Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

This second book in the series picks up right where Divergent left off. Following the horrifically violent events that the factions just went through, everyone can see that a war is inevitable, and they are all but forced to choose a side.

Some will escape their factions because they disagree with the prevalent attitudes. Some will defect to a new faction out of misguided beliefs (or a simple lust for power.) The factionless will suddenly have more of a voice and a place in society.

And while everyone's beliefs and way of life are changing and being increasingly tested, so is the relationship between Tris and Tobias. Part of me liked the way that they developed as characters, and how those developments made their relationship evolve. But part of me was irritated by it, wasn't always able to accept Tris's decisions.

Once again Roth left us with a fairly shocking cliffhanger, which of course left me with a fairly strong desire to rush out and find out what happens next. But it also left me with a bit of an emotional hangover, so I'm going to have to wait a little while (and read something a little lighter for the palate cleansing effect) before I can come back and finish the series.

For me, this book was slightly slower to get into than the first one. (It took me almost a week to read, rather than just over a day.) But I still really enjoyed it, and the payoff was totally worth it.

Book Review: Aspen by Rebekah Crane

Born under a tree at an outdoor music festival, to a teenage mother who didn't even know she was pregnant, Aspen Yellow-Sunrise Taylor could be expected to have had a somewhat less than typical childhood. But as she begins her senior year of high school, it isn't her irresponsible (yet somehow always well-meaning) mother that is causing most of her life's current complications.

After a devastating car accident that left her with a broken leg, and tragically cut short the life of her popular classmate Katelyn, Aspen is wracked with guilt. To make matters worse, and ensure that she can't get past the guilt, she is also being haunted by Katelyn's ghost.

Tumultuous emotions continue when Aspen discovers that the recent tragedy has somehow increased her popularity at school. Is it because people feel sorry for her and want to try to make or feel better, or because they're just really noticing her for the first time?

And things are complicated even further when Aspen is suddenly befriended by Katelyn's best friend, and begins to develop a close relationship with Ben, Katelyn's boyfriend at the time of her death. By way of their very nature, both relationships are complicated and confusing at first. But both happen so naturally (and never once seem at all contrived) that their development seems perfectly suited to the characters.

I completely and totally loved this book. As much as I enjoyed Playing Nice, Crane's first novel, this one completely blew it away. Her writing style is developing beautifully, and I can't wait for her next book. (And the next one, and the next one.) This one instantly sucked me in, and I absolutely devoured it. (Seriously. I neglected just about everything else in my life for a whole day just so I could finish it.)

Crane has an uncanny ability for writing YA fiction, with completely believable characters, incredibly realistic dialogue, and stories that kind of put you through the emotional wringer. If you're a YA fan, you should absolutely add this to your reading list.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: The Dragonslayers, Volume One by Matthew Maynard

Scott Phillipson's life changes dramatically when his parents are suddenly murdered in a drug raid gone wrong. (Wrong not only because the trigger-happy police officers overreacted, but also because they shouldn't have been there in the first place. A clerical error sent the raid to the wrong house.)

While the government drags its feet on the subject of taking responsibility and making amends for the wrongful deaths, Scott struggles to make ends meet. And when his pizza delivery job puts him in a position to become a courier for the local arm of a drug cartel, it's an opportunity that he can hardly pass up.

The legal vs. moral question in the war on drugs (particularly when it comes to marijuana) gets even more complicated when Scott connects with Dr. Romano, an oncologist who has recently discovered that a medical treatment derived from the marijuana plant might actually be able to extend her patient's life.

Regardless of any logical arguments that Scott may have for being involved with drugs, he cannot escape the fact that it is an incredibly dangerous business. Pursued on one side by a drug cartel, and on the other side by the relentless (and somewhat less than ethical) Officer Cavanaugh, he is kept on his toes - and often running for his life.

This is Maynard's first novel, in a genre that he has dubbed "liberty fiction," and I think it was an excellent debut. It is fairly fast-paced and has plenty of gripping action to keep the story going, but there are enough other elements to the story that it is more than just a typical action/thriller. There are traces of love story, and medical drama, and just a bit of a stab at religious hypocrisy, all mixed with a brutally critical look at the world of law enforcement and the war on drugs.

The only problem I had with the book was that it took me a little while before I could keep the multiple story lines sorted out. All of the characters were introduced within their separate stories before eventually all coming together and revealing how everything fit into place. This is a common literary technique, and there was nothing that the author necessarily did wrong. For me, this format just sometimes seems a little jumpy, and makes me work harder to keep up.

Other than that minor personal-preference issue, this was a great book, and I'm definitely looking forward to the rest of the series.

Book Review: Stuart Little by E.B. White

Mr. and Mrs. Little's youngest son Stuart is born surprisingly small, and rather mouse-like. But they love him just the same, and choose to overlook (and never reference) his appearance.

This loosely-woven story tells of Stuarts mishaps (like getting stuck in a rolled up window shade) and adventures (like sailing a toy ship out on the lake.) Eventually he befriends an injured bird, and when she suddenly disappears he sets off to find her. More mishaps and adventures follow, right up until the abrupt ending.

My kids and I read Charlotte's Web together last year, and we all really loved it. When I came across this one by the same author, I couldn't really remember if I had read it as a kid. But I figured we could give it a try, and see if Stuart was on the level with Charlotte. Sadly, he was not.

It kind of seems like people either love this book or hate it. And while I wouldn't necessarily say I hated it (because that's a bit strong of a word) I definitely didn't like it. My kids got a kick out of a couple of the sillier scenes, but they absolutely did not like the ending. (Leaving it up to the reader to speculate about the outcome is okay in an adult or young-adult novel, but not a children's book.)

I didn't freak out too much about the premise, like some people have. Sure, a mouse being born to human parents is weird, but in fantasy fiction anything can happen, so I can get past that. What bothered me more was the lack of a real story line (or even any really compelling elements, for that matter.) Nothing about the book seemed to fit together, or have much of a purpose.

Obviously, I don't recommend this book (even for the younger readers in your life.) If you want an E.B. White classic, go for Charlotte's Web instead.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mind-blowing Information

My daughter and I joined my son for lunch in the school cafeteria yesterday. As a reward for the school's great attendance during the recent state testing, the administration had hired a DJ to entertain the kids during lunch, and he was excited for us to share in the fun.

The kids were all having a great time listening to the music. It was fairly loud, as I had expected, and most of the music was kid-oriented, which I also expected. But it was cute watching the kids enjoy themselves, so it was all good.

Before we were done, the DJ (for some reason) played "Footloose." Of course none of the kids were at all familiar with it, or cared at all about it. But anyone who is old enough to appreciate eighties music like I do just can't help but love that song. Before I knew it, I was singing and bopping along with the music, much to the amusement of the second graders around me.

One of the boys asked me where that song came from, and I told them it was from a really old movie called Footloose. He just kind of shrugged, obviously dismissing it as an "old people movie." Then I did a quick calculation, and realized how long ago that movie was made. I know I'm dating myself here, but I asked the kids "can you believe that I was in kindergarten when this song came out?"

Jaws dropped, and the looks I got were priceless. For an eight-year-old mind, the thought of an old lady like me being in kindergarten is apparently just to much to process. :)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

Deza Malone lives with her family in Gary, Indiana during the incredibly difficult days of the Great Depression. But despite the turbulence that they are living through, her family remains incredibly close and affectionate, and never loses the optimism that gets them through it all.

Geared toward a younger audience, Curtis tackles issues of poverty and race relations in a way that is gentle enough for kids, but honest enough to be thought provoking. He also elicits a wide range of emotional responses, from the nearly laugh-out-loud funny to the miserably painful.

This was a quick read, and for the most part I enjoyed it. (Yes, even though it's aimed at the younger crowd, there is still enough of a story for the adults.) The main problem I had with the story was the lack of continuity. While the main story arc is about the family's struggle during the Great Depression, there are so many other subplots that just don't pan out, and it made me wonder why they were even there. Things that were laid out like huge, important events that were sure to have a lasting impact on Deza's life were forgotten in the next chapter and never mentioned again. It just struck me as odd.

The thing that kept me reading, despite the continuity problems, was the interaction between the family members. They each had their issues, and the family as a whole had more than its share of problems. But they genuinely cared for each other, and did everything they could to lift each other up. That, for me, made the story worthwhile.

Book Review: The 21-Day Sugar Detox by Diane Sanfilippo

This was an impulse buy, because I saw it on the book table at Costco and I was curious. It turned out to be an interesting (and very quick) read.

In the first section of the book, Sanfilippo starts with a little bit of her personal background, and her struggle with sugar addiction. She then goes through the different types of sugars that we encounter daily, and explains what these sugars do to our bodies, and why it's a good idea to lower our intake of unhealthy foods.

The first section also provides suggestions for how to prepare for the detox. (You can't just decide on a whim to start today. It takes preparation - of your kitchen, and your mental state.) She also gives a look at what you can expect day-to-day during the three weeks of the detox.

The second section of the book provides a meal plan for those who want specific meals laid out for them, and a yes/no foods list for those who want more flexibility. You are perfectly free to create your own recipes, as long as the foods are on the approved list.

The third, and largest, section is filled with recipes, from soups and salads to main dishes, and even snacks and treats. Most of the recipes require a cook that's not quite as lazy as I am in the kitchen, but some of them aren't too complicated.

This book was definitely interesting, and offered some good suggestions. I haven't actually decided yet if I'm going to try the program or not. It sounds like a good idea, but I'm not sure that I have the willpower, especially when I'm also cooking for two kids. (I couldn't expect them to eat that way, and I'm not sure that I have it in me to make separate meals every day.)

Plus, there are two other big things holding me back. One is that you're allowed to drink milk (which I love) but it has to be whole milk (which I'm not sure I could drink. Because... yuck.) The other is that coffee is allowed, but not the creamer. And you already know how I feel about Coffee-mate. I just don't know if I could do it.

Weak excuses, perhaps. But excuses none-the-less. :)