Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

Because I am struggling with tendonitis in my right arm, I am trying to rest it.  Thus, I was able to spend most of the day reading this book. Thus, I also must make my review brief as I hen-peck this with my left hand.

I liked this follow-up book better than the first book, 13 Little Blue Envelopes. For some reason, I was better able to buy into the outlandish adventures this time around and I really wanted the best for the main character. The writing sucked me into the story and held me fast.

When Ginny Blackstone hears from someone who has found the final letter in a series of letters left for Ginny by her deceased aunt (after her backpack was stolen in the previous book), she assumes she will resume the adventure laid out for her.  She wasn't counting on blackmail and company for the journey, including her boyfriend's new girlfriend. She doesn't know what to make of this new fellow or of her aunt's intended lessons.

I think The Last Little Blue Envelope focuses more on the story and less on the locations explored. It was a great follow-up story.  If you've read the first book, by all means read this sequel. As far as sequels go, it's a good one.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: Strawberry Shortcake Murder

Sometimes you're just in the mood for a light-hearted little murder mystery. Joanne Fluke, author of the Hannah Swensen mysteries, delivers not only delightful mysteries, but also delicious recipes in her books. Strawberry Shortcake Murder is the second book in the series and I always feel compelled to tackle books in their proper order.

Hannah Swensen is an unlikely super-sleuth. As owner of The Cookie Jar, she is excited when a flour company decides to locate their annual dessert bake-off in the little town of Lake Eden, Minnesota, and to introduce each segment on the air with one of Hannah's creations. But everyone is shocked when one of the judges, turns up dead. Hannah can't help but get involved in the investigation, even though she has been told to leave it to the "professionals." There are a slew of possible suspects, from the battered wife to the contestants who may have been offended by the judge's harsh criticism, but Hannah doggedly pursues the clues to unravel the mystery.

The recipes all sounded tasty and I just might have to try the final one in the book, a cookie called "Chocolate Highlander Cookie Bars." The bars have a shortbread crust with a dark chocolate topping and I can't wait to give the recipe a whirl. Of course, I'm grateful for all the extra little tips and hints Joanne Fluke provides in the outlines of her dessert recipes. I already have the third book waiting in audio form, and can't wait to see the next serving of recipes I'll encounter.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review: The Lake of Dreams

Kim Edwards is the bestselling author of the book, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which I read and enjoyed about eight or nine years ago, before I wrote a blog chronicling my responses to the books I read.  I probably enjoyed her other book better than this book, The Lake of Dreams, but this one wasn't bad.  The first book just kept me reading more intensely, wanting to find out what would happen in the story, whereas this one kind of dragged a bit and never really sparked my full interest.

Lucy Jarrett is newly unemployed and decides to return home for a visit when her mother has an accident and hurts her arm. She is unprepared for the stirrings of the past, both from her father's questioned drowning ten years earlier and from her past relationship with her teenage boyfriend, Keegan (who is now a glass-blower in town). Plus, she never expects to unearth some old documents in an upstairs locked window seat. These papers lead her on a trail of discovery of an old family secret and a relative with connections to the early suffragette movement. Life is full of changes and challenges and she must learn to navigate through them.

The storytelling was good and the characters interesting enough. The story just didn't grab me as fully as I had hoped. It was just an okay read for me.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: Lunch Money

I have long been a fan of Andrew Clements' books.  My oldest son and I discovered the Jake Drake series back when he was in first or second grade. I remember bringing a few of those books along and reading them at bedtime when we were at our annual family camp, CBLI. Then, I remember discovering his hilarious picture book, Double Trouble in Walla Walla, an absolute joy to read aloud. Last year, I read Frindle to the little boys. So, when I was searching for books on CD for my middle son to listen to while walking on our treadmill, I snatched up this book, Lunch Money.  In the end, Trevor selected Gregor the Overlander, but I ended up listening to this book while I walked on the treadmill and now have plans to share it with the boys before it is due back to the library, because I know it is an absolutely perfect selection for my youngest son, who is wild about money.

Greg Kenton, like my youngest, has always been aware of and interested in money. He loves to earn it, keep track of it, save it, and spend it (although my youngest is more likely to save it than to spend it, thankfully). One day, he notices how many kids in his school have extra quarters with them to spend on treats for lunch. He decides this is the perfect opportunity for him to make a fortune. He begins selling hand-made comic books to his peers. But, he hits a few snags along the way, first in the form of a pesky neighbor who seems to have stolen his idea and is selling her own comics, then in the form of a principal who believes that school is no place for kids to be buying and selling things.

I loved the relationship between Greg and Maura (his competition). I loved how they both thought things through and resolved their conflicts. I loved the initiative shown in the story. It was just a delightful tale and one I am sure will greatly appeal to my boys. I am thankful for a strong male protagonist and a good story to keep a reader's interest. Once again, Andrew Clements has scored a hit in my book!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: Paper Towns

I've been hearing endless buzz about John Green and his YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars. Thus, I was pleased to discover that my YA book club selected Green's Paper Towns for this month's selection and my other book club selected The Fault in Our Stars as one of our books for the year.  I feel grateful for the opportunity to read and discuss his books.

Having said that, I must say that after reading this first book by Green, Paper Towns, I find myself feeling more sad than anything else. But it isn't because it is necessarily a sad story. In fact, I'm guessing The Fault in Our Stars will be the truly sad story, because it is about a girl who is battling cancer. No, I'm sad because the portrayal of teens in this novel is probably fairly accurate to what many teens are like these days.  Indeed, that is probably what accounts for Green's vast popularity with young adult readers. That makes me profoundly sad.

The teens in this novel are self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, genital-obsessed, partiers. The main character, Quentin, repeatedly lies to his parents about his whereabouts, while his parents go on blindly believing him to be a well-balanced, good kid. Perhaps it made me sad because I worry that my own children will be this way and I will be the oblivious parent. Perhaps it made me sad because I want to think teens are better than this base description.  I don't know. All I know is that when I put the book down, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

As far as the story goes, it was engaging. Once you are pulled into the action, you keep reading and reading, hoping to discover how the story will end. It was well-written and the plotting was sound, the pacing perfect. The reader cannot help but be pulled along by the quest to discover the mystery that is Margo Roth Spiegelman (excellent name choice, I think). Plus, in the midst of the ride there is excitement and humor.

Quentin is a quiet, well-mannered nerdy kid until the night Margo Roth Spiegelman (his neighbor and long-time love-interest-from-afar) jumps into his bedroom window, dressed as a ninja, and leads him on a night of adventure and revenge.  It is a wild ride of wreaking havoc together. While the fun lasts, Quentin is on an all-time high. But the next day, Margo has disappeared. Not only that, she has left behind a trail of clues that seem earmarked for Quentin.

As Quentin interprets the clues, he begins to worry that Margo might actually do herself in. With his sometimes reluctant friends, he embarks on a journey to discover the true Margo Roth Spiegelman. But there's the rub. Maybe he cannot ever really know the true Margo Roth Spiegelman. Maybe we can never really know the other person, but only our perceived idea of who that person is. This is the heart of the message of this book. Not a bad message for teens to explore. Teens are often in the business of presenting a particular image of themselves, all the while regretting that they are not fully known.

I was eager to find out how the story ended. I enjoyed the book, for the most part. It just makes me sad that this seems to be the norm: glorified vandalism and crime sprees, keg parties, talk of sexual prowess and fixation on size of equipment, almost constant bad language, anticipation for losing one's virginity, and the typical teenage caste system. It makes me glad that I can be an adult reading YA fiction instead of having to tread those waters again myself. Still, if these are the kind of characters that make for award-winning YA literature, then my YA novels will never have a chance in the world.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book Review: Picture Me Gone

Meg Rosoff is a popular name in young adult fiction these days. Her books receive medals and awards and four starred reviews. She might even become more popular in the coming days because her debut novel, How I Live Now, which I reviewed here, was just released as a movie back in November, and was reviewed and given four stars by Roger Ebert here.  Although the previews strike me as a casting error for the main character, I probably will end up seeing the movie to see how it compares to the book.

Thus, when I noticed another Meg Rosoff book in the recent acquisitions of our library, Picture Me Gone, I decided to add my name to the hold list. My review will probably be a bit skewed, since it is following a book I declared to be my all-time favorite read of the past year. Hard to compete with that, no?

Mila was named after a dog, which seems appropriate since she has some sort of special ability for reading people and situations right off the bat. It would seem like she would be the perfect person, then, to accompany her father as he heads off from their home in London to America to search for his missing best friend. The two begin collecting information and Mila sizes up plenty of people and situations trying to determine where Matthew could have gone. Strangely, Matthew left behind his beloved dog, who ends up accompanying them on the journey. The reader follows along as Mila racks up one clue after the next to unravel the mystery of Matthew's disappearance.

The writing keeps you reading and is very well done. The plot has purpose and drive. The characters are interesting enough. Still, the ending fell flat and it wasn't as magical a read, and thus the book ended up feeling just okay. Granted, I've said it would be hard to live up to the last book I finished.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wishing I Could Take These Kind of Photos of My Sons

Highlighting another excellent photographer today.  Happened upon this outstanding artist named Elena Shumilova, a Russian woman who studied sketching and painting before launching into photography just a few short years ago.  She has a gift, that is for sure!

Here are some of my favorites:

She takes photos of her sons in their natural environment on their farm with their animals. You can see more of her photography, and pick your own favorites, here. Or you can see even more of her photos on her Flickr account here and see that she is as beautiful as the photos she takes:

Truly great art evokes an emotional response and she is a gifted artist!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Okay for Now

Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now is fabulous! Stupendous! Absolutely breathtaking! I believe this might be my favorite book in the last twelve months of reading! The minute I finished, I wanted to write up this review and begin listening all over again (although, I believe I will wait and actually pick up the hard copy of this book because it promises to show the prints of John James Audobon's Birds of America, an integral part of the story).

When I first began listening, I worried that I wouldn't be able to recommend this book as highly as Gary D. Schmidt's other book, The Wednesday Wars, because it didn't seem as clean and wholesome. Indeed, the beginning is quite crass compared to the previous book. But, I would absolutely hate for someone to fail to give this book a chance because of the edgy and rough character telling the story. In the end, I believe this story holds great redemption and is written with such grace and truth that it is a story worth digesting, despite the traumatizing aspects of some of the abuse which the main character suffers. Life is harder for some people than we can even imagine and this book brings you closer to someone who must get through the hard moments and triumph in spite of them.

Doug Swieteck, a minor character in The Wednesday Wars, is far rougher than Holling Hoodhood, yet he learns some of the same lessons, especially that of finding comfort in art and creative endeavors (Holling found it in Shakespeare, while Doug finds it in the prints of John James Audobon's Birds of America). Life is horribly unfair for Doug. With an abusive father and brother, another brother off fighting in Vietnam, and a move to a stupid town where everyone assumes he's a thug, Doug Swietek doesn't have much going for him. Then, he meets Lil Spicer, the feisty daughter of a local deli owner and her father gives him a job making Saturday deliveries with a wagon. While life doesn't turn into a bed of roses (far from it), it begins a journey toward profound redemption and value.

What did I so thoroughly love about this book? The characters were believable and vibrant - with both despicable and noble aspects co-existing (don't we all have good and bad in us?).  There's a scary, eccentric, intimidating playwright, a kindly librarian who opens Doug's world with the art of Audobon, a mean-spirited gym teacher (the "so-called gym teacher" as Doug calls him, until things begin to turn around and Doug learns that even the so-called gym teacher is human with strengths and weaknesses and experiences which alter him), and a middle school principal who is anything but a pal and addresses the students in the third person.

The voice of the main character is striking and clear. You will feel as if you've known Doug Swieteck your entire life. You will come to expect the words which come from his mouth: "Terrific," "I'm not lying," and "Do you know what it feels like when...." You get inside the head of this character. He is rough, yet tender. He is hardened, yet conscientious. He is troubled, yet triumphant. Schmidt certainly nailed the voice and emotions of an adolescent boy in the late 1960s (or any time, for that matter).

The author's writing was remarkably moving. I wish my own writing could evoke such an intense emotional response.  He could make learning how to play horseshoes or draw sound magical. He moved me to tears more often than I could count and also had me laughing out loud between the tears, sometimes in the midst of the tears. While the content was often disturbing (let's just say I would have removed Doug Swieteck from his home environment if I could have), hope was always lingering in the wings and beauty made a regular appearance in the midst of the devastating humiliations and difficult moments. Each word managed to work together to carry the reader into a plane of experience full of emotion and empathy. The writing was magical, it was so brilliant.

Plus, despite being a young adult book (actually aimed at listeners 10-16), this book held great appeal for me as an adult reader. Set in the summer of 1968, it fully transports the reader back to that time - a time of space missions to the moon (endless possibilities), Joe Pepitone playing for the New York Yankees (a hero to worship), and war (a cold reality, full of angst and disappointment). Then there were the ubiquitous plates of Audobon's birds. I remember my own parents purchasing a book of Audobon's art.  Whether they were the prints of these amazing birds or not, I cannot remember - but I remember being moved by the art of this famous painter. Perhaps this is why that particular aspect of the story resonated so deeply with me.

If you want to immerse yourself in the world of the late 60s, if you want to root for an underdog, if you wish to be moved to laughter and tears, then you cannot go wrong with this book. Some reviewers have said that the experiences the main character endures are too traumatizing for young readers (especially the father's 12th birthday gift to his son). You would have to know your own child and their sensitivities to assess whether they could handle the realities of abusive situations. But, sometimes a reader has to go down to the depths in order to be transported to greater heights and I promise, if you put up with the rough edges, you will be rewarded with "a story about creativity and loss, love and recovery, and survival," as the back cover proclaims. It was an experience I wish I could have over again for the first time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Photoshopping Self into Old Photos

Here's another interesting photographer who has taken her old photos and photoshopped her present self into shots of her younger self. Her name is Chino Otsuka. Great concept. Great photos.

It would be interesting to try this myself, but to do that I would have to actually have old photos of myself. Of the few I have, I'm not sure I have any with space to photoshop myself into them. I have this great photo of myself with three of my siblings, but no room to photoshop in our present images:

I was able to take a photo at Christmas time recreating a scene from a past photo of Bryce with his cousins. It was great to see the two photos together:

Monday, January 13, 2014

Endless Christmas Break Finally Ends

We here in the Midwest have been battling a polar vortex.  First we were hit with 12-14 inches of snow. Then, the temperatures dipped to uncomfortable regions. For six days we were pretty much holed up in the house. That can be hard on little boys with pent up energy. Of course, I sent them out to play in the snow every day, despite the freezing temperatures (and they did well as long as they kept my girly scarves wrapped around their mouths and noses - they would have died if I had taken photos of that). Bryce went out with them and I did snag a photo of him with a stunning icicle (thankfully, he wore Dad's face-mask):

Plus, a shot of the beautiful house across the street, blanketed with snow:

One day followed the next with calls for snow days. They rejoiced. They ended up being off all of last week. The quiet in the house this morning is deafening and very welcome.

While on the lengthy break, we tackled two more puzzles. First, we did the one I gave to Sean for Christmas.

Side-note: I always like to give books and a puzzle to the boys for Christmas. This year, on Christmas Eve, I told the little boys they could open one present as long as it was from me. They both selected the one with books in it. While Trevor was thrilled with his set of Dude Diaries (a real hit if you are looking for books for 8-10 year old boys - full of crazy questions for them to answer within the pages, like "What would make an insanely good Super Bowl halftime show?" and "Famous person you would trade places with for one day?" and "If you were a monster what would you be?"), Sean was less than thrilled with his books. Then, his older brother didn't help things along by saying, "Man, getting books for Christmas is worse than getting coal. At least when you get coal you can laugh about it, but getting books is like getting a job for Christmas." Way to make a book-lover cry!

This was the puzzle Sean received (it was a thrift store purchase and, sadly, was missing two pieces):

It was great fun to do. If you click on it to enlarge it, you will see that it has two different-sized pieces. It was intended to be worked on side by side, with the grown-up placing the smaller pieces and the child placing the larger pieces. I think Sean only helped with about five pieces. Sob.

Then, I decided to tackle one of my favorite 1000-piece puzzles (one I brought back with me after living in England in 1987-88):

I love this one because it is easy enough to be fun. I don't like puzzles which are too hard to figure out, like this 2000-piece one I purchased long ago at Target for only a buck (good thing I didn't waste any more on it, since I doubt I'll ever attempt it - too much white and blue):

Still, I did purchase this hard one for Trevor this Christmas:

I thought the fact that you could use the pieces to make your own designs might appeal to my artistic son. We'll see if he ever tackles it. For now, the puzzle sessions are over and I am back to running errands and cleaning in peace. Whew! Next up, I will begin to tackle editing the novel I wrote in November.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Review: Millions

After absolutely loving Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic, I was thrilled to see another title with great appeal. Millions has an outstanding and creative premise: "It was a one-in-a-million chance. A bag crammed with cash comes tumbling out of the air and lands right at Damian's feet. Suddenly, the Cunningham brothers are rich. Very rich. They can buy anything they want. There's just one problem - they have only seventeen days to spend all the money before it becomes worthless. And the crooks who stole the cash in the first place are closing in - fast." I knew this would be an instant hit with my money-loving sons, so I set out to read it aloud.

Would that I had read it myself first!  I could have quickly edited out the things which rankle a bit. As it was, I was reading off the cuff and came upon some things that couldn't be quickly side-stepped because my brain wasn't ready to accept the idea that in a book slated for 3rd grade and up one would come upon a scene of Internet pornography. Yes - you read that right. Here I was reading along and the brothers decide to research spending the money on building wells for poor people (at least that is what Damian wants to do with the money). Before I could think to expect it and edit it out, the older brother googles another site (an underwear website) and declares they can buy the women on the site for thirty-nine ninety-nine, followed by an explanation of a "nipple" "protruding." No lie! Of course, my boys had to come running over to see where the words were on the page. They are detectives when it comes to finding bad words or concepts in a book. They must see it to believe it. I had to see it to believe it, as well. One of the final sentences in the chapter read: "Even after Anthony had logged off, I could still see her in my brain while I was lying in bed." And that's the problem with pornography for young boys and men, isn't it? The images and ideas will linger in their brains long after the initial exposure. For the life of me, I cannot understand why this was included in the book and wish I had thought more quickly on my feet as I read aloud.

Besides this unsavory bit to the novel (completely inappropriate for the listening pleasure of seven and nine year old boys), the characters in the novel are quite strange. The narrator, Damian, is fixated on saints, ever since the death of his mother. I think my boys waxed bored on several occasions when these saints were catalogued. The characters are quite odd.

Moreover, I wasn't thrilled when the author took a moment to retell the story of Christ feeding the five thousand, arguing that a saint knew the real story, which was that the individuals all reached in and pulled out their own lunches and passed the loaves and fishes along, making Christ believe he had performed a miracle when really they all had come prepared to look out for themselves. Really? I groaned aloud. Still, my boys did clamor for me to keep reading (perhaps they were hoping I would stumble into more bad territory and offer up things they knew they had no business encountering). They would say they enjoyed the book and will probably remember it for a good long time to come (if only the nipple scene).

I, on the other hand, thought it wasn't worth the read. The story held great potential, and the problem of utilizing the money was handled realistically, but in the end, I just didn't really like the tale. I didn't feel connected to the odd characters. I didn't think the ending was tremendous. It just fell flat for me and I still cannot get over the bits I felt inappropriate.

I read on the back cover that the book has been released in film version by Fox Searchlight Pictures. I wonder if the screenwriter felt it necessary to include the raunchy bit, as well. I'll be sure to watch the film first, if I ever decide to let my boys view it. After watching this trailer for the movie, however, I just might have found an instance where the movie is better than the book:

 We shall see.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review: After the Rain

What's a person to do when the kids have no school and it is too cold outside to run errands or go anywhere? Why, read, of course.  So, I have been curled up with books (and reading books to the boys) for the past few days. It feels like the Christmas break that has no end. Indeed, someone on Facebook compared it to that movie "Groundhog Day," where you wake up and yet again, there's a snow day and arctic temperatures.

After the Rain, by Karen White, is a book that I started ages ago and set aside. I had read maybe thirty or forty pages of it and didn't think I'd pick it up again, but after Eleanor and Park it seemed to be calling my name. Another love story, but this time with a happy ending. And I was in the mood for a happy ending.

Suzanne Paris tries to never stay in one place too long. Indeed, she's on the run from something and where better to hide out for a while than the quiet little town of Walton, Georgia, where there isn't even a hotel or bed and breakfast? She immediately runs into the town's mayor, Joe Warner, a dashing young man with six children, who helps her find a place to stay and leads to a bit of gainful employment for the time being. She doesn't expect to lose her heart to the town's occupants or to stay longer than a short while. Still, her past is closing in on her and she must make the decision to stay or go, to face the consequences of past mistakes or run from them again. It seems as if she has landed in this little town for a reason.

I liked the writing - it did suck me into the story, even if I didn't get pulled in entirely at the beginning. I liked the characters and I loved the small Southern town setting. It was an easy, enjoyable read. It was definitely a book for women and would make a nice book club read, since it comes with a discussion guide at the end (although I didn't think it would make as interesting conversational fodder as some other selections might). I was a bit sad to discover it is the sequel to Falling Home (I prefer to read books in order). Perhaps I will seek out this one and uncover the back-story to some of these delightful characters.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: Eleanor & Park

A New York Times bestseller, there's been a lot of buzz about this book, Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. I put a hold on it a long time ago and waited for my turn on the hold list. I picked it up on a day when I was at the library for my young adult literature book club and the leaders of that group both looked at me with a longing look of jealousy for the chance to be just starting the book for the first time. It is that kind of book.

I should say, though, that I almost set it aside at the beginning because of the pervasive foul language. Describing a scene on the school bus, the first five pages must have dropped the f-bomb almost a dozen times (I counted - nine!), plus the s-word (4) and the d- and b-words once each. If this was how the whole book was going to go, then I could do without a noteworthy read. Still, I'm willing to pass over the language for a good story, so I persevered. It was a bit awkward when my youngest came to lie with me in bed, when I was reading, and, looking over my shoulder, read not one but two or three curse words and ran with glee to tell his brother that I was reading a book with bad words in it. Then, Trevor had to try to come and grab the book away from me so that he could catch a glimpse as well. Not the best scene to play out in my room.

I can't say that I enjoyed it as resoundingly as everyone else, but it was a good read and definitely well-written. The author manages to create a believable, achingly-sad love story between two memorably vivid characters. Eleanor and Park are misfits - an Asian boy and a chunky girl with flaming red hair. Not your expected combination. But their romance develops slowly over the pages of the book and the reader can't help but be sucked into their vortex of inevitable heartbreak.

When Eleanor's clothes are stolen during gym and flushed down the toilet, all the way down to her new jeans and her favorite Vans, I wanted to cry for her. Teens can be so cruel and this book is full of realistic assessments of their vicious tendency to pick on and attack those who are different or unique. When her mother chooses to side with her step-father instead of defending her daughter, I wanted to shake the woman and make her see what a schmuck she was embracing. The characters felt like they had just walked into my life and I wanted to make things better for them.

I can see why this book has taken the young adult readers by storm. Who doesn't love an achingly-real love story? Who doesn't love a book where you want to take the characters home and make them a cup of hot soup and tell them that everything will turn out in the end, when you know full well, it probably won't. It was definitely worth the read and I enjoyed it, just perhaps not quite as much as everyone else.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Review: Sure Signs of Crazy

Sure Signs of Crazy, by Karen Harrington, is the first book I've completed in the new year. If this is an indication of how my reading all year will go, then I am one very lucky reader! What a fabulous book! I read the whole thing in the space of a morning and, towards the end, my sobs reached the ears of my sons and I had to try to explain (with what little I wanted to share with them) why tears were streaming down my face. It touched me deeply and I cared intensely about the main character and her struggles.

I couldn't agree more with the accolades on the back cover: From Gary D. Schmidt (author of the last book I finished) - "Sarah Nelson faces her life squarely, with a heroism that makes us cheer for humanity's courage, wit, and guts. Hers is a compelling journey that takes us into that most fragile place: hope. You will be glad you journeyed there with her."  From Pat Conroy - "Sure Signs of Crazy is knowing, hilarious, and tender. Karen Harrington's character portrait of Sarah Nelson is one for the ages."

Sarah Nelson is just turning twelve years old, but life has already handed her more challenges than the average tween will ever experience. With a mother in a hospital for mental instability, and a father struggling with alcoholism, and a past that would make anyone wonder whether they, too, might turn out crazy, Sarah Nelson takes refuge in writing letters to Atticus Finch and nurturing and talking to her plant.

This book has everything to love: an inspiring teacher who spurs the main character on to courage and growth, words to cherish, a bit of romance to create a touch of an ache, and a courageous protagonist who will make you remember her forever.  It also has the bits that make a reader cry: sucking us into the emotions of a tween girl as she encounters her first crush, the truth about her life, the difficult things she must face, and the triumphant hope she comes away with.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a winner! As the inside cover declares: "Karen Harrington effortlessly blends heartbreak and hilarity in this pitch-perfect story about the adventure of growing up." Given the fact that this is Harrington's first book for young readers, all I can say is she hit it out of the ballpark!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Reads of 2013

My mother always requests a special post highlighting every book I read for the previous year. I'm not sure she eventually reads many of the ones I recommend, but she likes to write down the ones that appeal to her. I read more this year than I usually do. I'm a bit loathe to list them all, because I don't want it to appear as if I am trying to boast about how much I read. In fact, it really shows how much I need to get a life outside of reading, I suppose. One of the problems with reading so much is that it becomes more difficult to narrow down memories of which ones were favorites.

Here is the list of books read for 2013:

  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
  • The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom
  • Think Confident, Be Confident for Teens by Marci Fox and Leslie Sokol
  • The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp
  • Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson
  • The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
  • The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
  • The Returned by Jason Mott
  • Pie by Sarah Weeks
  • Taylor's Gift by Todd and Tara Storch
  • The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
  • Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
  • Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness
  • Under a Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown
  • Hope Will Find You by Naomi Levy
  • Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
  • When God Makes Lemonade by Don Jacobson
  • Ghost Dog Secrets by Peg Kehret
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke
  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
  • The Chance by Karen Kingsbury
  • I Can't Complain by Elinor Lipman
  • Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Fly Away by Kristin Hannah
  • Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
  • Tell My Sons by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber
  • How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins
  • The Heavy by Dara-Lynn Weiss
  • Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
  • Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
  • What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
  • Desperate by Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson
  • Clean Gut by Dr. Alejandro Junger
  • The Librarian by Eric Hobbs
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • Another Year or Two by Robin Stephen
  • The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen
  • Don't Go by Lisa Scottoline
  • And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  • Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer
  • The Thank You Room by Serenity Bohon
  • Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins
  • You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins
  • The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo
  • Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Trapped by Michael Northrup
  • Hooked by Les Edgerton
  • Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins
  • Mended by Angie Smith
  • Yielded Captive by Dalaina May
  • The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway
  • Engagement from Scratch! by Danny Iny
  • The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
  • The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison
  • It's My Life by Melody Carlson
  • If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch
  • With Every Letter by Sarah Sundin
  • Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman
  • On Becoming a Writer by Denise J. Hughes
  • Having Our Say by the Delany Sisters with Amy Hill Hearth
  • Real Love by Anne Peterson
  • Distant Shores by Kristin Hannah
  • Defending Jacob by William Landay
  • Snobs by Julian Fellowes
  • The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher
  • Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane by Suzanne Collins
  • Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  • The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver
  • The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier
  • Diary of a Teenage Girl by Melody Carlson
  • The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  • Sufficient Grace by Darnell Arnoult
  • Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott
  • The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
  • Katherine Paterson by Alice Cary
  • Barbara Park by Dennis Abrams
  • I Couldn't Love You More by Jillian Medoff
  • Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
  • The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
  • Scumble by Ingrid Law
  • A Wreath of Snow by Liz Curtis Higgs
  • The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury
  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Don't Waste Your Life by John Piper
  • The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian
  • Jumping the Scratch by Sarah Weeks
  • The Last Summer of You and Me by Ann Brashares
  • Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John Piper

  • Now to declare my favorites from this lengthy list (a hard task, no doubt) along with links to my reviews:

    Favorite fiction:

    The Light Between Oceans, Yielded Captive, Best Kept Secret, What Alice Forgot (if only because the premise has stuck with me forever) and Wedding Night

    Favorite non-fiction:

    Brain on Fire, Hope Will Find You, Under a Flaming Sky, Unbroken and Salt Sugar Fat

    Favorite YA/kid-lit:

    If You Find Me, Because of Mr. Terupt, Navigating Early, The Wednesday Wars, and The Book Thief

    What were your favorite reads for the year 2013? I'd love to add them to my list of books to read in 2014.