Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Scarlet Stockings by Charlotte Kandel

I breezed through this lovely middle-grade book. Charlotte Kandel's The Scarlet Stockings harkens back to the types of books for girls from back in the day.

The book takes place in the 1920's and starts with a 12-year old orphan girl named Daphne and her experience at the Catholic orphanage where she has grown up. She loves to dance and teaches herself steps in the little spare time she has. One day she receives a mysterious package in the mail. An instruction manual for learning to dance and a pair of scarlet stockings along with a riddle about the stockings:

First, you must find me.
Then, you must follow me.
Choosing, you will test me.
Knowing, you will challenge me.
At last, you must deserve me.

Daphne delights in her new possessions and becomes even more excited when she is finally adopted by a generous family. Her life speeds ahead quickly when she accepts a position as a starlet's personal assistant and learns the ways of the theater world. She learns the magic of the scarlet stockings and begins a journey she has always dreamed about: becoming a prima ballerina.

I don't want to give the whole story away. I do want to say that I truly enjoyed reading a story that is old-fashioned and without gimmicks (no trading cards, online games, treasure hunts, or anything else involved here). Just straight story-telling. Admittedly, the book is a bit long at 367 pages and I believe its length will turn some readers away. The first two parts of the book seem to drag on a bit, while the last three parts speed by. But overall I feel like female readers in the 9-12 group will really enjoy this tale. It's the first in a trilogy as well, so those who enjoy it can look for more to come!

Source disclosure: Received a copy from the author through Shelf Awareness.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Middle-Grade Musings

Whew! Almost completely caught up on reviews now.

The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow by Tim Kehoe was a very fun, fast book. I honestly can't remember if I requested this book through Shelf Awareness or if it was just randomly sent to me by the author. But, I sure did enjoy this book! Vincent has a quirky brain that leaves him with blackouts but gives him brilliant ideas for toy inventions! He has a top secret lab in the back of his closet that no one knows about. He tinkers whenever he can though he rarely gets his inventions to work the way he wants.
He moves to a new city and really likes one of his new teachers who encourages him to enter a toy invention contest. And one of Vincent's inventions is chosen to go to the national contest!

You know I like to support local authors and Tim Kehoe lives in Minnesota with his family. Always fun to read a new book set where you live! I believe this book is the first in a series starring Vincent. I recommend this book to reluctant readers for its short chapters and illustrations. I think it would be particularly interesting to boys as well (or really anyone!!). I will definitely read the next one.
Source disclosure: I believe through Shelf Awareness from the publisher.

39 Clues: Books 4 & 5: Not much to say here. The adventure continues with Amy and Dan continuing to get themselves into various predicaments with members of the Cahill family. I continue to enjoy these books as they move along. I particularly like that they only focus on a few of the family members in each book. And it seems that Dan and Amy are growing up and maturing through the course of their adventure. It's also fun to see which countries their travels take them to and which family members do actually help them out.
Source disclosure: I purchased both of these books.

The graphic novel Good As Lily is actually a Young Adult title, but I didn't have enough to say to warrant its own review. I actually really enjoyed this one. High schooler Grace wakes up one morning to meet her 6 year old self, as well as 30-year old and 70-year old versions of herself. The four Graces go through the week together as High School Grace tries to figure out what to do with the other Lilys or how to help them. She starts to figure out what each of them needs. The title comes from Grace losing her sister Lily at a young age and always feeling like she never lives up to Lily's memory.
Source disclosure: Borrowed this book from the library.

More Book Club Snippets

Our book club read Karen White's The Lost Hours in November and we picked The House on Tradd Street for January. The two books had a very different feel to them, although they both contained White's very descriptive style of writing. I have to say, overall, I believe I enjoyed The Lost Hours a bit more (mostly because I really enjoyed the historical fiction part of the book).

Tradd Street finds realtor Melanie Middleton inheriting an old historic house in Charleston after meeting with its owner only once. She's not sure why she inherited the house, but agrees to live there for a year and oversee its restoration before she plans on selling it. Before she realizes it, Melanie stumbles into a bit of a historical mystery. She has a gift and can see ghosts (there is even a quote that seems to poke fun at the Sixth Sense's famous quote "I see dead people".) :-) Melanie and her friends come across information both in reality and through clues from the spirit world that solve the decades old mystery of a woman's disappearance.

This book is actually listed as a "romance". I can see why it was categorized as such because Melanie gets involved in a bit of a love triangle. However, I see this book more as general fiction. It has much more to it than just the romance. This is also the first in a series by White, followed up by The Girl on Legare Street (which I seen reviewed very well around the blogosphere).

Overall, I found the book very difficult to get into. It didn't move fast enough for me. The first half to two-thirds were rather dull. The last third or so really picked up and left me liking it overall just because the book ended so well. I probably will take a gander at the second book, but not sure I'll continue reading the series. Maybe eventually, but there are plenty of other books I'll get to first.
Source disclosure: Borrowed this book from the library.

Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know served as our book club pick for October. I read this one pretty quickly. It was well-written and a good story, however, the subject matter is a bit disturbing. The book opens with a woman claiming to be a girl who disappeared decades earlier with her sister. The authorities pull her over when she appears to be involved in a hit and run accident and disoriented. They are not sure if they should believe she is who she says she is. The book is written both in present day and through flashbacks explaining what happened to the two sisters.

You spend much of the book thinking one thing is going on only to do an about-face at the end of the book and something completely different was really happening. The interesting thing is that when you finally find out the truth about what really happened, the rest of the story seems to be a little less disturbing than you thought while reading it (does that make any sense?).
Source disclosure: Off my bookshelf, originally given to me by a friend.

'Tis the season--Holiday Books 2009

Despite the fact that Christmas is nearly a month over now, I did some holiday reading in December and want to get at least some mini-reviews up. Perhaps you can decide to add them to your holiday reading/gift giving list for 2010.

I won a copy of Wishin' and Hopin' in a book blog contest. I was excited to win a copy because the book sounded interesting enough that I wanted to read it, but didn't grab me so much that I actually want to purchase the book (is that terrible?!). And I was pretty right about my initial assessment.

Wishin' and Hopin' describes 1960's life through the eyes of ten-year old Felix Funicello (cousin to Annette). I found this book to be only a so-so holiday read. It takes over half the book to even get to Christmas. Quite a bit of the story is the school year leading up to the holidays. While I love nostalgic holiday movies and books, this one did not hit the jackpot for me. It was mildly entertaining but Felix as a protagonist seemed younger than his age and I just didn't care for it that much. However, if you grew up in the 60's and attended Catholic school, you may have a greater appreciation for Lamb's story than I did. It also bothered me that the book ended with the family eating a holiday dinner at a Chinese restaurant (um....did Wally Lamb just finish watching the holiday movie "A Christmas Story"? Not very original, in my opinion).
Source disclosure: won in a blog contest

If you're looking for a nostalgic Christmas story, I don't think you can find a better book than Dave Barry's The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. I first read this book two years ago, borrowed from the library. Barnes and Noble had it as a bargain book this Christmas so I just had to snatch up a copy of it and read it again. It did not disappoint, I loved the story just as much the second time.

I would definitely recommend this one over Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin'.
Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Secrets of the Christmas Box by Steven Hornby had sooo much potential. I really really REALLY wanted to LOVE it! However, it fell quite a bit short of my expectations. Cleverly written in 24 chapters, this middle-grade book could be read aloud each night from December 1st until Christmas. Secrets tells the story of Christmas ornaments come to life and the adventure that awaits them beyond the Christmas tree. However delightful the book synopsis sounds, this is actually quite a dark tale. Larry the snowman ornament's brother appears to be missing after the ornaments are all placed on the tree. Larry and his good friend Debbie along with a new toy solider ornament go off in search of Larry's brother. They discover along the way that things may not be as they seem in their little Christmas tree world.

I thought this would be a cute little tale to read to my children at Christmas each year, but I think it may be too dark and scary for younger children (with an evil Tree Lord and tree lights that hunt down and attack other ornaments) and perhaps a bit too young in subject matter for older kids who could actually read the book themselves. I'm not sure Hornby found the right audience for this one. In short, LOVED the idea of the book but was disappointed with the reality of it.
Source disclosure: Received a copy from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.

Susan May Warren's Christmas novella was quite entertaining at times and delivered a nice holiday message. I believe this would fall into the Christian Fiction category, but not too overtly. It didn't get too preachy and actually some of the church-related scenes were amusing to me.

The story follows Marianne Wallace as she plans to have her large family all together for one last holiday before her youngest goes off to college and her children all start to lead their own lives. Of particular interest to me is that the story takes place in Big Lake, Minnesota where Marianne cheers on her son as a football player for the Big Lake Trout. It's always fun to read books that take place in your home state. The Big Lake Trout and their drive to get to the state championship play a large role in this story, especially when the team mascot has a heart attack and Marianne is cajoled into donning the Big Lake Trout costume to cheer on the team. The description of her trying on the costume truly made me laugh. And as a mother, you realize there are all kinds of things you'll do for your kids that you never dreamed you would even consider! I really enjoyed the town and its characters and could identify with Marianne as a future version of myself. I would recommend this one as a fun holiday read (though I don't think it would top my all-time best holiday book list).

Source Disclosure: Received a copy from the publisher by contacting the author's website.

Yarn Tales

Okay, time to get my reviews updated! I am soooo behind! Let's start with a couple knitting-related books.

First up, Laced with Magic, Barbara Bretton's sequel to Casting Spells. I enjoyed this installment of Bretton's series quite a bit. Maybe not quite as much as the first, but definitely still worth reading and continuing the series.

In Laced with Magic, Luke's ex-wife Karen suddenly shows up in Sugar Maple. First, Chloe didn't even know that Luke was married before, let alone had a daughter who passed away. Karen's arrival puts a damper on Luke and Chloe's relationship. Even though, Chloe is not particularly fond of Karen, she does agree to help save their daughter's spirit, who happens to be trapped by evil fae leader, Isadora. And just when you think everything has been worked out and Luke and Chloe can move on from the whole episode in this book, it ends with quite a bang! A cliffhanger that will leave your jaw touching the floor! Now, I can't wait to read the third installment to see what happens!

Source disclosure: Borrowed this one from the library

Spinning Forward is a debut novel from author Terri Dulong. When I spotted it on Shelf Awareness, I jumped at the chance to receive a review copy. After all, I was already hooked on Barbara Bretton's knitting series. And Spinning Forward was touted as the first in a series as well. Though this is decidedly very different from Bretton's light-hearted fare.

Sydney Webster loses her husband in a tragic car accident, only to find out that their idyllic New England life may not have been quite what she thought. In fact, her husband had a large gambling problem, taken a second mortgage out on their house that he couldn't pay, and left her with no inheritance, no house, nothing. She decides to pack up her meager belongings and move to the Keys where her best friend lives.

Spinning Forward is a story about one woman's journey to find herself again in her fifties when her whole life has been turned around. She focuses on what she can do, finds herself, new friends, and even love. She also randomly discovers who her birth mother is (Sydney was adopted and never really cared to look for her birth parents before now) and has a chance to forge a new relationship with her. Knitting plays a large supporting role in this story as Sydney decides to open a yarn shop in Cedar Key as a way of starting over and "spinning forward" into life.

While I found this book to be mildly entertaining, I think it might have been good enough as a stand alone novel. It is supposedly the first in a new series about Cedar Key from Dulong. But I have a hard time seeing where else the story is going to go. Everything seems to wrap up very well at the end of this and I'm not sure the characters or story hold my interest enough for me to pick up the second book. However, perhaps I'm just not the right age to fully appreciate the book either. I think Dulong's intended audience may have been more women of my mother's age. Despite not being wowed by this one, I may read the jacket of the second book just because I am curious where Dulong plans to take the characters.

Source disclosure: Review copy sent to me from the publisher after I read about the book on Shelf Awareness.

2009 Wrap-up

Well, I accidentally deleted the half-finished spreadsheet I had started so I could post all my 2009 books by category and by star rating. Oops. I think it's a sign to stop spending time on a wrap-up and get to the 2010 reading! So I thought I'd just post a quick summary and a few highlights from 2009 so that I feel I've wrapped up last year.

I read a total of 116 books. For 2008, it was 217, so there was no way I was ever going to top that. I did a fair amount of re-reading, but managed more literary novels than I had in 2008. I'm just going to list a few of special note.


A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins
The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Disappearance by Efrem Sigel
The History of Now by Daniel Klein
Seducing the Spirits by Louise Young


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny


The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour by Michael D. Beil
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Savvy by Ingrid Law
Scat by Carl Hiaasen


The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart


Always Looking Up: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde: I have to confess that I'm not a dystopia fan. I have a pretty significant addiction to fantasy, but dystopia is not my subgenre. I'm not sure what it is, exactly - perhaps the appeal of fantasy for me is imagining a better world, not a worse one. Or that the dystopia I've tried has been (to me) intolerably bleak. But I avoid even highly praised books if they're described as dystopian. However, I *am* a Jasper Fforde fan, so I didn't even hesitate to pick up Shades of Grey on the release date, despite its dystopian description.

Eddie Russett's world is our world at some point in the distant future, after the Something That Happened, which ushered in an age of chromatocracy (rank determined by which color in the spectrum one can see) and strict, often pointless, rules according to the edicts of Munsell. Eddie can see only red, which places him well below the elite Purples and forbids him from marrying anyone Green (complimentary colors are forbidden to mingle). His world is artificially colored by the limited resource of scrap color mined from increasingly tapped-out supplies. He wants nothing more than to marry a woman from a redder family than his own to restore the Russett family's lost status, when he is sent to the village of East Carmine, on the almost-lawless Outer Fringes, to learn some humility after a prank on the headmaster's son. He meets Jane, a lowly Grey, who intrigues him with her lack of respect for the Rules and questioning of the caste system and its effects. He takes on a suicide mission to the deserted, dangerous village of High Saffron to seek a new source of scrap color, and learns more about his world than he really wanted to. What will he do with that knowledge in the next two books in the trilogy? I can't wait to find out.

Fforde's imagination is really a force to be reckoned with, and this is his most original effort yet. The chromatocracy is established as such a complete, believable fact that I had no difficulty suspending disbelief. Eddie is a likable hero, as ignorant of the truth about his world as we are, slowly learning that things are not as they seem. The bitter, determined Jane is a fantastic counterpoint to his blithe ignorance. The Something That Happened is never defined, but splashes of insight keep it a constant presence in the book, and the strange color perception is defined in a thorough, pseudoscientific way. The world is peppered with all those random details that make the Thursday Next series so enjoyable. In Eddie's world, spoon are scarce, the Greys eat all the bacon at breakfast, and killer lightning and giant swans are equally terrifying. A particular shade of green is a powerful painkiller, but is often abused.

This is the best of satire, fantasy, and coming-of-age stories all at once, a fresh and original start of what will undoubtedly be an amazing series.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Curl up with a Book and a Nook! Contest

I'm posting this for a chance to win a Nook! Check it out!

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny is the fifth book in the Inspector Gamache series set in the Canadian village of Three Pines (the first is Still Life). I don't ordinarily pick up books in a mystery series out of order, as I really enjoy the book-to-book character involvement, but the premise of this one was too good to resist. A stranger is found murdered in Olivier's bistro in Three Pines. At first, no one admits to knowing the murdered man, a hermit whose cabin is filled with treasures. Inspector Gamache teases out the lies (both material and inane) told by various villagers and pursues Olivier's murky past.

The combination of police procedural and village murder mystery was very well done in The Brutal Telling. Three Pines is an irresistible setting with well-wrought characters to inhabit it. Olivier and Gabri were charming, Clara and Peter, a husband and wife both pursuing careers as artists, were compelling, and the poet with the pet duck both funny and wise. On the investigation side, Inspector Gamache is complex and likable, and his team of Lacoste, Beauvoir, and Morin learn from his experience while teasing out different parts of the mystery themselves. I particularly enjoyed Morin.

I did not feel lost, though this was the fifth book in the series. However, I have purchased the first four books in the series so that I can get to know the Three Pines inhabitants and Gamache's team from the beginning. This is a fantastic book in what I can only imagine is a fantastic series.

Source disclosure: I received this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.