Sunday, January 30, 2011

Death Makes a Holiday, by David J. Skal

Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of HalloweenHave you ever wondered about the origins of Halloween traditions?  Why do we go trick or treating, or dress in costume?  Who brought the traditions to the New World?  How much of the mythology is real, and how much is poppycock?  This book answers these questions and more, with a brief overview of history, traditions, folklore, and the lure the holiday has for so many.

I am one of those people who loves to be scared, and is absolutely fascinated by the psychology of fear.  As a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday, and even now, I prefer horror to romance, in terms of books and movies.  So, it is natural for me to be drawn to a book like this, and I think it provides a good starting place for those looking to learn more about Halloween.

The book gives an overview of several areas, like history and folklore, but is unable to go very much in depth in any area.  I think, however, for the purposes of the book, Skal does a good job with these overviews.  There is a huge subculture around Halloween, with it no longer being a holiday just for children.  In fact, increasingly, children are being left out of Halloween, in that trick or treat nights get cancelled, and school ban costumes.

Everyone likes to forget who they are now and then, or pretend they are someone else, and I think this is part of the Halloween appeal.  Also, when we allow ourselves to take charge of the things that scare us, they no longer have the power to cause that fear.  I think the book does an adequate job of covering the holiday, and is a good starting place for those interested in learning more about Halloween.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stir Until Thoroughly Confused, by Heather Wardell

Stir Until Thoroughly ConfusedAll her life, Mary dreamed of being a chef in a top restaurant, but her husband never supported her ambitions.  After years of submitting to him, Mary left to pursue her dreams in Toronto.  The road was hard, but with persistence, Mary landed the job as the chef for not one but two hot restaurants, with an even hotter owner.  But eventually, Mary will be once again put in the position to chose either her career or love.  Which way will she go?

Once again, Heather Wardell has completely captivated me, and doggone it, I think I can no longer say I am not a fan of romance novels.  Because this is one seriously romantic novel, and I just love it.  But if you are looking for one of "those" kind of romance novels, with cheesy dialogue and period piece erotica, keep moving, because this book is out of your league.  Wardell shows us that romance is more than just sex, yet still keeps it sexy.  And classy.

Mary is a character that is familiar to many women, since so many women in their thirties and forties were in her position, forced to chose between career and love.  I like that we see Mary struggle, and sacrifice, and really pull herself up by her bootstraps.  I love her determination, it makes her seem so, well, human.

I especially like the not so likable characters in the book, like Brian and Crystal.  I love a good villain, or even a good pest, and these two were a nice subplot.  The storyline did not take the obvious turns, such as making the ex husband the villain.  A lot of real thought went into the story, and I really appreciated it.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book.  I love food, I love to cook, and I love love, so what is there not to like in this story, right?  So, I hereby give up my status as a non-fan of romance novels, provided they are romance novels like this once, which are more novel with romance, instead of erotic literature.  Continue keeping it classy Heather, because I love it, and this book still had plenty of heat.

A review copy was provided courtesy of the author.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Heroine's Bookshelf, by Erin Blakemore

The Heroine's Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls WilderFor many female readers, the women in the books we read are more than characters, they are role models.  This book highlights an assembly of heroines, and the life lessons they can teach us.  Who better to teach us about happiness than Anne Shirley?  And no one embodies compassion quite like Scout Finch.  Each woman the brainchild, a literary daughter of a female writer, using her creation to explore some part of herself, and share it with all of us.

I love love pink puffy heart love this book.  First of all I think it is an incredibly inventive concept.  For literary inclined people, who were once literary children like me, these women were more like friends than some of the people with whom I attended school.  I am a sucker for anything Anne Shirley, so I loved that she was included in this tome.

I thought it interesting how Blakemore wove the authors' back stories into the chapters, and was surprised how sometimes they mirrored the stories they wrote and sometimes they were so different.  I also love that each section includes suggestions for when to read the book covered, and other heroines who might be found to embody the same trait.  While many of these books I had already read, I did find a handful of new treasures, as well as some old favorites that bear revisiting.

The book is very female centric, all female writers, all female characters, even in times when women had to struggle to be heard.  Yet it is not overly feminist.  In other words, it would not put off a male reader.  It would however be a great addition to a women in literature class reading list!

In short, I loved the book so much, I wish I was like Ernest Hemingway's cats so I could give this book 4 thumbs up.

A touring review copy of this book was made available by Crazy Book Tours.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A LifeOft portrayed as the most evil, salacious, manipulative woman in history, Cleopatra may instead be greatly misunderstood.  A great Ptolemic ruler, a strong intelligent woman, and the lover of two of Rome's most respected leaders, Cleopatra accomplished more than many men could even dream of, in a rule twice as long as Alexander the Great's.  Love her or hate her, one has to respect her.

It is always difficult to review an award winning author when you do not like the book.  This book was so hyped up; perhaps I am just not meant to read historical biographies.  We learned a lot about Caesar, Antony, and Octavius, as well as the Ptolemic dynasty, but as for Cleopatra herself, we learn very little, certainly not enough to justify the 300 plus pages I had to plod through.

I find the Hellenistic period to be fascinating subject matter, so it befuddles me why this book was so boring to me.  I found the book to be disorganized, and had a lot of difficulty following the timeline; it seemed to lack continuity.  I am no student of history, so I can not speak to the quality of her research, it may be completely sound.  All I know is, it seems there is more that is unknown about Cleopatra than there is known.  And I was probably more knowledgeable 10 days and 300 pages earlier.  For dyed in the wool historians, this book may be a perfect fit, but for your everyday reader, reading this just because the New York Times tells you to may result in a huge disappointment.

A touring review copy of this book was made available by Crazy Book Tours.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't Go There, by Robblogger

Most travel books try to sell you on why you should go to various exotic or exciting locations.  Not this book.  Robblogger instead tries to talk you out of going to various locations.  For example, all the Swiss have to offer is trains painted various colors and a whole lot of lakes.  And do not even consider Mexico, as you will get abducted, and have your entire hotel room stolen.  England can offer you a castle that is also close to Legoland, but trying to hit them both in one day is a pretty bad idea.  And one of the highlights of Ireland is a museum dedicated to diseased potatoes.  Why would you ever want to go to any of these places?

I am not one much for travel myself.  Short trips within a day's drive, for 3-4 days is about all we do, because frankly, no bed is as awesome as my own, and I never feel like I get completely clean in hotel showers.  So when this book was given to me for review, I loved the idea of it.  There is a part of me, like Robblogger, who thinks the idea of traveling to all these places seems so awesome.  And then I think about it a little more, and realize, eh, not so much.

I love that some of the sources cited include Wikipedia and the US Department of State.  It just proves that this book does not take itself too seriously, and more than once I found myself giggling uncontrollably.  A huge fan of snarky humor, this book pokes fun at the pompous travel guides that are so commonly found among travel books.  The book is a nice short read, I would say just about the right length to make this a first installment in a series of such themed books (Don't Go There Either as a sequal perhaps, or Don't Eat There, etc, the possibilities are endless).

I really love that the writer talks in the introduction about this being born out of an attempted to amuse his girlfriend.  This is one of those books that gives hope to burgeoning authors everywhere to go ahead and take the plunge.  Well done Robblogger, I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

I received a review copy courtesy of an associate of the author.  To purchase the book, please visit the author's blog,  located here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

And You Thought Your Family was Dysfunctional!, by Paul K. Dayton

And You Thought Your Family was Dysfunctional!This is a book all about the author's crazy Portuguese family.  All the aunts are named Maria, so he devises other ways to keep them straight, based on ridiculous things that happen in their lives, including, but not limited to Aunt Vampira and Aunt Penis.  He also names his uncles, like Uncle Fart and Uncle Nut, also based on crazy antics.  We learn all about Porks, as the author calls them, and their ridiculous ways.  Sure to make you feel much better about your own family.

When I first was introduced to some of Dayton's stories about his Portuguese family, I was immediately able to relate.  Anyone whose family is in touch with their ethnic roots realizes that their ethnicity makes them a bit, um, different, from other people.  The stories in this book all but confirm this as fact.  I think any reader would be hard pressed to get through this book with out laughing.

I love that Dayton uses slang and colloquialisms in this book of family stories.  It makes the whole thing feel so much more genuine.  The style of writing is more like storytelling, and it reads much like a storytelling would talk, with ramblings and digressions.  It is self referential, but in a way that almost pokes fun at itself.  I love the nicknames for the aunts and uncles, particularly when we are told the back stories.

The only thing I felt was lacking was a few more stories about the author himself.  Mostly, the stories in which he appears are focused on other family members.  Personally, I want to know what Dayton's nickname would be, and the back story behind it.

I funny and entertaining read that gives you newfound appreciation for your own familial quirks.

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Maisy May, by Naomi Kramer

Maisy MayMaisy May is not your typical good Christian girl.  She dresses like a goth, swears like a sailor, and would rather work on cars than shop at the mall.  She never really deeply contemplates issues of her faith until she meets Mark, who starts out her friend, becomes her lover, breaks her heart, and will be forever tied to her.  High school, sex, and church.  No wonder Maisy May is miserable.

I have to say, I thought this book was hilarious.  It is a very tongue in cheek portrayal of high school romance and all the fumbles that come along with it.  Maisy's character is so endearing.  She is a bit of an outcast, and that status increases as the story unfolds.  Who among us has not felt the same way in our youth?  And one can not help but feel a little bit of sympathy for Mark, who is clearly very confused (again who isn't in high school).

I like that Maisy really wrestles with how her faith views certain social issues, and how she is treated by her church when she is deemed a "sinner".  This is a very honest portrayal, done in a way that makes us smile a bit to  help take the sting away.  If you ever saw and liked the movie "Saved" you will most certainly like this book!

While the content revolves around high school and teenagers, this may not be a book that you want your teen reading, as it does contain some profanity and sexuality (but hey there is a disclaimer right up front in the book; you know what you are in for).  However, this is the reality within high school environments, so it may be a good way to open communication between you and your teens if you both read the book.  Also, the book is set in Australia, but other than some slang and cultural references that went over my head, it did not phase me.  High school is high school no matter where you are I suspect.

All in all, I thought the book was brilliant, and I will probably read it again in the future.

I won a copy of this book from a contest sponsored by the author.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lady in Waiting, by Susan Meissner

Lady in Waiting: A NovelHer whole life, Jane has done what others wanted, or expected, her to do.  Or so she thought.  But when her husband of 22 years leaves her, she is forced to start living life for herself.  Along the way, she finds a ring from the 16th century, inscribed with Latin, and one word in English- JANE.  Lady Jane is the second cousin to the King.  She has so few choices in her life, no choice in her betrothal, no choice in her station in life.  But finally, almost too late, she realizes she does have some control over her life.  What can the Jane from yesterday teach the Jane of today?

I was thoroughly enchanted by this book, and would not have ever guessed it was published by a traditionally Christian publisher.  It is a story with wide mainstream appeal.  I love the juxtaposition of the stories of both Janes.  I found both of the Janes, as well as Lucy, to be characters that really pulled on my heartstrings, they were so well developed and easy to relate to.  Even the parts of the book that were taking place in the 16th century had such universal themes, one did not feel a huge gap due to the time setting.

A lot of times, when stories jump from character to character, or switch time periods, it can feel a but clunky, but not the case with this lovely story.  The two stories really sort of echo each other, not necessarily in plot, but in theme and emotion.  You heart breaks for each Jane in her own time.

I personally am fascinated with anything to do with the British monarchy, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, so this was right up my alley.  If you enjoy the writings of Philippa Gregory, I think you will like this as well.  With the modern day element, it will also draw in more traditional romance readers.  Overall, I think this book is suitable for even older teenage readers, as several of the characters are in their teens for the majority of the book.

I am very anxious to read more from Susan Meissner, because this book literally blew me away.

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Glass, by Ellen Hopkins

GlassKristina is back after the birth of her son, Hunter.  And it does not take long her for to want to dance with the monster again.  This time, she is introduced to a much more powerful form of the drug, called glass, which is smoked.  In no time, she is hooked again. And now, she is in love, with a man named Trey.  It frightens Kristina to think she may love him more than she loves her child, and it frightens her even more to think she loves the glass most of all.

Yet another powerful chapter in Kristina's saga.  I have to say, the empathy that I felt for her in the first book really quickly wore off.  My empathy quickly transferred to her child.  In this second installment, Kristina seems to be a completely different person, even more overtaken by the monster.  And Bree is not mentioned so much.  She is clearly still there, but Kristina is no longer Kristina or Bree, is is just....a junkie.

I have really come to love Hopkins' style of writing in verse form.  It provides a much deeper intensity than a simple narrative would, and I love the fact that I need to read each page 2-3 times to find all the hidden messages.  Honestly, I hardly realize the poetic structure when I am reading, I get so lost in the story.

It saddens me that this story is so real, so close to the stories suffered by so many, including Hopkins and her family.  The book is intense, and dark, and, in my opinion, extremely important.  I am certain I will not go back and re-read Fallout, the book that first introduced me to Kristina.  And I think this time, I will see things I did not see the last time.  I am quite certain I will be a reader of Hopkins' work for a very long time.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Last Exit in New Jersey, by C.E. Grundler

Last Exit In New JerseyHazel has no idea who to trust.  Her cousin is missing, her truck has been stolen, and her dad has pawned her off on some creepy stranger for his idea of safe keeping.  The more time passes, the deeper she gets tangled into a master web of conspiracy, intrigue, murder, and heartbreak.  Who will she find at the center of the web?

I am going to blame last night's lack of sleep completely the intensity of this book.  It was a little slow to get into it, mostly because I could not figure out where the plot was going, but once things started to get rolling, man oh man, I could not stop reading this book.  Every page brought a new twist and turn, and you are left constantly wondering what you will be learning next.  All the pieces do not settle into place until the very end, but once they do settle in, you will shocked at what the final picture shows.

I really enjoyed the character of Hazel.  She is more than a little bit nutty, as is Otto's character.  At various points in the story, their mental defects had me questioning my own sanity.  But there is a bit sweetness to both of these characters as well, particularly their interactions with each other.

There is certainly more than enough to draw readers in to this book- action, romance, intrigue.  Men will like it, women will like it.  I certainly liked it, and I think you will too.

A review copy of this book was provided courtesy of the author.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Zan-Gah, by Allan Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah: A Prehistoric AdventureZan is a young boy living in a prehistoric land.  He wins tribal infamy when he slays a lion, and quickly becomes respected by neighboring tribes as well as his own.  Having faced this danger, he decides to seek out his missing twin brother, Dael, who has been gone for some time.  He strikes out on the journey alone, a journey that takes many months.  He learns of a new threat to his people, in the form of tribes of wasp men.  Once he find Dael, he helps unite the tribes in his area to fight off the wasp men.  Zan will be long remembered as a wise and brave warrior.

I will admit, young adult prehistoric fiction was not exactly at the top of my 2011 to read list, but I was given an opportunity to read this book, and boy howdy am I ever glad I did!  What a fantastic book this turned out to be.  It was chock full of action, and helped promote character building qualities like loyalty, wisdom, and bravery.  I am really impressed with this story.

Zan is not the kind of character you get to know on a deeply personal level, but that serves a real purpose in the book.  We will never relate to Zan; instead, we should hold him in esteem, as we do great historic figures.  And Zan's character is still very well developed.  By the end of the book, I honestly forgot this was a prehistoric story, because the themes are so universal, particularly that of different people becoming one group to overcome a common enemy.  We see that happening all the time.

Though this is a young adult book, there are a couple of scenes that are a little gruesome.  They add to the story, and do have a place in the book, I only mention it because it may make the book more appropriate for high school readers than for middle grade readers.  I think young male readers will especially like the book, and that is a market that rarely gets catered to, so I love the book all the more for that reason.

There is a sequel which I look forward to reading and reviewing in the coming days.
I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the editor and publisher.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

How to Be Perfect, by Daniel M Harrell

How to Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment In Living the Old Testament Book of LeviticusAs Christians, we typically feel that we do not need to follow Levitical law, at least most of them, because Jesus was the fulfillment of the law.  But what would happen if we tried?  The idea is that the law does not lead to grace; grace leads to a desire to follow the law.  So, what would a group of modern day Levites learn over a month of living Levitically?

I think this concept is extremely interesting.  I know I have tended to discount a lot of what is written in Leviticus, even going so far as to call some of it ridiculous.  I would imagine it difficult to follow, yet millions of Jews do it.  This book really changed the way I viewed Levitical law, in terms of its purpose and motivation.  While I am not in any hurry to give up shellfish, or stop wearing material blends, I will think differently about this particular book of scripture.

One small bit of dissatisfaction for me- the book makes multiple mentions of a Facebook group that the modern day Levites utilized, but I was not able to find it on Facebook.  I am not sure if it still exists, and I wish this had been clarified more in the book; if it does exist, I wish the web address had been given, as well as addresses to any pertinent blogs and the church's web site.  It would have made for interesting additional reading, and would have made for a much more personal reading experience.

Similarly, I loved hearing from the individuals in the group, and wished it comprised a bit more of the book.  As it was, it started to lag a bit at the end.  However, overall, I found the book to be highly interesting, and it certainly gave me much to think about.  It would be a great companion text for a Bible study on Leviticus, or simply good reading for any interested Christian.

You can read an excerpt here.

A review copy of this book was provided courtesy of the publisher.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Charlatan's Boy, by Jonathan Rogers

The Charlatan's Boy: A NovelFor as long as he can remember, Grady has been with Floyd.  They are traveling showmen, mostly relying on their feechie show.  It is all Grady knows of life, no knowledge of his parents or his origin.  When the feechie business gets too slow, Grady and Floyd try a number of different types of shows, but nothing ever works out.  Floyd gets the idea to start a feechie scare, so they can resume the feechie show.  The outcome of the endeavor will change Grady's life.

What an amazing story this turned out to be.  Not a lot of true storytellers exist in modern literature, in terms of real fairy tale type stories.  Rogers is a true find.  He takes southern folklore and spins it into a tale that never has you doubting for a moment that the people, places, and actions actually could have existed long ago.  I absolutely loved the character of Grady, and my heart hurt from him more than once during my reading of this book.  His whole life, he feels unwanted, unloved, and ugly.  And all he wants is a feeling of belonging, who among us has not felt the same at one point?

I liked that the book was written with vernacular words and phonetic spellings.  At first it took some getting used to, but once you get in the rhythm, it feels natural.  For it to have proper grammar and spelling would have just seemed wrong.  The book is excellent for young adult readers, and while it is by a Christian publisher, it is not overly religious, just merely age appropriate, with family friendly themes.

It seems as if Grady's story will continue in another book, which I truly hope happens and I have an opportunity to read it.  This was a very sweet book, and I highly recommend it.

A review copy of this book was provided courtesy of the publisher.