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Steplings
by C.W. Smith
272 pages
2011
general fiction

Nineteen-year-old Jason has certainly experienced his share of difficult circumstances in his young life, but upon receiving a farewell letter from his college-bound girlfriend, Lisa, he completely unravels. He decides to embark on a journey (hitchhikes) to see her and convince her that they should be together; however, it gets a little sticky when his preteen stepsister, Emily, joins him on the road in her own quest to see her father.

I was so excited to read this book when I first read the summary - I love a good road trip combined with a tale of self-discovery. Unfortunately, the problems with the book's plot and its characters quickly turned me off. As a young high school teacher, in the past five years I have read a decent amount of YA lit and books about teenagers; as I read I couldn't determine if the book was geared for adults or for teens but ultimately decided that neither group would particularly care for it. It doesn't have enough heart to be beloved by adults who venture into YA territory, and the characters are not real enough to interest teenagers. The dialogue would nauseate both groups.

A couple of issues I have with the book...
I felt like I was supposed to sympathize with Jason in his bereavement of his relationship with Lisa, but because I couldn't buy into them as a couple there was nothing for me to mourn. She is a college-bound, pre-med student with goals and dreams. Jason is kind of a loser with no plans, a pack of smokes, and some alcohol in his system. You can completely understand why Lisa dumps him, so you can't root for him throughout his road trip to see her. If you can't root for the protagonist at all, it sure makes it hard to keep turning pages. A bad plot can be overcome by interesting characters (especially for someone like me who prefers character-driven novels), but this book presents both a bad plot and bad characters. An apathetic reader is much worse than an angry reader.

Emily's dialogue and behavior flounders between childlike and wise-beyond-her-years, which doesn't make her more loveable and dynamic, it just adds further awkwardness to the story. I am certain I was supposed to be charmed in her exchanges with Jason (and have some "Awww... moments") but I was just annoyed.

The two biggest issues I had with the book were the dialogue (so horrible I actually highlighted passages in my nook to quote but am too lazy to do so now) and the fact that the author doesn't know how to write teenagers. I am no author, but I know teens, and Jason doesn't reflect anything I know about this age group.

I wish I would have loved this book - the author and camp couldn't have been nicer, but I just cannot recommend this as a fall read. I dreaded reading it, and I dreaded writing a review.

 
 
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If You Were Here
by Jen Lancaster
306 pages
2011
general fiction

This book was the literary version of the fantastic 80s movie "The Money Pit" starring Tom Hanks and Shelly Long: fun with disastrous home repairs at every turn.

Mac and Mia move into the home used for Jake Ryan's (oh, how I had a crush on Michael Scoeffling who played him, and was even hotter later on as Al in "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken") abode in the movie "Sixteen Candles" to live the suburban dream; however, things don't go exactly as planned with just about every issue imaginable affecting their idealized mansion in the 'burbs.

Other reviewers have complained about the pop culture references and the endless associations with HGTV programming, but I, for one, found it to be perfect for 2011 - with home foreclosures at an all-time high, repair shows becoming the rage, and HGTV programming part of many people's day, I thought she hit the right notes in using the program line-up as reference for the characters. It seemed fitting.

I was SO annoyed and disgusted with the number of footnotes, many of them COMPLETELY unnecessary, that I started to become turned off from the book. Seriously, if she would have limited them even a LITTLE or better yet, not included them at all, I might have given this book four stars as a summer read. Instead, I deducted 1/10 of a rating star for every 100 footnotes used.

 
What's Cookin'? 06/06/2011
 
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The Kitchen Daughter
by Jael McHenry
272 pages
2011
Fiction ~ Magical Realism

Ginny, a twenty-something chef-extraordinaire finds solace in her family kitchen as a means of avoiding people (she doesn't like them) and the world around her (she doesn't understand it). Often referring to her Normal Book and multiple blogs and websites for advice and cooking information, Ginny lives a quiet life in the safe shelter of her mother and father. When they both pass away in an accident, Ginny must grapple with her world turning upside down, and to cope, turns to the kitchen's familiar scents and tastes. However, she is now able to summon the spirits who created the beloved recipes she holds dear, and these spirits reveal information to her that will change her reality.

I had a difficult time rating this book because I often wasn't sure how I felt about it as I read. I didn't care for Ginny as a protagonist. I know I was supposed to mostly dislike her sister, Amanda, but I generally felt apathetic towards her. As for the secondary characters, I don't feel that they added too much to the story. People are calling this a novel of magical realism, but I don't think it had enough magic in it to warrant this title.

It's a quick read with the smell and taste of food really brought to life by the author's words; for me, this was the best part of the book. Worth a shot if you enjoy foodie fiction.

three stars

 
 
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You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
240 pages
2011
General Fiction - short stories

Not usually a fan of short stories, I quickly found myself completely immersed in the tales of the life of the military families whose lives vary so much from my own. As a military wife, former resident of Ft. Hood (where many of the stories occur), and current resident of the Middle East, Fallon tells stories that seem to be non-fiction and for that I think she has really tapped into her niche.

At a time when our world is so chaotic and so many families are separated by war, I read each story in this book sending more and more prayers up to Heaven knowing that many husbands and wives have experienced life in the way that Fallon's characters have. I think each reader will take one or two stories with them long after they close the cover.

 
Underwhelming 04/22/2011
 
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The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
2011
general fiction
288 pages

I have written and deleted about five times now in my futile attempts to write a review for this book. I read The Position by the author when it first came out and enjoyed its unique spin on family drama; however, this particular book left something to be desired.

At Elro (Eleanor Roosevelt High School), a run-of-the-mill suburban high school in New Jersey, a new drama teacher arrives to direct the school's play for the year: Lysistrata. In this play by Aristophanes the women of Greece withhold sex from the men as a way to end war, and the women of Stellar Plains begin to experience a similar effect, not only losing interest in their men, but becoming repulsed and disgusted by the thought of intimacy with their men.

On a positive note, I thought Wolitzer's descriptions of suburban U.S.A were spot-on and candid along with her take on the high school atmosphere in Stellar Plains. As a teacher and resident of a town that could be a neighboring city to Stellar Plains, I related to many of her details...The Cumfy (a take on the Snuggie), Farrest (a virtual world in which avatars replace face-to-face communication), life in the teachers' lounge - great takes on life in 2011. I loved this. She does a wonderful job with the little details. Many readers complained about her characterization, but I found everyone's role in the book to be perfect, especially that of the Langs, the beloved English teachers whose marriage begins to dissolve into monotony and bitterness.

On a negative note, the entire premise just did NOT work for me. I ignored all of the reviews and ratings on goodreads to just page-turn, form my own opinions, and look forward to seeing what other readers had to say upon concluding the novel. The idea of women losing interest in sexual relations and intimacy with a man was a good suburban topic, and its tie-in to the school production of Lysistrata imaginative (although I don't really know many high schools that would allow its performance), BUT the description of the "spell" that weaves its way through the town was really off-putting because it was a jarring shake of the magical in a book that contained nothing else of this nature. Don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of magical realism, it's just that there was NOTHING else magical going on so it seemed entirely out of place.

I wavered between a 2 and a 4 star rating, to 3 seemed to be the way to go.

If you've been curious, I won't deter you from checking this one out, BUT there are much better books out right now I would recommend over this one.

 
 
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Still Alice by Lisa Genova
2007
general fiction
292 pages

***Recommended Reading***
***Recommended Book Club Selection***

Initial Review:
After reading countless five-star reviews from my book group friends, I knew it was time to pick this one up to read at the local library.

I devoured this book in one sitting, tears streaming down my face, as I read about Alice Howland experiencing her life changing due to Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease. Once a brilliant professor at Harvard, Alice is faced with the realization that everything she knew is spiraling away from her and she cannot do anything to prevent her brain, once capable and revered by others, from deteriorating because of this horrible illness. Reading the scenes with her husband, torn between love for his wife and terror for what will be her future, were so unbelievably heartbreaking I found myself reaching for my pajama sleeve more than once. (I didn't even want to get up to get tissue!)

The writing in this book is near-perfect, and Genova's words will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Alice Howland is a character who will remain in my literary memory bank probably forever.

My Posting in My Book Group Thread:

As I mentioned in another thread, I tore through Still Alice in one sitting this week. The topic of Alzheimer's Disease is something too many of us can relate to (even if not in our immediate circle) and I think everyone can agree it is a truly horrible and heartbreaking illness. Early Onset Alzheimer's, which can appear in your 40s, takes that horror to another level because these patients are healthy in other ways which causes them to live with the illness for much longer.

I cried my eyes out throughout most of the book. Tears just streamed down my face as I turned pages and became more intense with certain scenes. Don't let this deter you from reading, though. This is undoubtedly one of the best books I have ever read and the writing is almost perfect in how Genova weaves the character of Alice. She takes you right into Alice's brain and its deterioration. Wow.

 
 
Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this layered story about Jacob, a young man who worked for a circus during the Depression-era. From the aspects of aging and reflecting back on life, learning how to carve one's path as a young person, and dealing with love, I think this book has something for everyone. I found the research that went into this book most interesting; learning about the history of the circus in the United States was fascinating, and I am so glad that Gruen added photographs before each chapter. I can't believe I waited so long to read this one!

View all my reviews
 
 
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One Day by David Nicholls
2009
General Fiction
360 pages

***Recommended Reading***

It took me more than one hundred pages to become vested in the lives of Dexter and Emma, which is more than I would normally commit to reading in a book that is not grabbing me, but I stuck with it because the writing was good and my friend Lisa warned me that it might take some time to become involved. I am passing the warning along to you.

I'm glad I kept reading because One Day became a four-star story for me about the intersecting lives of two friends spanning twenty years. I found myself highlighting many quotes from the book and really lingering over particular witty lines or insightful thoughts about love and friendship. Dexter and Emma have a complicated relationship that the reader sees from both sides; at the beginning of the story this relationship is trying to find its footing, but by about 1/3 of the way into the story the writing and character development has engulfed us enough to almost feel like the third party.

One Day made it on many "Best of 2010" lists, and while I really enjoyed it, I know I read some books published last year that I found much more readable and interesting... BUT, this is not to be missed. Stick with it past 100 pages (come on, you did it with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and you'll be happy.

Oh, and don't read any spoilers.


 
 
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Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
1995
Thriller
468 pages...that go fast!

***RECOMMENDED READING***
The New York Museum of Natural History is experiencing a series of brutal and unexplained murders on the eve of one of its largest exhibition openings. With the discovery of certain artifacts from past expeditions, protagonist Margo and her mentor, Frock, realize that something truly horrible, unimaginable, and scientifically incredible is among the halls and catacombs of the large building. Detective Pendergrast is your stereotypical thriller-detective, but I found that I liked him a great deal and rooted for him to save the day.

Relic was certainly a departure from the types of books I normally read, and I am glad to have discovered it. It had a very similar vibe to books written by Michael Chrichton, particularly Jurassic Park and follow-ups; for me, that made it a really fun read that was a page-turner and the perfect book for all of the doctors' waiting rooms I have been in lately. This would also be the perfect book for road trips, flights, and waiting in airports. I plan on reading more by this author in the future.

4 stars and lots of fun! Quick read, fast pacing, plot-driven. Need a break? This is a good one!

 
 
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The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
2010
General Fiction
432 pages

This book was given to me by for an early review

Taken from www.goodreads.com:
Zee Finch has come a long way from a motherless childhood spent stealing boats—a talent that earned her the nickname Trouble. She's now a respected psychotherapist working with the world-famous Dr. Liz Mattei. She's also about to marry one of Boston's most eligible bachelors. But the suicide of Zee's patient Lilly Braedon throws Zee into emotional chaos and takes her back to places she though she'd left behind.

What starts as a brief visit home to Salem after Lilly's funeral becomes the beginning of a larger journey for Zee. Her father, Finch, long ago diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, has been hiding how sick he really is. His longtime companion, Melville, has moved out, and it now falls to Zee to help her father through this difficult time. Their relationship, marked by half-truths and the untimely death of her mother, is strained and awkward.

Overwhelmed by her new role, and uncertain about her future, Zee destroys the existing map of her life and begins a new journey, one that will take her not only into her future but into her past as well. Like the sailors of old Salem who navigated by looking at the stars, Zee has to learn to find her way through uncharted waters to the place she will ultimately call home.


I feel like this book took awhile to find its footing and I had a difficult time relating to and understanding the characters until about 100 pages into the book, but then it just took off for me. The weaving of the lives of all of these interesting people into a tale that mimic's one once told my the main character's mother is really something special and something that was difficult to put down once I hit "the spot." Now I plan on going back to read The Lace Reader, the first book by ...moreI feel like this book took awhile to find its footing and I had a difficult time relating to and understanding the characters until about 100 pages into the book, but then it just took off for me. The weaving of the lives of all of these interesting people into a tale that mimic's one once told my the main character's mother is really something special and something that was difficult to put down once I hit "the spot." Now I plan on going back to read The Lace Reader, the first book by the author, although I couldn't get through it the first time. (I am not a big fan of the unreliable narrator.)