Sunday, November 29, 2015

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

"Look well to this day,
For it is life.
In its brief course lies all the realities of existence.
For yesterday is but a memory and tomorrow is only a vision."

East of the Sun is the story of three British women traveling to India in 1928, a time when unrest with the British had begun to transform the streets of Bombay and the teachings of Ghandi began to take hold.

India boasts different dreams for each of these ladies. Traditionally, the young women traveling to India during this time were known as the "Fishing Fleet." These British women were sent to India in the hopes of landing a British husband in India as an officer, a soldier, or a businessman.

Tradition would hope that during the fall to winter season, these women would attend parties and other social gatherings, and would marry the first eligible bachelor they find. But these three women will take different paths and break tradition.

The journey on the ship is a story in and of itself, but proves to be only the beginning of their adventure.

Rose is betrothed to a British soldier she has met four times at home. Though Tor is determined to finally find herself a husband, as she tags along as Rose's maid of honor, she is constantly reminded by her mother of all the things she does wrong. And Viva is venturing off to recover a precious trunk of belongings on behalf of her deceased parents, with no interest in meeting a husband along the way.

Viva has agreed to chaperone young, troubled Guy. Kicked out of boarding school, trouble follows Guy wherever he goes. Throughout the story he will prove time and time again to be both a connector and a catalyst towards difficult times.

Upon their arrival in Bombay, the girls separate to carry out each of their individual plans.

Young Rose finds herself struggling with the duties of a soldier's wife. She quickly discovers that she may not be Jack's true love, and finds herself doing everything wrong.

Tor falls into the lavish, colorful crowd of Bombay. She is the only one with a ticket home, and her time is limited. Desperate to finally prove her mother wrong, she throws herself at men only to be hurt over and over again. To her, returning to England is accepting failure; accepting that her mother is right about her. She has refused to let this happen.

Viva's story is the most compelling as she struggles to find a life of her own in a world that only wants her to find a husband. She begins to work at a children's home and to write the stories of the orphaned Indian street children she encounters. But Guy continues to haunt any chance of moving that she encounters.

The stories intersect, and collide, as the women live their lives over the course of the winter, joining their lives apart with trips together. This is a story of three women finding their way in the world, combined with the beauty and sorrow of living in a foreign land. Their bond with one another will keep them going through the challenges they encounter, and no one's path will be as expected.

I found this book among the shelves of the library, several copies side-by-side as it was recommended as "book club" read. Drawn in by an unfamiliar story in a new setting, this historical fiction proved to be a fascinating, engrossing read. Stretching across almost 600 pages, it is not a fast read. But it is worth the perseverance, as it is full of adventure, knowledge, and the bond of friendship and love.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My Father's Dragon Trilogy by Ruth Stiles Gannet

My Father's Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, The Dragons of Blueland

One night a small orange cat appears on Elmer Elevator's doorstep and tells him a fantastic story. Far away on the island of Tangerina, a young dragon is being held captive. The cat is back for help, wanting to rescue the dragon. Elmer packs his bag with bubblegum, clementines, rope, and other trinkets and sets off in the night from his city home.

Elmer journeys in a  burlap sack aboard a ship to his destination, but that is only where the adventure begins. The dragon is is closely guarded, and Elmer will meet an array of characters along his trip. He will creatively defy them with humorous maneuvers as he makes his to the his new friend.

His adventures will span the length of three stories, easily read and enjoyed with illustrations to accompany them. This is by far my favorite series to read aloud. From first grade to adult-hood, these books are magically fun and creative.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

During the 1950's a small New Jersey town is rocked by a series of tragic events. This book chronicles that heart-wrenching time and those left behind to pick up the pieces. Each time hope claims to rear its little head in this town, another fiery crash occurs. Beyond the crash, the town itself begins to fall apart. How can they stop this? Should the airport be closed? Will moving away erase the trauma?

Not necessarily uplifting, this story describes the a town ravaged by tragedy and the impact on the lives of its inhabitants. Based on true events, Blume stays true to reality and weaves fictional characters into the events. Judy Blume is a talented writer, but steer clear if you already have a fear of flying, this will not help! If you aren't faint of heart, the book is an captivating journey through one random year of tragedy and the perspectives of many.

The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick

A modern day witch hunt has ensued in a small New England town. Over the centuries, the Sparrow sisters have cultivated a garden of remedies and offered their guidance to their town's medical needs.

When a new doctor arrives, doubting their "magic", Patience Sparrow will vehemently defend her practices. Anger changes to attraction, and the doctor and mysterious woman soon pair up to assist their town. But soon, it won't be just the doctor calling her into question.

Suddenly a young boy who spent his days at the Sparrow's nursery is found dead in his kitchen, traces of the herbal remedies in his system. Patience insists all she's done is help this town. The town that once came to her to solve all their problems has now placed her in a little cell, awaiting trial.

Did she knowingly put this young boy in danger? In a witch-hunt climate, can she possibly survive? Once mob-mentality takes its hold, is there any decision left to be made? Will they find the key evidence left behind, tucked neatly under Matty's bed?

The Sound of Glass by Karen White

The Sound of Glass by Karen White

At night, the soft wind rustles the sea glass wind chimes strewn across the shingles of the house. Created in the mysterious attic, they begin to unravel a mystery and connect events and lives across the years. A story of new beginnings and rushed endings; of two women: one hoping to start their life over, the other hoping to give her son the life she no longer can.

After inheriting a new house from her grandmother-in-law, widowed Merritt hopes to start her life over, leaving behind a troubled past in Maine. She comes hoping to find solace, but instead is met by her bubbly, obnoxious Southern stepmother and her quiet young son.

Merritt's husband left South Carolina years ago and never looked back. Merritt will unravel the mystery of why he left, why he found and married her, and why she was called to this house in the low-country.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand

Dabney has lived a safe life on a beautiful island. With her stiff collars and perfectly placed headbands, she has always exuded organization and order. Dabney keeps her life perfectly placed, masking her fear of leaving Nantucket by being the island's biggest fan. Decades ago, she passed up the love of her life to stay on the island. Twenty years later, she has a seemingly happy marriage and a college-aged daughter.

While Dabney goes about making matches among her friends and colleagues, always choosing the perfect mates, her own marriage begins to quietly fall apart. With the arrival of her long-lost soulmate, back from decades abroad, her resolve to live a perfectly manufactured life begins to crumble away. 

Dabney spends her summer days carrying on and escaping reality by the pool; believing she can live two lives simultaneously.

But looming within the bright days of a Nantucket summer a deep secret festers. Bad health ignored, perfect plans intact, suddenly Dabney may not have forever to make her mind. She may have less time than she thinks. Nantucket is a summer place with summer people. As the season ends and the crowds depart, the colder seasons settle in. And with the colder seasons comes a cold, hard truth. Dabney must face a daunting reality: that life is imperfect, that love is often uncertain, and that sometimes, we don't have all the time in the world. As time ticks away, what will Dabney choose?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

The summer days are dwindling and the Waverley sisters are eagerly awaiting the arrival of First Frost. It is another enchanting, captivating book sprinkled with mystical fantasy and playful magic.

It's been five years since we last met the Waverley sisters in Garden Spells. Bay is now a teenager, crafting her special talent of knowing where people belong; Claire is capitalizing off her supreme candy-making skills; Sydney is running a successful salon. But things are slowly moving off-kilter. The salon is robbed, Bay is humiliated, Claire is losing her focus.

The Waverley sisters have small, mystical talents that are just a little above normal. Sydney can give the most beautiful haircuts that will land a client a job; Claire's candies can provide insight and support; Bay can tell others where someone, or something, belongs. This quirky crew inhabits their small North Carolina town that is full of as much charm as each of its residents.

But as the hots days of summer melt into the cool nights of autumn, a different sort of breeze blows through town. Hints of smokey aromas, glimpses of a tattered coat: a vagabond named the Great Banditi.

An old, tattered stranger has made his way into this small community. The Great Banditi makes his living off of a different sort of magic: blackmail and black magic. And he is out for his next financial endeavor. But what does he have on Claire? Can the magic of this town settle on the shoulders of the Banditi like the sweet, dew first frost settles on the apple tree?

Once again, Sarah Addison Allen writes a captivating story that releases you from reality and encompasses you in its magical grasp. You leave the story fully satisfied and happy, content with the beautifully strung together words that carry you from page to page.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Hector has a problem. He is a very good psychiatrist and everyone wants to see him. He is a good listener, but he cannot figure out what makes people happy. He can't even figure out what makes many of his clients unhappy! Hector feels dissatisfied.

And here his journey begins. Hector will travel the world discovering what makes people happy.

Lesson 18: The sun and the sea make everybody happy. Agreed!

Hector takes notes and make lists, learning quickly that asking people if they are happy is the LAST way to find out what makes people happy. He learns that upgrading to first class makes him happy, but the next time he flies he is expecting these amenities. So he learns a lesson: comparison is the thief of joy.

As Hector continues on his journey, travelling to his friends in a variety of countries, he continues to gather observations through his experiences and interactions. The culmination of his journey will be a meeting with a professor who is attempting to quantify and measure happiness. 

So, has Hector done it? Has he gathered the elements of happiness together in one place? Can happiness be measured or it can it only be felt in moments?

The writing is simple, fun, and amusing. Hector is lovable and his journey is remarkable; with a few mishaps along the way. His lessons are pure and simple.

One day while I was reading, I heard a clip from a facebook page playing in the background. Suddenly, my ears perked up as I heard the narrator describe travelling to Okinawa, a place of happiness and longevity, and what they discovered there. He said they went to see the youngest islanders to map where this journey to health and happiness seemed to begin. Below is the clip.

For Lifelong Happiness, Look to Okinawa

Happy: A Documentary, a clip from the documentary 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

As legend has it, there is a gem that possesses the ability to keep its owner safe for all time. But this gem holds a curse as well, as those around its owner will suffer immeasurably. It has been locked away in the depths of a museum in Paris, but as Nazi Germany tightens its grip on Europe, the Museum curator makes an important decision. Five men will be a given a pouch with the gem, but only one will have the real thing.

Enter the museum locksmith and his daughter: Marie-Laure is a 12-year-old blind girl who unwittingly becomes the center of so many worlds. They escape to sea-side town, but nowhere in Europe is safe from the grips of war.

Werner stares out the children's home window at the mines everyday, knowing it will soon be his turn to descend the elevator into the murky depths of this dark world. But when an opportunity arises to join the Nazi army and use his passion for radios, he sees an escape route. Naive and excited, he enrolls, sending himself into a different dark world altogether. Werner has a talent for radios, and his sharp mind earns him the admiration of a specialty unit. Their job is to locate anti-Nazi radio broadcasters and terminate the sources. But one night when he hears a soft voice over the radio, quietly whispering the words of Twenty Leagues Under the Sea, his mission changes. Werner must find her and save her in order to save himself.

The Nazi sergeant has heard the rumors. He has read the research. He knows that the gem is out there; that it has left the padlocks of the museum and ventured out into the world. The throbbing tumor in his neck is like a ticking time bomb. He doesn't have long until it is too late. The Nazi leader must find the gem: his only chance for survival. But where? And with whom would the museum trust such a rare and holy sparkling gem? He follows the path of possibilities until he sees it: the towering house left standing in the rubble of the sea-side village. The only untouched refuge. It must be there.

Their paths will cross just as the destruction overtakes the city.

This is an interesting and empathetic look at the ways all suffer in war, and the small glimmering shreds of hope that they hold on to that carry them through to the light.

NPR: World War II In A New 'Light' review

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Divergent/Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Confession: I saw the movie first. It didn't ruin the book for me.

What an awesome series. A futuristic survival story with surprising grit and hardship mixed in with a little bit of romance. It is a Young Adult novel and although the thickness of the book may seem daunting, it is anything but. I found it to be a quick, engaging read.

Before we begin, a quick run-down of the different factions.

In a futuristic world, what was once Chicago is now a city divided among factions. Each faction has key qualities: Dauntless are brave and strong-willed fighters; Abnegation are conservative and selfless; Candor are brutally honest and cannot lie; Amity are community- centered and dispute-free; Erudite are inquisitive and brilliant. The premise is that when people associate with those similar to them, they can create a peaceful society and avoid war. Judging by the looming fences surrounding the city, I'd say that fear is one of the main factors in this separation, not peace. At the age of 16, children are given an aptitude test where they encounter different scenarios. Their responses to those scenarios determine to what faction they should belong.

There is one dangerous category to belong to. The category that can't be contained: Divergent. Divergents are those who do not fit into a specific faction and therefore cannot be as easily controlled.

It is here that the story begins. Beatrice is divergent, a member of the Abnegation, making her choice to leave her family and join the Dauntless initiation. Beatrice is small and seemingly meek, and as she begins her training it is evident that she will encounter many struggles along the way. The largest struggle will be to hide who she is from her instructors and train herself to think like the Dauntless. As Beatrice finds her inner strength, she also finds secrets that she is not supposed to know. Something is brewing among the factions; something dangerous is about to take place. Can Beatrice stay ahead of the game before her whole city unravels?

Insurgent picks up where Divergent ends, so you'll just have to keep reading.

Of course, anyone who has read this book must now answer the question: What faction would you belong to?

Take the quiz here

Friday, March 6, 2015

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod 

by Gary Paulsen

I was looking for books to share with my students about the Iditarod when I stumbled across Winterdance. In early elementary school, we studied the Iditarod and followed the race. It has fascinated me ever since.  I am not an avid reader of nonfiction. I do not care for memoirs. This was the most humorous, gripping, and interesting nonfiction book that I have ever picked up. It is full of action and adventure of the best kind. This book is a glimpse into the heart of "the last great race on earth."

Paulsen takes on the challenge of running the Iditarod. This is a grueling  sled dog race through Alaska that stretches 1000 miles. To learn more about the race, go here. 

Paulsen eats, sleeps, and breathes Iditarod. It is the ultimate challenge and he will stop at nothing to take it on. But with all of the hardships to even get to the race, will he make it to the finish line?

"I write because I really, really like to write." -Gary Paulsen
"For young people I tell them to read like a wolf eats."

Children's Books about the Iditarod:

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Season of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech

Season of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech

Decades ago, a young woman escaped the impending arranged marriage and travels off with her true love. Serena Lenore discovered  a rare flower while living in the African Jungle. When it is time to return to America, she carries the flower, nestled in the curls of her hair, with her on the journey. The sweet scent of the flower seems to captivate everyone around them. Slowly, Serena begins to realize the unique power she now holds.

The real story begins in the present day, as a sister returns to the glorious backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After a failed marriage leaves her lonely and confused, Lucia is led home by the strange blue dragonflies flittering at her city window. She joins her mother and sister, who have been harvesting these flowers under the guise of a multi-million dollar perfume corporation.

Upon purchasing the scent (with a strict contract), clients experience immediate and lasting success. The Lenore women have always been careful when selecting clients; their perfume is the best-kept secret to many a success. The secret of these flowers is now in jeopardy. 

Now the impulsive daughter, desperate to gain control of the corporation, has made a grave error. Mya's attempts to fix her mistakes will only deepen rifts and cause irreparable damage.

The future of their corporation is now in jeopardy; the flowers are wilting, and something is wrong with the matriarch, Willow, of the empire. The women come together in an enchanting tale similar to the work Sarah Addison Allen. Their renewed connection is strong, but is it enough to combat the troubles they face?

Never a better setting for a mystical novel, traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains, 2012

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014: Another Year in Books

This year, I read a lot of books. Our newest dog, Max, also ate a lot of books (which I begrudgingly brought to the library and dutifully paid the fines for). I went in a different direction this year and mixed it up more than in previous years. My favorites from 2014 are not necessarily new releases, but new to me. Some of these books I reviewed over the course of the year, so feel free to click their titles to read full reviews!

Favorite Easy Read:

Goodnight, June by Sarah Jio

Favorite Love Story:

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio

I was pretty sure Jio had the title of this one all wrong until about half-way through the story. It reminded me a lot of one of my favorite movies, Love Actually; a lot of little pieces and different characters moving around within a setting.

Favorite Southern Chick-lit:

A Long Time Gone by Karen White

A great story of redemption and revival set in the backdrop of a small southern town.

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

A mystical escape to an ethereal lake-town and a link to stories of Paris in the past.

Favorite Mystery:

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A mysterious bookstore with an unusual variety of patrons. What exactly are they looking for?

Favorite Wanderlust Novels:

Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walters
Where'd You Go, Bernadette 
by Maria Semple
The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Italy and did I end up with wanderlust for such a distinct selection of locations?

Favorite Re-Reads:

One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Seriously, if you haven't read his books yet-please do.

Favorite Historical Fiction:

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, China Dolls by Lisa See

I always love a good historical fiction novel from World War II. These books were completely different than any books based in this era that I have previously read. I enjoyed the new perspective and learning about life during World War II for Chinese Immigrants. The narratives are written in first person and are completely engrossing. As any good novel set during a war, there are hard aspects to the reading. But these are stories of sisterhood, friendship, and survival.

Made me think:

Cage of Stars by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Another, what would you do? type of story. A young girl witnesses the murder of her sibling in this chilling novel. The book follows her through the subsequent years of her life, on a journey of vengeance, but can she follow through? I wasn't sure if this story would be too much for me-I tend to choose happy books, but I found it gripping.

Favorite Young Adult Novel:

Hoot by Carl Haaisan

My dad has been reading his novels for years. I ran out of books to read on a trip home over the summer and pulled this one off the shelf. It is the story of mysterious happenings at a construction site in Florida. Someone, or something, is trying to sabotage the building of a chain restaurant. Hilarity ensues.

Favorite Children's Chapter Book:
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

I read this book every year in the springtime with my students. This year might've been the most beautiful one yet as we all got teary-eyed by Charlotte's depth of love and the prime example of true friendship.

Favorite Children's Series:

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel

I revisited Frog and Toad this year many times in our classroom. They are the most classic, quintessential stories of two best friends.

Looking forward to 2015:

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen

The author of Hatchet takes on the greatest race on earth.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I read her book Each Kindness to my students this year. This is a collection of poignant poetry about the author's childhood spread between South Carolina and New York in the 1960's.

and many more on my list.