Set in present day New Orleans, Ruined by Paula Morris tells the story of recently-moved New York teenager, Rebecca Brown who feels like a fish out of water in her new southern home.  Surrounded by students from old money families, Rebecca has a difficult time making friends until, in the cemetery across from her house, she meets a girl named Lisette.  The only problem is that Lisette is a ghost.

The premise of this book didn't seem like anything new to me when I picked it up, but Morris weaved an interesting story with some good twists and turns that I didn't predict.  I've read other historical fiction set in New Orleans so it was a nice change of pace to see something set in the present - as the city still deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

I think I've always enjoyed reading ghost stories.  Ruined wasn't exceptionally scary, but I do like reading books that send shivers down my spine.  Granted, I usually can't sleep after reading them, but they are fun.  Do you read scary books or avoid them at all costs?

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke

Like many other 8th grade students in the USA, I read Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes when I was twelve years old. It's the story of a young boy living during colonial times and it developed my interest in early US history and historical fiction set in that time period. Sally Gunning rekindled my love of this setting - taking an in depth and mature perspective on colonial life - with her new novel The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Jane Clarke is a young woman from a small town whose father sends her to Boston to care for her feeble aunt. Thrust into the building conflicts between the rowdy Sons of Liberty and the hated British soldiers, Jane's eyes reveal the human aspects of both groups. Famous historical figures enter her life and she sees John Adams as a fair minded lawyer and family man; and Henry Knox, to her, is a bookshop clerk and potential suitor. The action in the novel leads to a climax in which Jane is a witness to the Boston Massacre, and the account told from a personal perspective takes on a much different flair than what history books typically describe.

I really enjoyed The Rebellion of Jane Clarke. Sally Gunning took the events of the USA's history and added a human perspective - effectively bridging a two hundred and forty year gap to make distant occurrences interesting and relevant. At times, Jane came across as a little too modern for her time period, but I appreciated that she was a headstrong and engaging protagonist. Fans of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy a colonial American setting, will definitely want to read this book.

(An advance review copy of this book was provided through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.  The Rebellion of Jane Clarke is on sale Tuesday, June 1, 2010.)  

So now for a question, for those who enjoy historical fiction - does a love of history cause you to enjoy historical fiction or is it historical fiction that gives you a better appreciation for history?  Or conversely, if you don't like historical fiction does it stem from a dislike of history?

"We Inhabit It"

"When we read a story, we inhabit it.
The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls.
What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story.
And this is possible because the story's voice makes everything its own."

~ John Berger

I Scream, You Scream

Tallulah (Tally) Jones from Dalliance, Texas is the proprietor of Remember the À La Mode ice cream shop but when her ex-husband's young new girlfriend dies under suspicious circumstances, all eyes point to Tally as a prime suspect. To complicate matters further, Tally's old high school flame, now a polished reporter, is back in town and spending plenty of time at the ice scream shop looking for more than the latest scoop.

I Scream, You Scream is a murder mystery with all the charm of the southern town in which it is set. The book reads at a good pace and there were enough twists to keep the mystery fresh and interesting. Wendy Lyn Watson tells a succinct story while still setting up for more books in this delightfully sweet series.

I always enjoy a mystery when I can't quite guess the ending.  Of course, I never want the solution to be so out of the blue as to be unrealistic, but even when I figure out who the villain is in advance, I always appreciate when there's an aspect to the crime that was hinted at, but that I didn't predict.   Any other armchair detectives out there want to share their thoughts?

Tiger, Tiger

I think rediscovering an author I loved as a young reader is akin to reuniting with an old friend.  We've both grown up, we've both changed and matured, but there's enough nostalgia and fond memories to bring us back together with warm comfort.  Last week I came across the book Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks.  As a youngster, I loved The Indian in the Cupboard and all the books in its series as well as Banks' standalone novels The Fairy Rebel and I, Houdini (if you click the link for the latter, I had a hamster that looked and acted just like that!)  I naturally assumed that Tiger, Tiger was published around the same time as the others and that I had missed reading it as a child.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to open to the copyright page and see 2004!

The story is a historical fiction set in ancient Rome and tells of two captured tiger cubs - one sent to fight gladiators in the Colisseum and the other tamed as a pet for Caesar's daughter, Aurelia.  Aurelia is quickly enamored with her new pet and is equally charmed by Julius, the tiger's trainer.  Of course the relationship between a slave boy and a Roman princess must be kept secret, but when the gentleness of Aurelia's tiger is called into question, she must do what she can to save both Julius and her pet's life.

There wasn't anything truly amazing about this book - the story was straightforward, the characters not overly complex - but I still greatly enjoyed it.  As much as I've grown and matured as a reader, Lynne Reid Banks still has a style of storytelling that appeals to me.  It was great to find this book and discover that at 81 years old, Banks is still writing and to know that my middle school self's choices of books were pretty darn good ones!

Animal Farm

Like many, I read a lot of classic literature in school.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, and many, many others.  I've found there are also several great works that I missed reading in school and though some of them are not the most enjoyable books, they all seem to have some merit and I can see why they remain required reading.  George Orwell was an author that I was never assigned in school but as a science fiction fan, I was persuaded by many that I would enjoy his writing.  I read 1984 several years ago and more recently, I checked out another of his famous works.

On picking up George Orwell's Animal Farm at my local library, I thought I knew what to expect. I had previously sought out 1984, Orwell's later and perhaps better known work, and I was predicting Farm to be a similar novel of a dark dystopia. What I found instead was a thinly veiled allegory depicting the Russian revolution.

The fable is set in the English countryside on "Manor Farm" and the reader is introduced to a host of anthropomorphic residents of the farm who are incited to rebel after the prophetic dream of an old hog. The animals, under the devious leadership of a pig named Napoleon, overthrow Farmer Jones and set up their own communist society known as "Animal Farm". This point in the narrative is where Orwell's darker writing takes over, and the reader follows the journey of the farm residents from thriving in an animal-run utopia to miserable conditions under a totalitarian dictatorship.

Orwell's satire is biting, and as in 1984, his views on the ills of an overbearing government are anything but subtle. The story reads quite quickly and the ending, though easy to predict from the downward spiral of life on the farm, still packed a powerful punch. The book is not one to read just for fun, but rather as a thought provoking work of fiction. For that reason, it earns its place as a classic.
I'm still working at adding "classics" to my repertoire of reading.  I've been told by many that I NEED to read The Odyssey but for now that's a bit too daunting.  Any classics or books you read in school that you frequently recommend to others?

"It Becomes Part of Me"

"When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me, and it becomes part of me."
~W. Somerset Maugham 'Of Human Bondage'

His Majesty's Dragon

I heard a lot of buzz surrounding Naomi Novik's Temeraire series before I finally picked up book one, His Majesty's Dragon.  As the title suggests, it is a fantasy novel, but it's also an interesting twist on historical fiction.  The book tackles the scenario of what would happen if the Napoleonic Wars were fought with the addition of an aerial corps of dragon riders.  The story begins with Naval Captain Will Laurence conquering a French ship and discovering a rare and remarkable treasure aboard: an unhatched dragon egg.  Laurence soon finds his fate intertwined with the newly born dragon, Temeraire, and he is quickly drafted away from the seas to a much different role in the King's military.

I loved the creative premise of this book and Naomi Novik tells a great story.  I really liked the characters and the vividly descriptive writing brought each one to life in my mind.  I would have liked more of the novel to revolve around the historical aspects, as the war took a bit of a backseat to the developing relationship of Laurence and Temeraire.  However, as the characters are now firmly established I look forward to where Novik takes them in future books in the series.

Children's Book Week / Dear Polar Bear

Happy Children's Book Week!  

Since I just found out that this week is Children's Book Week, I thought I should highlight a few things.  First of all, if you have not yet had the opportunity, pop over and check out my friend Ellen's blog - A Present Opened Again and Again - which is all about awesome children's books!  She's part of the reason I got into book blogging AND she has a great giveaway going on right now for the book Shiloh

Next, I want to spotlight a really fun kids' book that is sitting on my bookshelf.  Dear Polar Bear by Barry Ablett is a book that my husband picked up at a Scholastic Book Fair last year.  I've always loved pop-up books (and polar bears!) and this one follows the story of a lonely polar bear writing letters to all of his bear friends around the world.  Each letter - and the gifts that his friends send to him - features something to pull out, open up or pop out of the pages of the story.  The illustrations are adorable and the story teaches a little geography and natural science while also being cute and entertaining.  Great as a gift book and wonderful as a read aloud, Dear Polar Bear is a definite winner!

Happy Mother's Day / The Red Tent

To all the wonderful women I know - mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, nieces, wives, friends - have a wonderful day and know that you are appreciated, whether you have kids or not.  And a special note of thanks to my mother, because when I come across a new word in anything I'm reading, I can still hear her voice softly encouraging me, "Sound it out..."  I would not be the reader I am today without her, and my love of books is one of countless things I am blessed to share with her!

In the spirit of female strength and unity I'll pass out a recommendation for a great book about women.  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a book that I read last year after I lost count of how many people recommended it to me.  It's a historical fiction novel based on figures from the book of Genesis and tells the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob.  Obviously, Jacob was very famous for his extensive number of sons, so this book was a really interesting look at his sole female offspring who is only briefly mentioned in the Old Testament.

I really liked the historical details in this book and it was a well written account of Jewish lifestyles and traditions of the time - especially the unity among women.  In a male dominated society one might think that the women's stories are not as intriguing, but Diamant proves quite the opposite.

Anyone else have great books about women to recommend?

The Book

In the interest of exploring more independent authors, I recently purchased a novel called The Book - one of 250 works to make it the quarterfinals for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  I should disclose that I went to college with the author, but we've been out of touch for several years, so I was surprised and intrigued to hear of his new-found status as an author.  I was fully prepared to separate any negative feelings about the writing from my opinions on the writer, but my trepidation was needless as The Book was one of the best novels I have read this year.  Below is my review:
Four simple words begin the narrative of M. Clifford's The Book: "Don't Read The Book".

What bibliophile can resist a challenge such as that? With a slight smirk I eagerly defied those words and plunged onward into the world of Holden Clifford - an intriguing dystopia in which environmental laws have banned paper and all literature and news media are conveniently conveyed to audiences via digital hand-held devices, portable and personal, each one called The Book. Holden, like his Salinger namesake, is a character caught existing rather than truly living and right from the start - as I, too, used a novel to shroud myself from a daily Chicago commute - I found myself empathizing with him and silently hoping for whatever would break him from his mundane life.

Holden's awakening comes in a Chicago bar called The Library, a tribute to the recycled book pages that wallpaper the venue. Upon seeing his name on an antique page from his favorite book, Holden's eyes are opened, not only to the powerful mystique of the printed word, but to the alterations from the original text that exist in the digital version he read his whole life.

M. Clifford's writing style is fresh and unique. The gripping story proves him to be an expert storyteller, beautifully weaving together political intrigue, suspenseful action, intricate relationships, and philosophical discussion. His descriptive techniques encourage the reader to engage with the writing - to enjoy the language as much as the story. It is a novel to be both savored and devoured. There are books which are meant to be read, respected, and reshelved, but The Book is one which lingers in my mind after the final pages have been viewed. It is a conversation starter as much as a story, drawing on themes such as the benefits and pitfalls of technology. Clifford's work sheds light on new thoughts and raises unanswerable questions but it could just be that the resolution is not nearly as valuable as the inquiry.
 The questions that this book sparks about the digital revolution in the publishing industry are the foundation of conversations I have had multiple times in the break room at work, on the train or the bus in the city, and even in my online book club.  Though I don't own one, I see the inherent handiness of devices such as the Kindle, the Nook, Sony's eReader, and the iPad.  (My reasons for not owning one are strictly financial ones - I would adore the convenience but I fear that my book-buying budget for the year would be spent in a matter of weeks with the convenience of one touch shopping.)  But I'd love to raise the conversation here.

Do you have a digital reading device and what do you see as the advantages/disadvantages compared to paper books?  Do you think that the prevalence of digital books has changed or will change society's views on the value of the printed word?

Kabul Beauty School

I don't travel much.  I wish I had the time and money to explore more of the world - and even more of my own country - but for the most part, I don't go very far from home very often.  I think because of that, I love to read about foreign countries and different cultures.  I suppose my love of nonfiction stems from my overall love of learning, but I also feel that books are akin to mental passport stamps - a way to visit far off places without leaving the discomfort of my bus seat.  My most recent literary vacation was to Kabul, Afghanistan in Deborah Rodriguez's book, Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil.  The map at right is courtesy of and shows where Kabul is in Afghanistan, and the inset shows the country's location in relation the rest of the middle east.  I've read several other books set in this part of the world, but anytime I read a book about a country that I'm unfamiliar with I like to look it up on a map to better orient myself with the geography of the setting.  (That's super nerdy, right?  Oh well, I'm comfortable with my braininess.)

Back to the book.  Deborah Rodriguez is a hairdresser from Holland, Michigan who trained as a relief worker and traveled to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.  Originally feeling that her talents were not as crucial as those of the doctors and nurses in her company, Rodriguez spent much of her time exploring her surroundings and befriending the people around her.  When she discovered that the Westerners in the area and many of the Afghan women she met were desperately seeking her services as a beautician - an idea was formed to begin a school to train and develop local women to start their own salons.  With corporate sponsors and the hard work of dedicated individuals, the Kabul Beauty School opened its doors and Rodriguez became a teacher, mentor and friend to women whose country had forgotten them.

I loved how this book explored the culture clash between American and Afghan society.  The story was well told and it was inspiring to see how Rodriguez changed the lives of the women she worked with and the powerful impact that their stories and friendship had in her life as well.  The book was also a good example of community development done right.  Rodriguez hired her first graduates as teachers and along with giving them a means to support their families for a better quality of life, she set up a cycle of sustainable serving for those who had learned to continue on in teaching others.  It is a model of giving a hand-up rather than a hand-out; the former being ultimately much more productive.

Mount TBR

I've never been a big list maker.  I have the occasional "To Do" or "To Buy" list, but mostly I rely on remembering things rather than writing them down.  However, one list that I always have on record is my TBR - or "to be read" list.  Since it's grown to monstrous proportions over the years I've taken to affectionately calling it "Mount TBR".

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
~ Arnold Lobel
Among readers, I've learned that lots of people have similar classifications about their future reads.  A friend told me of a book club member that received an inheritance of more books than he felt he could read in his lifetime and took to calling his collection "BABLE" to stand for "Books Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy".  And another librarian friend refers to her future reads as "FEILOMM" meaning "Future Entries Into Library Of My Mind".  Are you a TBR list maker?  How do you go about choosing your next book to read?