Audiobook Review: Charmed Life

“You must have made a mistake,” Cat said distractedly. “I didn’t drown because I was holding on to Gwendolen, and she’s a witch.”

Oh, Diana Wynne Jones, how are you so awesome? First, she comes up with this completely dense mythology and fully-realized setting; then, she  couples it with intriguing–albeit some extremely unlikable–characters; and then, she weaves this tale of such incredible, unpredictable fancy. I WANT TO BE GREAT LIKE HER.

There was nothing predictable about Charmed Life. Even the stuff my daughter and I thought we had figured out (we listened to it together), we got wrong. It is kind of amazing.

Also, it continues to be true that Diana Wynne Jones and Gerard Doyle are perfectly matched. His line readings + her text = fantastic entertainment.

We’re totally seeking out the next audiobook in the series, The Lives of Christopher Chant.

Book Review: Insatiable

The vamps were just too alluring. And their victims just never seemed to think they deserved better than the treatment they were given. It was almost as if they were afraid to put their foot down, because they thought they’d never get anything better…

Insatiable is Meg Cabot’s entry into the current vampire craze that, instead of taking a romantic vision of vampires, takes every opportunity to point out how vampires are, well, soul-sucking parasites who prey on those weaker than them, whose minds are easiest to be read and manipulated.

I wish I had liked this book more. Cabot and I are obviously on the same page with our hate of vampires. In her book (haha, LITERALLY, but that’s not how I meant it at first), there is nothing sexy about vampires except for the one vampire who has no interest in killing humans and instead wants to keep the whole vamp thing on the DL and foster positive vampire-human interaction. He’s supposed to be kind of sexy, but the reader is constantly reminded that he’s DEAD (or undead, I guess) and not a viable life partner.  Oh, and also that he has to lie about who he is in order to start a relationship, and even though he is badass, the fact that he’s a dead dude who feeds on the blood of humans. So he has magnetism and a ripped bod, but the whole vampire thing is not sexy at all. It’s creepy and causes way more problems than he’s worth. At least that’s how I read it.

Anyway, the reason I wish I liked this book more is that it could very easily be read as a metaphor for violent and imbalanced relationships. In fact, there are pretty explicit comparisons made between the vampires who feed on girls and abusive men. However, there’s just too much going on for it to be about that one thing. So much so that I can’t even figure out how to review this except to say that it was just kind of there.

Basically, I was interested in the book when I was reading it, but when I put it down, I had no interest in it whatsoever. There were no standout characters, and nothing really for me to sink my teeth into. (See what I did there?) I think it’d be good for a beach or pool read. Or a lunch time read that only requires lunch break levels of commitment. (Which is when I read it, which is why it took so long, and I finally had to just had to bring it home and read it after work Friday so I could be DONE ALREADY, GEEZ.)

It’s not bad; it’s not good. It’s just kind of…there.

Audiobook Review: Sunrise Over Fallujah

Once we get home, we’ll have known what we’ve been fighting for.

Walter Dean Myers takes on war again with his follow-up to Fallen Angels, Sunrise Over Fallujah. Sunrise follows Robin “Birdy” Perry through his tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The audiobook is narrated by J. D. Jackson.

What I Liked

– It took me a bit to warm up to the narrator but after a while, I really enjoyed his style. It was the moment I realized I knew which characters were speaking even before he got to the dialogue tags.

– Early in the narrative, Birdy says that his uncle Richie (the main character in Fallen Angels) wouldn’t recognize today’s army because of the women and the updated weapons. And I have to say, I appreciate the infusion of estrogen. Marla is probably my favorite of the secondary characters.

– I love the way Myers reveals details about his characters’ lives. Everything comes out organically and never feels forced or like a prescribed monologue.

– Jonesy the blues man. Shouldn’t work but it does. In some ways, he seems like a forced relic of the past (he wants to open a blues joint), but it was refreshing that he didn’t want to be a rapper or something, I guess. What can I say? His eccentricity grew on me.

– I love the details we get about the majesty of the buildings and, of course, I love the humanity shown in the people of Iraq. So many times Birdy says he doesn’t know who the enemy is, and it’s reinforced through the people he encounters–most of whom are not visibly “bad guys.”

What I Didn’t Like

– NEEDS MORE MAKING OUT.  Geez. Listen, I have known people in the military, and they hook up ALL THE TIME. I mean, there is a rule against it during boot camp. And you know what? PEOPLE GET AROUND IT! And I know that major making out isn’t WDM’s style, but still. I’m just saying. It would’ve made this book even more extra awesome is all.

In conclusion: War sucks. Walter Dean Myers does not.

YA Challenge: 28/75; POC Reading Challenge: 20/15

Book Review: Diablerie

“The word can mean either mischievous or evil.”

Diablerie by Walter Mosley is an erotic thriller about recovered alcoholic Ben who has his past questioned by a woman he doesn’t remember.

Mosley is a master storyteller for sure. I found myself reading chunks of this novel at a time because I wanted to know what would happen next.

That said, I really didn’t care for the book at all. The sex scenes are vulgar and uncomfortable, there is nothing appealing about any of the characters, and the most intriguing relationship–between Ben and the security guard–is left completely unexplored and on the surface.

The only part I found interesting–and the reason I kept reading–was Ben trying to piece together his past. Other than that? Meh.

POC Reading Challenge: 19/15

Book Review: Rich and Famous Like My Mom

Another street lady, I decided, and suddenly it seemed to me that I was peeking into another whole world. There we were, Mom and me with Agnes and Sebastian and Adolph, and all the kids at school with everything we needed and wanted, and right on the street, under our very noses, were all these people living in their own world.

Rich and Famous Like My Mom by Hila Colman follows Cassandra, daughter of world famous rock star Philippa, who, instead of living the life of glamour her classmates expect, is lonely and sheltered–until she meets homeless woman Mollie.

What I Liked

– Mollie. I really liked Mollie. What’s more is that it’s clear why Cassandra would be drawn to Mollie. She’s fierce, funny, self-sufficient, and a fighter. On more than one occasion, Cassandra compares her mother to Mollie, which is interesting, especially because her mom is absent for large chunks of the narrative, and Mollie barely gives Cassandra the time of day.

– I really appreciate that Cassandra doesn’t quite know how to help Mollie and that everything she thinks would be helpful really isn’t. It really drives home that Mollie is serious when she says she doesn’t want nor need help. Or at least not in the ways that Cassandra thinks.

– The relationships between Cassandra and her three mother figures are well set up and fraught with tension. Along with Philippa and Mollie, there’s also Cassandra’s relationship with her nanny and caregiver, Agnes.

– Cassandra’s evolvement into less of a wallflower at school because of her involvement with Mollie is realistic and well-handled.

What I Didn’t Like

– The relationships, well set up and fraught with tension though they are, are not sufficiently explored–especially the relationship between Cassandra and Agnes.

– The ending is pat and ridiculous, and, again, it fails to really explore the major relationships.

– There is a very, very stupid boy thing that is so stupid that I refuse to discuss it further.

– The beginning and middle of the novel are good, but once Cassandra ventures out of her shell and makes a friend her own age, things seem to fall apart. As a fan of female friendship, this does not make me happy.

In conclusion: The book is strongest when it discusses homelessness, but falls apart when the focus shifts from that topic.

Book Review: On My Own Two Feet

It has been said of our society that, “We are drowning in information and starved for knowledge.” This is particularly true in the realm of money. One of the fundamental premises of On My Own Two Feet is that the “right” personal finance guidance is already out in the public domain–it’s just tough to identify it in the sea of available information.

On My Own Two Feet by Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar is a book of practical, straight-forward advice for how to handle your money. Aimed at women in their twenties and thirties, the information is valuable for men and women of any age.

You know, I’ve read a couple of books on finance, and this is probably the most accessible one. As soon as I finished, I had a clear plan of action and knew exactly what to do. Usually when I read these books, I’m wondering how I’m supposed to invest/save for retirement if my employer doesn’t offer a 401k or 403b plan. Not so with this one. Here they tell you exactly what to do, how much you need, and what the options are. They break down all of the terminology so that it’s easy to understand but without dumbing anything down. The examples make sense, and the situations presented are applicable to my life. There’s also a whole section devoted to what happens when you couple up, so Thakor and Kedar cover all of the bases.

So, yeah, I definitely and wholeheartedly recommend this one.

POC Reading Challenge: 18/15; Women Unbound: 10/8

Book Review: Princess Ashley

I kept looking at Ashley Packard and saw her as a little girl entering kindergarten all those years ago. I saw she’d been in charge from the first day she set foot in the sandbox.

I keep trying to think about how best to summarize Princess Ashley by Richard Peck because it’s a book about several things at once, so I’m going to just take my cue from the title and say it’s about what happens when Chelsea becomes enamored with/worships popular and rich Ashley.

What I Liked

-Peck does a good job showing what happens when people are more concerned with appearances and the need to belong than with how people are treated. Chelsea is all about protecting her idea of cool and the people considered cool that she ignores Ashley’s manipulating ways. Even when confronted with the reality of Ashley’s true colors, Chelsea still fights hard to hang onto the ideal she has of Ashley. For Chelsea, Ashley is talented and sweet and honest and decidedly not the type of person who, say, pretends not to know a shy girl, yet buys that girl’s poetry to pass off as her own.

Chelsea also has that same attitude towards Ashley’s boyfriend, Craig. There’s this awesome, awesome scene between Chelsea and her mom after one of Craig’s pranks leads to a violent act towards and total humiliation of another student. All Chelsea cares about is if Craig will get in trouble, and if that will affect her status with Craig and Ashley. Nothing matters except that Craig keeps his title as king of cool–not even what becomes of the other boy. And her mom just calls her right on it. So awesome.

Peck, through Chelsea, also points out the way teens tend to be blind to their own attitudes in their quest to be cool/different. Chelsea attempts to get in with Ashley by imitating the way she dresses and wears her hair, yet she makes fun of younger girls who mimic the chosen cool girl in their grades. I just guess it’s different when Chelsea does it.

So, in that way, it’s a really nice look at peer pressure, and the delicate subtleties it often presents.

– Pod. Oh my word, I love me some Pod. He has his own affectation (his schtick is being a cowboy), but he drops it when it’s time to get serious. He sees every character exactly as they are, and he doesn’t play into Chelsea’s fairytale when she tries to defend Ashley or Craig. At the same time, he doesn’t berate Chelsea or treat her like she’s stupid.

Also, he hangs out with her parents and they love him. Pod! I think he might be treading on literary boyfriend ground here.

– This book is thoroughly ’80s. From the first page:

Was it the Michael Jackson year or the Prince year? No, it was the Madonna year, because I was wearing Madonna earring–with a sleeveless sweatshirt over cutoff jeans.

Then Peck mentions Sheila E.’s “The Glamourous Life“! Because without love? It ain’t much. It ain’t much.

I think I died at that part. That’s just how happy it made me.

– The end was predictably unpredictable by which I mean it was pretty clear how it was going to end, but there were some things that happened that I didn’t expect. In that way, the overall message wasn’t too heavy handed.

What I Didn’t Like

– The book covers a lot of time, and while I get a sense of the characters, I don’t feel like I actually know any of them, not even Chelsea.

– There’s also a narrative distance maintained, and I don’t know if that’s on purpose (it certainly could be because it works), but I don’t get a clear sense of the relationships either. There’s an inevitability to Pod and Chelsea, but I’m never really quite sure if she actually likes him or not. It’s weird.


In conclusion: A really good look at peer pressure and the need to belong without being too heavy handed or anti popular girl. It’s more about how these behaviors go unchecked and implicitly supported. If there wasn’t so much narrative distance, I would love it instead of just finding it okay.

YA Reading Challenge: 27/75

Banned Books Week: Book Review: Life Is Funny

So now that’s why I’m sitting here, because I have to be alone to try and figure out two things that are getting on my nerves, bad. One of them is what do I do to stay out of fights at least for the next seven years until I’m done with high school because I’m supposed to graduate and my aunt Eva will kill me if I don’t, but everybody’s always wanting to fight and then you get suspended and kicked out and all that mess. And then the other thing is what do I do if I don’t want my brother, Nick, to be touching on my privacy every night and he comes and does it anyway?

Life Is Funny by E. R. Frank is about eleven teens and spans seven years. The cover says that it’s a novel by E. R. Frank, which is an interesting marketing technique, especially considering that it’s a series of interrelated short stories. I’m not saying it’s not a novel because it most certainly has a clear beginning, middle, and, end (and I like the linear progression of the story, but that’s a discussion for a different bullet point), but, you know, it’s really a collection of short stories.

What I Liked

– I love the way the book is set up. Lots of times, interrelated stories connect in obvious ways or just have one connecting element like the same high school or whatever. But in this book, it’s the relationships that drive the connections. The kids’ lives overlap in seemingly innocuous, but usually heartbreaking ways, and the progression for characters is easily followed even when they kind of drop out of the picture because their stories are over. But that’s the thing. Their stories are never over. They continue.

– The breakout quote above highlights one of my favorite things about the book. Frank deftly shows how kids’ concerns all run together, from the seemingly inane to the completely, devastatingly serious. At the same time, Frank shows how serious everything is when you’re that age. A bathroom fight can lead to a serious stress about friendship, but the real issue is a dark family secret.

I also chose that quote because it hit me in the gut.  It made me suck in my breath and reread it several times to make sure I read it right. And while there are other things that happen to the different characters, that was the first moment I knew the book isn’t just about how teens see things from different perspectives, but that it’s about how they deal with the different levels of pain in their lives.

– I’m making the book sound maudlin, but it’s not. There’s a lot of humor in this book, and, as tends to happen with YA lit, hopefulness. It’s not a bleak read. If anything, it does show that life is funny–both funny ha-ha and funny weird/strange/unpredictable.

– The characters are fantastic, and, like I said, even within the short story format, they are allowed to grow and change. They’re also all likable or have something good about them to cling to. Which may be the point Frank, a clinical social worker, may be trying to make.

Since I have no real complaints about the book, here is where I talk instead about the fact that it’s one of the top 100 challenged books of the past decade, a fact I learned when I signed up for Nikki’s 2010 Banned Books Week Challenge. According to the ALA website, the top three reasons books are challenged are because they are deemed sexually explicit, have offensive language, and are unsuitable to age group. And I gotta say this book has sexually explicit and offensive language. Which, I guess, makes it unsuitable to age group–or at least to middle school students, since this a book that was actually removed from a middle school library because of  a sex scene.

I know it is a little crazy to think that teens have sex and/or talk about it using dirty words instead of referring to it as “making love” and such. And it is really, really, REALLY crazy to think that middle schoolers are not familiar with any of these terms or ideas. I mean, I know when I was in middle school, we didn’t even know that sex was called anything but “making whoopee” (oh, The Newlywed Game, how sly you were) and that Lucy and Ricky made a baby sleeping in separate twin beds.

(That was sarcasm, by the way.)

I have to say, I do not think this book is appropriate for my sixth grader, and I would tell her as much. What I would not do is tell an entire school full of children, some of whom are probably 14, that they shouldn’t read it or have access to it because it has sex in it. Especially if I read the whole book and not just a passage taken out of context and understood that this book may offer hope to a girl who has been molested that she can have a positive sexual experience. Or that I understood this is just two teens’ experiences out of many, several of which don’t focus on sex, and many of which focus on recovery from trauma.

So what have the children from that school missed out on, seeing that at least one of the challenges on this book was successful? An opportunity to think about what’s really going on with the boy or girl in their class and trying to understand that they all have different experiences. But more importantly, an opportunity to know that THEY ARE NOT ALONE. There is someone else out there who feels stupid but isn’t, who has messed up parents, who has great friends, who has lost friends, who can find a great boyfriend or girlfriend in spite of his or her other experiences, who doesn’t have money but goes to college, who loves his or her parents, who hates his or her parents, who doesn’t have parents and on and on.

It’s no accident that the book starts with the characters aged eleven and twelve years old.

POC Challenge: 20/15; YA Reading Challenge: 29/75