Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig

Yet another eventful school year has come to a close, and I'm reminded once again of the amount of "decompressing" that I have to go through to feel normal again! Thankfully we have this lovely Memorial Day weekend, which is perfect for just that...relaxing. Yes, I have a few things to finish up before I leave for Hawaii, but really things are going quite well.

One series I've been trying to finish before I leave is the Pink Carnation series, by Lauren Willig. I've reviewed the first three in the series, and recently listened to book four on audio book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. While not my favorite, it still was quite a fun story.

Synopsis: Picking up where book three left off, with Letty Alsworthy marrying her sister Mary's intended, Mary Alsworthy is now outside of "society" as she knew it. Feeling jilted, yet not particularly upset (as she didn't really even love her intended, but wanted his status), Mary is forced to politely circulate in society knowing she might not find a husband. To this bleak, soured picture enters the dastardly Lord Vaughn, from previous installments. As with the previous novels, we are unsure about whether Vaughn is working as a spy for the French or not, and he always seems to be hitting on whatever lovely lady is in his vicinity. Although he is flirtatious, his desires are not towards remarrying (since he is a widower), but to play, which makes him nervous around Mary. Not only must the two fight what is an apparent attraction, but they must also work to uncover the identity of the elusive Black Tulip.

Review: While I appreciated the witty banter and thrilling action of book four, I had a real difficult time getting into this particular story. It seemed to me that the previous installments had helped to create this character in Lord Vaughn who was quite unpopular to the reader. Throughout the stories, he seemed like this swine who flirted with the women, and who could or could not be spying for the French and playing both sides. In all honesty, I viewed Lord Vaughn as a great villain, and I just couldn't let that go to see him as a possible love interest for Mary, nor as someone that I should feel the least bit of sympathy for.

Lest I demonize the lead male character without giving the lead female character her just dues, I have to say that Mary came across as a spoiled brat as well. In some ways I was supposed to feel bad for Mary, as she had lost her "love interest" to her sister, but she didn't even really love him! Instead, Mary was more interested in looking for status, and I wasn't completely convinced that she had completely changed as she fell in love with Lord Vaughn. Could I say the two fell in love? I suppose you can say the two were a good couple, and deserved one another, but I really struggled to connect to these two characters. It's not that the story in itself is bad, as the thriller theme is carried forward and you learn more about the espionage and action of the story, but I wasn't as into the main characters.

On the flip side, I couldn't get enough of our modern narrator's story. Eloise, as the graduate student researching the Pink Carnation, has developed a relationship with the rich owner of these sensitive historical document, Colin. He was so reluctant and snooty about allowing Eloise access to the documents in the beginning, that it created this delicious tension between the two, that has left them pretty much falling for one another by this point. The problem is, you only get the rarest snippets of the modern day story!!! Honestly, I've switched gears a bit, and really just want to know what's going to happen between Eloise and Colin!

Altogether, as with the previous books, I have enjoyed this series. There wasn't any extended love scenes in this particular installment, but there was the characteristic sexual tension present as in the others. I can't say this was my favorite of the first four, but I really am loving the story of our modern narrator that has been building up. Because of the modern element of the story, I can't wait to read the next installment!

*FTC Disclosure: The review is based off of a library copy of the novel.

This counts as my 6th in the 2010 Audio Book Challenge over at Queen of Happy Endings. Technically this is the last one I signed up to do, so I have successfully completed one of my challenges!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Coming Soon: 48 Hour Readathon

This coming weekend, June 4-6, 2010, will be the 5th Annual 48 Hour Readathon. Since both of the other readathons occur during the school year, I can't always participate, so I really look forward to a couple of days I can dedicate (without any guilt) to reading! Yes, you live your life in the midst of this 48 hours, but get to plan in LOTS of reading time to boot! Last year I participated and really had a great time. (Here is my initial post from last year.) I actually spent a good portion of the time reading some pretty heavy-duty books, so I didn't get through much, but had a great time in the process. This year I think I'll aim for lighter fare.

The timing of the marathon is a bit flexible, so I'm still not sure what time I'd like to start. You can start Friday night or Saturday morning (obviously), which will be a great kick off to my summer in Hawaii. I'm always in such desperate need for R&R, so this will be an excellent opportunity to lay low and get some valuable reading done. Here's what I think I'll be reading!:

To find out more about this great event, see MotherReader's blog for more information.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Graduations, Hair Cuts, & Summer Vacations

I'm done!!! Can you hear me scream?!? Please indulge me while I squeal over the upcoming break, and reflect on the past school year.

Today we had graduation, and it is always so moving, and such a nice, positive cap on the year. Although I'm always tired beyond words, and literally feel myself deflating in my chair, I'm also really moved by the entire educational process culminating before us. Some of the student who graduated today drove me NUTS, whether I had them as sophomores two years ago when I taught American Literature, or whether I had them this past year in World Literature or AP Literature. Of course I had many hugs to dish out today, and students that I loved, but it's always interesting how even the most jaded student, the one who hates to read, and who I fought tooth and nail to care about their education, approaches that diploma with a sense of pride. Now I realize they probably are not as philosophical as I am, but I find it pretty inspiring that this rite of passage is centered around education and learning. For all of our jaded views of education, teachers and students still work really hard to try to reach standards of excellence. Seriously, I can say that we really WANT to see these students turned on to learning, and with a sense of pride in their education. Yes, as Dr. Seuss says, "Oh, the places you'll go!" It's cheesy, but that's what we all hope for in our society, right?

On a completely personal note, I'm preparing to leave for "home" in exactly one week, to head to Hawaii to see my mother and all our friends and neighbors there. Having spent a couple of summers there already, I'm fretting over the stacks of books I want to take versus what I can realistically pack over. PLEASE HELP! Someone talk me out of packing a small suitcase filled with books! I get myself into so much trouble with all the books I take...and yes, I do have a Kindle, which still doesn't eliminate my need to still surround myself with actual, physical books. Sad, but true.

Also in preparation for my summer break, I cut over eight inches off of my hair last night. Talk about freeing! I absolutely love the new lease on life it's given me, and I'm excited to take it out for a spin this summer. People were so gracious today, and more than a few students squealed over the new cut. It's always nice to get good feedback on a drastic new look! Now it's time to look towards great things. Here are a few goals I would like to accomplish...and books make up a portion of the list.
  • Walk 10,000 steps a day, six days a week. Once I'm up to that, I'll increase it to 12,000 three times a week.
  • Switch out Diet Coke & sugary drinks like hot chocolate in the morning for Green Tea. I know that sounds weird, but it was recommended to me for health reasons, and I will say that it does make me feel better.
  • Work on my new Popular Fiction class that I'll be teaching in the fall. For this class, I'll be reading: The Help, Saving CeeCee HoneyCut, revisiting Harry Potter, and Hunger Games. (Yes, can you believe I held out this long on Hunger Games? I can't wait to read it.)
  • Finish several series I've been reading: the Blue Bloods series, the final in the Luxe series, hopefully the book to follow up Pillars of the Earth (which I could hardly put down!), Dead Tossed Waves, and pick up where I left off in the Sookie Stackhouse series. It should be a great, fun summer of series!
  • Finally, I want to read a few books that either come out on film soon, that I've yet to read, or classics I've never read and still feel embarrassed about! We'll see how that goes.
Do you have any great plans for the summer? What are you most looking forward to? Any interest in joining me in walking 10,000 steps a day? Just a thought. Hope you're having a GREAT week and would love to hear what you're all reading.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Double Review: Embroderies and Chicken With Plums by Sarjane Satrapi

Graduation day for the high school I teach at is coming soon. In fact, it's on Thursday, and this is the second year that I've known some of these students since they first came through our doors. How fun it is to watch them get all excited about the big day. Honestly, I'm always so tired by graduation, myself, that I can hardly wait for that moment after the diplomas have been handed out, which means that I'm done as well! Not only have we helped the kids reach another educational milestone (or hope we have), but are also realizing that another year has come and gone...and have survived!

In preparation for the summer, I've been trying to take full advantage of the local library before I head off. My mom's library is a little slower than mine here, so I'm trying to hurry and read a few book that I doubt I can get my hands on this summer. A couple that I've really wanted to read were the last two graphic novels written by Sarjane Satrapi. Back in March, I reviewed her first two famous graphic novels, Persepolis 1 & 2. Because of the gripping, interesting view of Iran, I was curious to read the final two novels Satrapi has written, Embroideries and Chicken With Plums.

Embroideries is an interesting, and often funny look into a group of Iranian women chattering about their lives, loves, and sexual histories. Taken from some of the characters we know from Persepolis, there is a feeling of already knowing some of the characters introduced in the story, and there is a sense of irony and satire built into the stories they tell, as the women go around the circle, bemoaning their lost loves, nagging husbands, and sexual dissatisfaction. One key theme that ran through many of the stories was that of lost virginity. I thought that the paranoia and anger, in most cases, that these women felt about their lost virginity to be an interesting theme, as modern plastic surgery has found ways of reversing virginity and making a woman appear whole again. While some of the women felt their stories of bitter love or anxiety over lost virginity to be tragic, others within the group laughed and waved away the cultural expectations placed on them, expressing how Iranian women needed to be more like "western" women. Overall, I thought the adult issues surrounding women, especially in the Iranian culture shown in the book were quite interesting to consider. Out of the two graphic novels I read this week, this was definitely my favorite of the two, if for no other reason than the camaraderie that was built between these women.

Chicken With Plums is actually quite a complicated story to put into words. In this tale, Sarjane Satrapi tells the story of a great-uncle who was a musician, who during an argument, had his tar (Iranian instrument he played) snapped in half by his wife. From the moment his instrument was destroyed, he began the search for a new one, and realized it could not be replaced, so he laid down to die. The remainder of the story examined, day by day, why he wanted to die, how he wanted to die, and when he will die. Through the days and stories that go with them, we learn more about Nassir's past, that help draw the story together in a cohesive way by the final tale. I really appreciated the narrative thread in this story, although I struggled to understand Nassir's extreme depression, even after more of his back story is revealed by the end. In all honesty, I finished the story feeling sorry for Nassir, but felt very little connection to him or his reasons for shutting everyone out of his life in his pursuit of death. It was a strange little story, with a strange connection to the title, but I'm still glad I read it as a continuation of Satrapi's other graphic novels.

As a whole, I really like was Sarjane Satrapi has done in the body of her work to reveal more about herself. I hate to say that one author represents the country of her birth, but do appreciate the inside look at one woman's life growing up in Iran, and dealing with the cultural ideologies that continue to affect her today. If you're at all interested in trying a more serious type of graphic novel, with serious cultural themes, these might be a good place to start.

If you've read either of these graphic novels, I'd love to hear your own thoughts on them!

*FTC Disclosure: This review is based off of library copies of both graphic novels.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Summer is coming, and aren't we all excited! I'm so excited to wear shorts, walk around in flip flops, sit in the warm sun, and to SLEEP. Summer becomes that time of year synonymous with rest, and I can't wait. The one downside that I've noticed is that I don't read any more than during my busy season. That, I can't figure out. You really would think that I'd spend massive amounts of time reading, but that's just not so. I tend to read a lot more during the school year. We'll see if I can change things around this summer, but...we'll see.

As I prepare for the summer, I've been thinking about the books that I want to take, and I've determined that I really MUST catch up on books I've either won, been given (ARCs), or TBRs that have been hanging around forever. I recently came up with a system for reviewing books, with a calendar and a number system for books I need to read. Thanks to that system, I recently finished a really interesting book that I won from Book Nut, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. This was a lovely signed copy, and one that I was delighted to take a little time to read.

Synopsis: Centered on the hot topic of polygamy, Ebershoff's novel takes on two narrative threads, weaving together the story of Brigham Young's "19th" wife Eliza Ann, with that of a modern day polygamist family in Southern Utah. The story begins with the murder of a modern day polygamist husband, supposedly shot by one of his several wives. The son of this wife, driven out by the prophet and community years earlier, returns to Utah to try to unravel the mystery behind his father's murder, only to determine that it couldn't have been his own mother. As this story unfolds, we learn more about polygamy in Utah as it must have been in the 1800's under Brigham Young. Using some of the story of written by one of Brigham's wives who "divorced" (if that's what it was in a marriage not recognized by the government) him and left the state, we learn more about the women who entered into polygamist marriages, and the women who married the prophet, Brigham Young. In both stories, action and mystery unfold to reveal unbelievable drama, whether occurring 200 years ago or today.

Review: Polygamy is not an easy subject to wrap one's mind around, and I can't say that I feel any better about it now than I did before. In Ebershoff's novel, you get the sense that he is trying to not necessarily explain polygamy, but to demonstrate some of the effects of the institution on those involved or around it. Although I had read several autobiographies in college of women who had lived through polygamy, and that each of their experiences had been negative, that I knew very little about how modern-day polygamy played out. Transposed with the older version of polygamy, the modern institution seemed pretty evil. By the mere fact that young boys had been cast out of the community because they were seen as a threat to the other men, felt really destructive to families and society as a whole. With this in mind, the human stories of the novel felt dramatic, and sucked me in fairly quickly.

Although the novel feels like dense reading, I got pulled into the lives of these two families and I often found myself flipping ahead in the novel to see what was going to come up next...and I never do that! Jordan is part of the modern story, and was the son of the father that was killed, and mother that they believed killed him. As he returned to St. George and Southern Utah to find out more about the murder, I felt a lot of anxiety for him. Without too much information, you get the sense that Jordan is 100% not welcome. People in the community know who he is, and he is seen as a threat to the community at large. It's an interesting idea to consider a young man (who incidentally is gay) as a threat to the adults in the community, by the mere fact of being a male. It really stands to question on what religious standpoint does one's gender seem like an okay reason to ostracize? I know that this wanders more into the arena of social engineering, and not religion, but it seems that modern-day polygamist families have built an entire belief system around the concept of family as part of an eternal salvation. Doesn't it seem backward then to "cast out" the sons you had in that very family, for whatever reason? It just had me feeling a lot of empathy for Jordan from the very beginning.

Regardless of one's feeling towards polygamy, early or modern, Ebershoff's novel felt to me like it wasn't trying to deliver a verdict, but a dramatic story. I can't say I loved The 19th Wife, because there is a discomfort factor that had me on edge a bit, but I was thoroughly engaged in this dramatic story and mystery. The novel is, however, a really good story, definitely well written and researched, and one that I would recommend to readers who want a pretty involved novel about polygamy and the myriads it has affected.

This novel counts as my 2nd in the Books I've Won Challenge at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time. Thanks again to Melissa at Book Nut for this great book-reading opportunity!

*FTC Disclosure: Book review was based off of a book won from another book blogger. No monetary rewards are coming from this review.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: "Sunrise in the West": The Brothers of Gwynedd by Edith Pargetter

As part of a re-release of Edith Pargetter's historical novel, The Brothers of Gwynedd, Sourcebooks is running a Summer Reading Program that will cover each of the four different sections of this 800 page book. Since I've only covered the first section, I thought I'd do a basic introduction of the book, and dive into some of the characters and premise that the story is built on.

Set in the British Isles, The Brothers of Gwynedd is a large-scale history and narrative of the struggle between the ruling families of Wales, against England's King Henry II. The story starts off around 1229 AD, and begins instantly with Lord David of Wales imprisoned in England. His wife and young family chose to join him, and are brought to King Henry's court. While they believed their family would be reunited, they are virtually imprisoned as well, with a story that ends in the tragic death of Lord David, and the family returning to Wales. Llewelyn became the new Prince of Wales, but is not only threatened by the English court's interest in his lands, but also in his younger brothers, who feel disconnected from their brother, and have their own ideals for their homeland.

Told from a male perspective, I soon noticed that this story was thick with history, heavy plot lines, and difficult character names. I have a real interest in history (and was literally two classes away from a double major in college), but can honestly say I knew very little about the history of Wales, nor its struggles against England. Since the novel is full of what feels like historical details, I soon realized that this was not a book for casual storytelling, and I quickly had to change my approach to reading. The reading, itself, went pretty slowly for me, and I had to get out a pen to keep track of the characters that made up this story of medieval Wales. In this opening section, it felt very important to get down the basic connection between the characters, and I have high hopes that there is much to come as the brothers fight one another and to save the very land they love.

As mentioned, there are three more sections of the story to come, so I am going to wait to see how the story rolls out to give it my full review. If you'd like to learn more about The Brothers of Gwynedd, there are a wide variety of great reviewers who have responded to this opening section. See one of the following reviewers for more information:

May 17 Reviews
The Burton Review
The Bibliophilic Book Blog
A Reader's Respite
History Undressed
Linda Banche Romance Author
A Hoyden's Look at Literature
Royal Reviews

May 18 Reviews
Between the Pages
The Broken Teepee
Books and Coffee
Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff
Passages to the Past
The Book Faery
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Martha's Bookshelf

May 19 Reviews
Beth Fish
Deb's Book Bag
Book Tumbling
A Work in Progress
Stiletto Storytime
Queen of Happy Endings

May 20 Reviews
The Literate Housewife
Reading Adventures
Books Like Breathing
Kailana's Written World
Confessions of a Muse in the Fog
Wendy's Minding Spot
Mrs. Q Book Addict
The Life and Lies of a Flying Inanimate Object
Starting Fresh

May 21 Reviews
Loving Heart Mommy
Peeking Between the Pages
Celtic Lady's Ramblings
The Book Tree
My Reading Room

May 23 Reviews
Carla Nayland's Blog

I'll be posting my review of the second section, "The Dragon at Noonday" on June 23rd. Watch for this, and other reviews by my fellow Summer Reading members.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Forever by Judy Blume

With a little extra time to read now that the year is winding down, and the headaches eased up, I have been a reading fiend! As part of the 10,000 step challenge that just finished up at work, I've been taking about an hour walk every day, and taking a book along for the ride. I can report back that after four weeks, I lost four pounds. I suppose that's right in line with the "healthy" range you should be losing at, right? That made me happy to see. Anyway, as part of that walking plan, I would take a good book along with me. Yesterday, I took Judy Blume's famously challenged novel, Forever along for the walk. This last year I read Blume's other challenged book Are You There God? It's Me Margaret (previous review at that link) and found it to be a very honest book about what teens go through during puberty. Likewise, I think that Blume's Forever takes an honest look at teen sexuality, and doesn't shy away from speaking the way a teen girl very honestly might in this situation.

I know I might get myself in a little trouble with some of my extra conservative readers with this review, but here we go. Let's consider teen sex...

Synopsis: Katherine first met Michael on New Year's Eve, when Michael leaned down to kiss another girl at the stroke of midnight. She was intrigued by this good looking senior from a neighboring high school, and was excited to learn he had picked up her phone number from a friend. The two soon started dating, and with the excitement of young love and dating, came progressive steps of intimacy. Katherine revealed to Michael she was a virgin, and not emotionally ready to have sex, which he respected (even if he pushed the boundaries a little to see if she was really serious). Over time, and with increased steps into their exploration, Katherine and Michael had sex. Although the adults in their lives seemed in the periphery, they were there, looking in with concern, and questioning the two on their relationship. Frank discussions about teen sex and pregnancy made the two sincere in their use of protection, both from STDs and pregnancy, but did little to curb their desire to be together. With graduation looming, and two colleges far from one another, Katherine and Michael had to consider if their love could keep them together, and how they might bridge that gap to keep their relationship growing. Was their love forever, and could they stay together?

Review: I realize that I'm an adult reading this short novel, and with that comes a more adult perspective on sexuality that is based on a more mature perspective (and a developed brain helps in this case). Here's the thing. I think that we, meaning adults, tend to shy away from sex in such a way that it makes teens 1) curious, and 2) ashamed. How do we expect them to come to understand sex if all we tell them is to wait, not do it, or that it's bad to do before marriage? Now, I'm not saying we should encourage "erotic play" as put forth in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (you can see my review of that novel at the link), but will say that there has to be a better way of helping teens to understand that what they are feeling is natural and normal, and that with some understanding of its influence, can be used when appropriate to the person. Since the novel is told from Katherine's perspective, and I have to say she was a pretty together teen, we get only a slight sense of the adults present in the story. Their presence seemed much more light handed, because I think that Katherine's teen voice filtered them out in her focused drive to find any way possible to be with Michael. This sounds pretty true to life to me. The "I'll die if I can't be with him" phrase feels all too familiar in teen fiction, and rings true in Forever.

Having been raised very much with the "sex is bad" motto ringing in my head as a teen, I have to say that this novel would have shocked me. I really don't think I could have read it and got anything out of it, but I do think that many more teens are rushing forward to understand more about sex, and stumbling along the way. I can't say that I would put this novel in the hands of every teen I see, but I will say that it's message about young love feels honest and real. In fact, if two teens were having sex, you would hope their experience was anywhere near as respectful as the one between Katherine and Michael. Should this book be banned? I don't really believe in banning books, but I do believe that certain books (such as Madonna's sex book), shouldn't be in a public school setting. Should this one? Yes. I don't think that Forever is necessarily glamorizing sex, trying to be titillating, or even gratuitous. Come on, I know young teen girls reaching for romance novels for that! In the case of Judy Blume's novel, leave it on the shelves, and those teens seeking out a story that reflects their own curiosity about the "what if" about their own sex lives will find it. Will it offend some teens and cause them to be even more curious? Of course. Maybe those are the teens that need someone to allow them to feel safe enough to bring up what they're curious about in the first place? In the end, sex is still an extremely taboo subject in most homes and schools. Other than glamorizing it in the media, it has little to no place in our educational process for teens (and I don't mean at school...I mean in the home). In the end, most teens won't come ask, because it's just too "weird." If that's the case, although blatantly forward in the mechanics of a young relationship, I think Blume was courageous in her novel of young love...taken to the next level.

For more information on Judy Blume's novel, see: Forever . . ..

*FTC Disclosure: Book review based off of a library copy of the novel. Also, as an associate, a very small proceed comes from purchases of the novel made from this review.

This book also counts as my 6th in the 2010 Young Adult Reading Challenge started over at J. Kaye's Book Blog, now renamed "Home Girl's Book Blog."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Catch Up

Sorry for the short hiatus. As I've mentioned before, I struggle with migraines. There seems to be that initial migraine, that sometimes moves into rebound headaches that go on for days and even weeks that can drive me crazy. This lovely migraine started on Wednesday, and by Friday I was seriously ready to scream, cry, or both! Thanks to a lot of sleep and a massage, by Saturday evening I was doing 99% better. It's not quite gone yet, but at least I can function a bit more than before!

Where does reading fit in with a serious headache? It DOESN'T. This coming week I am due to join in on a group discussion and review of section one (of four) of The Brothers of Gwynedd by Edith Pargeter. I have some serious reading to do this week to catch up!

At the beginning of the week, I also started reading O, Juliet by Robin Maxwell. This had accompanied me on my 10,000 steps a day challenge, and has been a great book so far. I didn't get very far, but am enjoying this spin on the famous story of Romeo and Juliet.

Speaking of Juliet, my friend doc came down to visit on Saturday night, and by then I was ready to get out for a bit, so we went to see Letters to Juliet. The premise of the film is based around a famous wall in Verona, Italy where people leave wishes and letters to Juliet. According to the storyline, Juliet then answers these letters, wherein comes a love story that was 50 years in the making. I will be honest. We weren't expecting much, and in fact, were prepared for mass cheesiness. In the end, it was a lot better than I thought, and I really did quite enjoy it. The film did try to explain transitions, and I bought into it and was able to escape into this cute love story.

For now, I'm looking forward to getting through the next two weeks of school. Things are wrapping up quickly and I'll be off to spend some time in Hawaii with my mother. Talk about a great prize at the end of a busy school year!

Speaking of Hawaii, I am excited to see the new film Princess Kaiulani. I honestly don't know much about it, and I'm reserving my judgment until I've seen the film, but am eager to see how they have represented the story of this young princess.

I'm eager to get back to making my rounds in the blogging world, to see what everyone is up to, and to putting in some serious time reading again! Until then, what are you reading or been doing this past week?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I debated reviewing this amazing dystopian novel or not, but determined that I HAD to give it a plug on my blog. This last month, in preparation for the AP Literature exam for my students, we read Brave New World. I distinctly remember reading it when I was in high school, and what a breath of fresh air (strangely enough) that it was after all of the classic "oldies but goodies" we had been reading. I think this might have also been the case for many of my students, as they really seemed to "dig" it, with it's in-your-face sort of satire. So, why not review it? It's been awhile since I had read it, and I have to say that I really enjoyed revisiting it with my classes.

Synopsis: Deemed a science fiction original, Aldous Huxley sets forth a future society in which happiness is the key. Humans are scientifically engineered, both genetically and psychologically, to be a part of a certain "caste" in society. Those who are set apart to work, are conditioned from their pre-natal state, through maturation, to seemingly enjoy their status, and not desire more. Alphas are the highest caste possible, and only remotely are these upper echelons allowed the opportunity to think and create in their society. Otherwise, all members of this society take Soma tablets to escape reality and be happy, listen to hypnopaedia as they sleep to condition them to not question or think, and use sex and erotic play as a normal behavior to be shared freely. In this society, humans are not to "bond" with one another, nor do they have children. Into this mix of conditioned humans are our main characters. Bernard likes to think and consider why he's different, so he avoids Soma pills, and wants to pair off with Lenina (who is a very typical female, and is therefore freaked out by Bernard's strange need to be with her, but not have sex with her). Then there is John, considered a native, and a young man who was born of a woman and raised outside of the community on a "reservation." John is obviously not like the others, and when introduced into their society, we find that this can be a volatile mix.

Our essential question then becomes, how important is it to be comfortable and happy at all times? What must be sacrificed so that all people can be happy? Do we really have to sacrifice passion and individual thought to achieve peace and balance? And...who decides what is peace and balance?

Synopsis: I forgot how much I loved this book. Just about every page of my copy of the novel was marked up with my thoughts and connections. Everything from the names used in the book (which all tie to famous communists or free-thinkers of the time), to the casual way in which sex was treated (since all passions lead to crime and unhappiness), were really interesting to think about and consider. From the beginning, I told my students that this book was not about glamorizing immorality, nor degrading reason, and that they should be looking for the satire. Luckily, they found it! The satire in the novel is embedded in the absurdities behind erotic play being encouraged for children, avoiding family connections at all costs, and packing Soma pills around so that an escape from reality was just around the corner. It is obvious that Huxley is pointing out more about how pain, love, fear, joy, hate, and happiness all go together; that essentially, we as humans have to have structure and control, to understand and enjoy beauty. Essentially, without pain, chaos, and restraint, we would be like infants, who are unable to comprehend creation in any sense.

It seems obvious that Huxley's novel is a reaction to the many political powers threatening societies across the globe. While we see the way forcing others to behave in certain ways can backfire, we also see Huxley pointing a finger at us as individuals, asking us to examine our own beliefs that affect our daily lives. Religion seems to come directly under fire in the novel, not for its ability to inspire, but for its power to direct the way people think, almost mindlessly. In essence, we can see that thought, feeling, and believing are encouraged on an individual basis, and in a way that unites us as human beings. Huxley definitely seems to be encouraging a certain morality that I find refreshing, and a message that can only be reached with an open mind and a little reason. Overall, I think this was a great text to end my school year with, and I loved the discussions we had. From my own point of view, it was a great experience re-reading this as an adult, as I found so much more to connect to than before. If you want a lot of discussion, this is the book to pick up!

If you've read Brave New World, what did you think? Do you enjoy reading dystopian novels, and why? I'd really love to hear what you think.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Review: The Last War by Ana Menedez

I can't believe the weekend is over! As always, the days flew by. Thankfully, I rested up A LOT, and feel much more prepared physically and emotionally to face these last weeks of school. The students get pretty buggy, and can sometimes turn from nice kids, into frustrated mean kids! I get why they are frustrated, and I try to roll with it, while still trying to get things accomplished. Talk about tricky at times!

Anyway, that's neither here nor there, right? Things are wrapping up quickly, and in the midst of that, I've been able to fit in some reading while walking or right before bed. About a week and a half ago, I finished reading The Last War, by Ana Menendez. It has received some mixed reviews on Amazon, so I was pretty curious about my own response. Usually I like books like this, and I can say that my instincts were right again. I actually really loved this novel.

Synopsis: Leading into the initial invasion of Iraq, Flash and her husband Brando are war photographers and journalists. Having spent time in places like India and Afghanistan, the couple were not new to conflict. As the book begins, Flash has been left behind in Istanbul, where she is living and waiting for her husband to call her to join him in the war zone. While waiting, Flash explored the city, walking the streets of Istanbul on her own. Over time, the city became another pivotal character in the novel, as the backdrop for her discoveries about herself, her marriage, and her life alone in the city. During this time Flash only heard from Brando from time to time on a satellite phone, wherein he would share traumatizing moments he witnessed. Flash soon became more distanced from her husband, and ultimately, after receiving a terrifying letter from an anonymous woman who revealed her affair with Brando, shattered whatever sense of self Flash had. How does one discuss, fix, or heal a broken relationship when each person was settled somewhere else? What, ultimately, should Flash do in response? Should she believe the accusation? Should she leave Brando and return to the United States, or should she continue on in Istanbul with her own career? Could the letter be a mistake?

Review: I was thoroughly, and utterly enthralled with The Last War from the first page or two, until the end. It didn't take long for me to realize that this was NOT a story about the Iraq war, about a war correspondent, nor a story to reveal the culture of the Middle East; rather, this novel was a human drama, played out in far-flung locations that added an extra depth to the novel.

Having spent time in Istanbul, I readily picked up on the locations and streets mentioned by Flash (as the author had spent time there as well). I could see the tram she rode, as well as the views across the Bosphorus. In a city as charming as Istanbul, there really isn't a way for the book to continue without the city being another main character in the novel, and it definitely was for Flash. The days she spent wandering, questioning her life and marriage, and facing her fears about both, were played out in a city of as much grace, charm, and wonder as you could situate a main character within.

In the end, the drama of the novel was about Flash and her husband Brando. Over time, we learn that her marriage had troubles, and we learn more about the time the two spent in Afghanistan, which left Flash somewhat traumatized. Stories of the past come in to haunt her, just as the war is in Iraq is haunting her husband Brando. The interweaving of trauma and love made for a gripping novel, and one that I absolutely couldn't wait to pick up reading each day. I really and genuinely think that Ana Menendez's novel, The Last War is a brilliant juxtaposition of the complexity of human lives to that of international conflict. While not the "war" story that some readers might have been looking for, I found the implied backdrop of the Iraq war and conflict in the Middle East to be the perfect foil for Flash's own personal issues. The novel was simply brilliant in my mind, and one that has left me thinking about and considering for days after I finished it. What more can I say than an absolutely brilliant read in my opinion.

*FTC Disclosure: This review based off of a library copy of the novel.

For more information, see: The Last War.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Review: Rumor Has It by Jill Mansell

Yes, the test is over, and my students think they did great on it. In fact, they nearly bounded into my room (for the treats probably more than anything else) to tell me how good it went. I hope that means that all is well for them. I really do.

After the test was over, I will admit to feeling like someone had let the air out of my balloon. I was completely deflated and exhausted. Once the last bell rang, I packed up my stuff, headed home, and went walking for over an hour, with book in hand. I'd been reading Rumor Has It by Jill Mansell, but obviously hadn't found the time nor energy to finish. Pushing all the anxiety of the past days aside, I finally tore through those last pages with complete delight! Ah, to be back reading again.

Synopsis: After a messy breakup, Tilly Cole chooses a new life in small town Roxborough, to not only be closer to her best friend Erin, but also to experience a slower-paced life. Tilly moves in with Max Dineen and his daughter Lou, who are in need of someone to manage the house, cook meals, pick Lou up from school, and to be an assistant to Max in his interior design business. Tilly seems to fall readily into this role, ready to forget men and any bad experiences she's had with them. That is, until she met Max's friend and business associate, Jack. Although he's considered the town ladies' man, Tilly does find herself attracted to him, but refuses to allow him near her because of the rumors she has heard about his prowess. Jack is so nice, put together, and flat out attractive though, that Tilly continually finds herself questioning why or how she can push him aside.

Review: I really can't say enough how much I enjoyed reading this wonderful book. As a fan of Meg Cabot's adult books, and Sophie Kinsella's stand alone novels, I felt like I'd found a book that was reminiscent of the type of "chick lit" that allowed the main character to be strong, yet emotionally open. Tilly was a sweet character that only annoyed me in her resistance to Jack, who really manages to warm the heart. Jack isn't the regular Lothario that you're eager to hate; he's actually much more complex and filled with surprising depths of kindness and generosity. I think that I fell in love with Jack!

The other thing I really enjoyed about Mansell's novel was the number of other characters involved in the story. Sometimes I feel as if a writer needs to fill space and keep you reading, so they introduce a number of characters to get your attention. In this case, they each felt important and lovely in connection with the story as a whole. I loved Tilly's best friend Erin, and wanted to see her happy. Max was also a lovely character, with a wonderful back story to add depth to the novel. Altogether, I really loved each of the characters, and was almost sad to see the book end!

Overall, I give Rumor Has It a high two thumb's up. I loved the escape factor of the story, and the sweet love story that unfolded. As mentioned, if you're at all a fan of Cabot or Kinsella, then I can readily and happily recommend this novel as another fun addition to the genre.

*FTC Disclosure: Book provided for review by Sourcebooks, Inc.

For more information, see: Rumor Has It.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Test Time...Again!

Tomorrow is the big day for my AP Literature students to take their exam. I have several book reviews to write, and even several good books I'd simply like to read, but can't. I'll settle for some time watching a good movie! I'm so nervous, yet feel good about what my students and I have studied together over this past year. We'll see how it goes, but I'm ready to get this whole thing over with so I can breathe again!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Setting...Does It Matter to You?

I know I don't post discussions as often as I used to, mainly because I've been too caught up in my in-class discussions to consider them here. However, the other day as I drove home from work, I found myself thinking about the books I had on hold and a trend I see popping up lately...setting. I think that many of us as readers enjoy certain genres and authors, so maybe we also tend to look for reading material in certain settings as well?

This past week I finished reading The Last War by Ana Menendez (review coming), and I haven't been able to shake Istanbul out of my head. Several years ago, I had a chance to travel there with my good friend Doc, and it really impacted the way I look at the world. It's an amazing city, filled with history and contemporary charm alike. There just seems to be this "vibe" that you get from a location that resonates with you, and for me, Istanbul still lingers with me. Having said that, I have a few more books that I'm in the process of reading to get a bit more of an Istanbul "fix" for the moment. These are the ones that I already own, and have started.

Two years ago, I also read The Virgin's Knot by Holly Payne. It's not set in Istanbul, but it is set in Turkey. It was an amazing read, and one that I still cherish.

I know that Orhan Pamuk writes books set in Istanbul and Turkey, but I'm also looking for other great books and novels set in Istanbul. Here are a few I've run down.

Along this line, I found a couple of novels that are set close to this region, that look really good. Although they are not set in Istanbul or Turkey, they come highly recommended, and have also caught my attention. The first is set in Cairo, and the second in the Palestine/Beirut region. Both look like very engaging stories.

In a sense, I think I'm finding myself attracted to regions, themes, and peoples that come from the region of Turkey and the Middle East. I realize this is a popular region for many readers, thanks to the political climate of our world, and the importance of many of these countries on our world stage. In essence, I wish I could escape to these places, to explore and learn more about the people; I want to hear and know their wishes and desires, and to understand why. Thankfully, since my wallet is limited in the bills I would need to travel to these places, I have books to help me cover the distance.

How about in your own reading? What settings are you attracted to? Mine shifts and changes, but are you interested in a particular region that keeps you coming back for more?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Film Review: Afghan Star & Burma VJ

Last year when I went to visit my mother for the summer, she had upgraded her cable package to include HBO. Part of her package included this delightful thing called HBO on Demand. By the end of the summer, we looked at the record of what we'd watched, and I had watched twice as many documentaries as anything else. I could hardly believe it. Why did I not know this about myself? Who knew? I'm a documentary fiend!

Well, in the craziness of the past two weeks at school, I've managed to watch a handful of documentaries that really left an impression on me. I had to mention two that I think really helped me to understand more about our global society and regions of the world that I've wanted to understand better.

Afghan Star was an interesting and delightful documentary about Afghanistan's version of American Idol. The significance of the competition was that it not only brought together competitors from various social groups that had been separated under Taliban rule, but it opened up a type of democracy wherein the nation's people had a chance to vote (often by cell phone) for the performer of their choice. Under the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan had their TVs taken away, along with the banning of music and dance. Now, through this televised program, music brought together a nation hungry for unity, and a celebration of their identity as a country.

Through the documentary, you become familiar with the different performers, and the lives they lead. Some were from ethnic groups once derided by the general population, but cheered and loved by the nation for their amazing talents. Two women also participated in the competition, breaking strictures placed on women under Taliban rule, however, controversy brewed over the way the women portrayed themselves as they performed. If respectful, the audience supported and loved them. If not, the controversy brewed. Overall, I found this documentary delightful and enlightening. There is this hopefulness felt throughout the film that really warmed my heart and gave me hope for Afghanistan's future. It's funny how culture, when allowed to flourish, can change the hearts of the people much faster than any propaganda or warfare. No, it's not a permanent change, but at least offers some joy and hope in a region that has had very little. You can learn more about the documentary at their website at Afghan Star, as well as on Amazon at: Afghan Star.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country was another amazing documentary I had the chance to watch off of HBO. According to the film, much of what we get in news reports comes from a group of undercover citizens known as the DVB, who operate by using small camcorders that they upload through the Internet or smuggle out of the country. After a 1988 uprising that left over 3,000 protesters dead, the citizens of Burma had settled into lives led in fear of a militarized government that had embedded spies and "thugs" out to silence anyone who spoke out against the government in any way. Limiting the information the people received through the media, the DVB risked life and security to record protesting and other forms of resistance going on in Burma.

After setting up the basis for the documentary, it shows the events that occurred throughout September of 2007, that led to the death of a Japanese journalist, as well as scores of Buddhist monks, and the imprisonment of hundreds of student and citizen protesters. In the beginning, when the monks chose to march in support of the oppression being felt by the people, it spurred on the courage of the general population who had previously been too afraid to make any sort of move. According to the culture, violence against monks was unheard of, and this helped the citizens to feel some comfort in their own uprising. Eventually though, as the protesting rose into the thousands, the military turned their violence on the monks, rounding them up to take them to prison, as well as forming night raids to round up and imprison monks.

This documentary was absolutely eye opening. As a winner of multiple film festivals last year, and as an Academy Award nominated documentary, you sense that the documentary has much to offer its viewers. This was absolutely true in the case of Burma VJ. I often think of myself as pretty well-informed. I watch the news, I read articles for myself, and I try to stay on top of world events (not just local). For me, this documentary caught me unaware and eager to learn more about Burma, as I understood so little about the region. Of course now I understand why I understand so little, as news reporters are not allowed into Burma, and much of the "smuggled" news has been cut off since 2007-2008. Honestly, I find the militarized fear spread by this government to be shocking, and wish there was more that I could do. I do recognize though that the first, and most important step is to be informed, and then to pass that information on to others. So, to that, I say that you should definitely check out this documentary to learn more! To read more about the documentary, see their film website at Burma VJ or can be pre-ordered here from Amazon: Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country.

I really love documentaries and the gaps in information they fill. Have you seen any great documentaries that you can recommend?

Well, I'm off to take a walk, in my attempt to get my 10,000 steps in today! Wish me luck in this crazy walking journey.