Friday, April 10, 2015

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

genre: middle grade/young adult memoir

Ji-Li, at twelve, feels like her life is on a path that would make Mao Tse-tung proud.  She excels at her schoolwork.  She works hard at everything she tries.  She understands the plight of the people and is willing to fight for the glorious revolution.

But then she finds out something about her past that makes her and her family at risk in this new China.  Despite all her efforts to be a model citizen, she may never get what she desires most: a place of honor in the service of Chairman Mao.

My son read this for his 6th grade English class and so I thought I would give it a try so we could talk about it.  It was so engaging! I'm not surprised that he actually has already read it twice :)  Ji-Li's story is so painful and frightening - we watch her go from a place of glowing pride and a sense of happy expectancy to a life where she is dealing with not only ridicule from her peers but actual fear for the lives of her parents and pressure from unkind adults in authority.  Even young readers can see how unfair the situation in her country is but at the same time, you can see how brainwashed Ji-Li is.  You can contrast the way people are treating each other with what they claim to believe.  You can see power go to people's heads and how truly ridiculous the entire Cultural Revolution was.  More than ridiculous, a tragedy of massive proportions.  Whenever I read about what was lost it makes me feel so sad and angry - the art, the culture, the beauty of China burned and mocked in the street.

I love how hard she is trying to be a good daughter and a good friend.  The writing is sparse and straightforward and gives you a great sense of what life was like for an average Chinese person living in the city during the 1960's.  I really hope it makes the kids in my son's class think about the freedoms that we take for granted here, I know it certainly did that for me.  My only qualm is that I would've liked a little bit more about how she figured out how she and her fellow counrymen had been completely deceived - by the end of the book you can tell by her choices that she's figuring it but it ended a little soon for me.  Despite that, I would recommend this book for kids and adults interested in the topic.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Books I've Given Up On part 2

Adaptation by Malinda Lo - the beginning was so gripping!  And then it just dragged and dragged.   There was crazy bird happenings and but then there were huge gaps in the narrative where I had to say, "WHAT?"  I made it 1/3 of the way through until she was having her sexual awakening with a girl she met the day before and I just had to be done. Too bad because the premise is so interesting.

Perdita by Hilary Scharper - this was touted to be for lovers of Susanna Kearsly (whom I adore) but I just could not get into it.  I got about 50 pages or so in before the plot (the idea of a woman being 134 years old) just didn't engage me, although the writing itself was good.    I did try.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews - while the teen male protagonist was quite funny and I liked the idea of the story a lot, actually, it was just too dang crass for me and the mood I was in while I tried to read it.    I've heard other people like it though so it might have been that I stopped before it got better.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown - this was recommended to me as the next Enders Game and Hunger Games.  I read five chapters and was vaguely annoyed by the narrator's style and somehow just didn't care about his plight.  I don't know why - maybe it just all feels too familiar and I've read enough of these stories lately.  It's got fabulous reviews so clearly people like it.  It's on lists of the best 100 books of the year.  Maybe I'll try again when all the books are out - this is first in a trilogy, I think.  But maybe not.  I sort of don't care about it.

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - this is a young adult gothic story by the same author of The Shadow of the Wind (which I LOVED).  While the writing is as good as I'd expect, it just moved too slow for me.  There were some deliciously scary scenes and the plot is thick and interesting but I just found that I was never wanting to pick it up, so even though I'd made it 60% through, I gave up.

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook - a great reader friend of mine recommended this to me as a great steampunk story.  She also gave me warning that I might find it steamy - she totally warned me and I tried anyway because I love steampunk.  I actually made it more than halfway through before there were scenes where I had to say WOAH, okay.  That is probably enough of that.  And too bad because the plot is actually super creative and fast-moving.  I liked it, but it turned out that I hit my limit of steaminess in this one.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Written in Red (A Novel of the Others) by Anne Bishop

genre: paranormal fiction

Meg is running from a life so traumatic that she'll do anything to escape it.  She'll even take shelter in a compound run by the Others - those shape shifting, otherworldly characters who have the power to own the world if they want.   Within the small business district where humans and Others interact, Meg will try to build a life for herself - knowing full well that she's on her own if They ever find her.

Let the record show that despite the fact that I have never actually tried a paranormal book that's written for adults, I tried this on a friend's recommendation and I actually really liked it.  Yes, it took some time to get used to the wolves talking etc., and I still had to work a little harder than usual to suspend my disbelief, but once I was a fourth of the way in or so, I was hooked.  The story is full of interesting characters, little plot pieces that seem cheesy in some ways actually end up mattering in other ways, the storytelling is just good.  The interactions between the Others and their "prey" (us humans) were interesting, if a little forced.  I liked Meg - innocent and yet powerful in her own right, I appreciate stories with the powerful-underdog-that-captures-the-heart-of-a-town vibe.   The climax was intense and believable and I have actually already requested the next in the series.  Not life changing but a great distraction from cleaning my house and the fussing of my children :)

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Everything Leads to You by Nina Lacour

genre: ya realistic fiction

Set against the backdrop of movie sets and screenplays, Emi's life is full of creativity and meaning. But when she breaks up with her girlfriend (again), it's hard to feel like she's really good at anything - until a forgotten letter takes her on a journey to more than just answers to new questions.  With a new opportunity and a specific challenge from her brother, Emi's chance for love and real success will hinge on her ability to help a new friend find her own past while working like crazy to design the best possible future.

Writing that paragraph was like pulling teeth - I don't know WHY it is so hard for me to articulate what this book is about!  The flap makes it seem like the book is mostly film and mystery - which I feel is only partly true.  I liked those parts - it kept things engaging and it was, for the most part, believable and intriguing.  I especially loved how it made me think more about what I SEE in a movie, not just what happens - how painstaking the process of furnishing a set is and how much care is gone into it.  Mostly, though, I think this is a coming of age story and a love story.   Yes, Emi is gay, and that obviously plays a big part in her romantic story.  As much as she loves to decorate sets and make objects and spaces look beautiful and FIT the role they are supposed to play, Emi wants to love and feel loved.  She wants to love for the right reasons and do right by her friends. While sometimes the dialogue felt choppy to me,  I did like Emi's character arc and I think she comes away a stronger and better girl than she was to begin with.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

genre: young adult fiction

When Maggie arrives in Ireland it is 1993.  She is with her mother, her mother's new Irish husband, and her younger sister and for someone as lonely as Maggie, the misty coastal town of Bray seems to fit her mood.  Introverted and insecure, Maggie's foray into her new Catholic School is about as successful as mother's ability to be stable and sober.  When her favorite uncle comes to visit and everything changes, a few specific people Maggie has found in her new Irish town will help her to realize not only the girl she can be, but the kind of life she deserves to have.

At first, I was not thrilled.  Maggie's life is depressing, she makes some stupid choices and the whole feel of the book was so grungy and depressing.  But, strangely enough, after something particularly sad happens, I found myself being more emotionally involved in the story - even though I had guessed this particular thing was going to happen.  Part of it is that Maggie wakes up to her life, part of it is a lovely romantic piece, part of it is just the really stark and poetic prose.  I appreciated the thread of music love it in (even if Nirvana wasn't my actual favorite), that really made me nostalgic for my own piece of 1993 and how much the music scene was a part of my life.  The Ireland of this book felt real - it's people and places were believable to me without shoving LOOK!  WE'RE IN IRELAND in my face.   I can't say I loved it but by the final third, I cared about the people in it and I enjoyed the rest of the journey.

Note for sensitive readers, there is language and some graphic content

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Atlantia by Ally Condie

genre: young adult

Rio lives beneath the sea in a contained city called Atlantia.  Divided from the polluted world Above, Atlantia is a place of Gods and miracles, a place where everyone knows where they belong - except Rio. Rio is a siren, a person who can control others with her voice - and in Atlantia, this is a dangerous thing to be.  Always forced to hide her true self, Rio has always longed to live Above and when the time comes when she finally gets to choose, her hopes are crushed and soon she finds a darker side of Atlantia and there is no way to know who to trust.

I just really did not like this one.  It stuttered and dragged.  Rio asks SO MANY QUESTIONS, she drove me crazy with the questions! And while some things never fit together in a way that makes sense, other things were too crazy coincidental. I love the concept of this book and I kept reading because I was engaged by the first initial mystery - but 3/4 of the way through I realized I should have just stopped. It's not for me.

I did enjoy Matched, so if you want to try something by this author, I'd suggest that instead.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

genre: young adult

In Tana's life, vampires are both ancient and new.  The resulting bloodbath has caused world governments to set up Coldtowns - walled cities where vampires and those who dare to walk the razor's edge can live separate from the humans who want them and their teeth as far away as possible.  When a party goes horribly, horribly wrong, Tana finds herself on the run with two boys, BOTH of whom are a horrible choice for her and death seems to be inevitable, Coldtown the only refuge that makes any sense.  But she's spunky - and Tana, with the help of those dangerous boys, manages to continuously get herself out of situations she should never be in.  In a fight against an evil she doesn't even understand, Tana is going to have to cling to her humanity if she really wants to keep it.

I think I just don't really love vampire books.  Or books with a lot of gore and blood. That's my problem.  Because this book is actually quite well written, there are some very, very lovely sentences in here - they are glossy and beautiful and like poetry. But usually those sentences are about blood.  Or drinking blood. Or wanting some blood.  And I'm just not into blood.   That's the problem.  So my three stars is completely subjective because I am not into it, which maybe isn't fair but there you go.  The vampire "infection" was also incredibly confusing for me.  I don't feel like I'm slow to get things but even after having it explained to me in various ways throughout the book, I still felt like I didn't really GET it all.   I also had a hard time suspending my disbelief sometimes because it is hard for me to believe that a girl can use a crossbow to shoot a human because she's good at darts?  Really?  I've seen a person shoot a crossbow.  It is quite challenging.  I can't even pull back the string on one and I'm adult.  Anyway, I digress.  Point is, I liked the plot and the writing enough read it to the finish, but I didn't love.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Readaloud: Matilda by Roald Dahl

genre: children's fiction

Matilda is an actual genius.  Reading novels as a small child, doing incredible math figures in her head, she's a child any parent would be thrilled to raise.  Any parents except Matilda's parents.  And between Matilda's horrible parents and the horrible headmistress at her school, poor Matilda would be living in a bleak and loveless world if it wasn't for her beloved teacher, Ms. Honey.  Ms. Honey sees everything wonderful in Matilda and when miraculous things begin happening, Matilda knows who she can trust.

So, I know not everyone loves Matilda, but I DO!  I love her spunk and her empathy.  I love her genius schemes to exact revenge on her over-the-top parents.  I read this one out loud to my 9 year old son (and my 12 year old was clearly listening in and enjoying ;) and he both howled with laughter and worried about both Matilda and Ms. Honey.  Dahl is a genius at empowering children and putting them in a position to give themselves control in situations where most children would feel helpless. My son cannot get enough of his books and they are quite fun to read aloud - even as they occasionally allow you to think about some pretty deep things.  There is abuse in this book, but it is so CLEARLY abuse and the way it's resolved is so fun and clever, I liked that we could take a second and talk about the hard but then laugh at the clever.  Plus, I happen to know that the movie adaption of this one is particularly fun.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Ticker by Lisa Mantchev

genre: young adult steampunk

Penelope Farthing has cheated death.  In the place of her failing heart, the genius Warwick gave her a new mechanical one: her ticker.  In becoming the first of the "Augmented," Penny found herself at the center of the battle between those who support the progress of Augmentation and those who demand flesh and blood purity.   When Warwick begins using evil methods to further his work, his trial incites a trail of mayhem and mystery that demands Penny take action.  And take action she does, our Penny, with her genius brother Nic, her sidekick Violet the punkish baker as well as a few other delightful characters that will charm the pants off you if you let them.

So, you should know that I am a fan of steampunk.  The Victorian/mechanical twist just works for me, especially when you've got the formal attitudes with a huge dash of snark and wit. There is nothing about this story I didn't enjoy, Penny is swashbuckling and tough - and her mechanical heart made her vulnerable in a way that you can't help but sympathize with. There were a few good twists and the plot moved quickly.   No, my life isn't changed but I had many lovely out-loud chuckles to myself over Penny's dialogue and I do feel happier, so that's worth four stars to me.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narvla's Celtic New Year by Therese Gilardi

genre: contemporary young adult

Narvla's in love with all things Celtic - she's an Irish Step Dancer, she wants to write Irish-themed literature and the only school she wants to go to is Notre Dame.  So, when her mom gets a job as the Irish Ambassador, she is thrilled to move to Ireland.  Things aren't always as easy as you hope, though, earning a spot on a new dance team is tough, school is tougher and the beautiful Irish singer-boy on the street corner is less than pleasant to her.  When there is betrayal at home, Narvla has to work even harder to find happiness in this new country, it's going to take some of that serious Irish luck to make this year turn around.

I have a hard time writing reviews of books I don't like.  I know that authors are out there, real people, and I don't ever want to hurt anyone's feelings. However, this one didn't do it for me.  I want to note what I did like: being in Ireland with Narvla, I have always wanted to go there.  I liked a secondary character that clearly had an autism-spectrum disability and that was treated with care.  I wanted it to be more about step dancing - which she is supposedly so good at that she's winning huge championships but the details just didn't ring true - it's not just wigs and rhythm and drama between the dancers.  The best-friend character and love-interest character swung widely around, too perfect sometimes then (especially in the love-interest case), too snarky.  There are actual factual errors, dialogue that's way too formal and intense, a few strange grammatical choices and sometimes just errors - like people are walking somewhere and then in the next paragraph they are somewhere else.   People are too talented and good to be true.  I think probably with a better editor this story could be tightened up and made more fun to read - because I did like it enough to keep reading until the end, I just found it frustrating.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to
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