Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review: Growing up Amish

Author: Ira Wagler
Title: Growing up Amish
Description (source): One fateful starless night, 17-year-old Ira Wagler got up at 2 AM, left a scribbled note under his pillow, packed all of his earthly belongings into in a little black duffel bag, and walked away from his home in the Amish settlement of Bloomfield, Iowa. Now, in this heartwarming memoir, Ira paints a vivid portrait of Amish life—from his childhood days on the family farm, his Rumspringa rite of passage at age 16, to his ultimate decision to leave the Amish Church for good at age 26. Growing Up Amish is the true story of one man’s quest to discover who he is and where he belongs. Readers will laugh, cry, and be inspired by this charming yet poignant coming of age story set amidst the backdrop of one of the most enigmatic cultures in America today—the Old Order Amish. (Marketing Copy)
ARC source: Netgalley
Writing style: Wagler does a good job of combining the big picture with single incidents that illustrate his points. The narrative kept my interest throughout, moving along quickly enough that it doesn’t get bogged down.
Audience: The book should appeal to fans of Amish fiction; I think most of them are women, and this book, written as it is from an Amish man’s point of view, gives another side of the picture. It will also appeal to anyone who enjoys reading memoirs. I grew up in Amish country, so I was more interested in this topic than many people would be, but I did not “laugh, cry, and get inspired” as the marketing copy promised.
Major ideas: Wegler keeps to the point throughout, which is his ambivalence about the Amish lifestyle. He describes both the appeal and the downside of being Amish; if there was a drawback here, it would be that he seems at a remove from his younger self—almost as if we are looking down at him rather than inhabiting him. I imagine the young Ira was very confused, so maybe that is a good thing.
Wrap-up: I liked this book. I found myself wondering what choice Ira would ultimately make, and how he would find his place in the world, since he didn’t seem to fit in either the Amish or the “English” culture. 3.5/5*

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: Unfinished Business

Author: Lee Kravitz
Title: Unfinished Business: One Man’s Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things
Description (source): After losing his job, Lee Kravitz—a man who had always worked too hard and too much—took stock of his life and decided to spend an entire year making amends and reconnecting with the people and parts of himself he had neglected. (cover)
ARC source: Library Thing
Writing style: Kravitz knows how to tell a good story, and I like the format of the book: an introductory chapter, followed by a chapter on each of the matters of unfinished business he needed to tend to.  The book got a little repetitive toward the end, as Kravitz reminds the reader several times what he’s doing and why. It’s almost as if the chapters were being published separately, so each one has a little back story.
Audience: People who like memoirs/quests; that would be me.
Major ideas: The idea and its execution are the strongest part of this book. Everyone has regrets, and the idea of going back to see what happened or to try to make amends is something everyone can relate to. I’ll bet everyone who reads this book starts to wonder, “If I had written this book, who would be the stars of my story?” Kravitz includes some stories from readers—his own quest did start others thinking. He has a blog that continues the story.
Wrap-up: I enjoyed the book very much and I know I’ll think about it frequently over the next few weeks. It’s definitely worth a read. 4/5*

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Book Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

Author: Maureen Johnson
Title: 13 Little Blue Envelopes
Description (source):
Here’s the deal: Aunt Peg, the New York artist and the person Ginny Blackstone depended on to make her life interesting, took off to Europe without a word three years ago. Aside from a few postcards, Ginny hasn’t heard much. Then she gets a horrible phone call that changes everything.
But the story is only beginning. Soon after, Ginny receives one little blue envelope from Aunt Peg containing a thousand dollars and some very strange instructions…
And with that, she is sent off to pick up a package containing twelve similar envelopes, which she can open one by one, as instructed. Each letter contains a task that Ginny must perform.
Soon, the mild-mannered and quiet Ginny (who’s barely made it out of New Jersey before) finds herself running from London to Paris to Rome, and beyond. Along the way, she collects a number of new friends, including: a manager from Harrods department store who runs errands for the rich and famous, a handsome but maddening thief-turned-playwright, a celebrity painter who tattoos the names of her dead pets on her body, and the angriest vegetable salesman in all of France.
As time goes on, Ginny realizes that her aunt has sent her on a mission, and that there is something big waiting for her in the thirteenth envelope. All she has to do is make it from place to place and complete all of the tasks that have been set before her. (Author’s website)

Review source: I didn’t get this as an ARC. It was a free kindle book.

Plot: I picked this up on an evening that I was feeling glum and wanted to read something light and fun. A couple of hours later, I finished it, and ended my day feeling much better. That’s why I love to read! The plot was just right—a little romance, a little mystery, and lots of fun.

Characters: Again, Johnson did a great job. The main character, Ginny, is a good combination of innocent and wise. I also enjoyed the secondary characters, Keith, Richard, and especially the Knapps!

Writing style: This is a YA book, and written well as such. I really enjoyed the writing style and always wondered what would be in each envelope.

Audience: As I mentioned, this is a YA book, written for girls (chicklet lit?). That said, I loved the book; it was sort of a puzzle book, and I spent the time trying to get to sleep last night imagining what I might have done in Ginny’s place.

Wrap-up: This book is like a teen Mixed Up Files. It’s just realistic enough to make you think that just maybe, you could pull this off like they did in the book—in this case, traveling to Europe with nothing more than a bank card (not yours!) and a backpack. Sort of a dangerous fantasy, but fine as long as you remember that it’s a fantasy. I loved it, read it in a couple of hours, and immediately put the sequel on my to-read list. 4/5*

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: The Pastor's Wife (not to be confused with The Preacher's Wife, a Whitney Houston movie)

Author: Jennifer Allee

Title: The Pastor’s Wife

Description (source): Maura Sullivan never intended to set foot in Granger, Ohio, again. But when circumstances force her to return, she must face all the disappointments she tried so hard to leave behind: a husband who ignored her, a congregation she couldn’t please, and a God who took away everything she ever loved.

     Nick Shepherd thought he had put the past behind him, until the day his estranged wife walked back into town. Intending only to help Maura through her crisis of faith, Nick finds his feelings for her never died. Now, he must admit the mistakes he made, how he hurt his wife, and find a way to give and receive forgiveness.

     As God works in both of their lives, Nick and Maura start to believe they can repair their broken relationship and reunite as man and wife. But Maura has one more secret to tell Nick before they can move forward. It’s what ultimately drove her to leave him six years earlier, and the one thing that can destroy the fragile trust they’ve built. (Amazon)

Review source: This was a free Kindle book from Amazon, not an ARC.

Plot: I think the plot was pretty relevant. It’s fairly common for pastors to be overcommitted to their jobs or to expect their wives to feel exactly the same calling that they do. When kids marry so young (I see it in my job every day), they often haven’t talked these issues out; the couple in the book met in March, married in June, and split up before Thanksgiving.

Characters: The main characters were both likeable and flawed, and both had some growing to do over the course of the story. Secondary characters weren’t remarkable—I don’t see a book for any of them.

Writing style: The author’s writing style is easygoing, light, pleasant, certainly competent. Not remarkable.

Audience: Christian romance fans will really enjoy this book. I can’t really imagine why anyone else would want to read it.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed the book, and it was a quick and pleasant read. The story took a dark turn, which seemed jarring, since until that point it had been pretty cozily rustic—but the characters needed to deal with that type of situation before their relationship would be resolved, so I could see why the author took the story that direction. I think a more skilled author might have made the transition less jarring. Overall, though, a nice way to spend an afternoon. 3.5/5*

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Book Review: Only the Good Spy Young

Author: Ally Carter
Title: Only the Good Spy Young
Description (source):  When Cammie Morgan enrolled at the Gallagher Academy, she knew she was preparing for the dangerous life of a spy. What she didn’t know was that the serious, real-life danger would start during her junior year of high school. But that’s exactly what happened two months ago when Cammie faced off against an ancient terrorist organization dead set on kidnapping her.

Now the danger follows her everywhere, and even Cammie “The Chameleon” can’t hide.  When a terrifying encounter in London reveals that one of her most-trusted allies is actually a rogue double-agent, Cammie no longer knows if she can trust her classmates, her teachers—or even her own heart.

 In this fourth installment of the New York Times best-selling series, the Gallagher Girls must hack, spy, steal, and lie their way to the they go searching for answers, recognizing that the key to Cammie’s future may lie deep in the past. (product description)

Review source: RWA

Plot: This book is the fourth in a series, but that didn’t mean that I was lost – it’s a great standalone read as well (although I am now awaiting the next book in the series quite fiercely). The plot both advanced the overall series story line and had a self-contained episode, so there was a bit of closure, even with the cliffhanger ending.

Characters: All of the characters were well-written. Both main and secondary characters are believable, likeable (if they are supposed to be), and interesting. The love story is age-appropriate yet emotionally affecting.

Writing style: This was my first book by Ally Carter, and I have to say she is a whiz-bang writer. Funny, great at pacing, and keeps the tone just right throughout.

Audience: SLJ lists it as grades 6-10, and I’d say that’s right on, although I really enjoyed it and would venture to say that adults picking up the book would like it if they gave it a chance. Genre-wise, it’s mostly spy thriller, but with some romance, so girls would like it better than boys would.  Also, the cover is pink.

Wrap-up: I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did, but it shows the difference between a true YA author (like Carter) and an adult author trying to write YA (like the Sherrilyn Kenyon novel Infinity that I just finished). I’m going to be waiting to see how the series finishes up! 4.5/5*

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: Woman in White

Author: Wilkie Collins
Title: The Woman in White
Description (source): Who is the mysterious woman in white who appears to the drawing instructor late one night? From whom is she fleeing? How is she connected with the woman the drawing instructor loves but cannot marry? And above all, what is up with the mysterious Count Fosco?
Review source: This was a free kindle book because it’s in the public domain.
Plot: The book was a little difficult to get started in, but once the woman in white appears, only a few pages in, things start to move quickly. There are some fairly unbelievable coincidences, but that’s what makes fiction fun.
Characters: The book is narrated by Walter Hartright, a drawing instructor. He and the “good guys” (his students Laura and Marion) are pretty tame, but I loved the villains, especially Count Fosco, who keeps mice and songbirds.
Writing style: Collins has been compared with Dickens, so definitely 19th-century diction—we would call it wordy, maybe, if it were published today. I did find myself getting impatient with it a few times, but mostly the plot really kept the down arrow pushing (modern equivalent of pages turning).
Audience: People who aren’t afraid of the classics. Collins shares with Poe the title of being one of the first authors of detective fiction, and while this isn’t exactly within the mystery genre (more like gothic), there is an element of detection in it.
Wrap-up: This was a long book, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and couldn’t stand to put it down for long. I would definitely recommend it, especially if you haven’t yet discovered Wilkie Collins. 4.5/5*

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Book Review: The Peach Keeper

Author: Sarah Addison Allen 
Title: The Peach Keeper
Description: Two young women and their grandmothers are caught up in the echoes of the past as secrets hidden for decades are revealed and change their lives. Allen uses magical realism in the same dialect as Alice Hoffman; romance, friendship, and everyday life all have a way of working out as the characters confront themselves and their families’ past.
Plot: Basically an intergenerational story in which the past affects the present even more than most people realize. There were some echoes of Practical Magic (which I read not too long ago).
Characters: I liked both of the main characters, Willa, who tries to make up for her past mistakes by living the “right” kind of life, and Paxton, who controls her life by making lists. Both are engaging, but flawed; they are likeable in spite of their flaws, and through the book they learn some truths about their choices.
Writing style: I think this is the reason I keep coming back to Sarah Addison Allen. She has a wonderful, engaging magical realism style that I just love. The magical realism was less of a plot point in this book than in any of her previous titles, but it didn’t hurt the story any.
Audience: Basically, I am her audience. That is, I read anything she reads, because I just love the way she writes. So, romance with magical realism and small town life are the ingredients of Allen’s books. She reminds me a lot of Alice Hoffman, but I like Allen better.
Wrap-up: Her previous book was a bit of a letdown for me, but The Peach Keepers shows Allen is back in form. 4.5/5*