Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February in Review

So, I read 28 books this month. That's pretty good; almost a book a day, which is my goal.

Here they are in order from my favorite to my least favorite:

1.Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende
2.A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
3.The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck
4.The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje
5.Divergent, Veronica Roth
6.The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
7.A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
8.Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
9.500 Great Books For Teens, Anita Silva
10.Cavedweller, Dorothy Allison
11.New York, Edward Rutherfurd
12.The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
13.The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
14.The City of the Beasts, Isabel Allende
15.Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, Isabel Allende
16.The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stievater
17.A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
18. Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson
19.Cinder, Marissa Meyer
20.The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
21.The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson
22.Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz
23.Isolde: Queen of the Western Isle, Rosalind Miles
24.The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
25.The Freedom Writer's Diary, Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers
26..Zel, Donna Jo Napoli
27.You Have to Stop This, Pseudonymous Bosch
28.Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan

Overall, I enjoyed most of the books that I read this month, except for Mutant Message Down Under. So I'm pretty satisfied with how my reading went.

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate handwriting. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later, I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own. 

Though kind of confusing at the beginning, The House of the Spirits nevertheless carried me once again into the story with Allende's rich prose and wonderful storytelling. The House of the Spirits is another great book. It tells the story of the Trueba family, following them through many years. It's really a wonderful novel, full of "love, magic, and family pride." Once again, Allende has interesting, rich characters who populate the novel and make it so fun to read. Though this novel had brutal parts, I still liked it. Read Isabel Allende, whether it's The City of the Beasts series, Daughter of Fortune, or The House of the Spirits. Just read her. Seriously.

Read The House of the Spirits:

  • if you've read and liked other books by Allende
  • if you enjoy Chilean literature
  • if you are looking for a fabulous, enchanting novel
433 pages, 5 stars.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

This book had a really funny beginning, though overall it was a pretty sad book. A funny quote from the beginning (pg. 5): "Finn, then. Are you up in this period?"..."Not really, sir, I'm afraid. But there is one line of thouht according to which all you can truly say of any historical event-even the outbreak of the First World War, for example- is that 'something happened.'" This was a really funny line, though the rest of the book was just okay. Tony Webster, the main character, has problems. He is going through a mid-life crisis, or rather, an end-of-life crisis. He is retired, his family has ended in a divorce, and his old friends are literally coming back to haunt him. I enjoyed the matter-of-fact writing style in this book, which won the Booker prize, though in my opinion, the subject wasn't the most interesting.

Read The Sense of an Ending:

  • if you are looking for a fairly interesting/witty book
163 pages, 4 stars.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Zel, Donna Jo Napoli

"Oh, Mother, the goose is on her nest again." Zel rests her weight on the windowsill and leans out.

This is an interesting retelling of the familiar fairy tale of Rapunzel. "Zel" is Rapunzel, and the witch in this story is actually her mother (well, Zel thinks she is. Actually, the witch isn't Zel's mother.) This was interesting because in the original fairy tale, the witch is considered pure evil. But Zel's "mother" in this story is conflicted. She does love Zel, yes, but she wants to keep Zel to herself, and when Zel falls in love with a prince, she locks Zel up in a tower. I didn't find the "love at first sight" thing with the prince very convincing. They see each other once and then fall in love? She's a peasant girl and he's a prince. It felt unrealistic. However, it was an interesting take on a traditional fairy tale, and I love retellings of fairy tales. And this book was much better than Donna Jo Napoli's other book that I read, The Smile. 

Read Zel:
  • if you like the story Rapunzel
  • or if you just enjoy retellings of any fairy tale
227 pages, 4.25 stars. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

500 Great Books for Teens, Anita Silva

Not sure what to read? Looking for something great? This book will help you find it, for any genre. It lists 500 good books and gives a brief summary. I liked that it was arranged by genre, so if you're looking for a specific type of book, you can just flip to that section. And it's helpful to see how many of the books she's listed you've already read. I've read 100/500 of the books listed so far. So that's 20%. Not bad. It gives you plenty of information about each book: when it was published, the number of pages, and recommended age range. Also, at the end of the book, there are "additional titles of interest," books arranged by geographic location, and by historical time. This was a great feature of the book; the different ways the books suggested were organized.

One thing that was annoying about the book was that it had a lot of spoilers. I mean, A LOT OF SPOILERS.

Read/Peruse 500 Great Books for Teens:

  • if you're in need of a good book 
337 pages, 4.5 stars.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers

Overstatement of the century. I didn't like the title, but I loved the book. AHWOSG was definitely a good memoir, but the title was seriously unprecedented. So if you can get over the excessive vanity of the title, you will love, love, love this book. I loved this book. I really did. Just not the title so much.

The narrator of the story (Dave Eggers himself) has problems. (Don't they always?)

Read AHWOSG if you're looking for an interesting book. Actually, it is a pretty good story, a really good story and memoir; I just couldn't quite get over the title immediately. Couldn't Eggers have come up with something else for the title? But it was a good memoir, and very moving, though I wouldn't exactly call it "a heartbreaking work of staggering genius." If you just pretend the title is something different, you'll enjoy it a lot.

Do read it.

437 pages, 5 stars.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje

I was really looking forward to this book, and I was not disappointed. I think it was much better than The English Patient, one of Ondaatje's other books. Though he won a Booker prize for The English Patient, in my opinion, it was confusing and strange. The Cat's Table was much better. Michael, an eleven year old boy, sets out from Colombo in a ship heading for England. He is assigned to sit at the "cat's table", the table farthest from the captain. There, he meets a strange cast of characters, and he tumbles from one adventure to another. Doesn't that just sound like a fascinating and wonderful plot? And it was, too. I loved the story and Ondaatje's writing style in this book. And he has such great characters.
Read The Cat's Table:

  • if you are interested in Sri Lanka and/or Britain
  • if you are interested in adolescent stories
  • or if you're looking for an amazing, thought-provoking read

 265 pages, 5 stars.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain

I really enjoyed this book; it was one of Mark Twain's best, in my opinion. Hank Morgan, a mechanic in a nineteenth century New England factory, is hit on the head during an argument. He wakes to find himself among knights and magicians in King Arthur's court. What follows is a work of satire, in which Twain celebrates ingenuity and democracy over the bumblings of monarchy. But he also asks whether such progress necessarily makes a better society. Gradually as Hank becomes more powerful, he also becomes more ruthless and less able to control events. On top of all that, it was a great story as well. I loved Twain's writing style; it wasn't too overwritten, and I enjoyed the way he alternated from modern style to medieval. Hank's narration is in a more modern style, but the other characters speak with prithees and thous and hasts. Also, the edition I have has wonderful ink illustrations to go with the chapters by Dan Beard. If you've read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you'll enjoy this, or even if you haven't, you should try A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court:

  • if you've read and liked other Mark Twain books
  • if you enjoy satire
  • if you like adventures
  • if you are interested in King Arthur

467 pages, 5 stars.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

I actually acquired this book in the summer; I was very excited when I saw it, as John Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and I'm interested in King Arthur too. However, I only got around to reading it now, and I wasn't disappointed. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was basically just a retelling of the old tales, but in Steinbeck's style. And he did add a little bit. I like Mallory well enough, but sometimes he's difficult to read because the whole thing is in the old style. This was a much more engaging version of the stories. It is divided into different sections, dealing with various knights and their adventures. If you've read The Once and Future King by TH White or Thomas Mallory, this would be a good follow-up. Or if you're just interested in King Arthur's times. Also, the edition I read had a lot of extra sections like letters between Steinbeck and his literary agent. Apparently the book was an unfinished manuscript, but it was still wonderful to read, especially since I'm a fan of Steinbeck. It was an amazing book.
Read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights:

  • if you enjoy John Steinbeck
  • if you're interested in King Arthur's time
  • or if you're simply looking for a good adventure/fantasy read

316 pages, 5 stars.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New York: The Novel, Edward Rutherfurd

This is a really interesting book, about the history of New York City, spanning from New York’s beginnings as a tiny Indian fishing village, to 2009. I first picked this book up while browsing in a bookstore, and I’m glad I decided to read it. It was a bit slow to get into, but then it got very interesting. "History was never so fun to read." (USA Today.) Though it has historical figures and dates, most of the narration is done by various fictionalized families whose fortunes rise and fall and rise again with the city’s fortunes. They have to face the real historical issues and problems that occurred in the city. I love New York City, being born there, and this book helped me learn a little more about the history. I enjoyed the very real feeling characters and the exciting plot of this thick volume. I also loved the way the author tied together different, seemingly unrelated families, and connected them in some way, despite social gaps and differences in time periods. For example, the book follows one family, the Masters, and their descendants all the way from the beginning to the end. I really liked the historical background that this book provided and the many fictional tales which were weaved into the fabric of history. I also learned more about what really happened during the Civil War and other time periods. Another great thing about the book was the build-up, especially right before the stock market crash of 1929 and 9/11. You knew that something bad was going to happen, but the characters didn't, and it was agonizing, but a good suspense tactic. If you're interested in history or in New York City, this is a good book for you. 860 pages, 4.9 stars.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

I have mixed feelings about this book. When I first read the description, it sounded interesting. Then when I started the book, it was really boring at first. But thirty pages in, it picked up a lot. It is a science fiction or fantasy book, I think. It is set in our world, but there are these wild creatures called water horses, who are dangerous. Every November, water horses are captured and raced. Some riders will win, and others will lose- or die. The book focuses on two people: Sean Kendrick, a returning champion, and Puck Conolly, the first girl ever to participate in the races. Puck entering the race isn't all that convincing, though. She doesn't really have to enter the races, but she does, and why would anyone do that? It's not because she wants to win either. It's kind of peculiar. If Sean has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them. And Puck is in no way prepared for what is about to happen. One thing I enjoyed about the book was the quick and witty dialogue that all the characters have. This was a pretty suspenseful book, and the idea of the water horses is interesting. I think it's kind of cruel that they have to capture them and keep them from the sea, which is where the water horses are from. But it was a fairly good science fiction/fantasy book, and if you're a fan of those genres, you'll definitely like it. 404 pages, 4.5 stars.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The nameless protagonist of this famous novel is an "invisible" man. He is not literally invisible, but no one really pays much attention to him because he's black.  It's kind of hard to explain. This is a complicated book, and I didn't quite understand it. It's a nightmare journey across racial divides by the nameless main character, according to the back cover. That sums it up pretty well. It was good, and an interesting story. Also, the author had an introduction to the book which provided some insight on how he came to write it and where he wrote it etc. I liked how Ellison chose to not give the protagonist a name. Maybe it's because to everyone else, he doesn't have a name. Just another black person. As soon  as he's gone, his name flies right out of their heads. I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for a challenge. 581 pages, 5 stars.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson

The RopemakerThis is a fantasy story set in a magical land. Tilja, the heroine, grew up in the Valley, a peaceful place protected by the fearsome Empire by an enchanted forest. But one year, the forest begins to weaken, and Tilja, an ordinary girl, finds herself having the power to save the land from evil. I know, typical fantasy plot, right? But it was a good book. I liked the world that Peter Dickinson created; it felt almost like our world, only with a splash of magic added in. It felt very real; not over the top, and had a good and interesting plot. The world beyond the Valley that Tilja enters is brutal and cruel. I liked the character of Tilja as well as the Ropemaker, who the book is named after. One thing that was kind of annoying about the book was that Dickinson skipped long periods of time between chapters. A chapter would end, and the next chapter would start 5 days later, not telling you exactly what happened in between. But still, overall, a good fantasy story. 375 pages, 4.5 stars.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

This a wonderful, engaging British mystery. It deals with the Moonstone, a valuable Indian diamond. The diamond is originally stolen from an Indian shrine by a British soldier, and later, it is stolen. The story is related by a great cast of characters, a hilarious house steward named Gabriel Betteredge, the detective, Sergeant Cuff, a lovesick housemaid, and a strange band of Indian jugglers. It was really great that the author included these different narrators; it gave different perspectives on the mystery. Published in the late 19th century, it does have some elements of that period of writing; in other words, unlike some mysteries, you won't speed through it. Once you get interested though, you will be eager to discover what happens. Also, just when you think the mystery is about to be solved, something unexpected happens. The only real criticism I have of The Moonstone is that at time it drags on a bit too much. Oh, and the edition that I was reading had the most boring cover ever. I would never have read it had it not been for a review on another blog. If you're a fan of mystery, you should definitely read this book- according to the back cover, it inspired the hugely popular genre of the detective mystery. I don't know if that claim is true, but it certainly was a great, exciting book to read. 473 pages, 4.5 stars.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cinder, Marissa Meyer

This is a retelling of Cinderella, but it is a science fiction book. In this book, Cinderella is Cinder, a cyborg, meaning she is half robot, half human. When her only human friend, her younger stepsister, is infected with the plague, an incurable disease, her stepmother angrily volunteers her for plague research. But then scientists discover that she is different from other cyborgs; she has a talent others would kill for: she is immune to the plague. Suddenly, what seemed like a death sentence: her stepmother sending her away, becomes a seeming blessing. Cinder is independent! She attracts the attention of Prince Kai as well. What follows is a suspenseful, amazing, story. I don't generally like science fiction all that much, but this book was so suspenseful, and original. I'd never heard of a fairy-tale retold as science fiction, and it was a novel concept. This is the first book in a series. And, the book has a stunning ending, leaving you waiting, breathless for the sequel. There is a really basic plot device in the book that I predicted 200 pages before it was revealed. 387 pages, 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Isolde: Queen of the Western Isle, Rosalind Miles

This book tells the famous tale of Tristan, a knight, and Isolde, an Irish princess. Richard Wagner composed an opera based on this story. I liked this particular retelling of it. Miles's writing style is vivid and evokes the feel of the time that she is writing about. It really made me feel that I was right there watching the actions unfold. I felt like I was in the time period. She had great descriptions of the landscape of England and Ireland, as well as the people in the story. It was a wonderful story, having elements of fantasy and magic in it, as well as some realism. I would recommend it to people interested in medieval times. My favorite element of the book was the lush descriptions, which were quite unique and fun to read. 340 pages, 4 stars.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

I really enjoyed reading this novel. At times it was really sad, and at other times it was humorous. It is about Hazel, a sixteen year old with cancer. She is resigned to dying sometime in the near future, despite a tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years. But then, at the Cancer Support group she meets Augustus Waters, and finds herself drawn to him. Suddenly she does not want to die at all! It was a very thought-provoking book, and like I said, it had funny and sad moments. There is this fictional book, An Imperial Affliction, that both Hazel and "Gus" really love. The Imperial Affliction sounds like it would be an interesting book to actually read. Maybe John Green should write it under the pen name Peter Van Houten (the supposed author of the book.) It would be cool. But anyway, I loved this book. Hazel doesn't really want to get involved with Augustus because she knows that they will have no future, as she is probably going to die-she'd rather hurt him now than later with her death. But they do sort of get involved. It is a bittersweet kind of romance. It is a sad novel, but not without hope too, and I liked it, if not LOVED it. 313 pages, 4.5 stars.
Note: If a book is not on my "recommended books" list, that doesn't mean that I wouldn't recommend it or didn't like it; it just means I didn't LOVE it. For example, The Fault in Our Stars isn't on the list, but I still liked it. I would still recommend it; there were some great parts in it. So still read books other than the ones on my list.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Divergent, Veronica Roth

In this science-fiction book, the world is divided into five factions, each named after a virtue that they possess. The factions are Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent.) At the age of sixteen, each person must take a test and decide which faction they belong too. For Beatrice, the heroine, this means staying with her family or being who she really is. Of course, there is a romance. Of course, Beatrice, or Tris, as she renames herself, realizes that her society isn't really as perfect as it seems. In other words, all the typical elements of a sci-fi plot- a dystopian world, "heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance" (from jacket.) And yet, I still really enjoyed this book. The society depicted in it is different then other societies written about. At the beginning of the book, it not only seemed perfect to the characters, but to me, the reader, as well. In most sci-fi books, the reader immediately sees that the society is not perfect, though the main character may think it is. In this book, the imperfection of the society is not that easily discovered. But quickly you realize it's a horrible, cruel world. Especially the faction that Tris decides to join. Trouble strikes when Tris becomes a Divergent, meaning that it is possible that she could be in any of three factions. She must choose. This was a great book, and I really loved it. I looked forward to reading the sequel, Insurgent, which comes out in May. 487 pages, 5 stars.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende

I loved Allende's writing in this book, which was for adults, unlike the City of the Beasts series, in which her writing was not as good. I don't know what her writing is like in the original text, but I think the translator did a good job. I should give her credit. She is Margaret Sayers Peden. Anyway, the writing style of this book was smooth and engaging, and the story-line was interesting. It is set in Chile, where Eliza Sommers, a young woman raised by a spinster and her rigid brother, sets off to America to try and find her lover during the gold rush of 1849. By the time she hears news of him, she must decide who her true love really is. This is a great story because it has adventure and a wonderful plot. It also has some humorous parts, and wonderful characters.  There's Eliza herself, Rose, the spinster, Mama Fresia, and the characters that Eliza meets in the US. Another great thing was the wonderful descriptions of the greed that the Gold Rush triggered. So many many men, bachelors and married men alike, went to America to brave dangers in hope off gold. It's a great historic novel, and I would really recommend it to everyone. 399 pages, 5 stars.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

You Have to Stop This, Pseudonymous Bosch

I love the Secret Series. It is hilarious, suspenseful, and mysterious. And this is the final book! Will the Secret be revealed? I really love Pseudonymous Bosch's writing style, though not the way his name is spelled (it's so long!) But anyway, he builds suspense nicely and is super funny. I wonder who he really is. If you've never read him before, his style is similar to Lemony Snicket's. I was disappointed because this book was not as good as the other ones. It was definitely the worst book of the series, and I did not like the ending much either. Also, Bosch ran out of funny ways to disrupt the stories. I loved the other books, but I was very unhappy that this book didn't meet my expectations. It was a sort of flat final book, and the ending wasn't convincing. If you've read the other books in the Secret Series, you should read this one too, but don't get your hopes up. And if you've never read the Secret Series, you should read the first book, The Name of This Book is Secret. You'll enjoy the first four definitely, and maybe the last one. I just thought it was not a "fantastic finale" as the back cover claims. 347 pages, 3.75 stars.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan

In this "true" story, Marlo Morgan, who was living in Australia, is summoned for a three month long journey with an Aboriginal Tribe. At first she thinks that she's receiving an award for her medicinal accomplishments, but then they burn all her stuff and take on a long walk through the desert. Now, I say "true" in quotation marks because I don't know if the whole books was strictly true, in the sense that it actually happened. It all seemed a bit contrived to me. Marlo Morgan acts like the Aborigines have magic. I've no doubt that they have a rich and luscious culture, and are not "savages", as some Westerners used to believe, but there's no magic involved. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't exist, however much we may try to delude ourselves. It would be nice, but no. You can't heal someone's broken leg by rubbing your hand over it, which was something that happened in the book. I like the idea of the Aboriginal culture, and there's certainly something to be learned from it, but I don't believe all that Morgan writes is true. It's a nice idea, this Oneness, where everyone is all part of the grand scheme, but I don't believe in it.I guess the solution to reading this book would be to read it as a semi-fictional account of what happened to Morgan.Otherwise, you'll just get exasperated. I mean, seriously. Get real. However, I liked the attitude of the Aborigines, and, as long as you treat as not strictly being true, you should enjoy the book. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it is a good story, and the overall concept of the tribe is good, but I don't believe in the magic part. 187 pages, 1 star.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, the author of Notes from a Small Island, has written another travel-ish book. In A Walk in the Woods, he decides to walk the 2100 mile Appalachian trail with his friend Katz and witnesses the beautiful forests and lakes that make up this fragile wilderness. Of course, with his comedic talent, he manages to poke fun at the silliness of human beings, and at his own difficulties in the forest, and make it quite hilarious. He also writes good descriptions of the beautiful landscape as well as quotes statistics and numbers that complement the reading experience. Another thing that he does is tell about the history of the Appalachian Trail: when it was founded, and some times when it looked almost doomed. He details Katz, who is a fat, lazy guy, Mary Ellen, an annoying woman who briefly latches on to them, and the various people who they meet at rest stops, which are brief returns to civilization for them. I enjoyed this book more than Notes From a Small Island for two reasons. First, it was less repetitive, and I loved the cover of the bear peering right in front of the camera! It must be photoshopped, but still... Secondly, I'm more interested in nature and the forest than in England, so I was more interested in this book's subject. I always admire someone who can make fun of themselves too, and Bryson is a master at it. And, of course, the underlying question is: will he make it to the end of the Appalachian Trail? 274 pages, 4.6 stars.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz

Similar to The Art of Racing in the Rain, this book has a close-up of a dog on the cover. Inside of a Dog is non-fiction, however. This book addresses what dogs know, how they think, and our misconceptions of their "feelings." It talks about how we tend to use anthropomorphisms to describe them. That's not to say that dogs don't have feelings; they just express them in different ways. Horowitz had a nice writing style, and I enjoyed reading her explanations. Another author could have just as easily made this so boring, as I'm not that interested in dogs, but I was really hooked to this book. Horowitz made things simple enough that you could understand without being a scientist and had interesting facts, theories, and explanations. Also, unlike some science books I could mention, the print wasn't this small and I could read it well. I'm not saying that I have anything against books with tiny print; they just are kind of off-putting, if you know what I mean. For anyone, I would reccommend this book, but especially if you're a dog lover. Inside of a Dog will give you a new perspective on your canine friend (if you have one.) And even though I don't have a dog, I learned a lot about dogs. For example, do they really lick your face as a sign of affection? Do they really like those raincoats that you put on them? Something I enjoyed was that Horowitz used her own dog, "Pump" (Pumpernickel) as an example to illustrate her various points. It gave a concrete basis for what she was talking about rather than forcing you to imagine a dog doing something. 4.5 stars, 297 pages.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Freedom Writer's Diary, the Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell

On her first day teaching English to high school kids in Long Beach, California, Erin Gruwell was astonished by the racism and the gang environment that her students came from. When she intercepted a racist picture, she angrily told them that that was how the Holocaust started, only to be met by blank stares. That was when she abandoned textbooks and conventional teaching methods and gave them The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo to read. Thus they undertook a life-changing odyssey against intolerance, racism and misunderstanding. Though the book may be a bit contrived, it was definitely a wonderful project. It is constructed by diary entries from various anonymous members of the class, and it was amazing to see how their attitudes changed. At the beginning of the book, most of them were grumbling about their crazy English teacher, but then they grew to respect, admire, and love her, as well as understand the concepts that she was trying to teach them. This was an interesting book, and it reminded me about the hardships that people face, even right here in America. Many diary entries are from kids whose friends or siblings have been shot and killed right in the street by gangs, and their accounts are particularly memorable and moving. 277 pages, 4.8 stars.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, Isabel Allende

This is the sequel to City of the Beasts and it was equally engaging and compelling. In this adventure, Alex and Nadia, Jaguar and Eagle now journey to the Himalayas with Kate to try and find the Golden Dragon, a magical statue used to predict the future. This is a suspenseful book, and the journey, which at first appears to be exciting, but non-dangerous, quickly turns sinister. I liked this even more than the first book because the characters were already familiar, so you could dive right into the story without too much explaining. There were also some interesting new characters, including the king off the Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, his son, and a sage Buddhist monk, who aids Alexander and Nadia.  I immediately was absorbed by the plot and raced through the book, eager to discover what would happen in the end. If you read City of the Beasts and liked it, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon is a wonderful sequel. I look forward to reading the final book in the trilogy, Forest of the Pygmies. 437 pages, 5 stars.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

This humorous and witty book is a tour of the small island known as Britain. If you are thinking of visiting the UK, it highlights some interesting places, but also has a humorous edge, detailing the quirks and foibles of the British. It may be a bit cliched, and I don't know what the British would think of it, but it was an enjoyable non-fiction book. The author, who worked and lived in Britain for 20 years, returns to Britain to investigate how it has changed. I liked the cover of this book very much, and Bryson has a light, humorous, writing style. He manages to write in a teasing but mostly complimentary way about the British. There is also a whimsical glossary at the book of the book, detailing some funny English terms. I loved Bryson's sentences, and the way he always managed to slip something humorous into nearly every one of them.He not only makes fun of the British, but also of himself, which is something you have to know how to do if you want to make fun of others. It does get a bit repetitive after a while, and the towns tend to run into one another. I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for something a little out of the ordinary and funny. 317 pages, 4.5 stars.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Cavedweller, Dorothy Allison

In this novel, Delia Byrd, who abandoned her two daughters in Cayro, Georgia to join a rock 'n'  roll band, returns to Cayro with her other daughter Cissy. She leaves behind the world in LA that she had known for ten years: the glitter of the rock 'n' roll world and dreams of singing and songwriting. I loved the style of this book, and also the premise of the book. The book was a little slow going in, but then I got really absorbed in it. There were many complicated relationships in this book, including a love-hate relationship between Cissy and her mother. Cissy, whose father has died, is angry at her mother Delia because she feels that Delia is partly responsible for his death. Delia had left Cissy's father earlier and moved into a different house. Cissy was always closer to her father than her mother. Also, of course, the relationship between Delia and the two daughters she left behind, and the way the town of Cayro reacts to her returning. In some ways, I don't blame Delia for leaving; this was her dream, and there is no place for two small children in a band. But I guess it was the way she did it that was so unforgivable. She also left her husband behind to raise her daughters, and then she didn't come back for ten years! Her daughters grew up without her, without a mother while she was having a great time in the band. Of the two sisters, Amanda is really despicable. She hates her Delia, though I can't really blame her for that, and is obsessed with religion. She tries to force Dede, the other sister, to go to church. Also, Amanda organizes a campaign at school against abortion. It was really terrible, and I like the character of Dede way more. Allison's writing style is quite distinctive, and I really enjoyed it. She tells the story in a straight and matter-of-fact way, but it is still charged with emotion and quite interesting. I only realized where the title came from until the second half of the book, and yet it was fitting. Though the book drags on a bit, this is one emotional ride of a novel, fraught with emotional uncertainty, and I loved it. The ending was also fairly satisfying. 434 pages, 5 stars.

Friday, February 3, 2012

City of the Beasts, Isabel Allende

Alexander is sent to stay with his grandmother Kate, who is an adventurous reporter for "International Geographic." They embark on an expedition deep into the Amazon rainforest, to search for the mysterious "yeti" of the jungle. Alexander meets Nadia, the daughter of their guide, and discovers magic hidden in the forest. His totem animal is the jaguar, and he draws on its strength. He and Nadia venture into the spirit world of the forest, led by the invisible People of the Mist, the most secretive tribe. They must save the People of the Mist from annihilation. This is a wonderful adventure story, and I loved the character of Alex's grandmother Kate. She is strict and brave, unlike the typical grandmother. She can be a bit harsh on Alex at times, but in the end, she helps him grow and learn a lot. Nadia is also an amazing character. She has this monkey named Borobo. There is also a sequel to this book, which I look forward to reading. 406 pages, 4.9 stars.