene!

As mentioned here in my blog, I recently fell into these novels (thanks to many different book bloggers), and am quite enjoying them. If you're interested in the Scarlet Pimpernel, spy thrillers, Victorian romances, modern academia, or maybe a combination of all of the above, then you should try this book out. They really are too fun.

You can see more about The Secret History of the Pink Carnation at my March 2nd post, as well as a follow up to this book with The Masque of the Black Tulip, on March 25th.

To enter the giveaway, do the following:
  • Enter your name and email address. +1
  • Become a follower, or let me know you already are one. +1
  • Post this giveaway on your blog, or on Twitter. (If you could, leave me a link.) +1
This giveaway is open internationally, and will close on Sunday, April 18th at midnight MST. Good luck!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review & REVOLUTION: Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

I've had Jamie's Food Revolution cookbook sitting in my kitchen for several weeks, cooking from it, and waiting for my own copy to arrive on my doorstep. The recipes are simple, easy to cook, and full of flavor and basic, healthy properties to fill our tummies with home cooked...REAL food. After watching his show last week, and having my own thoughts on cooking and health, I had to post a review of his cookbook and plan to help change the way we all eat.

Jamie's newest cookbook is really great. I had to say that I was sold when I saw the expansive, simple recipes for a variety of curries. He had pasta dishes, salads, vegetables, meat dishes, and just good, basic food. These foods aren't new to many of us, but they are brought back into our attention, and the varieties of ways you might tweak these recipes into new, fun dishes for every day of the week is a nice addition.

Let me give a bit of background on Jamie Oliver, and his appeal to me, personally. One of the first years the Food Network started on TV, we also started watching. Jamie Oliver was a regular on the network, sometimes not on during regular hours, but you could always catch him, or record him as I did. There was something about his passion about food and cooking that really drew me in, and I was hooked. To date, I've cooked more recipes inspired by or introduced to me by Jamie Oliver than any other chef (and I actually really like his nemesis Gordon Ramsay as well...ha, ha). His approach to food is natural, multi-cultural, and exciting. I have his TV show DVDs and cookbooks, and though I don't always like everything he cooks (some of those fish dishes I still can't sell myself on), I do love his passion.

Let's segway to the documentary Food, Inc. that came out on DVD last year. Appropriately so, I was scared of what I saw, and deep down knew that the message of that DVD was true and very real. The basic premise of the film is that too many of are relying on processed, prepackaged foods that are full of chemicals and additives. Also, our meat and dairy have chemicals and antibiotics in them, as a result of producing these products as quickly and efficiently as possible. In essence, we've gotten away from our ownership of our own food.

Why does this all matter to me? Well, in 1998, my father passed away from breast cancer, and thanks to a pancreatic tumor of my own, I was put on a cancer study that revealed I carried a number of cancer genes. Here's what I've learned. Weight isn't 100% of the issue. Health is. I've always tried, as desperately as I can, to eat healthy meals. I'm not a fanatic, but know that I have to try. After seeing Food, Inc., however, I did change the types of foods I put into my shopping cart. I already knew that harmful chemicals could set off the cancer producing portion of my genes, but hadn't thought about the foods and materials I came in contact with that are doing just that. I now eat a lot of organic foods, whole grains as much as possible, and have included much more fruits and vegetables in my meals and cooking. More importantly, I have changed my thinking about food and health. I'm definitely not perfect, but a shift in the way I look at food has taken place. Weight is my next big hurtle to tackle, but food seems to be top of the list for good health in the present.

*Soap box removed from the room, and back to ground level.*

All right. I'll stop waxing long in my testimony to good foods, cooked in our own homes. Even if you don't enjoy cooking, there are amazing cookbooks that can help break you in with easy recipes and beautiful pictures to see what you're cooking. Jamie Oliver's most recent cookbook is one, but as also highlighted here previously, are: Ellie Krieger's The Food You Crave, and So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week.

I also have to say that Anticancer, A New Way of Life, changed the way I think about health and food forever. It's no longer about my waist size, and more about extending my life with greater vitality. If you're interested in a more scientific background on how food turns off and on those cancer genes, I think this book is a must.

My final plea. As a huge Jamie Oliver fan, and lover of his cause, I would ask that you visit his web site to sign the pledge for healthier foods in our schools. I don't have children, but if I did, I would want the school fixing my child more than chicken nuggets and pizza. Join his food revolution to impact the health and vitality of all our children!

Watch Jamie's show every Friday night on ABC, and don't forget to sign his petition.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Review: The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig

In the midst of a busy lifestyle, there's nothing like being able to still get in great, fun books by getting audio books. Thankfully, over the last week and a half, I was able to listen to the follow up in the Pink Carnation series. Since I recently listened to book one, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I was excited to move along in the books to see how the series continued.

Synopsis: Continuing to bounce between the present-day academic, Eloise Spark, who is working on her dissertation and now a young Henrietta who has taken the place of the Pink carnation, and who is the younger sister of Richard (from the previous book). Henrietta might be considered a junior spy of sorts, but back in England, and watched over by her brother's good friend, Miles, there seems to be little to spy out other than her new-found crush on Miles. As chums growing up, Miles nor "Hen" (as they call her) have ever really looked at one another as love interests, and in fact, have been more like siblings; however, now that they are both adults, their mutual interest in one another has developed.

In the midst of the budding relationship, there are still French spies amongst them, but no one is quite sure who they are. Both Hen and Miles spy out different associates that they suspect, yet never really communicate their work as spies, nor coordinate. As Miles and Hen's relationship turns into full-fledged romance, their lives are in jeopardy, and to protect their new love, they have to find and put away the French spy who is out to disable The Pink Carnation for good.

Review: If the story plot sounds complicated, it really isn't. While it jumps around, pulling you from character to character, making you wonder who might be a spy, the real story centers around this complicated relationship and emotional dance between Henrietta and Miles. Although you realize there is a spy story going on, the tension mainly focuses on the misunderstandings and social pressures between the two love birds.

As with the last story, there is a good deal of romance involved in the story, but isn't developed until the later part of the novel. In this particular installment, there seemed to be less storytelling done from the present, which I actually missed...strange enough. I have been curious about Eloise, and can sense that she has developed feelings for the man who owns the journals she is reading. Honestly, I did want a bit more from the present, and grew to care a little more about our grad student. For some reason, now that she has uncovered the story behind The Pink Carnation, I wanted to know more about what Eloise was going to do with her story, and hope to get more in the novels that follow!

Overall, I have enjoyed these stories and am looking forward the the next installment. This second book leaves you with a bit of a cliffhanger with Eloise, and dropped Henrietta and Miles a bit, even though you knew they were all right and happy. There is a certain playfulness to these stories that I find interesting, and I enjoy following to see how the spies will catch their enemy, and how their female spy love interest will help them. These really are fun to follow, and while you could probably read them individually, I do think you need some back up from the previous story to really dive in. However, if you like period dramas with a bit of romance built into a spy thriller, then you might enjoy these.

For more information, see: The Masque of the Black Tulip.

This is my 3rd of 6 in the Audio Book Challenge at Royal Reviews.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Review: The Time of My Life by Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi

After an amazing weekend with friends, I had to refocus and turn in my 3rd term grades today. What a relief to have them all in though! Now that I've conquered them, I wanted to post my review of Patrick Swayze's autobiography The Time of My Life, because it has been weighing on my mind for a couple of weeks. Rather than a normal synopsis and review, you'll have to forgive me as I take this in a little bit of a different direction.

Back in junior high, I developed a huge crush on the great actor, Patrick Swayze. I remember becoming obsessed with him as Orry Main, the son of a plantation owner from South Carolina who becomes friends with a northerner during his West Point days, pre-Civil War. Let's not mince words, Patrick Swayze was electric in that role, and many to follow! Today I own that series, and still love it.

As a young girl, I had Patrick's "Sexiest Man Alive" cover from People magazine taped up in my locker at school, and followed his career like any good fan would do.
Of course we remember Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, but he played in a wide range of other movies that included Ghost, Roadhouse, and many, many more. Before acting Patrick started off as this amazing dancer, that started as a ballet dancer in New York City, but ended up in acting after injuries prevented him from dancing professionally any longer. He also had an incredibly long-lasting relationship with the beautiful Lisa Niemi, who I had seen with him in interviews. The two met in Texas as young dancers, and later fell in love and married as aspiring dancers in New York. Together, they built a life together that comes through beautifully in Swayze's autobiography.

I've always loved Patrick Swayze and his work, loved his passion for life, and loved his absolute dedication to the people closest to him. To me, he was a wonderful, surprising man of conviction in an industry that often lack such qualities.

Having said that, and knowing some of his background already, I was so touched to learn more about his life. In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, Patrick Swayze reveals many of what he felt were vulnerable aspect of his character, which included his need to master whatever skill he attempted (feeling that he always had to be good at whatever he did), his abiding love for his wife Lisa (which he revealed he always felt she wasn't as in to him as he was into her, which he later learned was totally wrong), and his deep pain over losing a much loved father and its effects on him. I was moved to hear about his vulnerable moments, to hear how he faced them, and even how he overcame the problems he developed with alcohol as he dealt with his pain. To me, Patrick Swayze's life is a real testament to the ups and downs of any person's life, and how we can approach them.

As I knew heading into his life story, I also knew that the book was completed shortly before his death in September of last year. Patrick Swayze's battle with pancreatic cancer was known from the beginning, and seems to float over the book as you read, making you think, "Just give it all you've got!" From this, I mean that I kept thinking that had he known, how would he have changed things? I think we all would just say to ourselves, to dig deep and give life all you have, which is what I kept thinking as I related his struggles to some of my own. Ten years ago I had a much too close brush with pancreatic cancer. At 23 I had a tumor removed from my pancreas, and for years since, have been haunted by all the "what ifs" of that paralyzing disease. I was fortunate to have caught it so young, and have had yearly check ups to ensure a clean bill of health ever since. Having shared that, I have to admit to always passing up any book, film, or interview that discussed pancreatic cancer, only because of my own fears over the disease. Patrick Swayze's life story and fight against cancer was the first time I really faced listening to someone else's story. Before that, I just couldn't listen. In fact, when The Last Lecture came out, I avoided it like the plague, and still have not read it, out of my own fear. However, with this strange obsession I had with Patrick Swayze as a young girl, I felt that I had this connection to what he was going through, and wanted to hear more.

It seemed to me, that in the end, Patrick Swayze honored his own life and what he had accomplished through the way he battled cancer. Cancer will never define him, but strangely shed a light on all the good he had done, and reminded us all of how important it is to reach for happiness each and every day.

In synopsis, I highly recommend The Time of My Life. Listen, I'm the first person to run from stories of cancer or dogs (you know...because they always die!), but this autobiography was really moving. Like any human story, it reminded me how precious life is, and even how precious we are as individuals. The walk-away message of this book is varied, and I can say that I have thought about many different aspects of my own life since reading his autobiography. All I can say is, that as a fan, but more as a fellow human being, his life touched mine for good.

For more information, see: The Time of My Life.

*Review based off of library copy of the book.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The W's of Reading: What Should Come First, the Book or the Film?

This topic has been on my mind for a while. Is there ever a time that seeing a film before reading the book or play it's based from might be better? Why do so many films skew what we loved in the book?

A couple of weeks ago, my AP classes finished reading Shakespeare's Hamlet. I then followed it up by showing them the famous "mousetrap" scene, and concluding fight scene in both the Kenneth Branaugh version, as well as the one with Mel Gibson. Admittedly, my students like the version with Mel Gibson a little more, as they felt it fit with what they pictured. How key is it that what we see on screen fit with what we created in our mind?

It does seem that if a film doesn't add up to what we've pictured, or at least come close, it can be bone-crushingly disappointing! I had my student list films that disappointed them after reading the book, and they came up with some of the following: Eragon (that one is always, and emphatically listed first), certain scenes they missed in Harry Potter, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, Shopaholic, and Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo (for selected scenes). Why did these films fail in part or whole? Could it be that they failed to blow the readers of these books away, because:
  • They didn't follow the same storyline as the book or reordered things in a confusing way. (You know, those movies that you went, "Hey, that didn't happen until later!")
  • The creatures and characters were different than what was described.
  • What we pictured from an exciting scene was left out or diminished. Could it be that creating some of these scenes in real time is just too difficult?
  • The core personality of the character is altered in such a way that they are more devious, stupid, or frail than the actual character in the book. Who wants to see their character made out to be worse or more fallible?!?
  • They left out wonderful, fun scenes that you loved.
  • They tweaked it to make sure it ended a bit more happily than the original. Will we really turn on them if a movie doesn't conclude with a happy ending?
  • It turns something original into something cliche.
On the flip side, there are some films that manage to beautifully capture the essence of a story, and even expand on it through the story, filming, lighting, music, etc. Some that I personally thought did an excellent job of portraying the novel: Atonement, The Reader, many of the Jane Austen adaptations are very well done (which is why we love them so much), certain scenes from Harry Potter (such as the cave scene at the end of the 6th film), Gone With the Wind (not exactly true to the novel, but a great, cohesive film adaptation), The Lord of the Rings (please...half those creatures and battle scenes in my mind didn't come close to what was created on the screen), and more that I can't come up with at the moment.

Here's where we left off in our discussion. What should come first? Should you always read the book first, or are them some films that actually help you understand the book better...or at least don't ruin the book as with some other films? I won't lie, Doctor Zhivago was a difficult book for me to get through at one point. When I hit the train scene, when the family left the city, my mind wandered off. Now this was several years ago, but I threw my hands in the air and went to get the famous movie to help me out. By the time I'd finished the film, I had cemented the story that I'd read so far, and figured out some of the politics that I'd missed before, and found that the rest of my reading was a real delight. In that case, the film helped me love and appreciate the book a bit more.

So what do you think? What books do you think translated well into film? Any definite failures in your mind? Should most books come before the films, or are there a few you wish you'd seen first?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James

As a now admitted Austenite who will chase just about any story that has a "Jane Austen" or Pride and Prejudice twist, I was intrigued during a Twitter conversation when Tasha (@heidenkind) at "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books" asked me if I'd read Just the Sexiest Man Alive. When she told me it had a modern connection to Pride and Prejudice, I went out and purchased a copy. Yes, I had to read it. Well, in the midst of a pile of TBR books, ARCs, and grading, I forgot about it until I heard Angie at "Angieville" mention the same connection and how good it was. Between the two recommendations, from two awesome readers, how could I not drop everything and read?

This past Saturday I was suffering from a migraine, but it was a strange migraine in that I could sit in low light and read (I know...not good on the eyes) as long as I didn't have any extra noise or light. So, I grabbed my Kindle and decided to dive right into Julie James' novel that I had heard so much about, and was sucked right in! In one sitting (minus checking on basketball scores), I tore through the book, relating to a character that I seemingly have nothing in common. Maybe that is part of its charm?

Synopsis: Main character, and lawyer, Taylor Donovan has been sent out from Chicago to L.A. to lead in a defense against a sexual harassment case. As an undefeated lawyer, Taylor knows how to prepare for a case and how to question a witness, and is ready to move from a member of the firm, to partner. Because of this fierce attitude and drive, Taylor is quickly chosen to help one of Hollywood's most famous actors (and Sexiest Man Alive), Jason Andrews, learn the ins and outs of being a lawyer for his next big film. Taylor is less than happy with the set up, and is even less happy when her newest client blows her off, wasting her precious time. Not only does Taylor blow off Jason once he does show up, but also tries to get out of working with him. As in most romance novels, this lack of instant appeal intrigues Jason, and creates the instant tension in the story. Taylor has no time for pretty-boy Hollywood stars, and Jason underestimated the female lawyer who was to be his trainer. Somehow, the two would have to work together, because Jason won't take no for an answer, and neither would the law office Taylor works for.

Review: I'll spare you the extended storyline, as I think the set up of the base tension between these characters can be mapped out in a pretty broad way and shown to connect to a much-loved Elizabeth and Darcy storyline from over a century ago. While not the most believable plot at times, nor the most well-tuned writing, I did find that the dialogue and banter between Taylor and Jason to be highly entertaining...and to be quite honest, exactly what I needed right now. The connection to Pride and Prejudice is very loose, and doesn't really distract you away from the story in any way, although there are these delicious moments when lines pop up from the original that have you connecting the characters more than you would have otherwise.

One such scene that draws from the original story is when Jason asks Taylor to help him make his script more like an actual in-court scene. After completing their work, Taylor affirms that she believes it will connect with the audience, and the conversation continues:
"You just sounded so Hollywood."
Taylor smiled guiltily. "I did, didn't I? See--one evening with you and I'm already corrupted." She gestured casually to her half-empty glass. "Or maybe the wine's affecting me."
"So you approve of my selection?"
"I doubt there's anyone who wouldn't"...
"But your approval is harder to earn and therefore worth more than the others," Jason returned.
In a way, the vulnerability of the Darcy character really plays out in this modern context, and although you want to blow it off, it brings out the weakness in a way that I hadn't thought of in the original.

Also, Jason seems to keep trying to get Taylor to admit to her feelings, or to see where she stands and how she likes his home,
"So you like being here, then?" "...So you would consider this then, as a place you could live? You wouldn't miss Chicago?"
Both scenes made me smile at their brashness to cross Austen's path so closely. To a purist, this would be offensive, but I have to say that I liked the entire ride. I thought that the mix between the two was not enough to really offend, so I was all on board. Also, it seemed that for a romance novel, there was very little sexual content. In fact, the author handled the tension between the two characters in a pretty restrained way, that actually added to their chemistry. In this case, I really think that less was more, and created a fun, escapist read that kept my attention. I really enjoyed my time with this first novel by Julie James and will have to give her others a go!

For more information, see: Just the Sexiest Man Alive.

*Novel purchased as an e-book.

This counts as my first in the E-book Reading Challenge over at Royal Reviews!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Rapunzel's Revenge by Nathan and Shannon Hale

I originally meant to review this with the second graphic novel put out by these two, Calamity Jack, but quickly realized that the stories are a bit different. Having said that, I thought I'd better get to it and review them separately!

Synopsis: In this graphic novel, we take the well known character Rapunzel, and twist her story a bit. This Rapunzel is set in the Wild West, and her wicked witch caretaker is ruling the west by creating rampant drought and evil repression. Rapunzel soon learns that her own mother was one of the workers in the slave camps set up by the evil witch. Getting too saucy for the witch to handle, she placed Rapunzel up a very tall tree, in the middle of a swamp. Little did she know though, that Rapunzel's hair would grow to such an extent that this empowered young woman would escape by using her hair as a rope swing.

Soon after her escape, she pairs up with a young Jack to try to free the kingdom. Through a series of adventures, Rapunzel shows her own strength, and looks to bring justice back to the land.

Review: Graphic novels are a new phenomena with me. I actually have grown to really like them, and am pretty happy to see that I'm not alone in this fascination. Although I'd say that Rapunzel's Revenge might be a more enticing read for a youngster (were I a mother with young children, I could see this being a favorite), I did find it a fun, fast read. I'm not quite jaded enough as a full-time English teacher to not find entertainment in a fun, graphic read...thank goodness.

Besides being a read that is sure to be loved by young readers, I thought that its heroine, Rapunzel, was great. Rapunzel was brave, strong, and had a sense of justice about her that was really refreshing. Some of these types of female characters can be more of the "damsel in distress" or "princess," and need saving from others...and themselves. Thankfully, Rapunzel was this rough and ready gal, out to save herself and others!

Overall, I thought this was a really great read, and had amazing pictures to propel the story. I'm half way through Calamity Jack, and am as entertained with this second story as I was with the first. These are certainly quick, innovative twists on characters we're familiar with as adults, and new enough to feel brand new to young readers. I'd definitely recommend sharing them with a young audience! For more information on this great, graphic novel, see: Rapunzel's Revenge.

*Review based off of a library copy of the book.

What is it about graphic novels? Do you read them, and when do you feel compelled to pick one up?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Salon: Lots of Books & Films

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it's actually kind of scaring me! How is it that school years zip by so quickly and yet feel as if they are killing me in a slow, excruciatingly fatiguing sort of way? It's just kind of strange is all, and interesting as I start planning for my summer. Thankfully, my mother is still in Hawaii, so I get to go back again for another glorious couple of months. Sigh. I can't wait!

As for this past week, I spent a day at home working on my taxes and getting over the opening stages of a head cold. I think they were meant to go hand in hand to torture me. I'm still not ready to head to the tax accountant, but soon.

This week I watched a number of films, including a couple Oscar winners.

I watched Precious on my day off and have to say that Gabourey Sidibe deserved every bit of accolades and praise that she received. It wasn't an easy film to watch, with its themes of poverty and abuse, but an important story of one person's struggle to get an education and rise out of poverty.

I wish I had as many wonderful things to say about The Hurt Locker. Lest I be considered anti-American in some way, and not in favor of our troops, I have to say that I 100% see that this was a shocking demonstration of the dangers and mind-playing tragedies they have to deal with every day; however, I can't say that I liked the film. It was really hard to get through, and felt very much like a real-time film about one man's experience in Iraq.

I also watched The Queen and I, which was about the widow of the exiled former Shah of Iran. After reading Persepolis, I thought this was an excellent additional human story to add to my reading. the documentary was an interesting look at Queen Farrah and her life since her exile, and her fight to continue to help Iran. The queen couldn't completely answer for the tortures played out under her husband's regime, but she could speak to her love for Iran and her desire to see a more settled form of democracy rule the country.

Thankfully, I also got in some reading this week.

I finally started Hunger Games this week, as well as Scones and Sensibility. Since I am always reading a classic at the same time, I've been reading East of Eden and should be finishing it up shortly.

I also started listening to The Masque of the Black Tulip, which is a follow up to The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

After hearing a lot about the connection between Just the Sexiest Man Alive, by Julie James and Pride and Prejudice, you know I had to read it. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed, and am excited to post my review hopefully this week.

One last note. While reading is my main hobby, those who know me well know that I have a bit of an obsession for college hoops. I actually avoid watching games up until March, because I wouldn't get any of my work done if I didn't! Thankfully, I'm ending a term at school, and super excited for this Selection Sunday to get my brackets ready. This week starts March Madness, and I am one happy camper! Go JAYHAWKS! I also have a couple of good friends coming into town, so it is going to be a great week. Let's just hope they don't disown me after several days of screaming at basketball on a TV screen.

What are you reading on this Sunday, and are you into March Madness? Am I alone in my college hoops madness?!?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

Last night I did a big no-no. I stayed up for two hours to read a book. Yes, delightful, but that put me up until after midnight by the time I graded a stack of papers that needed to be finished for today. It's delightful to fall into a book, but not good when you have to get up the next day! For some reason, I got sucked into the last 200 pages of Marian Keyes' novel The Brightest Star in the Sky, which I've been reading for quite awhile actually. It was good, but dense in language and story. Last night, however, I couldn't put it down until I had it all finished!

Synopsis: Summarizing this book is like trying to summarize history itself. Told in a fragmented narrative, we follow the lives of multiple characters living in one building. The narrator is some outside, limited omniscient, presence that speaks from time to time. Confused, well don't be. The narrator is another character in the story, but you spend much of the novel guessing as to its importance.

Throughout the story, you follow the lives of the different characters . As is familiar today, we watch one character's story, then move on to another, examining how they all intersect. In this story, they do all rub shoulders eventually, but not all for one overriding story. Each story is important. There is the old lady with her dog, the young TV gardening star, the young married couple who seem "old," the 40ish single professional woman (dating her boss, no less), and the 20ish female taxi driver and her two Polish roommates. All living in Dublin, all living separate lives, yet all affecting one another in strange ways, we watch the complicated ways these individuals deal with the challenges in their lives. As for the narrator, we later find out its role.

Review: I feel as though I couldn't have been any more obscure in my synopsis of the novel, and yet that is how the story plays out. It is a complicated web of characters and stories that must be kept straight. In the end, I couldn't put the book down. I wanted to find out what was going on, and how the narrator played into the story.

In beautiful language used to describe people and their thoughts, Keyes really pushed her characterization. There seemed to be this dance between what she wants the reader to think, and what the characters actually think. You always seem to be chasing the real meaning of the story. There were times that I felt the relationships to be unrealistic, that characters were schizophrenic in their dealings with one another, and in their own emotions. It also bothered me that characters such as the female taxi driver could be so angry at the world, disconnected with the love interests in her life, and so nonchalant about the anxieties she experienced. As with that character, you would just begin to feel like you understood the insecurities driving them, and they would turn around and do something that felt erratic and spontaneous, but in the opposite direction of what they wanted in life. Maybe that's really how we are as humans, always striving for happiness, but messing it up by going in the opposite direction?

Overall, I really liked this novel. I have a hard time placing it in a category or genre, but felt that its modern portrayal of characters and their lives to be fascinating. If you enjoy examining characters and their behaviors, then this book is perfect; it is a strange and interesting look at how humans behave, and why. For more information, see: The Brightest Star in the Sky.

*Book won as an Early Reviewers Advanced Copy from LibraryThing.

This read also counts towards the "Books Won" Challenge over at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Blog's Birthday & a Guest Post

Lucky for me, I planned a day off to get my taxes in order and got a nasty head cold. Is this coincidence? I think not. It also stopped me in my tracks from posting anything for my blog's third birthday!

What began as a nice place to join up and discuss literature that I needed to study in preparation for graduate exams, turned into a wonderful hobby that has really been a pleasant surprise in my life. Besides the wonderful books that blogs have lead me to, I've gone on to meet some amazing, kind, and generous bloggers who I've come to call my friends, and some really cool authors. Thank you to each and every one of you! In a lot of ways, meeting up in this environment to discuss books, has made me a better, more connected teacher in the classroom. So again, thank you!

One last thing before I leave this little "update" post, I wanted to direct your attention to my good friend Tasha over at "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books." Tasha is a dedicated reader, and is trying a Classics Challenge that has her reading classics this month. As part of her focus on classics, she asked me to write a guest post, which was posted this past Sunday. Stop by to see my post on "Suggestions for Reading Classics." I honestly don't claim to be some aficionado, but have read a few classics and really enjoyed writing this post. Check out my ideas on how to get through a classic, let us know if you have any tricks of your own, and don't forget to check out Tasha's other great posts this month!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Review: Persepolis 1 & 2 by Marjane Satrapi

As part of a new trend in my reading habits, I've picked up an interest in graphic novels. I had heard buzz about Persepolis for some time, and our school library had it, so I brought it home to test it out. I wasn't disappointed at all. Since I have a real interest in history, this graphic novel helped me see inside Iran from the 1970s to present through the eyes of the main character Marjane.

In the first of the two, we get the life of young Marjane from the time of the shah, to the attack by Iraq. Marjane's family try to explain to this little girl about her family's royal history, her family friends' experiences in prison, and her new role as a young woman in an Islamic state. By the end of book one, Marjane is on her way to Austria, both to escape the conflict in Iran, and also to go to school.

In book two, Marjane grows from a young teen, into a near adult. She begins living in a convent, but is soon cast from home to home. From her life in Austria, she meets people who have different political views, who have different codes of morality, and who have had little experience with death and war as she has. Over time, Marjane becomes disillusioned with the person she has been turned into while living in Europe and returns to Iran, where she later marries and struggles against the strong Islamic rule being forced on its citizens.

The film basically takes the two books, and in French with subtitles, uses the same drawings used in the novels to portray the story. The movie is exactly like the books, but I will admit to enjoying the books much more than the film, which seemed to drag on with all the subtitles. Also, the film seemed darker than the books, in using the same graphics.

Altogether, I thought Marjane's coming of age during the conflict in Iran and through the new Islamic control of the region to be brilliantly and poignantly discussed in her two graphic novels. These two novels covered issues of history in the region, discussed moral laws imposed on the nation, discussed the view of the West as imposed on the East, and many other tough issues of nation and culture. Overall, I think these graphic novels are very well done, and give the reader a great view of Iran and its culture.

For more information, see: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return.

*Review based on library copies of each book and video.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Shakespeare Sunday

Where did my week go? That's what I've been asking myself for the past couple of days. Our school district had Friday off, but I had signed up to attend a Shakespeare conference all day. At first, I really just wanted to back out on the conference and stay home to get a few things done, but now I'm pretty glad I went. The conference turned out to be a great choice, and really inspiring.

I don't know how many of you might agree, but I've never been a terribly huge fan of Shakespeare. I know...gasp. How could it be? Truth be told, I always saw Shakespeare as something that was so high brow that I needed to be ready to engage my brain, to read with a pen, and to be ready to cross reference. I don't know that I've read Shakespeare in any other way!

At this conference, the professors there taught us new things to do in the teaching of Shakespeare that I found really exciting. Here are the things I learned:
  • We can use Shakespeare's plays to do "Table Talks" where students read a scene and determine what is meant in the scene, and ways they might deliver it to the rest of the class.
  • That students should be like the "groundlings" of Shakespeare's original plays by being an active part in the reading and acting of the play, that actors CAN and should include the audience.
  • Students should get on their feet and read lines out loud, to feel the way the words sound in their mouths. (Most fun was when we were asked to use insults Shakespeare included in his plays and to roam around and sling them at someone. How fun to call someone a maggot pie!)
  • Props should be used as a way of determining emotions and ideas not expressed through the words.
In short, I learned that Shakespeare can be best enjoyed through active engagement with it. I don't know that I can do that when I need to just read a play, but I'll definitely address more of these as I teach his work in the future.

As for this Sunday, I'll be trying to get through some of my library books, as I have six new books waiting for me, and I'm at my limit for number to be checked out!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Welcome to what already feels like a glorious midweek! The sun has started to shine here, so much so, that I'm being hopeful that spring is around the corner, and that the trees and flowers will start to blossom. I think it's all rather deceptive, and I've never known it here to really stick to its current pattern; therefore, we'll get snow soon, right? Honestly, I can hardly wait for spring. If I convince myself enough, I think I can feel it in my bones.

Okay, enough of the irony here that I'm dying inside for spring breezes and flowers, and the book I recently finished listening to on audio book was The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig! I had actually seen books by Lauren Willig pop up in reviews all over the blogosphere, and they had pretty good reviews. Thank you again to so many other bloggers for pointing out yet another author to me.

Synopsis: Written as a narrative within a narrative, we have our modern protagonist Eloise Kelly working on a dissertation about the famous spy, the Pink Carnation. In an effort to uncover the true identity of this lesser known spy for England during roughly the same era as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Eloise travels and lives in London, looking for documents that might reveal the secrets she seeks. In the process, she is offered a peek into a diary of a Miss Amy Balcourt, a young woman of French descent, living in England, but with a burning desire to be the next great spy for the British.

As secondary readers of the diary, we get sucked into Amy's world, where she meets Richard Selwick (who is also the spy called The Purple Gentian) on a visit to her brother's home in France. Amy is quickly smitten with The Purple Gentian, yet not so much with Richard. Okay, so she might be just a little intrigued by Richard, not realizing he is one in the same as her masked spy and hero. Through a series of adventures, both come in contact through their endeavors to spy for England and must try to keep their identities, and budding romance, hidden from all.

Review: As mentioned earlier, I listened to this as I drove to and from work. While this book has received mix reviews, I thought it was a pretty interesting story. Although it is far from a true history of the era or culture, and read a bit more like a historical romance, I enjoyed the escape factor. Since I tend to be an easily distracted reader and listener, the two stories (past and future) were fine for me. In fact, I appreciated being jerked back into the present from time to time, to be reminded that this is a diary we're being privileged to look into, and not a history book! Some of the encounters between Amy and Richard/The Purple Gentian were a bit far-fetched, and steamy at times, which wouldn't be exactly accurate. However, in keeping with the idea that this is a diary, and about a supposed female SPY, I figured it was meant to delve into the non-standard for the time. Spies don't necessarily live by every strict code of the culture they live in, right?

While the book had me confused in a few places, and not following the how, where, and why of the espionage, I still was entertained and enjoyed the story. The book does contain two pretty surprising sex scenes that honestly had me reaching for the volume on my radio to turn it down for fear someone would hear! I know. I sound silly, but they took me a bit by surprise. On the whole, I would say that the novel was a fun romp through history, but in a very fictitious way. I enjoyed the story, but wouldn't turn to it for any sense of true history or the culture of that time period. For more information, see: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

This book counts as my second in the Audiobook Challenge. I'll also be linking up with Cym Lowell's weekly Book Review Party. Stop by his site to visit other bloggers who have reviewed a book this week!

*This review is based from a library copy of the audio book.