Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Year of Books, part 2

I've made kind of a mess out of my Year of Books posts, I'm afraid. I joined before beginning this blog in August, so as a result, some reviews that I wrote earlier in the year are posted at Shelfari and haven't found their way over here yet. My intent was to do a list of what I've read in 2008 and rank them (which I did here) and then, for the days leading up to 2009, give you links to the reviews on this blog (for new readers) and post my Shelfari reviews. Sounds simple, yes? Alas, no ... but here they are anyway.

If You Could See Me Now - Cecilia Ahern (audiobook)
Cecelia Ahern is a talented young author (just 26!)who has created an imaginary world amidst the realities of every day life. Ahern's fairy tale is enchanting, funny, delightful and thought-provoking for anyone who has ever been around a child who has an imaginary friend (or friends). This story will stay with me for awhile, and deservedly so. Would highly recommend the audio book version of this book, which has won an award for audio books. The narrators do an excellent job in bringing the characters of Elizabeth and Ivan to life.

Garden Spells - by Sarah Addison Allen
In "Garden Spells," one of the characters is compelled to give people things. She isn't sure exactly why the recipient will need the item (a jar of cherries, two quarters, a mango splitter, among other things) but they will. Similarly, Sarah Addison Allen has given her readers an delightfully creative tale that just might make one realize that one enjoys magical realism. This is a mostly lighthearted read about two sisters and their quirky family dynamics and history which is infamous throughout their small North Carolina town. The book's themes are layered throughout; while some plotlines are given somewhat simplistic and predictable treatment, others allow the reader to come to his or her own interpretations. Overall, an enjoyable book about family and how one's past is ever so present.

Finding Nouf - by Zoe Ferraris
Click here for my review, posted on 11/29/08.

When Children Ask About God, by Harold S. Kushner
In this book, Kushner gives the reader some thoughts to consider when children ask questions about God, death, and other weighty topics that often confound and confuse parents wishing to provide just the right answer. This isn't a question and answer type of book in the sense that Kushner doesn't list a question (i.e. "can God see me all the time?") followed by THE answer, but rather gives a perspective from which to frame one's own answers. I found myself wishing this wasn't a library book because there were many places that I wanted to highlight (hence the reason this is on my Wish List now). This is a book to refer to as one's children and their understanding (and ours) grows. ”

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (audio)
On Chesil Beach is an incredibly poignant and sad story about a young couple on their wedding night who bring all their fears and apprehensions to the honeymoon suite. Initially, this seems to be a simplistic tale, but as the reader (or, in my case, the listener) gets drawn into the story, it's impossible not to be caught up in the complexities of Edward and Florence's unspoken emotions.

The novel takes place over just three hours, but that's plenty of time to lead the couple to a life-changing conclusion. This is a story about the consequences of things left unsaid and how such silences have the power to alter the course of one's life. It's a fascinating premise, this idea that the slightest decision can change things forever. I enjoyed this story and as an audiobook, it works well - especially with McEwan himself as the narrator. I particularly like when the author narrates his or her own work. Doing so allows the listener to get caught up in the author's enthusiasm and emotion. At the end of the audiobook is an interview with McEwan about the story, which is enjoyable to listen to also.

All He Ever Wanted, by Anita Shreve (audio)
My review can be found here.

The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian (audio)
In "The Buffalo Soldier", author Chris Bohjalian gives the reader two stories for the price of one: the first story being that of Terry and Laura Sheldon and their foster child Alfred, and the second being the story of George Rowe, "the buffalo soldier." Just as the circumstances and emotions surrounding the Sheldon girls' tragic deaths is a constant theme throughout the novel, so is the story of the buffalo soldiers. Perhaps it was because I listened to this novel on audio, but it is not apparent at first how the two stories are symbolically connected - and at times (again, possibly due to the audio format), the quotes from Rowe seemed to be distracting from the story itself.

The weather, the cold, and the presence of water (in all its forms - rain, the river, etc.) are also key symbolic elements that are an integral part of this novel. It is set in late fall and winter, so the Vermont landscape is often depicted as very cold and gloomy. Such is also the case for the marriage of Terry and Laura Sheldon following the deaths of their daughters. The reader isn't given much of a glimpse into the Sheldons' marriage prior to this incident, but understandably so, the couple deals with their emotions to their shared tragedy in separate ways. Bohjalian portrays the emotions experienced by the wife, Laura, extremely well; his portrayal of 10-year Alfred is also exceptionally well-done.

Much of the writing in "The Buffalo Soldier" is well-done. Bohjalian shines in his descriptions of the landscape, and the interactions between Laura and Alfred as well as Alfred and the retired college professor and his wife who live across the street, are beautifully brought to life. I did not care much for Terry or Phoebe, which may have been the reaction that Bohjalian hoped to arose in his readers. The story does fall short in its ending. The drama that fills the climatic scenes in the book are believable, but the resolution of the conflict in the story absolutely is not. It's wrapped up hastily (as if there was a page limit that was foisted upon the author) and too neatly - a little too "movie-of-the-week"-ish. With all the complexities that each character carries, they - and the reader - needed something more. Overall, I liked the novel and will certainly read more of Bohjalian's work as he is a talented writer.

Anytime Playdate, by Dade Hayes
Many parents of preschoolers are on a first name basis with Dora, Diego, Blue - and the many other Nick and Noggin characters that are always available for an "anytime playdate." Dade Hayes, father of two, explores the world of preschool entertainment in this book by providing a glimpse behind several of the genre's most successful shows. One of the newest offerings, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, is discussed in detail - from the show's earliest beginnings to the research conducted with preschoolers at a New York school to the process of the show getting on the airwaves. In doing so, Hayes gives an interesting, eye-opening view of the world of preschool entertainment.

I expected this book to take a stance on the never-ending debate of whether preschoolers should even be watching TV to begin with, but instead, refreshingly, Hayes respects his reader's intelligence and parenting abilities enough to allow them the right to make their own decisions and form their own opinions. The "behind the scenes" glimpses into the process behind several shows is very interesting and makes for a well-done read.

Here's the Story, by Maureen McCormick
My review was a blog post on 12/10/08.

Schulz & Peanuts, by David Michaelis
Michaelis' biography of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz provides the reader with an incredibly detailed - and sometimes tedious and sad - look at the life of one of America's most beloved cartoonists. With more than 200 "Peanuts" strips interspersed through the book, the reader comes away with a newfound insight into the inspiration and life experiences that became the lives of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy, and other members of the "Peanuts" gang. It is impossible to come away from this book without a deeper appreciation for Schulz and "Peanuts" as well as respect for David Michaelis for presenting such a richly detailed and extensively researched look at the life of Charles Schulz.

Still Summer, by Jacquelyn Mitchard (audio)
I listened to this on audio and while it wasn't the best book I've ever read, nor the worse, it kept my interest. I found myself wondering whether or not the four would be rescued, hoping they would be, and speculating on how they might be found. The scenes with the pirates were very well done, suspenseful, and among the best in the book (I thought the outcome would be different.) Also, I know very little about boats and sailing, but it seemed as if Mitchard either did considerable research into nautical life or has been around boats previously, as these details seemed authentic to me.

The ending (August) was a disappointment, as it seemed incredibly contrived and too "neat." Some of the plot was predictable (the storyline with Olivia/Tracy/Cammie) and Cammie's beauty and youthfulness was described in excess, but this was a good "don't-need-to-think-too-hard" type of read. Kiersten Potter, the narrator of the audiobook, was wonderful. There are quite a few characters introduced early on in this book and Potter did an excellent job with various voices which helps greatly with the listener's ability to keep them all

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold (audio)
Like many others, I found this book to be a difficult one to get through. I listened to it on audio and almost gave up after the second tape as Helen was becoming rather unlikeable and the subject matter was getting a bit heavy and depressing for my afternoon commute home from work. However, I believe one of the qualities of a good writer is the ability to make the reader have feelings (good or bad) about your characters. I gave this 3 stars because it was such a tough, heavy book to get through. However, I thought Sebold's writing was excellent, particularly during the scene when the neighbors came into the yard looking for Helen's mother. The tension was palpable and listening to this on audio had me gripping the steering wheel until this part was over.

Mermaids in the Basement, by Michael Lee West
My review was posted here on 11/2/08.

The Pilot's Wife, by Anita Shreve (audio)
My review was posted here on 12/23/08.

I'm still trying to finish Beyond Time Out: From Chaos to Calm by Beth A. Grosshans before the end of 2008. (I have this thing about not being in the middle of a book when the New Year rolls around. I know, it sounds nuts. But because Betty and Boo are creating more chaos than calm this afternoon, this may be the year where (horrors!) I'm reading the same book on January 1 as I was on December 31. And y'know, somehow I think the world will keep on turning ....

Here's to a year of great reading in 2009!

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