Saturday, August 18, 2007

August Readings

Whew! This has been a hectic month what with turning in my lesson plans and trying to learn 180 names. Why would I ever need to turn to drugs when I can be paid to kill my brain cells? Alas, my reading list so far is quite slim - a mere 3 books. Here's the lowdown.

Fantasy: 3

Title: The Bone Doll's Twin (Book 1), Hidden Warrior (Book 2), The Oracle's Queen (Book 3)
Author: Lynn Flewelling
Rating: 4 out of 5

This sword-and-sworcery trilogy delivered vivid characters, a strong storyline, a sympathetic villain, and intriguing cultures. In the kingdom of Skala, it been has prophesied that the country shall never be conquered as long as a daughter of King Thelatimos reigns. Yet insanity has tainted the line of Thelatimos, allowing Erius, son of mad Queen Agnalain, to seize control of the crown. Out of a deep love, Erius has allowed his half-sister Ariani to live, yet he is less scrupulous about distant female cousins and nieces. He wants no woman to overthrow the succession of the crown to his son Korin. However, the Oracle foresees that Ariani will bear twins, one of whom is destined to be the warrior queen of Skala. To protect the future queen, the wizard Iya conspires to give the girl twin the form of her brother that she might grow up in safety. However, an unfortunate accident during the births transforms the boy into a vengeful spirit. Brother (boy twin) is a constant, hellish presence throughout Tobin's (girl twin) sheltered life. So too is Ariani, who goes mad after she realizes what has happened to her son. Erius, however, is none the wiser as to the switch that has been made.

The Bone Doll's Twin focuses on Tobin's isolated childhood and the startling revelations that unfold as her destiny is realized. The events in here are very sad, and it is a wonder that Tobin, though solemn, is not a morose or depressed child. I certainly would be if I had two murderous parents like Tobin! Though in Ariani's and Rhius's defense, their actions are justifiable and reasonable. Rhius sacrificed his son for the good of Skala (this isn't a spoiler, it's on the book jacket) and Ariani...well, I don't want to give away a major plotline.

Hidden Warrior takes place mainly at court where Tobin now serves as a Royal Companion to Korin. This middle book does not in any way suffer from ho-hum-ness like so many other trilogies. Book two centers upon Tobin's struggles to reconcile her hidden form with her life as a boy and her destiny as the true heir with her friendship with Korin. It also explores the reasons why Brother and Ariani are furious, violent ghosts.

The Oracle's Queen is perhaps the weakest in the series only because the author furiously attempts to wrap up all the loose ends, occasionally to an unsatisfactory conclusion. For example, one of the main villains is killed by a fall from a window. Yawn... I wanted to see him face off with Tobin or the wizard Iya. However, book three delivers for those who love battle scenes. In this novel, Tobin/Tamir must win her crown from Erius and Korin while simulataneously proving to the country that she truly is a woman and not a scrawny boy in a dress. She must also convince her best friend Ki to see the woman she has become and not just the boy he grew up with. Ah l'amor...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Summer Reads - Complete List

*Sigh* Summer comes to an official end this Wednesday when I report back to school. It will be good to be working again, but I will sorely miss the days when I could sit around all day stuffing bonbons into my face and stories into my brain. My summer total is 21 books. That averages about one book every three days. Not bad if I don't say so myself! My New Year's Resolution was to plough my way through at least 100 new books this year.

Non-Fiction: 3

Title: Hoyle's Rules of Games
Author: Albert Morehead & Geoffrey Mott-Smith
Rating: 3 out of 5

This book gives a brief history of classic games in addition to user-friendly instructions on how to play these various card and board games. Of course, we islanders will not find rules for Tres-Siete, Tongits, or Hawaiian Speed. However, this book surely did clear up a long-standing debate among my family about the rules of 5000 Rummy. It also introduced me to the game of Pinochle, which sounds like a snooty grandma game but is in fact quite similar to Spades.

Title: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
Author: John Gray, PhD
Rating: 3 out of 5

I swear that I picked this up on a whim! It receives a rating of 3 because the analysis of male/female behavior is really on point. It contains some solid advice on how to communicate with the opposite sex, complete with a handy-dandy "Martian/Venusian Dictionary." And that is not a personal joke. The drawbacks were the frequent mental gags I experienced every time Dr. Gray blathered on with endless euphemisms and Martian/Venusian bedtime stories. "One day on the planet of Mars, Martians used a telescope and spotted the lovely Venusians. So they built a spaceship and traveled to Venus..." Yuck yuck yuck. I need it straight up Doc. Ditto about the part where Martians retreat to their caves and Venusians fall into their wells. Simply put, the Martian's being an a** and Venusian's being a b****.

Title: The Tomorrow Trap - Unlocking the Secrets of Procrastination-Protection Syndrome
Author: Karen Peterson, PhD
Rating: I think it might be a 4

I am surely one of the biggest procrastinators alive. Certainly, I am number 1 among every one I know. Dr. Peterson posits that procrastination occurs because you are unconciously protecting yourself from something. That's a first for me, but I will not discount it. As far as unlocking what I am protecting myself from, well....I actually haven't gotten past chapter 2 out of 9. There's that darn procrastination thing popping up again. Ironic isn't it? I give this book a 4 for its potential therapeutic value.

Fiction: 8 books

Title: The Time Traveler's Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger

Title: My Sister's Keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult

Highly recommended titles!! See my blog best of the summer blog below!

Title: The Kommandant's Girl
Author: Pam Jenoff
Rating: 5 out of 5

This is the last book I have read this summer. A newly married Jewish girl becomes separated from her family and her husband,a resistance fighter. She hides with her husband's aunt who introduces her to the Kommandant of Krakow, Poland. She goes to work for him as his personal assistant and becomes personally involved with him even as she spies on him for the resistance. Eventually, her double-life becomes exposed in a stunning conclusion.

Title: The Average American Male
Author: Chad Kultgen
Rating: 5 out 5

This book truly offended me as only a woman can be by male behavior. So why a rating of 5? Because it is so f*ing ridiculous and, despite myself, funny! This is a story wherein you enter the head of an average guy. Not a page goes by wherein the unnamed character is not obsessing about sex, sexual positions, female anatomy, former girlfriends, future girlfriends, and pornography. It's a completely disgusting, yet enthralling read. The author's Acknowledgements section says alot. "Mom, thanks for always encouraging me to write...I'm sorry the end result is something you will not want to read...I hope this book doesn't lose you any friends or anything." I burned through this in 2 hours.

Title: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Author: Lisa See
Rating: 3 out of 5

An average book. Good presentation of culture and history. An interesting perspective into women's secret culture. However, the catalyst for the major plot line - a misunderstanding occuring between the two main characters - is quite weak.

Title: Nineteen Minutes
Author: Jodi Picoult
Rating 3 out of 5

Solid book. Follows the Picoult formula of surprise endings and courtroom plot twists. The story centers around a high school shooting and the repercussions for the community.

Title: Vanishing Acts
Author: Jodi Picoult
Rating: 4 out of 5

Solid story. Follows the Picoult formula of surprise endings and courtroom plot twists. The story focuses upon a father-daughter relationship wherein the adult daughter suddenly finds that she is the victim of a parental kidnapping case. Picoult really captures the miseries and ambiguities the father and daughter face as they try to come to terms with what has happened.

Title: The Dogs of Babel
Author: Carolyn Parkhurst
Rating: 4 out of 5

The story starts out very strong. A man is deeply in love with his wife when she suddenly commits suicide. The only witness is the couple's dog. He attempts to find out exactly what happened that day by teaching his dog to "speak." The ending is a little dry and does not carry the same emotional intensity as the rest of the book; however, this should not deter you from reading this novel. The writing is beautiful, the love story is beautiful, the characters are beautiful, there is simply no other way to describe them.

Science Fiction: 1 book

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Rating: 5 out of 5

One of the best horror stories I have ever read! See my full recommendation below under my best reads of the summer.

Fantasy: 9 books

Title: The Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera book 1) and Academ's Fury (Codex Alera book 2)
Author: Jim Butcher
Rating: 5 out of 5

Although better known for his Dresden Files, Jim Butcher really delivers a punch in his first foray into the world of fantasy. The magic in this series is not original (people have mastered the elements of water, fire, earth, air, metal) but Butcher handles infuses his story with a unique twist to this magic. The story follows a familiar plot in the fantasy genre - an ordinary, reluctant hero finds that it is his mission to save the world from destruction - yet, Butcher is a masterful storyteller. The central character, Tavi, is a very engaging, humorous, charming hero. This series is definitely one to watch.

Title: Outlander (book1), Voyager (book3)
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Rating: 5 out of 5

I loved loved loved these books, except for book 2 which I skipped entirely. Claire is a newly married wartime nurse visiting Scotland on her honeymoon. She and her historian husband Frank encounter a Beltane ritual at a circle of standing stones which unlocks a gateway to the past. Claire unwittingly enters the stone circle and is transported 200 years back in time just prior to the Scottish uprising of Bonny Prince Charlie (Charles Stuart). There she meets and falls in love with the highlander Jamie Fraser. Over the course of 6 books, Claire and Jamie must face the harsh realities of not only their own future but also of the changes they may be making to the present. This book may seem as if it belongs in the historical romance genre, but it is much much more than a fluffy romance novel. This is a very deep and moving story. In fact, the reader is left to wonder whether Claire and Jamie will survive or ever reunite (Oops! Did I just give away a major plot point?)

Title: Kushiel's Dart (book 1)
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lots of getting freaky in this one. Lots and lots of getting down and dirty. And none of it is gentle. Phedre no Delaunay is an anguissette - a person damned/blessed by the god Kushiel to experience pleasure and pain as one. Raised by a wealthy benefactor to be both courtesan and spy, Phedre must uncover the political plots that seek to destroy her beloved homeland. Along the way, she begins to understand the complexities of her "gift" and come to terms with her nature. This book is the first of a separate trilogy within a 6 book series.

Title: Daughter of the Blood, Heir to the Shadows, Queen of the Darkness (The Black Jewels Trilogy)
Author: Anne Bishop

Rating: 4 out of 5

This series offers a twist on the concept of demons, angels, and Hell. In a matriarchal society, Jaenelle is a young girl who destined to rule the realms of both Hell and Earth. Powerful lords recognize this and seek to control her, for he who controls the Queen controls the Darkness. What ensues is a terrible political and psychological game that plays upon Jaenelle's fears and desires with disastrous consequences for everyone involved. I recommmend this book with reservations only because the content is not for everyone. For example, rape is a frequent political tool of subjugation because virgin witches may be forever robbed of their power if so violated. However, if you are not squemish, definitely pick this one up because Jaenelle's companion Daemon is such an enigmatic, attractive character! He almost steals the story away from Jaenelle!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Potter Mania!!!!

Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5

Let me begin by stating that, although I thoroughly enjoy Harry Potter, I am not a Potterhead. No sir, I stand in line for no one or no thing. I was going to wait until the last book was released in paperback or a copy became available at the library. However, this is summer and I have quite exhausted my "To Be Read" list. So the monkey on my back started whispering "you have to know you have to know you HAVE to know you HAVE to know you HAVE TO KNOW you HAVE TO KNOW YOU HAVE TO KNOW YOU HAVE TO KNOW" until I pled mercy and bought the darn book despite all my good intentions. Hey that $35 could have gone to good use at Tony Roma's!!!

So...what do I think about the book? Well, it was a well-rounded ending. I'm pretty amazed at Rowling's ability to see the story's progression years down the road and to set up all the precursors to the big finale. Yes, I agree with many others that the epilogue was a bit fluffy and sugary sweet, but it didn't detract from the whole. There were only two things I thought could be improved. One, Harry was a little annoying when he kept forgetting his quest in the middle of the Hogwarts battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Second, there was no lead up to the deaths of R and T. My eyes reached that part of the sentence and SPLAT...a little grim reaper birdie pooped death on the page. I was completely surprised. It felt out of place. It wasn't as gripping or moving as F's death which readers actually got to see. You may disagree...but you have to read for yourself. Of course I have to recommend this book. If you have ventured at all into Potter Land then you simply have to finish the series. Don't wait for the movies, it's a cop out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Recipe: Zebra Brownies

Since I'm feeling extra generous today, here's the recipe for my eternally-popular zebra brownies. The price of such fame is that now everyone expects me to make it for every party. And according to Animal Planet, the word is pronounced ZEH-brah not ZEE-bra.

Zebra Brownies

2 boxes brownie mix (no fudge packets)
1 cup oil
1/2 water
5 large eggs
2 pkgs. cream cheese, softened to room temp.
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 large egg

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment (wax) paper. Use a large pan if you want thin brownies or a small pan if you like thick brownies.
2) Combine 2 packages dry brownie mix with oil, water, and 5 eggs. Mix thoroughly and pour onto the baking sheet.
3) Combine cream cheese with sugar. Stir about 2 minutes. Remember to scrape the sides of the mixing bowl. Stir in vanilla and eggs until just mixed. DO NOT OVERMIX once you add the egg or else the top of your cheesecake will crack horribly.
4) Carefully spread the cheesecake batter over the brownies in a thin layer. Then, take a knife and swirl it through the batters until swirly patterns emerge.
5) Bake according to the directions on the brownie box, usually 35 minutes.
6) COOL THOROUGHLY before you cut them otherwise you will have crumby rather than neat squares.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Summer 2007 - Best Books

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Science Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Setting: Contemporary USA. An unexplained cataclysmic disaster has swept through America, completely burning it to the ground. No vegetation survives and the few animals that do are quickly killed and eaten by the few human survivors. Small pockets of people soon form cannabalistic, slave societies and hunt lone survivors for food. Babies are born only to be eaten.

Plot: A father and young son make their way through the dead of winter from New York to the southern coast of America by walking the dangerous interstates and highways. The father is challenged every minute with the decision to face the risks of their long walk to the coast or to simply end his misery and mercifully kill himself and his son. This decision is exacerbated by his realization that a persistent illness may be the death of him. Yet he clings to hope.

Wow, what a book!! This has to be the most heartbreaking, terrifying book I have ever read, and it's not even full of ghoulies and ghosts!!! The story reminds me of the movie The Postman with Kevin Costner but with much more realism and soul. There is a scene that just broke my heart wherein the father finds a can of cola and reverently gives it to his son. Although you might think this book is gory based upon my frequent mentions of cannibals, it is actually a very emotional, introspective tale of a father-son relationship and the strength of the human spirit in the face of despair.

There were two things working against this book, but you can ignore them all completely. But in all fairness, I'll share my concerns. First of all, The Road is endorsed by Oprah's Book Club. Hmm, you read it and then tell me whether you can imagine housewives sitting around reading this book. It's just incongruous in my mind. But Oprah, girl, you sure made a good choice! Second concern, lists this book under Science Fiction. I've read quite a fews books in that genre and The Road is just too contemporary. Nothing futuristic or sciency going on here. I'm just afraid the genre listing will turn off a majority of the general public. SciFi is an acquired taste. But like I said earlier, these are so trivial. YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK!!

Title: My Sister's Keeper

Author: Jodi Picoult
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Plot: A young girl named Anna has always known that she was born for a very special purpose - to help her terminally ill sister Kate. However, as she enters her teens, she realizes that she no can longer be the savior that her family imagines her to be. Therefore, she petitions the courts for medical emancipation from her parents, in the hopes that she will finally have a say so in what happens to her body.

The strength of this book lies in Picoult's amazing portrayal of family dynamics. She effortlessly switches among the different voices of the characters (written in a 1st person POV), and you easily get sucked into the little dramas in the family. On the one hand, you may feel the mother is a single-minded monster with no thought for anyone but her eldest daughter Kate. On the other, I dare you to come away from this book without a drop of sympathy for the mother's struggles. Picoult excels in delving into the motivations and selfishness of each character. Then....BAM!!!!! She wallops you with an ending that will have you gasping so quickly that you'll choke on your own spit. Believe me. I know. This is the best book I have read in the past few years. And, amazingly, I actually gave it to my mother to read (a lady who reads nothing but the Bible and Bible-related writings). Then, I went out and spent another $20 some bucks to purchase my sister a hard cover copy so she could read it. Phenomenal story!!!!

Title: The Time Traveler's Wife
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

Plot: A dashing, charming librarian named Henry DeTamble has an unfortunate genetic mutation that allows him to travel through time, albeit involuntarily. On one such adventure to the past, he meets a child named Claire that he eventually recognizes as his future wife. What arises from this meeting is a emotionally charged love story that will surely leave you in sniffles AND fits of laughter.

The book is written from a 1st person POV alternating between Henry and Claire. What really makes the book shine is the character of Henry and how he handles each misadventure. Some trips are exceedingly dangerous while others are merely sweet. And always, Claire waits for him. "It is hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one left behind." This book is more than a simple love story. It is a story of coming to terms with bone-deep longing, bitter disappointment, and unconditional love. This is the SECOND best book I have ever read. You would be a real fool not to pick this up.

Popping the Cherry

Ok, before I get to the meat of this blog (my first ever! go me!!), let me give you a little background about myself because, honestly, I think I am one heck of an interesting person. Hehe. That's if you can actually get me to conversate, which I rarely do. What can I say? I'm shy. And modest. I live on a beautiful, small, very hot island in the middle of nowhere Pacifica. About 60 square miles of pristine (if you squint really hard), off-white sandy beaches and gorgeous blue waters. My home is in the middle of the boonies and my bosom companions are three dogs (Hero, Ina, and Debu), two parents (Mama and Pops), and 50 some odds ducks (Smelly Bastards). But I'm no bum at the beach living off my Pop's generosity!! I have the dubious honor of educating (more like disciplining) 180 12- and 13-years olds on the importance of Geography. They haven't gotten the best of me yet!! And I love them, but I don't know why because they're actually quite rotten.

So, having read thousands of books (honest), I thought I might share my opinions on some great reads and real duds. Just trying my hand at this shepherd role (Did I mention I'm Catholic? Shepherding is in my soul!) I'll try to keep a tally on my monthly reads. But please, take all these reviews with a grain of salt because I'm a picky eater, uh, reader. And to each his own.