Friday, March 21, 2014

Those Trees! Those Trees! (Those Truffula Trees!)

Every March at my kids' school the kindergarten classes have their annual Dr. Seuss book report parade. The students all make posters, or costumes, or other props to represent their books, and they have a parade through the front office. And trust me when I say that it's just as adorable as it sounds.

This year it was my daughter's turn, and when the assignment came home she immediately said, with a very excited smile, "I want to do The Lorax! Can we make some truffula trees?!" Of course when your six-year-old asks if you can help her make truffula trees, you kind of have to say yes. So to the craft store we went.

 And as we wondered around the store, inspiration struck. (Several times, actually.) The plan and the supplies evolved a few times, but we finally came up with a winner.

For the trees: pencils, black paint, yellow ribbon, and feather ornaments. (I had planned to make tissue paper flowers for the tufts, but just happened across these feather things, and they were perfect.)

My daughter loves to paint, so this was her favorite part.

Of course we needed something to hold the trees. So for the base: a plain flower pot, green paint, and a styrofoam insert. (Bonus for me - all of the supplies were fairly inexpensive.)

More painting. (With such concentration!)

And of course we're very proud of our work.

When everything was dry, I helped wrap and glue the ribbon on the pencils.

And used a Sharpie to write the famous quote from the book onto the base.

And with a little bit of hot glue to attache the tufts, we had our truffula trees!

Of course after we were done, we decided that the trees needed to be growing in the grass, and my daughter thought that there should really be some brown barbaloots playing under the trees. So back to the store we went for some shredded paper and chocolate Teddy Grahams. But the extra trip turned out to be totally worth it, because it just made the whole thing that much cuter.

And the end result was one happy little girl and her truffula trees.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Beatrice Prior lives in a post-apocalyptic society in which people are divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent.) Each faction has their own set of beliefs about what led to the breakdown of society, and has created their own manifestos according what they felt would most benefit people as they moved forward.

When they reach 16, each person is given an aptitude test to help them determine which faction they should belong to. (And while the aptitude test is not a completely necessary part of the process, because each person is free to choose their faction, the testing process does serve to set-up future plot devices.)

While most people's test results show a clear indication of faction aptitude, Beatrice is different. She is labeled Divergent - a person who could equally belong in multiple factions. This label complicates things, of course. Not only can she not discuss it with anyone (or risk great harm, or even death) it also makes her decision that much more difficult.

Being forced to make a choice, she decides to leave her family and her Abnegation upbringing behind and join the Dauntless, a faction that both fascinates and frightens her. What follows is a grueling initiation process in which Beatrice (who now goes by Tris, which she feels is more fitting) must completely reevaluate her beliefs about people and society, all while undergoing intensive combat training and learning to face her deepest fears.

I have to admit that while I love dystopian literature, I resisted this one at first because of all the hype that surrounded it. (I've never been a fan of the overly-hyped trends. Ask my mom. I was the only one of my friends that never wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid.) And I also tend to resist books that come with a "now a major motion picture" label. I can't really explain that one - it just turns me off for some reason.

But my curiosity finally got the better of me, so I decided to give it a shot. And oh... my... goodness. I was hooked! I instantly got sucked into the story, and quickly found myself getting invested in the characters and wanting to know what happened to them. Rather than using manipulative tricks (like Dan Brown's mini-cliffhanger at the end of each chapter) Roth simply created a compelling story that kept me reading. (And reading. And reading.) Seriously. Finishing nearly 500 pages in just over 24 hours kind of illustrates what a page-turner it was for me.

While I highly recommend this book (and can't wait to read the rest of the series) I know not everyone has felt the same way. There are people who say that the plot is too formulaic, or that there are too many plot holes, or that the entire premise is ridiculous. To that, I say:

1) Every genre has a formula, and almost everything ever written will in some way follow it. That's just the way things work. I think we have to learn to get past it, or our reading options are going to be very limited.

2) There are usually plot holes. Authors can't explain everything, and sometimes we just have to fill it in. Or (especially in the case of dystopian novels) sometimes we just have to suspend disbelief and let things go in order to enjoy the story for what it is.

And 3) We're free to agree or disagree with the author's take on the "what if" question of a post-apocalyptic world. But once again, we kind of have to enjoy the story for what it is. Sure, I doubt that society will develop into the factions that Roth imagines. But her story is still an interesting look at human nature, and what a possible future might look like.

Just one more thing (because I said before that I don't like it when authors are super-specific about their settings, and now I have to amend that.) This story is set in Chicago, and does make use of several well-known landmarks. But rather than including a useless series of "I turned left on Third Street and went three blocks before turning right" this story made much better use of specific geography.

Because I have been to many of the settings (like Navy Pier, Millennium Park, and the Sears Tower) I was able to get a better picture of what was happening. (And even if you haven't been to Chicago, the landmarks are fairly well-known, so there's a good chance that you are familiar enough with them to get by.) Most people have at least seen pictures of the giant bean, right?

And if you made it all the way through this ridiculously long review... congratulations! I hope it made you want to go out and pick up a copy of the book.

Have you already read it? What did you think? Please feel free to agree or disagree with my assessment as you see fit. I always value divergent opinions.

See what I did there? ;)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Harvard Professor and world-renowned symbologist Robert Langdon (of Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code fame) is off on another adventure.  This time the mystery, set in Washington D.C., involves ancient Freemason secrets, cutting-edge noetic science, an oddly tattooed villain, and high-ranking CIA officials.

Like other Dan Brown novels, this one is very fast-paced, and makes great use of the mini cliff hanger at almost every turn. (It's a brilliant way to manipulate the reader into sitting for hours, reading chapter after chapter, trying to get to the reveal.) After almost every chapter I was left shouting something to the effect of "What?!" As in, what did he see? What was on the video? What did she tell him? It was all about the never-ending questions.

Unfortunately - semi-spoiler alert - only some of the questions ever actually get answered. And when they do, it's spectacularly anti-climactic. There was one of the "surprises" that I actually didn't see coming, and it was kind of interesting when it was finally revealed. Otherwise, most of the eventual answers left me saying "meh."

A lot of people like to bash Dan Brown as a terrible writer. And sure, perhaps he isn't the best writer of our generation. But personally I really enjoy his books. I like that he's cryptic. I like that he throws in a lot of complicated symbology that may or may not be based at all in reality (but it doesn't matter because it's entertaining.) I like that he uses enough things that are based in reality (the Freemasons are a real organization, noetic science is a real thing, etc.) that it almost makes you want to suspend disbelief and consider that what he's saying could be feasible.

But mostly I like his books because they're a nice temporary diversion from reality. Not every book we read has to be a brilliant work of art. Sometimes we just need a quick, fun jaunt through imagination land. And his books easily provide that. Nothing epic. Nothing groundbreaking. Nothing worth getting worked up over. Just fun entertainment.

I think one of my fellow Goodreads users said it best in this incredibly succinct review:

Don't expect it to be a great work of art. But do expect it to be a page-turner.

Monday, March 3, 2014

February Reading Challenge Update

As you may recall from my previous post, I have decided to take part in the 2014 Reading Challenge through Goodreads. I set a conservative goal of reading 26 books this year, and so far I'm doing great. This month I read four more books, which puts me at 31% of my goal, and I'm now four books ahead of schedule.

Here are this month's reads:

Innocence, by Dean Koontz

Addison lives in seclusion, a complete outcast who must hide his existence from the world or risk great physical harm, or even death. Then one night he meets Gwyneth, another outcast who lives completely apart from society. Within a very short time they fall deeply in love, fight to save innocent lives from the evils that would harm them, and survive world-altering events. If that sounds vague, that's because the whole book kind of is. It isn't until the last few chapters that much of anything is actually (kind of) explained.

I've been a Dean Koontz fan for a very long time, and I've read almost all of his books. I know a lot of people really loved this one - there are plenty of glowing reviews out there - but personally I was pretty disappointed. The incredibly non-specific "I can't let anyone see me or they'll instantly want to kill me" thing that Addison repeated over and over (and over and over and over) just ended up grating on my nerves.

When the secret was finally revealed at the end I found it mildly interesting, but not nearly enough to make up for all of the previous annoyance. I also found the whole book incredibly slow, and not at all compelling. (I had it on a three week loan from the cloud library, and it took me almost the entire three weeks to finish it.)

I know that some people like to get upset when somebody doesn't like a book that they loved, and say that "you just didn't understand its brilliance" or some such thing. I did get it. I just didn't really care for it. Please don't be offended if you're one of the people who loved it. We all have different taste, and that's okay.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

She may not know exactly how much time she has left, but Hazel does know that her cancer is terminal. She still goes about her routine, being cared for by her incredibly supportive and loving parents, attending community college classes as she is able, and begrudgingly attending a Cancer Kid Support Group (because her mother thinks it will be good for her.) It turns out her mother is right, because it is at a group meeting that she meets Augustus. And while both of their lives may be destined to be cut short, they both can rejoice in having found love.

I know I mentioned last month that I almost instantly fell in love with John Green. And as much as I loved Looking for Alaska, this one was even better. The character development was outstanding (as Green always seems to do so well) as was the compelling plot. The characters are smart, and funny, and very likable.

I loved the dynamics of each relationship - between Hazel and Augustus, between the teens and their parents (and each other's parents), and several others along the journey. I loved that Hazel and Augustus's relationship wasn't perfect, and didn't turn out like I had expected it to. I loved that Hazel is obsessed with her favorite book, and simply has to know what became of the characters. And I loved how much it bothered her that scrambled eggs are relegated to being "breakfast food." (You can have sausage or bacon at any time, but you add scrambled eggs and suddenly it's breakfast.)

This a beautiful (if heart-wrenching) story, wonderfully told. I highly recommend it.

Accidents & Incidents, by Riley Graham

After reading Miss Riki's review and author interview, I was compelled to read this book. That tends to happen a lot when I read her blog, but I don't mind. :)

While dealing with her overly critical mother, Leslie is also trying to navigate a complicated, teen-angst-filled social life. Her boyfriend never quite treats her the way she deserves to be treated, and his best friend suddenly begins to aggressively flirt with her at the same time that she is becoming closer friends with his girlfriend. Plus there's the new guy, who seems to understand Leslie in a way that nobody else does.

As a fan of young adult novels, I really enjoyed this book. The only drawback for me was the initial lack of clues about the relationship between Leslie and her mother. I found myself really wanting more of an explanation about why things were so strained between them, and what it was that her mother always seemed to be taking out on her. Eventually the clues do come, and it all makes perfect sense. I just would have liked to be able to figure things out a little sooner (mostly so I could be a little more understanding toward the mother, and not dislike her for so long.)

This book is not for everyone - you really have to like teen drama. But if you do, I recommend giving this one a try.

On a related note, not only do I like Riley Graham as an author (and look forward to seeing more from her), she also seems like a really nice person. After connecting with her on Facebook, she ended up sending me a free copy of the Accidents & Incidents e-book, which I thought was incredibly thoughtful of her. (I love authors who are down-to-earth, and appreciate their fans.) If you'd like to connect with Riley on Facebook, you can find her page here.

Hounded, by Kevin Hearne

Our hero, handsome and witty Atticus O'Sullivan, is an occult bookseller near the Arizona State campus in Tempe, Arizona. But while his friends and customers think he is a relatively normal 21-year-old, he actually closer to 2100 years old, not to mention that he is also a shape-shifter, and the last surviving Druid. His world is full of vampires, warewolves, witches, and Celtic gods, all set against the urban backdrop of Tempe, and the surrounding desert.

I have to admit that it took me several chapters to really get into the story. But because this book had been recommended by several friends, I stuck with it (and in the end I was really glad I did.) There were two main reasons that I had a hard time getting into it, and neither was anything that was really "wrong" with the book - they're both just personal preference things.

The first was that I never really care for it when authors so liberally sprinkle foreign words into their work. If a book is written in English, I want it to be in English. I don't like to have to take the time to stop and use context clues to figure out what the word means, or try to figure out how to pronounce it. In this case it made sense (we're talking about an ancient Druid and a bunch of Celtic gods) but it still slowed things down for me for a while.

The second thing that I've never cared for is when authors are super-specific about their setting. Because all it does is make people who know the area say "Hey! I know where that is!" And for people who don't know the area it makes no difference at all. (I actually live not far from where this book was set, but I still didn't care about the specifics.) I don't really care if the character's favorite restaurant is on the northwest corner of Mill Avenue and University Drive. And I don't care that he took a right on Roosevelt when he headed home. For me, it just doesn't add anything to the story (and kind of detracts from the pace.)

But like I said, those are just personal preference things. It took me maybe a third of the book to get used to them, and then I was fine. And by about halfway through I had a hard time putting the book down, and ended up playing the "one-more-chapter" game into the wee hours of the morning. I have a feeling that I'll end up reading the rest of the series.

Sorry for the incredibly long post. I think in future months I will have to do each review individually as I finish the book so that I don't end up throwing so much at you all at once. We'll see how that goes.

And as always, if you have an recommendations please feel free to share them. My reading list keeps growing, but that's fine with me.