Book Review: Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

boysofblurTitle: Boys of Blur
Author: N.D. Wilson
Genre: Middle grade fiction, children’s fantasy
Publisher: Random House
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
Number of pages: 208
First line: Out in the muck, where a sea of sugarcane stops and swamps begin, sitting beside a lake bigger than some countries, there is a town called Taper.

Goodreads blurb:
When Charlie moves from Palm Beach to the small town of Taper, Florida, he discovers a different world. Pinned between the everglades and the swampy banks of Lake Okeechobee, the small town produces sugar cane . . . and the fastest runners in the country. Kids chase muck rabbits in the fields while the cane is being burned and harvested. Dodging flames and blades and breathing smoke, they run down the rabbits for three dollars a skin. And when they can do that, running a football is easy.

But there are things in the swamp, roaming the cane at night, that cannot be explained, and they seem connected to sprawling mounds older than the swamps. Together with his step-second cousin Herman “Cotton” Mack, the fastest boy on the muck, Charlie hunts secrets in the glades and on the muck flats where the cane grows secrets as old as the soft earth, secrets that haunted, tripped, and trapped the original native tribes, ensnared conquistadors, and buried runaway slaves. Secrets only the muck knows.

I know I’ve talked before about the fiction vs. nonfiction dilemma – the idea that with certain authors, either their nonfiction or their fiction works for me, but not both. I think N.D. Wilson is going to be one of those authors. I really enjoyed his book 100 Cupboards when I read it aloud to the boys, but I was just “meh” about his nonfiction work Death by Living. Because I enjoyed his previous middle grade fiction, I said “yes” to a review copy of his newest children’s novel, Boys of Blur, and I can tell you that I and my two youngest boys are very happy I did.

Wilson grew up reading the fantasy of Tolkien and Lewis, and got the idea that Britain was a magical, mythical land. I remember reading somewhere that he began to wonder why there couldn’t be just as much fantasy and magic in the United States. Boys of Blur is the result of that speculation – and it is a fantastic read. Wilson is a storyteller at heart; he knows how to create atmosphere and tension and emotion and movement. His characters are completely drawn with the fewest words necessary; his settings are the same way. Choosing just the exact words to thrust you into the world of the book is an art form that Wilson has in spades. Because he doesn’t get too wordy, you are left with a beautifully descriptive novel that moves at lightning speed. There were mornings that we quickly read through thirty or forty pages, not wanting to stop, not even noticing how much time was going by because we were so immersed in Charlie’s story.

And what a story! It is full of myth and fantasy and larger than life characters and history that goes deep into the muck. The evil that is converging on Taper is truly wicked, and just the right kind of scary. The Gren and their Mother are chill-inducing villains, and Charlie’s quest to rid Taper of their creeping hatred is the stuff of legends.

One last thing: Charlie’s family is blended and multi-racial, and there is no big deal made of it. After his abusive father was taken away, his mom, Natalie, married Mack, a big, African-American, ex-NFL player. They give Charlie a half-sister. He also gains a bunch of African-American cousins, which is how he gets hooked up with Cotton, his partner in his exploration of the mounds in the muck. I found it refreshing that Wilson dealt with a biracial family without dealing with it – it was simply a fact.

Posted in children's fiction, fantasy | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Sunday Salon – April 6, 2014 (plus, wrapping up March’s reading)

sundaysalon2Time: 7:06 a.m., Sunday morning. Trying to figure out if I feel well enough to go to church – I’ve been fighting a stomach bug for the past couple days.

Thankful for: Spring break! One full week without homeschooling – and, even better, one full week of not having to get Noah back and forth to the high school for his Design Communications class.

Looking forward to: Extra reading time and sleeping in. Plus, I’m hoping to take Noah to see Divergent on Thursday.

Reading: Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom (I’m really enjoying this, and love the fact that it is set in my neck of the woods – Eastern Washington State); The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (I’m not enjoying this. Sigh. It is very slow going, and I am having to force myself to read it); and Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Hoping to start this one today)

Recently finished reading: Circle of Flight by John Marsden. This is the final book in the Ellie Chronicles, which is the trilogy that follows Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series. I found my copy when we cleaned out the van – it was my “back-up” book in case I forgot to bring one somewhere. It got shoved under the seat and I forgot all about it; I’ve been halfway through it for over a year. I finally finished it, and was glad to find out how Ellie’s story ended. I loved both series, although the first one is definitely superior.

Listening to: A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabladon and Fire and Ash by Jonathan Maberry

Recently finished listening to: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (Wow!)

Watching: Last week’s movie choice, Gravity, got mixed reviews. Some of us really enjoyed it; others found it a bit slow. I did find that it didn’t have near the “punch” that it did when I saw it on the big screen. Tonight, it’s my turn to pick the film, and we’ll be watching 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves. The trailers made me want to see it, and it’s the first time in several weeks that we’re all watching a film for the first time – no one has already seen it in the theater. Also, Kevin has gotten me hooked on Justified, and we are tearing through a couple episodes a night. We’re almost finished with season 2. Can I just say that Timothy Olyphant is very yummy?

Blogging recently:
~ Book Review: The Frangipani Hotel: Stories by Violet Kupersmith
~ Book Review: Black Chalk by Christopher Yates – plus, a global giveaway!
~ The “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book!” Challenge: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

How are you spending this first Sunday in April? Did you read any great books in March?

Books completed in March:

The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry (audiobook) – 3 starsmy review
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates – 4 starsmy review
We Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter (audiobook) – 4 starsmy review
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (audiobook) – 3 starsmy review
City of Lost Dreams by Magnus Flyte – 4 starsmy review
Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson – 3 starsmy review
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau – 4 starsmy review
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – 5 starsmy review
Going Over by Beth Kephart – 5 starsmy review
The Case for Faith: Student Edition by Lee Strobel – 3 stars
The Frangipani Hotel: Stories by Violet Kupersmith – 3 starsmy review
Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan – 5 starsmy review
One Hundred Names by Cecilia Ahern – my review
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh – my review

Posted in sunday salon | Tagged | 18 Comments

Book Review: The Frangipani Hotel – Stories by Violet Kupersmith

frangipaniTitle: The Frangipani Hotel: Stories
Author: Violet Kupersmith
Genre: Magical realism, short stories
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher for a tour with TLC Book Tours
Number of pages: 256

Goodreads blurb: Violet wrote these unusually accomplished stories as an undergraduate at Mt. Holyoke College in an attempt to update the traditional Vietnamese ghost stories her grandmother had told her to incorporate the more relevant ghosts of the aftermath of the Vietnam War on a generation of displaced Vietnamese immigrants as well as those who remained in Vietnam. From the story about a beautiful young woman who shows up thirsty in the bathtub of the Frangipani Hotel in Saigon many years after her first sighting there to a young woman in Houston who befriends an old Vietnamese man she discovers naked behind a dumpster to a truck driver asked to drive a young man with an unnamed ailment home to die, to the story of two American sisters sent to Vietnam to visit their elderly grandmother who is not what she appears to be, these stories blend the old world with the new while providing a new angle of insight into the after-effects of the war.

Have you ever been reading a book, and felt like you really should love it, but you just don’t? And you feel like a worse person/reader, because you aren’t “getting” whatever you’re supposed to be getting from the book? Well, The Frangipani Hotel was that kind of read for me. It had all of the elements that I usually like in a book: fantastic writing, an interesting setting, creepy stories, twisty endings. And yet, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find myself feeling apathetic about it.

I am glad that Ms. Kupersmith has taken Vietnamese folk stories and given them a second life, so to speak. All of the stories are updated to take place after the Vietnam War, and the combination of war-scarred people and creepy-dark folk tales works well. Some of the stories were truly shudder-inspiring. I know that many of you will absolutely love this book, and so I hope that my underwhelmed response won’t keep you from picking it up.

Maybe my reaction stems from the fact that I’m simply not a good audience for short fiction. It is very unusual that I love a book of short stories as much as I love a novel. I want longer, more time with the characters and setting, and have trouble getting drawn into a world when I’m only given a brief snapshot. I will remember that in the future when offered short fiction collections for review.

Posted in literary fiction, magical realism, short stories | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Book Review: Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates – plus, a global giveaway!

blackchalkTitle: Black Chalk
Author: Christopher J. Yates
Genre: Psychological thriller
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the publisher for tour with TLC Book Tours
Number of pages: 343
First line: He phones early.

Goodreads blurb: One game. Six students. Five survivors.

It was only ever meant to be a game.

A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.

Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.

Wow. This book is quite the wild ride. I love psychological thrillers, love books set in the world of academia (especially in England), and I adore unreliable narrators when they are written well. Black Chalk has all of these elements in spades, and I simply couldn’t read fast enough. There are twists and turns that, for the most part, I didn’t see coming, and I was kept guessing right until the end.

While there are six friends involved in The Game, there are really two main characters: Jolyon and Chad. Because I don’t want to give away any of the delicious twisty-ness, I will just say that they are both fascinating, and the reader is never quite sure, until the very end, which one is the best player, the more powerful. Both of them have mysterious motives for playing the game, and their friendship is disturbing and dysfunctional in a way that makes for terrific fiction.

I do have one slight issue, though, that kept me from giving this book an unequivocal five-star rating, and that is the female characters. Compared to Jolyon and Chad, the two female participants in The Game are not as fleshed out and real, making them weaker players as well as characters. In fact, I am realizing that they didn’t stick with me at all, as I can’t remember their names without paging through my copy of the book.

That really is a minor quibble, though, about a book that makes for a completely engrossing and disconcerting-in-a-good-way read. I can’t wait to see what Yates comes up with next.

Read the first two chapters of Black Chalk

I am so excited about to have a copy of Black Chalk to give away to one of my readers – and this one is open to all readers, worldwide! Here are the details:

~ To enter, please leave me a comment and tell me about the best thriller or mystery you’ve read lately.

~ One entry per person, please.

~ All entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. PST, Friday April 11, 2014.

Good luck!

Posted in giveaways, psychological thrillers, thrillers | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Reminder: The “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book” Challenge – April read-along

In April, I am reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I hope you can join me!

Posted in read-alongs, reading challenges | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book!” Challenge: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

stateofwonderTitle: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Harper
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
Number of pages: 353
First line: The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.

Goodreads blurb: As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness.

Books like State of Wonder are the reason I decided to continue this challenge in 2014. Because although I didn’t love every challenge read-along in 2013, there were a few that were breath-takingly good. And State of Wonder absolutely took my breath away.

Confession: I usually avoid books that are billed as “literary fiction.” Whenever I see that term, what I hear in my head is “a book more obsessed with pretty writing than with any plot development or movement.” I know that is not always the case, but it has been for many books that I’ve read in that genre, and so I developed a bad attitude. Well, this book slapped me right upside my bad attitude and proved to me that a book that is considered “literary fiction” can be beautifully written, and still be character-driven and have a page-turning plot.

There is so much to this book that I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to start. I think I’ll throw out some questions and hope that we get some good discussion started in the comments. Spoilers will be involved.

~ What did you think of Marina’s relationship with Mr. Fox?

I could NOT understand this aspect of Marina’s character. I almost wonder if it was a case of a person being at work so much that their only dating pool is coworkers and so they ended up together. I didn’t feel like he really loved her at all, especially with the way he treated her over sending her to Brazil and then demanding she stay. I guess an argument for love could be made because he came to Brazil after he stopped hearing from her, but I think he was more concerned with the work that Dr. Swenson was doing than he was with Marina’s well-being.

~ What did you think of Dr. Swenson?

I always end up wondering if people who are that brilliant, and that work-focused to the detriment of their relationships with others, are a little bit Asperger’s. And maybe that’s why they are so brilliant and so able to accomplish such great things. I found myself really disliking her as a person, but then thinking that I’m glad there are people like that in the world, because that’s who will eventually cure diseases. And, of course, we saw a bit of her softer side show up at the end, when Easter is gone….but then she recovers so quickly, simply assuming that he will find a way to come back to her. Did you notice that Marina didn’t even say goodbye to her?

~ Did you ever wonder if Marina would end up staying in the jungle?

I did. For a while, before Mr. Fox showed up, I was convinced she would probably end up staying. Yet it seemed that once she had gotten what she needed – and I mean the healing from the trauma in her past, not the info about the drug – she was ready to move on.

~ Were you as heart-broken over Easter as I was?

That scene completely gutted me. To know that he was feeling completely betrayed and confused, and that there was no way to explain to him what was going on….I start crying again just thinking about it. I truly hope that Dr. Swenson was right, and that he’ll find his way back to her and the other scientists. (See how much this book made me think of the characters are real people?)

~ The ending leaves things a bit up in the air. Any theories as to what happened to Marina?

Did you catch the part at the end where it said she had no craving to eat the bark anymore? She had been told by the other scientists that as soon as a woman became pregnant, she lost her craving for it, so I’m assuming that means she is now pregnant by Anders. Obviously, he is not going to leave Karen and his boys, so I think she’ll be raising the baby on her own. I also think she’ll leave pharmacology and go back to obstetrics. But that’s just my “I love a happy ending” opinion.

If you read State of Wonder this month, or at any time in the past, please leave your answers or other comments below. Or, if you choose to write your own review or post, leave the link below.

Posted in contemporary fiction, literary fiction, read-alongs, reading challenges | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Sunday Salon – March 30, 2014

sundaysalon2Time: 8:13 p.m., Saturday evening. Watching Dirty Harry with Dad.

Thankful for: Nineteen years of marriage! Tomorrow, Kevin and I celebrate our 19th anniversary. As anyone who has been married for long knows, a good marriage is a blessed thing, and is equal parts blissful, infuriating, instructive, comforting, and refining. I truly believe that God has used marriage to refine and change me more than any other thing in my life, with parenting coming in a close second. I am eternally grateful for every single year, the fantastic and the difficult, because they all add up to a pretty beautiful picture.

Secondly, I am thankful for generosity. We had two fund-raisers for RFKC today, and while we don’t have the total raised at our little one here in Chewelah, the bigger one up in Colville brought in over $5000. The speaker did a fantastic job telling stories from camp, stories of how one week can make a difference in the life of a child in the foster care system. Last year, there were over 200 camps, 190 of which occurred across the United States. Not only did the camps provide a safe place for the kids to spend a week of fun, but out of those camps, nearly 60 foster children were adopted into permanent homes. This is a cause I am continually grateful to be involved with. I hope you don’t get tired of hearing me gush about it, because I imagine I’m going to be pretty excited about it from now until later this summer. :)

Reading: Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Circle of Flight by John Marsden

Recently finished reading: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Listening to: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater and A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

Watching: Last Sunday, we watched The Wolverine – Jonathan’s pick – for Family Movie Night. I enjoyed it, but thought the ending dragged on a bit too long. It made me very excited to see X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer. We’ve also been enjoying a new series called Growing Up Fisher – nice to find a comedy that we can watch as a family. Tonight is Josiah’s pick: Gravity. I took him to see it in the theater, and he can’t wait to share it with his brothers and dad.

Blogging recently:
~ Mini-reviews: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
~ Book Review: Going Over by Beth Kephart

Have you watched any good movies lately? Read any good books? Are you making any fun plans for the summer?

Posted in sunday salon | Tagged | 21 Comments

Mini-reviews: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan; One Hundred Names by Cecilia Ahern; and The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

dashandlilyTitle: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares
Author: Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Genre: YA contemporary fiction
Publisher: Ember
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
Number of pages: 260
First line: Imagine this: You’re in your favorite bookstore, scanning the shelves.

Goodreads blurb: Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept its dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will they be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions?

I loved this book! I haven’t read any of the other books that Cohn and Levithan wrote together (though I plan to soon!), but I am so glad that I decided to pick this one up. Dash and Lily are such wonderful characters, and the whole premise of an epistolary scavenger hunt through New York City was so much fun. Plus, who doesn’t love a book that features a famous bookstore as a major setting? This is an original story about those hard years when teens are still trying to figure out who they are to themselves, and who they are in relation to others. And yet, it isn’t completely angst-ridden; it is so funny that I had to stop reading it at night in bed, because my laughter was keeping Kevin awake.

onehundrednames2Title: One Hundred Names
Author: Cecilia Ahern
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: William Morrow
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing
Number of pages: 496
First line: She was nicknamed The Graveyard.

Goodreads blurb: Journalist Kitty Logan’s career is being destroyed by scandal – and now she faces losing the woman who guided and taught her everything she knew. At her terminally ill friend’s bedside, Kitty asks – what is the one story she always wanted to write? The answer lies in a file buried in Constance’s office: a list of one hundred names. There is no synopsis, nothing to explain what the story is or who these people are. The list is simply a mystery. But before Kitty can talk to her friend, it is too late. With everything to prove, Kitty is assigned the most important task of her life: to write the story her mentor never had the opportunity to. Kitty not only has to track down and meet the people on the list, but find out what connects them. And, in the process of hearing ordinary people’s stories, she starts to understand her own.

Thanks for the Memories was a fantastic audiobook experience for me, both for the narration, and for Ahern’s writing. Because of that, I was really excited to read One Thousand Names, especially after learning the idea behind the list of names. Unfortunately, this book took a really long time to come together for me. Part of my problem was the character of Kitty; I found her completely unlikable for at least half of the book. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t comprehend the damage she had caused by writing a false article about someone. Some of her romantic choices had me simply shaking my head, as well as the way she handled certain obstacles in her life.

Then you have the list of names. Because she is trying to find one hundred people and discover their stories, the plot was quite scattered. It took a long time for it all to come together, and I found myself losing patience, wondering when things were finally going to fall into place. The last quarter of the book did keep me from completely disliking it, but wasn’t enough to make me give it a high recommendation.

weightofbloodTitle: The Weight of Blood
Author: Laura McHugh
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
Number of pages: 320
First line: That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body.

Goodreads blurb: The Dane family’s roots tangle deep in the Ozark Mountain town of Henbane, but that doesn’t keep sixteen-year-old Lucy Dane from being treated like an outsider. Folks still whisper about her mother, a bewitching young stranger who inspired local myths when she vanished years ago. When one of Lucy’s few friends, slow-minded Cheri, is found murdered, Lucy feels haunted by the two lost girls-the mother she never knew and the friend she couldn’t protect. Everything changes when Lucy stumbles across Cheri’s necklace in an abandoned trailer and finds herself drawn into a search for answers. What Lucy discovers makes it impossible to ignore the suspicion cast on her own kin. More alarming, she suspects Cheri’s death could be linked to her mother’s disappearance, and the connection between the two puts Lucy at risk of losing everything. In a place where the bonds of blood weigh heavy, Lucy must decide where her allegiances lie.

Oh, this book gave me the shudders. The Weight of Blood is a skillfully written, taut thriller that made me so tense as I read. It is one of those books in which the reader knows more than the main character, and there were so many times when I was reading that I wished I could warn Lucy! Even though the reader knows more than Lucy, this book has no shortage of suspense. The setting is a huge part of this book – I am always fascinated by the rural settings in the South and Midwest of the US. There is such an insular quality to the communities, and this makes for an almost stifling atmosphere in this particular story. Books like this are hard to review, because I never want to give too much away. You definitely want to read this one with as much of the plot unspoiled as possible. If you liked Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter or Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, then this should be your next read.

Posted in contemporary fiction, thrillers, YA fiction | Tagged , , | 17 Comments