Thursday, January 30, 2014

Middle-Grade Review: The Real Boy

I am a long-time fan of Anne Ursu. My son and I both loved her Cronus Chronicles trilogy, starting with The Shadow Thieves, and I enjoyed her middle-grade novel Breadcrumbs so much that I bought a copy for my niece for Christmas the year is was released. I just finished listening to her latest middle-grade novel, The Real Boy, on audio, and it is another winner, filled with magic coupled with very real human emotion.

Oscar is a young shop boy who works for Caleb, the most powerful wizard in the village. He is ridiculed by Caleb’s apprentice, Wolf, but otherwise, Oscar lives a very quiet and content life, taking care of Caleb’s plants and herbs, collecting them and preparing them for the great wizard. Oscar has a fabulous memory and is an expert with herbs, but when it comes to people, he doesn’t know what to do or say and doesn’t understand normal human interactions.

Oscar is perfectly happy with his quiet, sheltered life, but it doesn’t last. Some sort of mysterious and violent force is at work in the village, and all of the wealthy, perfect children from the nearby city are getting sick. Suddenly, Oscar needs to step outside of his comfort zone and take on a larger role. Fortunately, he’s got a new friend, Callie, who is the Healer’s apprentice, by his side.

Ursu has created a unique, magical world in this novel, one with a frightening and mysterious past and an uncertain future. She has also created a unique and sympathetic character in Oscar, who would probably be diagnosed with autism in our world. Oscar’s insecurities and difficulties make him more endearing to readers, especially children. I thought it was very clever how Ursu took a young character with autistic characteristics and dropped him into a magical, fantasy world. Seeing Oscar struggle with his challenges and grow as the story moves forward can perhaps give real-life children some insight into their classmates or neighbors who seem “different.”

Beyond that, though, The Real Boy is simply a great story, well told. It will certainly appeal to children who enjoy magic and fantasy and is perfect for the middle-grade age group, with just the right amount of intrigue and suspense to engage them without scaring them. Children are always empowered to read about characters their own age who take control of their lives (and their fears), and Oscar and Callie make a wonderful pair of heroes. It’s also a story about friendship and finding your place in the wider world. I can’t wait to see what Ursu comes up with next!

HarperChildren’s Audio

For more information about Anne Ursu and her books, check out her website


Monday, January 27, 2014

It's Monday 1/27! What Are You Reading?

Monday! We had quite a week last week, with the Monday holiday, two more snow days, and my son's knee surgery. Exhausting and hectic, so we spent a pretty quiet weekend at home.

Here's what we read last week:
  • I finished Raven Boys, a supernatural teen novel by Maggie Stiefvater, and loved it! I was thrilled to see that we already have #2 waiting here at the house - I can't wait to read it.
  • I also finished The Real Boy, a middle-grade audio book by Anne Ursu. I always enjoy Ursu's novels, and this one was no exception.  I haven't chosen my next audio book yet; I did a lot of podcast catching up this weekend!
  • I am now reading Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, the February choice for my family book group (I started an online family book group last year on Facebook - it is so much fun sharing books with my far-away cousins and aunts!). It's a novel about a little Hawaiian girl who is exiled to a leper colony on Moloka'i in the 1890's. I just started it a couple of days ago, but it is already amazing! So compelling I hate to set it down.
  • I am also still reading 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam - I worked on it in the hospital waiting room. It's an excellent book, but this is why I don't normally read two books at once!
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Bat by Jo Nesbo, the first book in the Harry Hole series. He's read several other Harry Hole novels and enjoys this renowned Scandinavian crime writer. 
  • Jamie, 19, is still reading The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, Book One in The Obsidian Trilogy. 
I did manage a couple of reviews last week:

Review of The House Girl by Tara Conklin, which my entire book group enjoyed.

Review of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a teen/YA historical novel.

And also, a Weekend Cooking post, featuring several easy, healthy, tasty weeknight dinner recipes.

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

What are you and your family reading this week?   

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Code Name Verity

I have been reading rave reviews of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein ever since its release in 2012, and I finally had a chance to read it myself. It’s a unique teen/YA historical novel that focuses on the role of women in World War II.

As this unusual novel opens, it becomes clear that the text is being written by one of the characters. She explains in the first pages that she is a captive of the Nazis in occupied France and that she has agreed to write down everything she knows in exchange for small bits of comfort (like getting her clothes back) and staying alive. It is clear that she is a young British woman, but other details of her background and life come out slowly, in the course of her telling her story.

The narrative that she writes is not what the Nazi officer in charge of her expected. Rather than write dull lists of types of airplanes, British airfields, and other wartime details, she writes a story. The officer allows her to do this because he can see that she is a good storyteller, and he is somewhat amused by her unusual methods.

She starts at the beginning, several years ago, with much of her story focused on a young female pilot named Maddie. In fact, it isn’t immediately apparent to the reader exactly who the writer is at first. She describes her friendship with Maddie and how they both became part of the war effort. Along the way, she includes the kinds of details that the Nazis are looking for, but it is certainly a long and convoluted story.

The details of women’s role in World War II as pilots and spies are fascinating; it is an aspect of this much-written-about period of history that is typically overlooked. The story itself is also engaging, about two young women who become friends during this very difficult time in history and how one of them came to be captured by the Nazis (though those details come much later).

The novel is suspenseful and compelling, and the details of this little-known aspect of the War are intriguing. There are plenty of unexpected twists and surprises along the way (though I guessed at the major plot surprise fairly early on). This is a difficult book to read in some ways because it includes details of the narrator’s capture and torture by the Nazis. As my son reminded me when I cried while listening to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas on audio: “Mom, it’s about the Holocaust. You have to expect it to be sad!” As a result, this novel is best for older, more mature teens and young adults.

332 pages, Hyperion

A companion novel by Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire, was just released in September. It also deals with women pilots in World War II, about a young woman pilot who is captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp.


Monday, January 20, 2014

It's Monday 1/20! What Are You Reading?

It doesn't feel like a Monday because we were still away for the weekend, since the kids were off school today. We took our sons and two friends on a snowboarding weekend (staying at my mom's house) to celebrate our younger son's 16th birthday. They all had a great time, and I enjoyed some much-needed quiet time on the couch with a book in front of the fire!

We all enjoyed some good books this week:
  • I finished The House Girl by Tara Conklin just in time for my book group meeting Wednesday (actually, I read the last few pages after I arrived there!). It was very good and inspired some great discussions. Our group gave it one of our highest ratings!
  • After a glut of historical fiction, I am now reading The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, a teen novel that I've been wanting to read for a long time. I'm enjoying it very much.
  • I am still reading 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam, but, ironically, I am having trouble finding time to read it! We will be spending a lot of time in medical waiting rooms this week, so I am planning to carry it with me. I am already putting some of her insights to use.
  • I am still listening to The Real Boy by Anne Ursu on audio, a middle-grade novel by one of our favorite authors. It's very good so far, but I haven't had a lot of audio time with my older son home from college.
  • My husband, Ken, just finished The First Rule by Robert Crais, a thriller he picked up at the library last week.
  • Now Ken is reading The Bat by Jo Nesbo, the first book in the Harry Hole series. He's read several other Harry Hole novels and enjoys this renowned Scandinavian crime writer.
  • Jamie, 19, is still reading The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, Book One in The Obsidian Trilogy. It's a long one, plus he's been totally absorbed in playing video games during his winter break from college!
 I had such big plans for blog posts this week! But, between my son's birthday, my mom's visit, a flare-up of my chronic illness, and our weekend trip, I only found time for one post:

Weekend Cooking 1/19, with recipes for Banana Cake and Black Bean Soup.

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

What are you and your family reading this week?  

Monday, January 13, 2014

It's Monday 1/13! What Are You Reading?

...And it's also my youngest son's 16th birthday today! How did 16 years go by so fast? He has to take 2 mid-terms on his birthday, but he is also frantically trying to squeeze in his last driving hours with the Driver's Ed teacher so he can go get his license tomorrow!

So, besides all the birthday excitement, we read some great books this week:
  • I am still reading The House Girl by Tara Conklin for my neighborhood book group meeting on Wednesday. I'm enjoying it very much, especially how it moves back and forth from the past to the present.
  • And I am still listening to The Real Boy by Anne Ursu on audio, a middle-grade novel by one of our favorite authors. It's very good so far.
  • I also started reading 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam, in search of a little inspiration for feeling less overwhelmed and more in control in the new year. It's good so far, but I'm having trouble finding time to read it!
  • My husband, Ken, just finished Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher novel, Never Go Back. I was asleep when he finished it last night, but I'm sure he enjoyed it - this is his favorite author and his favorite series.
  • Jamie, 19, is still reading The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, Book One in The Obsidian Trilogy.
 Lots of blog posts last week, though no time for reviews:
Summary of Books Read in December

 Best of 2013 and Year-End Summary - check out my favorite books read last year!

Kids/Teen/YA Best of 2013 and Year-End Summary

Final Tally for my 2013 Reading Challenges

Weekend Cooking post, with several easy, tasty weeknight recipe links.

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

What are you and your family reading this week? 

16 years ago today: my youngest was born!

Last night's birthday dinner - 16 years old today!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013 Reading Challenges Final Tally

I just posted my Best of 2013 Lists (grown-up books at Book By Book; kids/teen/YA books at Great Books for Kids and Teens), so now it is time to tally up my 2013 Reading Challenges.

I did well on my reading challenges this year and enjoyed them all. You can see all the details on my 2013 Reading Challenges Page, but here is a summary:

Big Book Summer Challenge: This was the second year that I hosted my own challenge, Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, and I plan to host it again in the summer of 2014. I love this challenge because it gives me some incentive to finally read the larger books that tend to pile up on my TBR shelves. You can check out my Big Book Summer Wrap-Up post. Here are the Big Books I finished this summer for the challenge:
I already have some Big Books lined up for this summer!

2013 Where Are You Reading Challenge: This challenge, hosted by Sheila at Book Journey is one that I enjoy every year. I read books this year that took place in 27 different states (same as 2012!) and 13 different countries (my best-ever international year). You can see my full list of states and countries and books on my 2013 Challenges page. She is hosting it again this year if you want to join the fun!

2013 TBR Pile Reading Challenge: This was one of my favorite challenges this year, hosted by Evie at Bookish. I have overflowing shelves of books waiting to be read - an entire bookcase devoted just to TBRs (for the sake of this challenge, I counted any book that had been in my possession for a year or more). My goal was to read between 11 and 20 books from my TBR shelves, and I ended up reading 26 total (you can see the full list on my Challenges page). Woohoo!! So, how come my TBR shelves are still in double layers? This challenge provided excellent incentive for getting to some of the books I've been meaning to read for a long time, and I definitely plan to sign up again this year!

2013 Audio Book Challenge, hosted by Theresa's Reading Corner: I definitely wanted to listen to more audio books this year (and the availability of more books as digital downloads helped). My goal was to listen to 12 audio books, and I listened to 14! You can see the full list of audios I listened to on my Challenges page. Another successful challenge.

Those Books I Should Have Read 2013 Reading Challenge, hosted by Reading with Martini:
And, finally, another challenge I was very excited about. I have a very long list of books that I have always meant to read but never seem to have time to get to - some are classics, some are more modern books that it seems everyone has read, others are books my kids are reading for school. I had hoped to read 6 such books last year, and I managed 7, so that is another successful challenge! I'll include this list here since it is so short:
  1.  The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  2. American Pastoral by Philip Roth 
  3. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky 
  6. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
  7. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Agawa 
So, I had a very successful year for reading challenges. Now comes the fun part - choosing new challenges for 2013!

What challenges did you enjoy in 2013 and which ones do you recommend (or host!) for 2014?

Best of 2013 and Year-End Summary

I finally put together my Best of 2013 Lists - whew, it was a hard choice! I read so many great books this past year.

All together, I read 79 books last year (that's 15 more than in 2013). Here's the break-down:
  • 32 were adult fiction
  • 23 were teen/YA fiction 
  • 16 were middle-grade fiction
  • 4 were memoirs
  • 4 were nonfiction but not memoirs
Of the 79 books, I listened to 12 of them on audio.

So, that's 39 books for kids/teens/YA in 2013!

As always, I had a hard time choosing my favorites! In no particular order, here are my Top Ten of 2013 (you can check out my top ten list of adult books read in 2013 at Book By Book).
And, for a little extra fun, here are a few superlatives:

Best Kids/Teen/YA Book of the Year and Best Book by a New-to-Me Author:

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys


Best Kids/Teen/YA Book from an Old Favorite Author:

UnWholly by Neal Schusterman

Best Audio Book of the Year:  

  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne  
(I counted it as best audio for both adults and teen/YA...though The One and Only Ivan is a close second)

 Best Middle-Grade Novel of the Year:

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

You can also check out how I did on my 2013 Reading Challenges.

What were YOUR favorite books read in 2013?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Books Read in December

December, as always, was crazy busy, filled with travel, family, holiday celebrations, and more. Thank goodness for reading, to provide a small pool of calm in the midst of such hectic days! Here's what I finished reading in December:

  • Looking for Bobowicz by Daniel Pinkwater, middle-grade audiobook (New Jersey)
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Agawa, fiction (Japan)
  • Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, teen/YA novel

So, that was 8 books total for December - a very good reading month for me! It was an all-fiction month, and I read 4 adult novels, 3 teen/YA novels, and 1 middle-grade novel. A whopping 3 of those novels were audiobooks (lots of time in the car traveling to see family!) I enjoyed all of these, and several were excellent, but I think my favorite on the month was The Housekeeper and the Professor. It was such a warm, gentle story that I wanted it to last forever.

Update on 2013 Reading Challenges:
I added just 1 new location to my 2013 Where Are You Reading Challenge (Utah). That brings my totals up to 27 states and 13 countries. I focused on clearing off those TBR shelves this month, with all 8 books I read from my own shelves (sitting there a year or more!), bringing my total up to 26 for the 2013 TBR Pile Reading Challenge. I added 3 more audios to my 2013 Audiobook Challenge, and also added 2 more books to my 2013 Those Books I Should Have Read Challenge. I will sum up all of my reading challenges for the year, plus choose my favorites from 2013 in my next post.

What were your favorite books read in December? 

Monday, January 6, 2014

It's Monday 1/6! What Are You Reading?

Finally, a quiet Monday morning to myself! As much as I enjoyed the holiday season, I am also happy to be starting a new year and getting back to my normal daily routine. I am planning to review my 2013 goals today and set new goals for 2014. And, in the bookish world, I will post my Best of 2013 lists this week and decide which challenges to sign up for in 2014. So, let me know if you know of any good reading challenges!

Between holidays, travel, and snow days, the whole family was still off school/work most of last week, so we still had plenty of reading time:
  • I finished Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, a gift from my husband last Christmas, and posted a review. It is hilarious though also sometimes a bit gruesome and shocking. If you enjoy satire, it's a fun little book.
  • I also finished Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a YA historical novel and a Christmas gift from my husband this year! It was excellent, just like everyone had said, and kept me occupied all the way to Oklahoma and back last week.
  • I am still listening to The Real Boy by Anne Ursu on audio, though not making much progress with the whole family at home every day. It's good so far.
  • I just started The House Girl by Tara Conklin, another historical novel and my neighborhood book group's pick for January.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Wool by Hugh Howley (a Christmas gift from me) and loved it. Now my son and I both want to read it.
  • Ken is now reading another Christmas gift from me, Never Go Back, the latest Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child.
  • Jamie, 19, finished Project Cain by Geoffrey Girard. He didn't like the format at first but said it got better. I plan to read this one, too.
  • Jamie is now reading The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, Book One in The Obsidian Trilogy, another fantasy series (his favorite kind of book!).
I managed to catch up on some blog posts last week while I was in Oklahoma:
First Book of the Year post

Review of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

Review of Rotters by Daniel Kraus, a teen/YA award-winning audio book

Weekend Cooking post, including my recipes for Hoppin' John and Gumbo.

Review of Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am, a teen/YA novel.

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

What are you and your family reading this week? 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Rotters

Ever since I was about halfway through the audio book of Rotters by Daniel Kraus, I have been thinking about how I would review it because it is such a complex and contradictory novel. It is a wholly unique story – a coming-of-age tale wrapped up with grave robbing – that is dark and disturbing yet compelling.

Sixteen-year old Joey lives a fairly normal life in Chicago with his single mother: he plays the trumpet in the school band, works hard to be a good student, and has one good friend who helps him contend with the typical trials of high school. Joey’s life falls apart, however, when his mother is killed in an accident, and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with a father he didn’t even know he had. Ken, his father, isn’t any happier to see Joey than Joey is to be there.

Quickly, Joey’s ordinary life turns into something from a nightmare. He has lost his mother, and his only remaining family member clearly doesn’t want him there. He moved away from his only friend (who quickly moves on with his life) and has no friends at his new school, where he is bullied relentlessly, not only by fellow students but also by a sadistic teacher. To make matters worse, Joey discovers that his mysterious father makes his living robbing graves. Although the people in town don’t know the exact nature of his occupation, they all sense that it is something underhanded and illegal, and they ostracize Ken…and now Joey, too.

Things just keep getting worse for Joey, until it seems like you just can’t bear to hear (or read) about one more horrible thing. He is bullied, neglected, starved, and ridiculed. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Meanwhile, Joey very gradually learns more about his father’s life as a Digger, as they are known, and the history and details of grave robbing.

If all of this sounds depressing and macabre, well…it is. Rotters is a very dark and disturbing novel that only gets worse (and worse).  The ending does offer some hope, but it is a long road to get there. It took me 2 months to finish listening to Rotters on audio, in part because it is a long novel and in part because I couldn’t listen to it for long periods – I needed breaks from the sad, angry atmosphere of the book. As I said at the beginning of this review, it is compelling – I was certainly rooting for Joey and wanted to see how things turned out for him. I also felt, though, that it was a bit too long; that may have been partly due to my disjointed way of listening to it. Rotters won the 2012 ALA’s Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production, and I agree that it was very well done – perhaps that is part of why it is so disturbing, because the characters felt real. Just be forewarned that it is a long and sinister journey.

Listening Library/Random House Audio

Paperback:    Audio: