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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

World Book Night: The Fourth Batch

World Book Night has come and gone. I had a blast distributing my books; each year the process has been a little different, and I look forward to next year’s excitement!

Unfortunately, I didn’t complete the list before going out into the world on the Bard’s day, but I’m still reading my way through.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic novel with strong prose and a disregard for writing conventions thus it is frequently compared to McCarthy’s The Road but in my opinion it lacks the overall impact of the earlier novel. Hig is a pilot using a single prop airplane and a cache of weapons to maintain control of small plot of land against marauders and cannibals. Heller describes the relationship between Hig and his dog so well that it is almost painful – this relationship is the final shred of Hig’s humanity and it is stirring and beautiful.
Middle grade fantasy is probably one of my favorite genres and The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan is a really fun addition to the category. This novel about a young apprentice to a ranger (a sort of magician/knight) is perfect of fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Super quick, fun read!

I spent most of my time reading This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff wishing that I could talk to my grandfather about it. My grandfather used to tell me about his “wild days” with his brothers – sneaking out and wreaking havoc, and this novel about a boy transitioning from childhood to adulthood in the 1950s is something he would have understood and recognized. Wolff looks back on his memories and was able to extract exactly how he was developing into his adult self and describe all of the difficulties and confusion therein.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews falls into another category of young adult fiction that I love – books about outsider teens! This is sad and funny and self-deprecating with a perfect sarcastic tone, but it is ultimately life-affirming (in a totally knowing and nonobnoxious way). Great YA especially for film nerds.
Sadly, Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot may be my least favorite from this batch. This is a novel about a kid fight to save a rare species of owl in the Everglades. The environmentalism is never overbearing and I can see the humor in it, but it never really touched me on either level. I feel like Hiaasen has taken his brand of Florida quirk a little too far for me.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Reading Group Selections - April 2014

The best books for reading groups are the ones that foster discussions - whether your book club members are boisterous or more subdued, talking about books is what those meetings are all about! Picking just the right book is always a thrill; love it or hate it - book club books are the ones that stand out.
Here are a few recent releases that would lead to great discussions in any book club!

My Wish List by Gregoire Delacourt
Jocelyne lives in a small town in France where she runs a fabric shop, has been married to the same man for twenty-one years, and has raised two children. She is beginning to wonder what happened to all those dreams she had when she was seventeen. Could her life have been different?
Then she wins the lottery—and suddenly finds the world at her fingertips. But she chooses not to tell anyone, not even her husband—not just yet. Without cashing the check, she begins to make a list of all the things she could do with the money. But does Jocelyne really want her life to change?
 The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The Spymisstress by Jennifer Chiaverini
Born to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.
The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Confessions are Rose Baker’s job. A typist for the New York City Police Department, she sits in judgment like a high priestess. Criminals come before her to admit their transgressions, and, with a few strokes of the keys before her, she seals their fate. But while she may hear about shootings, knifings, and crimes of passion, as soon as she leaves the room, she reverts to a dignified and proper lady. Until Odalie joins the typing pool.
As Rose quickly falls under the stylish, coquettish Odalie’s spell, she is lured into a sparkling underworld of speakeasies and jazz. And what starts as simple fascination turns into an obsession from which she may never recover.
Whiskey Beach by Nora Roberts
For more than three hundred years, Bluff House has sat above Whiskey Beach, guarding its shore--and its secrets. But to Eli Landon, it's home. A Boston lawyer, Eli has weathered an intense year of public scrutiny and police investigations after being accused of--but never arrested for--the murder of his soon-to-be ex-wife. He finds sanctuary at Bluff House, even though his beloved grandmother is in Boston recuperating from a nasty fall. Abra Walsh is always there, though. Whiskey Beach's resident housekeeper, yoga instructor, jewelry maker and massage therapist, Abra is a woman of many talents--including helping Eli take control of his life and clear his name. But as they become entangled in each other, they find themselves caught in a net that stretches back for centuries--one that has ensnared a man intent on reaping the rewards of destroying Eli Landon once and for all.
Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long
The story of three generations of West Virginia women and their survival against the odds. This vivid, compact work is akin to an unforgiving family portrait that reveals everything.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Victoria Reviews: Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs

I stumbled upon a description of Sarah Combs’ Breakfast Served Anytime while looking for some recommendations to get me through my post-Rainbow Rowell whirlwind.  I’d finished Fangirl and Eleanor and Park a month or so before, and nothing I picked up afterwards filled the void those two books left behind.  The description for Breakfast Served Anytime was unassuming, but one thing stuck out to me: the main character, Gloria, was headed for a camp for gifted students.
In high school, I took all the AP, honors, gifted, you-name-it classes I was offered.  I made my best friends and had the best times in those classes, and they represent a lot of what I loved about high school.  Understandably, most YA books about high schoolers focus on the hardships and drama of high school rather than the highlights; for a good number of kids, high school is one of the hardest times of their lives, and those kids need stories that tell them they aren’t alone.  Because of this, it is always a pleasant surprise for me to come across the odd story that echoes my own experience of high school life, which is what this book did for me.
It’s the summer before Gloria Bishop’s senior year of high school, and she’s headed to Geek Camp to study Secrets of the Written Word with the mysterious Professor X.  She gets to stay on a college campus - along with countless other Geek Campers - for four weeks.  At the end of camp, they will all be offered a scholarship that Gloria is determined not to accept to their home state’s flagship university: The University of Kentucky.
Gloria’s Geek Camp experience is riddled with meeting new people and making new friends.  Her roommate, Jessica, and down-the-hall-mate, Sonya, provide interesting contrast to Gloria’s more introspective yet optimistic personality.  Jessica and Sonya are take-charge kind of girls, and Gloria, to her own surprise, gets along with them easily.  Her comrades in Secrets of the Written Word are quite a different story: there’s the shy genius with unexpected depth, Calvin; no-nonsense go-getter and individualistic Chloe; and the egotistical, attention-hog, Mason, whom Gloria designates as the Mad Hatter.  The four of them meet up and spend most of their time in the Egg Drop CafĂ©, featuring the promise of “breakfast served anytime,” while uncovering X’s Secrets of the Written Word.
I loved reading about Gloria and her thoughts and perceptions of the world around her.  She reminds me so much of myself.  Her thoughts, feelings, and even her flaws felt so familiar and believable to me.  She loves literature, is addicted to a soda called Ale-8, and she loves the feeling of anticipation before something she’s excited about.  One of my favorite things about her is that she makes playlists on her iPod for certain moments or feelings in her life.  She has a Thoughtful Playlist that she listens to throughout the novel.  Gloria has all the quirks and flaws of a real person, and she’s beautifully portrayed.
Overall, this book reminded me of all the good times I had in high school.  It reminded me of the silly things I worried about, the simple crushes and crises of the times, and especially of the deep and lasting friendships I made there.  Overflowing with witty kids and literary references, this book made me laugh and smile more often than not.  I found myself reading quotes to whoever was sitting around me, and they always earned an appreciative chuckle.  It’s a lovely book that anyone that looks back on their teenage years with fondness (or who just likes a good literary joke) can appreciate.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Victoria Reviews: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Dorothy Must Die is one of those books that turned me into a very irresponsible person.  No matter what else I was supposed to be doing, I could hardly put the book down.  What started as “Well, let’s read a chapter just to see what this book is like before I start my homework” turned into four hours and fifty pages of procrastination before I even realized what was happening.  Coupled with a cliffhanger ending that left me with a raging book hangover, reading this book felt like having a house dropped on you, though in a good way, if that’s at all possible.

The book draws you into the world of Oz, though it’s not as wonderful as you might think.  Amy Gumm, a bullied and rough-around-the-edges Kansas girl, is dropped smack into Oz one day after a tornado hits her house and carries her away.  Sound a bit familiar?  But instead of being greeted with a magical land of munchkins and good witches, Amy Gumm finds Oz a place of waste and ruin.  It seems that the story didn’t end after The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy came back, and she isn’t nearly as sweet and innocent anymore.  Forced to band together with a ragtag group of Wicked Witches, Amy is tasked with the assassination with the now power-hungry Dorothy.  But Amy questions her own power and ability. Can she get close enough to Dorothy without being caught and executed?  Does she have it in her to actually kill someone?

Paige paints a vivid picture of Dorothy’s Oz.  Her descriptions are beautiful and terrible all in one as she tears down the magic and beauty of the Oz that fans of Baum’s books or the Judy Garland film have come to know and cherish.  As a fan of both, being able to really picture the destruction of Oz was quite personal, and it made me all the more sympathetic to Amy’s mission.  Dorothy herself is in ruin as well, though you wouldn’t know it from the perfection of her hair, outfit, and nails.  Paige’s Dorothy brings to mind every pretty, smiling face that ever hid mean and evil intentions.  Dorothy’s smiling cruelty is almost too easy to hate; I found myself agreeing with the book’s title almost immediately after meeting her.  But Dorothy’s evilness makes Amy’s continued hesitancy to kill her all the more admirable.  Despite all the terrible things Dorothy does, Amy is still able to have some small bit of faith that some goodness must still exist in her.  At the same time, Amy must face the fear that she herself could easily become just as corrupt as Dorothy.  Her worries and emotions feel real and relatable.  Everyone who has ever had to face down a bully will be able to see a bit of themselves in Amy.  She may be tough, but her insecurities are very real and evident.

I wish I could say something about the book’s ending, but of course, I don’t want to spoil anything.  Let’s just say that I didn’t even realize that the book was the beginning of a series until I turned the last page and found a blank one after it.  The story builds and builds straight through the ending, and it left me feeling less like I’d finished the first book in a series and more like I was missing the second half of this book.  I ended the book with a fierce craving for more.

Overall, despite my book hangover, I enjoyed the book.  It’s definitely a page-turner, and I found myself quickly lost in Paige’s Oz.  Fans of A.G. Howard’s Splintered series especially might enjoy this twisted take on another beloved classic.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Michelle Reviews: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

The story of Hurricane Katrina captivated the entire world. Captivated not only because the horrors of the situation demanded attention but because New Orleans is a city that enchants; the pain, the undoing of this great city reminded everyone of its beauty and its failings. While in Florence, Italy in 2008 (three years after Katrina's blast through the city) John and I saw a "RENEW NEW ORLEANS" sticker plastered on the register in a tiny restaurant. New Orleans is a city that captivates, and while this storm certainly used all of its might to diminish the city it only served to draw more attention to it.

I have read quite a few novels and memoirs of Katrina and its aftermath. This has become a genre to itself; a way for people to heal through story (both for writers and readers). The stories we tell draw us closer, educate us, and remind us of home. It is my hope that the books written about Hurricane Katrina will serve us in another way as well...they will remind us of the colossal mismanagement of this disaster and keep it from happening ever again.

Julie Lamana's Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is a novel of Hurricane Katrina. Lamana guides us through that fateful week in August of 2005 by telling the story through the eyes of Armani Curtis, a young girl from the Ninth Ward. Armani is precocious and as a reader I enjoyed being in her head in the early parts of the novel as she fusses about her siblings and prepares for her tenth birthday party. There is a great sense of family within this novel. What may be the greatest trouble with historical novels (or possibly their greatest triumph) is that it is difficult to read about likable characters knowing what will soon come to pass. At times, I wanted to crawl inside the novel and warn everyone of what was coming, but I know I would have been seen as nothing more than a crazy Cassandra.

One of the many reasons this novel is an important one is just that; people were warned that this may be “the big one” and some people did get out of the city in time. Many of the characters had lived (and stayed in the city) through both Betsy and Camille. We’ve all heard that “this is the big one” and we always manage. It’s the southern way – hurricane parties and so forth. This storm was different though, and the fear of it was electric. Lamana writes of the failed evacuation and those that flocked to the Superdome, but the Curtis family waits the storm out in their home as they always have before.

The scenes of the storm raging ring true. Julie Lamana is from Greenwell Springs; she witnessed the storm first hand, and while it was not quite as horrific for those of us here in Baton Rouge (especially after the break in the levees) it was definitely still a frightfully dangerous storm. Armani describes her family’s fears saying, “Even with Memaw and the kids all up in the bedroom, I could hear them crying and screaming and begging Mama to make it stop…More lightning and more thunder. The constant sound of rain dumping down in buckets so hard it sounded like we might as well’ve been standing up under a waterfall…Daddy looked straight up at the ceiling, and squeezed his eyes shut. In a whisper-cry he said, ‘Protect us, sweet Jesus.’ A tree branch crashed through the big window and knocked Daddy to the floor.” And shortly thereafter the water comes.

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is a horror story, and while it is written for a middle grade audience Lamana does not pull any punches. There is pain and loss in abundance, but a novel about Hurricane Katrina without pain and loss would be entirely dishonest. This novel aims to expose its young readers to many truths about not only this catastrophic event but this moment in time. Within its pages young readers are exposed to different types of families and many people often ignored by society. Time and again Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere manages to be more than just a novel about a certain time and place but also a novel about poverty, race, and family. Readers learn both with and through Armani about empathy and opening up to trust one another. They learn about growing up (in this and so many instances way too fast). Ultimately, readers of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere learn about hope. Hope doesn’t die in tragedy; that’s when if flourishes.

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is probably best for an audience of 10 and older and I would love to see it read it middle and high schools across the country. There is so much to be gleaned from discussion of this novel, and that includes adult book clubs as well. While the main character may only be ten years old, Lamana has endowed her with a depth of feeling that will resonate with readers of all ages. This is a novel that will offer different gifts to each of its readers; it is not easy to read but you will come away from it happy with what you have discovered.

I feel like it is important for me to note that I know Julie Lamana, and I think she is lovely. However, that has little bearing on what I felt about her book beyond the fact that I am proud to know the author of such a fine work.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

World Book Night: The Third Batch

Five more down, another eighteen to go! Let's get on with the show.

Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia was a reread for me, but I haven't read it since the fifth grade so it felt pretty new. I absolutely hated this book as an elementary schooler; for the life of me, I cannot remember why. Adult me really enjoyed it. I was thisclose to crying by the end, which is really saying something when you consider my frozen, icy heart.

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye feels like the literary pick thus far. I feel like every year the committee picks a literary novel that has a strong sense of place (somewhere in America) and each year I've been a little bored by them. This book isn't bad at all and it was a quick, entertaining read - it just felt a little meh...

I am so happy that the WBN choosers chose a graphic novel this year! Make this a thing that happens every year! I hearts and flowers love literary graphic novel especially autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) ones and Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim is no different (ugh, sorry). Great novel about being young and stupid and how we learn and grow.

Another thing I hope World Book Night includes every year - poetry collections! Philip Smith edited this year's collection of the 100 Best-Loved Poems. You can't go wrong with a best-loved edition; even if it is missing some of my favorites like Poe's "The Bells" (my all time favorite poem). A memory for you: my mom used to read that poem to us as kids. It was pure perfection and I wish I had a recording to imbed here. I just remember thinking how cool the poem was and how awesome my mom was. So, I don't really hold it against Smith for not including this poem, but he should meet my mom.

I didn't really love Pride and Prejudice so it is no surprise that I didn't love Sharon Lathan's Miss Darcy Falls in Love. It's a good regency romance, just not my thing (and holy copy editing errors, Batman!). The plot revolves around Mr. Darcy's younger sister, Georgiana, and her love triangle. And there's music...and sex. I did not need to read about Georgiana Darcy having sex. But that's just me. However, there was a slow burn to this romance that was fun to read considering so many romance stories revolve around characters who have just met but will now die without each other. This love is based in a great friendship and partnership - and that's awesome.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

2014 Spring Okra Picks

Southern indie booksellers like their okra, and they love their southern books. The new list of Okra Picks --great southern books, fresh off the vine-- has just been released. A dozen new books that all have two things in common: They are southern in nature, and there is a southern indie bookseller that wants everyone to read each one! The SIBA Okra picks offer a curated reading list for every season.

Salvage by Alexandra Duncan
This is literary science fiction with a feminist twist, and it explores themes of choice, agency, rebellion, and family. Ava, a teenage girl living aboard the male-dominated, conservative deep space merchant ship Parastrata, faces betrayal, banishment, and death. Taking her fate into her own hands, she flees to the Gyre, a floating continent of garbage and scrap in the Pacific Ocean. This is a sweeping and harrowing novel about a girl who can't read or write or even withstand the forces of gravity. What choices will she make? How will she build a future on an earth ravaged by climate change?

A memoir of author Frances Mayes's coming of age in the Deep South, and of the region's powerful influence on her life. Mayes delves into the power of landscape, the idea of home, and the force of a chaotic and loving family

 The Whiskey Baron by Jon Sealy
With its unforgettable characters and evocative setting, The Whiskey Baron is a gripping drama about family ties and bad choices, about the folly of power and the limitations of the law.

In this marvelous addition to the popular series, Miss Julia is sure to have a summer that she--and Abbotsville--will never forget!

Stuck near the bottom of the social ladder at "pretty much the lowest level of people at school who aren't paid to be here," Maya has never been popular. But before starting eighth grade, she decides to begin a unique social experiment: spend the school year following a 1950s popularity guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell.
The real-life results are hilarious, painful, and filled with unexpected surprises. Told with humor and grace, Maya's journey offers readers of all ages a thoroughly contemporary example of kindness and self-confidence, along with a better understanding of what it means to be popular.

 Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
An American writer at the height of his creative powers, #1 New York Times bestselling novelist Greg Iles returns with his most eagerly anticipated book yet, and his first in five years--Natchez Burning, the first installment in an epic trilogy that weaves crimes, lies, and secrets past and present into a mesmerizing thriller featuring southern mayor and former prosecutor Penn Cage.

Written with a blend of humor and practical wisdom, "The Same Sweet Girl's Guide to Life" by Cassandra King offers inspiration and solid advice to new graduates that can sustain them through life's inevitable ups and downs. In this small book you will find advice that will only grow in meaning throughout the years. It can - and should - be read again and again, by thoughtful people of all ages.

 Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth O. Dulemba
"A Bird on Water Street" is a coming of age story about Jack, the son of a miner growing up in a Southern Appalachian town environmentally devastated by a century of poor copper-mining practices. After a tragic accident and a massive company layoff, the miners go on strike. When nature begins to flourish as a result, Jack fights to protect it, but the cost could be the ruin of everything he loves.

 Between Wrecks by George Singleton
A collection of eccentric and offbeat tours of small-town America packed with heart, honesty, and humor.

 A Southern Girl by John Warley
The worlds of privilege and poverty collide in this moving tale of adoption, identity, belonging, dedication, and love.

 A Long Time Gone by Karen White
When Vivien Walker left her home in the Mississippi Delta, she swore never to go back, as generations of the women in her family had. But in the spring, nine years to the day since she’d left, that’s exactly what happens—Vivien returns, fleeing from a broken marriage and her lost dreams for children.

This is the story of the resurgence and reinvention of one of America’s greatest cities. Ordinary citizens, empowered to actively rescue their own city after politicians and government officials failed them, have succeeded in rebuilding their world. Cowen was at the leading edge of those who articulated, shaped, and implemented a vision of transformative change that has yielded surprising social progress and economic growth.

 Flying Shoes by Lisa Howorth
Lisa Howorth’s remarkable Flying Shoes is a work of fiction, but the murder is based on the still-unsolved case of her stepbrother, a front page story in the Washington Post. And yet this is not a crime novel; it is an honest and luminous story of a particular time and place in the South, where even calamitous weather can be a character, everyone has a story, and all are inextricably entwined.


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