Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . .

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella -- women's fiction/paranormal mystery/Historical Romance
Lara Lington's life is a mess. First, she quit her job to start a headhunting business with her best friend Natalie and then Natalie up and left for Goa leaving Lara unprepared to deal with business. Next, Lara's boyfriend Josh dumps her, leaving her lonely and desperate. Then Lara's great-aunt Sophie dies. Aunt Sophie was 105 and died alone in a nursing home. Lara's family can barely spare the time to hold a brief funeral for the lady. During the service, Lara hears a voice in her ear which she eventually realizes is great-aunt Sadie's ghost who tells Lara to stop the funeral before her body is cremated! Aunt Sophie's ghost manifests herself as a young woman in her twenties and she is searching for her favorite necklace from the 1920s and won't rest until she finds it. Lara quickly finds herself going crazy trying to help the ghost of Aunt Sadie. As their relationship develops, Sadie helps Lara learn about life, friendship, love and most importantly, family. Lara uncovers some shocking family secrets and helps Sadie achieve her dream and accomplish her goal. with very unappealing characters.
Every single conversation and action is written out making for a very long, slow-moving novel until 3/4 of the way through when the mystery really picks up. Then, once the mystery is resolved, the predictable resolution drags on and on. The characters in this book are also not very appealing. Lara is such an annoying sad-sack in the beginning that I just can't like her very much. Sadie is even worse. She's obnoxious and acts like a spoiled child when she doesn't get her own way. I felt sorry for in her old age though and liked her a little better towards the end. I also had issues with the way Lara handled the mystery and the unrealistic way museum staff were portrayed. Fans of Kinsella's quick, witty novels will probably be disappointed in this one.

The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry -- YA Fantasy/Fairy Tale

When Lucinda Chapdelaine was five years old, her parents left for a ball and never returned alive. For the last ten years she has been in the care of her uncle-by-marriage and his cruel, spiteful wife. Uncle is unable to prevent Lucinda from his wife's beatings but shows her as much kindness as he can. On one fateful day, a woman named Beryl brings a precious stone to Lucinda's uncle's goldsmith shop to be reset and notices Lucinda's unhappiness. The mysterious woman offers to take Lucinda but Lucinda's aunt won't part with the girl. When Luncinda's aunt discovers that Beryl is the Amaranth Witch, she refuses the woman's business and sends Lucinda to return the stone. Lucinda doesn't believe the stories and intends to return the stone to her uncle to reset and earn some money without his wife knowing. Unwittingly, Luncinda becomes involved with the stone and the Amaranth Witch more than she'd like to be when her uncle dies and Luncinda discovers the stone was stolen by a sneaky boy named Peter. Lucinda's quest to confess the theft leads her to the Amaranth Witch and involves her in the lives of people from two different worlds, including Crown Prince who may be her own true love. This is a Cinderellaesque fairy tale with fantasy elements. It wasn't exactly what I thought it would be. I was expecting more of a fairy tale. The plot is fast paced and the resolution happens almost too quickly. Lucinda is naively charming at times but determined to survive and in no way searching for true love. Peter is charming and funny and his journey is rather unexpected. Beryl's story is unusual and interesting and she is a very kind and likable character. I liked the book but I would have enjoyed it a lot more without the fantasy elements.

The Other Half of Life by Kim Ablon Whitney -- YA Historical Fiction
In 1939, Hitler and the Nazi Party have taken over Germany and Jews are rapidly being degrading and persecuted like never before. 15-year-old Thomas's father is Jewish and his mother, a gentile, has decided to send Thomas away to Cuba where he'll join his older half-brother in safety. Thomas is determined to be tough and cynical but two girls enter his life and change him for good. At first Thomas feels the beautiful Priska is naive and her little sister Marianne silly, but the more he gets to know the girls, he realizes that Priska is more than what she seems and together they form a close friendship to get them through the nerve-wrecking voyage. Though they are treated kindly, Thomas worries that the Nazi officers on the ship mean to trick them and he and Priska suspect a high-ranking officer of being up to something and Thomas also suspects the kind attentions of the ship's steward. The only person he can count on is Priska and they help each other through the nerve-wracking voyage and long delays once the ship docks. The main plot of the story ends after the ship docks in Cuba and what happens next is told in one chapter and an epilogue. I thought the book would longer and tell the whole story of the ship. I was also a bit confused because the story was based on a true incident and the book jacket advertises that fact but the name of the ship was changed in the story. Even knowing what happened to the ship, I found the story suspenseful enough to keep turning the pages until I finished. I also liked knowing what happened to the characters after the story ends. This is a good read for teens who are interested in Holocaust history without a lot of gory details.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke -- Middle Grades Fantasy
Soon-to-be 12-year-old Igraine dreams of being a famous knight but instead she must contend with two eccentric parents who own the Singing Books of Magic and think Igraine should learn magic like her older brother. Igraine finds magic boring. In fact, she thinks her whole life is boring - despite a castle called Pimpernel with gargoyles that swallow arrows, stone lions that roar and snakes in the moat - nothing ever happens. Nothing happens until Igraine's birthday, when the Baroness of Darkrock's Master of Horse rides over to tell Igraine's parents that the Baroness is missing and her greedy nephew Osmund is planning an attack on Pimpernel to steal the Singing Books of Magic. Igraine is confident her parents can easily deal with Osmund with magic, however, an accident befalls them leaving Igraine's parents unable to do magic! Igraine must summon her courage and act like a real knight in order to save her family and her home. She starts on a quest to retrieve a magical ingredient that will restore her parents and along the way meets a friendly giant and The Sorrowful Knight of the Mount of Tears who teaches Igraine how to be a knight and helps her defend the castle. Igraine's bravery and cleverness make this a great girl-power story! The prose is witty and light-hearted. The charming illustrations are done by the author and enhance the details of the description. I enjoyed this story and highly recommend it for 8-12 year old girls or 8-12 year old girls at heart!

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly -- Middle Grades Historical Fiction
"Practically twelve"-year-old Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee for short, is the only daughter of a prominent Texas cotton merchant. Callie Vee is sandwiched in between three older brothers and three younger brothers, which makes it difficult to act like the lady her mother expects her to be. During the long, hot summer of 1899, Callie Vee enjoys slipping off to paddle in the river and observe the natural world around her. Her oldest brother provides her with a notebook in which to record her observations and launches Callie off on an adventure she never expected. Her scientific observations help her bond with her cantankerous, eccentric grandfather, a charter member of the National Geographic Society, who enlists Callie's help distilling pecans into whiskey. With the help of Granddaddy, Callie becomes a budding naturalist and discovers her true calling, despite her mother's best intentions for making Callie into a proper domestic lady. This charming novel is told from Callie's point-of-view and shares her humorous thoughts and conflicted feelings about being a girl at the turn-of-the-century. The characters are all well-developed and very funny. Callie is spunky and bright and delightful character. I hope Ms. Kelly writes more about Callie and her family as the enter the new century. This is a wonderful story for anyone aged 11 and up.

ire on the Wind by Linda Crew -- Middle Grades Historical Fiction
Thirteen-year-old Estora (Storie) is proud to be a logger's daughter in 1933, during the difficult times of the Great Depression. She loves everything about the woods that are her Oregon home, especially the animals and the peaceful vales. Her biggest problem is that her father doesn't seem to understand that she's growing up or he understands something she doesn't about growing up, Storie isn't sure which, but she knows she wants to go to High School to study literature and she likes sharing poetry with the handsome Irishman Flynn Casey, both things her father doesn't approve of. Storie also worries about her little brother, who dreams of being a logger and keeping him from getting into man-sized trouble. When a forest fire breaks out miles away from her home, Storie and the other kids aren't too worried, until the fire spreads and their fathers go off to fight the fire. Soon the fire is a raging inferno and threatens everything Storie loves. Storie must grow up quickly and be brave enough to stand whatever happens. The story concludes in 1994, with Storie sharing the events of that fateful summer with her grandchildren and teaching them about the reforestation project. Linda Crew's writing style is a little terse but her stories are full of excellent detail. I could easily picture the logging camp, the forest and the horrible fire. I could identify with Storie's love of animals and literature and her worries about the future. The final chapter is especially good because it tells what happens to the characters while still maintaining plot and characterization. The subject of the
Tillamook Burn of 1933 is not something I have read about before so I found this novel compelling reading.

Streets of Gold by Marie Raphael -- YA Historical Fiction
In 190
1 Marisia and her family live peacefully on a farm in Poland. Poland is under the czar's rule and Marisia's older brother Stefan is drafted into the Czar's army much to the dismay of her parents who have already lost one son to the Czar's army. When Stefan deserts and returns home, Marisia's Papa decides the family should go to America where the Czar's rule can't touch them. Their journey out of Poland is illegal and dangerous and once on board the ship there are more dangers as well as illness and injuries to contend with. Marisia befriends and older girl named Sofia, who is kind and beautiful, but her proud and tyrannical father has trained her to be a lady in order to marry a wealthy man and has his sights set on an American man. Unfortunately, Marisia's little sister Katrina is rejected at Ellis Island and Mama, Papa and the younger children have to return to Europe. Stephen will stay in America but Marisia must make a difficult decision - stay in America or go back with the rest of the family. Marisia decides to make her way in America with Stefen. She's strong and plucky but America isn't what she thought it would be. Circumstances draw Marisia and Sofia closer together and Sofia teaches Marisia how to be a lady and Marisia shows Sofia how to stand up to her father. When it finally seems like Marisia is going to accomplish her dreams, she is forced to make another tough decision about her future and hopes her natural grit and Sofia's lessons will help her make the right choice. This isn't the most captivating immigrant story and the writing isn't very special but I liked the book because it's a little different from the typical Ellis Island novel. Little emphasis is placed on the journey and Ellis Island and the details of life in New York seem realistic. I was interested in the characters but found their insights a little corny. I liked Sofia and her story more than I enjoyed Marisia's story and wished for more about her. I recently visited Ellis Island and enjoyed being able to picture Marisia and her family passing through there.

Orphan of Ellis Island (Time Travel Adventures) by Elvira Woodruff, read by LLoyd James-- Middle Grades Historical Fiction/Fantasy
On a school trip to Ellis Island Dominic Cantori feels uncomfortable and lies about his family heritage because he's embarrassed about being an orphan in foster care without much knowledge of his real family. Shamed by his lie, fearing to be caught, Dominic hides away in a closet in Ellis Island. When he wakes up, the museum is closed and no one is around. He wanders the museum and picks up a telephone receiver in an exhibit and listens to an old man share his memories of growing up in Italy and coming to America through Ellis Island. Scared and lonely, Dominic reaches out to this only form of human contact and is surprised to find that the old man can hear him! Dominic falls asleep and when he wakes up, he is discovers that he is in the village of Avaletto, Italy in the year 1908! Dominic is befriended by three orphan brothers, Francesco, Salvatore and Antonio Candiano and their always-hungry goat Violetta, and learns how the boys struggle to live by their wits and are waiting for a sponsor to bring them to America and give them a family. Together, the four boys become a little family, looking out for each other and surviving any way they can.
During his adventures in Italy, Dominic learns about tragedy and how to survive against all odds.
Most importantly, he learns about family and how to open his heart to someone else. He also discovers something important about his own history. The books contains interesting facts about Ellis Island, immigrants and immigration. One needs to overlook the obviously silly elements of the story and the time-travel concept to really get into the story. I enjoyed the part of the story that takes place in Italy and could imagine my own ancestors bustling around in the background. I disliked the narrator. His narration voice was pleasant and soothing but his "old man" voice was terrible, like Mr. Miagi or something out of a poorly acted movie. He didn't attempt an Italian accent at all or any attempt to distingish between the two languages. I would recommend this for 3-5 grade readers but probably not for adults looking for quality literature.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

Glory in the Flower (Keeping Days #2) by Norma Johnston -- YA Historical Fiction/Classic This book picks up where Keeping Days left off. Tish reflects on the past six months and is determined to be more mature in the next six months and handle what life gives her. She has a lot of new things to juggle this year: school, homework, Mama's impending new arrival, not to mention the revival of the Brownings literary society and the school's production of Romeo and Juliet in which Tish and her sort-of-boyfriend Ken play the leads! There's also continued altercations with Mary Lou Hodge, the town hoodlum Doug, who happens to be Ken's brother, worrying about big brother Ben, younger sister Marnie and trying to sort out her feelings for Ken. Through it all, Tish writes faithfully in her journal and learns a lot about herself and her family in the process. I enjoyed this second book much better than the first. The plot seemed more interesting and realistic and I could relate to Tish's feelings about High School and wanting to maintain the same level of academic success she had always been known for. The story is told is beautifully written prose with some very moving passages. The style seems too introspective and sophisticated for Tish's character though, but that's really my only complaint.

The Sanctuary Tree (Keeping Days #3) by Norma Johnston -- YA Historical Fiction/Classic
The third book in the Keeping Days series follows Tish and her family through the last half the year 1901. With the loss of her beloved Gramps and her beau Kenneth moving away, new teachers, new assignments and family obligations, Tish is worn thin. This time Tish can't even turn to her writing because she believes the magic is gone. When she needs a friend the most, her friends turn on her, not understanding that she's grown up a lot in the last year and moved beyond the emotional level of her peers. She feels no one understands her except Ken and he has enough trouble worrying about his own family. Only when someone holds a mirror up to Tish to view her own behavior can she examine herself and discover what really matters in life. This book is very similar to the first one in tone and plot. Tish was excessively annoying in this book and even though I remember feeling that way at her age, I felt bad for everyone else instead of sympathizing with her. There is also a lot of religious philosophy and Christian teachings throughout the book. The voice of the character still doesn't sound like a teenager and I am still not wild about this series.

A Mustard Seed of Magic (Keeping Days #4) by Norma Johnston -- YA Historical Fiction/Classic
A continuation of 6 months in the life of Tish Sterling leading up to her 16th birthday. In this book, Tish tries to rediscover her lost love of writing and enlists the help of Mrs. Owens, her former English teacher. Tish isn't quite prepared for what learning to write well brings her and once again she feels alienated from her friends. She also misses Kenneth Latham, who is struggling with his own problems in Pennsylvania. Mary Hodge is back in town and no one can seem to forget what she did. Tish tries to help Mary, but only makes the situation worse. With help from her brother Ben, her friends and Mrs. Owens, Tish finally comes to know who she is and know what she wants. This is my least favorite of the series. I found it just more of the same from the first book and I got tired of Tish being obnoxious and melodramatic. There is also quite a bit of religious philosophy and debate and deep introspection. I think the author tried too hard and put her own interests and thoughts into the plot which makes it seem unrealistic for a story narrated by a teenager.

A Nice Girl Like You (Keeping Days #5) by Norma Johnston -- YA Historical Fiction/Classic
This 5th book in the Keeping Days series stars Saranne Albright, Tish Sterling's niece. Saranne is 15 and the daughter of a famous women's rights activist and niece of a famous writer. She feels the weight of expectations on her and thinks she can't live up to them. Saranne's family say she is sensitive like Tish and the thing Saranne is most sensitive about is being nice. She wants to be bold like Katie or do something great like Tish but instead, she's just there to lend an ear or a hand. Old scandals resurface from the Hodge family and old prejudices and past deeds are heaped on the head of 16-year-old Paul Hodge, the local bad boy. Saranne sees the potential in Paul and when he needs a friend the most, she enlists the help of her family to unbury old secrets and save Paul. Saranne also tries to help her widowed aunt recently returned from England with her own little girl. Like Tish, Saranne feels others' pain deeply but because she's less stubborn and proud than Tish, she is better at assessing what needs to be done to fix the situation. I liked Saranne and felt sorry for her in the beginning and enjoyed seeing her come into her own. The same old message about passing judgment is revisited here but in a slightly less heavy-handed tone than the stories narrated by Tish. It was fun, yet surprising, to see what happened to the old familiar characters. Unfortunately, the local library doesn't have the final volume of the series so I'm left wondering what happened to certain characters and how it all ends up. If you know, leave me a comment with a detailed plot description!