Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World

Title: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
Description: Amadeo has always wanted to discover something that no one knew about. When his new friend William invites him to help prep Mrs. Zender’s house for an estate sale, this might be his chance. 
Review source: ALA
Plot: Amadeo’s friendship with William, his acquaintance with Mrs. Zender, Amadeo’s godfather Peter Vanderwaal, Amadeo’s family—all of these elements weave together to make a story with remarkable depth.
Writing style: Like many others, I was in love with From theMixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a girl. Now as I read this book as an adult, I saw many of the same themes recur. What makes good art? What is our responsibility toward art? How does the past influence the present? While this book doesn’t have the same siren song (stow away in a museum!), it was thought-provoking and wise.
Audience: Written for YA. Still worth a read.

Wrap-up: This is a fitting last work for a towering figure in children’s lit. She passed away this year at 83, but she hadn’t lost her touch. 4/5*

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: Above All Things

Author: Tanis Rideout
Title: Above All Things
Description: Novelized account of the explorer George Mallory and his wife Ruth as George begins his third attempt on Mount Everest in the 1920’s.  
Review source: This was a book group book.
Plot: Rideout is fairly limited with the plot, since she follows the historical account closely.
Characters: When an author’s hands are tied in terms of plot, the reader expects a lot from characterization, and here Rideout doesn’t disappoint. She gives us a sense both of what it was like for Ruth to be left at home with three small children and for George, who had failed twice and was determined to succeed on the third attempt.
Writing style: The novel alternates between Ruth’s and George’s story, though George’s spans months, and Ruth’s is basically one long day as she waits for news.  This creates a nice effect, as we experience the sense with Ruth that time drags and that every day is the same, while for George, time is the one thing he doesn’t have; when the monsoon hits, the window of opportunity will close.
Audience: This is literary fiction, but readers of historical fiction and those who enjoy accounts of adventure should also like this book.
Wrap-up: There’s a different experience in reading a book when you already know how it will end. The journey is even more important, and Rideout more than meets expectations here. 5/5*.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: Making Waves

Author: Lorna Seilstad
Title: Making Waves
Description: In 1895, there aren’t many options for women, and Marguerite Westing is chafing under the constrictions of her life. She wants to learn to sail, she wants to study astronomy, and she doesn’t want to marry the insufferable man her mother has picked out. The entire family spends the summer at a lake camp where Marguerite meets Trip Andrews. Trip shares her Christian faith and helps Marguerite and her brother with some family issues, and attraction blossoms between the two of them.  
Review source: It was free for Kindle.
Plot: There are several different plot threads here, and they are woven together nicely.
Characters: Marguerite is spoiled and self-centered, and has a tendency to lie when she opens her mouth, but she’s not too unpleasant. Trip is a more attractive character, but he tends to be harsh when he discovers Marguerite’s mistakes.
Audience: It’s a Christian romance.

Wrap-up: The book was pleasant and an engaging read. 3/5*

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Chasing Chaos

Author: Jessica Alexander

Title: Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and out of Humanitarian Aid
Description: Alexander’s memoir details her adventures in aid programs in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Haiti, and Indonesia.
Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Writing style: Alexander is a gifted writer, combining anecdotes from her experiences and descriptions of some of the conditions she has worked in with commentary on the aid industry.
Audience: Anyone with an interest in international aid would enjoy it.
Major ideas: This book was really thought provoking. Probably many of us have hoped to make a difference internationally, but Alexander shows how difficult the job really is, even for those with many years of training. Sometimes those with very good intentions do more harm than good, but Alexander is generally understanding rather than cynical.

Wrap-up: I have nothing bad to say about this book. It was always interesting, and it taught me a lot about humanitarian aid. 4/5*

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos
Title: Dead End in Norvelt
Description: Jack Gantos is having a bummer of a summer. His parents seem to be conspiring to get him into trouble, and he ends up grounded. The only time he can leave the house is to go help old Miss Volker write obituaries of all of the town’s original citizens.  
Review source: ALA
Plot: Norvelt is a planned town that’s dying as its earliest residents die. Based on the values of Eleanor Roosevelt, the inhabitants are dealing with society in the sixties: the Cold War, generation gaps, and the scary Hell’s Angels who keep coming around. Jack and Miss Volker are in the middle of it all.
Characters: Part way through I realized that the main character’s name was the same as the author’s. The blurb on the cover tells us that it’s part memoir, part anything but.
Writing style: First person narration from preteen Jack makes for a lively story.
Audience: Obviously, it’s a YA book, but it was a fun read.

Wrap-up: I’m not sure which parts of this are fictionalized (well, maybe I can guess), but the story is pretty seamless. A very nicely written book that might appeal to adults just as much as it does to kids. 3.5/5*

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: Forgotten

Author: Cat Patrick
Title: Forgotten
Description: High school junior London remembers backward. Every day at 4:33 a.m. she forgets the previous day (and therefore all of her past), but she “remembers” what will happen in the future—except for the day she is living in. She has to take notes  to remember what happened at school, fights, and so on. Then she starts having a “memory” of a funeral, but whose funeral is it?
Review source: ALA
Plot: I thought  the conceit here was really interesting, and the author pulled it off well. I couldn’t really find any points where she messed up, and it would have been really tricky to juggle all those details.
Characters: London is a spunky teen who has learned to adapt to her situation and is determined to solve the mystery that appears in her “memory.” Patrick develops London’s key relationships very well, even as London has to try to figure out what she might have done the previous day to affect that person’s attitude toward her.
Writing style: The story develops steadily with new information released gradually. It’s a book about relationships as well as about what may have happened—or may be going to happen.
Audience: This is a YA book, but I think anyone would like it.

Wrap-up: I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it as a quick and interesting read. 4/5*

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Marquis' Secret

Title: The Marquis’ Secret
Description: This is the sequel to The Fisherman’s Lady. Both books are Bethany House republications of George MacDonald words that have been altered to tone down the Scottish dialect. In this book, Malcolm attempts to dissuade his newly discovered sister from a disastrous marriage and he may be falling in love himself.  
Plot: I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book. The plot in this book is more intricate and less gothic than the first book, and I enjoyed it more.
Characters: Malcolm, as in the first book, is a bit too good to be true. MacDonald uses him as an example of a Christian man, but no Christian man is this perfect (I know, I live with one who is pretty close). I don’t think in either of the two books that Malcolm makes a single false move.
Writing style: A lot of Scottish dialect still, but it’s not difficult to read. This kind of overtly didactic (some would say preachy) tone is out of style now, but I did enjoy the book.
Audience: MacDonald’s fantasy novels were an inspiration for C.S. Lewis, which is why a lot of people pick them up (Princess and the Goblin, Princess and Curdie, etc.). Fans of historical Christian fiction would also probably like it.

Wrap-up: I’d definitely recommend reading the first one before reading this one, or you’ll be confused about a lot of the plot and earlier character development. I thought this book was the better of the two, and I enjoyed reading this version (as opposed to the original, which I haven’t seen, but I’m not crazy about trying to figure out dialect). 4/5*

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Duolingo

Another way that I spent my time this summer was reviewing my Spanish. I have this desire to be fluent in it, and though I seriously doubt that I’ll ever achieve that, I keep trying. The latest way I’ve been working on it is through a free website called Duolingo. I have to admit that I’ve become pretty hooked on it. There are several other languages available (Italian, German), but I haven’t tried them. So what I’m writing is probably true of all of these languages, but I can only guarantee that it’s true for Spanish. There are achievement levels to reach (I think I’m currently at level 10), and as usual, they become more and more difficult to reach the higher you get. You earn points in several ways. At first, it’s by doing lessons on various aspects of the language (verbs, words about time, colors, people, etc.). Each unit has from 3-10 lessons; once you have successfully accomplished all of the lessons, you unlock the next unit. If you’ve had the language before, each unit gives a chance to pass out of it by successfully completing a quiz. For all of the lessons, you get four mistakes; if you miss three questions, you can still complete the lesson, but on your fourth miss, you have to begin again.

Another way to earn points is to review. If your skills in a certain area start to slip, you’ll see some white area in your completion bar, rather than seeing it fully filled in. You can go back and review any area and get points for each question you get right. These reviews are timed, so you can add an element of quick thinking if you desire (you can choose not to have them timed).

After you’ve reached some milestone (I’m not sure if it’s a number of units completed or a level), Duolingo starts to tell you that you can read a certain percentage of articles published in Spanish (starts out around 30%). You then have the option of being taken to an article and seeing how other students have translated it. You get points for voting on the translation (good or bad) or for editing it. Eventually you start to see some articles that have sentences in lighter type. These are untranslated sentences, and you get to have the first chance to translate them. These are worth quite a few points.

I have found this to be the best online language tool I’ve tried (including Rosetta Stone). There is an option to include speaking in the questions (you have to hook up a mike), but I haven’t tried it. The other question types are transcribing a sentence or phrase, translating from Spanish, and translating into Spanish. Highly recommended! 5/5*

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Where Shadows Dance

Author: C.S. Harris
Title: Where Shadows Dance (Sebastian St. Cyr)
Description: Set in Regency era England, this book piles more murders on than most mysteries. Beginning with a young man who supposedly dies of a heart attack, people related to the case start dropping left and right in spite of Sebastian’s best efforts.  
Review source: Either ALA or RWA, I forget
Plot: The plot was more engaging early in the book when it was more plausible. As the deaths started to mount up, things seemed to get wildly out of hand. I lost count of all the dead bodies by the end of the book.
Characters: This was my first Sebastian St. Cyr and I really enjoyed the style and historical period. Sebastian was an engaging protagonist, as was his assistant Hero Jarvis.
Writing style: I really enjoyed Harris’ style. I love historical fiction when it shows evidence of thorough research and has lots of period details, and this book delivers. Harris has a Ph.D. in history and it shows.
Audience: The book appears to have been marketed as romantic suspense, but I’d call it more like straight mystery. There is not much romance involved here (though Sebastian and Hero did have a personal relationship).

Wrap-up: You’ll see more reviews from this series in the future. I highly recommend for those who enjoy historical mystery series. 4/5*

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: America, the Story of Us

Author: Kevin Baker

Title: America, the Story of us: An Illustrated History
Description: Published by the History Channel, this book is filled with beautiful color illustrations (probably about half text and half pictures). It gives a pretty standard and surface-y history (in about 400 pages, that’s all you can do).
Source: ALA
Writing style: Documentary but interesting.
Audience: Adults (or maybe advanced high schoolers).

Wrap-up: I read this one bits at a time and it was pretty interesting, but I think it would get a bit monotonous if devoured in gulps (not a page turner). Worth taking a look for the pictures, though. 3/5*

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review: Harvesting the Heart

Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: Harvesting the Heart
Description: At heart, this is a book about a marriage. We see Nick and Paige from the moment they meet through their dating and birth of their son Max. Paige’s mother left her and disappeared when Paige was five, and Paige later had an abortion, so when she faces motherhood herself, she lacks a role model and she is filled with guilt about her earlier child. Nicholas is a promising young cardiac surgeon who is pretty sure that his job is much more difficult than Paige’s.  
Review source: Still reading the Penguins.
Plot: The plot is centered on relationships: marriage, parents, and children. In other words, it’s character-driven.
Characters: Almost all of the characters in the book are sympathetic without coming across as artificially perfect. Paige’s mother, though, was a difficult character to buy. The depth of selfishness that would cause a mother to leave a five year old child is impossible for me to imagine.
Writing style: This is the first Picoult book for me; I know she has lots of fans. For me, the style was pretty overwrought. I guess the story of a normal marriage wouldn’t be much of a story. (Of course, I could argue that the best authors can make the story of a normal marriage tell a fascinating story.)
Audience: It’s women’s lit.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book and was rooting for Nick and Paige to overcome their problems. But I don’t think I’m emotionally strong enough to read more of Jodi Picoult’s books. 3/5*

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review: The Giver

Author: Lois Lowry

Title: The Giver
Description: This is another book that I feel like I’m the last person in the world to read. If there is someone who hasn’t read it, though, it’s a Newbery Prize-winning (i.e. YA) book about a boy named Jonas who lives in a society where everything is well-regulated. Babies are born to birthmothers, then placed with families; every family gets one boy and one girl. When they are twelve, children are given their life’s calling, but Jonas’ doesn’t get what he expects on that day.  
Plot: For a YA book, the plot’s nicely done. That is, it’s not as complex as I’d expect in an adult book, but it works.
Characters: The two main characters are Jonas and the Giver; both are beautifully written.
Writing style: Lyrical, yet spare. I had lots of mental pictures as I read this book. And I was fascinated by the setup of the society. I would have loved to read more about it.
Audience: Anyone from about twelve and up.

Wrap-up: I shouldn’t have waited so long to read this one. I would have loved it as a kid (and I’m pretty sure it was around then, or pretty close). As it is, I still liked it very much. 5/5*