Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Jason Walker has often wished his life could be a bit less predictable--until a routine day at the zoo ends with Jason suddenly transporting from the hippo tank to a place unlike anything he's ever seen. In the past, the people of Lyrian welcomed visitors from the Beyond, but attitudes have changed since the wizard emperor Maldor rose to power. The brave resistors who opposed the emperor have been bought off or broken, leaving a realm where fear and suspicion prevail.

In his search for a way home, Jason meets Rachel, who was also mysteriously drawn to Lyrian from our world. With the help of a few scattered rebels, Jason and Rachel become entangled in a quest to piece together the word of power that can destroy the emperor, and learn that their best hope to find a way home will be to save this world without heroes."

Review:  A quest doesn't begin to describe the journey that goes on in this book.  This is definitely a story that takes you through  the ringer.  Jason is just this kid, who is bizarrely transported to this new world where suspicion and fear reign.  To some degree I was taken off guard by the level of danger and fear that this young boy had to face.  Okay, so there are some big name heroes who faced big, scary challenges in a story, but that's hard to remember when you're watching this boy hide away from some evil characters.

There is a lot of adventure built into this first book in the Beyonders series.  I liked the idea of Jason and his friend Rachel searching out a mysterious word, piece by piece throughout the story.  I'm a word person, so of course I loved that concept.  Some of what happens over the course of the book takes it all to another level with this evil wizard Maldor, who scares everyone into complying with his rule. 

I'll be honest.  I got lost in the story.  I'm not always good with fantasy stories where I have to think about what something might look like or even what's going on.  Had I read it straight through in one sitting, I might have followed Jason's adventure better.  There was just so much going on, that I often had to try to get the context and keep plowing ahead.  I've finally figured out that it's just me though.  All that action is really appealing to the teens that I teach, so I think it's evidence of my own inability to imagine!  Yes.  I'm admitting that one.  There is a lot going on in this story, with more to come.  If you are looking for a journey-tale that is packed full of action, mystery, and adventure, then this story fits the bill.  Brandon Mull is a really good writer, so I think that with the right catch, you can dive in and enjoy.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review is based on a personal copy of the novel.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Blatherings--Memorial Day Edition

Happy Memorial Day to those of you here in the U.S.  For some reason I woke up yesterday, feeling a bit nostalgic.  I have many happy memories of family get-togethers, barbecues, and cemetery visits.  We have several members of our family who have served in the military.  My mother's father--Grandpa "C"--served in WWII, landing on Normandy in the fourth wave, who is still alive and hanging in there to this day.  I love him desperately and am glad my mom got the chance to fly out to see him and the family in Ohio.  His conversations about WWII are very matter of fact, which is interesting when I consider all he probably saw.

My mom's brother--Uncle "C"-- then served in Vietnam, although his experience going to war was vastly different from my grandfather's honor-filled return.  My uncle came home to people disrespecting the servicemen for serving in a war they didn't believe in.  He told us once that he quickly removed his uniform in that long-forgotten San Francisco airport, put on his civilian clothes, and never looked back.  He has rarely talked about his service, and prefers we not ask too many questions.  The last time I went out to visit, he had a stack of slides and pictures from the war that he was sorting through.  We couldn't really ask him many questions, but the painful beauty of the country that he captured, left behind a gripping bitter-sweet testimony to what he must carry in his own memory.  We know that he saw things from his tank that he has never forgotten, since he had PTSD for decades after.  When I read the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, I have often thought of my amazing Uncle "C", who is such an intensely proud and hard-working man.

I know that neither my grandfather nor my uncle read my blog, but I wanted to give them a big thank you--along with all of our servicemen--for all they have done for our country and for me.

Well, on another note, I've made a goal to try to rejuvenate my blogging--writing and reading.  Things have been tough here and I've kept it quiet, for the most part.  I've had a bit of health news that has had me pretty down--nothing life-threatening, but definitely life-changing.  We're still in the middle of tests, and I'm dragging my feet out of some strange desire to keep my head in the sand a little longer.  On top of that, our school district is no longer going to pay all of our insurance premiums.  Now I know that they paid them all is almost of unheard of anymore, but for someone like myself who seems to repeatedly get kicked in the gut with health scares, it has been discouraging.  I'm not going to be stupid enough to not pay out for good insurance coverage, so I'm gearing up to pay top price to keep my current insurance!

Let me not end this blog's blathering (which I'm truly fulfilling today) without ending on a positive note!  My best friend made it here from Michigan and we've been having a great time together.  She loves to read every bit as much as I do, so we've spent some time curled up on opposite ends of my large sectional, reading on our iPads.  She's been reading Tom Clancy's latest novel while I've been trying to finish Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  I promised a group of students in my Popular Lit. class that I would try to finish it this weekend.  I'm getting close! 

Besides reading like crazy, we've been eating ourselves into a food coma and I'm going to have to redouble my efforts to diet away all of these extra calories!  It's been a super relaxing weekend though and I have many things to be thankful for.  My TBR and current reading list have once again grown too big to handle, so I'm hoping with school ending I can snatch a little extra time to read.  Yay for no more essays to grade for a couple of months! 

So, how is your weekend?  What are you reading or watching at the moment?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Finishing a School Year & Fan-Girling

Today I have to give a huge shout out and thank you to author Brodi Ashton for coming to our high school to speak to some students about publishing and her great new book, Everneath.  She did an amazing job and the students loved it.  These were a great group of students who had read 20 or more books this last semester (four months).  We had a really good turn out, lots of success with the reading challenge, and Brodi was a great reward!  If I can get my hands on some of the pictures from the event today, I'll be sure to share.

Now to the finish line!  It's the end of the school year and I'm trying to muscle through that last stack of projects and late, later, and mega-later work that keeps trickling in.  Every year I feel like I have to kick in the turbo boosters to fuel through these last few days.  This year is no different.  It's all good though.

And on one final note.  My fan-girl moment came to an end tonight on Dancing With the Stars and the finale.  Yep.  I'll own it.  I don't even watch the show that often, but I did this season thanks to hottie William Levy.  I'll always have his Argentine Tango...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Oatmeal Cookies

Coming up for Memorial Day weekend, my bff is coming out for a wedding, to rent out her old apartment, and to see me!  In preparation, I'm doing a little cooking and cleaning.  The thing about my friend Monica is that she LOVES homemade cooking whenever she can get it.  I could tell you stories about her bad cooking, so she begs and pleads for "down home" food whenever she is around.  I am proud to say though that she is dabbling with cooking and has figured out a few recipes for herself.

Since I can't exactly cook meals a week in advance--well, I could, but I don't want to freeze them--I'm making oatmeal cookies today.  These cookies are genius, and they freeze really well.  You can whip up a batch, throw them in a freezer bag, and pull them out for that yummy cookie fix at any time.  I know she loves her mom's oatmeal cookies and I probably can't compare, but I do have a great recipe that will fit the bill!

Back before I finished getting my degree, I had to take a couple of years off to work so I could get insurance.  It's a long story, so I won't bore you with it, but I did have to take a break from college to work.  During that time I worked in our local hospital in admitting, insurance, and PBX--front desk.  I met an amazing group of friends who I had a really great time with at that point in my life.  My friend Heather is the one I credit for these cookies.  She was an amazing cook and these oatmeal cookies prove it!  My picture of the batch I whipped up today doesn't really do them justice. 

I've made a few heart-healthy adjustments and added flax meal and things like whole wheat flour and replaced 1/2 of the butter with applesauce.  I mainly just stick with adding 2 tbsp. of flax meal to the normal recipe, and it turns out great.

Heather's Oatmeal Cookies

1 c. Shortening or Butter
2 Eggs
1 c. White Sugar
1 c. Brown Sugar
1 1/2 c. Flour
2 tsp. Soda
1/2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Vanilla (Use really good quality, if possible.)
3 c. Oatmeal  (Not quick cooking.)
1/4 c. Walnuts or Pecans, chopped  (optional)

Cream the shortening, sugars, eggs, & vanilla together.  Add in all the dry ingredients until incorporated.  Mix in the oatmeal at the very end.  Drop by small spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.

Now, let's hope that Monica enjoys these cookies!  How can she not?  Well, that's my weekend cooking for now.  How's that for simple, yummy, and straight-forward?  I'm pretty sure they'll be a nice hit.

*For more weekend cooking, go to Beth Fish Reads.  You'll find all sorts of great food-related posts and recipes!  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Film Review: Albert Nobbs (2011)

Albert Nobbs is based on a short story by Irish novelist George Moore.  In the story, Albert is actually a woman who has chosen to pose as a man.  As such, Albert opens the film by working as a hotel waiter, which he has done for almost his entire life at Morrison's hotel.  With the passage of time, Albert obviously wishes for a different life, one where he can own his own business and have his own family. 

From this we get a complicated story that was quietly played out over the course of the film.  We watch as Albert tries to figure out how to make his dreams come, and we are left wondering why and how Albert could play out this charade for so long.

In a strange Upstairs, Downstairs meets an Irish Downton Abbey, Albert Nobbs takes the viewer through a complex set of issues that really boil down to the desperation of lives lived in silence and hiding.  This was a film that made you question a lot of things, but answer very few of them.  Some of the ways the film sets up the story lead us to believe, quite early on, that perhaps Albert isn't a woman desperate to care for herself in a man's world, but is actually a person confused about their gender and identity.  With that in mind, the film gets more and more complex.  And maybe it shouldn't, but it does.  In the end, it feels as though Albert should just be able to find peace and truth somewhere.

Personally, I really appreciated the thought that went into this film.  This is a "thinking man's film," as I like to call them, which means that it tackles some gritty, complex issues.  In my opinion, the subtly in Albert that others found creepy, was not creepy, but more unsure.  Albert was a character that was so simple in his desire for love and acceptance, yet so fearful of it, that I couldn't help but feel sympathy for him.  He really chooses to spend a life letting no one in. 

In short, if you're not into art house style films, this might not be a good fit for you.  For me, it was an interesting and thought-provoking film that tugged at the proverbial heartstrings.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Weird as it is working for the International Paranormal Containment Agency, Evie’s always thought of herself as normal. Sure, her best friend is a mermaid, her ex-boyfriend is a faerie, she's falling for a shape-shifter, and she's the only person who can see through paranormals' glamours, but still. Normal.

Only now paranormals are dying, and Evie's dreams are filled with haunting voices and mysterious prophecies. She soon realizes that there may be a link between her abilities and the sudden rash of deaths. Not only that, but she may very well be at the center of a dark faerie prophecy promising destruction to all paranormal creatures.

So much for normal."

Review:  What can I say other than this one was a charmer.  I'm a bit burned out by paranormal and dystopian novels, but I'm sure glad I gave this one a chance.  Evie is the kind of heroine that I could get behind.  She is funny, snarky, and real.  Between her quick whit and charm, Evie is just a fun character to watch try to figure out the world she lives in.  Evie knows she has special powers, which is why she goes out to work for the agency, but it isn't until she meets a shape-shifting, see-through (literally) cute guy--you know, because she has powers and can really see him.  Of course this teen hero needs a cute boy to like, and yet in the meantime she has to figure out some pretty deep stuff about who she really is and where she fits in.

Yep.  I liked this one.  Just when you think you're burning out on a type of story, a good writer sweeps in to make it their own.  Honestly, I think that's what Kiersten White has done with the paranormal category.  Somehow the story has a familiar feel to it, but with a new energy.  Obviously, I really enjoyed Paranormalcy and will be passing it along to other readers.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: To Dance With Kings by Rosalind Laker

I really loved reading this book and hated to say goodbye to it.  Now I need another epic read to grab my attention again!

Synopsis:  Spanning 1664 and the court of King Louis XIV to the fall of Marie Antoinette and the entire royal court at Versailles, To Dance With Kings is an epic story of a family of mothers and daughters that cross the generations.  From the depths of poverty to the heights of court intrigue, we follow the lives of these women through the ups and downs of love and family to the tragic end of Versailles and the grandeur they once knew.

Review:  As far as epic stories go, this story of Versailles at its height of glory was such a great read.  Starting with Versailles as nothing more than a hunting lodge, being built and expanded, we come to be attached with the first daughter, Marguerite.  Her life unfolds with love and tragedy, followed by her child and so forth.  Each generation has its own challenges, loves, and back stories, so each new story just adds more to an already engaged storyline. 

I really loved the long, epic sweep of this story.  With Versailles and the royal court playing out in the background, the story has this amazing historical element to it that is its own character.  If escaping to another time period is one reason we read books like this, then this story really allows you to escape into the glory days of one of the richest royal courts in history.  We get to enter the Hall of Mirrors, traipse through the gardens, and visit Paris.  What's not to love?  In the meantime, there are love stories and families and tragedy.  Honestly, this epic tale has a little bit of it all. 

Rosalind Laker's writing has a slightly old fashioned feel to it, but captures generations of characters in a way that you genuinely care about each one of them.  These main characters are not sugar coated and do have their  flaws, which makes their ups and downs feel real and even more engaging.  By the end, I hoped for their happiness and well being into the future--which is why I wish we had a follow up to this novel! 

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Does anyone know where my motivation and drive have taken off to?  I swear I've lost it somewhere and I don't think it's coming back!  This has been a crazy school year and I'm eager to get the year wrapped up.  Somehow I need to make my work burn out not translate to my blog, because I'm still reading all the time, but just can't muster up energy for anything outside of the basics.  Time to get with it!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all."

Review:  I'm going through some major Hawaii withdrawals since my mother moved back to the mainland, so I was eager to pick up a book that would put me  back into Hawaii and its issues.  Hawaiian issues and tension surrounding statehood was something I was pretty unfamiliar with until I spent a chunk of time there.  How does an island paradise retain its cultural integrity while welcoming outsiders?  Does it have any choice?  In Vowell's book, there is an interesting overview of Hawaii's colonizing history.  Everyone from missionaries to militarys found Hawaii to be the perfect, fruitful field.  The opportunities in the island were too many to pass up, and the location in the Pacific made it an ideal home base for a variety of groups.  It quickly becomes obvious that as with most colonization, this was about money and power.

One thing I liked about Vowell's history-heavy narration of the development of modern-day Hawaii was her personal and sometimes snarky modern perspective behind the history of the islands.  It's not as though these tensions are foreign to the people of Hawaii, at least from my experience.  In the few years that my mother lived in Hawaii, we had many conversations--from day one--about the love and hate, give and take relationship that native Hawaiians have with outsiders and tourists.  There is money to be gained from Hawaii's exploitation, and yet there is sorrow each time another step is lost in its preservation.  

Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed the reading experience I had with Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes.  Having read Jamaica Kincaid's enlightening book A Small Place (on the beaches of Hawaii, ironically enough), I began to realize how complex the issues are that surround the consumption of these beautiful places.  Told from a more historical perspective, Unfamiliar Fishes is a great read and an approachable way to learn more about the complicated history of our 50th state.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the book.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: Possession by Elana Johnson

I think I've entered the phase known as "catch up" time where it comes to reviews.  Thanks to our recent readathon and a bit of a reading jag from being sick so much, I really have read quite a bit and pulled ahead in my Goodreads challenge for myself.  Finally!  As part of this catch up, I needed to get my review posted for Elana Johnson's novel Possession.

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Vi knows the Rule: Girls don't walk with boys, and they never even think about kissing them. But no one makes Vi want to break the Rules more than Zenn...and since the Thinkers have chosen him as Vi's future match, how much trouble can one kiss cause? The Thinkers may have brainwashed the rest of the population, but Vi is determined to think for herself.

But the Thinkers are unusually persuasive, and they're set on convincing Vi to become one of them...starting by brainwashing Zenn. Vi can't leave Zenn in the Thinkers' hands, but she's wary of joining the rebellion, especially since that means teaming up with Jag. Jag is egotistical, charismatic, and dangerous--everything Zenn's not. Vi can't quite trust Jag and can't quite resist him, but she also can't give up on Zenn.

This is a game of control or be controlled. And Vi has no choice but to play."

Review:  Admittedly I try to give books an honest approach where I find positives and negatives, but I think I just wasn't the right audience for this dystopian, futuristic young adult novel.  Vi is a girl that is both supposed to be strong and vulnerable, to maker her a well-rounded character.  She is strong in the sense that she goes against mindless control of her society and those around her, yet on the flip side, she is pretty driven by teenage angst.  Most of that angst is centered around Zenn and Jag, the two boys who make her head spin and her heart flutter.  On both counts, I struggled a bit.  I didn't always get it and wondered what I was missing.

There is a lot of story going on in Possession that I think teen readers might really like.  I'm not sure that I was the right audience though, especially when it came to the teen romance, which I'm usually fine with.  In this case, some of the interactions between the characters felt creepy and like the couple that you see all over one another and wonder if they even really like one another or are just going with what's available.  It just all felt off to me, with all the constant touching and romantic lingo.   

Beyond my own adult response (which isn't normally so jaded-sounding), I do think there is a lot of great action and suspense to grab readers.  Some of the action is thrown at us a bit quickly, without explaining it all, but if you enjoy dystopian novels and understand these story lines, this really might fit the bill.  Follow up novels are out and hopefully answer the cliffhanger that this book ended on.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Review: Les Belles Souers by Michel Tremblay

I had the good fortune to have a book blogger give me this play as a Santa exchange.  It has taken me a little time to get to it, but I'm so glad I finally got to it. 

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Germaine Lauzon has won a million trading stamps from a department store. Her head swimming with dreams of refurbishing and redecorating her working-class home from top to bottom with catalogue selections ranging from new kitchen appliances to 'real Chinese paintings on velvet' she invites fourteen of her friends and relatives in the neighbourhood over to help her paste the stamps into booklets.

Raucous, reckless and rude, the women shamelessly share their most secret hopes and fears, complain stridently about their friends and relatives, fantasize wistfully about escaping the misogynist drudgery of their lives and surreptitiously tuck most of the stamps into their purses and clothing, self-righteously appropriating what they consider to be Germaine’s 'illegitimate' good fortune."

Review:  Billed as representing French-speaking Quebec, with their own working-class culture being stamped on the play, I really was quite intrigued.  I can't say that I've read anything that was said to represent that culture, nor do I know much about it.  In short, this was a pleasure to branch out and give a go.

Germaine seems like an image of a 1950's housewife, with her desire to redecorate her home and do it all on the trading stamps she won from the local department store.  I suppose that I imposed my own cultural image on the play, as I pictured my own grandmothers and their green stamp coupon books.  In fact, I would bet that we could find a half-filled book or two stashed in boxes or somewhere in their homes.  Those stamps offered a payback to their loyal customers, and my grandmothers kept their own stash.

The one thing that I found interesting about this play, however, was the way that Tremblay gave a wider snapshot of these working-class women and their little neighborhood through the captured scene around the table as they filled books with stamps.  When one or another made a little dig or put on airs above their peers, that's when the passive-aggressive claws came out.  In the airs they put on, you could see the truths they were hiding of regret, misfortune, and unmet desires.  You had to feel for all of the characters.  And really, how cruel was it to ask these women to help her, Germaine, to fill all her coupon books with her mass winnings.  Of course they would be jealous and catty.

This was a fun, quick, and interesting little play.  It is deceptively light on the surface, with plenty of depth to keep you thinking.  If you haven't read a play in awhile, I definitely recommend you give this one a try.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the play.