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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Secret Keepers (GIVEAWAY)


Did you miss my review of The Secret Keepers, the new title from Trenton Lee Stewart? If you did, go read it. Once you've read it you will understand why it is that you want to read this book.

I am very happy to announce that Little Brown Books for Young Readers has offered to give away one copy of The Secret Keepers to one of you!

Would you care to win? (Of course, of course!) Simply leave a comment below.

Must be a U.S. Resident to win. Make certain to leave a valid e-mail address in the comment section so that I can contact you should your name be selected as the winner.

This contest will be open through Monday, October 3rd. Best to you!


Many thanks to LB Kids for their generosity! And many thanks to them for publishing this title in the first place!

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Secret Keepers, by Trenton Lee Stewart

I made a wish and it came true.

Trenton Lee Stewart finally graced the reading public with a new title, The Secret Keepers.

I heard about this title a few months back and pre-ordered my copy on Amazon because you do know I love The Mysterious Benedict Society (linked to my ravings), right? It's quite simply the best middle grade fiction series in modern history. It really is. My hopes were astoundingly high that I would love The Secret Keepers just as well. Now, I am aware that that sort of a attitude is quite a dangerous one to have towards a book, but I'm relieved happy to say that all of my expectations were met. Any fan of The Mysterious Benedict Society is highly likely to be well-pleased with this latest title.

The Secret Keepers is a standalone novel about a young boy named Reuben who lives with his hard-working, single mom. Reuben is largely left to himself due to the fact that his mom is working two jobs to try to keep them afloat. (His father died when he was young.) One day Reuben comes across a rather extraordinary antique watch which has a mysterious ability to turn people invisible. This watch is highly prized and, as Reuben discovers, highly sought after. He first believes that the watch might provide a little extra cash for he and his mom but quickly discovers that this watch is not some magic trinket good for a month or two of rent. Danger lurks everywhere and Reuben finds himself on an adventure that he didn't quite bargain for.

This story is your basic good vs. evil type of story. There are good guys and bad guys and some you have to spend some time with before you figure out whose side they are really on. Reuben is the main protagonist but along the way he picks up a few friends who prove that their friendship and assistance is absolutely crucial to his well-being.

The chief question that I think the book asks is if you would choose to be courageous even if and/or when you are scared. What will fear drive you to do? I love this question! I love it because, of course, we all face things that terrify us in our lives. The idea though is not to run away from our fears, but to face them. Courage, as "they" are want to say, is not the absence of fear but doing the right thing regardless. This message being wrapped up into a Stewart-esque story just makes it all the more engaging and enjoyable from my perspective.

One of the reasons why I love Trenton Lee Stewart's writings so much is that he isn't out to make a point with his stories; rather, he is out to tell a good story. He is so focused on telling an intricate tale that draws the reader in and captures their imagination, that truth and beauty naturally flow from his storytelling mouth. To put this another way: Stewart is about the business of telling a story, and along the way he occasionally raises an interesting question for the reader to think about. In comparison, most other modern authors are so interested in making a point that the story begins to takes a backseat. The point that they wish to make becomes the whole issue of the book to the detriment of story, a fact I find distracting. I love that Stewart cares more about developing as a writer and crafting a good tale than bludgeoning his reader to death with a personal agenda. Of course Stewart has a worldview; everybody does. But it's not obvious and on its face like much of what you see published today.

There wasn't a single character that I did not grow to love in this book. I'm halfway afraid to confess that because it sounds like I was set-up to love this book from the words, "Written by . . . " and there is some truth to that! I was going to love it. I would have been some level of devastated if I didn't. I love his characters though because they slowly unfold. Stewart isn't in a rush to tell you this story. He takes 501 sweet pages to allow you get to know the people, their motivations, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. I knew from The Mysterious Benedict Society to expect surprises all the way to the end of the book and, although there are no shocking revelations at the end of The Secret Keepers, there is plenty of guesswork to keep the reader interested in what is happening.

There's no point to you reading anything else I have to say about The Secret Keepers. I can be easily summarized into the following three sentences:

"Drop everything. Buy this book. Read it."

Thank you, Mr. Stewart, for giving me (personally - heh) another book to love. I know this title just came out but I'm hereby putting you on notice that I'm waiting for your next work. It can be a series if you want. Or, really, whatever you feel like.

Tick, tock!

*****

I'm a little unclear as to whether I should mention this or not but the copy I read was sent to me by L-B Kids Publishing for review purposes. I wasn't expecting it to come. As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, I pre-ordered my copy off Amazon. However, I did read the first solid book that showed up and that was the one from L-B Kids. I received no additional compensation. (In fact, I wasn't expecting the book at all!) All opinions expressed in the above review are entirely my own. I mean, if you doubted . . .

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

My Name is Mahtob, by Mahtob Mahmoody

Yesterday I explained how earlier this year Suzanne from Living to Tell The Story had reviewed My Name is Mahtob which caused me to immediately rush off to purchase the title for myself. This past month I read Not Without My Daughter (linked to review) and, on the heels of that story, picked up this book. As the title suggests, Mahtob, the daughter of Betty Mahmoody, uses this opportunity to share her own memories of the time she spent in Iran as a captive to her father. (See yesterday's post for plot details, if necessary.)

I mentioned that I found Not Without My Daughter a compelling story that I had a hard time setting down. The same is true of My Name is Mahtob. It was curiously interesting to hear Mahtob's "side of the story" and catch her impressions of her's and her mother's experiences. Most interesting to me was all that she shared about her growing up years in America. How did she handle re-integration into this country? What does she think of her father now? Did he ever try to find her and take her back to Iran as threatened? Where is she living and what is she doing as an adult? This book answers all of these questions and then some.

Clearly Mahtob has her mother's panache in being able to connect with her readers. She has the same manner of storytelling which I found absolutely compelling and which held my attention. Again, I think part of the reason (mind you, it's a small part) that this story is so engaging is that it is so unique. While many women might have experienced what Betty and Mahtob have endured, how many of written of their experiences and have traveled to share of their experience with others? Not many.

Mahtob travels back in time with her readers to 1984, relaying what she recalls of the flight to Iran and the Mahmoody family's immediate interactions and experiences with the culture as well as her father's family. She documents her memories of school attendance, shopping excursions, food she liked (and didn't like), how she felt when her father began to physical abuse her mother, and so on and so forth. She had a sharp memory even at a young age and she recalls her experiences in vivid detail at times. It's quite fascinating.

After sharing what her early childhood was like in Iran, Mahtob brings the reader to the present day where we are offered a glimpse as to her adult life. The majority of the book, however, it spent on the "in between" years - after coming back from Iran and up to the modern day.We learn everything from her days in a private Lutheran school to college life. We follow along as she adapts and adjusts back to "American-isms" and then, too, how she has battled certain health scares in her teenage and adult years.

My Name is Mahtob is a must read for anyone who cared for Not Without My Daughter and who wants to find out "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey liked to say. I don't think this title is quite so engaging as her mother's, but Mahtob offers us something not available in her mother's book -- time and perspective. Not Without My Daughter was written fairly soon after their arriving back in America. My Name is Mahtob was written over twenty years later. It's always interesting to look back on life's events and re-examine them with a bit more age and maturity under your belt and that's what this book feels like -- a developing revelation as to who Mahtob Mahmoody is now in light of her past history.

I am definitely delighted to have read this book and I heartily recommend it to you.  It's worth a bit of your time.

My thanks again go to Suzanne who recommend this book to me in the first place. Appreciate it!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Not Without My Daughter, by Betty Mahmoody

These days I seem to feel more like reading books without necessarily writing about them afterward, which I think is fine in seasons. However, I know myself well enough to know that it's better for me to write about what I've read than to not, least I forget what it was that I found most compelling about any given read.

Certain books give you pause and make you want to linger over great and interesting stories and Christy, by Catherine Marshall was that for me. On the heels of that one, I felt like reading a piece of non-fiction. Earlier this year Suzanne from Living to Tell the Story read and reviewed the "sequel" to Not Without My Daughter and, as you can see from the comment which I left on her blog post, while I had seen the movie of the same title and knew it was a true story, I did not realize it was a book. After reading her review I promptly bought both books and have been staring at them for the last few months waiting for the right time to dig in. (When I purchased these books we were at the tail end of an international adoption of our daughter. I just couldn't bring myself to read them until we were through the process, not knowing how the read might effect my emotions at the time.) Well, here we are months later, adoption complete and I was definitely in the mood to read this amazing story.

I launched into Not Without My Daughter assuming I'd spend a leisurely week with the book. Instead, I hastily devoured it, being absolutely unable to put it down. I had seen the movie shortly after it had come out and found it haunting. The book is more engaging than the film but that's due to 420 pages of details which allow for more background and history to be given in the telling of the tale. When I say I couldn't put the book down I mean that fairly literally . . .  it traveled the household with me and I read chapters while cooking and cleaning, etc. It's quite riveting.

If you are unfamiliar with Betty Mahmoody's story, it tells of her decision to accompany her husband Mood, and her daughter Mahtob, on a trip to Iran in 1984. Her husband claimed he wanted to visit his family back in his home country and that he wanted a chance to introduce said family to his American wife and daughter. Betty agreed to the trip but with great hesitations which she should have heeded. Agreeing and hoping to be in Iran for only two weeks, she and her daughter were devastated when their time in Iran was due to come to an end only to have Moody declare his intentions of staying in the country. He refused to allow for his wife and daughter to return to America and, under Iranian law, they were subject to his will. This book documents their time spent in Iran with Moody, trying to survive in a foreign country, while also attempting to escape back to America. Of course, the book exists only because they eventually made it back. Never fear - knowing that fact in advance will not spoil the book for anyone!

Betty Mahmoody has an interesting and unique story to tell. Writing this book was somewhat cathartic for her and we see her developing and maturing as a person as the book continues. She does not write bitterly of her husband, but she also does not write an easy story. She tells the facts but shows respect for the man she once loved, despite the things he did to her during her time in Iran. It's quite simply an incredible and mind-blowing story that makes the reader appreciate Betty's trials as well as to learn from them.

If you haven't yet read this book, I'd heartily recommend it. Is it a hard read, emotionally speaking? Yes. It's hard to imagine what Betty and her daughter went through while trying to return to their family and freedoms in America. It is also an exhilarating read as you watch her indomitable courage press on under truly traumatic circumstances. Lastly, it's an educational read which offers a peek into Iranian culture. This last aspect is something that is definitely going to cause some hackles to be raised as there already are arguments over whether or not Betty truly understood Iranian culture. I'll leave that for others to debate and simply say that the information Betty provides offers a good starting point for conversation between the differences in cultures and religions. This book would make for an excellent book club discussion should you be in need of such a suggestion.

I definitely encourage you to find this book and give it a read if you have a chance! If you found the movie haunting (as I did) you'll find the book more so. This isn't a title I'm likely to ever forget, truth be told.

Thank you, Suzanne, for recommending these books to me!

*****

Fairly quickly after concluding Not Without My Daughter, I picked up My Name is Mahtob . You can read my review of that title HERE.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Christy, by Catherine Marshall

Back in 2015, when the Reading to Know Classics Book Club was up and running, the group read Christy, by Catherine Marshall. I did not manage to read it at that time because I couldn't seem to locate a copy. It was all very ridiculous, really, but eventually I decided to buy mass market paperback (like the one you see pictured here) in order to read it. I might be delayed in my reading goals by one year but I'm delighted to say that I finally did get around to reading it and that I loved it very much.

For those of you who are unaware of the story line, Catherine Marshall wrote a fictionalized tale of a young school teacher who travels to Cutter Gap, Tennessee in 1912 to teach in a mission schoolhouse. The character of the teacher, Christy Huddleston, is based on Marshall's mother, Leonora Whitaker. Marshall said of this novel that it's about 75% historical fact with some fun fiction sprinkled around to make the story line a bit more interesting. Much of what the character of Christy experiences in this book are things which were experienced by Marshall's mother. Several characters in this book were based on people that Leonora Whitacker personally knew.

In the story of Christy we are introduced to a backwoods people who are steeped in tradition, folklore and a proud history. They are a self sufficient lot who aren't sure about the work Christy and others who work at the mission have come to do. Christy herself comes from an affluent family and arrives unprepared for the harsh realities of the mountain folks. The smells and lack of hygiene, for one thing, prove a shock to her system. Her initial reaction to the mission life was to flee and return home and she might very well have done so without the loving intervention of one Miss Alice, a woman who challenged Christy to determine what her true motivation were for taking the position in the first place. In the end, Christy decides to muddle through. Ultimately, she does manage to bring small changes to the mountain people but, more importantly, she herself is changed.

This is a very endearing and memorable story and is highly engaging, I read through it relatively quickly, wavering between wanting to fly through the story and wanting to linger awhile. At the conclusion, I felt like taking a reading break before picking up anything else. Some books are just hard to move quickly past and this was one of them.

I loved Marshall's slow pace in the telling of her story. Even though I was anxious to find out how the story concluded, I enjoyed having to spend time getting to know the people that she was writing about. Characters and their backstories are unraveled and explained slowly enough that you come to appreciate their individuality.

My favorite character by far was Miss Alice. She might be what you'd call the matriarch of the mountain folk, although she is a relative newcomer herself. Miss Alice is greatly respected among the locals and with good reason. She has a calm assurance of faith in the Lord but is not at all overly anxious to thrust her faith upon others just as much as she's quite content to hold her own when a situation calls for it. My favorite description of Miss Alice is as follows:


"In both the woman and her home there was an effortless beauty, never a straining for effect, a harmony that seemed to come from having one's roots drawn in the place where the roots were meant to be.
There was something else I had noticed too: an initial acceptance of herself as she was and so of other people with their foibles. And so she did as little scolding or criticizing of others for their foolish behavior or their sings as anyone I had ever known. It was not that she was willing to compromise with wrongdoing or poverty or ignorance, just that she was a long step ahead of waiting emotional energy on fretting. And she never put pressure on the rest o us to accept her opinions. The secret of her calm seemed to be that she was not trying to prove anything. She was - that was all. And her stance toward life seemed to say: God is - and that is enough."


I think all I want to say to that is that, if when I die, people say the above of me then that'll be alright.

Although I was a bit late to the Christy party, I am very glad to have read this book. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Greyfriers Bobby, by Eleanor Atkinson

Last year, when we traveled to England, we made a day trip to Edinburgh. We didn't have any firm plans or even remarkable expectations for our day there. We selected a few sites that we wanted to see, and beyond that we figured on wandering around and being surprised.

My focus when planning the trip was always on England and a day in Scotland was more just to say we'd been there than anything else. (I know that sounds like an awful attitude to have towards Scotland but we are planning to one day travel to that country and explore it more thoroughly. It's turn will come! Patience, patience . . . !) Because I hadn't really done any research on Scotland, I really had no idea what to expect and found myself surprised by a few literary discoveries. One such surprise was discovering that Edinburgh was the home of Greyfriars Bobby.

First, we passed by his statue which caught my eye immediately. Glancing rapidly around I saw Greyfriars Kirkyard and my excitement increased. I recognized all of this from my list of Disney movies based on books. (Yes, I am remarkably educated, thanks. Heh.) Greyfriar's Bobby has been on my list of books I'd been wanting to read, but I had not yet purchased a copy. It seemed like the perfect day and the perfect location to buy a copy of the book! As it turns out, it was a good idea to buy the book there because nice looking copies do not seem to be readily available in the U.S. The copy I picked up is the one I have pictured here.

Here's a photograph of the statue, if you'd like to see it:


Now here is where I also must confess that at the time of our visit I had no idea what the story was about, other than it being about a dog (that apparently lived in Edinburgh). In case you are also unaware of the story line, I'll fill you in so that you can decry ignorance and be better informed than I was. Greyfriars Bobby is the true story of a highland terrier that was extremely loyal to his master, a man by the name of John Brown who died of tuberculosis in 1858. After his death, Brown was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The profession of John Brown is in dispute; some say he was a shepherd and some say he was a policeman. It is more commonly believed that he was a policeman but author Eleanor Atkinson decide that, for the purposes of her story, she would make him out to be a shepherd. One thing is certain, no matter Brown's profession was, it is pretty safe to assume that no one would remember him at all if not for his dog. Bobby was an extremely loyal animal and mourned his owner's death for the remainder of his life. Bobby refused to leave the graveside, keeping company with it for the next fourteen years. Dogs weren't allowed in the Kirkyard but they had a hard time keeping Bobby out! This loyal little dog, through persistence and loyalty, was eventually made a pet of the neighborhood but spent every single night sleeping on his master's grave, no matter the weather.

What I did not realize until I was done reading the book is that the author, Eleanor Atkinson, was an American who never actually visited Scotland. (So if anyone is upset with me for not doing more thorough research on that portion of our trip, I think I should win back some brownie points for at least visiting.) The story was written in 1912 and although she wrote a handful of other books, this is the one that she is best known for. The Disney version of the film is based on her version of events. Critics have argued that she didn't understand the geography of Edinburgh very well and that is a fair thing to note. Having walked the city, I was confused a bit by her placement of the castle, in particular, but for someone who had never been I think she did quite well. She is assumed to have researched the names and people directly related to Bobby's story, keeping as true to his account as possible. Obviously she embellished the tale a bit with the use of her imagination but that is to be expected of any author.

While this story is thought a great one for children (and it is) I had a hard time reading it even as an adult because she wrote dialogue using a Scottish accent. Here's the example that Wikipedia provides to give you an idea of what I mean:

"I wullna gang to the infairmary. It's juist for puir toon bodies that are aye ailin' an' deein'." Fright and resentment lent the silent old man an astonishing eloquence for the moment. "Ye wadna gang to the infairmary yer ainsel', an' tak' charity."

Because of this, I had a really hard time working my way through the story. I found myself skimming past dialogue, hoping to pick up enough out of the conversations between characters to track with the events until I could get back to the narrative. I can't imagine this being an easy read for a middle schooler (although not impossible). I confess that I will never attempt this book as a read aloud. The story is interesting enough but it doesn't feel accessible. I suspect that watching the movie is going to be the easiest way to educate one's self about this remarkable dog. I'll have to let you know whether that is true because now that I've read the book, I am permitted to watch the movie. (*wink*) I am very curious to see the Disney film now.

For more information about Greyfriars Bobby, check out this website. It is a rather interesting tale.

If you want to learn more about Greyfriars Kirkyard, there are plenty of videos available through Youtube that will broaden your knowledge of this small portion of the globe. Our family spent some time wandering about the graveyard (because apparently J.K. Rowling named some of her famous characters after names she found on tombstones at this site!), While I like wandering around graveyards as a general rule, I have to tell you this one was a little creepy. It wasn't until I was doing a bit of research for this post that I discovered why I felt the way I did about it. If you're curious, see Youtube. Videos there range from informative to downright spooky!


Have you read this story? I'd be curious to know, if so!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Middle Grade Fiction (That I'll Take a Pass On)

Alright, I know the title of this post is harsh and I'm sorry. Harsh, I know, has a tendency to hurt people's feelings and I don't really care to do that unnecessarily. Books can be very personal things that we identify with closely and I've discovered a fair number of people who really take it to heart when you say that you do not care for a particular book that they themselves love. Such may prove to be the case with the following two titles but, ultimately I have to confess that I just didn't care for them, for various reasons.

I've mentioned that this year I'm involved in a little project which requires that I spent a lot of time reading Middle Grade fiction released in 2016. This should help to explain the increase of this genre being featured around these parts. Bear with! Both of following titles are due to be released here shortly and I received both for review purposes.

In the case of The Bicycle Spy, I have to say that I really wanted to love it. Written by Yona Zeldis McDonough, this book is set in France during World War II. It tells the story of young Marcel who dreams of one day riding in the Tour de France. At the time the book opens though, we meet him making deliveries of bread from his parent's bakery on his bicycle. It doesn't take too long for him to become suspicous as to why his parents are having him deliver so much bread and he rather quickly discovers that his parents are part of the French Resistance. Quicker still, he confesses to his parents that he knows what they are up to and he becomes involved in their plans and movements.

I like what McDonough is trying to do this book. She is hoping to share with her young readers a brief history of World War II and what life looked like in a French household during the German occupation. This is all well and good, but as an adult reader I found the tale less than convincing. Her writing style just flat out didn't appeal to me. The only way I know to describe it is to say that it was "simple", lacking artistry. I found Marcel's activities unbelievable and his internal thought processes too mature for the age of his character. He just didn't work for me and so I found the majority of the story a bit eye-rolling, I am sorry to say.

Again, I love the idea for the story but it felt too stilted somehow and lacking in depth.

I know it seems rude to say thank you to Scholastic Books for sending a copy of The Bicycle Spy my direction but I am grateful for the opportunity to read it, even if I didn't particularly care for. I wish to assure the general public that I received no additional compensation for this review and that all of my opinions are 100% my very own.

******

Secondly, I was sent a copy of The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes by Wade Albert White. Let me say that I find the cover art incredibly attractive and the title quite intriguing. I was very excited to launch into this one . . . and was very quickly disappointed by it.

This book tells the story of young Anne, an orphan who lives under a cruel and terrible guardian at a home for "Perpetually Wicked and Hideously Unattractive Children." The day before her thirteenth birthday she is rescued from her life situation and accepted into a school by a Wizard counsel. (Wait. Wait. Where have I heard this idea before?) I got about 100 pages into the story before I couldn't take it anymore, whereupon I skimmed a few chapters in the middle and read the final two to discover this is the first story in a series of books. This bit of info should strike fear into your very hearts and minds.

Unlike other authors who have written about orphans and wizards, White doesn't appeal to the best in his reader. I felt very much as if he assumed I couldn't (or wouldn't?) track with his storyline unless he provided a laugh a minute. If I wanted to be super fair to him, I'd say our senses of humor simply do not jive and so we just could not connect. White is a bit over the top for my tastes and, in my (ever) humble opinion he dumbs down his verbiage and tries to be too clever by being overly flippant which I found unbearable annoying. The best way I know how to describe his writing style is to quote him:

"Sorry I dragged you into all of this," said Anne suddenly, "I thought we were heading off to a wonderful adventure, not getting dropped into the middle of a horrible one."
"Are you kidding me?" said Penelope. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to us. I mean, yeah, okay, so whacking my head on the drawbridge hurt a lot, and the zombie sharks and the iron knights were all kinds of terrifying, and I was unconscious for part of the time, and research is boring and makes me sleepy, and I thought we were finished for sure when those suits of armor attacked us and then that rope bridge broke. And of course, the thought of falling off these steps in our sleep is scary beyond belief, and who knows what we're going to find at the top of this tower, and sure, if we fail miserably, we'll spend our formative years stuck in a dungeon somewhere. But, you know, other than that, I'm having the time of my life."

Maybe someone else out there would revel in passages like this (on every page) but I couldn't. I was in all out forehead smacking territory by the time I read about the cat named Her Royal Highness Princess Fluffington Whiskers of the Mousetrapper Clan.

I'm going to take a pass on this one for sure and you won't find a recommendation for it in me. If you think you can stomach it though, be my guest!

This is a horrible point in the review process to say "thanks" to L-B Kids for sending a copy my direction. I'm sure this wasn't the type of review that they were hoping for. Everyone should rest at ease in knowing that I did not receive any additional compensation for writing this and the opinions expressed are 250% my very own. I invite you to second and third opinions! In the words of LaVar Burton, "You don't have to take my word for it!"

And that, as they say, is that.

Boy, this is a Monday post if ever there were one, isn't it? Sorry.

Moving on then . . . 
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