Sunday, March 27, 2011

In My Mailbox (40)

From Simon & Schuster Galley Grab:
Where Things Come Back
by John Corey Whaley

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears....

In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It's about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

by Jennifer Bradbury

Agnes Wilkins is standing in front of an Egyptian mummy, about to make the first cut into the wrappings, about to unlock ancient (and not-so-ancient) history.

Maybe you think this girl is wearing a pith helmet with antique dust swirling around her.

Maybe you think she is a young Egyptologist who has arrived in Cairo on camelback.

Maybe she would like to think that too. Agnes Wilkins dreams of adventures that reach beyond the garden walls, but reality for a seventeen-year-old debutante in 1815 London does not allow for camels—or dust, even. No, Agnes can only see a mummy when she is wearing a new silk gown and standing on the verdant lawns of Lord Showalter’s estate, with chaperones fussing about and strolling sitar players straining to create an exotic “atmosphere” for the first party of the season. An unwrapping.

This is the start of it all, Agnes’s debut season, the pretty girl parade that offers only ever-shrinking options: home, husband, and high society. It’s also the start of something else, because the mummy Agnes unwraps isn’t just a mummy. It’s a host for a secret that could unravel a new destiny—unleashing mystery, an international intrigue, and possibly a curse in the bargain.

Get wrapped up in the adventure... but keep your wits about you, dear Agnes.

What was in your "mailbox" this week?

In My Mailbox was started by Kristi of The Story Siren.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In My Mailbox (39)

From the library:
Naked Heat
by Richard Castle

Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook are together again in Richard Castle's thrilling follow-up to his New York Times bestseller, Heat Wave.

When New York's most vicious gossip columnist, Cassidy Towne, is found dead, Heat uncovers a gallery of high profile suspects, all with compelling motives for killing the most feared muckraker in Manhattan.

Heat's murder investigation is complicated by her surprise reunion with superstar magazine journalist Jameson Rook. In the wake of their recent breakup, Nikki would rather not deal with their raw emotional baggage. But the handsome, wise-cracking Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's personal involvement in the case forces her to team up with Rook anyway. The residue of their unresolved romantic conflict and crackling sexual tension fills the air as Heat and Rook embark on a search for a killer among celebrities and mobsters, singers and hookers, pro athletes and shamed politicians.

This new, explosive case brings on the heat in the glittery world of secrets, cover-ups, and scandals.

From Chapters:
A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness

A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries -- and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the Twilight series -- with an extra serving of historical realism.

Twinkie Chan's Crochet Goodies for Fashion Foodies
by Twinkie Chan

With Twinkie Chan's Crochet Goodies for Fashion Foodies, crocheters can have their cupcakes and wear them, too. The founder of her own popular line of food-inspired fashions, Twinkie Chan has whipped up a feast of head-turning scarves, mittens, hats, and more so that her many fans can learn to make her culinary creations at home.

You'll find recipes for food-themed scarves that feature sushi, salad, gingerbread men, buttered toast, eggs and bacon, ice-cream cones, popcorn boxes, and more. You'll also learn how to make a pair of strawberry fingerless mittens, a chocolate cupcake hat complete with a cherry on top, and even a coconut-lemon cake tissue box cozy. Twinkie Chan's Crochet Goodies for Fashion Foodies is divided into three chapters -- Sweet Things, Fruits and Veggies, and Savory Stuff -- and comes complete with an illustrated how-to section, lists of "ingredients" for each project, easy-to-follow, step-by-step directions, and full-color photos and illustrations. Beginning and experienced crafters alike will go wild for these quirky, colorful, wearable confections.

Gah... The TBR pile is growing, despite my best intentions not to let it get away from me. Okay, so this week I kind of had to buy some books. I had a $10 credit/coupon for Chapters that was going to expire, so I had to use it for something (I don't like letting free money go to waste).  The crochet book is not really something I need to read, per se, so it's not quite as bad as adding another novel to the pile.

What was in your "mailbox" this week?

In My Mailbox was started by Kristi of The Story Siren.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In My Mailbox (38)

From ireadiwrite Publishing (freebies for Read an E-Book Week):
Amanda in Spain: The Girl in the Painting
by Darlene Foster

Amanda Jane Ross is certainly becoming a world traveler; she's found herself in Spain on vacation with her friend Leah and her parents. Strangely, she's encountered a mysterious young girl who looks eerily like the girl in a famous painting in the museum in Madrid. Even stranger is that this girl keeps showing up wherever Amanda finds herself - Madrid, the remote mountains of rural Spain, the beaches on the Mediterranean Sea and in the big city of Barcelona. Amanda wants to help this girl, but Leah is scared to do too much given the fact that they've just found out that a mean horse-dealer is trying to get to this girl and her beautiful pony.

Come with Amanda as she tries to unravel the mystery behind this sweet young girl and her beloved pony as they trek across Spain.

Amber Frost
by Suzi Davis

Grace Lynn Stevenson is an eighteen year old girl who recently moved with her wealthy, but busy parents to a new city. She’s popular, pretty and rich - what more could a girl want? But deep down, she’s sad, lonely and plagued by nightmares.

When she meets Sebastian Caldwood at her new private school, she’s inexplicably drawn to him and his strange tattoos. Sebastian always gets what he wants - he simply has to wish it; but he’s fighting his own inner demons, and struggling to remember a past that eludes him. When he remembers that he is much older than he looks, he realizes that he’s seen many people live and die, including Grace.

Once Sebastian realizes his true nature and finds what he has been searching for the past hundreds of years, he also realizes that it is now up to him to protect Grace from the dangers that have plagued them throughout eternity.

Armor of Light
by Ellen L. Ekstrom

George Ascalon, earl of Grasmere, returns from the Fourth Crusade to learn that his father, a man who has forsaken his family and noble title to take up Holy Orders, has assigned him one last battle. There is an evil permeating a neighboring lord's lands and George is called upon to vanquish it. With a band of followers that includes his sister, a knight, a fletcher's wife and a mysterious noblewoman, George sets out to honor the pledge and in doing so discovers that he indeed has dragons to fight, and the person most in need of saving is himself.

The Fantabulous Fens
by Gautam Sen

The Fens are a most unusual family. Father and Mother Fen are rather ordinary, but their children? First, there's Mumbo, an elephant-boy; Baby Panda, a Giant Panda; Koala, a koala (of course); and Pinchu and Panchu are very, very small.

When the Fens move into their new house, a curious neighbor, Mrs. Hysteria, drops in, and while the visit starts well enough, on spotting Mumbo, she passes out. When she finally leaves, she makes it her job to make this gentle family public enemies. What will become of the Fens?

We've Seen the Enemy
by Paul Dayton

An alien ship crashes on Earth; its contents make it clear that the dead ant-like aliens inside were on an offensive mission. As humanity is presented with the prospect of their doomed world, construction begins on hundreds of World Federation ships and extrasolar defense weapons to be used in the inevitable war.

We've Seen the Enemy is set 700 years after the Great War and is a desperate race by a suicide team that may finally lead to the end of this interstellar war. Meanwhile, pockets of left-over human tribes on Earth have their own struggles, as they face power-hungry dictators and warped religious leaders. Behind all this are multiple alien forces, each with their own agenda.

As truths turn into lies and friends become enemies, can humanity unite together to fight their common enemy?

What Scotland Taught Me
by Molly Ringle

Fresh out of high school, Eva Sonneborn is headed to Scotland with her best friends: scholarly, sarcastic Laurence; gorgeous, ghost-seeing Amber; and responsible, sweet Shannon. They plan to spend the next six months in Edinburgh, enjoying an adventure-filled work-abroad journey before parting ways for college.

But when Eva meets Gil, a local bartender, she figures a little innocent flirting won't hurt her relationship with Tony, her ever-faithful boyfriend back home. But just when things turn less innocent with Gil, the trip starts throwing curveballs at not only her but her friends too. By the end of the trip, they've all fallen in love, sometimes with the wrong people - and with consequences that may tear their friendship apart forever...

I got six books this week and didn't have to spend a dime! A big thanks to ireadiwrite Publishing for these freebies. I'm not sure if I'll read them all in the near future (although Amber Frost looks mighty intriguing), but I thought it would be a good idea to download them while they were available.

What was in your "mailbox" this week?

In My Mailbox was started by Kristi of The Story Siren.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review - Heat Wave

Heat Wave (Nikki Heat #1)
by Richard Castle
Date: 2009
Publisher: Hyperion
Reading level: A
Pages: 224
Source: library

In the middle of a heat wave in New York City, a real estate developer is murdered.  It's up to Detective Nikki Heat to solve the case.  Along with Jameson Rook, a reporter who's shadowing her for a story, Nikki and her team assemble the clues that will eventually lead them to the killer.

But then another murder occurs and things begin to heat up... in more ways than one.  Nikki must sort out the clues -- as well as her growing feelings for Rook -- and solve the case before it claims any more victims.

This is quite possibly the weirdest reading experience I've had in quite a while.  If you don't watch a lot of TV, you might not know that this novel is actually spun off from a TV series called Castle.  It's about a mystery writer named Richard Castle who shadows an NYPD detective named Kate Beckett as research for one of his novels.  This novel, in fact.  Yes, the premise here is that Richard Castle actually wrote Heat Wave (and the sequel, Naked Heat, which is also available in real life) after gleaning information about the inner workings of the NYPD from his partnership with Detective Beckett.  This led to a bit of mental confusion as I was reading the book.  I can't say it wasn't fun, though.

For the first half of the book, I kept thinking in terms of Castle and Beckett, because Rook and Heat are pretty much carbon copies of them.  For the second half of the book, I was thinking things like "Wow... this Rook character is really a self-insert, isn't he?" and "Wish fulfillment, much?"  And then I'd have to remind myself that -- hello?! -- Richard Castle is a fictional character and he did not really write this book.  It's so meta.  As a result, I was shaking my head a lot and giggling to myself as I was reading.

As for the book itself, I'm not sure that it could really stand alone were it not tied into a successful television show.  The writing is so-so, and the whole thing reads like an episode of Castle.  I'm inclined to think that the readers of these books in the fictional Castle world are not quite as savvy as our real-life readers; I find it a bit implausible that this sort of novel would make you a publishing superstar.  However, as a fun, fluffy diversion it works just fine... and it's even more fun if you're a fan of the show.

I noticed quite a few really weird typos, but I'm not sure if they were actual editing problems or merely errors that happened during the conversion process (I read this as an e-book).  Other than that, the writing was okay...  It's not a literary masterpiece by any means, but it's still an awful lot better than some of what's out there.  There is some swearing and some sex and Nikki Heat apparently likes to be naked (all the stuff the writers can't get away with on the TV show), so it's not for kids.  But it's a pretty enjoyable whodunit and I'm not sorry that I gave this one a go.  I think I prefer the show more than the books, but at least now I better understand the references to the books made by the characters in the TV series.

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing: 3/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall: 3.43 out of 5

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review - Inside Out & Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
Date: 2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Pages: 272
Source: library

In 1975, ten-year-old Hà flees from Saigon with her mother and three older brothers. Her mother makes the decision to take the family to America, hoping for a better future for her children.

Making the adjustment to life in Alabama is sometimes difficult, but strong-willed Hà learns and adapts, all the while shrewdly observing what's going on around her.

One year of the family is chronicled in this novel of free-verse poems, voiced by a ten-year-old girl with a unique and colourful perspective.

I didn't realize this book was written in verse until I'd downloaded it from the library.  I've never read a novel in verse before, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect... or if I'd even like it.  But I actually enjoyed Inside Out and Back Again quite a lot.

I was mostly unfamiliar with what happened in Vietnam at the end of the war.  Hà's narrative provides a window on a time that many young people today don't know much about, and the short chapters of free-verse poetry make the story easily accessible.  I liked Hà's family, the setting of Vietnam that she describes so lovingly, the trials and tribulations of a ten-year-old outsider in the American public school system, and the eventual reconciliation that the whole family must go through.  The author's note in the back states that much of the story was based on the author's personal experiences.  Realizing that real people did experience similar situations makes the story that much more immediate.

The book is classed as a middle-grade read, but there's nothing to prevent young adults or adults from enjoying the story.  I'd recommend this one to fans of contemporary or historical fiction.

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Pace: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Editing: 5/5
Originality: 4/5
Enjoyment: 5/5

Overall: 4.57 out of 5

In My Mailbox (37)

From the library:
Eli the Good
by Silas House

Bicentennial fireworks burn the sky. Bob Seger growls from a transistor radio. And down by the river, girls line up on lawn chairs in pursuit of the perfect tan. Yet for ten-year-old Eli Book, the summer of 1976 is the one that threatened to tear his family apart. There is his distant mother; his traumatized Vietnam vet dad; his wild sister; his former war protester aunt; and his tough yet troubled best friend, Edie, the only person with whom he can be himself. As tempers flare and his father’s nightmares rage, Eli watches from the sidelines, but soon even he cannot escape the current of conflict.

Heat Wave
by Richard Castle

A New York real estate tycoon plunges to his death on a Manhattan sidewalk. A trophy wife with a past survives a narrow escape from a brazen attack. Mobsters and moguls with no shortage of reasons to kill trot out their alibis. And then, in the suffocating grip of a record heat wave, comes another shocking murder and a sharp turn in a tense journey into the dirty little secrets of the wealthy. Secrets that prove to be fatal. Secrets that lay hidden in the dark until one NYPD detective shines a light.

Mystery sensation Richard Castle, blockbuster author of the wildly best-selling Derrick Storm novels, introduces his newest character, NYPD Homicide Detective Nikki Heat. Tough, sexy, professional, Nikki Heat carries a passion for justice as she leads one of New York City's top homicide squads. She's hit with an unexpected challenge when the commissioner assigns superstar magazine journalist Jameson Rook to ride along with her to research an article on New York's Finest. Pulitzer Prize-winning Rook is as much a handful as he is handsome. His wise-cracking and meddling aren't her only problems. As she works to unravel the secrets of the murdered real estate tycoon, she must also confront the spark between them. The one called heat.

Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai

No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.

For all the ten years of her life, HÀ has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.

But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. HÀ and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, HÀ discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.

This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.

I thought Eli the Good looked like an interesting read. Plus, it can count toward three of my challenges (I'm not reading as quickly as I'd hoped, so this is a good thing)!  Inside Out and Back Again is written in verse... which is new for me.  I'm eager to get started on that one!

What was in your "mailbox" this week?

In My Mailbox was started by Kristi of The Story Siren.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Read an E-Book Week

 Tomorrow marks the start of Read an E-Book Week. I'm in the middle of two e-books at the moment, so I'm good to go.

What about you? Are you planning on reading any e-books this week?

You can still join the 2011 E-Book Reading Challenge if you like.  Just make sure to count only the e-books that you've read in 2011.

Get clicking and enjoy those digital reads!

Progress Bars for Your Challenges

I've been asked a number of times about the progress bars for my challenges. They're not widgets (which means you have to update them by hand as you finish your books), but they're also not really complicated. If you want a status bar, just copy the following code and paste it into the HTML of your blog post (you can also paste it into the HTML widget on Blogger, too, if you want it in your sidebar like I have):

<div style="width: 190px; height: 15px; background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% rgb(255, 255, 255); border: 1px solid rgb(0, 0, 0);"><div style="width: 0%; height: 15px; background: none repeat scroll 0% 0% rgb(155, 155, 155); font-size: 8px; line-height: 8px;"></div></div>

Your bar will look like this:

The width of the progress bar is set at 190 pixels and the height is 15 pixels, but you can change that to whatever you like (you might want to do this if you're putting it in a narrow sidebar so that it doesn't get cut off).

You'll probably also want to change the colours so that it matches your blog. In the code, where it says "rgb", it indicates a colour. The first one is the background of the bar (set as white in this case); the second colour (set as black) is the border colour; the third colour (it will be grey here) is the actual bar.

To change the "progress" of your bar, just set the "width" value (the one in %... not pixels) to whatever percentage you like. Here, I've set it to 33%:

Enjoy your brand new progress bars! Happy reading!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Review - The Magician's Elephant

The Magician's Elephant
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by Yoko Tanaka
Date: 2009
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Reading level: MG
Pages: 208
Source: library

Peter Augustus Duchenne is an orphan who lives with an old soldier named Vilna Lutz.  He's always been told that he is alone in the world, that he has no family.  But then a fortuneteller makes a stunning declaration and Peter discovers that his sister, thought to have died at birth, may in fact be alive.  Not only that, but an elephant is the one who will bring them back together.  But where is an elephant to be found in the cold and gloomy city of Baltese?  On one magical evening, the citizens of the city find out in a rather surprising way... and nothing will be the same for any of them.

Kate DiCamillo has written a number of books that you may have heard of, including Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux.  I first heard about the author when my mom read and enjoyed The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  I would have liked to read that book, but I couldn't find it at the library.  I did, however, find The Magician's Elephant, so I thought I'd give it a try.

I really enjoyed this one.  Despite the middle grade designation, the book could be enjoyed by pretty much any age group.  Themes such as forgiveness, belief, love, and the magic of life are touched upon, and will probably be appreciated more by older readers.  The writing style was magical, like that of a storybook, and brought the interesting and varied characters to life.  We're introduced to seemingly unrelated Baltesians throughout the narrative, but DiCamillo skillfully ties everyone together by the end, reminding us of the interconnectedness that we often take for granted.

The book is illustrated by Yoko Tanaka; the charming and whimsical pictures really add to the atmosphere of the story.  All in all, I quite enjoyed The Magician's Elephant.  It's a quick read, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

Plot: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Pace: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Editing: 5/5
Originality: 5/5
Enjoyment: 4/5

Overall: 4.57 out of 5

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


My reading has been a bit slow lately.  I've been reading a riveting non-fiction book (The World Peace Diet), so my fiction reads have taken a bit of a backseat in the last couple of weeks.  I'm going to make a concerted effort to change that, though, and get through the two fiction titles that I'm in the middle of.  The Lost Hours and The Magician's Elephant are both fairly good, so it shouldn't be too much of a chore to get through them once I put my mind to it.

In looking for something else entirely, I stumbled across this post that I wrote back in August of 2009.  I think if I wrote it today, after another year and a half of reading some pretty bad YA fiction, the tone would be a lot more snarky... and a lot less kind.

Read How to Write Your Very Own Young Adult Paranormal Romance.  And don't be afraid to leave your thoughts!