Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: "Dash and Lily's Book of Dares" by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Title: Dash and Lily's Book of Dares
Authors: Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Publisher: Knopf, 2010
Where I got it: I received a SIGNED copy from my awesome Secret Santa, Em of Love YA Lit!

Dash is not one for Christmas. He'd much rather spend his vacation wandering around the stacks in the Strand, his favorite bookstore, than out reveling in the joys of the season. He doesn't even have his parents around (through some ingenius misleading on his part). So when he finds a red Moleskin notebook tucked among the volumes, of course he's game to the dares that go with it. He's intrigued. Besides, what else does he have to do?

Lily love Christmas. She loves everything about it: the caroling, the food, the baking, the presents, the songs and the wardrobe. That's why she is not so pleased when her parents end up spending the holiday in Fiji and disrupting the holiday traditions she loves so dearly. But she has one red Moleskin, a brother's plan to keep her busy, and someone who answers the dare, unexpectedly with one of his own.

In the days before Christmas leading up to New Year's, Dash and Lily find themselves leading each other all over the island of Manhattan on one dare after another that not only force them to discover new things about each other, but about themselves as well.

After all the hype surrounding Dash and Lily, I was really looking forward to reading this as a Christmasy read to get me in the spirit. Unfortunately, because this was the mindset in which I approached it, I was disappointed. It didn't seem like a Christmasy book to me, despite Lily's over-the-top love for the holiday. It's not that it wasn't good, I just set myself up for something that this book wasn't.

I liked all of the characters well enough, though I found Lily to be irritating at times. Some people seemed a little unbelievable, but I could overlook that fact in order to allow myself to enjoy the story and where it was going. Boomer is probably my favorite character—he was always so excited and positive, and I thought all of his little personality quirks were fantastic, especially following mommy bloggers just to see their cattiness. And I also really liked Sofia, Dash's ex. She had this quiet wisdom that didn't seem off-putting, and I like that.

I enjoyed the pseudo-tour of NYC, even though I don't particularly like the city. It was a good way to get to see it without actually having to be there, plus I had two expert guides. And the tasks Dash and Lily set up for each other? Outstanding. I wish I had half the imagination Levithan and Cohn have. It must have been great fun to pass the manuscript back and forth to each other, not knowing what to expect next (this is information I get from Jamie at The Perpetual Page-Turner, by the way).

As for the romance, it was very sweet and happy. This is one of those instances where the two lovebirds aren't madly attracted to each other for no reason; they truly like the other for their beliefs and thoughts and personalities and their ability to share them with one another. Though they get to know each other through the notebook, they have a relationship that is more real than many I see in YA nowadays.

Not to mention most of it was hilarious. I especially liked Dash's sections (the chapters alternate between Dash and Lily's narration). Also, not that I'm one to talk about this too much, but I love this cover. A lot.

Don't expect a heartwarming Christmas story when you pick this up, because you'll be disappointed if that's what you're anticipating. But if you just want a fun book set during the holidays that tells a funny and cute story about two teens falling for each other through clues they leave for each other all over Manhattan, this is it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review: "Let It Snow" by 3 awesome YA authors

I know it's a little late for this, but I DID finish the book on Christmas, which was my goal all along.

Title: Let It Snow
Authors: Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle
Publisher: Speak, 2008
Where I got it: The library!

Let It Snow is made up of three novellas written by three different authors, all big names in the YA book world. And let me tell you, it's for a reason. Each holiday romance takes place mostly in Gracetown on Christmas Eve during one of the biggest snowstorms of the decade. Though all are focused on different characters, in the end they all come together, and along the way characters and events are intertwined in a way that always made me excited to recognize a name or realize how everything was fitting together.

The first was Maureen Johnson's "Jubilee Express," which tells the sweet story of a girl who, despite all signs pointing the other way, thinks she's in a perfect relationship with a perfect guy. But when her parents land in jail and she ends up stranded in a small town, will she be able to see she deserves better? Despite how well-written this is, I didn't find too much that made it stand out for me. It was funny and touching, but it was pretty predictable with no real twists. (Except for the beginning.)

The next story, John Green's "The Cheertastic Christmas Miracle," definitely reminded me that I totally need to read more John Green, and own more of his stuff. He creates the best, quirkiest, most likable characters I've encountered in a while. Here, he picks up the story of a secondary character in Johnson's story and continues to write a cute little romance between old friends (which is one of my favorite kinds) written in a completely believable teen male voice. The situations he creates for his characters are so wacky and unexpected that he completely won me over. I give his story 5 stars, for sure, and this was by far my favorite of the three.

The last story of the three is Lauren Myracle's "The Patron Saint of Pigs," which brings all three stories together. The mysterious Jeb, briefly mentioned in the other two stories, finally gets his own fleshed out. Told from the perspective of his slightly self-absorbed sort-of-ex-girlfriend Addie, we see how one person's obliviousness and selfishness can completely backfire for everyone involved, and how it can be fixed with some effort, and the arrival of a teeny tiny piggy. (You will want a teacup piggy after reading this, just fair warning.) All of the characters in Myracle's contribution have multiple sides and are people I can see existing in real life; they're all flawed and try to fix things that go wrong because of their personalities. Plus, this story tied them all together in the end, much like the Christmas pageant in Love Actually brought all those characters and their stories together in that lovely Christmas movie (which you should watch if you haven't yet).

All in all, John Green carried this one for me. I did enjoy the other two stories, but they completely pale in comparison to Green's story and writing. It was a nice Christmasy read, and I'm glad I found the time to finish it before December 25 ended.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My very first readalongs!

A third post in one day! How crazy! I just wanted to share with you all another development in my reading life today.

I've decided to participate in two readalongs, both hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey, and both starting in January. These are my first readalongs ever, so I'm kind of excited about it.

The first is a January readalong of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, a book I've been wanting to read for at least a couple of years. Finally I have a reason to get started on it, and I'll be able to talk about it with others.

The second is a readalong that will span January and February, thank goodness. That's because we'll be reading the very large and very long War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. This will be my second book by him, and I'm looking forward to it. I just hope I can finish it without falling (too far) behind!

Do you have any desire to read either of these? Join us! C'mon, it'll be fun. :)

Top Ten (well, Eight) Books of 2010

For today's Top Ten Tuesday (as always, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), we are reviewing our favorite reads of 2010. But I've come across a problem that I'm pretty sure will not be an issue for most people. I can only think of eight.

1. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: One of the best YA authors out there right now. This book was fantastic, and so well written.
2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness: Blew me away. I need to read these sequels and keep procrastinating. I have no idea why.
3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: Okay, this was a reread, but it's still one of the best books I read this year, and ever.
4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: See above.
5. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli: I listened to this one on CD. Part of the reason I loved it so much is because John Ritter narrated it. In fact I love it so much, I just ordered it.
6. Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale: A fantastic fairy-tale fusion of a graphic novel. A little steampunk, a lot of fractured fairy tales, some Western stuff going on—all of it's good.
7. Paper Towns by John Green: I need to read more of John Green's stuff. I loved this, but I think I especially loved it because I listened to it on audio. Dan John Miller, the narrator, was absolutely unbelievable. I HIGHLY recommend this audiobook, especially for people who need to have a good experience listening to one.
8. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor: Finally got around to reading (well, listening) to this one. Another great audiobook, narrated by Lynne Thigpen.

That's all I can think of, honestly. I'm sure I've read other fantastic books this year but unfortunately I haven't kept track of them all. I think I'll do that in 2011. What are yours?

For those of you who are wondering...

I did not get any books for Christmas, outside of my totally awesome Secret Santa gifts from bookish friends. That is sad, some of you might think. But wait. It's not so bad.


Because I totally got a nook for Christmas.

I'm super excited about this, as I've been collecting free ebooks from for months in anticipation of this event. And now I have more than 100.

So who knows when I'll have all the time to read my enormous number of classics I got for free, or the Free Friday books I downloaded. Who knows when I'll read the cheapy-cheap deal books I got for under $5. But someday, if I want to read them, they'll BE THERE.

Also, can I say how incredibly excited I am that I can actually use NetGalley now? Thank you for Delirium, my friend. I will get there as soon as I can, I promise you.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas review: "The Christmas Mystery" by Jostein Gaarder

Merry Christmas to you all! Today I want to highlight a personal favorite, one that I reread this year and plan on reading every year. I also plan on reading it to my children.

Title: The Christmas Mystery
Author: Jostein Gaarder
Translator: Elizabeth Rokken
Illustrator: Rosemary Wells
Publisher: Moyer Bell, 1996; originally published in Norwegian under the title Julemysteriet, copyright 1992
Where I got it: I originally found this book in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in 2008 after years of a vague understanding that I wanted to read it, but I had forgotten the title until I saw it there. I then got the copy I read this year at Barnes & Noble, which I had to order into the store.

Joachim, a little boy in Norway, goes out with his father on November 30, on the hunt for an Advent calendar before December begins. At a local bookshop they find a few choices, but Joachim is drawn to a particular, and peculiar, old-looking calendar that the bookseller tells him was left by an odd old flower-seller. They take it home, and Joachim is surprised and pleased to discover that behind each door is not only a small picture, but a scrap of paper that tells the story of Elisabet, a girl who travels back in time to Bethlehem with a group of pilgrims made up of angels, sheep, shepherds, kings and others who played a role in the very first Christmas. Soon Joachim finds out there was a girl who disappeared from his town about 40 years earlier, a girl with the same name and appearance as his Advent calendar's heroine. Could she be the same Elisabet? Was she really brought back in time by an angel to witness the birth of Jesus?

This book is very special to me. It is a treasure, and because each day in December has a chapter devoted to it, I read one chapter a day and use this as my Advent calendar. Chapters are short, and language and the characters written are fairly simple, but it is a lovely story about Jesus and about belief. I will say you have to have at least a modicum of belief in Jesus to appreciate and like this book, but if you do I would seek it out.

Unfortunately, the copy I have has a large number of typos, mostly the wrong sort of punctuation. Though that bugged me, I had read the story before in a better edition from the UK (it was originally published in Norway) so it didn't really detract too much from my reading this time around.

As I said, there is no real depth to the characters, but it is fable-like in that way, and it is great seeing Joachim and his parents try to discover what happened to the Elisabet of their village and find the similarities between her and the Elisabet of their Advent calendar.

For a religious Christmas read, you can't get much better than this. Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Throwback Thursday: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" by Barbara Robinson

Getting closer to Christmas, and guess what, it's Thursday! I know I haven't done a Throwback Thursday in a while, but be prepared for one today. Hooray!

Title: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Author: Barbara Robinson
Publisher: Harper & Row, 1972
Where I got it/why I read it: I was reminded of this book by Anita Silvey in her fantastic resource, her Children's Book-A-Day Almanac, and immediately checked to see if it was available at my library. It was! I checked it out.

*Starred Review*

The Herdmans are rotten kids, each and every one of them, and delight in causing trouble. They are menaces, mean kids who bully and go out of their way to make someone's life miserable. So when they show up at church (they heard there's food there) and get all the leading roles of the Christmas pageant, everyone is sure they're going to completely and totally ruin everything. But the Herdmans have never even heard the Christmas story before, how Jesus was born, and what happens is enough to surprise every single person in town.

I read this years and years ago, to the point that I had forgotten most of the story. It's pretty much one of the greatest Christmas stories ever, and I forgot that until I read it again this past weekend. Not only is it told in a funny way that is easy to read for younger kids, it's touching and real. How would you react to hearing the story of Christmas for the first time? The Herdmans are outraged that anyone would make a pregnant woman sleep in a stable, and that some king dude went out hunting for the little baby before he was even born so he could kill him.

The Herdmans, though they bully, threaten others, and smoke cigars (even the girls), challenge the "good" kids to think about the pageant and about what they're involved in in a way they never have before. The unnamed narrator drives it home with her own thinking, and part of this book's beauty is that it doesn't seem contrived at all. It's genuine, and the kids' curiosity and questions bring fresh perspective to a story most of us grew up hearing.

At 80 pages, it's a short book but WELL worth taking the hour or two to read. Or, if you have kids of your own, take ten minutes a night to read it to them before bed. They'll love the antics of Herdmans, and they'll think about the story in a whole new way.

I should mention, you don't have to be super religious to enjoy this book either. Crazy things happen, and busybody old ladies get put in their place in the end.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: "The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog" by Dave Barry

A third Christmas book review, hooray!

Title: The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog
Author: Dave Barry
Publisher: Berkeley Books, 2006
Where I got it: I bought this two years ago at Barnes & Noble.

What do a Christmas pageant, kids who like to goof around, the loss of a pet and the gain of a new one have in common? They're all key parts to this funny and sweet Christmas tale told in the signature voice of humorist Dave Barry. It's 1960, and Doug is cast in his church's Christmas pageant as a shepherd. But on Christmas Eve, things don't go quite as planned—all I'll say is that a dog and bat poop are involved.

This book takes maybe about an hour to read. It's quick, hilarious, and touching all at once. My favorite kind of Christmas story, as you might have noticed from my reviews thus far this week. Barry has an incredible talent at finding the right words to get you to laugh, and he gives Doug a completely believable voice, typical of a younger kid who deals with funny stuff on a daily basis (which makes it not only perfect, but relatable).

The print is pretty big, and photographs and old ads are peppered throughout the pages, which is why it's such a fast read. The images really add a lot to the story, if only for a laugh or two. Plus, if you weren't around in the '60s, it helps you to picture things better.

Though tinged with sadness at times, the antics of Doug, his friends, and his family (not to mention the miracle dog of the title) make this a fun read. It's one I go back to every year, not only because it makes me laugh, but because it's got a great balance of emotion. Seriously, find an hour or so of your time and take it to read this.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Not-so-great expectations.

I recently read this AP article, pointed out to me by the Boston Boom Bums' Bookish Intelligence Report, about the slow start to Oprah's latest book club pick. A lovely copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, with dappled pages and a gorgeous red and white cover, it has reportedly sold only around 21,000 copies in its first week and hasn't even made it into the top ten bestsellers for any vendor.

The AP suggests it is because of the easy access to free e-book copies, as it is in the top ten free e-book downloads on I think that is certainly part of it, but there might be a little more to it; at least, this is why I don't think I'll be buying a copy.

Who didn't read either of these books in high school? I was forced to ingest Great Expectations at the age of 13, and hated EVERY. SINGLE. MINUTE. There was no part that I enjoyed, few characters I liked, no redeeming factors for me. It was the first time I can remember having such a passion of hatred for a book. I was then, as I am now, a huge reader and liked the other selections we read that year (Jane Eyre, one of my favorites, and To Kill a Mockingbird, another all-time favorite). But Great Expectations? If I never saw another copy again, it would be too soon.

A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations: Two Novels (Oprah's Book Club)As for A Tale of Two Cities, it did redeem Dickens for me, as I actually enjoyed it. But would I pay $14 (the price of the book with my B&N discount) for both books? No. I would not spend a penny on Great Expectations, such is my disdain. Even if I liked A Tale of Two Cities.

It's not just me. I can count on one hand the people I've met who actually liked Great Expectations. Most agree with me—they didn't like it and never would.

So to conclude, I think part of the reason Oprah's pick isn't flying off the shelves is because pretty much everyone has read it already. It's not like she picked an ignored classic—most Americans have been forced to read both these books at some point in their schooling, and I'm guessing most of those people were not too happy about it at the time. Bad memories and dislike will not contribute to sales.

What do you think? Did you like either of these books when you read them in high school? Were you one of the few who didn't have to read them?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: "A Christmas Story" by Jean Shepherd

Here's my next round of Christmas cheer, a review of the book that inspired one of my favorite movies of all time.

Title: A Christmas Story
Author: Jean Shepherd
Publisher: Broadway Books, 2003
Where I got it: I wisely decided to invest in my own copy and bought it at Barnes & Noble.

Most of you will recognize this title as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time. Okay, some of you might not agree with it being one of the greatest, since I know there are people out there who don't like it. But in my family it is a classic and we always have whatever channel is playing it for 24 hours on when we open presents on Christmas morning. I could quote it all day.

Even if you don't LIKE it, you are probably familiar with the story. 9-year-old Ralphie Parker wants an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle for Christmas, and schemes his best to get it. In between Red Ryder plotting, he deals with neighborhood bully Scut Farkas, pines to be in Little Orphan Annie's Secret Circle with his official decoder pin, enjoys a little light from his father's Major Award, and generally is just witness and participant in his slightly dysfunctional but ultimately happy family. Some of you, however, might not realize that this movie made famous by TV showings was based on a series of essays by humorist and radio personality Jean Shepherd.

Because I love the movie so dearly, I decided it was about time to read what inspired it. All in all, I am glad I did, not only because it gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of the movie, it was incredibly funny. Here's a line describing walking to school in the winter to give you the idea:
Scattered over the icy waste around us could be seen other tiny befurred jots of wind-driven humanity. All painfully toiling toward the Warren G. Harding School, miles away over the tundra, waddling under the weight of frost-covered clothing like tiny frozen bowling balls with feet. An occasional piteous whimper would be heard faintly, but lost instantly in the sigh of the eternal wind. (p. 9).
Another difference between the text and the movie is the setting—it is never really definitively said in the latter what time this takes place in, but the essays make it clear this was during the Depression. As a result, among the incredible wit and hilarity of Shepherd's prose, there is a hint of seriousness that is lacking in the film, though it is only a slight undertone. Mostly it's just funny, though it's a bit darker than the film.

Because the essays weren't meant to be published as a package originally, and were four in a larger volume called In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, they aren't all Christmas stories, but will still make you smile with recognition if you know the movie, especially when lines and phrasing are the same. There is a fifth essay included that has to do with their neighbors the Bumpuses, which was originally from another collection, for the reader's enjoyment.

This was great for fans of the movie and for those who have yet to see it. If you hate the movie, I'm not sure you'll like the book, since I'm kind of biased, but it was different enough for me to decide I like the movie better. I liked how all the stories were intertwined rather than broken up into separate stories, but like I said I'm biased. It's certainly worth the read.

Have you read this, or seen A Christmas Story? Are you a loyal watcher of this beloved film (I've been known to watch it outside the Christmas season), or do you hate it completely?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review: "A Season of Gifts" by Richard Peck

For the next week, I'll be reviewing Christmas-related books, and I'm excited to share them with you all! There will be some great gems (in my opinion). Here's the first:

TitleA Season of Gifts
Author: Richard Peck
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009
Where I got it: Found it at my library, hooray!

Grandma Dowdel, who some readers will recognize from A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, makes a comeback in this recent novel from acclaimed novelist Richard Peck. The large, tough, but very big-hearted Mrs. Dowdel is the next door neighbor of the Barnhart family, newly moved from Terre Haute, Indiana to the tiny town in Piatt County. Mr. Barnhart, a Methodist preacher, was assigned the small, broken-down church in the tiny town, and all of them have a rough start adjusting to the change of scenery. And though Mrs. Dowdel is not a church woman or one to neighbor, things sure turn around for the Barnharts throughout the second half of 1958, seemingly by circumstance. The narrative starts in the dog days of August, going through the fall season and the major holidays, and finally ending with Christmas.

Richard Peck has such a lovely way of crafting his stories. It never seems rushed or hurried, even when something exciting is happening. Life meanders along, despite all of the crazy schemes and scenarios that seem to crop up when Mrs. Dowdel is around. There are a few marked differences from the two companion novels, besides being set in the late 1950s instead of the Depression—there is a somewhat disturbing scene near the beginning where Bob is bullied pretty badly, to the point of physical abuse. However, this is a pivotal scene, as it gives Mrs. Dowdel a reason to notice him and provides a background for the rest of the story.

The way Peck concocts schemes is genius. Things happen and the reader isn't sure where they're going, but when they fall into place it's nothing short of brilliant. Mrs. Dowdel manages to do all the right things without seeming like she's doing them on purpose, which takes some obvious skill. What she accomplishes for the Barnharts, and how they react to them, is just wonderful. And to see how some of them get involved is not only unexpected, it never failed to make me smile.

All of the characters are believable and their own people, though 6-year-old Ruth Ann adorably starts to talk and act like her elderly neighbor, using phrases like "hoo-boy" and pushing up imaginary spectacles. Phyllis is your typical angsty teen, and Bob is eager to grow up but knows his responsibilities and limits, for the most part. An interesting difference between this book and its companions is we get to see a parental element—the previous volumes just had children reacting to their grandmother, while here we see adult insight as well as that of a child.

This makes great reading for an older audience as well as for children. There are so many references and scenes where younger readers might not get the full picture right away, but adults will understand what is going on while it's happening or right after it happens. Most things are clearly explained by the end of the chapter for those who missed the clues along the way, though there are a few comments that will go unnoticed and unrecognized by younger readers that adults and older children will probably catch—and the story works just as well even if you don't catch them.

One nitpicky thing I disliked was the epilogue. It was a little too obvious for my taste, and didn't quite go with the rest of the tone of the book. My favorite aspect of Peck's writing is his subtlety, and this lacked it completely. Of course, it ended being a Christmas story and with it came some schmaltz, which I normally like, but I felt like this didn't need any. It's a lovely story all its own, and though it's nice to find out what happened to the Barnharts after they left Piatt County, Peck laid it on a bit thick in the last few sentences.

I really liked this book, and anything with Grandma (or Mrs.) Dowdel is sure to be a good time. She has a mind for scheming and a good heart, always looking to do the right thing and to get a little bit of justice for those who can't get it themselves. Aimed at middle-grade readers, it's a nice, short book to read right before Christmas, or any time of the year really.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Winner of "The Secret Society of the Crystal Ball" hooray!

And the winner is! Drumroll please...

Brrrrrrrrrr (that's my drumroll)

Andrew from Massachusetts!

Congratulations Andrew, you will be receiving a signed copy of The Secret Society of the Pink Crystal Ball by Risa Green!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Top Ten Books in 2011

This top ten Tuesday, hosted by the lovely blog The Broke and the Bookish, I will do a bit differently. There has been a lot of talk recently about highly anticipated books in the coming year, and it's something I've been thinking about. So here are my thoughts on lists like this.

I think it's fantastic that others get excited about books that are going to come out soon or in the distant future. But I don't quite understand it. I have so many books that I want to read that are already out, or that I already own. I don't even look at other books that will be coming out in the near future, unless I loved the first in the series so much that I can't stand to wait another minute to find out what happens. And even then, I probably won't pick up the sequel until well after its release date (unless, of course, it's Harry Potter). This was the case with The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I was blown away by it, and immediately wanted to read the sequel. But I didn't have it with me and the library was closed, so I had no choice but to wait. I took it out of the library, and it's been sitting in my car for weeks.

I know of books that will be released soon, but I don't necessarily feel any excitement for them. Curiousity, sure. But I can wait. I've got plenty to occupy my time before then, and then some.

All this said, I do have to admit I am looking forward to Delirium by Lauren Oliver, since Before I Fall was pretty amazing. I'd like to read it before then, as many other bloggers seem to have done already, but like I said, I have plenty to read until February 1, 2011.

If you are one of those people who knows what they want to read in the next year, link up to your own top ten post on The Broke and the Bookish's post. Maybe I'll get some ideas from you!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: "The Secret Society of the Pink Crystal Ball" by Risa Green

Title: The Secret Society of the Pink Crystal Ball
Author: Risa Green
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire, 2010
Where I got it: I was sent a copy by the publisher for review.

Erin Channing leads a pretty boring life. She has the highest GPA in the tenth grade, does nothing out of the ordinary, takes no risks, and plays by the rules. That is, until she inherits a Pink Crystal Ball (think Magic 8 Ball, but clear with pink opaque liquid inside) from her recently deceased Aunt Kiki. After the initial grief of losing her aunt, Erin and her friends realize there's more to this Pink Crystal Ball than it first appears. Could it grant her wishes for real? This might be the answer to all her problems, including her boring life—but it also might come at a cost.

At first I was a little worried about the way certain concepts and practices were treated in this book. Green takes real religious practices and things that are taken very seriously by some people, and kind of mocks them a bit—it made me slightly uncomfortable. But then I took a step back and tried to enjoy the story for what it was: a light, fun comedy of errors/coming-of-age story with a dash of romance and magic.

At first I didn't really like Erin or her friends, but as time went on I definitely changed my mind. I kind of was like Erin in high school, though I did do other things besides study. They're all pretty easy to identify with, for the most part, and I ended up invested in the outcome of their story.

I enjoyed seeing how the ball made certain wishes come true, especially since they didn't always turn out quite the way Erin envisioned. Especially when she made wishes about changing things about her body. Pretty funny, that.

But despite all of the fun and silly things that happen, there are some heavier issues explored, like grief, reconciliation, serious bullying (in person and via the Internet), family problems, not to mention three-dimensionality in some supposedly stock characters. Erin's friend Lindsay is tormented by a girl in their grade, to the point she fakes sick and stays home from school; her other friend Samantha, though rich, has to live with parents who hate each other and openly talk about their feelings in front of her; Erin and her mother both have to deal with Kiki's (her mother's sister) death and the lack of closure, as she hadn't spoken to either of them in the last year of her death.

What I was perhaps most surprised about was the development of Megan, the mean girl who tortures Lindsay and has been for years. Green gives her layers that we don't expect, especially ones that Erin herself is surprised to discover. It also makes her readers wonder about the people they dislike in their own lives.

This book is a lesson in learning to look deeper than the surface, to take a few chances in life and to enjoy it while you can. And the best part is Green manages to get this point across without being corny, and still making it a fun time.

Want your own, SIGNED copy of this book? Sign up below! Sorry, this one is for U.S. residents only, since the author is sending the book herself. One entry per person, please. This contest will end Wednesday, 12/15 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Secret Santa Awesomeness!

Oh man, I'm posting so much I bet you guys don't know WHAT to think. Three posts in two days??? What has come over me!

I am just so excited about my Secret Santa awesomeness that I simply must share it with you all. Some of you may know I took part in two separate Secret Santas in the bookish community this year—the one hosted by the College Students! group on GoodReads, of which I've been a member for more than 2 years (whoa, crazy) and the one hosted by the other blog I collaborate on, The Broke and the Bookish.

The other day I got an excellent present from my GR Secret Santa, of whom I know the identity but will not mention here because we are trying to keep it a secret in the group until just around Christmas (I think). But I am incredibly grateful, because not only did I get two awesome books:

I also got this fantastic card that was also my hint:

I am super excited to read both of these books!

Okay, so today I got my other package, which was a real boon because I needed some cheering up as I recently lost my phone and finally forked out the cash to get a new one on eBay this morning. So I was excited to see that the mailman left this on my doorstep.

Yay! It was from Em of Love YA Lit! What could possibly be in this wonderful package?

Why, all of this!!

A mix tape, based on my love for Ingrid Michaelson!

Doggie treats for Lucy! :)
Okay, this one was in a package first, but I took it out. It is flower tea!
And finally, the best part of all, this!

It was wrapped, but I destroyed that wrapping paper in my eagerness.
Yaayyy!! I really didn't think I would get this one, even though I secretly hoped I would. Thanks Em!


And because I know you want to know, here is what the flower tea looked like while it was blooming.

Dropping it in the hot water.

It's starting to bloom!

Almost complete...

Yay! A flower! That is tea!
Happy holidays everyone! I hope those of you who took part in Secret Santas made out as well as I did.

Review: "How I Live Now" by Meg Rosoff

Title: How I Live Now
Author: Meg Rosoff
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books, 2004
Where I got it: Took it out of the library.

15-year-old American-born Daisy is shipped off to stay with her aunt and cousins on their farm in England, when war breaks out. All is changed forever—Aunt Penn left for Oslo a few days before The Occupation, and Daisy and her four cousins are left alone to fend for themselves. In the beginning, it's wonderful—especially when Daisy and her cousin Edmond find they feel more for each other than just cousinly love. But they are soon forced to remember that they are living in the middle of a war, and paradise can't last forever.

I've heard others say this book is not so much about the war as it is about Daisy and her relationships. I'm going to have to disagree; this is unequivocally a war story, albeit one that heavily relies on the relationships between Daisy and her cousins, especially Edmond. The Enemy is never named, and we never find out who invaded, who is bombing, or who the foreigners are, making it that much scarier; it is deliberately left ambiguous. Life is not pretty when people around the country are dying, often violently, and despite the early days of ignorance for these five children, they learn this fast and the hard way.

At first the run-on style of Daisy's narration kind of bugged me, but as the story went on it started to fit really well with the events. Her rush to get the words out just worked with the events, though it did work much better once the war got into full swing. When she was just with her cousins it seemed out of place.

Another thing other people mentioned was the relationship between Daisy and Edmond, and how it didn't seem so strange, even if they are first cousins. I have to say, I couldn't quite forget all about it, and it did bother me a little, but not enough to stop reading the book. It would be a shame to put this one down because of that. The descriptions of war and how Daisy and her cousins managed to live through it are the real reason to read this. And yet, despite the triumph of surviving, it is quite a dark book with a somewhat problematic (though hopeful) ending.

This is another Printz Award-winner, and I have to say I like this one better than The White Darkness. The story kept me reading late into the night, and once I got past the beginning it was hard to put down. Rosoff gives us a horrific and graphic look at war from the perspective of a younger and reluctant participant, a girl who started off apathetic about the whole situation and is quickly forced to see that it does matter, even if you don't think it can touch you.

Did this deserve a Printz? I'd say probably. It is very well-written and is pretty powerful, not to mention does not shy away from gore or sexuality and has a pretty riveting plot. I liked it well enough, though I'm not sure it will stay with me for very long. I'll remember it for sure, but it won't be something I find myself deeply contemplating.

This reminded me of Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It, though I liked Pfeffer's book better. If you liked How I Live Now, you might want to consider taking a look at Pfeffer's trilogy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Top Ten Places I Like to Read

Another Tuesday arrives, and with it a Top Ten Tuesday hosted by us crazy kids at The Broke and the Bookish. After you're done reading my fave places to read, this week's theme, then why don't you head on over there and link to your own list? And without further ado, these are the places I love to read the best.

1. My bed. Yes, I'm one of those people who likes to lounge around in bed at whatever hour of the day and read until I feel like taking a nap. And then I do. Because I'm on my bed.

2. The armchair next to the window in my family room. It is super comfy, and during the day I get natural light. At nighttime I can just switch on the lamp on the little table next to it, and also set down a cup of tea or hot chocolate or hot cider or whatever drink I might be drinking. (Wine too.)

3. The couch in the living room. This couch is right next to a huge picture window, and I love to prop myself up on the arm of it and read in the sunlight, especially during the summer. Now it's okay, but it's best when it's super sunny.

4. By the fire. Sometimes we put a fire in our fireplace, which is not automatic like Jamie's unfortunately, but still pretty nice.

5. Panera. Okay, so at my Panera they have a fireplace and it's awesome. I managed to snag one of the two tables next to it this morning while I was finishing up my homework and I felt super special. It's very cozy. Plus, free Wi-Fi when I want to surf the web.

6. True North Cafe. True North is an independent cafe in my hometown (Burlington, MA) and is in fact run by my brother's friend's mom, which is cool. Very nice atmosphere there, plus their food and coffee are yummy.

7. Starbucks. This is my go-to when I'm not sure where to go. Whenever I'm going to meet the boyfriend at his house and he's going to be late, I'll just head on over to Starbucks, get some tea and read until he's close to home. When I was abroad in London for a semester, I would walk to one of the, like, five or six in my immediate area (it was insane, there were so many) and read there.

8. Outside during the spring and summer. More during the spring, since it's not super hot yet. I love sitting outside, relaxing and reading in my backyard. I have to be on a chair though, since my yard's grass is terrible and patchy.

9. The library. It's not necessarily my favorite, since I work there, but there are pretty comfortable chairs that I can sit it, and I have to be there by necessity anyway.

10. With someone I love. Especially if I'm reading to them. I can't wait until I read to my kids. Yep, I'm going to be one of those moms who forces their kids to listen to bedtime stories. I did that to my brother when he was little too, and he hated it haha. BUT I MADE HIM LISTEN.

Those are my top ten, and yes I do realize the last one is not necessarily a place, but I ran out. I don't go a whole lot of places to read. (And I do realize I mentioned three separate coffee places, but cut me a break. They're all different and I go there for different reasons.)

What are your faves?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review: "Plain Jayne" by Hillary Manton Lodge

Title: Plain Jayne
Author: Hillary Manton Lodge
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers, 2010
Where I got it: Library!

Jayne is your average city dweller, living in Portland, Oregon and trying to make a name for herself as an investigative reporter. She works hard at what she does, and maybe too much—when her boss asks her to take a vacation instead of covering a coveted story in Cuba, she decides she's going to use the time to chase her own story. She is going to find an Amish family to live with and profile for the paper. But living with an Amish family is not as simple as she expected, and it makes her reexamine the way she is living her own life. Especially when she thinks about her growing friendship with carpenter Levi Burkholder, and she sees the way he interacts with his own family. Will experiencing Plain life change the way Jayne lives hers?

What I loved most about this book is the writing style. Lodge is great with dialogue and internal monologue—Jayne narrates, and she has a crisp wit with just enough sarcasm. I laughed out loud a few times, which always wins points for me. I often found myself thinking that she kind of talks like I do and she is incredibly relatable, for the most part.

I also loved watching Jayne go through her life and sort everything out in her head. She really struggled with repairing relationships within her family, and knowing she could never make things completely right with her recently deceased father. Though this didn't really tear at my heart the way other books that deal with dead loved ones did, Lodge still managed to make me understand where Jayne was coming from and root for her to fix things as best she could.

Jayne isn't the only one dealing with family dynamics. The Amish family she stays with isn't perfect either, even if they appear to be at first glance. With one son all but shunned and a daughter contemplating leaving, they have a lot to deal with and think about. Ultimately, this book is about family,  loyalty and discovering yourself and your beliefs. (This is what I could call a Christian fiction book, by the way.)

**Mild spoilers ahead!**

My problems with the book started toward the last quarter of the book. Things seemed to be resolved, and then Levi and Jayne ran into an issue. This happens in life, yes, but the way it was handled kind of made me a little angry. It's clear Levi and Jayne both made mistakes, but they were the result of the way they were treated by their own families. Levi is sensitive to loved ones whose feelings change about him when he changes his life course, and Jayne is very guarded. Yet it looked to me like Levi felt he was completely in the right, and Jayne was forced to admit she was wrong. It didn't seem fair or okay to me.

**Spoilers done!**

Plain Jayne is a light, wholesome romance that was just what I needed. It was a little fluffy, with some more serious themes like faith, family and unconditional love. It tended to drag toward the middle—I felt like it could have probably ended sooner than it did—and I didn't like the story quite so much once she left the Amish community, but despite this I enjoyed it enough to want to read its sequel, Simply Sara.
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